Danny Boice from Speek gives us his team building ideas and shares how he builds a good company culture. Danny talks to Officevibe about what makes a strong culture, and how startups need to be responsive to customers.
Jacob: Hello, everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager at Officevibe, and today I’m delighted and honored to have our guest with me today, Danny Boice, the CTO and co-founder of Speek. That’s S-P-E-E-K. Speek is a super simple conference calling application. We’re going to talk to Danny a bit about his company, his past, company culture, and just a bunch of other cool topics. I’m really super excited for this interview. So welcome, Danny.
Danny: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.
Jacob: For sure. For sure. I guess before we get into everything, I mean, you have a pretty impressive resume, for sure, and we’re going to touch on a bunch of it, definitely. But let’s maybe start from the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? And maybe start before any of your companies, kind of how you got into technology, and just really any background would be great.
Danny: Sure. So I started off, and I was blessed to have parents that were both educators. My mom was a math teacher, and was very involved in new ways of learning and new kind of innovations in teaching kids. So I guess I was exposed to computer science and programming at a very young age. So growing up, that was just kind of the environment that I was raised in. She was always bringing home new learning toys, or new methods of learning, like discovery toys, and those types of things, that were new on the market. So I was always kind of exposed to those, and grew up around them.
And then fast-forward to high school, I went to DeMatha, which is a DC private school, which has a great education background, faculty, and staff. And we had a good computer science program in high school. Which, this was in the mid-’90s. So it was fairly rare, in those days, that they’d have as good of a computer science department as DeMatha had.
So I actually got exposed to programming Basic and COBOL in high school. So that was when I first started falling in love with it. And that also happened to be the time the first .com internet boom was happening, so I was watching all these very exciting innovations and products and websites get launched, all these larger-than-life entrepreneurs starting to emerge. And I just kind of caught the bug very early on, and then decided I wanted to do something to that effect with my life.
So fast-forward past high school. I briefly attended college and dropped out. Went on to work as a software engineer for some of the .coms in the ’90s. So I worked for Network Solutions, MusicMaker.com. Back then, these were early-stage startups that were very well-funded by VCs. I was a programmer, web developer. Did a little bit of everything. Kind of a jack of all trades, Swiss army knife developer. And that’s how I initially cut my teeth on the internet.
Jacob: Very cool. Thanks for that. Yeah, that’s always cool. And correct me if I’m wrong, but you started your own company, Jaxara, which was a software development firm. Global software development firm. I actually was reading, you started… you were really one of the first companies to really use Agile methodologies before Agile was really popular.
Jacob: Which is really cool. And also, you were one of the first, I guess, to really take advantage of outsourcing. And one thing that I found really cool when I was doing some reading was how you went to Bangladesh instead of India, because you thought it was cheaper. And you founded Jaxara at a pretty young age, is that correct? Can you tell us a little bit about Jaxara?
Danny: Yeah, that’s right. I was in my early 20s when I founded Jaxara. And we bootstrapped it. So we’ve got some just crazy funny stories from those days. But we literally took everything we had – cash, credit, you name it – and poured it all into… initially it was this little office in Daka, Bangladesh, where we had maybe four employees that we hired there. And we had never been there, so it was this crazy dice role that we made. We put our last and only $10 grand, I think, into building walls in this office, and buying computers and desks, and hiring these people.
But the good thing about bootstrapping is we had to worry about revenue from day one. So I think it’s just a different paradigm than when you’re raising venture money. So we had clients and revenue, and were profitable from day one. Which was interesting.
I think that’s the best way to kind of get your feet wet in business, is when you’ve got it that simple. You’re not dealing with term sheets from VCs, and all these other kind of complexities, like premium models and all this other stuff. It’s pretty simple. It’s, I’ve got this much cash coming in, and this much cash going out, and I need to keep the lights on. How am I going to do it? I’m going to make more money and close more deals. And I think that’s a great way for entrepreneurs to get started. And that’s very much how Jaxara got started.
Jacob: Very cool. And you sold Jaxara, correct?
Danny: Yeah. So Jaxara was acquired by Pantheon, which is a consulting firm. Larger than us, obviously. And I spent two years, part of the deal, helping transition, and leading an implementation department for Pantheon.
Jacob: Awesome. Now, you built the initial team at Jaxara, and ultimately you built the initial team at Speek. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached building the company culture? I mean, at Officevibe we’re really focused on company culture. But can you really just talk a bit about how you kind of approached that initial team building?
