Mike Monan and Stephen Colson are more than just your run of-the-mill townies. They're Ann Arborists.
Technically, they are Ann Arborites. They live in the city. They started Switchback, their website business based on Drupal technology, in the heart of Ann Arbor three years ago and now employ about a dozen people. They walk to work and chose a green building in Kerrytown to set up shop because these comrades are just so People's Republic. They are now even seeing some of their techie friends, who long ago left for the greener pastures of Silicon Valley, come back to set up their own businesses. Why? A greater sense of community.
"When we made Switchback, we all made this commitment that we would stick around," Mike says. "It's interesting because I am getting friends who are coming back into town to start businesses. I know Ann Arbor is a great place to be because of that reason alone. They're not coming back to Michigan. They're coming back to Ann Arbor."
It's not only that point of view that makes them Ann Arborists. They know where the locals enjoy life. They get beers at Old Town Tavern in downtown and sandwiches at Maize and Blue Deli on campus, bypassing the much closer Zingerman's. They know Casey's Tavern doesn't take reservations, but will put your name on the waiting list for up to 20 minutes if you call ahead for some of the best wings in town.
"There are some great restaurants with some really great food around here," Stephen says.
The two young entrepreneurs agreed to talk start-ups, Drupal, and scuba diving and, surprise, Ann Arbor with Concentrate's Jon Zemke.
Drupal is the kind of techie jargon that makes most people’s eyes glaze over. How would you describe Drupal to your grandmother so she understands what you do for a living?
Stephen: It's like using Word but for web pages. You have the ability to open up a page, add content, save it quickly and not have to know any of the code behind the scenes.
Mike: I have run into this problem a lot. It's like Legos for the web. Putting pieces together so you can build what you want with pre-constructed pieces.
You both have made the transition from employee to co-founder, which is a fairly common career path with start-ups. How do you keep your business stocked with talented employees when others are doing the same?
Stephen: We have been pleasantly surprised with what we have been able to find in terms of those who want to stay. It's not like you're going to look out the door and see 10 qualified guys. You have to look for them. But people are around.
So, is high turnover something you have to deal with? I would think a lot of your employees would want to start their own company?
Mike: I know earlier in the decade there was this big churn problem, but not today. Maybe it's because the economy is in a downturn at the moment.
Stephen: I like to think it's because Switchback is a cool company to work for. People identify that we are in a pretty flexible start-up with a lot of potential for growth. A lot of our employees do their own open-source projects on the side, but for somebody who is really into it that's what they do anyway.
Mike: If they want to do something cool. We don't get in the way.
How do you know Switchback is a cool company to work for?
Stephen: In terms of flexibility, most start-ups have this model where you can split your schedule around. There is a lot behind the concept of work, life, balance. People shouldn't be chained to a computer 100 hours a week.
Mike: Largely, it's that we hire professionals. We expect them to act like professionals and deliver. A lot of it is hands-off. It's more about the freedom, flexibility, and ability to set your own course.
You chose to set up shop in a downtown building that featured sustainable improvements. Give an example of how this decision has unexpectedly helped build your business?
Mike: The location is absolutely relevant.
Stephen: One of our most recent engineering hires was extremely interested in us because he could walk to work or bike or ride the bus. He liked the city-center aspect.
Name something you wish Ann Arbor had that cities like Boulder, Berkley, or Madison currently have?
Stephen: Boulder, Fort Collins Colo., and Miami Beach have closed huge chunks of main streets and made them pedestrian-only. We could do quite a bit by having a solid, walkable downtown city core where there is more opportunity to sit and eat outside without have to worry about traffic driving by or crossing the street.
Poof! You are now King of Ann Arbor and have the power and money to change things. What would you do?
Stephen: Close Main Street down. Make it a pedestrian and bike area. Another thing I liked in another town I lived in, on New Years Eve they dropped their own pine cone for the count down. New York has the ball and Flagstaff, Arizona has a pine cone. It would be sweet if we had this big town party on New Year's Eve.
