BTU #111: Two sibling Army Vets and Their Two Successful Startups

"Wouldn't it be great if our country didn't have to care about Iraq's oil, or the Middle East's oil? Maybe we should start an energy related business - ok let's go figure that out. That was roughly the thought process that gave us the left and right limits of starting an energy business. That started a process where we just endlessly turned over rock, after rock, after rock trying to find something, while absolutely not knowing what we were doing. Then we eventually stumbled across something where people would pay us money for it. So we just said let's do more of this thing and do it in as many spots as possible.  " - Chris Boggiano

Jon Boggiano and Chris Boggiano are the Co-Founders of Versame, which leverages technology for large scale impact to improve early childhood education and language development. Versame has raised $2.5M in funding and is a team of sixteen.

Jon started out at West Point, after which he served for five years in the Army, most recently as an Operations Officer & Battle Captain, 1st Infantry Division. After his transition from the Army he worked at Carrier Corporation for three years, before starting his first company, Everblue. Jon is a Sloan fellow from Stanford University.

Chris started out at West Point, after which he served in the Army for five years, most recently as Operations Officer, 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command. He worked at Tessera for one year prior to starting his first company, Everblue. Chris is also a Sloan fellow from Stanford University.

I came across Jon and Chris in a 2016 Forbes Article about the Top 25 Veteran Founded Startups in America.

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Show Notes

Please note that I type these notes during the interview so there are likely to be misspellings, grammatical errors, and misquotes. This is not meant to be a verbatim account of our conversation, but a VERY basic text transcript of our discussion.