Danny: Sure. So I’ve actually had a couple very divergent experiences building teams. I had… with Jaxara, it was bootstrapping, foreign countries where we, at the time, hadn’t even set foot in yet. Once we had more money, I was making quarterly trips there. With non-US individuals who obviously weren’t in the same physical location as us. So there’s language barriers and all these other complexities there. So that was Jaxara.
Then I was an executive at CollegeBoard briefly, where it was total opposite. It was all local to DC personnel. Where all of our engineering staff was literally sitting in the same office, in cubes next to each other.
And then with Speek, it was a completely different kind of blend of the two, where Speek is venture-backed. That’s what I’m doing now. Where we’ve got people mostly in the United States, but not in necessarily the DC area. So we’ve got a distributed team. I’d say out of about 20 employees, maybe five or six are in DC. The rest are spread out around the US. There’s a few in Vietnam. But that’s kind of a blend of those two things.
So I’ve seen every end of the spectrum, in terms of building a team whether it’s distributed, whether it’s offshore, whether it’s a hybrid, whether it’s the old-school everyone in the same office in Reston, Virginia, $4 billion company. You name it.
But I think there’s some things that are consistent across all teams that you have to keep in mind, and especially across when you’re establishing a culture, whether it’s start-up, a large company, or a blend of the two.
So, for example, small, incremental development is always, I think, the right answer, no matter what. So when you’re building a product and you’re developing things, I think small chunks, releasing early and often, iterating, following a Lean methodology, Agile methodology, whether it’s a super lightweight Agile or full-blown Scrum, depending on the situation. I think those things are consistently the right approach in almost every situation. I don’t know… I haven’t encountered a situation yet where the old-school waterfall methodology was the right answer, and I’ve seen just horror stories from that.
So I think that’s one big takeaway. Something to keep in mind if you’re building a team, regardless of the structures, that software development life cycle and how you approach building things, it’s important to establish that early.
The second thing that I’ve noticed was having a data-driven culture. So I know Google used to have this when they used to publish their Golden Rules, and it always resonated with me. But at Speek especially, and even to some extent at CollegeBoard, from very early on at Speek, our culture has always been to test things. So we’d get into these kind of ridiculous arguments about whether a blue button or a red button is going to be better and convert better on a landing page. And from day one, I’d stop everyone and say, “Let’s friggin’ test it,” you know? Let’s stop talking about it, and let’s find out. Let’s test it. Let’s do an AB test. Or user test it. Or do something that’s going to actually prove objectively, using data, whether we’re right or wrong.
And that was an important step early on in starting Speek, in that now, everyone just automatically does that. We don’t spend much time arguing over things that we could easily go prove through an experiment. And that’s very much part of Lean and the Lean methodology at work there for us.
And then, aside from that, I think finding the right people. To find the right talent, is just, as a founder, is part of your job, no matter what your title is. You’ve got to be great at finding people who are super talented at what they do, who are start-up minded. So you don’t want to get someone who’s going to only care about the biggest salary they can get in the world. They’ve got to understand the stock options, equity, and they want to be in the start-up culture and in the start-up life.
And people who also just have good personalities. I mean, these are people you’re going to spend more time with than your spouse or your boyfriend or girlfriend. You’ve got to like them. I think that’s important, and people probably overlook that too much.
So for me those are the three main components of really building a great culture, and kind of starting off in building a team, no matter what the makeup is of it.
Jacob: That’s awesome. Yeah, I totally agree. So let’s talk a little bit about Speek. Because, I mean, Speek is probably one of the coolest products that I’ve seen, and I’m not just saying that because you’re on the show. Really, it’s… you’ve totally revolutionized the way that conference calling is done. I use GoToWebinar all the time. I’ve used JoinMe in the past. I’ve used WebEx, obviously, in the past. Speek is a super simple… you’ve really made it even simpler than what JoinMe tried to do.
So I guess my first question to you is how do you compete with these giants, like the GoToMeetings and the WebExs of the world?
Jacob: And then, if you can… I mean, you’re the CTO of Speek. So if you can talk a little bit about… because to me, I’m not so tech-savvy, but I know quite a bit. It seems like a fairly complex thing to do technically to make it that simple of a conference call application.
Jacob: So is there any… don’t give away the secret sauce, obviously. Is there anything you can tell us about kind of the technology behind Speek and how it all works?
Danny: Yeah. So I’ll start with the first question. So I think we made a very smart decision early on in just focusing on audio conference calling. So that’s how we, I think, quote-unquote “compete” with the big players, is we really honed in on what our competitive advantage is, and what our unique value proposition is. And simply that we make conference calls fast and easy. So we’re directly competing with the dial-in PIN people, the traditional conference call folks that are out there. FreeConference.com, and those type of people.
