William Bruner never got to spend much time with his father during the week as a child, but he always had the weekends. And weekends were the time for errands. His father would load all the kids in the car, from the elder William down through the youngest of his four sisters, and perform roll call to ensure everyone was on board. But while other families may have listened to the radio or conversed while rolling about town, William’s father’s audio of choice was Amway seminar tapes.
Though he worked within the rigid confines of the U.S. military, William’s father was an entrepreneur at heart, and he instilled that spirit into his children at every opportunity.
“He always told me, ‘Son, a job stands for ‘Just Over Broke.’ Don’t ever have a job,’” William says.
William eschewed his father’s advice for the first few years of his career, but the entrepreneurial spirit implanted in him at a young age later became the inspiration that powered him to be on the founding team of 17 companies in a 17-year span, a number that is expected to increase to 20 companies by the end of 2023.
Now, William works to pass along the lessons that he has absorbed since childhood to the next generation of founders and business leaders as Founder and Managing Director of Tandem Consulting, a boutique consulting firm that specializes in guiding businesses through transition periods and organizational growth.
“I often say, ‘My legacy is in others, not in me,’” William says. “My ambition is to positively impact as many people as I possibly can, and typically that’s through scale. I do that by sitting down with leaders who embody the same ideals, culture, mindset and positivity that I have.”
Tandem Consulting’s logo is a photo of two men riding a tandem bicycle, and it is representative of the motto by which William leads the company: “If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together.”
While William works with cutting-edge companies in a variety of industries, he typically focuses his work on two groups of clients – foreign business leaders looking to bring their business into American markets and underrepresented founders including women, veterans and members of the disabled and BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) communities.
“One of my friends refers to me as a business agnostic,” William says. “He says, ‘You can build and scale literally any business.’ Industry is totally irrelevant. As long as there’s passion involved and you’re working with supportive people, that’s what it’s all about. The fundamentals of all businesses are the same – people, process, product.”
While William’s father was highly influential in shaping his business approach and philosophy, it’s hardly the only way in which he impacted his life.
A high-ranking Air Force fighter pilot and later a two-time presidential appointee who lacked much of a soft side, William’s father was strict, intolerable of mistakes and hyper-focused on his children’s success, both academically and later professionally. He instilled William and his siblings with “the fear of being average,” William recalls, just one of several traits that continue to manifest today. Additionally, William remains a voracious reader from the years of reading and book reports mandated by his father. All of the entrepreneurial lessons William garnered from his father, who has started several businesses of his own after his retirement from the military, clearly trickled down to all the siblings, as two of William’s four younger sisters have also started businesses of their own. William also credits his father with inspiring his boundless sense of possibility and relentless drive to succeed.
But while William points to his father as the most important influence in his life and someone he has always looked up to, he also notes that the rigid upbringing didn’t come without drawbacks. William’s father worked long hours and spent little time at home during the week, making bonding opportunities like family dinner scarce. Equally scarce were family vacations, which were only allowed if they were seamlessly and briefly incorporated into one of William’s father’s business trips.
“My father was a great father, but not a good dad,” William says. “The nurture was there in that my parents were great providers, but there was never any talk of, ‘How was your day? How are things going?’ That was missing. There was a void in that regard. Even though the time may have been limited, it was like a concentrated fluid. Even though he wasn’t there a lot, the concentration was so impactful that I was affected by it, and his impact was always there.”
William’s mother was also tremendously impactful and inspiring to him from a young age. Of all the lessons she taught William, though, one that stands out the most is one she learned from her own father — the value of appearance.
“He went to work every day in San Francisco in a three-piece suit with a Rolex and top hat on,” William remembers of his grandfather. “I don’t obsess about my appearance, but my mom taught me it’s important to take stock because it is often representative of you and how you do business. People will think, ‘If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of my business?’”
William’s childhood, not unlike many military children’s, featured little continuity. Born on Mather Air Force base in Sacramento, California, the Bruner family relocated to New Mexico shortly thereafter and again to England before his first birthday, where they stayed for most of William’s early childhood. After returning stateside, William followed his family to stops in Idaho, Alabama and twice Virginia. He ultimately attended three middle schools and two high schools.
“Parents don’t realize the difficulties for kids to assimilate,” William says. “I don’t have any childhood friends that I’m still connected to, because I never lived anywhere long enough to form those.”
The near-constant moves gave William a worldly perspective but precluded him from many activities as a child. For instance, he wanted to join the Boy Scouts because his father had been one, but the regularity of the family’s moves were not conducive to joining a troop. He enjoyed soccer in England, played baseball through middle school and had a stint on the speech and debate team while in high school in Alabama, but otherwise, his parents preferred that he dedicate most of his time to academic pursuits. Though living situations were often in flux for the Bruners, one thread connected all of their stops.
“Church every Sunday was like clockwork,” William says.
Though raised in the Methodist church, William’s most prized possession actually pertains to the Buddhist faith. He was gifted an antique white gold piece of jewelry with a Buddha inside in 2016 and every morning since has removed the piece from its storage box, kissed it and placed it around his neck.
“I like the thought process of the Buddhists as far as peacefulness and thought process and harmony with nature,” William says. “I feel that it calms me. I will get frustrated, but anger only clouds judgment and causes mistakes. I don’t let the frustration progress to the point of anger. Much more can be accomplished by composure and remaining calm under pressure.”
While his childhood didn’t allow much time for extracurricular activities, it did provide William the opportunity to make his first dollar.
