Phil Huff loves to build things.

Teams of people. Projects for clients. Whole businesses.

Building is about accomplishing goals for Huff, who seems to have been wired for competition from birth. From lawn mowing and paper routes to the founding of eLynx and its $40 million sale five years ago, he has always enjoyed the allure of assembling a successful project.

Huff is the son of a third-generation AK Steel worker, raised in Middletown with a strong work ethic and a sense of ownership in what he built. Although it wasn’t immediately clear how Huff was going to direct this energy, a computer science degree from Miami University convinced him that technology was the way to go.

He and two partners built the Cincinnati-based web services company eLynx over a 10-year period before selling it to American Capital in 2004. More recently, Huff was tapped to overhaul BrandWatch Technologies in Portland, Ore., which provides brand security and product authentication technology to companies worldwide.

There were times in those early years with eLynx when success seemed elusive. In the first five years, eLynx wasn’t making any profit. Survival was a constant question.

“Those years were very tough on us,” Huff says. “We weren’t paying ourselves, and there were times I was using credit cards to pay bills. I was late on my mortgage payments. Talk about feeling destitute. But your ‘a-ha moment’ often comes when your back is against the wall.”

Those who know Huff well say he is a determined leader who has persevered through tremendous personal hardships — circumstances that didn’t make him bitter, but simply more determined to succeed.

“Phil is tenacious,” says CincyTech executive-in-residence Mike Venerable. “He is also very good at sizing up a problem and then following through on how to fix it. He’s a natural leader.”

In addition to running BrandWatch, Huff is serving as an entrepreneur-in-residence at CincyTech, a nonprofit venture development group that makes seed-stage investments in high-tech startups in Southwest Ohio. Huff works with startup companies on issues ranging from team building and executive development to technology platforms and sales and marketing strategies. He reflected recently on his experiences with building and operating organizations.

Q: You were on track for a successful career at the Miller Brewing Co. in the early 1990s. You had moved your family to Milwaukee and had received several promotions. What compelled you to leave all that and start a company?

A: I really wanted to build a business. I had a business plan put together for a startup technology company, and I went to some investors back home (in Southwest Ohio) and we developed a full plan together.

The internet was beginning to take shape, and I saw a lot of opportunity to build something meaningful.

My two early investors and I founded Migralynx Systems Inc. (which became eLynx), which then was focused on electronic data interchange (EDI). That was in 1995. We made nothing at first. By 1997 we had a few customers but were not taking off like wildfire, and we were very low on money.

Q: Obviously that changed. When did the turning point come?

A: We were on a plane to see a customer in Phoenix and were literally putting together a proposal on the way there for what we thought they wanted. We came up with software that would capture the print stream of an electronic document and make it available on the internet.

They said “that’s exactly what we wanted.” And that was the birth of our electronic document exchange. Opportunities gain focus when customers tell you about their problems.

Q: And yet it was still another two years before things turned around?

A: Building what a customer wants and gaining commercial appeal are two different things. In the summer of 1999, we landed Wells Fargo Home Mortgage as a customer, and that gave us the credibility we needed. We executed well, and that led to a leadership role in the mortgage banking industry. We went on to service 17 of the 20 top mortgage lenders. The “refi” boom was active; the housing boom was on. It was the perfect storm.

The key to getting out of the starting block was to land that first big customer.

Q: You often talk about the crucial need for good people in building a successful company. You seem to have an innate ability to find those people. What qualities do you look for in the people who work with you?

A: I think there are really four characteristics that are most important: intelligence, passion, integrity and communication skills. I enjoy working with people who know the subject, are passionate about making a difference, will always be direct with me, and are effective at communicating with customers.

Q: You had a long, hard journey before you and your investors finally saw a successful exit. Any advice for those who might follow your path?

A: If I’d have known everything I know now, I might not have started the journey. Your chances of success are so slim; it can seem a bit daunting.

But a key part of this is to not be afraid to fail. There is nothing wrong with failing, as long as you learn from your failures.

Lastly, it’s important to know when something’s not working and to choose a new direction. You’re not always going to make the right decision, but what’s important is that you dust yourself off and get back on the horse.