Christian has bootstrapped SurveyGizmo to $13 million from Boulder, Colorado. He has experimented with both freemium and free trial, and has managed to monetize nicely. Read more about the strategies that have worked for him.
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?
Christian Vanek: I’m from upstate New York originally. I was born in 1977. Honestly, I moved around quite a bit. I never went to the same high school for more than a couple of years. In the end, I ended up in Massachusetts. After high school, I had no idea what to do with my life. I was not the best student ever. The beginning of my journey was probably when I decided to do a year of service for AmeriCorps as part of an urban peace corps that had started in Boston and spread around the United States. Through working in the homeless shelter there and building a software package to help manage clothing and service distribution, I got my hands dirty and started getting the bug of building software for other people.
Sramana Mitra: When was this happening?
Christian Vanek: That was 1995. I was 18. I wanted to take a gap year before college. AmeriCorps gave me a nice stipend to try college. Afterwards, I did try college, but I immediately dropped out.
Sramana Mitra: What did you do when you dropped out of college?
Christian Vanek: My mother decided to kick me out of the house if I couldn’t get a job and start making some money. Not knowing exactly what to do, I decided to temp. I found this great organization in Hanover called DCI that was doing data warehousing and computer education. I worked in their travel services group that was into conference and travel services. This was now 1997, I believe.
I worked there for about half a year before realizing that the work that they had me do was routine and I could probably write a piece of software that would do most of what I was doing. I did that. They hired me full-time at that point and gave me the latitude to build whatever software I could in order to optimize their business processes. That was the beginning of my career.
Sramana Mitra: That was your first job?
Christian Vanek: Yes, that was my first job.
Sramana Mitra: How long did you stay there?
Christian Vanek: I stayed there for about a year and a half before their parent company decided to offer me a job as a web developer on their marketing team. I actually liked that job a lot. We were working for a travel company. My responsibility was transposing credit card numbers to fax them to hotels to make reservations blocks for this conference company. It was mind numbingly tedious.
Actually, building software that would do that automatically and network from all of the travel agents together and automatically transmit it to the hotel and enter the information into the American Airline system was a lot of fun. If they had known what I was doing, I probably would have been stopped. Back then, we pretty much had the freedom to do whatever we wanted.