Jeff Graley didn’t always plan on being an entrepreneur. He was never the lemonade stand kid, preferring sports instead. For a while, he thought he might be an audiologist. But then, through an Air Force career that was its own winding path, he discovered the world of engineering, research and development and, eventually, technology in Dayton. In 2015 he founded Mile Two, a collection of experts in cognitive systems engineering, user experience design, software engineering, quality assurance and more who make other companies work better from their home at The Manhattan in Dayton. Graley sat down with TechOhio to talk about prioritizing company culture, his winding career path and his excitement for Dayton’s growth.
Mile Two has a purposefully open-ended mission. How do you describe your work to people?
Fundamentally, we’re a human-machine teaming company. We like to build softwares and prototypes that allow machines to work at the speed of a human’s decision-making. How do we bring advanced technology and people together within a context that allows them to excel? There are all kinds of technology solutions that people fight every day to do their jobs. We want to build and design holistic systems for the technology and the person. It is a broad approach, but the world’s turning towards complexity. And if complexity is everywhere, human-machine teaming needs to be applied everywhere. We’ve worked in the health care space and business operations and we also implement our work in satellites and autonomous airplanes.
What’s the quick version of how you wound up founding Mile Two?
I grew up in southern West Virginia in the coal fields, so I got plenty of opportunities to see what the real world looked like. I ended up at West Virginia University, graduating with my Master’s in audiology and the Air Force popped up on my radar. I ended up getting into the Air Force, and that took me to Texas where I served as a clinician for three years. Eventually, they sent me to Ohio, and that’s how my Ohio journey started. I got placed at the Air Force research lab, and that introduced me to the world of research and development and the engineering side of things, and I fell in love. That prepared me to make the leap to start Mile Two in 2015.
What makes you passionate and excited about the work you do?
Fundamentally, I’m a curious person, so research and development appeals to that part of me. There are always new problems and new answers and new capabilities that you could apply in novel ways. So that innovation space has always been something I’ve been intrigued by and driven toward. One of our founding principles is we want to “Do cool stuff with cool people,” and that still drives us. Cool stuff can be defined a lot of different ways, whether it’s technology or applied to the space you’re working in or the people that you’re working with.
How did your childhood shape your career?
I grew up in a coal-mining town in West Virginia, and I think the biggest thing was that it was a very work-oriented place. Those are not hospitable places, when you really look at the terrain and the kind of work that’s available. So I got to see what real hard work looks like on a daily basis and build a sense of resilience. It’s about neighbors helping neighbors. You’re not just a lawyer, you can also build a house. You’re not just a coal miner, you’re a mechanic or a pipe-fitter or an electrician. They’re really robust, resilient people. I learned that you’re not defined by your title. You can be a lot of different things and be useful to the community. But they’re also not doing the same thing every day. They’re trying new things, and I think that gave me a foundation of curiosity.
Your father was a coal miner — what lessons did you learn from him?
Early on, I learned that a sense of satisfaction was not an option. There was always a way you could do better. My parents also made it clear: “You are not going to be a coal miner or have anything to do with the coal industry.” So once they took that off the table, I got to reevaluate my outcomes a bit. Maybe most important was the work ethic. My father built our first two houses on evenings and weekends. He was a coal miner all day and then came home and, over a two-year period, built a house from the foundation up. When you’re measuring yourself against that measuring stick, everything looks lazy.
All of that took a lot of time and energy, but my parents also took care of the family. So when we started Mile Two, I wasn’t going to sacrifice time with my wife and kids to meet my goals. I still always make it a point to be present and engaged in those ways because I want to have that same sense of family while I was pursuing my big goals.
Did you have any kind of business mindset in your younger years?
No, I was not entrepreneurial at all. But I was always achievement-oriented. I was a quarterback. I was the pitcher. I was the guy that liked to control things in games. That’s where I learned my desire to build and grow teams. My other inspiration was that my father always wanted to start a business and talked about a thousand businesses that he never started. I think that stuck in my head. I thought, “I don’t want to have regrets.” I gave myself the chance to go out on that path that he talked about and see if I could be successful. I think I certainly have.
What lessons did you learn from your time with the Air Force?
I think you can get a lot out of joining the military. For me, it reinforced some of my core values. You learn “service before self” and think about integrity first and excellence in all you do. Those are things that can help shape you. But another important thing is that they don’t give you the answers and every time you think you have the answers, they change the questions. Every three years you move and get a new job that’s not like your last one. You just have to figure it out and accept that there’s a mission that needs to be accomplished. You feel that pressure and the dynamic environment of figuring it out while people are depending on you. I loved that, and it was great preparation for a startup.
