Kevin Taylor Has a Black Belt in Programming

Clay Neigher

August 17, 2011 · 14 minutes read

Uncategorized

**Note: This interview was conducted before Obtiva was purchased by Groupon on August 4th**

A JUVENILE BUSINESS IDEA WITH POMPEII-LIKE REPERCUSSIONS gave Kevin his first lesson in business ethics.

“I was about 11 in 1980 when I made my earliest foray into business when Mount Saint Helen erupted. For some reason, my friend and I got the idea that we could sell this volcanic ash as a souvenir. The trouble was, we were here in Illinois so in order to get the ash, we had to substitute the Mount Saint Helen ash for the ash out of our fireplace. We got a couple of mason jars, scooped up some ash and started pounding the pavement around the neighborhood trying to sell this bogus ash for $5 as souvenirs. One guy actually bought a jar. I think he just did it because he felt sorry for us, but we were so happy. That night, after reflecting on what we had done, I felt terrible. I woke up in tears and I told my friend ‘This isn’t right’, so we went back to the man’s house and gave him his five dollars back and fessed up. I don’t remember what his reaction was but needless to say it was all a poorly thought out, crazy idea. That was my first attempt at entrepreneurship. But then when I got into my late teens, I began percolating new business ideas, legitimate ones.”

A MILITARY BRAT TINKERING WITH HIS FATHER’S TECH-FOSSILS sowed the seeds for Kevin’s fascination with creating programs straight from his imagination. Kevin was born in Panama City, Florida. His dad, a retired Air Force sergeant turned computer technologist moved his family to Illinois to work for the “Google” of it’s times, Bell Labs in the late 1970’s.

“When my father was working for Bell Labs, they were busy inventing the UNIX operating system amongst other things, and for me a couple of early defining moments besides moving around a lot was eagerly watching my dad bring home his very early UNIX terminals on the weekends. He would bring his computer home, which was a keyboard with thermal fax paper and telephone modem. He would plug the handset of the telephone into it and type away. The output was basically burned onto the thermal fax paper. I would sit there on the weekends and he taught me how to program, how to write simple shell scripts and how to write simple C code. That really sparked my interest in software and technology.”

While some of Kevin’s friends were disassembling and reassembling TVs and radios, Kevin was living in a fantasy world where anything was possible.

“I wasn’t much of a tinkerer. But programming really grabbed me and now I was tinkering in a medium I was very comfortable in. Once I discovered the code and the software medium, I just became absorbed in it. I was able to create my own worlds just as a writer would create new worlds in a novel. I was creating worlds through these games.As a software programmer, you have complete control of your world, which is true even today. It’s one of the biggest attractions I have to software. Everything else in the world you have very little control over or it may feel at times that you have very little control over what’s going on, but damn it, that computer does exactly what I tell it to. For a lot of people that is a very alluring attribute.”

Looking at an early computer was like looking at a blank canvas with a foreign palette and paints to match. Kevin’s imagination was high jacked by one of the first video games created with this new medium.

“Cutting edge computer technology up until that point consisted of keyboards connected to thermal fax paper powered by metaphorical diesel engines operated by pull strings and kick starts. So, when I went to my dad’s office I saw the code magically appearing on a CRT monitor. Then he showed me a game, something called Star Command, where you pilot a space ship represented by an “=” sign around the galaxy and the stars were represented by “*” asterisks. I became infatuated with this game and I started teaching myself a little bit about programming to the point where in 1983, I saved up $419 (a lot of money for a 13-year old) and bought a TSR-80 color computer which was a screaming 16 MBs of memory and a little cassette tape deck for storage. By the age of 13, I began to build my own video games.”

CREATING A BUSINESS WAS ALWAYS ON KEVIN’S RADAR, but for the most part, it was a trait unique to him.

