Matt Verlaque (@MattVerlaque) is no stranger to hard work. But when he decided to leave his job as a fireman to build a tech business, he embarked on a path of learning and uncertainty very different than the world he'd known. In this interview, Matt tells the story behind how met his cofounder Jake, came up with a business idea, learned how to code, overcame a stagnant business model that wasn't working, and built a profitable business that generates over $65,000/month in revenue as a first-time founder.
What’s up everyone? This is Courtland from Indiehackers.com and you are listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show, I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions at their companies and in their personal lives, and what exactly makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can listen and learn from their examples and go on to build our own successful businesses.
Joining me in today’s episode is Matt Verlaque, the CEO of a company called UpLaunch. He has one of the most unique origin stories for an Indie Hacker that I think I’ve ever heard. Matt was actually a career fireman for ten years. He met his co-founder in the firehouse.
He then learned to code, left his job as a fireman, and since then Matt has successfully bootstrapped his company, UpLaunch, to over $65,000 a month in revenue. That’s an amazing story. I think it exemplifies what’s possible in the world that we live in today. So, I’m excited to jump into it. Matt, welcome to the show, man, and thank you so much for joining me.
Obviously very excited, Courtland. Thanks for having me, man.
It took you about a year and a half, with your very first tech business, to get to the point where you’re making $65,000 a month in revenue. That is no small feat.
It’s been quite the journey, man. It’s funny. It’s just a different lesson learned every day. I’m just super grateful for how things have been going so far.
What’s your favorite thing about finding yourself in this position in such a short period of time, where you’re running a very profitable, successful tech business?
Honestly, there’s two. We work with primarily independently owned and operated fitness facilities - micro gyms, CrossFit gyms and things of that nature, and our big value proposition, the thing that we do to help is that we help these gym owners run more profitable businesses by creating world-class client experience and leveraging really strong relationships.
So really, it’s the same benefit, which is that we get to either directly or by proxy improve people’s lives, so we’re helping our direct customers, the gym owners, be able to systematize and run their business more efficiently. We’re helping them deliver a stronger message to their customers.
Then more recently, as revenue has grown and we’ve started to scale a team, we’ve seen the ability to positively impact people who have joined our team and provide them with a really healthy work environment, meaningful work where they’re valued and making incredible contributions to the overall UpLaunch ecosystem.
So, it’s been a human-oriented reward in all of the different areas but the team aspect of it is especially new and especially rewarding as well.
Yeah. So for you it’s all about the people, the people you work with, the people that you work for, your customers and same for me, too, with Indie Hackers, which is funny, cause it’s not what I predicted going into it.
I thought a lot more about the programming tasks in like my day-to-day work. But the reality is, my favorite part of my job is getting to meet all sorts of cool people, doing cool things and just being friends with them.
Yeah, definitely. Any business has to make money in order to survive and help people. That’s a given, but I think getting past that, it’s not one of these things where you say, “Oh, I got this idea. We’re going to go make a billion dollars. Look at us.”
It was just kind of this thing that happened and caught a little bit of traction. So, it’s been really cool to meet all the different people we’ve met and help all the different people we’ve helped, so it’s been fun.
So we have to talk about your earlier career, at least a little bit, because quite frankly, I don't know if I’m ever going to have an ex-fireman on the podcast again. What was your life like as a fireman, and how did you get into that in the first place?
It was similar to the way that I got into running a tech company. It was kind of just by happenstance. You know, I started out as a volunteer fire fighter, and just kind of enjoyed it and started going to some additional schools. I got my paramedic certification and thought it would be a good, meaningful way to spend a life, and it is.
It’s interesting. I was really leaning into that career. I really enjoyed it. I’d gotten promoted, and was in charge of a company, which is really rewarding, a company meaning a small company of fire fighters, and all that was really good. The life is an interesting life. It is pretty demanding from a time standpoint.
The department was working for is a 56-hour week, not including overtime and so you are away from your family a lot, which I didn’t really care as much about until I got married and had kids, and then I kind of understood that there are some other things that I’d like to be doing as well. But even then, it was just the life that I was ready to have.
And so, I met Jake, my company-founder, in the firehouse. And Jake was in the Marine Corps before the fire department as infantry man and then joined the fire department and always, because of those roots, being really into physical fitness, and so he opened up a CrossFit gym in his hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
And so that’s really how this whole origin of the company began. It was just like Jake and I, kind of true to form, hacking our way through different strategies or tactics to keep the marketing and outreach elements of his business afloat while we were at the firehouse for 24 hours at a time, 60 hours a week. And so, it was deconstructing and solving that problem that led to the proliferation of UpLaunch a couple of years after.
Do you remember the point at which startups and tech and entrepreneurship first popped up onto your radar as something that might be of interest to you?
I don't know that there was a specific inflection point where I was like, actually this might be cool to do. It kind of got -- there was a lot of fire fighters with other jobs, because we work a lot of hours and it’s 24 hours at a time, but then you’ve got a few days off.
And so initially, it was one of those things where I’m like, yeah, I’m still going to do the fire department thing and then I’m also going to run this company, and everything is cool. And we grew it a little bit under that model. It was one of those things where the business, the growth that we were having and the demands, like if we really wanted to do this right, it was one of those things where, eventually, you just can’t ride the fence anymore.
And actually I credit my wife for pushing me to make that decision as many spouses do, where we -- it was right after the birth of our second son and we just had to kind of have the conversation where she’s like, look, I don’t really care which job you do, but if you could just pick one, that would be awesome.
And so, she was the catalyst for me to think about, hey, maybe this is going to be something real, where I can do it full time and it’ll be my career. And there were a lot of appealing things about that. We’re a fully distributed team. We all work from home. It gives a little bit of -- actually gives a lot of flexibility into the day-to-day.
I run a very outcome driven team where I’m not really interested in time tracking or clocking in or any of that. And so, it does allow for -- I don’t really like the term work-life balance. I think more like work-life integration, where your job can fit your life and your life can fit your job, and so that was definitely appealing.
And the other reality in the fire department -- obviously there’s a lot of leadership lessons that can be gleaned from that career and one of them is leading by example.