One of your mentors at Ann Arbor SPARK's Entrepreneurial Boot Camp suggested you figure out how the company will make decisions with only two votes. Did you ever tackle that hypothetical?
Stephen: It hasn't been fully resolved. We are in a workable state. We have empowered our staff to help advise [us] on decisions and make changes.
Sort of the proletariat third vote then?
Mike: A little bit. Largely we have been handling it with communication and compromise. We make sure everybody stays on the same page with daily discussions.
As entrepreneurs, if your child ever wanted to start a business would you encourage them or nudge them toward a safer choice, like becoming a doctor or lawyer?
Mike: Absolutely. This is the way of the future. Careers are becoming more self-directed, not just latching onto a larger firm or becoming another cog in the wheel. The successes you have are only limited by what you want to do and how much effort you want to put into it.
Stephen: If you know what you're getting yourself into, absolutely. I would do my best to explain the pros and cons of it. But parents would do that for any career field. It's [being an entrepreneur] a great thing to do. It's a great feeling to create something where you are directly improving the economy where you live by creating these jobs and bringing money back into the local area. Very little beats that.
Mike, you called the rise and fall of Diamond Bullet (a former start-up you worked for) during the tech bubble as a wild ride. Have you ever repeated a mistake you experienced firsthand at Diamond Bullet?
Mike: One of the things Diamond Bullet did was go on a hiring boom. They went from 13 to 35 people in a year. At the time, I remember saying that's too fast. Earlier this year I saw us doing the exact same thing. We were adding good people just because they were out there.
Stephen, your wife is a Switchback employee. How do you balance this relationship as both a husband and business partner?
Stephen: It's a challenge. The success of what I do is tied directly to her success so she isn't afraid to let me know.
Mike, feel free to interject.
Mike: This isn't my thing. (Laughs).
Stephen to Mike: Yeah, you don't have to worry about it.
Stephen: Sometimes it’s a challenge to compartmentalize and know when you have to bridge both. You can ask me when I am 90 and I still won't know.
So how do you make it work for you?
Stephen: Sometimes it is a challenge when your significant other wants to vent about their day and not take that personally. Sometimes you just have to shut up and listen.
Is it one of those things where the work day ends when you leave the office?
Stephen: It can’t be that simple. I wish it were sometimes. The reality is you are going to have go home with this person and they’re going to want to talk about it and work through it like normal couples. There is no way every conversation can be perfectly delineated between home and work when you both work at the same company.
Mike, you enjoy scuba diving so much that it's your profile picture on your blog. Name a lesson, idea, or mindset local entrepreneurs should take away from scuba diving?
Mike: Keep your equipment maintained. I was on a dive trip recently where there were four ‘oopses’ that could have led to serious accidents. That applies to everything we do as well. Preparation, preparation, preparation.
One of your former partners home brews beer. Name a lesson or idea entrepreneurs should take away from people who have to drink their partner's home brewed beer?
Mike: He made great beer. If someone offers you a beer, take it.
You say your start-up is focused on Drupal, Drupal, Drupal. Do you guys ever have a fear of being too focused and not being diversified enough in what your company offers?
Mike: I was initially. Less so now. Opportunities present themselves as you become more expert in certain areas.
Stephen: I wasn't terribly worried about it. The technology was attractive for a number of different reasons, so it made sense. The White House is running on Drupal now.
Mike: There has been a lot of buy-in from a lot of different organizations. I still see the wave cresting. Although it's a long-term concern, it's not on my radar yet.
This interview was edited and condensed by Jon Zemke, the news editor for Concentrate and Metromode. His last feature was Pure Entrepreneurship: A Q&A with Catherine Juon and Linda Girard.
All photos by Doug Coombe
L to R - Mike Monan and Stephen Colson at the 5th Avenue offices of Switchback
Mike Monan being interviewed at the Switchback offices
Stephen Colson being interviewed at the Switchback offices
L to R Mike Monan and Stephen Colson being interviewed at the Switchback offices
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