“My parents were not entrepreneurial at all. Only my grandfather on my mother’s side was an entrepreneur. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, he worked as a crop duster in Louisiana and built a small county airport. He also had three or four fishing/crabbing/shrimping boats down in the Gulf of Mexico, which made him the only entrepreneurial influence I had.”

As so many military children do, Kevin moved frequently from state to state growing up. Looking back now, he can see it helped him hone the very skills he uses today to grow companies.

“When you are moving from state to state as a kid, you learn very quickly to leave the friends you’ve made behind and move on to the next town, go to a new school, and start the process all over again. It is a very unique aspect of military life that at the time was very confusing, but now as an adult, as a business owner, it really helps me to successfully make new relationships.”

AT 19, KEVIN DECIDED TO COMPOSE HIS FIRST PROGRAM THE HARD WAY because it meant working on an IBM 80386 machine or 386, a creature from the Jurassic period of personal computing. Kevin’s first business, called Bay Area Billing, was created around an invoicing program.

“We were living in the San Francisco Bay area at the time. It was a program that small businesses could use to keep track of accounts receivable. It didn’t tie into any accounting system. It was basically a table that stored client information like name, address, invoices, line items and so forth. But the cool thing was that it printed out very nice looking invoices on dot matrix printers, which at the time was hard to do. That was my first attempt at a real business and it failed miserably because I couldn’t sell it. I just couldn’t figure out how to do the business side of it.”

Many entrepreneurs take a break after a business failure to collect their thoughts, repair the financial damage, and find whatever the next thing is. Kevin decided to throw his life in a completely different direction and the next six years were a roller-coaster of changes.

“I went into the Navy, served on a submarine for four years, broke my leg playing rugby, got out and went to college. I got married to my wife while she was going to San Francisco State. When she graduated we moved back here and I went to DePaul and got a degree in economics and started building websites.”

WHILE IN COLLEGE KEVIN DECIDED TO SWITCH MAJORS, WHICH WAS MAJORLY SMART for an already seasoned programmer needing the knowledge of economics to level up his next move in life. Kevin wanted to beef up his brain to aid in the creation of his next company.

“I started off as a business major at DePaul and I took macro economics. I was really taken with the concept of supply and demand, and the applied mathematics of figuring out efficiencies, minimums and maximums. It just seemed like a real interesting tool, so I switched my major to economics and I didn’t study computer science because I felt like I already knew what I needed to know.”

As a college kid, he made more then just pizza money after he launched his second business, ‘Chapter One Books’. It was a primitive online bookstore created with HTML and featuring a Maker Pro database with a website coded in CGI Scripts and written in C.

“We would basically export our inventory to flat files and then we had a Cron Job that would pick up the text file and update our inventory on the web. Then when somebody ordered a book, it would decrement the inventory by one in the Filemaker Pro database. Later that day, we would go through the process again, which meant our inventory listings on the web were always out of date. We thought we were so cutting edge. This is late 1995 or early 1996. At its peak, it was generating $1,000 to $2,000 a month. When you’re in college, man, that’s great. I was building websites, too.”

A MODERN GIANT PLACES AN ORDER with Kevin’s little bookshop. In the early days of web entrepreneurship, you never knew whom you would bump into. Even the heavy hitters of today began as little startups that just kept on growing.

“Occasionally other bookstores would order from us but then we started getting orders from this company called ‘Amazon.com’ and we’re like, ‘Who are these people?’ Amazon ended up ordering more and more books from us and ended up being our biggest customer during the three years that we ran the company. To us it was like a part-time job. Amazon was just buying a crap load of books from us. I only dealt with their purchasing people. Who knows what could have happened, I could have been buddies with Jeff (Bezos).”

“But it was still a really scary time. Companies were boarding up their doors and jobs were vanishing into thin air. Any start-up between 1999-2001 that existed before 9/11 that has managed to survive today, have probably seen the toughest times they will ever see in this country. It says a lot as far as tech goes. To make it through that, it says a lot about those entrepreneurs because most people didn’t make it. At that point my wife turned to me and told me I had to get a full time job.”

