Published: February 19, 2014
Vance Brown realized he had the entrepreneurial bug when he was an intellectual property lawyer for entrepreneurs in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. He loved their passion and their "change-the-world philosophy." After moving to Colorado in the mid-'90s, he went to work for Bendata (now FrontRange), a company that provided software to manage IT help desks, and eventually became its CEO. He left in 2000 to start a nonprofit but couldn't stay away from the software industry for long. In 2004, he and his partners began developing the platform for Cherwell Software, an IT service management software company. Three years later, the company began selling its product and realized rapid growth.
Question: What is Cherwell and how is it not just another help desk solution?
Answer: Cherwell started out as merely a help desk product for IT departments to manage their support calls. We saw other solutions in the market that did the same thing, but they were all about (responding to emergencies), so we wanted to fix that. The real goal was to make the IT department a business partner, a strategic adviser at the CEO roundtable, by giving them phenomenal tools to be more successful for every department.
What happened was, because our product is fairly configurable, about 40 percent of our customers starting using the original product for external customer support. Then the sales team wanted to connect and, of course, the account managers wanted to know when a customer was upset. So it's morphed into a type of mission control dashboard. We use it to pull up all the indicators of how the company is doing, from revenue to new business, how we're doing direct versus our partner channel, and analyzing opportunities in the pipeline.
Q: You had already run a successful software company at Bendata. Why start over from scratch?
A: I left the company because we were owned by venture capitalists and eventually a South African public company. They were all about the money, and it was very difficult to manage with them turning the dials. When my former chief architect, Arlen Feldman, decided to leave Bendata, we got together over lunch and talked about whether we should do this again. We started thinking about the idea of building a product from the ground up, using the latest technology in a field we knew very well, and it felt very appealing. We wanted it to be about more than just the money - building a great company, building a great product, taking care of your customers and taking care of your employees.
Q: How fast has Cherwell grown?
A: We've been growing astronomically. We grew 93 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012 to the fourth quarter of 2013. We had 40 employees in 2012; now we're over 150.
Q: How did you build the company without acquiring debt?
A: We bootstrapped it ourselves with our own money. We wanted to do it that way because it builds good fundamentals. My partner Tim Pfeifer and I worked other jobs while Arlen was designing the platform. I don't believe in borrowing a bunch of money or getting the venture capitalists involved. I like having to be creative to go figure out a solution rather than throwing money at it. By building this way, it gives us such flexibility to survive the test of time.
Cherwell did take on Insight Venture Partners, a venture capital partner, in late 2012. The purpose was to have access to funding . to stay competitive. Insight has a minor interest in Cherwell.
Q: What's your biggest challenge moving forward?
A: I've heard people say you can't have a great technology company in Colorado Springs because the resources aren't here. That's the mentality we hope to change. We used to be called "Silicon Mountain," and I'd like to get that back. I love the fact that the leadership in Colorado Springs has a vision to be more than a nonprofit hub and a military hub. It's going to take business, government and university united together to make this a great community, provide great jobs and attract the Internet generation to want to be here.
Q: What advice would you offer other entrepreneurs?
A: No. 1, it's about the people that you're with. At the end of the day, I don't care how great your technology is. It's going to be implemented, supported and cared for by people. So surround yourself with great people.
Q: Do you have a personal formula for success?
A: You need the eyes to see a void in the world, the wisdom to determine if it's something you can really solve, the courage to go try to solve it with perseverance and grit to get through the rough spots, and to surround yourself with the people who can help you get there.
Edited for space and clarity.