And what that comes down to is if I can’t bet on myself to dive in headfirst to this company, how could I ever ask anybody else to bet on our company, whether that’s a team member or an investor or a customer or anything else. And so, I said if we’re going to do this for real then I’ve got to be on point, so let’s go. And I made the decision and here we are.
That’s fascinating that you said that most firemen have other jobs, because you have time off. You can fill it however you want. But I think your story illustrates the times that we live in, because even just a few years ago I don't think people would have expected a fireman’s other job to be starting a tech company.
It’s really one of the most interesting things about the fire department is, it’s still like a vocation. You still have to do the work. You still have to break a sweat. It’s still like hard, dirty, sweaty blue-collar work at the end of the day which I love, by the way. But at the same time, you’re right.
The times are different, where firemen have had part time jobs for decades, but it was painting or carpenters or doing things like that. And there are a lot of guys that still do that, and I've done part time work like that as well. But I think when you look at -- there’s a couple of factors. I think that the talent pool that’s applying to the fire department is a little bit different and more diverse interests than it has been in decades past.
And also, I think the access to this knowledge through the popularization of boot camps and things like Lambda school, which is totally groundbreaking the way they’re doing things, there’s a lot more access to be able to develop your personal skill set. And then I think one of the results of that is in public service jobs like the fire department, you’re seeing a more diverse set of skills within the population that fills those jobs.
I’m always sort of looking at macro trends. Why are more people becoming indie hackers today than ever before? And I usually take a top-down view where I’m asking questions like what resources are available today that didn’t used to exist? How easy is it to learn how to code today?
How expensive is it to put your website up on a server and host that? But it’s interesting to hear your perspective, because at the individual level, there’s always some deeply personal story or reason why you decide to quit what you’re doing and take a different path.
I can only imagine. I haven’t listened to a ton of Indie Hacker podcast episodes. I listened to a couple. But in general in the ecosystem, there’s a lot of people that I think are like, “Oh, I hated my job doing X, Y, Z, so then I decided to start my own business, because I wanted to do something that gave me more gratification,” where I loved my job as a fireman.
I was going to work for 33 years and maximize my pension, and I knew exactly what age I was going to retire at. I had everything planned out, because it’s that kind of job. And there are people who basically fell out of their chairs in astonishment when I told them I was leaving.
It’s just one of those jobs that you don’t really leave, unless you’re a -- I don't know a nice way to say this, a screw-up, or someone who’s not fully engaged in the job to begin with. Most people get in that job, it’s extremely competitive, which is another thing people don’t realize.
They hired 30 people off a list of 2500 when I applied, so people don’t leave. So, it was definitely an anti-pattern within that context, too, to go do this other thing, leave one job that I loved for a big old question mark, which was UpLaunch.
I’ve been into tech my entire life. There’s never a point where you could have asked the people around me, “Hey, what does Courtland want to do?” and they couldn’t have told you exactly what I want to do. What was it like for you, being in the exact opposite situation? What was it like having these conversations where people were falling out of their chairs because you told them, “Hey, I’m pulling a 180 and quitting my job as a fireman?”
It was interesting, to say the least. I don’t really know, because I’m the kind of person where I’ll really do my best to think through a decision from all the different angles.
But once I make it, it’s made. So, it wasn’t really -- I wasn’t in feedback/solicitation mode when I was telling people I was leaving. The decision was already done. I had maybe a dozen people who I trusted who knew. The guys that I supervised in the fire department knew that I was thinking about taking this route.
And then I just said, alright, well let’s go, because it’s risky and it’s -- might be a little crazy to turn your back on a guaranteed pension for life to go do something that has an extremely high failure rate, getting started on a tech start-up. But I’m not a big fan of regret or worrying about what-ifs, so figured it was time to give it a whirl, and that was it. I didn’t really put much more thought into it.
So before you had to tell people the results of your decision, you had this whole process where you had to actually make the decision to leave. I want to talk about what went into that process, and maybe the best place to start is the origin story behind how you met your co-founder and how you guys first started working together.
Like I said, he started the gym and Jake knew I was a secret nerd. I’d done a little bit of web design here and there. It literally started out with him just asking me to build him a website for his business, for his gym, again, kind of a cultural thing in the fire department. If you have a skill, you help the other guys, and that’s just what you do.
And so, we sat down and made a website. It was exceptionally mediocre cause I wasn’t the world’s most prolific web designer. But it got them started, gave him what he needed, got the gym off to a good start. I did a couple other jobs for some of his peers in the gym space.
It was interesting. If you assess personality types, I’m more of an implementer, where I can take an idea and break it down into the actionable steps you need to make it a reality. And I think part of the reason why Jake and I have a really good working relationship is because he is much more the idea guy, where, “Hey we can do all this stuff,” and he’ll inspire me to go build a plan and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.
I remember this like it was yesterday. He hit me up and he was like, “Hey, dude, I need some changes on my website.” He’s actually sitting here next to me laughing right now while I’m telling the story. So we went and had coffee one morning after he got off work in the fire department, and that conversation transformed into this entire -- and there are probably people you there who can relate to this -- we made, before we got out from having coffee, the most ridiculously complex business plan in the world.
If there was something to be done that remotely pertained to a gym, we were going to do it. We were going to start this business. We were going to do web design. We were going to business mentoring. We were going to do marketing automation and copywriting and e-learning courses. Yeah, it’s just two guys who’ve never run an online business before, sounds like a great plan, right?
And so, we had this super complex plan and we were going to do all this stuff, and we were both pretty fired up after that conversation. But then we actually tried to figure out how to take action on it. He went from his world and the idea to my world and the plan and realized that you just can’t do it that way. You can’t go from nothing to everything in a month. It’s just not real. We were pretty naïve early on.
So, from there we distilled it down and tried to find the blue ocean, find the void in the market. And so, we looked at those four different things we wanted to do, like web design. I wasn’t that great at it, and there were a lot of people who were way better. So, there’s that. The business mentorship was the same thing. Jake runs or ran a really successful gym, but there were some outstanding business mentors already in the space.
And then the one that we actually settled on for the market opportunity was marketing automation, because there were tools out there for creators, but for people who are small business owners, if you want to legitimately implement a fully-featured marketing automation solution, you have to do a lot of stuff.