“So I got my first real full time software job as a C++ programmer in early 2000 at a little dot com called ‘Honesty.com’. At the time, anyone who could spell his or her own name could get a programming job. I worked there four months, four crazy months. They got bought out after my fourth month and basically eliminated most of the Chicago jobs and moved the operations to Silicon Valley. But at least I got a big $10,000 severance check. I was like ‘Wow, let me do that again’. Soon after, I got another programming job at ‘The Pampered Chef’ which was a very large consumer products company. I was one of their lead developers and we grew the team there from about six people when I started to maybe 18 when I left. I learned a lot when I was there and they were good to me. They had a 50,000-person sales force distributed across maybe four countries.”

YOU CAN THANK DIAL-UP CONNECTIONS AND EARLY VERSIONS OF WINDOWS FOR OBTIVA EXISTING. At The Pampered Chef their sites were served from such dilapidated systems before Kevin arrived. This was how business was done in cyberspace, but he wanted to change all of that.

“We built a brand new cutting edge rich client application (an application with limited connectivity to a central server) for The Pampered Chef to manage orders and a very comprehensive website with online tools for all their sales people to communicate. That is where we started using ‘Agile Practices’ both on the development side and on the product management side. After I worked with them to help bring on these Agile Practices, I decided that I wanted to do that with other clients. I wanted to teach people how to use these software development techniques and plan their software projects successfully. So I quit and started Obtiva. I revisited the Pampered Chef and pitched Obtiva’s services to their VP of IS and they took us on as our first client.”

“So my first idea about Obtiva was creating a very small specialized team of fire jumpers who could drop into this big mega corp’s software development team and whip them into shape over the course of a couple of weeks or couple of months, then we would pop out and go onto the next engagement. We wanted to teach them good developer practices and how to manage a project well.”

“I was on my own at this point in the game. I thought I didn’t need a partner. I had the clients and I could hire the employees. What I didn’t have was the cash. I started the company with $1,000 and as soon as I started hiring those employees I learned about cash flow and the fact that employees expect to get paid every two weeks and clients don’t until the net thirty terms that they’ve agreed to. So the first three months I had to go up to their accounts payable department and beg to get paid early. Luckily, they were awesome. They paid me two weeks early for the first three months – every invoice cycle. I would go up there and say PLEASE and they’d advance me the money each time. That got us through those first three months and after that we finally had enough excess to cover our cash flow needs. “

“Soon I realized that having the right partners can be a tremendous asset that gives you someone to lean on. You’re in it together and you don’t feel so isolated. I tell people one of the best business decisions I ever made was making Dave Hoover my partner. I think it was August 2005 when we incorporated and we had a big client right out of the gate. Things started to fall into place, but we needed more than one client.”

LIFE WAS LIKE A WHIRLWIND from August 2005 to September 1, 2007 for Kevin’s budding company. Working on little sleep, “spare time” was a term Kevin just wasn’t familiar with.

“I was writing code 40 hours a week and running a business the other hours of the week. My office was at Panera Bread so I would work with the client from nine to five, go home and see my family for an hour-and-a-half, go out to Panera Bread and work there for two or three hours. I did that for a couple of years. September 1, 2007 is the day I had just enough money to stop coding full-time and really work on my new company. All of a sudden I had all this free time to go talk to people about our services and actually check up on our clients to make sure they were happy. I finally got to do all those things you should do when running a healthy business. We really started to take off once we started doing that.”

“Around 2007, Dave Hoover and I read E Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. He talks about the technician, the entrepreneur and the manager and how in most small businesses, the owner never gets past being the technician. So I decided I had to learn how to be a businessperson, learn about sales, and how to build repeatable processes in the company. Now I have to start being an entrepreneur and manager while still being a little technician.”