  • You each separated about two years apart from the Army - what lead  you each to decide to transition from the Army?
    • Jon: Older than Chris, so transitioned first. Was fortunate that he started just before 2011. Got to experience Army before and after transition. Post-9/11 Army was much more innovative. It shook off the beauracratic shackles. I was stationed in Germany for over five years; it was great but intense. Between training and deployments was gone for most of that five years. As I started thinking about having kids, the future looked like back-to-back deployments with training in between. At that point decided I as going to get out - if I was going to do it, I wanted to have a plan and attacked getting out spending 1.5 - 2 years getting out. Still in the Reserves, but mainly got out for the op tempo
    • Chris: Combination of op tempo. 9/11 happened my senior year so I graduated into an Army at war. I was deployed back-to-back - same decisions of not knowing if and when it would end. Uncertainty was a big factor. For better or worse what was most interesting assignments was early on in career was fortunate to do a lot of interesting things. The nature of the beuaracacy was part of it too - the Army functions amazingly, even in the best of times, it's limited in its ability to innovate.
    • Jon: One thing i was looking for was a better meritocracy. Early on in the Army everyone got promoted at the same time and the same assignments. There were small differences, but for the most part there wasn't differentiation between good and bad officers.
    • What was your first job search like, and what advice would you have for veterans about their transition?
      • Chris: it's impossible to know what it's like on the other side until you get there. The thing I didn't expect was that in the Army there was this binary expectation: career or getting out. When I left the Army the company I went to thought I'd be there for a very long time (decade long). One year later I was leaving to start my own company. Going out with the expetation of doing the best you can and if you move on that's ok. I had a lot of guilt when I left that first company. For better or worse it wasn't the right fit and taught me what I don't enjoy and lead to Jon and I starting our own company together. In the long-0term it worked out but in the short-term there was a lot of stress.
      • Jon: For me a lot of my preparation was reading books, and going through the Cameron Brooks program. Talked to 25 people who made the transition ahead of me and gegtting their advice. SOme of that advice was to make a list of personal goals and values, and dust that off around tax season. Make sure I'm following that and staying true to it. I didn't just want a job - I loved the work hard play hard mentality of hte Army. I didn't just want a job I wanted great people.
      • How did you two start to work together?
        • Chris: OUr dad was a cop and mom was in education so entrepreneruship wasn't in our head. We hadn't thought a lot about it. We had worked together throughout school at West Point and would work together. We were in the same Brigade and deployed twice together in the same unit - we were workign together pretty closely in the military. I moved to Charlotte, NC because Jon was located here. We had worked together in the past, and when we took the plunge to startups it was a natural transition to work together in that capacity. The startup piece was the bigger of the two.
        • Jon: when Chris moved to Charlotte, our dad was always doing business things on the side. He was always a community activist, so we didn't start out wanting to be entrpereneurs but just looking at small scale business ideas. Two events stand out. I got out and enjoyed my job and we made a concious decision to become entreprenerus. Chris, day one, came back and said 'this is not what I want to be doing' If his experience had been different may not have started a company together. That started the idea of the week phase.
        • I had done really well at Carrier doing sales, and my boss left to go to another company. Ultimately led to the decision - are we going to be entrepreneurs.
        • Was your work experience prior to startups helpful?
          • Jon: For me it was, at Carrier. You just gotta get one thing to work in one area and you can scale it. Understanding finances, which I never dealt with in the Army. It's not you can't learn these things, but having had the big corproate expereince made it clear I didn't want to do this, and gave me some training that helped in my startup. It made my decision all the clearer - I can't imagine going back to cubicle now. Not having had had that it would have made that option seem more appealing
          • Chris: The transition I did in short order, but I did make a transition from the Army to civilian world, and then to startups. I'm glad they were staggered. As much as the company I went to knew i wouldn't last there, do think it was hlepful. It gave me time to build an identity and make the transition. It allowed me to separate the two parts of who I was, and then in an intentional manner make the leap to an entrepreneur. It would be more painful and risker for me to jump from one into the other.
          • Jon: We joke about this all the time with recent veterans; my wife calls it "command voice". You have to stop using acronyms, stop cursing, understanding business acronyms. I read a slew of books and that helped with the transition but it takes time to desensitize and be able to relate to civilians. you need to plan for a transition period. There's teh identity piece of not having the team. It took a few years to form a community. In Europe on the miltiary base we all did everything together. We had a forced commiunity in the military. In the civilian world you may have nothing in common with your neighboars.
          • How did you choose to start a company?
            • Chris: for me it was a process of elimination. I looked at 'what am I going to do in my life' most of my peers went to grad school, work at a big corporation, or work for other federal agencies. these were the three main routes - I didn't think I wanted to do any of those. I didn't want to go abck in the Army. I can't tell whether I changed or the world changed - I didn't know ANY startup language when I started this. I didn't know about VC, revenue, etc. So it was a process of elimination, getting out mypersonality I had a more of a chip on my shoulder and more committed to going after it. The biggest thing the military helped me with was that working for something I cared about - 'we're in Iraq... I wish we weren't here. We probably wouldn't care if there weren't oil. Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to rely on energy. Let's start an energy company' That was roughly the point of starting our first company, and then endleslly turned over rock, after rock after rock. It's hard to overstate how little we knew but being motivated to figure problems out as they came to use.
            • Jon: My advice for anyone transitiong is to be deliberate. The people in the military are usually drivers - so be deliberate. The business world for me was still very restrictive. I wanted to control my own destiny. I wanted to choose when I take vacation, that's why I left the mlitary. I like building things and making things - I like creating things. I wanted to have more ownership about it. I also wanted a bigger purpose. All of our companies have been social mission companies - wanting to make the world a better place. We were sitting down on a Thursday evening - are we going to do the startup thing.
            • What was the Everblue experience?
              • Jon: we ended up selling it after about four years. We chose a problem we wanted to focus on and then from there we did a "movement to contact" - develop the intelligence around the enemy. We talked to every expert we could, and in that process became knoweldable experts. That took about two years. IN that process became experts. People said 'if you could solve this porblem, we'd pay you' but without those two years of turning over rocks... we wouldn't have foudn it. I don't think it's about the idea - it's about the idea you're solving. If it was obvious the problem you're trying to solve it would already.
