Lots of people have ideas. Far fewer people have good ideas—let alone great ideas. And only a small fraction of those people have the courage, dedication and ambition to take a great idea and make it reality. The annual EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® program celebrates the entrepreneurs who have what it takes to launch a successful business or take an established brand and carry it to new heights. Read on for the inspirational stories of these visionary and intrepid leaders.
Karl Sun joined Lucid Software in 2010 to help launch the Lucidchart diagramming app beyond its initial enthusiastic core of users. The move was personally risky for the former Google exec, because he had to turn his back on a traditional career path. Sun was also the first to invest in Lucid Software and went without a salary for a year.
Despite those financial risks, Sun was not in a hurry to launch the product. To further develop the software, he assembled a small team engineers (mostly students working part time) who worked from the basement of a home. That early crew has grown to a workforce of 200, and Lucid Software recently began construction on a new headquarters building in South Jordan. Lucid Software now has a user base that includes 80 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies, and it has raised $42 million in funding.
Sun says the next step for Lucid Software will be defining a new and better way for people to work, “where they’re able to tie together all the different applications and tools that they’re using—they’re able to tie in collaboratively with their peers and colleagues and work in a more collaborative environment.”
“My proudest accomplishment without a doubt is the team we’ve been able to assemble here. … That is also what gives me the most confidence that as we go forward, we’ll be able to continue to meet the challenges we have and continue to build a great company that builds wonderful products that make our users’ work lives better.”
Founder and CEO, Onset Financial, Inc.
Justin Nielsen founded Onset Financial in 2008 to bring dependable equipment leasing options to the market. Creating a financial services company during the peak of the Great Recession was risky, and Nielsen had to work long and hard hours to bring on investors. Now, the company has diversified its funding sources and can turn to banks, private investors, its own capital and many other sources to meet its clients’ needs. In fact, Onset Financial has experienced growth every year since its inception. In addition, Nielsen knew technology was the wave of the future in the financing industry, and in its early days, Onset Financial hired its own team of software developers to create a program that makes the lending process fast, precise and simple.
Launching and growing TSheets.com was a grueling process for Matt Rissell, especially because he bootstrapped the company until it was profitable and growing 100 percent year over year. The early years of hard work paid off, and now the company, which provides online time tracking and scheduling software, has grown to 200 employees and is used in more than 100 countries, tracking time for over $9 billion in payroll last year. And in 2015 TSheets finally accepted $15 million in Series A growth equity funding.
TSheets is based in Boise, Idaho, and Rissell is active in the region’s growing tech hub. He is the previous chair of the Idaho Software Alliance, serves on the executive committee of the Idaho Technology Council and sits on the advisory board of the Boise State University Computer Science Department.
Case Lawrence – Award Winner
Founder and CEO, CircusTix
CircusTrix is in the business of fun, says founder Case Lawrence, who created the company’s first park in Fresno, California, in 2011. Previously a commercial real estate developer, Lawrence had been hit hard by the recession. But he pulled together resources to bootstrap the growing indoor extreme recreation company—and found immediate success with that first park in California.
CircusTrix has been a pioneer in the fledgling industry, and was the first company in the industry to garner a major private equity deal. “When you’re in a new industry, one of the challenges is that you really don’t have any models or tried-and-true tracks of growth or innovation to follow, and so it really requires you to double down on your creativity,” says Lawrence.
That creativity, and an extreme attention to detail within each of the unique parks, has fueled success for CircusTrix, which is now the largest owner and operator of trampoline parks in the world, with over 30 parks in the United States, Europe and Asia. But Lawrence is not done. He plans to continue pushing the model in new, exciting directions—and hopes to become the first indoor extreme recreation company to go public.
“People want more extreme physical recreation to counteract their more sedentary work, school and family lives. And so what we’ve seen is our parks, CircusTrix parks, are really a mashup of physical fitness, of recreation, of entertainment.”