You have to know how to market. You have to know how to write copy. You have to know how to build a funnel. You have to know how to essentially program, even if you’re not writing code. You’re still setting like Boolean logic and campaign builders and all this stuff that your normal gym owner has no time or interest in getting involved in.
And so that was how we settled on the direction of tackling the marketing automation problem and we bailed on all the other stuff.
The story of you guys meeting in a coffee shop and drawing up all these grand, unrealistic plans for all the stuff you’re going to build is so familiar to me, because I did the same thing when I was younger. I remember before I really knew how to build a web app, I met this guy that was a developer, and I really wanted to start a company together. And I drew up so many features with no real conception of how long it would take to actually build them.
Glad I’m not alone.
You’re definitely not alone there. And more to the point, I think this process of being at a place where you have a million and one things you want to do, you have the super ambitious vision, and you have to whittle it down and focus on just one thing that’s going to work, that’s really hard to do. Most people can never successfully accomplish that. How did you decide that marketing automation was where you wanted to focus your efforts?
We knew that we wanted to implement that for Jake’s gym and so that’s obviously where we started. I always joke around and call it his gym the petri dish, ‘cause that’s where we grew all our ideas. We implemented some basic marketing automation strategies for his gym and has some success there.
And it was honestly just a little bit of casual market research, where we started to see what was out there and what was cost effective for people, and we really didn’t find a whole lot if they didn’t want to build it themselves, and further we didn’t find -- and this is the interesting part -- we didn’t find any software that would allow someone to do what we wanted to do, which -- I didn’t set out to become a software company.
That’s the thing. I’ve been dragged into the software game kicking and screaming. Now I love it. Can’t have it back. But it was a reluctant entrance into building software, because I just wanted to work marketing strategy and use tools that already existed, to build strategies that worked and deploy them to gyms and monetize it and have a nice little thing that I would do on my days off from the fire department.
And so we figured out that marketing automation was a void in the market, and furthermore the first real hurdle that we had was that none of the tools that were out there, none of these creator tools, were built to scale the same marketing strategies over and over and over again.
You had to go through the same setup process every single step for every single client, in our case every single gym. Then we had a guy who’s working with us who’s literally following like a 250-step checklist at one point to implement every new account that we got, because we started out building this on other people’s software, and it’s just painful. And that was what led us to build our own.
But there’s - when you talk about validating the idea, there is an important part that I skipped over that I think is worth talking about. So, we linked up with a business mentor. His name’s Chris Cooper. He runs a company called Two Brain Business. Probably, in my opinion, the best micro gym business mentor in the space. And he brought Jake on his podcast very, very early on when we first started it. And we just ran a little baby automation, where we were literally just giving away content and – for free – and then we were like, “Hey, we’ll build this automation for you for a hundred bucks.”
And that was our first market test. So, I think if you’re trying to distill this long-winded story into lessons, make sure people are willing to give you their credit card as early as possible. Everyone will tell you they love your idea, because no one wants to be mean inherently. But if they won’t give you your credit card, they don’t really like your idea, or it’s not really valuable.
So, we started with that offer, and we sold 10 of them, and I was like, “That’s cool,” but it’s a manual process. Then we sold 20 of them, and then we sold 60 of them, and I was like, “I have no idea how the hell I’m going to pull this off,” because it was just this super arduous process to build. It was a little hectic, but we got it done.
But what we did along with that was we presold subscriptions to this bigger software that was going to help people manage marketing automation for their whole gym. Didn’t really exist yet, but that didn’t stop us. We just presold it to, again, validate the idea and we presold 60 subscriptions at $150.00 a month. We didn’t actually bill them. We just preauthorized their card. But we used it as validation because there’s a difference, again, between someone saying, “Yeah, I’d buy this other thing,” or “I’m going to put my credit card down and actually commit to it.”
So, we try to do some market validation with actual purchase behavior pretty early on in the process. I say that now and it sounds really smart, but we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We were just trying to make sure people would buy our stuff. So that’s how we settled. We validated it through a couple of different hurdles, and then went and made it.
So I have a ton of questions about everything that you just said.
Lay it on me. Let’s do it.
First up, I know nothing about gyms. I know nothing about how people with gyms market their businesses and find new customers. Can you walk us through a little bit of the process that a gym owner might go through or that you were walking people through these early days to help them market their business?
Absolutely. There are a couple of different core models. And again, these don’t really apply to what we call big box gyms, like Gold’s and Anytime Fitness. We focus more on this micro gym, CrossFit-esque type model where you’re doing either personal training or small group classes that are led by a coach.
Your big box gyms, they make money off of you not showing up, is really the story at the end of the day. But for these smaller, independently owned and operated shops, there’s really a couple of key ways that people will come in. Earlier on in the micro gym industry, a lot of people would just start out by doing a free class or a free week.
That was when CrossFit and things like CrossFit were more of a grassroots movement. Then as the industry has matured and become more mainstream, I would say that the most generally accepted way that people will get a new person in the door is by doing something called either a free consultation -- a lot of people call it a no-sweat intro -- where it’s really a consultative process.
Because if you were to do a price comparison between -- a membership at Gold’s might be $30 or $40 or $50 bucks a month, and a membership at a CrossFit gym might be $150.00 a month. And the difference there is the coaching and the personal attention and the experience that you get. So, we find that, in our space, is that the highest-performing gyms are the ones that take a very consultative approach to this.
And so, the first step that a lot of these gyms do is this one-on-one consultation where I might sit you down and say, “Hey, Courtland, what’s your experience in fitness? What’s your goal? Why are you here? What brings you in?” And then they’ll be able to actually recommend one of their services or a combination of services that’ll help you achieve your goal.
That’s the model that we really, really support and put our name behind, because I think it’s the one that professionalizes the industry the most and yields the strongest relationship with the new member. As far as top of funnel activities, people will do Facebook ads. They’ll do brand awareness. They’ll run referral campaigns with their current members.
Some people will do cold traffic and do six-week challenges, which are then – they’ll go through a fitness challenge which they convert into an ongoing membership. So, there’s a few different permutations of approach that people have, and our software supports all of them. But we put an extra focus on that consultative approach for someone coming in.
