Entrepreneurship, Raleigh-Durham, Technology

My Hustle into Red Hat

Here is a wildly embarrassing video about how I hustled my way into Red Hat. I recommend starting at the 3min 15seconds mark to watch the blooper reel. It has the best bits. Enjoy!


They say great entrepreneurs have grit and hustle. I’m not sure if I am a great entrepreneur but I have been known to have moments of hustle.

One such moment was in 1999. Back then, I was a second year MBA student at the University of North Carolina, focused on technology / marketing / entrepreneurship. I have always been entrepreneurially minded but I figured that I should go work for a software company for a little bit before starting out on my own.

It was frothy back in the Dot Com Boom days. There were lots of startups to go work for. But, I found few that were truly interesting and innovative. In my search, I stumbled upon a little company called Red Hat and was intrigued. It was based in Durham and still very small, less than a 100 people. More importantly, I found its open source model and community fascinating. I believed that it was truly going to change how software was developed and deployed. Back then, Red Hat was rough around the edges but I could see that there was a diamond in there. I had seen this diamond in the rough before so I knew what to look for.

I graduated from college in 1993. As a computer science major, I had been fairly tied into the pre-Web Internet and even ran a Bulletin Board System (BBS) as a kid. But, I took a detour after graduation and joined the Peace Corps. By the time the “World Wide Web” burst on the scene in late 1993 and 1994, I was living on a remote island with no connectivity. My days were filled with teaching and coconuts instead of coding and startups. (Which was awesome btw!) I missed the Web’s grand entrance but deeply understood what it looked like before becoming mainstream. I saw the same thing with Open Source in 1998 and 1999. Fortunately for me, I was near its epicenter and determined not to miss out on it again.

I wanted into Red Hat but I needed to get their attention. So, I recruited my business school friends to help me make a video, stating my case. I pressed the video onto a CD-ROM and FedEx-ed to the CEO. Easy to do now but no so easy in 1999.

It worked! (in addition to a few other tactics like organizing a school-wide presentation for the CEO and telephoning the head of marketing every week.) I joined as an intern and then converted to a full-time employee around graduation. Meanwhile, I let my more lucrative offers at places like Dell Computer expire. Red Hat IPO-ed on scant revenue later than summer and managed to survive the Dot Com Bust to become the $15 billion 10,000-employee gorilla that it is today.

Some of that $15 billion is likely because of the awesomeness of this video.

Bronto, Entrepreneurship, Raleigh-Durham

“The Bronto Story” for the UNC’s Adams Apprenticeship Fall Conference

Last Friday I had the pleasure of being the primary speaker for the Adams Apprenticeship Fall Conference evening event. The Adams Apprenticeship is a mentorship program that pairs successful entrepreneurship with UNC’s most promising future entrepreneurs.

For my presentation, I told the “Bronto Story” and lessons learned. I wish that I would have recorded it because it was fairly entertaining. But, here’s the gist of it:

  • This story is a story not the story. Every entrepreneurial journey is different.
  • Entrepreneurship is hard, especially in the early days. Its not for everyone but for people wired a certain way, it is the only way to live.
  • The journey broke down into three parts — Genesis, Growth and Graduation. I am particularly proud of my cleverness in that all the words started with the same letter.

I summarized the talk with these points:

  • It’s a journey. Not a transaction. Mentors and advisors help.
  • Genesis(s) are rough and gritty. Passion and encouragement matter.
  • Growth is about focus and execution with an engaged + committed culture
  • Graduations are about architected sustainability and are bittersweet

Also, that night, I joined the program as an Adams Apprentice. I look forward to seeing where that goes and supporting the efforts by UNC in growing the local entrepreneurial community.

Bronto, Entrepreneurship, Raleigh-Durham

NCSU Computer Science Presentation on “From Code to Company”

Last month I had the honor of speaking to NC State Computer Science students and faculty as part of their Executive Speaking Series. In the talk, I walked through a number of hard learned lessons in building Bronto Software. You can review the official writeup on the NCSU CSC webpage or here:

Joe will share lessons learned in building a company out of his spare bedroom ten years ago to a successful award-winning software company – entirely bootstrapped without any outside capital. Today, Bronto Software employs over 120 people in over 20,000 square feet on the American Tobacco Campus in nearby Durham. Bronto was recently named as NCTA’s Software Company of the Year and as a TBJ Best Place to Work.