CEO, Citywide Home Loans, a Utah Corporation
The home mortgage industry was still experiencing the fallout of the financial meltdown when Teresa Whitehead became CEO of Citywide Home Loans in 2012. The loan origination process was becoming increasingly complex, and the industry faced multiple failures and consolidations. But Whitehead had an aggressive plan to grow the company rapidly in order for it to survive in the new, heavily regulated environment. The company began a hiring spree, bringing on hundreds of sales and operations professionals. It became licensed in dozens of states and opened over 40 new branches. And all of that growth was financed from its own profits. Whitehead’s strategy has been a spectacular success, with the company growing from $400 million in annual revenue to $3 billion. It now operates in 39 states with a workforce of 750.
CEO, Granger Medical Clinic
Granger Medical Clinic was founded by two physicians in 1954 as an independent physician organization. It grew slowly over the years, and by 2013 had 72 providers and four locations. Granger Medical is led by physician shareholders, who decided to bring on a CEO to take over the administrative aspects of the company, freeing them to focus more on providing quality patient care. That’s when David Tanner joined the team, bringing 30 years of physician administration experience with him.
Within three short years, Tanner has built a professional administrative structure, implemented a new electronic medical record system, increased the number of providers to 150 and expanded to 22 locations. And Granger is projected to double in size again within the next two years.
DIRECT TO CONSUMER PRODUCTS
Nate and Vanessa Quigley look back on the early years of Chatbooks as the “wilderness years.” They had invested their own funds to launch the company and hire a development team, and they went three years without a salary. A turning point happened when Vanessa had an aha moment around the importance of printed photos—and the company shifted from developing cloud-based family memory apps to developing its subscription photo book service. Now, Chatbooks boasts 300,000 active subscribers and over 100 employees, 70 percent of whom are women.
“We’re really blessed to have hundreds of thousands of happy customers, but we think we should have millions of happy companies,” says Nate Quigley. “And we don’t have to change much of anything. The thing we do today applies to almost the whole world.”
He adds that Chatbooks plans to use very high-tech tools—artificial intelligence and machine learning—to make the experience of creating printed books even more easy and intuitive. Additionally, says Vanessa Quigley, “The future of Chatbooks is beyond books.” The company will next take on the challenge of curating and compiling the video clips stored on users’ mobile devices. “A lot of us have quit video, because we don’t know what to do with it,” she says.
“I love that we’re helping people hold onto their memories,” says Vanessa Quigley. “I had years of my life, most of my youngest son’s life, lost in my phone. I didn’t have any printed photos of him.”
Founder and CEO, Freshly Picked
Susan Petersen founded Freshly Picked at her kitchen table, experimenting with scraps of leather she found at a yard sale until she had developed the perfect, soft-sole baby shoe. She began selling her baby moccasins on Etsy, and she sent samples to lifestyle bloggers to spread the word about the adorable shoes. Petersen caught a break in 2014, when she appeared on Shark Tank and caught the attention of trendy parents and celebrities. Nordstrom began offering the Freshly Picked moccasins, and Petersen began a whirlwind period of growth. Now, the company boasts 750,000 Instagram followers and has grown to $10 million in annual revenue.
Petersen is currently working to expand the footwear brand to include a full range of styles, from hard soles to sandals. Freshly Picked will release four new footwear products this year alone.
While fly-fishing in 1989, brothers Terry and Tony Pearce caught the vision of a desire to change the world. With Terry’s 20 years of background in manufacturing and design and Tony’s 13 years’ experience in advanced aerospace materials, the brothers got to work. For the next 25 years they invented and experimented. They found success in retail, but realized a sharp online presence was the only way to avoid becoming obsolete in the internet age. The Pearce brothers brought on Samuel Bernards as CEO, and he quickly got to work defining and promoting the Purple brand online. And it has worked: The company’s viral video, featuring Goldilocks and a raw egg on a Purple mattress, has racked up more than 115 million views on YouTube.
DISTRIBUTION & MANUFACTURING
Sam Malouf – Award Winner
Malouf has earned a reputation as a leader in the sleep products industry, but one of the driving factors in its creation is still a powerful part of its culture today: making a workplace where people want to be.