You talk about not wanting to be a software business at first and being pulled that way against your will. Does that mean that your initial plan was that you wanted to be a consulting shop and walk customers through their problems by hand?
We were building on software that was already out there. We absolutely wanted to take more of a consultative approach. Because to me, at that point, building software was like this black box, and I didn’t really know how anything worked. Some days it still feels like that, honestly.
We started out building on other people’s software, and it was just like a square peg/round hole scenario, where there were a couple of factors at play. Either we weren’t using the software the way it was intended to be used so we were running into issues there, or if we found software that -- at one point we found some software that a company was developing that was supposed to work exactly the way we needed it. But they were trying to hit a lot of different industries at once, and so the things that we needed in their roadmap to allow us to be successful didn’t always rise to the top.
Again, like you hear me talk earlier about leadership and accountability, we talk about accountability in our company a lot. And any time there’s an issue that affects a customer, I will personally own the issue to the customer and I’ll even do it publicly in our user group, because that’s just how I run a company.
That was before we started writing software. These third-party platforms, even if it wasn’t our fault, the customers are still paying us so it’s still our fault even if there’s nothing we can do about it. We kept having a lot of issues. It got to the point where I looked at Jake and I was like, “Hey, man. If we’re going to look bad, I at least want it to be my fault, for real.”
I don't know if I can do better, but it’s not going that great right now, so I want to try. That was literally the inflection point. It was out of frustration. One of these companies that we had worked with beforehand, they asked us, when they were vetting us to work with them, they were like, “Do you want to go be a software company?
Are you going to work with us for a little while and then go build your own software?” And I remember this like it was yesterday. I told the guy, “I do not want to become a software company, but I believe it what we’re doing, and I will become a software company if I have to. I’d rather not.”
And now, looking back, I’m incredibly happy and grateful that we did, because it was just allowing us to do things that are in the best interest of our customers directly, that nobody else is going to care about them as much as we do. So, it all worked out well.
You ended up going to a coding boot camp. When did that happen, how did it go, and do you recommend that experience to others?
Yeah. I had a great experience. I went through a boot camp called the Firehose Project. I did not pick it because of the name, I promise. But there was a specific reason I picked it. I’m a very strong believer in anything I do in mentorship, and that has been since a very young age and early in my career.
In the fire department, there were always mentors and guys that would teach me as a young firefighter, and guys that I would look up to. I wanted to try to emulate that experience with my education, because I finished high school, but I didn’t love it.
I made it through a year of college and failed, so I’m not a big old school guy, just to say it bluntly. And to me, I’m a people person, so I needed that one-on-one interaction in order to really engage. So, Firehouse Project provided one-on-one mentorship with their program. That was the hook that made me think that theirs was a good idea above anyone else.
So that was right around the inception of when we officially became UpLaunch, when we officially bailed on the consultative approach. We had I think 15 or so gyms that were still with us from our foray into this on other people’s software. So, we had them maintaining, and we spent six or seven months building an MVP. So, it started out very purpose driven. I’m an no BS dude. I always cut right to the point.
So, before I even enrolled in the bootcamp, I talked to the CEO, Mara Marko (ph), and I said, “Look, I’m here specifically for this one reason, because I need to build software to run this company. I’m not trying to do a hundred to-do list apps. I need to find some stuff that’s going to let me do exactly what I need to do. Are you down with that?”
And he said, “Yeah”. So, I asked, “For my capstone project, I can just work on my own thing, right?” and he said, “Yes, you’re good,” and it was cool because he’d let me just align. So I learned the basics, but the thing that happened in there that was much more transformative than me learning to be a software engineer – and I don’t want to insult other software engineers by throwing that word around – but I met the guy who eventually – He’s just essentially a co-founder and our CTO in that bootcamp.
We had little office hour sessions and I was working on something that was kicking my butt, and I said, “I’ve got some interesting stuff here, anybody wants to come check it out with me.” So, he hit me up and he said, “What do you have going on?” And that was it, and we just – he dove in and he just worked and worked and worked.
And he was just this incredible working relationship, and we just started building. That dude walked the dog on me on software engineering, which was great. It was exactly what I needed. That’s how the software took shape, is from that relationship that started in that code school.
That sounds so great, because so many would-be founders are stuck in this place where they’re not sure if they should learn to code. They’re not sure they’ll be able to find time to do that. And you had a bootcamp that said, “Hey, you can do your startup and learn to code, and work on your startup as part of learning how to code,” so it fit perfectly into what you were doing.
Yes. I tell you, I don’t do a lot of coding now. And it’s really just because everybody I’ve been able to hire is just way better at it than me, which is obviously the goal. But in the context of a founder who’s considering whether or not they should learn to code, if that’s a blocker, go do it if you can. If you have the aptitude and you have the means to go do it, just the momentum that we were able to gain off of an extremely basic MVP that I coded, I don't know, at least probably 40% of with Matt, doing the all the hard stuff. But the momentum that we were able to gain off of that was incredible, and now they’re – half the code in the software is way out of my league because Matt and another guy, Jake, who we just brought on, a different Jake, are – that’s their focus. They’re incredible at it.
But especially in the formative months of just trying to get something out there to validate your idea, oh my gosh, learning to code was just incredible, because it let me move so much faster to just get the idea out there and bring it to life.
You talked about not enjoying high school, about dropping out of college after a year. But then on the other hand, you’re talking to me about top of funnel, marketing analysis, validating your idea, learning how to code. What changed? How did you become such an effective learner?
Pertinence to my life goals, seriously. That’s all it is. It’s not that I don’t enjoy learning. I have a constant thirst for learning that I am unable to turn off. It’s like this snotty little kid in algebra class. When am I ever going to use this? That was me. And there’s definitely some stuff where you don’t think you’re going to use it, like when we learned all the different algorithms in code school about flipping all the zeros to ones to make a picture and stuff like that, I was like, whatever.
But then we built a scheduling app and, and talk about having to figure out, algorithmically calculate availability slots for booking appointments and stuff, it all became clear. But I’m just the kind of person where if I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m out.
I’ll just go find a different tunnel. I don’t have the attention span for -- I’m not going to go do two years of general education because someone says I’m supposed to, and then I’ll go learn the stuff that I care about. That’s just -- I don’t have the attention span for it. So, what it came down to is I wanted to build a business.