I enjoyed giving the talk and especially mingling with the students afterwards. Hopefully they found it insightful … or at the very least entertaining. Personally I always found these type of talks rewarding back as a student in my Harvard and Carolina days.

So, without further ado, here’s the YouTube video for your watching enjoyment:

Bronto, Entrepreneurship

The Story Behind the Bronto Name

Often when I talk about the company to a group of people, I inevitably get the questions: Why Bronto? What’s the story behind the name? Sometime ago one of our prospects emailed me the same question. To settle some of the curiosity out there, I thought that it would be helpful to share my email response below.

Fortunately, the situation for bronto named dinosaurs has improved since my email response. Making up for the Brontosaurus being discredited, a palentologist discovered a new dinosaur and, earlier this year, applied the bronto moniker to it. Brontomerus. The name means “Thunder Thigh” in Greek. Hilarious! Also love how the Brontomerus is kicking butt in its wikipedia pictures. Awesome!

Paleontologist Mike Taylor, we salute you!

Hi Eliana –

I am the founder and CEO of Bronto Software so I can provide some insight into the name Bronto. I named the company after my childhood love for dinosaurs while bootstrapping the company out of my spare bedroom many years ago. As a 7 year old, I loved dinosaurs, in particular the Brontosaurus, so when given the chance to name my own company, I couldn’t resist.

Yes … it is true that in many ways bronto is not the ideal name for a technology company. Brontosaurus is an extinct, plant eating animal that supposedly had the brain the size of a pea. And, in most drawings, it is often on the verge of being eaten by a T-Rex. Also, the Brontosaurus is mislabeled. It didn’t exist and was later re-categorized as a different dinosaur. In the race for discovery, a paleontologist had the wrong head on it and erroneously labeled it as a brontosaurus … which my 9 year old niece told me (to my surprise) a few years after starting the company. Read this article.

Despite all this, Bronto is really a great name and embodies our humility in humanizing technology and software. We are committed to making our customers better marketers and have embraced this simple principle throughout our product and service. The paradox of having a name like Bronto keeps us approachable and real. So, hopefully you’ll have a chance to see what Bronto makes different and why we embrace its name and ideals. Plus, the name gives us the opportunity to take lots of brontosaurus pictures in interesting places.

Hope that helps clarify your question.

Cheers, Joe

Entrepreneurship, Raleigh-Durham

Adventures in Entrepreneurship

Last month we kicked off a new video series with the CED, the largest entrepreneurial support organization in the country. The series features local Raleigh-Durham entrepreneurs and their startups. I play host for the series and hope to go beyond the typical entrepreneur interviews and give viewers a better sense of life as a entrepreneur and in a startup. Special thanks to Caroline Riddle, our community guru at Bronto, for all her help in producing this series. For the first episode, Eric Boggs and Adam Covati, two bronto alumni, discuss their startup Argyle Social. Now, without further adieu, here’s the first episode:

Bronto, Entrepreneurship

Teaching, Leadership and Why It Matters

A big part of leadership is communication. That’s something that I spend a lot of time on at Bronto.  I was recently interviewed on this topic where I dig into the importance of communication for leadership and how my early experiences as a teacher helped me refine this skill. You can download the article or read it here:

Joe Colopy tells his secrets to keeping employees informed.

As CEO of one of the fastest growing private companies, Bronto Software’s Joe Colopy says, “It’s hard to understand what it means to be a leader until you’re in a situation where it really matters.”

For Colopy, whose company has grown 200% the past three years, the journey from entrepreneur to CEO of an 80- employee company has meant completely changing his game.

Among other things, he says, he’s had to sharpen his skills when it comes to articulating top- level messages.

EL: How often do you get in front of your employees to communicate?

Colopy: I might have the same conversation 10 times a day, but with different people at different levels. It’s easy to assume, “Oh, everyone’s already heard this, so I don’t need to say it again.” But it never ceases to surprise me how I need to overcommunicate the same story again and again, to tell everyone to pull their oars in the same direction, and let them know that what they’re doing matters, in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.

EL: What cues let you know it’s time for a CEO message?