We don’t really yet consider ourselves to compete with the JoinMe, the WebEx. Although we’ll probably go there at some point. But if you just look at the audio-only teleconferencing industry, it’s a huge freaking market. Obviously once you open that up, it’s even bigger. But just audio teleconferencing is a big freaking pie to take down. So we want to focus just on that, and be really disruptive there.
And we’re starting to win deals away from the incumbents. So we’re starting to close deals with businesses from people that were using FreeConference.com, or TurboBridge, or any of those traditional dial-in, kind of old-school players. And that’s our goal. That’s what we set out to do, is build a business that really disrupts that space. I think that’s one of the smart things we did.
And on top of that is, in competing, we have an inherently viral product. So from a business perspective, Speek is viral. I mean, we don’t have to do all that much to growth hack it. If you’re an active user of Speek, you’ve got Speek.com/jacob as how you host your conference calls. Every single person you invite to a conference call gets exposed to Speek, just by you using the product. There’s that inherent virality that our product just has through use, just by existing, that we benefit from.
And inherently viral products like that obviously stand the best chance of disrupting the big giants, who probably either don’t understand, or aren’t thinking about, or are making their products these big heavy installs, that are cumbersome. Are not doing a premium. Or are doing the things that are going to make it inherently viral and grow viral. And that’s how we plan also to make a big dent.
On top of just having a great product. I think Speek is truly a faster and easier way to do conference calls. It’s that simple.
So that’s how we… those are the things we kind of do to be disruptive. And they’re working.
From a technology standpoint, I think you hit the nail on the head. It looks really simple as a user, which is by design, and that’s proof, I think, we’re on the right track, and our tech team is doing great things. But it’s really complex underneath. So we purposely chose not to use Twilio or some other voice API that existed out there. It didn’t financially make sense for us. Plus, it’s the core functionality of our product. So if audio quality’s bad, if we can’t have the extensibility we require from the voice platform, then we’re kind of screwed.
So we decided early on to take six months to a year to really build and perfect our own voice platform, which was a huge investment. It was fairly risky. But the upside was such that we just thought it was necessary. And that was really difficult. It took a large investment, and a lot of time and resources and energy to get that right. And we’re still always perfecting it incrementally, and we will be for the rest of our life, most likely.
But that’s what enabled us to do pretty much any feature we could dream up we can do. If a user reports an audio quality issue, we can go dig in without having the minimal amount of third parties in our way. We’re a wholesale telecom, for all intents and purposes. There’s no middle men in our way. So we can ensure audio quality, we can ensure extensibility, we can deliver any features that we need to, without relying on somebody else. And that’s the kind of benefit we’re reaping with that early investment, and that blood, sweat, and tears we put into our voice platform early on.
And that’s the heart of our technology. And then on top of that, we’ve got to pipe on Django API. And that API is websocket space. And that’s really what allows us to kind of marry the world of telecom. For example, when a user talks on a phone call, they’re on a telecom audio conference bridge that we’re hosting. But we can actually, every single time somebody talks, fire off a message that gets translated into Json, and it can appear in a mobile client, in a web client. So we can really marry that telecom and telephony world with the world of mobile applications, or the web browser-based world. Whereas previously, those two worlds kind of existed in a mutually exclusive manner. So our API is what marries those two kind of conflicting technologies. And it’s very technically difficult to do that.
So I think that’s really our secret sauce, is having that middle layer that we’ve developed that can marry those two worlds.
Jacob: That’s super cool. Thank you so much for sharing that. I want to talk a little bit about your co-founder, John Bracken. Super cool guy, obviously. Really seasoned entrepreneur. Really comes from a biz dev background.
Jacob: He co-founded Evite, which is still a hugely popular website. Had a pretty senior role at AOL working on AIM, the wildly successful instant messaging product.
Jacob: And there’s a funny story of South by Southwest, where he got, where he ended up getting a tattoo. I just was wondering if you can tell the people listening that story.
Danny: Sure. So I guess it’s kind of funny. I don’t know if you can see, but I’ve got tattoos, you know? I’m, like, covered in tattoos. So John’s not. He’s a little bit older than me, and he’s not tattooed, and it probably has a lot to do with I’d say he’s a lot more straight edge than I am. Which I think makes the story even funnier.
So we were at South by Southwest. We were at Tech Cocktails, big South by Southwest, but then at stage on 6th Street. And we’d presenting all day, or doing a table and a demo all day, on Speek. And at the end of this event at South by is this South by Southwest pitch contest. So it’s really to win the Tech Cocktail pitch jam at South by Southwest. And there’s only 24 start-ups. You get, I think it’s a minute or two each to go up there and give your pitch. And then the crowd votes on who the winner is. There’s also judges to break a tie.