“The second big thing that really grew the company was when we hired Kat Nelson-Reid, our first operations manager with corporate process experience. She came in as a trained accountant who had run marketing and operations at a multitude of different companies. She came in and just started ripping things up, throwing out the old away, and redesigning everything from our accounting systems, to writing an employee manual defining what happens when we get a new client, to getting the information you need from the client and getting them into the billing system, setting up the time cards. All that stuff we never got around to doing.”

OBTIVA HAD ENOUGH BUILDING TALENT TO PROGRAM A VIRTUAL PYRAIMID OF GIZA, but dreaming of digital monuments wasn’t worth focusing on for them.

“We could build apps, but the problem is we needed a visionary to tell us what to build. You need a person who sees opportunities and can solve problems. The problem is we’re builders. Dave and I decided to be really good at being builders; just be kick ass at building stuff for those visionaries that we work with and let’s understand how to pull that out of them and be able to help them shape it so we could build it.”

Kevin has seen a lot of technology entrepreneurs fail, but the ones that have come out on top have one thing in common: Passion.

“We have clients who have an idea for a product and we tell them how high our expectations are of them to come with a strong vision and we’ll be with you throughout. We are a very hands on, high collaboration company.”

Basically Kevin wanted to create a company that employed a bunch of kick ass builders that wouldn’t be known for just unique software development, but also focus on developing people.

“When clients come to Obtiva, they know we are going to build awesome stuff for them. But in order to appease that hunger inside all technology people to build their own thing, we actively encourage our own people to have their own side projects. If one of my developers build an interesting prototype and he’s passionate, I will invest in his start-up and I’ll give him time to take it to market. I’ll even help mentor him, but he’s got to be willing to be up late at night working on it. Once a month we have a start-up lunch where people get together and talk about their side projects. We invite start-up entrepreneurs from the community to come in and talk to the group about their businesses and we have 15, 20, 30 people pounce on the idea which provides a lot of good candid feedback.”

Kevin practices what he preaches when it comes to working on side projects because he works on his own all the time. His current one is EventWax.

“EventWax is a really cool, simple to use online event registration tool that is very focused on selling seats for an event, whether it’s a wedding, a training class, or a conference. It makes it really easy to collect payments and manage your audience. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles EventBrite does, but that is by design. It is made to be a great tool for the occasional event planner. The tool was actually released in 2006 in the UK by Patrick Griffiths and Dan Webb. In 2009 we were using EventWax for Obtiva’s training classes, then I got an e-mail saying they were shutting down EventWax and to go ahead and remove all my events off of it. I responded with ‘Well’, how about I buy it.?”

Chicago has been and will remain an excellent environment to grow and expand upon existing businesses. In Kevin’s case he uses the company he acquired, EventWax to organize industry conferences and training classes for Obtiva.

THERE IS SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT CHICAGO to Kevin Taylor.

“I have lived all over the country as a kid and as an adult. In Chicago, and it may be like this in other Midwestern cities, but there is definitely a vibe in Chicago where it is real. If you want to generalize, there is an attitude of people working really hard all over Chicago. People take their jobs seriously. I don’t know the stats, but I would guess they tend to stay at their jobs longer. It is a really solid city and work force.”

“So what does that have to do with technology? What I mean is, in California people are chasing funding. At some level, getting funded is considered an end in itself. Chicago is different. People are starting real businesses that they want to make profitable. They hire people who are really salt of the earth. I come in and work my ass off. It makes me really proud to be in that type of environment. It’s interesting to see that now we are starting to see some high profile technology start-ups. I teach a technology entrepreneurship class at DePaul for their computer science school, which has been a lot of fun. I like to have six guest speakers come in and just talk about where did the idea come from, how did you figure out that the idea was a real opportunity versus just an interesting idea.”

“I love what we are seeing in the last four or five years in Chicago. I like to call it ‘the Chicago School of Entrepreneurship’, which encourages the practice of creating a real company, working really hard, and making it a success.”

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