Colopy: I’ve definitely had “aha moments” when I hear people’s questions or I hear about a decision they’ve made, and I think, “Why would you do that? That makes no sense.” Then I realize, they’re not on the highway. I don’t blame them. It’s just a sign that I haven’t done a good job of articulating the message, or haven’t communicated frequently enough. If I do a good job, I won’t have to address specific cases like that, because these are smart people.

EL: What sort of communication tools do you lean on?

Colopy: One thing I’ve found valuable is posting videos of my past presentations on an internal instrument called Brontopedia, and using them as part of the formal orientation process. It’s a very scalable way to get in front of every new employee for a couple of hours. The videos are a mechanism for communicating exactly what we’re doing and getting everyone on the same page. And it’s very valuable to have that come directly from me. Otherwise, it’s kind of like a game of Telephone, where you lose data every time a message passes through someone’s filter.

EL: Why is this part of the job so hard for so many CEOs?

Colopy: The hard part is taking a complex idea and breaking it down until it’s so simple that anyone can get it. I spend a lot of time boiling down concepts.

Before I started the company, I was a teacher for several years. I taught overseas, where English wasn’t the first language of my students. When you’re a teacher, you can tell when your students aren’t paying attention—and, unlike being a leader, you’re not even paying them to pay attention. So you have to be very good at being clear and straightforward and engaging. And that’s exactly the same skill set you need to be a leader who communicates well.

Doing that every day for years was the best training I could have had.

Bronto, Entrepreneurship

How We Look at Strategy @ Bronto

Communicating strategy is hard. As the company grows and there are more moving pieces, it becomes difficult to keep everyone on the same page. We’re over 50 people now and with this size, we have to use a good framework to describe how we look at our company, our goals, and our strategy.

We base our strategy framework on one from Jim Collins’ Beyond Entrepreneurship. It’s a great book from the same author as Good to Great. Unlike Good to Great, it is a practitioners guide. So if you are running a startup and transitioning into becoming a real business, I highly recommend it.

As for the framework, we focus on four pieces:

  1. Purpose. Why are we in business beyond a paycheck? At Bronto, we are here “to make our customers better marketers through intuitive software and helpful people.” It’s simple. It’s true. It’s a rallying cry that inspires our day to day actions.
  2. Values. What do we stand for? This is newer to the framework and we’re going to spend our Quo Vadimus sessions (internal mixed team who we are / where are we going sessions) in February crystallizing this. We have them. Just a matter of articulating them very clearly. Not always so easy.
  3. Mission. This is what we are shooting for. Multi-year goal. Our mission is “to become the leading ESP around the shopping cart in 2010 with $10mm in revenue.” We’re almost there — at the least on the revenue side. The leading part is unrealistic at $10mm but we have been consistently building toward that direction so I’m happy with that.
  4. Strategy. This is what lets you accomplish the mission. Good strategy says what you are going to do and not do. When you zig and when you zag. We determine this on an annual basis. I just finished presenting this to the company and will explain that process in some future post.

Great strategies win markets. Great strategy frameworks get everyone on the same page, rowing in the same direction at the same cadence so that’s possible. This one has worked for us.

Entrepreneurship

Ximena Hearts Etsy!

Ximena now has a store on Etsy. Here’s how it came about… Ximena is my 7-year old daughter and was born at about the same time that Bronto was founded. In fact, in many ways, her life parallels Bronto’s history. When my wife Karalyn and I became pregnant with her,  I significantly stepped out my efforts to get the company off the ground and registered the domain name brontomail.com. Right before she was born, we moved the company out of my house and into an office. Wise move because as any parent will tell you, newborns and startups don’t mix well! Now their paths cross again.

Ximena is a little entrepreneur — whether it be lemonade, cookies, candles, … If she can make it, she’ll sell from of a table in the front yard. Ever since being read Misty of Chincoteague when she was 5, she has been very motivated to earn enough money to buy a horse. I don’t see a horse purchase any time soon but her motivation is still exciting to watch and encourage. This is where Etsy comes in.

She wanted to extend her reach for her homemade piggy banks beyond the front yard. I told her about Etsy — a great place to buy and sell handcrafts as well as a Bronto client! She was game.