The appeal to me a of a bootcamp is that you can go learn just what you want to learn. You don’t have to take an English class to go learn Java Script. You just go learn Java Script. So that’s the difference for me.
That was always the most frustrating part of school for me, too, taking all these classes that I didn’t want to take, that I didn’t care that much about. I was considering dropping out of college after my junior year, because I figured I had all the skills to get a job. I had already worked an internship. I was getting paid. Why did I need to learn this other stuff?
So you learned how to code. You contributed a lot to this initial product, this MVP that you guys built, that helped you guys gain a lot of momentum in the early days. I want to discuss what this momentum looked like, and how you found your first customers. You talked about doing a podcast promo early on. Was that your first foray into getting customers to actually pay for what you guys were building?
Yes, absolutely. It was. So those were the first dollars that we ever collected, was selling that one little automation through the podcast and then the presales that came along with it. And it’s interesting. There were so many tweaks and iterations to the business model, so many hard lessons. I could stay on there for hours and paint a picture of all the different lessons that we learned the hard way, but initially it was just word of mouth.
I think the advantage of having a narrow focus to begin with as far as your market goes, having a niche or whatnot, is that if you look at the CrossFit market, that’s our beachhead market. There are 12,000 of them. There’s a pretty finite market opportunity when you think about it.
And we’re not going to stay restricted to that market forever, but when you’re trying to start it, it’s like the old saying: If you’re selling to everybody, you’re not selling to anybody. You’ve got to be able to provide that authentic product, and people are buying from you as a person.
At the end of the day, not -- yeah, your product has to not suck, and your business has to be solvent, but at the end of the day, if they get a phone call and think you’re full of it, you’re not making the sale.
And so I think just Jake being a successful gym own in that space and being able to run these sales calls very early on and relate to the exact problems that both he and the customer were having at the same time, word spread pretty quickly about the solution that we had.
But it definitely had not been up and to the right the whole time. We went up and to the right for a little bit, and literally plateaued for a year before we made some changes. So, it hasn’t all been smooth.
Tell me about that plateau. Where were you guys in terms of revenue when you hit it, and what was it like trying to figure out how to get out of that funk?
The biggest issue was our business model in general. Small issue, right? So, what we tried -- so just our biggest issue is the business. So, what we tried to do is, initially we had this consultative approach, and we were just doing the stuff for gyms. We were cool. And then once we made the pivot and said, “Hey, we’re going to become a software company,” we wanted to build this platform.
Because it’s an easy lift, when you look at it skin deep, where you’re like, “Oh, well, this works for gyms. It could work for other businesses. It could work for chiropractors. It could work for yoga studios. It could work for this. It could work for that.” And so, kind of the same mistake we made at the coffee shop, where we just decided we’re going to go do all this stuff.
We were going to essentially try to bootstrap our way into a straight-up marketplace play, so a two-sided marketplace. We’re going to go find partners to be the subject matter experts the way we were with the CrossFit stuff, and then for those partners, we’re going to go do all the sales, and we’ll set up revenue share agreements.
And we built this beautiful plan on paper that felt great. And we even went so far, we brought on a partner to replace what we were doing with CrossFit, and he’s still part of our team even though that whole partner model has been put to bed, put out to pasture. But so, we brought a guy named Mike who, another really successful gym owner, a really strong marketing background, MBA, super solid guy, and basically brought him in as a partner.
He was our, essentially test, to get a first partner up and running, but the success of that business model hinged on us doing that 10 more times, and we successfully did it zero more times. And so as far as the MRR plateau, we were plateaued right around I think, 18, but we were on a revenue split, so more like 10.
And we sat there and sat there and sat there, and so again, going back to the value of mentorship and having people who are more experienced than you to be a sounding board, a guy we met during this experience, a guy named Kevin Kirkland. He actually runs a startup called Sonny (ph). It’s a personal CRM, which is super cool.
But he’s always been a great sounding board for us, and I hit him up. He had some familiarity with our approach, and I said, “Man, we’re pounding the pavement. We’re going to all these conferences. We’re having all these meetings,” and it was exactly what I mentioned before, Courtland, where everyone’s like, “Yeah, I love what you’re doing,” but nobody had the follow-through to get up to speed and work with us to ship a product and become the channel partner.
And Kevin broke it down real simple. He said, “Matt, how long have you been trying?” And I said, “Four and half months.” And he said, “Great. In a startup, four and a half months is an eternity. Try something else tomorrow.” And I was like, “Oh fine. If you break it down like that, it’s pretty simple.” And he couldn’t have been any more correct.
So, it was a hard pivot. We essentially went to our partner who we brought in in the CrossFit space, acquired his company, brought him in to head up customer success, brought everything back under one roof, trimmed all the fat off the steak, and said we’re going to go back to doing what we know we’re good at, which is helping gym owners build better businesses and deliver world class client experience.
We had the subject matter expertise in-house, brought everything back in, Jake went back to doing sales just like he did in the old days except now we were doing it on our own software platform, and that’s when things stopped plateauing and started growing.
That’s fascinating. So, you were basically working on a winning business strategy. You got excited about something that had maybe more potential but couldn’t make it work, and then you went back to what you were doing at first that was growing, and that’s where you are today.
Yes, you’ve got it.
Let’s talk about this first phase, because before you even got stuck, you were making, you said, $10 or $18k monthly revenue which is no small feat, especially in the timeframe that you did it in. What were some of the most important things you did to grow your revenue that much so quickly?
At risk of sounding like a cliché, everything that doesn’t scale. Now to be specific, it’s all about relationships. We preach relationships with our software, but relationships with your early customers is crucial – speaking to them, listening to them, talking with them frequently.
We leverage our Facebook user group very, very frequently to do everything from live feeds and delivering good information to just calling people up and talking to them. But I think getting customers involved in your journey as a company and the evolution of the software, actually asking what they think and listening to them and making sure that you’re solving their problem, I think having the relationship was key.
Because to put it bluntly, they put up with a lot of you-know-what from us early on, because we were literally figuring out how to be a software company. And we never gave it away free. Our price was lower, but we always charged for it, because that was something I believe in. If they’re not going to give you money, then the value prop isn’t compelling.
