Earlier this year, I shared the story of how Far Reach was founded at 1 Million Cups Cedar Valley. Several people told me afterward they were glad they finally got to hear the story. I’ve told it so many times over the last 10 years, I forget there are still people who haven’t heard it. So here it is, for all to read.
While working in the IT department at CUNA Mutual Life Insurance, I got to know Jason, Lana, Chris, and Chad. It wasn’t very long after I started that Jason began talking to us about going into business for ourselves, but at that point, it was just a fun dream. I didn’t take it seriously—I was busy with my job and learning how to be a real developer. Who had time to start a business? And who would want to?
Several years later, things had changed at CUNA—a new CEO had come on, the culture had shifted, and the nature of our jobs was changing. Instead of designing and developing systems ourselves, the company’s new strategy was that we would write specs and contractors would do the coding. For me, this was a deal-killer. I loved coding, so the thought of having to do what I considered the boring part (writing specs) while someone else got to do the fun part (the coding) was not something I was interested in. (Little did I know that I would later learn to write specs and not hate it.)
Not surprisingly, it was around this time that we started to talk more seriously about starting our own business.
Getting more serious, for us, meant lots of meetings over lunch at the Waverly bowling alley or after work at the Wartburg library to strategize and work on our business plan. Over the course of those first 10 months, we would put meetings on our calendars with a subject of “Bowling,” thinking we were being sly.
As we talked about the business and what it would be, all we knew was that we wanted to do something we were passionate about. Both Jason and Chris have kids with autism, so we landed on developing educational software for kids with special needs to be used on Microsoft’s then-new tablet PCs—yes, Microsoft had a tablet before Apple. Just not a very good one.
Since tablets were so cutting-edge back then, we figured we needed a more mainstream way to get into the education industry, and, after a whole lot of research, landed on developing a school information system. There were only a handful of systems used in the U.S. and, in Iowa in particular, the one used in the majority of schools was a dinosaur with major usability issues.
We figured we could build something a whole lot better, so we started writing our business plan around a new system. We planned product features; talked to teachers, administrators, and administrative assistants; and fleshed out all the sections of our shiny, new 35-page business plan.
After “bowling” for about a year, we made the leap. Lana, Chris, and I left our jobs on the same day: Friday, April 13, 2007. On Monday, April 16, we were at my dining room table working as Far Reach. Jason left CUNA two weeks later, and Chad waited another six months.
One of the first (and smartest) things we did was to apply for—and, fortunately, get—a state grant that offered matching funds for market research. We used this opportunity to learn more about the educational technology industry by contracting with a Pennsylvania company that had expertise in the industry to help us. Our assigned researcher, Bruce, did all the heavy lifting and even took Chad and me to a big education conference in Atlanta.
While Bruce was busy doing the research for us, we paid the bills doing consulting work and building websites. Referrals from those early happy clients and CUNA teammates who had left shortly after us sustained us.
When we eventually got the market research results, it was clear that the effort it would take to build the product and take it to market was significant, while the chances of a fruitful payoff were…let’s just say, not so significant. Bruce called it a red ocean, and he was right. So, while we very well could have done it, it would have been a steep up-hill climb, and the rewards likely would not have matched the effort we would have had to put in.
It was disappointing to pull the plug on our idea, but when we thought about what was ahead of us, the decision was easy. We were doing ok with the consulting, and we figured we could just keep doing that until we had our next big idea.
Fast forward to 2017 and over the intervening years we’ve had lots of big ideas—some good and some bad. Regardless, here we are a decade later with a team of 22 amazing people and working with some of the best clients any company could want.
They say pivoting is a fact of start-up life. It certainly was for us. But we felt then, and we feel now, that changing course was the right move. While we’ve had many challenges along the way, we have learned a ton and benefitted enormously from the generosity of a lot of really smart and talented people who’ve given their time and resources to help us.
We couldn’t be more thankful.
P.S. For another perspective on our Far Reach story, check out Chris’ 7th anniversary post and my 4th anniversary post.