What’s been your priority as you navigate building a company?
We wanted to build a successful company that was humane. Founding a startup when you have kids changes the way you’re wired. You think, “I have to take care of my kids. I want my kids to have a future.” It’s not just about you; you can’t be that selfish. So when someone else joins the team and they have kids, you can empathize with that or whatever situation they’re bringing to the table. We thought about culture first, to the detriment of profit and business decisions. We want to prove you can do both and still be successful. Were we as profitable as we absolutely could be? No. But we built a healthy culture. It’s a lot easier to fix a business process than a culture. Our philosophy was, “Build a good culture and then you can excel,” and it worked for us.
What’s an aspect of company culture that’s important to you?
One of our goals from day one has been that if you go to our website, you should be able to see somebody who looks like you. Representation matters, and it’s important to the next generation and our current generation. We wanted to have a workforce that is representative of both our neighborhood and the state of the world. I think we’ve achieved that. We’re by no means perfect, but anybody can go to our website and say, “There’s somebody like me.” I’m super proud of that. Not all tech startups look like us. I want us to be the people who say, “You can do it like this. You can be successful if you make diversity a priority.”
Since founding Mile Two in 2015, how have you grown as a leader?
I’ve learned that it’s important to provide opportunities to other people and how great it is to see them achieve their goals and excel in new roles that they were uncertain about. It’s super fulfilling to be able to bring in a team, add to the team and have the organization keep getting better because of it. I love that I can bring in people who are smarter and better than I am for these positions and turn them loose. And they crush it. We have about 120 employees now, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of these new levels we hit. It seemed like when we got to about 15 people, it felt different and you needed to adapt a bit. When you hit 30 and 50, you felt that again. Then, 100 was a whole new game. Being able to keep adapting keeps me on my toes.
What’s currently exciting you about the work you do?
What we do is the future. The world used to be complicated, but now if you look at speed that massive data and communication decisions are being made, whether it’s in finance, defense, Uber or in your phone, it’s increasing at such a pace towards complexity that people like us are going to have to be involved in key roles, or it’s all going to fall apart. We’re going to be overwhelmed and you’re not going to be able to make a decision anymore because there’s too much information. How do we put people in positions to have the right information at the right time? So that’s what I’m excited about. Technology has started to unlock the full potential of data now, and that’s where we come in.
What’s exciting about being in Dayton right now?
What’s not exciting about being in Dayton right now? I mean, just thinking about this neighborhood, this investment and these businesses weren’t here five years ago. This is a real, no kidding tech corridor. There are these billion-dollar companies right here like CareSource and STRATACACHE. Everybody knows about the unicorns in Cincinnati or Columbus, but there are big businesses here that are doing game-changing things. Dayton is as high-quality and competitive as anywhere else you’ll find in the nation.
What makes Ohio’s startup environment a great place for companies like yours?
Years ago, one of the cool things about places like Colorado or Silicon Valley was that you saw people leaving companies or exiting with sales and they would start new companies, invest in new projects and work with different people. Now, you really see that in Ohio. I’m hiring people from startups in Columbus and Cincinnati and they’re hiring people from me. A new startup just hired one of our engineers that we hired as an intern. To me, that’s success. I want people to succeed, exit, invest in another company and send new talent on to other projects. It’s good for the whole Ohio scene, and it’s exciting that Dayton is a real player.
What’s a great under-the-radar Dayton spot that people might not know about?
I’ll give you a few! Sueño is right next door to us. It’s a new Mexican place that is fantastic. And just below them is a bar called Tender Mercy that could be in any major city in the U.S. It feels like it would belong in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles. It’s a great place with great ambiance and drinks. Another great one right here in our neighborhood is The Barrel House, a taphouse run by the nicest people who love beer and love people. You walk in there and the energy is great every day. Finally, there’s Century Bar, a world-class bourbon place right down the street. You can’t beat it. I love this neighborhood. It’s great for us living here and it’s also great for business development. I have places I can take someone from New York or anywhere else. It’s a sense of legitimacy and character.
What piece of advice would you give to a young entrepreneur today?
To me, the biggest thing is that your perceived risk is higher than actual risk. It looks way scarier and the consequences seem much greater until you get out there and you get a little more business savvy with more of a network. That’s a barrier for a lot of people. That’s what I would tell anybody who’s thinking about founding something or who’s early in it: you still have to do the work and it is risky, but the perceived risk outpaces the actual risk. Don’t be deterred and don’t be afraid.