Mischa Weisz wasn't surprised in 1997 when his startup company, TNS Smart Network Inc., became a successful transaction processing business for white label ATMs in Canada. After all, the man had been known for his determination and grit. The self-made millionaire was surprised, however, to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September 2007. Generally a terminal diagnosis, the doctors gave him five to six months to live.
But that didn't stop Weisz. He continues to work at his business, which processes transactions for roughly 35,000 ATMs, about a third of which are based in Canada. He's launched into an extensive treatment regimen that uses a combination of chemotherapy, prescription medication and Chinese herbal remedies. And, at 51, he's even found time to get married.
He attended the ATM Industry Association's 2008 Conference in New Orleans in February, at a time when doctors thought he'd be dead. We caught up with him there, where he talked about his business, his family and how he's managed to keep the effects of cancer at bay. Here are our questions, followed by his answers.
AMC:What do you say to young people who want to pursue an entrepreneurial goal?
Weisz: It's something you either have or you don't. My daughter can draw. I can't draw. There's no way in the world I can draw a picture of anything. Entrepreneurialism is something that comes from your heart and your gut – and then your brain. MBAs use their brains, but they never get to use their heart or their gut. That's the big difference.
I always compare TNS to a battleship or an aircraft carrier, and this is the best way to describe entrepreneurialism. On an aircraft carrier, let's say you have 5,000 MBAs. The captain says â€˜Attack!' and the first MBA says â€˜What does he really mean by â€˜attack'? We need to analyze that.' By the time it gets to the 5,000th MBA, they attack. But that's 500 nautical miles later.
But on a sailboat, if you say â€˜attack' it takes about 15 seconds for that to happen. That's the nice thing about being an entrepreneur: you get control, but you have to be willing to take risks.
You are going to make mistakes and that's okay. Learn from those mistakes. The staff may make lots of mistakes, but giving them crap is a good thing, because they learn. That's the hardest thing to deal with as an entrepreneur.
Mischa Weisz Founder and CEO
TNS Smart Network
Line of business: Processes transactions for roughly 35,000 ATMs
Years with TNS: 11
Previous employment: Worked for a credit union as a collections officer, loans manager, mortgage manager, branch manager and data manager.
Hometown: Hamilton, Ontario
Hobbies: Family, work and life
Children: Danielle and Nathan
AMC: What are the major issues, in your view, that the ATM industry is dealing with right now and what can be done to improve the landscape for companies like yours?
Weisz: The dynamics of the regulators — the networks. It's disappointing to see different networks have different rules or different views of the marketplace. There's not one single thought there. My personal feeling is that they're sometimes making it extremely difficult about issues that are not really that important. Sometimes it's the simple things that we need to be worrying about, instead of encryption, which sometimes doesn't make any sense because no one's ever broken encryption. They put out some strange rules.
I worry about the rules — the regulators really understanding what they're changing and why they're changing it.
AMC: How has the news of your diagnosis affected you?
Weisz: My diagnosis, to me, is just like another business problem: Here we go again. I've got something else going on in my life. What I did was I used my resources just like I always do in everything I do, to find out what you do in this situation.
I have managed to take something which was so deadly and tame the lion, as they say.
In other words, I now have this cancer under control. I've been making sure it doesn't like me at all and that it doesn't like residing in my body too much. I take proper medicine. I changed my diet tremendously. If I had known what I know now before I had this, I would have been a different person as far as how I treated my body. The trouble is, as human beings, we read an article like this and we think â€˜Oh, it's not going to affect me.' AMC: What did the doctors tell you originally?
Weisz: Five to six months — that that was back in September. So right now, I should be dead. I'm not dead. I don't even look close to being dead. I'm in better shape than I ever have been. My heart health is in top shape. I've got a tumor. I've got cancer running through my system, but compared to six months ago, I'm a thousand times better.
AMC: Recently, your cancer counts have gone down. To what do you attribute this?
Weisz: This is just based on determination. This is what drove my business and my life. The thing is, I've learned one thing: If you're determined and you try your best and you fail, at least you can say you've tried.
AMC: So you're on the road to recovery?
Weisz: I haven't recovered â€¦ I think my determination and my attitude is good and I think that makes a big difference. It's who I am. It's what made my business, made my marriage, made my kids and made my life.
AMC: Are you afraid to die?
Weisz: No. Absolutely not. If it doesn't work out at the end of the day, I've got to die one day anyway. We all face uncertain circumstances with regard to how we're going to die. That's what makes it so hard. Most people are afraid of death and of talking about death.
AMC: Some people who received your diagnosis would be tempted to feel sorry for themselves. How do you maintain a positive attitude?
Weisz: It's a tough thing. People are very fragile entities. We don't really concern ourselves with our mortality until it's upon us. We don't get taught how to die properly. I know that sounds really strange.
I sat down with my son and talked about how I'm gonna die and just what that means. He's going to walk down a beach one day and think about Dad and cry and be hurt, but I'll leave him enough videos that he can talk to me. But the best advice is: be determined to live. Be just as determined about your business as you are about your life. Be just as determined about your family as you are about your life.
AMC: What about your company? How will it be affected by your illness?
Weisz: It will continue on without me. I was the visionary who built this castle. The castle is already built. Somebody has just got to maintain the troops. I've got strong management now, so if something were to happen to me today — and it's going to, obviously.
I put positive energy around me. I know that sounds hokey, but I live for my work and my family and my life — and I am not ready to give them up that easily. But at the end of the day, I'm a realist.
AMC: This diagnosis woke you up to the importance of nutrition. What lessons have you learned that others — businesspeople in particular — can learn from?
Weisz: This whole socialite idea of going out to eat with clients — that's the killer. That should be banned. No client should ever get a dinner with you ever again. You have to be smart. Fish, fish, fish. No milk. No sugar. No red meat. Cut your meat down to once a week. You have to take care of yourself. We take care of our cars and our companies better than we take care of ourselves. We get cocky and arrogant.
AMC: What can we do to improve in this area?
Weisz: Get checked out more often at the doctor. When you're 50, get a CAT scan. Do it! CAT scan! CAT scan! Get it checked out. See what the heck is going on. It only costs a couple of thousand bucks. Do it! It's going to cost you a heck of a lot more money if you get sick. Just be determined.
AMC: How are you and your family coping with the uncertainty of the future?
Weisz: It's scary at first, but I haven't lost one night's sleep over this. I just said, â€˜Oh well, we're going to deal with it.'And if it gets me at the end of the day, at least my family and the people who love me and care for me at my business, all know that I tried my very best. That's what's important. It's just like if you build a business and it fails and you tried your very best, at least you can put it to rest and say you did.