So tonight we set up her own Etsy store. She took pictures of her crafts and wrote the descriptions. I ponied up (like the pun … couldn’t resist) the 20-cent listing fee. Now the store is open and ready for business.

You can find it at ximenacolopy.etsy.com. Check it out and maybe even buy something. The prices are right and she would be thrilled.

Bronto, Entrepreneurship

Hits not Home Runs

Hits not Home Runs …. that’s a common phrase spoken around the halls of Bronto. It speaks to our focus on day-to-day execution versus sky-in-pie schemes to serve our customers and grow the company. Plus it’s catchy.
I was recently interviewed by Alice Bumgarner about this principle and how it applies to innovation. The interview was featured on the IdeaConnection blog. You can read it on their blog or inline below:

Innovative Hits, Not Home Runs
A conversation with Joe Colopy, founder and CEO of Bronto Software
February 13, 2009. By Alice Bumgarner

To stay competitive, Joe Colopy of Bronto Software, an e-mail marketing service provider, must keep innovating – or meet the same fate as his company’s namesake.

In the world of email marketing, what matters is making messages stand out, even as inboxes become more cluttered. To meet the challenge, Bronto relies on a combination of strategically targeted messages on the front end and Google-like analytics on the back end. The company’s software superiority has fueled fast growth: Bronto, whose clients include Johnson & Johnson, Lake Champlain Chocolates and Lending Tree, is growing 50% to 100% every year, and the company is currently tripling its office space.

Alice Bumgarner (AB): What is the importance and the role of innovation at your company, given today’s economic environment?

Joe Colopy: Innovation is essential to Bronto, because we’re in the business of developing and selling technology to solve business problems. In tough times like these, people are moving their marketing dollars to email or online marketing. Those with the best ideas, and those who can implement them well, will win.

AB: How is this role reflected at your workplace?

Joe Colopy: I look at innovation as being about fostering an environment of creativity and collaboration, so you can have a thousand small innovations. From the outside, it may look like something is one big innovation. But that’s a ‘lottery ticket’ view of the world. It’s really about creating an environment that allows little innovations to build upon each other and bubble up. That’s why Google allows [engineers] a lot of free time to come up with their own projects. It’s why 3M famously has a long track record of doing that. That’s what I see as the bedrock of innovation – fostering trust and flexibility and allowing hundreds of small things to happen.

AB: What is the most exciting innovation you’ve been involved in developing? What factors made or make it so exciting?

Joe Colopy: I founded the company and built the first software product, so there were thousands of small innovations that enabled it to be successful. But our current innovation is more in our unique culture than in the end product.

We keep things very focused, collaborative, democratic, unique and creative. For example, we have an extremely open, flat organization. I sit with everyone else – in a crappier seat than other people! We don’t have cubes, just tables clustered in sets of two, three or four in different parts of the room, like little islands.

The downside is that you don’t have privacy, and it has the potential to be distracting. But it actually ends up being more productive in a harder-to-measure way. You can easily dialogue with someone in another group. The physical organization sends an important message – people’s opinions are valued.

AB: What, if any, problem solving, creativity tools or innovation software do you use or are you familiar with?

Joe Colopy: We don’t use any specific tools, but we do structure the environment so that good ideas come from everywhere within the organization.

AB: How do you encourage good ideas to bubble up?

Joe Colopy: Social media tools help spark ideas. Employees use Twitter, Facebook and our internal wiki, called BrontoPedia. At the core of BrontoPedia are our weekly metrics, but it’s also the place for marketing plans, YouTube videos, an RSS feed from our blog, articles that people have tagged from Del.icio.us. It’s a democratic, decentralized approach, as opposed to a top-down approach.

We also set up games to help people feel part of things and collaborate. For example, once a month, we spin a big wheel with 36 spots on it. We end up with two numbers, which correspond to two employees, and those two employees swap spaces for a week to work alongside another team. Now these employees have made some connections and new relationships. So when, say, a salesperson has an idea, he can go to the product manager and talk about [it]. Engineers can go to sales folks and say, “Would this be hard to manage?”

It’s easy to get your head down in your own little world. Innovation and creativity are about connecting things that appear disparate.

AB: Do your innovations ever come from consultants or outside sources?

