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Season 01, Episode 07

CEO and Co-Founder at Choozle, Andrew Fischer

CEO and Co-Founder at Choozle, Andrew Fischer

About the Episode

Today on The Fastest Growing Companies podcast, we’re talking to the CEO and Co-Founder at Choozle, Andrew Fischer.

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Full Transcript

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19:35

Chris:
I’m Chris Ronzio and today I’m here with Andrew Fischer. He is the CEO and co-founder over at Choozle. Hey Andrew.

Andrew:
Hey Chris. Thanks for having me on. Yeah, thanks for

Chris:
Being here. So Choozle, you guys are up in Colorado, right

Andrew:
Yes, we’re based here in Denver, Colorado.

Chris:
And you were saying right before we hit record that there’s a story behind the name. So it’s such a fun name. I, I I’d love to hear how it all started.

Andrew:
Yeah. Um, you know, my background has been in digital media since I launched my career back and San Francisco in 99 and, um, you know, various, uh, geographies, including LA, then we moved to Colorado about 12 years ago. Um, and when we got chisel going, our vision was to create a digital media platform. And the version one was actually, uh, an engine that allowed our users, um, both consumers and then also advertising agencies to create modules that allowed for visual voting directly in the module. So think of a rich media advertisement. It could also be, uh, we had a Facebook, uh, product at that point. And so if you’re scrolling through your feed, you know, someone could create something that says, Hey, I’m looking to buy a new car, a new color of the house, paint, a new shirt. You could vote real quickly, uh, within the application, hence the name chisel.

Andrew:
Um, and then we have all very quickly from that. That was one of the products. Um, we kind of did a kind of an evolved pivot. I think pivot implies a, a quick change. Uh, but over a period of about a year, we, we moved kind of more on a programmatic media and launched a self-service platform based on the original learnings from V1, one of the products. Um, but we kept the name. Um, and you know, it ended up being kind of, uh, a memorable name and one that once you see it, once you can kind of remember, so, uh, it’s evolved to be our brand today.

Chris:
I love it. And it looks just like, it sounds so choosable makes a ton of sense where it came from. So who’s, who’s an ideal customer for you right now. What kind of projects do you do?

Andrew:
Yeah, we’re we play in the mid-market and choose a little, has evolved into a fully functional self-service digital advertising platform. And we primarily partner with independent advertising agencies. And then also brands direct, uh, about a 70, 30 split. Um, we have built a platform. We’ve got a team that goes out, obviously sells it, whether it’s people coming inbound or going outbound and working with our clients. Um, and then we teach, train and support them on the platform and our users when they log into the platform can run digital advertising at scale, um, in the realm of digital advertising, it’s, it’s usually broken into, you know, search, social and display. Uh, we play more in the latter side of the display advertising. So think online banners, uh, video advertisements, uh, but things are, things are expanding very quickly and things like connected TV, digital out of home, uh, basically any sort of digital advertising that can be automated. We can run through our platform.

Chris:
Got it. Cool. All right. So you mentioned starting your career in 99. Did you always want to be an entrepreneur or what made you take the leap into starting this business?

Andrew:
Yeah. Great question. Um, gosh, I, I think I always aspired to, to running my own company. I had some great mentors in my life, uh, in our families, and some great entrepreneurs. I always aspire to do something, but I was never kind of the person that said, you know, I’m going to whatever, build rockets or software or something specific. Um, so even coming out of college, I moved out to San Francisco and actually jumped into finance because I thought it would be at least a good spot to make money. Um, so I was a Merrill Lynch for about two, two weeks actually, but at that point, uh, 1.0, um, the internet was just absolutely exploded, especially in the bay area. And you could literally see, you know, just the, from the, my little office up in Transamerica tower, just all the activity down in the street level below.

Andrew:
Um, so my financial career lasts about two weeks. I jumped into early advertising, uh, digital advertising pioneer, uh, an ad network called El 90 at the point at that point, um, I loved the space, you know, love digital advertising. And, you know, obviously, it was, it was destined to be a high growth industry and being a non-technologist, I kind of floated toward, you know, how are these websites and how are these apps going to make money? And there’s clearly based on advertising. So my career kind of followed that progression. I went to grad school at UCLA when I came out, worked for interactive Corp, kind of a bigger, more established company. And then from there started getting into the startup world, uh, started with one small firm in LA. I really loved that, uh, that feeling of starting a little bit more at the ground level, working closely with the founders, uh, understanding everything from raising capital, uh, to early scale.