              • How did you make money?
                • Jon: We did a lot of the research while at other companies. Chris gets the credit - he jumped off his job and started full time. Anyone in the military if I said in the next year you need to replace your salary, I think anyone in the military can do that. I give Chris credit for tdoing that because he did it first.
                • Chris: For me it was really scary to think about taking that leap. the exercise that was most helpful to me. I got out of the Army and bought a house and the mortgage rates were higher then than now. My wife had a lot of student loan debt - financially even being in the corporate sector I had so many expenses - gym membership, laundry, etc. There's this fear of - what can I do if I don't pay the bills. What liberated me was: what happens if I don't pay the bills. It was just my wife and I at the time. She had just graduated from grad school. The day I quit, she was working at B&N for $8 / hr, so household income was $20k per year. We had all these bills, and I thought what happens if we burn through savings and the bank takes my house... we'd move in with our parents and go get a job again and figure it out. We have a family and support network to get through it. It wouldn't be pleasant, but compared to things I saw in the Army, it's not that scary. We thought we'd do energy audits on homes when we started out. We had lined up thousands of homes of work. Along the way we got training on this. Jon threw up on Google Adwords a one page website that offered training. People started to call to ask for training - then we shifted to a training business that over the next year or two we grew to 100 or so locations.
                • Jon: The biggest risk in a startup is trying to do too many things.
                • Stanford Sloan
                  • Chris: I didn't want to go to graduate school. Jon nagged me and we applied together. I had a ten day window to get my application together and we applied together. It was the most flippant application ever. I was pretty truthful about why I considered this. When we interviewed they asked what happens if we only accept one of you. I said, both or neither of us. I'm very glad we went there - that's where Versame came from. Jon is potentially more thoughtful than me and it balances out my riskiness
                  • Jon: Even though we had an epic success we were intent on starting another company. We still felt like amatuers. We had never had any formal business training. So I wanted to address our weaknesses. Second, we had just made a lot of money and Stanford was an adventure. It was the reward for having had the success of Everblue. It was a nice break a one year program. It was the experience of doing something different. I had moved seven times in three years. I was feeling th eitch to do something new.
                  • What was the genesis of Versame?
                    • Jon: When we had Everblue, we straddled education and energy. When we sold Everblue we had expertise in two domains. When we went to Stanford we decided to go deeper into one of them. Energy was making a lot of progress. It was really taking off and it still is. It's a national security issue. When it came to educaiton we struggeld with the technoloyg and the people we were training. It felt like the impact we coul dhave on people was much greater. If it was an innovation that involved technolgy - we turned over every rock. We were about to walk away - it's an in person business. There was nothing moving the needle at the time. Then Chris read an article in the NYT about an infant training lab at Stanford. She was so excited someone was taking an interest in her work - ifyou really need to impact life outcomes you need to start at birth and do it before kindergarten
                    • How would you explain Versame to someone on Active Duty?
                      • Jon: We're envisioning reimagingin education. not education at a classroom but at home. We're giving parents the tools and helping them apply the research to grow happy succesful children. We'll help you do that through the technology and tools to do that. But you need to start at birth.
                      • What was the first year like starting Versame?
                      • What has been the biggest challenge so far?
                        • Jon: Biggest change in perspective is that the people in need of help is the agencies in the medical industry. The tools we build help teachers, nurses, therapists - the people who are caregivers. We're trying to change a mindset - most poeple are worried about safety but not about brain development. They don't think about education until kindergarten or preschoool. There are some subculttures that believe this, but we want the mindset change across America.
                        • Chris: your memory of childhood is spotty. Many people think you're as smart as you are and you were born that way. YOu don't remember your parents teaching you and hleping you. People attribute intelligence to genetics rather than environmental factors. Research suggests parents can have a MASSIVE impact on their child's success in life.
                        • Starting a business with family
                          • Chris: research says that more likely you'll fail; it's harder to have tough conversations with family members. Little problems become big ones. The most improtant thing is that you should have a business partner - it's more fun. You should be able to have a good fight and get over it. We fight all the time but it never sticks. There's not a grudge - we can have our disagreements and it's not a big deal. If I wasn't in business with my brother this is the qulaity I would want with someone else.
                          • Jon: I would add that whether siblings or others, the most important ingredient is the partners and the suppor tnetwork. I think it's essential to have partners - your energy level and momentum it helps carry you. If all the stress is on one person's shoulders
                          • Chris: a lot of ivnerstors won't invest in solo founders. IF yo uhave someone else to pull you through you're more likely to stick it out. From a statistiacal stnadpoint most buisnesses are successful with two or three partners. It's more fun when you have more people to be together.
                          • Jon: Defense Secretary Mattis says leaders need to be learners. I think this is true no matter what you're doing. We knew nothign about hardware but we attacked that. We've done well with that - we're the ifrst to ship a product in our Stanford cohort, you have to attack what you don't know. Yo8 uneed to ask for help and advie. That's tough for veterans. I've gotten over that - you gotta ask for help, and people are more than happy to share it.
                          • Resources
                            • GOOGLE!
                            • Jon: it's the best form of online learning. Career advice books are great. If you're a big believer in the mission of the miltiary you'll learn how improtant business is to the strength of our nation. Our economy and the businesses we build enable us to pay for a good military. Business is part of the life time of service. Read books that frame business in the sense of innovation. I'm loving Elon Musk's biography.
                            • Jon: I always ahd this mindset with EverBlue that everything will be better in three months. But I've always felt on the cliff's edge... I've learned to live with this fact and realize this is normal. that fear of failure never goes away. Just accept it. Dealing with a team, there's always some personal issue. I thought if I solved one issue my team would be perfect. I know realize this is the core of my job- keeping my team performing. These are two norms taht never chagne. You'll never feel successful, you'll always have the same stress