Tod Browndorf, CEO of Coggno, has built an interesting online education company focused on specific niche course types. Read on to learn more.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your personal journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Tod Browndorf: Wow! We’re really going way back. I’m originally from the east coast. I was born in South Carolina but was raised in New York and New Jersey for most of my life. I lost my father when I was 10 and a half years old. I started working very early in life. He was in the manufacturing business. I started working early through school. I travelled the world pretty extensively. I lived in Australia for quite a while. I lived in the Middle East and eventually started my career in Finance. I started off as a trader on Wall Street, then later here in San Francisco.
Sramana Mitra: What did you do for school?
Tod Browndorf: I went to Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Sramana Mitra: So you spent four years in Australia.
Tod Browndorf: Yes.
Sramana Mitra: What prompted that?
Tod Browndorf: A girl.
Sramana Mitra: Girls are great reasons to do all kinds of things.
Tod Browndorf: I ended up in Australia, which was a wonderful place when I was there. It was a great place to live. If I knew then what I know now, I would have stayed because it was a very easy lifestyle there. I don’t know if you know anything about Australia but people take it a little bit slower there.
Sramana Mitra: Compared to Silicon Valley, most of the world takes a very slow pace.
Tod Browndorf: That’s very true.
Sramana Mitra: You did some years of banking and trading in New York. What years were those?
Tod Browndorf: I’m probably older than some of your entrepreneurs. Probably 1982 to 1987 in New York and in California. Ultimately, I didn’t find the industry very satisfying. There’s an enormous potential to make lots of money, but you really have to have a specific drive to solely make lots of money. That wasn’t a pretty big interest of mine.
Everybody likes to have money but I didn’t find it very rewarding. That may make me sound trite. I’m not trying to give any negative connotation to the word greed. Just the desire to accumulate money is greed, but I just didn’t have that fire to want to do that every single day.
Sramana Mitra: Very unsatisfying actually. That industry for a lot of people is very unsatisfying. Anybody who has even a grain of other motivation besides making truckloads of money finds it dead—soulless.
Tod Browndorf: Definitely. There were lots of bad influences also. That was also a very unhealthy lifestyle. I didn’t find it satisfying. Then I met my wife who I’m married to now—not the Australian. I have a long background.
Sramana Mitra: Go on. I’ll bring you back to this one shortly. Keep going.
Tod Browndorf: She has a background in art and design. We decided that we would open up a manufacturing business where we decided to manufacture jewellery, scarves, pajamas, and all sorts of houseware. These were all priced between $5 and $20. We started that business and ended up having a manufacturing plant in India. I went to India many times. It got to be a big deal.
My father had been in manufacturing and I was an Economics major. I always thought that if you own the means of production, you always control things. That’s what they teach you in economics. I liked the creativity around design and coming up with new lines. We ran a successful business.
It was a modest-sized business but at one point, we sold to 2,000 stores. We had Macy’s and Nordstrom. We did over a million dollars in revenue. Everything was about $6 so that was a lot of merchandise. It was an interesting business. Eventually, I got frustrated by it because we had so many clients and it turns out that we’re just chasing money again. When you have lots and lots of retails stores, you give them turns. They all owe you money. If all 3,000 customers owe you $800, it becomes a big headache. I just didn’t think it was sustainable and scalable. We had some big stores and lots of little stores. I just didn’t like to collect money all the time. We stopped doing that.