So I thought John was going to pitch, so I wasn’t really prepared for it. [laughs] And the drinks had been flowing all day, and I wasn’t too worried about having to go get up on stage in front of, like, a thousand people later.
So at the last minute, John’s like, “Oh, Danny, can you take this pitch contest? I’ve got to go have dinner with the Mayor of DC wants a bunch of other founders to dinner with them.” So John went to go do that, leaves me hanging to go handle this pitch contest.
So I’m, like, trying to think of something good at the last minute. Kind of scrambling. And I’m towards the end of the pitches, since it’s alphabetical, and Speek’s towards the end. So I get up there, and I do my one minute or 30 second elevator pitch on Speek. That part’s easy. Then I decide, kind of last-minute, I’m going to promise the crowd that if we win, John will get our monkey logo tattooed on his ass in the first tattoo shop we could find the next day.
So that won it for us, by a huge landslide margin, we win the contest. John hears about it secondhand while he’s at dinner with the mayor, comes back, he’s, like, yelling at me. We hear from the Wall Street Journal later on. They’re like, “If you do it, take pictures. We’ll cover it.” So literally, by the time we flew back to DC from Austin, we landed, and there was an article in the Wall Street Journal with pictures of John in the act of John getting his ass tattooed in Austin, on the Wall Street Journal in the tech section.
So I think it’s…
Jacob: That’s hilarious.
Danny: …a nice example of kind of hustling press for a start-up. But we got us a ton of traffic out of it, and a lot of attention.
Jacob: Absolutely. And you wrote something really interesting about it. You said, “It just goes to show the type of dedication,” and kind of… when you make a promise to your users, and you make a promise to anybody, you’ve got to keep that promise.
Jacob: That’s really part of that start-up ethos, I’d say, yeah?
Danny: Yeah. And I’ll give John credit, he came through. I don’t think a lot of people would. That just shows you how crazy dedicated start-up founders are.
Jacob: [laughs] For sure. Also, now you’re a mentor.
Jacob: You do a lot of other things in addition to your job. And you’re involved somewhat with Brazen Careerist.
Jacob: We’re obviously huge fans of them at Officevibe. Can you tell me a little bit about what you do there?
Danny: Sure. I was an adviser to them early on, around the time Speek was starting. So I know Ed and Ryan are two of the founders and the CEO of Brazen. And they’re great people, great guys. I think they’ve got a great product, a great opportunity. I also… we’ve got some kind of cross-pollination with our world of tech talent, where their CTO, Jason Southern, and I used to work together at the CollegeBoard, so I kind of introduced them and helped them fill that role for them. And they’ve got some other software engineers who used to work for me for the CollegeBoard who either came along with Jason or under their CTO.
So I think that’s a good example of the DC tech community. I think we’re a quickly growing community. It’s a small world, everyone knows each other, and we all try to do a great job, I think, of playing well together, and making introductions, and helping each other out. And it truly is a community. And I think Brazen and I’s relationship is a good example of that.
Jacob: Cool. You mentioned before, you used to work for CollegeBoard.
Jacob: A pretty senior position. And I watched an interview with you once where you talked a little bit about how, when you were there, you didn’t really like the culture there. It was very old-school, and you really wanted to change it, and you were trying hard to really change the culture.
Jacob: Can you talk a little bit about how that old-school culture, and what you were frustrated with, and what you were trying to change, and a little bit about that?
Danny: Yeah. I think it’s a blend of things. I mean, first and foremost, one thing I learned by the time there was I’m just not a big corporate America guy. [laughs] It’s just these arbitrary rules and processes and bureaucracy just doesn’t work when you’re used to working in start-ups, where you’re allowed to move fast, and break things, and leave a trail of flames behind every now and again.
You couldn’t fire people who sucked at what they did. There wasn’t a lot of reward for people who were great at what they did, on the flip side. There was a ton of just unnecessary bureaucracy for every little thing. And that stuff just frustrates you when you’re used to trying to get the right thing done, and quickly.
So I think that was a major part of the problem. I think that was probably a problem, too. If you’re really trying to change a culture at a big company, you’ve got to have top-down buy-in. At least there, it was impossible to do it from the ground up. There was just too much… especially when you’ve got political maneuvering and crap like that in your way, where people who cared more about political position and perception than actually getting something done correctly, and having a positive…
Which is sad for somewhere like CollegeBoard, where they do the SAT and the AP. Their mission is to help kids find success at college and beyond, and they’ve got people there who are literally fighting the way politicians in DC are. It might even make those politicians in DC cringe.
