Among my friends, family, and neighbors, it’s a well-known fact that I can often be found on Sunday afternoon in my kitchen making cookies. But not just any cookie. An oatmeal, chocolate chip, coconut cookie that I have been perfecting for over 20 years. And in the name of truth, I hereby swear that they are fairly spectacular.
Early on in my cookie years, I explored alternative ingredients and variations on the recipe. But after I dialed it all in, I realized that there was just no reason to deviate from the script. I realized that if I used the very best ingredients and stuck to the recipe, culinary goodness would happen.
The Cookie Commentary
Sharing my cookies makes me happy. But sharing usually starts a conversation that goes something like this:
Them: “These are really good. What else do you make?”
Me: “Nothing. I am an unashamed one-trick pony.”
Them: “How about a macaroon, snickerdoodle, or sugar cookie?”
Me: “No. This is all I do.”
Them: “How about peanut butter, regular chocolate chip, or oatmeal raisin?”
Me: “No. Raisins in cookies are why I have trust issues.”
Them: “So you just do one thing and try to do it as well as you can?”
Me: “Yes. This recipe works. These ingredients work. I just execute.”
In my experience, this simple lesson also applies to building companies. Dial in the recipe. Get the highest quality ingredients. Execute.
Getting the Recipe Right
I love startups. I love the challenge. I love the chaos. I love the creative experience of building something from nothing. It’s all incredibly hard, but addicting…and I am an addict. In my startup journey, like my cookie experience, I have learned that the recipe matters. A lot.
I have founded and built three companies in metro Phoenix. My first startup, Core3, was a successful financial services outsourcing company, which I founded in 2001 and sold in 2006. Shortly after selling Core3, I launched my second startup: Boomerang Capital Partners. It was a boutique private equity firm that grew to over $50 million in assets before I sold it. In 2011, I launched CampusLogic. We are a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company focused on transforming the student financial aid industry (and mostly crushing it).
Every Startup Recipe Varies Slightly
The startup recipe is slightly different for every company depending on the product, industry, customer profile, competitive dynamics, etc. For example, CampusLogic, which sells to the 7,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., has a very different marketing recipe than fellow Phoenix growth company Tuft & Needle. Tuft and Needle focuses on selling amazing mattresses to tens of millions of individual consumers. Every startup needs to find and refine its recipe early on, or it will fail to scale.
Phoenix: A Generous Startup Hub
One thing I love about Metro-Phoenix is the generosity and accessibility of the startup community. I know that if I am struggling with a particular problem in my business, I can talk to other founders/CEOs who will give me an hour here or there to help me evaluate and perhaps modify my recipe. And I try to do the same.
In 2013, we were struggling to get the CampusLogic product right. We had customer contracts in hand and knew there was demand for our idea, but our beta version was truly lousy and definitely not scalable. My team was ill-equipped for the task at hand. We were low on cash, low on ideas, and nearing empty on morale. It was a truly lonely, white-knuckle, dry-heave-every-morning, sleepless period of my life.
In the Summer of 2013, my wife, who has always been an amazing and wise partner, told me that I needed to find someone who could give me real advice. Someone who had done it before and experienced what I was experiencing right then. Someone who could tell me about his or her recipe so that I could be inspired to make changes to mine. That was great advice—and ended up being a pivotal moment for me and CampusLogic.
The Power of Shared Experiences
I called the CEO and co-founder of Infusionsoft, Clate Mask. I didn’t know Clate but I knew Infusionsoft was one of the most successful software companies in Arizona. Because Clate had told his startup story publicly, I also knew that Infusionsoft had experienced some really rough patches in the early days of the company, not all that dissimilar to what I was going through. Clate is a busy guy, but he is sympathetic to the challenges facing software founders and he willingly agreed to meet with me.
I didn’t ask him for anything other than to tell me about the early days at Infusionsoft. I wanted to hear about the good, bad, and ugly. I wanted to hear about the changes and moves he made to get it right. In short, I wanted to hear how he refined his recipe.