So, they definitely tolerated a lot. We have a few of those - I always joke and call them our UpLaunch OGs. But they’re still with us and they’re incredible brand advocates, but we wouldn’t be here without those guys. So, I think having really strong personal relationships with your early adapters, I can’t overstate the importance of that. That’s what kept us alive.
It’s so tempting, especially for a lot of software engineers to want to build a business and start selling it and never talk to anybody. And so, people build these marketing first businesses where they never really talk to their customers. They don’t get to know them and wonder why no one is using this sort of half-baked early product. It sounds like you guys had a much more high-touch, sales-based approach. I have a couple of questions about that. Number one, what was your business model in terms of how much you were charging these early customers? Number two, what are some challenges that you encountered while doing all these sales that you learned how to overcome?
On our earliest iteration, we were charging $150 a month. That was when we still doing it all ourselves on other people’s software. And we eventually bumped it up to $200.00. We weren’t really getting too many price objections at that price point.
The value prop of our software is it replaces a number of other staff subscriptions that a typical gym owner is using, and then saves them a bunch of time on top of it. So, there’s a pretty decent comparison we can do there. And then once we went to the partner-based approach, we bumped it up to $300. Honestly, it was just straight unit economics. If we were going to be on the rev share, we had to make enough to live, for the company to live.
I don’t even -- not even for us to live. We were basically working for free at that point, which is fine. So, the price kept going up and up and up. It settled at $300. That’s where it lives right now, hasn’t moved since. And I think as far as challenges with that process, I think the biggest part is, especially if you don’t have good alignment between your story and the pain of your customers, if you’re not really able to well-articulate the pain point that you’re solving for, it’s tough to make the sale, especially if you’re not proven.
Like I said, we presold 60 before it even existed. It was literally Jake having a conversation about, “Here’s the stuff that makes my head hurt about my gym. Does your head hurt, too? Yes? Okay, great. We’re going to go build this thing.” And so really just being able to relate to the pain. We’re part of a mentoring group called SaaS Academy with a guy named Dan Martell, and a lot of it’s just rock-solid sales and marketing playbooks.
And one of the biggest things he always pushes on is, your product has to be a pain killer, not a vitamin. You skip a day taking a vitamin, you’re going to be all right. You skip a day taking a pain killer when you’re in pain and you feel the pain and you go take your pain killer. So, I think just being able to truly relate to whatever the customer has going on, and if you can’t figure that out, you might be building the wrong thing.
It’s real talk. You’ve got to be solving a legitimate problem that someone’s willing to trade their money in order to make the problem go away. That’s business at its most fundamental.
I’m listening to you talk about how you learned from your mentors, how you learned from your customers, and it just makes me think about all the people who haven’t gotten started because they feel like they have to learn a whole bunch of stuff before they take the first step. Yet here you were, learning all of this on the job. What do you think were some of the more effective sources of learning for you that gave you the most bang for your buck?
There were a couple. I think the first phase -- because I don’t want to just give someone advice they can’t take action on. So, I think it depends on what stage in your business you’re in. The first phase of it was just by doing it, just not over-thinking it and doing it and understanding that you’re probably going to suck at whatever you’re doing for a while and being too stubborn to fail. We talk a lot culturally in our business that failure is not an option.
And I don’t mean that – things like that get taken out of the context we use it in in tech, in this industry right now because that doesn’t mean it’s one of these super-toxic, work every weekend, meet your metrics or you’re fired. That couldn’t be further from the kind of company we run. We work very deliberately to build a calm company culture that’s healthy for people to work in.
But on the way on this journey, going from part time to full time, and a business model that wasn’t growing at all for almost a year, we had every opportunity to quit and didn’t, because we believed in what we were doing. But when I say failure is not an option, people misconstrue that and think they’re just going to keep doing the same thing over and over and over again until it works.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. You just have to keep trying different version of what you believe in that are hopefully backed up by actual evidence or conversations with real people until you figure out what’s going to work. So, it’s like micro failures power the high-level success at the end of the day.
So, to directly answer the question, the first thing was just the school of hard knocks. We’re going to try a bunch of different stuff, and we’re going to figure out what feels right for our customers and for us and try to focus on that. Once we had a little bit of traction, joining that SAAS Academy group was massive for us. It was an investment.
It’s not a free thing. It’s not like a casual weekend meet up. Dan, the guy who runs it, is a very successful founder. He has three VC-backed companies, a couple exits, super legit. He’s an incredible instructor. So, I joined that and it was one of the times I’ve been most proud of the team.
Because we were still doing the partner thing at that point. We were still broke as broke can be, and I asked my team, everyone just throw in some cash so I can go sign up for this thing, and every single person did it without blinking, which was amazing and humbling for me as a leader.
So, I signed up for that program, and we do three in-person events per year. The first one was in Toronto two days after I signed up, just randomly, so I said, “Oh well, go take action, dude,” hopped on a plane and went. And it was getting punched in the faced, Courtland, honestly, because I was learning all these incredible marketing strategies, and I realized that our business model was going to let me implement precisely none of them because we were doing all the sales through these partners.
I’m looking around the room and I said, alright. I am the lowest-paid person in this room, both in an individual level and in a company level, and I’m the only one doing things differently. So, there’s probably one person in this room who’s not being that smart right now, and it’s probably me. So that was like a smack in the face with reality.
That, and the conversation with Kevin that I mentioned earlier were like the two catalysts that happened in close proximity to one another where I said, all right. I came home from Toronto and I said, “Jake, we’re changing the business model. I’m done.” And he said, “All right, dude. I’ve got your back. Let’s go.” And that’s when we talked with Mike and brought all the businesses under one roof.
And we spent that entire period between that meet-up and the one four months later literally rebuilding our business internally, figuring out what jobs everyone was going to do, making a new website, proceduralizing, writing systems and the whole nine yards. And we didn’t have a big jump in MRR during that period. We were still right around 20.
And then once everybody got settled in their roles, in September last year it -- I don't know. All the puzzle pieces clicked, and it just started taking off.
Can you give me an example of one of the strategies that you learned that you were able to implement with UpLaunch and really turn things around?
