Bob Ogdon is an entrepreneur and executive technology and business professional with 40 years of experience in the multimedia market. Bob founded Swiftpage, the maker of Act! and a leading provider of software and services that help small and mid-sized businesses grow, and currently serves as chairman of the board for the CRM leader. In total, Bob has founded four different companies in the technology space and is an advocate for technology education and entrepreneurs in Colorado. Bob is a longtime advisor to the board of the Colorado Technology Association (CTA) and acted as the 2008 Board Chair. He was awarded the Bob Newman Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Community in 2005, as well as the Technology Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011 by the CTA.
Tell me about your early career.
I’ve dedicated my career to building a series of companies. Swiftpage is my fourth business. I started by building a video game company back in the early ‘80s. My model has always been to think about what’s going to happen five years down the road, and then build that. Hopefully, I’ll find myself sitting there with all the goods when everybody shows up. It comes down to a few cycles. The first was video gaming. Second, was the CD-ROM industry, building CD products, as technology became a very big deal in the early ‘90s. I eventually sold that business to The Washington Post and became the head of interactive technology for that division. Then, we built technology around web conferencing, sort of like what WebEx is today. I helped pioneer that industry and secured a patent for our technology. The Dotcom Bubble came and disrupted my plans for that business. Then, my next chapter was the company we are in now, Swiftpage.
How did the concept for Swiftpage come about?
We were thinking about the small business market. We really wanted to serve the small business customer, and build products for them. In 2003, there was a law passed by Bush called the CAN-SPAM act and it pretty much set out laws regarding how you can send out marketing emails. So, we wanted to allow small businesses to have the proper technology to run email marketing campaigns. The whole concept of creating an email to be very graphical, almost like a webpage, was all new. So, we built Swiftpage as an email marketing company for the first ten years.
How was the first year in business?
You can ask my wife. She’ll tell you that she didn’t like that I didn’t get a paycheck. In order to start a business, one of the first things you have to do is establish a vision of what you want to build. You really can’t raise capital until you have a product. We also made a decision, my partner and I, that we wanted to hire our children into the business, as we wanted to create an opportunity for them to come and work for us, which affected our ability to raise capital. So, that conscious decision of not raising capital and getting a product built—and wanting our children to come and work for us—forced us to self-fund the business, and led to us going the first two years without paychecks. Those are hard things to do, but that’s how you build a business from scratch in that scenario.
What was your marketing strategy?
One of the things we look at when we create our marketing strategy is that it’s very difficult to reach small businesses. The customer acquisition costs are quite high. If you’re an enterprise or mid-market product, you know your targets, but SMB’s are more like a consumer sale. We decided that we would take an indirect market channel path. We looked at who was the biggest SMB market channel provider we could partner with, and we picked a company called Act! which is a CRM software for small businesses that’s been around for over 30 years now. They had the largest base of small business users, so we chose that as our go-to-market strategy, and we built our solutions to work inside of Act!. Act! is relied on by hundreds of thousands of SMB customers who use it every day to manage their small business sales process. They love it but it was missing an email marketing solution. We eventually got them to white-label us and put our software in every copy of Act!. We achieved significant growth and had really great success with that path. The other path is that they had over 600 resellers, who installed and trained business users on Act!. We gave every reseller a copy of our software for free, allowing them to train with it and incorporate it into their businesses. Soon after, they turned around and said they needed to have it, so they pushed Act! management to put it into the product. It really helped us launch and get some traction. We leveraged their marketing.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Agonizingly slow. We’re a low cost subscription-based model, so it took a long time to build. The nice thing is that it’s recurring, so you keep your customers and they keep paying you, but it is a slow but steady build. Then, something happened that accelerated everything. The company Sage, that owned Act! at the time, chose to sell Act! and we offered to buy it from them, so we went from 30 to 330 employees within a day. So, that was a dramatic growth-spurt to happen all at once.
How do you define success?
For me, a key measure of success is providing something that people will use and build their businesses with. Developing tools that will help small business grow and expand their businesses was our target. Doing that is very satisfying. The next chapter is creating value for our shareholders. They measure success in how much you have increased the value of their investment. In the middle of that, success for all entrepreneurs is building their employee base and getting people to involve themselves in the business over the long-run, allowing them to build long-term relationships. Even though some people may move on, you still have built that successful part of their lives and you played an important role in their career.
What is the key to achieving success?
You’ve got to be people-oriented to be an entrepreneur because you can’t do it alone. So, you have to build a team and be a leader, and people have to believe in you. There are times when things aren’t obvious to everybody, difficult times, and you have to get through it. You have to be persistent and consistent and not give up and have people believe that you’re never going to lose and that you’re going to lead them into something that’s better for them. That’s the key. That people component.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Timing. When you’re building businesses, so much depends on timing. Your company can be worth a significant amount and you can have a successful exit or you can have a valuable role but the market can be tremendously different than where you are. You have to move fast and have successful transactions, like my sale to The Washington Post. I’m also a recipient of the crash in 2009. I had a few hundred people working for me and we had two offers to buy us. We had value-creation and growth, but then the market crashed and it took that opportunity away for that particular business at the level we were anticipating.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Persistence” and “never giving up.” You have to just hang in there when it gets hard. I live on the optimistic of the side of the equation. The glass is half full and not half empty.
What are some of your favorite books?
I read a lot of fiction. I don’t read a lot of business books. I like the break, because I’m in business all day, every day. I read a lot of adventure and thriller books. Grisham, Baldacci, and Corben are a few of the thriller authors I like.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There’s no question, that, for me, the hardest day was when I had one of my businesses and we had a big company approve a large financing for us all the way to the board and then it was cancelled at the board because of public issues they had. At that point in time, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to grow, so I had to lay off a group of people in my business. So, just that whole issue of hiring people, growing people, and then getting into a position where you had to go back to some of your team and tell them you don’t have a job for them anymore.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I’m blessed to have a very supportive family, and I’ve always built businesses with partners. The business partner and the family have to believe in you, and you have to seek a balance when you work so hard and when you get into these difficult situations—that’s how you tough through it. You should not be an entrepreneur if you don’t believe you’re always going to come through it, no matter what. You always have to have that mindset, even if it’s tough, that you’re going to come through it and be better for it.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Probably the most important advice is don’t run out of cash. Entrepreneurs often start doing things too quickly. You need to really think things through, as far as how you’re going to finance your way from Point A to Point B. That’s hard to understand until you’ve been through it. Young entrepreneurs just think that the invention is going to work and they’re going to rock and roll and they won’t have delays or setbacks. That’s just not the case.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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