So it’s sad. I feel bad for having young kids, for the students.
Jacob: You actually talk a lot about higher education, and how broken that system is. Do you want to maybe take a minute and talk a bit about your thoughts on how broken college education is?
Danny: Yeah, definitely. I think the most telling graph that I’ve seen is the fact that tuition rates are actually going up, and the level of student debt is going up, but the salary and the employment rates are actually going down as students graduate with a degree. Which, to me, just make it a simple ROI perspective. A college degree doesn’t matter. It doesn’t guarantee you a job. It doesn’t guarantee you to make enough to pay back your student loan debt anytime soon. It doesn’t pay for the cost of getting a degree. It’s a bad investment, bottom line.
I dropped out very quickly. I realized it wasn’t for me. I think you’ve got a little bit of hustle, and you’ve got the motivation, and if you’re intelligent, you’re going to figure it out. Especially if you want to be an entrepreneur. I don’t think college does anything literally to serve entrepreneurs at all.
And being in a bunch of debt graduating college definitely doesn’t help an entrepreneur, where you need to be light and nimble, and able to not get paid for a while. Which is impossible the more in debt you are.
So that’s my biggest knock on it. I think there’s some movements happening out there with Uncollege.org is one in particular that I really like. And Dale, who’s the founder of that, he was a fellow. And he wrote a book recently about hacking your education, which is all about this unschooling movement that’s going on. And I really think, as an entrepreneur, that’s something that’s very interesting to me.
And a lot of my staff at Speek, especially when you talk to the software engineers, don’t have college degrees. And they’re just great, because they just learn it on their own. That’s just the nature of their inquisitive minds. College would have just held them back.
And it’s sad, and I think it’s a big problem, but I’m not sure what the right solution is. But I know that going there, and spending so much money, and coming out in debt is definitely not the solution.
Jacob: No, I totally agree with you. Honestly, I dropped out as well, and I agree with you where you say… the most talented developers that I know personally are all self-taught.
Jacob: They didn’t go to universities.
Jacob: So I totally agree with you there. Now, as a mentor to start-ups, you mentor some start-ups, is employee engagement and company culture anything you advise them on, or not really?
Danny: Employment, yeah, I do a little bit. I think mostly it’s about finding and retaining talent, I think, is the biggest challenge for a start-up founder, because if you think about it, you’re essentially a salesman, and that’s what attracting talent’s all about. You’ve got to be the best at selling your start-up, and why you and your team and your start-up and your product are the best, and why someone who’s great at what they do, who’s an A player, whether it’s an engineer or a designer, a UX person, marketing person, you name it. They want to go work with other A players, and they want to go work at somewhere that’s going to be successful. They want to win.
And your job as a founder is to convince people that you’re going to win, I think, in selling yourself and your team and the product. And that’s key. And people overlook that sometimes, and don’t think about it that way. But I see a significant part of my job as constantly meeting people who… even if I’m not looking to hire them right this second, having that pipeline, and that Rolodex, and having people who are interested and excited to come work for Speek, I see that as a key part of my job, being a founder. Even though I’m CTO, I consider myself half salesman, in that regard. And I think you’ve got to be good at it if you’re going to be successful.
Jacob: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. We’ll pretty much end it here.
Jacob: First of all, I just want to thank you so much for… just one last question, if you don’t mind. Just what companies come to your mind that you can think of that have amazing company culture?
Danny: A good one in DC is SocialRadar. I don’t know how familiar you are with SocialRadar, but they’re founded by a bunch of former Blackboard folks. So Michael Chasen was the founder and CEO of Blackboard. He’s the co-founder and CEO of SocialRadar. And there’s Shana, Kevin Alansky . They’ve got a great team of former Blackboard people who’ve jumped on and raised a lot of money, and are tackling a nice big interesting problem. And they’re about to launch their product, I think at the end of the week now. So it’s going to be really exciting for them.
But I just see them posting pictures, and I hear about people working there, and they’re working super late nights, and everyone seems happy to do it, and they have these really cool family-friendly Christmas party where everyone brought their kids, and they’ve got this big logo, SocialRadar, when you walk in, that people get their picture taken in front of, and they go there, and they always share it on social media.
And it’s a cool place to be. They have a cool environment, a cool office, a cool culture. I think they’re doing it right. I think they’re going to be successful, and they’re going to win in their space.
Jacob: Nice. That sounds pretty cool. Anyway, just want to thank you again for taking some time to chat. This was so much fun. For everyone watching this, check out Speek, S-P-E-E-K, .com. Danny Boice, thank you again so much. This was amazing.
Danny: Thanks for having me.
Danny: Appreciate it. Thank you.