While CampusLogic and Infusionsoft are very different businesses, it was so insightful to hear his lessons learned about getting people and product right. Clate was honest about his failures and misses in the early days. He was encouraging and inspiring. I left his office that day resolved to get the CampusLogic recipe right. And eventually, we did.
Since that day in 2013 I have found that this generosity is quite pervasive in the Phoenix startup community. I’ve met with Matt Pittinsky, CEO of Parchment, to get his advice on pricing strategies in education technology. I’ve consulted with Brad Jannenga, co-founder and Chairman of WebPT, to talk about the challenges of scaling a vertical SaaS company. I solicited advice from Hamid Shojaee, founder of Axosoft and PureChat, about recruiting strategies to attract engineering talent. I have learned about tapping into the local angel investor community from Mario Martinez, a highly successful entrepreneur and the most active angel investor in Arizona. All of these people, conversations, insights—and many more—have helped us get our recipe right. I think this generosity is unique, and I love Phoenix for that.
Sometimes my kids will ask me, “Dad, are you making the cookie magic happen today?” And before I answer, I always check the pantry. For starters, if I don’t have Guittard Milk Chocolate Chips, the answer is, “No, not until I go to Safeway.” Sure, I can get Nestle, Hershey’s or even Ghirardelli at the neighborhood Walmart a mile away from my house. But only Safeway, about five miles away, has Guittard…and Guittard Milk Chocolate Chips are at least 10X more delicious than anything else. If that makes me a chocolate chip snob, then I accept that label. No matter how good your recipe is, the final product is never going to be awesome if the quality of the ingredients isn’t the best. And why bother with anything less than awesome?
I hear the word “ecosystem” a lot. Probably too much. To me, a better word is ingredients. And I like the startup ingredients that are here in Arizona, especially in certain sectors. For example, the quality ingredients needed to build an education technology company are here in abundance.
On the higher education front, the Phoenix area is home to Arizona State University (ASU), recently named the most innovative university in the country by US News and World Report. Several years ago, ASU partnered with GSV Capital (now a CampusLogic investor) to launch the ASU-GSV Summit, which quickly has become the biggest education technology conference in the world. Ingredients like this have created a robust and thriving education technology community in Arizona (see EdTechAZ for more).
Sometimes I hear people lament that there aren’t enough of ‘certain ingredients’ needed to be successful here. Not enough capital. Not enough big ideas. Not enough engineering talent. In my experience, these things aren’t universally true. However, if there is a missing ingredient here or there, it’s our responsibility as entrepreneurs to do whatever it takes to source what we need for our companies to be successful. Great entrepreneurs are always resourceful.
The success of CampusLogic has been primarily driven by the quality of our ingredients—our people. For starters, I have a great leadership team, some of whom I found here in Arizona and some of whom I recruited from out-of-state. Heather Dunn, my VP of Marketing, Chris Horne, my VP of Finance, Chris Boyster, my VP of Sales, and Jason Saunders, my VP of Engineering, were all spectacular local recruits with the exact skills and experience CampusLogic needed. Chris Chumley, my Chief Operating Officer, had the exact skill set, values, and experience we needed to build our category-creating product so I recruited him from Denver. Chrisy Woll, my VP of Customer Success, had the exact experience we needed to scale our customer success function, so I recruited her from a software company in Utah. Amy Glynn, my VP of Community, had the exact combination of technology and financial aid industry experience we needed so we recruited her from New Mexico.
This is the best team I have ever worked with. Great people committed to our purpose of helping schools change lives. I love the talent base here in Phoenix, but I am also completely committed to going outside of my pantry, or even the nearby grocery store, if the recipe calls for it. No matter how good the recipe is, nothing tastes good without quality ingredients.
Cookies don’t make themselves and neither do great growth companies. The generosity of the Phoenix tech community, the quality of the talent here, and our ability to attract outside talent into the region are big contributors to CampusLogic’s success to date. I am so appreciative of all of those things, but I also know that our future success is hardly assured. Building a company that achieves lasting success always requires consistent execution against a unique recipe that has been refined over time and uses high-quality ingredients. That’s how delicious happens.
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