Entrepreneur Chris Allen Looks ‘Through a Different Lens’
Since he was a teenager, Chris Allen has had an entrepreneurial spirit.
As a 16-year-old, Allen and his best friend started their own landscaping business to earn some extra money.
He was immediately hooked.
“Once you’re your own boss, it’s very hard to go back,” Allen told the crowd at the National Small Business Week SBA Awards & Resource Expo at Rentschler Field May 4.
“You can never really go back to being somebody that works for someone else.”
Allen, now the CEO of Avon-based iCleanse, said his outlook on life and business started with his parents.
His father was a principal and superintendent and his mother spent more than a decade as a nun before deciding it wasn’t for her at the age of 30.
Both Allen’s parents died young.
His father lost his life to ALS when Allen was five and his mother died of cancer when he was 26.
“I look at things through a different lens,” he said.
“Both my parents, neither of them ever got to retire and enjoy the fruits of their labor over their lifetime.”
Allen spent three months at Allegheney College in Pennsylvania, before deciding it wasn’t the right path for him.
He started his first company, a landscaping and construction business, at age 19 with the help of an SBA loan.
“Realizing where business takes you in life has been a tremendous learning experience for me,” he said.
“It taught me marketing, it taught me scheduling, it taught me working with individuals, how to sell, how to speak to adults.”
Leap of Faith
Allen sold that company five years later, and in 2009, he had the idea for what would become one of his biggest businesses.
“I was grilling in my backyard,” he said. “I had a Brookstone thermometer, and I’d just bought an iPhone.
“And I decided that I wanted to invent something that would talk to my phone and tell me when my meat is done on the grill.”
That invention became the iGrill.
He said the idea itself wasn’t really novel or genius, and he’d never built a product in his life, but the key was that he decided to “actually go and do it.”
“That’s the leap of faith,” he said. “I decided I wasn’t going to be the person that saw it on a shelf two years, three years later, and said, ‘Man, I had that idea.’”
Allen said that through persistence and chasing people, he built a relationship with Apple, and the iGrill became the first connected device ever sold in the consumer marketplace.
The iGrill caught the attention of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple offered the opportunity to be one of the first seven companies in its home automation program.
Allen’s company, iDevices, grew to include products like the iShower, the first speaker to connect to a phone while showering.
“We grew that company, by and large, from the relationships that we created,” Allen said.
“When we come to these events—and we network with CBIA and all the different folks—these are the opportunities where you create those relationships that can take your company from a little grilling company to a powerhouse in the technology space.”
Allen sold iGrill to Weber in 2016, and in 2017, Shelton-based Hubbell Inc. acquired iDevices.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Allen became CEO of iCleanse.
The company started in 2014 as ReadyDock, the first chemical-free device disinfectant system.
Allen not only changed the name to iCleanse, but shifted the company to incorporate digital advertising into the products.
Today, iCleanse products are being used everywhere from hospitals and doctors’ offices to museums and at Bradley International Airport.
Allen says part of his success comes down to putting himself in the right place at the right time, trusting his gut, and being willing to learn.
“I was an open-minded person and knew that I didn’t know everything and that I had to rely on other people’s smarts and wisdom to educate me,” he said.
“I can tell you unequivocally, I learned more by surrounding myself with great people than I would have ever learned at the best Ivy League college in the world.”
‘Take Care of Your People’
Allen credits his teams, and the culture they created for the success of his companies, adding that the most fundamental thing is to take care of your people.
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned over the years is that building a great team is the most important thing,” Allen said.
At iDevices, building that team and culture meant offering a benefits package that with a 401K, health insurance and unlimited paid time off.
It also included everything from after-hours events to having beer on tap and even a personal chef for employees.
“I look at it as if my kids were coming to me and saying ‘Dad, I just got this job offer and this is what they offer,’” Allen said.
“You can’t make everybody rich—that’s not the point of it—but you can take care of them and you can treat them right and with respect.”
In the end, he said it all comes down to the golden rule, “treat others how you want to be treated.”
“It is because of what my mom instilled in me and I hold that to her every day and thank her for that,” he said. “Because that makes all the difference in the world.”
CBIA president and CEO Chris DiPentima said Allen “is not only an incredibly successful entrepreneur, he is a mentor for many other small businesses.”
“He’s very engaged in growing the Connecticut economy, he’s on the CBIA board, and we’re really lucky to have him here in the state of Connecticut helping our small businesses,” he said.
With all of his success, Allen said he looks back at losing his parents before they had a chance to enjoy retirement as a reminder to take a step back and enjoy life.
“Find the joy in your life and your work,” he said.
“I want to go out knowing that I did everything I possibly could to enrich my life to have fun to make sure that I was taking care of those people and to just enjoy it.”
The National Small Business Week SBA Awards & Resource Expo was produced by CBIA and the Connecticut District SBA and made possible by Liberty Bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Connecticut Wealth Management, with additional support from Live Oak Bank, BDC Capital/CDC New England, Savings Bank of Danbury, M&T Bank, Comcast, Berkshire Bank, and Webster Bank.
EXPLORE BY CATEGORY
Stay Connected with CBIA News Digests
The latest news and information delivered directly to your inbox.