Joe Colopy: Generally, we don’t use consultants except for some specific functional tasks. I believe that the talent is here, it’s just a matter of tapping into it.

AB: What is the most difficult problem you and/or your team have solved?

Joe Colopy: The challenge has been not so much in solving discrete problems, but in the ambiguity surrounding the problem – in other words, do you even know what the problem is versus the symptoms?

AB: When faced with ambiguity surrounding a problem, how do you and your team clarify it?

Joe Colopy: You have to get people to look at the same thing, otherwise everyone is working with a different set of assumptions. When we hold regular meetings about general strategy – to talk about where we’re going, where we fit into the market, what the next big ideas will be – I give everyone a common framework or a way to look at the market, so we’re all talking about the same thing. Then you can talk about whether your solutions make sense.

AB: When teams are working on a problem or developing a product, and they hit a barrier, what do you recommend?

Joe Colopy: To overcome barriers, it is usually best to involve folks in other areas that can see your problem from a different perspective. We also loop in customers quite a bit, and they offer great perspectives too. We just have to willing to ask, which is sometimes tough to do. It’s easier to move forward without using anyone’s opinion but your own.

AB: What are some of the obstacles that prevent teams from creating innovative products?

Joe Colopy: You can’t be too tightly measured or you’ll measure yourself out of innovation. It’s important to spend some part of your business experimenting. Innovative products are often found in the journey of experimentation. That’s how Bronto started. If you focus too much on having ROI justified at the beginning, then you’ll never go down the path. If the benefit were obvious to everyone from the outset, then it probably wouldn’t be innovative.

AB: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks such as IdeaConnection.com that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?

Joe Colopy: No, I’m not. I am interested in idea communities that companies form with their customers to drive ideas. SalesForce has one that I think is cool, and it’s something that we might implement.

AB: What good books, articles, blogs or other media on the topic of innovation have you read? Are there any that you recommend to employees?

Joe Colopy: Often I get good ideas by reading books and articles about completely different industries. For example, how does Zappos approach customer service? They have a completely different product than us – shoes vs. hosted software – but we have a lot of common approaches. You can find plenty of parallels if you look around.

AB: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about innovation?

Joe Colopy: We have a saying here at Bronto: “Hits not home runs.” I see innovation as being not necessarily one big idea but rather a thousand small ones that lead to something truly great.

Entrepreneurship

Carolina Challenge

Wednesday night I spent judging the semi-finals of the Carolina Challenge. The Carolina Challenge is a startup competition hosted by the Kenan-Flagler Business School and pulls teams from the entire UNC community.
The startups are broken into two groups — commercial and social. I judged three teams from the social side — startups with a strong social mission. As judges, we reviewed the startups’ business plans beforehand and listened to their 15-minute pitch followed with a short Q&A session.

Here are the startups with my quick and dirty analysis.

  • CREW — Proposal to offer an afterschool crew program to an underserved Durham public high school. Noble idea but the logistics, upfront costs, and the student team’s light experience on the requisite operations.
  • Optimal Learning — Startup that merges a biofeedback mouse with software to lessen test taking anxiety for teenagers. More promising and business plan was well thought out. Biggest risk is startup run as a research project versus business.
  • Macedonian eLearning Center — Online website / community to teach the Macedonian language. Lots of passion and interest by the founders but fundamentally challenging because the potential market is very small.
  • Peace Umbrellas — Startup selling umbrellas painted with a peace sign and sunflower. Although the management team come across as some quirky folks, I can see success of this company succeeding. Founders seem gritty enough to tough out the hardships of starting a company, see their product and business evolve, and build a strong genuine and unique brand over time … over a long time. Bit reminiscent of the folksy roots of Ben & Jerry’s or Burt’s Bees. But, there are a lot of ifs there.

After all the votes were tallied, Optimal Learning and CREW moved onto the next round. We’ll see where it goes it from here. In the end, a startup’s success (especially non VC-backed ones) is very dependent on the drive and persistence of its founder(s). I suspect that if any of these startups go anywhere then persistence will be the reason.

The finals for the competition are April 19th with prizes of $15,000 for the best commercial and social venture. As a past supporter of Dukakis and Mondale, I have a unfortunate history of always backing the wrong horse. Hopefully, this time it’ll be different.