Jeremy Swift: I worked full-time during the day. I started waning on college. I was talking to advisors and told them about it. An advisor in the Comm department and another from the business department both sat down with me and said, “We understand your personality and what you’re interested in pursuing. We’re going to work with you if you’ll work with us to help you finish school.”
It took me a bit longer. It took me three more years to be able to finish my degree. I was on the six-year college program. I ended up taking night classes. I put my out-of-office reply in the middle of the day and I’d drive back to campus to a class and then race back to the office.
It was a crazy handful of years there trying to build a startup. We were not a venture-backed company. We had a single angel financer that invested in the business. Eventually, it turned into something.
Sramana Mitra: What was the name of that company?
Jeremy Swift: It was a very eclectic name. It was called Blue Hornet. My founders and I were reading entrepreneur magazines at our dorms. The cover story was “Top 10 Things to Consider when Naming your Startup”. All I recalled was that some of the suggestions were to include a color or an animal in your name. I do believe that Blue Hornet was quite memorable, but it had nothing to do with email marketing at the end of the day.
Sramana Mitra: There were a lot of blue something in that era. How long did Blue Hornet last?
Jeremy Swift: We were very fortunate. We were just a bunch of dumb punk kids in college. We didn’t think we had any competition. Lo and behold, there were many companies that did what we did. We were not that good at doing due diligence. We just put our heads down and strove really hard to build the company as best as we knew how as a bunch of 20-year-olds. From 2000 to 2004, we built the company up to a couple of million in revenue.
All of a sudden, this category was a real living category. There were significant competitors in the market. We had a number of overtures to acquire the company. The one we ended up pursuing was in late 2014. We sold it to a publicly-traded e-commerce platform called Digital River out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. We signed ourselves for a three-year earn out. I will never do it again. I stayed on all the way through and subsequently stayed on for another seven years post the earn out.
Sramana Mitra: At Digital River?
Jeremy Swift: Yes.
Sramana Mitra: What made you stay for 10 years?
Jeremy Swift: So much of it was my youth at that time. Frankly, we got to an exit pretty quickly too. I felt like I had so much more to learn. Even by the end of the earn out, I thought I was so nascent in terms of my business acumen. At the end of the earn out, I got married. At that point, I just said “This is an amazing opportunity. It’s a great company.”
I had the opportunity to travel the world as a part of Digital River. I was fortunate to write my own ticket in terms of what I wanted to pursue. I pursued roles in strategy where I traveled all around the world and spoke at conferences and worked with clients. I ran client success for a number of years, which I really loved. Ultimately, a mentor of mine said, “If you want to start another business, you’re going to need to build a sales acumen into your DNA.” I said, “I’m never going to pursue sales. I didn’t like it.”
Sramana Mitra: I want to underscore this. Sales is one of the things that every entrepreneur should learn how to do.
Jeremy Swift: I loved that you underscored that. You clearly have some belief system in that.
Sramana Mitra: In the early stages of any business, especially if you have a sales-oriented business, you have to do founder-led selling. It doesn’t matter if you’re a deeply technical founder. You still should have some ability to sell your ideas and sell your vision.
I’m really glad that you brought this up. People think they can hire salespeople. Absolutely not. When you’re starting a company, it is founder-led selling.
Jeremy Swift: Nobody can tell that story for you.
Sramana Mitra: Exactly.