Sure. Gosh, the most basic things. The partners in our old business model were doing all of the sales. They owned the funnel, and we were just the co-branded tech implementers behind the scenes. So anything, from content marketing strategies, to building an effective lead magnet, to using that to fill a demo file.
The only I way I could implement that stuff is if I took it and then retaught it to the partners and hoped that they would implement it right. And Mike could have, the one partner that was successful, but the problem is that in that model, the partners’ world is very resource-limited, because they’re essentially -- in that model, those partners were generally solo partners who weren’t making enough to hire somebody else to help them.
But if we went in and did all the stuff for them, then it was so much work and effort and time that the revenue share stopped making sense. So, it was like neither party was properly resourced to take action on any of this stuff. So, from our standpoint, without any visibility into the funnel, without any visibility into the demo process, without any visibility into customer support, all of those things were on the partner.
That’s a beautiful example. Dan has a killer framework for building the lead magnet and that’s great, but we weren’t doing the selling. So, what did I build a lead magnet for? So that’s one basic example of all these different things. At the end of the day, the catalyst was that I need to own funnel. I need to be able to drive deal flow in our business and be able to make these tweaks and pull these levers to make it more efficient.
You’re coming into this whole startup tech world as an outsider. You obviously did not get a computer science degree. You were not reading about startups and tech your entire life. I think that gives you a fresh perspective that others who are more like me, might not have. What are some things that you believe that others in the startup scene don’t?
That is an outstanding question. Man, there’s so much. I think that growth is interesting. Let’s talk about growth. You look at a lot of companies that take money, go the traditional VC route, and don’t get me wrong. Venture capital builds great businesses. There’s probably also a lot of them that crash and burn along the way on that route.
So, I think that that’s interesting from the standpoint of, as an outsider, I’ll take you way back in my roots as a fire fighter. A guy works a side job, starts a painting business, has two or three guys painting for him, is making some decent money. That’s solid. That’s a cool business.
I don’t know many VCs that are going to go fund a couple of painters, but the point is success can look like a lot of different things depending on the lens that you’re viewing it through. So, for us, the way I look at UpLaunch a more deliberate growth strategy makes sense to me. So, if you compare what we do to other marketing automation tools, they’re just that.
They’re tools, essentially commodities, where they’re a blank slate, and you can go build a strategy for pest control or chiropractors or yoga studios or info marketers or whatever. Our differentiator in our market is that we go deeper, because we have subject matter expertise on staff. We provide a true end-to-end solution.
So, the growth-at-all-costs approach may not work for us, because it’s tough to scale that type of depth in 15 more verticals simultaneously because what would happen is that the product wouldn’t go as deep. It wouldn’t be the true end-to-end solution and then we’d be in a feature war with hundred-million-dollar companies building the next widget.
So, for us, I try to take a more deliberate approach on -- I want to go demolish this market, beachhead market. And maybe we take some money, maybe we don’t, but even if we don’t, this market will fund the next one, where I can go hire the right person to make sure we can go equally as deep on the next market and so on and so forth.
Maybe we only work in five or six or ten verticals down the road and there’s a hundred other ones that we ignore, but we’ll dominate those ten. So, that’s not a traditional growth strategy. It’s one that made sense to me in isolation, but when I compare that to companies that go the traditional venture route, and it’s like growth at all costs, go get a Series A and triple your staff, it’s just a different mindset.
So that was one thing that I think might be kind of an antipattern, or kind of a contrarian viewpoint. I don't know. But it wasn’t even on my radar until I started thinking about raising money and then realized the cultural stuff that comes along with it.
That is not at all a common viewpoint among the founders of stereotypical high-growth Silicon Valley startups. What are some things you think the typical tech company could stand to learn from a company of firemen, because I assume you guys have a totally different way of organizing yourselves, a different culture, different norms, et cetera?
I was hoping you’d ask something like that. There’s a lot out there in the tech world today specifically, and I think a lot of the conversations that are going on right now need to happen around workplace culture and around treating people from different backgrounds with respect, and around so many different things.
Jake and I work very, very deliberately on taking all the best parts of the culture of the fire department and making sure that our company embodies them in the tech worlds. So, I think that there’s a lot.
What are those best parts?
Exactly. We have a pretty well-defined set of ethos, and not all of them for UpLaunch. Not all of them come from the fire department, but some of the ones that do: personal and team accountability is a really, really big one for us. Like I mentioned, if we have a bug, I’ll call the customer and literally apologize to them for it.
And yeah, that doesn’t make us unique. There are other companies that do that. But the point is, even within our team, when there’s an issue, the way our culture is, everyone rushes to own it and say, “Hey, it was my fault,” or “I could have done X,” and everyone rushes to fix it. It’s never the flip of that, which is, “Oh, well, that’s Courtland’s job. Courtland works in product. I’m over here in engineering. He wrote a bad spec, so sorry, Dude. I just built what he told me.”
There are companies where that’s a real conversation, and that doesn’t exist in our world. The dedication to supporting each other is massive. In the fire department, if a guy in your firehouse needs to move, you don’t hire movers. You get 12 firemen to come over and have a pizza and drink a beer and carry your bookcases, and you just help each other.
We really try to bring that supportive environment in as best we can and make sure that we’re all here for each other in whatever way possible. And then the other side of this is there are some things about the fire department culture that we didn’t want to bring over, like baseline 60-hour workweeks and being away from your family for a third of your life for 25 years at a time.
And so, we work very hard to run an outcome-driven business and have outcome-driven leadership styles and management styles, so that way it’s not about clocking in. “Where were you at 3:00 p.m., Courtland? Why wasn’t your little light on Slack green?
It looked gray to me.” I’m out. We have to treat people like adults, treat them as the experts that they are, and we try to just hire the best people we can who have the - we lead with trust and hopefully have the company’s best interest at heart.
You’ve gone from reading a ton of startup advice, trying to learn how to break into this world, to coming onto Indie Hackers podcast, to sharing your stories and your advice with other founders who look up to you. How does it feel to be on the other side of things?
Crazy. I don’t feel like I’m on the other side of things. That’s the thing. I just want to go learn from the next person. It’s perpetual. But it is interesting to hear you say that. I don’t - I’m not good at stopping to smell the flowers or whatever. That’s just not really how I operate. It’s a cool question to be asked. I’ve never considered that, to be perfectly honest with you.