“My neighbor across the street was a nurse, and she would pay me $10-12 an hour to collate her files for 4-5 hours at a time a couple of days on the weekend,” William recalls. “My parents didn’t believe in any type of allowance. So we had to find ways to make our own money.”
That principle held strong when it came time for college. Once William’s left his parent’s home, he was on his own. William was accepted to Florida State University with an intention to focus his studies on International Business and Political Science.
“Nothing to do with the courses or classes,” William says of his decision to attend FSU.“I just wanted that wonderful, sunny Florida.”
Still unsure of his plans or aspirations after college, William returned to Northern Virginia to live with his grandmother who, like his parents, was a stickler for personal responsibility and forced William to find work and contribute. William combed the newspaper’s Classifieds section and ultimately landed a role selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door. While far from his dream job, William used the opportunities sitting in potential buyers’ living rooms to fine-tune his pitching and sales skills.
“I was learning about human psychology and how to negotiate business, William says. “You don’t get taught any of this stuff in school.”
Within a year, William wanted to move on to a role with better hours and fewer weekends on the job, and he found another newspaper-provided opportunity for a tech sales role at Nextel.
“The interviewer said, ‘You have zero technology sales experience, but if you sold Kirbys and you were successful, you can sell anything,’” William recalls.
The interviewer was not disappointed. In William’s first two weeks, his sales number stood at 700% of the monthly quota. William was among the company’s top sales representatives in the country, and he handled many of Nextel’s largest accounts in the Washington, D.C. area until the burst of the dot-com bubble led him to pursue other opportunities.
William’s success in his first two sales jobs catapulted him up the corporate ladder to VP-level positions, one at an event planning firm in D.C. and another at Magellan, where he stayed less than one year before founding his first company. When advising young entrepreneurs today, William stresses that, while he’s had many successes since founding his first company, his experience in the corporate world helped make everything that came after possible.
“I say, ‘Look, you may want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, but go make mistakes with someone else’s dollars before they’re your own,’” William advises. “Learn how a company works. I needed that 4-5 years of experience in a corporate world to understand how it worked and build connections. You’re only as strong as your Rolodex.”
After years of company-building and networking, William could theoretically take his talents on the road, building books of business and fleshing out his network in other places. Instead, he’s chosen to concentrate his impact on the D.C. area, which he notes is the only metro area where every Fortune 500 company has an office. Since he lived here twice as a child, William has been taken by the international flavor, transient nature and power of D.C.
“You can’t get that, from my experience, in other places,” William says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and do business in other parts of the world, and they’re great and of course I enjoy visiting there. But every time I land and come back to the D.C. area, it’s invigorating and intoxicating. All of the decision-makers come through here.”
In his work across various sectors, William identifies three key tenets that every successful company must have — good people, good processes and good products. The people especially stand out. William is now able to be more selective than he once was when deciding on which companies to invest in or take on as clients. He is pitched on up to a dozen companies every year, and his decision often hinges more on the people involved than the company involved.
“I don’t care how many commas you have in your account, how many M.D.s, JDs or MBAs you have,” William says. “If I can’t have a cup of joe or libation with you, I don’t want to work with you. I’m a big believer in energy.”
Equally important are the people with whom William surrounds himself within his companies. He describes his leadership style as empathetic, caring, compassionate and people-centric, and he prioritizes team-building activities that foster connection among those he’s working alongside.
“It’s so important to have empathy and not ever treat the people working with you like they’re merely a cog in the wheel,” William says. “I want that sense of community and family to be there. When you endear yourself to one another, everybody benefits.”
William began his consulting career in 2010 and fully immersed himself in D.C.’s startup scene in 2014, but it wasn’t until about five years ago when he truly found his purpose. William examined his life and found that the material things that he always saw as representative of business success were, in fact, meaningless. Rather than the biggest house, the newest car or the flashiest watch, William now relentlessly focuses his attention on how he can make the most impact on those who need it.
“I decided to focus entirely on giving back and seeing what that yields,” William says. “Rather than being as self-serving as I was, I wanted to see how many people I could help. It was amazing when I started to give back, the bevy of opportunities that opened in front of me. When I changed my mindset to try to focus on give, give, give to see what kind of things could be accomplished, that was one of my biggest defining moments.”
William has ramped up his charitable work in recent years and now sits on several boards of organizations in the D.C. area serving the communities he’s most passionate about. He also has made a point to identify and mentor up-and-coming business leaders from communities underrepresented in startups, many of whom face the same hurdles and roadblocks now that William once did.
“Giving back is something that’s very, very near and dear to me,” William says. “I have colleagues of mine who say, ‘William, you often spread yourself too thin.’ I say, ‘This life is not a dress rehearsal.’ We only have one life to live, and I know I can’t take it with me. I want to do whatever I possibly can to give back as truly and authentically as I’m able.”
For all the impact made and success found, William hopes that he will look back on today as a time when he’d just begun to make a true difference. He notes the massive advances in technology in this century and feels confident continuing advancements will only provide more chances to make an impact. Every day, he watches four different news stations and reads up to 20-30 publications, all the while eyeing the next opportunity to change the world for the better.
“I hope that I’ve still only scratched the surface of my potential,” William says. “I hope that there is still much more for me to give. The more I get and the more I acquire, the more I want to give. I unequivocally and unabashedly subscribe to the abundance mindset and not the scarcity mindset. There’s way too much out there for all of us to have and enjoy.”