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A Serial Entrepreneur’s Awesome Journey from Austin, Texas: Jason Cohen, CTO of WP Engine (Part 1)

Posted on Tuesday, May 31st 2016

Jason has done three bootstrapped startups, sold two of those, and then bootstrapped a fourth one to heavy duty venture financing.

This is a great interview with a pro who knows what he is doing at many levels.

Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised and in what kind of background?

Jason Cohen: I was born and raised in Austin, Texas. Austin, of course, is a popular place to be. It’s about 20 million people in the surrounding area. When I was born, it was 10 times smaller. I had jobs in high school. I was an intern at Aerospace writing code in their R&D department. I worked throughout college at local startups at Austin. Right after that, I started a consulting company. The consulting company and the next three companies were all bootstrapped and got over $1 million in revenue. Two of them were sold. For about 20 years, I’ve been doing startups and never worked at a huge company.

Sramana Mitra: Let’s talk a little bit granular. What did you study in college?

Jason Cohen: Computer Science. I actually got a BA instead of a BS which allowed me to get a lot more classes outside of the Computer Science discipline. I feel you learn useful things with a Computer Science degree, but the practical experience of developing software both in the technical and the product aspect is not something you learn in school. It was actually nice to take the opportunity to learn other things that are intellectual and useful.

Sramana Mitra: I actually did Computer Science and Economics as my majors but I went to a liberal arts college so I have a very broad liberal arts education, which I really believe in. It’s on the threat right now.

Jason Cohen: Yes, people don’t value a Liberal Arts education like they should. The general attitude is it’s not useful. Of course, that’s completely not true because it teaches you to think and communicate about all kinds of things and understand more of the world. There’s no way that those things are not useful in the development of a good citizen of the world.

Sramana Mitra: After your college education, you said you started several consulting companies in a bootstrap mode and two were sold. Just briefly walk us through what those companies were and what was the premise of each of the companies. When they were sold, what was the attraction for the acquirer to buy those companies?

Jason Cohen: It was just one consulting company. The rest was software and hardware. The first one was a consulting company called Sheer Genius with my co-founder. We were doing software for cross-platform development in C. If you wanted to write very fast applications in a low-level language like C, but also have it run on Mac, Windows, and different forms of Unix, we have a library that you could do that with.

It turns out that it was hard to sell the library but it was not hard to find consulting jobs in which using a library would be useful. We ended up getting a million dollar a year consulting contract with a public company in Houston called Neon. They could really monetize the product that we built for them. That’s where that ended up.

Sramana Mitra: What year was this?

Jason Cohen: This was in the late 90s and early 2000s. As the bubble crashed, that was the end of doing things like that. The person that we hired as the CEO of Sheer Genius, Gerry Cullen, began a company called ITWatchDogs. I ended up joining that as a co-founder. ITWatchDogs made server room climate monitors. This was a hardware device of which I wrote the software. Believe it or not, we bootstrapped this hardware company which is very hard.

Sramana Mitra: How did you do that?

Jason Cohen: Gerry had some money from a previous company that he did. He put in that money and we got a revolving line of credit with a local bank. It’s a large bank in Texas but it doesn’t have an international presence. That’s how we were able to finance it. We have a rule of thumb about how we sold things.

This segment is part 1 in the series : A Serial Entrepreneur’s Awesome Journey from Austin, Texas: Jason Cohen, CTO of WP Engine
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