I guess it feels cool, but really it’s not to me about, “Oh, I’m on this podcast. Look at me.” If there’s someone out there who thinks I can help, oh my gosh, hit me up. There’s so many dozens, if not hundreds of people who have helped me when they absolutely didn’t have to and didn’t get anything from it. If I can pay that forward to somebody, I’m in. Let’s do it.
You talk a lot about how other people play a role in your business. You talk a lot about happenstance - happenstance with you becoming a fireman, with you becoming a startup founder. What do you think in your journey is not luck? What do you think has been the most under your control?
Work ethic, hands down. I think that there are a lot of things in life that are not under our control and I think the only thing that we can control in a lot of cases is the way that we react to things that happen to us. But part of that reaction, I think, is how hard you work to change the parts of your life you don’t like.
That, without a doubt, I think is - everyone talks about, “Oh, what’s your one superpower?” Mine is just grit, man. Jake and I talk about that frequently. We had every chance to say, “Oh this sucks. I’m going to go back to my secure job in the fire department, where I’ve got a pension and I’m going to go to work and it’s all planned out.”
But at the end of the day, I don't think it’s about being smarter than everyone around you, cause I’m not. I think it’s about working harder than everyone around you, which I try really hard to do. So that’s my answer right there.
I’m a big believer in optimism. I think that optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that you can do it and you think things are going to work, then you’re not going to quit. You’re obviously a very optimistic, self-confident guy. Where does that come from and how does someone build up that self-confidence?
Man, I wish I knew. It’s funny, because outwardly, you know my wife says this to me all the time, “You’re this extrovert,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t feel like one at all.” I don’t at all. And it’s the same thing with confidence. Yeah, I’m confident in the sense that we have a direction, we’ve made some decisions.
But I think it’s - it doesn’t mean that I’m confident to a fault. I think that especially lately there’s been a lot of things that keep me up at night or that I think about the business. Are we making the right decision? Is the product heading the right way? There are a million scenarios where I can picture UpLaunch crashing and burning tomorrow.
And there are two or three where I’m like, “Oh yeah, we’re rock stars.” And that’s every business and every stage it’s the reality. So, I think part of it is just, if you - I have naturally pessimistic internal monologues, but I just try to keep them there, as internal monologues, because that doesn’t benefit everyone.
I agree with you wholeheartedly. Optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and especially leading a team, I can’t get on a weekly call with ten coworkers and say, “Oh here’s the 17 different doomsday scenarios that I stayed up all night last night thinking about. How do you guys feel about this?” It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
So, at the end of the day, I define the fire department as making permanent decisions based on incomplete data sets. And guess what, it’s the same thing in a startup. You don’t have all the facts, but you have to make decisions, some of them permanent decisions. So, you just have to make the best decision you can and go with it.
So, I think that’s what happens. You just can’t be scared to make a decision, because I think people will just generally perseverate over them too much and sometimes the opportunity can pass you by.
So speaking of making permanent decisions with incomplete data sets, I know a lot of people who have seemingly every advantage in the book. They are career software developers. They read a lot about startups.
They essentially have all the skills they need to have a real shot at starting something of their own, and they’re really interested in doing so but they don’t, because taking that initial leap is scary. What if you fail? What if it doesn’t work out? What’s your advice for how people can get over that hump and get started?
It’s a good question, Courtland. I don't know that there’s one answer that will fit everybody. I don't know. I don’t want to sound like a Nike shoe commercial, but just go do it. Just try it, I think is the biggest thing. And I think that it’s important to realize, too, that there’s different degrees of “doing it.”
It doesn’t mean that I’m going to go quit my job and go move into a closet in San Francisco that costs me ten grand a month and live with seven of my friends and go do all this stuff and whatever. You don’t have to go from zero to that. You can just try some things and try to validate some ideas, but at the end of the day, I feel like it’s a relatively simple formula.
I’d love to listen to this in five years and see if I still agree with myself, but at the end of the day, if you have a market of a suitable size and a decent percentage of those people who are willing to give you money to solve their problem, and you think you can actually solve it, then generally you have a business.
So, I think you can validate that hypothesis without setting your whole life on fire. Then once you have a reasonable degree of confidence, yeah, there’s still going to be a little bit of a gut check moment, but you’ve just got to jump in and go for it, or else you’ll never know.
I guess the other thing, just real talk, is even if people have every advantage, not everyone’s cut out for this. There are a lot of things that I worry about a lot, especially since we really had a team and there are people who depend on my decision-making to be able to feed their kids. It’s weight, man. It’s real weight.
The other reality is that even if everyone - you could probably be the smartest guy with the smartest degree and all the experience, knows ten programing languages, an MBA. You look great on paper, but some people just don’t have the personalities that are able to handle that.
That’s just the reality. So, if you’re that person that can’t hang with that kind of weight, then maybe you don’t start a business.
Well you, Matt, are definitely that type of person. I've enjoyed having you on the podcast, getting to know your story, and I really think it will inspire a lot of people who are wondering if they come from the right sort of background to start a startup. And the answer is, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you put the work in, you can get there. Can you let listeners know where they can go to learn more about what you’re up to at UpLaunch, and also what’s going on in your personal life as well if you share that sort of thing online?
Absolutely. That is a 2019 goal for me, is to become more transparent, especially with a company but also just really in general. I haven’t really taken good action on it yet, so hopefully by the time this podcast comes out maybe I’ll have gotten my act together.
So, for the business, we’re just UpLaunch.com, super easy. You can get me on Twitter at Matt Verlaque, V-E-R-L-A-Q-U-E. It’s a really weird last name so you have to figure out how to spell that one, but I am active on there at [email protected] if someone wants to drop an email. That’s it.
I’m wide open, so if there’s anything I can answer for anybody or anybody that I can help in any possible way. It got my wheels turning, Courtland, when you asked me that question earlier. So, if there’s anything I can do for anyone to pay it forward, please don’t hesitate to hit me up. It’s not an idle statement. I truly mean it.
All right. Thanks so much, Matt, for offering all your help and sharing your time.
Thank you so much, Courtland.
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