Every year, Ernst and Young recognizes innovative business leaders through their Entrepreneur of the Year program. Of the 24 Utah region finalists, almost half of them are based in Utah County. This series highlights the nominated CEOs and company founders. The winner of the Utah regional Entrepreneur of the Year contest will be announced in June.
Eric Farr and John Wade, principal executives, BrainStorm
In 2002, friends Eric Farr and John Wade acquired BrainStorm, a then seven-year-old company in need of a “turnaround.” The original company was a training services company, which sent people around the country, essentially, to teach classroom-style courses.
Upon acquiring the company, they immediately sold the location and moved into Farr’s parents basement, taking turns answering phone calls from people the company owed money to.
“Often, the phone would ring and it was almost like, ‘OK, your turn, I had to take the last call,” Farr said.
When you turnaround a company, Wade added, when the phone rings it’s only bad. Looking back on the experience, however, they remember those early days fondly and appreciate how much they learned.
“I think in a startup you start at level ground, ground zero. In a turnaround, you’re in a hole a little bit,” Wade said. “We thought it was a great opportunity. It’s turned out to be.”
Not that he would necessarily advise others to do the same thing, Wade clarified.
One of the things that was important to both Farr and Wade from the beginning, they said, was building a company “culture.”
“We’ve been talking about culture since way before it was vogue,” Farr said. “I think a lot of (people) mistake culture for perks. Perks does not equal culture. Perks may be a portion of it, but culture’s really what drives the decision-making and how we interact with each other and how we’re going to, to what lengths we’ll go to service a customer.”
It’s not easy to do, Wade said, because a commitment to culture is always tested. Their commitment to their customers was tested early on while they were still running their business from a basement. At the time, they were selling training manuals, and their single employee, a salesperson, made a sale to a customer in Scotland. On a Thursday, days before the materials were supposed to arrive, they learned they would be arriving too late for the customer to use.
“I don’t know whose fault it was, I don’t know if it was anybody’s fault,” Wade said, “but the client’s expectation wasn’t going to be met and that’s not ... how we wanted to work with folks.”
They called up every delivery service they could think of, but finally realized there was only one solution: get on a plane to Scotland and pack the materials as luggage. Farr was the lucky, or unlucky, person to go. He delivered the materials and hopped right back on a plane for his return trip.
“The client couldn’t believe it, and for us it felt like, that’s just how we’re going to do things,” Wade said. “We weren’t eager to do it, but we were committed to do it.”
Unsurprisingly, they lost money on that particular deal. But, Wade said, they gained something else: that customer in Scotland became a loyal customer, and even a “top five” customer, for the next several years, because they knew BrainStorm could be relied on to deliver, even in the most literal sense.
Farr and Wade shared an office back in the early days of their company out of necessity. Now, 17 years later, they still do.
“Our partnership is unique,” Farr said. “It comes down to a couple things. One is, we are absolutely 100% aligned on values.”
Most people, Farr explained, choose their partners based on skill sets. But that’s not how you choose your spouse, Farr said, so why choose your business partner that way?
“You choose your spouse based on values, and you should choose your business partner based on those core values too.”
The second thing, Farr said, is he and Wade are friends first and business partners second. They have each other’s backs no matter what, he said.
“We’d much rather go out of business the right way, and doing the right things, and doing right by each other, then to stay in business the wrong way,” Farr said.
Although Farr and Wade have been nominated for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, in the continued spirit of their partnership, they believe the team and employees of BrainStorm are the ones that deserve recognition.
“We’re surrounded by a team that does most everything,” Farr said. Wade added, “You want to lead from the front on certain areas, but you have to get out of the way and sort of let it be a team win or a group win. It’s just the only way ... to reach your potential.”
Learn more about BrainStorm by visiting its website, https://www.brainstorminc.com.
Eric Rea, co-founder and CEO, and Dennis Steele, co-founder and CSO, Podium
Eric Rea and Dennis Steel first met as students at BYU, and although they were studying different things — engineering for Rea and marketing for Steele — they both knew, even then, that they wanted to start their own company.
They came up with a lot of bad ideas, Steele said, before the idea for Podium.
Podium is a platform that enable local businesses to interact with their customers, employees and even other businesses all under one proverbial roof. Rea explained Podium helps businesses act a little more like Amazon, Uber or Airbnb, where customers can message businesses through texting or social media and continue their entire experience on that platform. Podium also powers businesses to do mobile payments, schedule appointments and get reviews and feedback.
“With Podium you can literally just open your phone, start a conversation via messaging ... and (the business) can just respond when they get into work,” Rea said.
The idea for Podium came from individual experiences. Steele was working for a local business, managing their online reviews by trying to respond to customers who left reviews manually, and he said connecting to customers was just difficult. Also, Rea’s father owns a tire shop back in Canada and experienced the same kinds of frustration when trying to connect with customers.
“That was a key piece in helping us see the problem,” Steele said.
Once they had the idea, they began a coding camp at DevMountain, where they took classes for three months from 6 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. During the day, they would drive to different parts of Utah and go door-to-door, trying to sell businesses on their idea.
The first business they sold to was Honest 1 Auto in Provo, before they even had a working product. Steele said the owner signed up to buy the product, believing it would work, and is still a customer today, four years later. That business owner’s belief in them, Steele said, helped a lot in the early days when they also faced a lot of negativity and pessimism from others.
Now, they have a working product they say people love.
“It helps these businesses be more successful,” Rea said. “That I think is the bottom line.”
It’s likely what has led the four-year-old company to grow from just Rea and Steele working out of Rea’s apartment, to eight people working above a bike shop in Provo with no heat, AC or Wi-Fi, to their own building with over 500 employees — and a soon-to-be-built second building.
“We had so many people tell us early on that what we were going to do wasn’t going to work, or tell us that small business was a bad customer to sell to,” Rea said. “It’s just a good thing that we didn’t listen to all of the people that kind of doubted us in the beginning.”
Their new building will include a daycare catering to employees with kids from “infants to pre-K,” inspired by something Rea remembered reading years ago about a company that offered the same thing.
“I remember thinking that was so cool,” Rea said. “That to me is one of the coolest things we’ve been able to do with the success we’ve had, is make Podium an awesome place for everybody to work, regardless of whether you’re a single mom, single dad, (or) both parents work.”
Learn more about Podium by visiting its website, https://www.podium.com.