C.S. Lewis once said experience is the “most brutal of teachers”. In the world of aspiring entrepreneurs, experience is all to be gained—making a seemingly painful journey ahead. However, Dr. Seuss also said something quite astute, “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” In an effort to extract and apply the wisdom from both, we wanted to begin an Entrepreneur Spotlight Series where experience and discovery meet. To kick off we sat down with Steve Russell, Co-founder and COO of CityGro, a Software as a Service (SAAS) company with a suite of tools designed to help businesses build relationships by automating communication with customers.
What inspired the idea of CityGro?
A few friends and I discovered that there is a real pain point that exists for business owners who don’t have the time or resources to develop relationships and effectively communicate with their customers. It was a problem that appeared time and time again. Jon Parrish (Co-founder and CEO) once asked a grocery store owner why they threw away hundreds of dollars’ worth of food each day. Their response was that they didn’t have a good way to communicate the items’ sharp discount with their customers.
We faced this same challenge when we were in Student Government at Utah State University. We were charged with the task of putting on extravagant parties and activities for the student body. It was always frustrating when we would hear students say there was nothing to do on a Friday night. We didn’t have the tools (outside of littering the campus with flyers the week before) to communicate the invitation to students.
After discovering that we had a pain in the marketplace worth solving, the excitement of entrepreneurship sank in. Businesses needed tools to collect the data necessary to communicate with customers and we were committed to finding the solution. Our flagship product is now the iPad Kiosk, which helps businesses with foot traffic interact with clients and ultimately build marketing networks of up to 35,000 customers. When our clients want and need to market via email or SMS, they now are able to do so.
How did you pursue this project?
Often people have great ideas. Sometimes those great ideas turn into a clear vision, but rarely do those visions turn into action. I remember sitting in a room with Jon when we decided to put $25,000 of our own money into a bank account. At that moment we were all in--there was no turning back. We were students in college at the time and knew that there was no better time to take a risk.
From there, we began hitting the pavement to visit businesses. We walked in with our laptops in hand (before the days of iPads) to sell businesses on the idea and convince them to sign up. Once we had enough businesses interested, we released the product.
What lesson resonates most since starting CityGro?
The biggest lesson we learned is that there is no such thing as an overnight success. There will be mistakes and there will be setbacks. Understanding that before pursuing an idea will give you the motivation to keep on going when times are tough. As you look back at all the great companies, including those that “seem” like overnight successes, you will always find a roller coaster story of hardships, mistakes, and obstacles. It is those who understand that obstacles are a necessary part of the process that are better equipped to overcome them.
The entrepreneurship roller coaster can be quite the ride. One tip that has helped me is to hear the stories of other entrepreneurs. They have all been on the roller coaster before and eventually figured it out. I listen to either an audible book or podcast with entrepreneurship as the topic on my commute to and from work each day.
Is there anything you wish your team had done differently?
That’s a tough question to answer. It’s easy to look back and say I would change this and that, but ultimately I would hate to give up the knowledge we gained from making our many mistakes. If I had to choose a lesson I wish we had learned earlier, it would be to establish a company culture. Doing so ensures that employees live and breathe the company’s vision, mission, and core values. When employees understand these things about the company they work for, it empowers them to perform their job better. They no longer feel the pressure to ask if certain decisions (they are in charge of making) fit the vision. Empowerment increases efficiency exponentially.
Today we have a great company culture that reflects our core values. It affects all the decisions we make from hiring to marketing and product development. It’s an important piece to the entrepreneurial puzzle.
What academic class or subject do you think is the best preparation for the entrepreneurial world?
This is a question that I think all three founders of CityGro would answer in a different way. Jon graduated in Communications where he learned the skills necessary to be great at sales, public speaking, and persuasion. Ben, an Engineer, could list quite a few Computer Science classes worth taking. I graduated with an MBA and undergraduate degree in Marketing. Each subject has given us the tools necessary to wear several hats in the company.
What is your advice for young students and/or entrepreneurs pursuing a venture?
Pivot, pivot, and then pivot again. The greatest advantage that a young entrepreneur has is the ability to adapt quickly. Bigger businesses fight for the ability to be quick and nimble, but the reality is that it is almost impossible for them to do so. If your current product isn’t performing as well as you would like, talk to your customers and learn how to adapt.
CityGro has always had the same mission “to create the best relationships between businesses and their customers”. However, we started off with a completely different product and company name. As BlueCache, we had a website where consumers paid memberships to gain access to hundreds of exclusive offers posted by local companies. We learned quickly that acquiring hundreds of businesses and thousands of consumers in every demographic area would be a tough model to scale.
We have now moved to a B2B model and provide businesses with software to connect with customers. While I don’t believe we will need to make a major pivot like before, we continue to conduct product experiments with our customers and adjust accordingly.
Want to learn more? Visit CityGro's website here.