Andrew:
Um, and after that moved to Colorado, sort of my last company, a couple of partners in LR, digital advertising model, uh, we scaled that pretty quickly. I had a nice exit and then you, I started to choose all my co-founder Jeff about eight years ago. So it was more of evolution versus, you know, like I’m an entrepreneur and I’m going to go build this. Um, and I, you know, when I talk to younger folks kind of, you know, getting into this space, you know, some people can start stuff, you know, right out of high school college. Um, you know, there’s a lot more probably like me and I get a little bit more just general business experience before you jump in with both feet.

Chris:
And so here you are eight years into building this business. And you mentioned right before the call that you’re, you’ll, you’re projecting 80 people by the end of this year. Is that right?

Andrew:
Yeah. We’re about 60 now. And, you know, as we’ve evolved like many companies, you have certain areas of rapid growth, both on revenue, uh, in employees, clients, et cetera. And for us, you know, about two and a half years ago, we said, let’s not raise any more capital let’s, let’s turn this into a real business. So we had kind of a, not necessarily an intentional hiring freeze, but we just got real deliberate about, uh, our talent and making sure that we were leveling up on everything from operations execution, being very disciplined, uh, leveraging, you know, processes that scaled. And so in that time span of about two and a half years, we more than doubled our revenue but kept headcount about the same. And now we’re at that kind of classic inflection for it that this business works, you know, we’re profitable. Okay. Now let’s really scale. It let’s really stack it. Yeah. It, it

Chris:
Seems to be cyclical. It’s like, you, you, you work on growing the customer base and the revenue, and then you work on adding people, and then you put systems in place to support the people or support the growth. And, and so it’s, it’s interesting. You’ve seen that. So over the years, what are the couple things that you think have caused you to scale up, to hire a bunch of people puts structure in place? Have there been like new products you came out with or what have been some of the pivots

Andrew:
Yeah. Early on. So it took us, you know, from when we launched, it was about a year and a half before we, we, we launched the second version of the product, which is effectively what it is today that the digital advertising platform. And at that point, it’s like, you know, I think we had probably eight to 10 employees that have been the spring of 2014 and it’s, you know, it was a classic, can we find a market for this? And, you know, we did, we, we, we were able to come in and kind of define this category of self-service programmatic, uh, prior to us coming to market, it was much more enterprise-level, a lot of managed services, complexity costs. Uh, so we kind of defined the self-service category for the mid-market, and then it just kind of took off. Right. And you have those crazy growth years, you know, I think what was it between 15 and 16, we grew 600%.

Andrew:
So at that point, you’re just hiring effectively for everything, you know, what what’s working, what’s not, um, just trying to kind of keep up with the pace of overall client growth and platform development. Um, yeah. Then you kinda hit some maturing phases. Right. Um, and I would say our most recent spurt of growth has just been by the growth itself, meaning, you know, we, we are bringing on more clients and we’re, we’re now almost playing catch up to make sure we’ve got the right people to support our growing and profitable scaling business. Um, so it’s a little bit different. I would say this stage is much more deliberate. And over the years you obviously build models and you get a little smarter about, okay. If I hire, you know, an inbound salesperson versus an outbound salesperson versus spending on marketing, uh, understanding all those channels and where to kind of invest. Um, and then you see that return more consistently over time as well. So structurally,

Chris:
As you went from, you know, five to 15 to 30 to 60, and some of these like big inflection points, what changed about the way the organization’s designed or maybe the structure of managers or your role? How did, how did that shift?

Andrew:
Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s, uh, obviously when you start your super flat, you know, you effectively have a handful of employees everyone’s in the same room. Um, there’s such a, there’s no need for transparency because it’s literally transparent and you’re all sitting in the same room. And then as you grow, I would say, when you get to around 20 employees, you start to put in, you know, levels of hierarchy, which depending on the company, I don’t like the word hierarchy, but you have to have some levels of, uh, structure, uh, for scale. And so that was one of the big ones. Once, you know, once you go to three levels, meaning not everyone reports to the CEO, it’s a big change, right. But it does allow for scale. So it’s great for both employee development. And if I look at our leadership team today, I think three-fourths of it has been with us for over six years.

Andrew:
Meaning a lot of them with us, the journey, and many started at entry-level positions. Um, and so when you get to that next level of scale, allows them to start building out teams and learning their management skills. Um, and then over time throughout the organization, especially on the people side, you do have to level up with outside talent as well. Um, and you know, being a first-time CEO at this scale there’s problems I run into every day that I’ve never encountered. Right. And so I can do everything across finance, marketing, sales, operations, and be an expert. And so we’re, we’re kind of at an inflection point now we’re starting to build out more of our C-suite as well as bringing in really seasoned folks that have taken companies from our size from 60 to 600 employees. Cause that’s a whole different level of kind of structure strategy, uh, execution, operations management. Um, so we’re kind of at that inflection point now.

Chris:
So as you think about 60 to 600, which is a massive journey ahead, what kinds of things are you doing to try to maintain the culture, the values, the, you know, the core of what got you to where you are today?

Andrew:
Yeah, it’s a great question. Right. And especially in the lens of the last 12 months, uh, with, with COVID, it’s a, it’s a little bit different reality. And we were deliberately a culturally focused company when we started. And, you know, if I were to summarize, you know, what that meant to me as the founder of was, you know, I want to create a place where I would like to work, even if I wasn’t the founder. And I want to be able, to create a company where people care about each other and not just the work, um, because they do care about each other, they build relationships, they are going to care about the work. Um, and so we were very deliberate. We developed our values early, um, and you know, we, we really live that and it starts, you know, much, most companies, culture are really the co-founders at the start.

Andrew:
So you kinda have to walk the walk. Um, and then as that evolved, that’s changing. Right. And it’s, you know, especially over the last year, uh, when we did our kickoff in January, um, just a few weeks back, it was one of the things we talked about. We, we actually sourced input from all of our team members. Um, and we’re adding a new value this year because we’ve had so many challenges and disruptions and changes in the last 12 months, you know, as, as we move forward in 2021 and beyond what kind of, uh, how do we want our culture to evolve? Um, and so culture has been a throughline for us early on when we pivoted very hard. It’s, you know if you don’t have a strong culture, people are going to be like, what are we doing? I’m out of here? You know, I don’t, I don’t believe in this company.

Andrew:
Um, as you grow, the culture kind of creates this level of stickiness where, um, it almost provides a, a way of providing a benefit. That’s hard to quantify, or even, you know, you certainly can’t put it on the P and L, but it creates something that’s really unique for everyone that, that makes it, I guess, more than just about work. Um, and you know, for the company’s benefit, it helps us make us more competitive. You know, people want to work here, they’re sharing the good word of mouth, especially in the local market. Um, it allows you to attract great people, grows them, retains them over time. Um, so it’s going to be interesting because our culture has been, you know, some parts of it have hit pause cause we were a very office focused culture where people spend time together inside the office, outside the office sites, um, without grinding new holder, the last 12 months. It’s gonna be interesting how we grow back into that. As things become safer over the next few quarters,

Chris:
There was something you said in there that I want to just hone in on. You said that we added a new value. And I think for everyone listening, if you think the values and culture is something you do one time and it never adjusts, then you’re not going to grow like Andrew’s, the company’s grown, you know? And so the fact that you’re constantly revisiting that and being intentional, I think is like a secret that was tucked into that last paragraph there. So, um, kudos to you for that. Was there ever a time that you worried that this wasn’t going to work out or that you had to contract, you had expanded too fast and you had to contract or has it just been smooth sailing the whole time?

Andrew:
Um, every day? Um, I think, uh, every, an honest answer, I think we all, you know, as entrepreneurs, you know, you have to have a, you know, a crazy level of optimism, uh, but it’s often couch with, you know, some healthy paranoia, if not just outright imposter syndrome, like w why should anyone think that we, that I should be able to do this, you know, are we doing it the right way? So that’s a constant battle, right. Um, you know, we’ve had more tangible, you know, areas where we were getting very low on cash more than once. And that’s, you know, a normal part of a, especially a startup when you’re burning money. Um, so we’ve been, you know, existential a few times, right. And it is very challenging because you’re balancing, um, the needs of the business, you know, to, to, to, to functionally survive through those very difficult stretches, but also managing the people, the anxiety of the team, you know, being as transparent as you can, uh, without, you know, outright, you know, potentially frightening people.

Andrew:
Um, so it was very unique, you know, our, our plane can close to the ground a couple of times, and it’s, it’s very satisfying when the team does pull together to solve problems that ultimately keeps the business afloat. Um, and you know, the analogy of, you know, flying the plane and fixing it at the same time, it’s very apt for any startup and even into the growth stage. Um, so yeah, we’ve, we’ve had our fair share of challenges and, you know, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any successful company that, that didn’t at some, some level, right. So, um, the journey

Chris:
Flying a plane and fixing it, I feel like it’s like, you know, that’s one of those things we’ve all heard about, but the reality is you can’t fix every part yourself either. And so how have you gotten better at delegation and supporting yourself when, you know, you can’t do everything at an organization this size?

Andrew:
Yeah. I’ve had a couple of aha moments over the years and it was early on when, you know, again, the first few years you’re involved in everything just out of necessity. And it was probably about three years, then I forgot our platform launched. And I remember things happening that I didn’t know about, and it was so delightful. Um, and I call it the magic of progress when I’m not around and, you know, people making decisions. And, and part of that is, you know, obviously, you know, finding talent that you trust and believe in, but also providing them enough autonomy, um, so they can operate and take risks. And there are, there are periods of the organization spirit, especially if you are in those time periods of perhaps low on cash or, you know, a very difficult product shift where you might have to be more tops down because you just don’t have the ability to have not everyone rowing in the same direction at the same time in unison and other times.

Andrew:
And, you know, we’re entering into the big growth phase now based on our, our success. It’s okay. Let’s experiment a little bit more, you have more autonomy. If the things you want to test out and try, uh, let’s do that. And it’s up to you. You’ve got a particular budget. Everyone has constraints, always, but allowing them and in doing so, you know, that that creates medium and long-term growth. As people are trying new things, building new products, new ideas, but you have to give them room to fail as well, because not everything is going to be there. Uh, and if, if the leader isn’t secure enough to allow people to do things without them knowing about, and to let them fail, um, it’s gonna be very difficult to scale in the long term.

Chris:
Anytime I see things that someone else produced that I didn’t know about, you get that feeling. It’s kind of like when you tell a friend to see a movie, you really like, and then they like it too. It’s sorta like when they get to experience building something that they w they were autonomous and they created on their own with no involvement. It’s pretty cool. It’s like leaders running their own businesses.

Andrew:
That’s awesome. Yeah. That’s, that’s been one of my deliberate actions this year is just excusing myself from more recurring meetings. And, you know, anytime I find a meeting where I’m not participating, let alone contributing to, I’m just like, all right, you guys, you guys run with us and, you know, check on me. If there’s anything I can help out with.

Chris:
Very smart. All right. So what’s, what’s next for you guys? You mentioned this massive growth. Is there anything else on the horizon that you’re really excited about?

Andrew:
Yeah. You know, it’s kind of more of the same. We’re very lucky, um, to be in a market that’s, you know, very high growth and very substantial. And that’s one thing I tell young entrepreneurs is the best thing you can do is find a big growing market. It just, it really gives you more room for error, more room for growth. You know, you’re not in a market that’s necessary, you know, uh, zero or winner takes all. So digital advertising is just a giant growing market. So for us, you know, the innovation is really keeping pace with what is in the market know I mentioned connected TV or over the top. That’s one of the biggest trends in our industry. When you think about, you know, especially over the last 12 months, more and more people have cut the cord, they’re consuming their media digitally, um, on multiple screens, you know, even though the wall over the top, it’s us, that’s created a real acceleration or industry.

Andrew:
So even small, medium advertisers can buy and run high-quality advertisements directly on the big screen on the TV was still great targeting and great location. Um, so we’re really focused on innovation. We will be launching a new version of our platform and Q2 of 2021. It’s the most significant upgrade of our systems since we launched seven years ago, which has been really exciting. Um, and obviously a lot of work over many quarters is going into it. So we’re excited to bring that to market. Um, and then we’re just really excited to scale, you know, growth is a, you know, it’s one of our values and it’s not just for the sake of wanting to grow in terms of valuation or be more profitable. Uh, but I tell our team, you know, that the thing that I want to do is to be able to come back and do it with this team every day. And the only way that I can do that is to, to grow so I can provide opportunities to great people, to level up, to learn more, uh, to eventually become managers, to become leaders. Um, and so if you’re not growing those great leaders and, and, and talent are going to go somewhere else. So the growth is a function of really kind of keeping the band together. Um, and again, it becomes a circular virtuous cycle.

Chris:
Well, you’ve done a great job of keeping the band together so far. It sounds like you’ve got some tenured leadership and eight years go into almost 80 people, which is incredible growth. So, uh, anyone listening, you heard from Andrew, you know, eight years, 80 people focus on growth, focus on delegation, and focus on getting out of the meetings. He doesn’t have to be in, uh, congratulations on everything that you’ve built so far. How can people get ahold of you or learn more about your company?

Andrew:
Yeah, absolutely. Come visit us@chisel.com. That’s C H O O Z L e.com. Uh, plenty of resources there to learn about what we’re doing. Um, you know, I’m on Twitter and all the other normal social networks. You’re going to come to find me. I’m delighted to be on the show. And you know, it’s always fun to talk about growth. We’ve, we’ve been very lucky in our journey, and, uh, I love helping other folks out. So please reach out.

Speaker 2:
All right, everyone, you heard it from Andrew. Hopefully, you can borrow a page from his playbook as you build your own, and we’ll see you next time.

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