“I think the biggest achievement of the company is being a place and an environment where people love working. They love contributing and working towards their potential,” says Sam Malouf, CEO of Malouf.
As with any budding company, Malouf struggled with cash flow in its early years. Budgets were tight at the company, which has stayed private and hasn’t taken any outside equity money. A few years ago, their credit cards hit the seven-digit mark. But they stayed the course, Malouf says, and now the company is thriving. In some ways, those lean years helped the company to grow far stronger than it could have with a little more financial latitude.
“It helped us to become lean and as successful as we are today. We didn’t have the opportunity to go too far out and take risks we weren’t prepared for,” he says. “I think if we’d had an unending leash at some points in the company we would have done dumb things.”
“This is a really family-oriented company and we have interests and likes and time that we want to spend outside of work. One of our biggest celebrations is if we’re able to enjoy being at work and enjoying when we’re not at work, as well.”
In 2009, three partners with an entrepreneurial spirit and experience in the mobile phone specialty retail channel set out to make people’s mobile phone screens a little tougher to crack. North Salt Lake-based Gadget Guard’s custom screen protectors did the job and made a name for the company, but it became quickly obvious their core product had limited appeal and would become obsolete. Gentry Jensen was hired in 2011 to help the company pivot, and he eventually bought out the founders. Company revenue has soared, and Gadget Guard—which merged with and is now called Antenna79—offers a dramatically different and improved product, as well as a bundled insurance policy, a privacy program and an eco-friendly cleaning product. The company also proudly supports organizations like The Road Home, Make-a-Wish and Davis County Schools.
Genysis Brand Solutions
When Jeffery Reynolds took the helm of Genysis Brand Solutions in 2005, the company was making $13 million a year. By the end of 2016, that number had grown to more than $140 million. But the growth did not come easy or without risks: In 2013, a series of business challenges prompted Reynolds to buy out his business partner, rebrand the company, recruit new leaders and make the processes and his team lean and efficient. Three years after the buyout, Genysis Brand Solutions is flying higher than ever. Since 2013, the business’ EBITDA has increased by more than $10 million, and the company has improved on-time delivery by more than 50 percent. The growth and improvements have also led to a renewed loyalty from customers, bringing further growth opportunities to Genysis Brand Solutions.
REAL ESTATE, HOSPITALITY & CONSTRUCTION
Andrew Smith – Award Winner
Four Foods Group
The restaurant industry is a risky one to begin with, and for Four Foods Group, a restaurant investment and development company, that risk is compounded with each of their more than 100 restaurants across eight states. Fortunately, they’re also very good at stripping away a lot of that risk, says CEO Andrew Smith.
“One of the reasons they fail is they don’t have good financial oversight in the business. Once they’ve provided this amazing food for guests, they don’t know how to go home and really do a good job at managing the business. So Four Foods Group has provided that ability to have world-class resources for an emerging brand to scale, because we have all the resources they need to get to that level,” he says.
Smith knows entrepreneurialism well, and this venture is particularly exciting because of the unique dynamics of the industry. He says he relishes creating jobs and providing opportunities for people to learn and grow. In the restaurant industry, many of the entry-level positions are filled by people who have never held a job before, and Smith says he feels a responsibility to make sure they learn values like dedication, loyalty and a strong work ethic that they can take wherever their careers lead.
“That’s a lot of burden, a lot of pressure on me because I want to make sure they have the right experience and necessary skills to go onto their next jobs and life and make changes.”
Millburn & Company
When Jed Millburn founded Millburn & Company in 2010, he already had plenty of experience under his belt as a multifamily residential broker. Since then, Millburn has acquired more than 5,500 units, totaling almost $1 billion in value. Millburn has also raised more than $175 million in capital from private investors, as well as secured more than $650 million in debt from a laundry list of national lenders, and has been recognized for his performance both in Utah and nationally. Behind the impressive numbers is Millburn’s tireless drive and characteristic long-term thinking and strategic patience. Those qualities give the company the vision and foresight to thrive not only when the market is good, but when times are lean or bumpy, too.
Environment and energy have been the focus of Ryan Creamer’s career, and those two areas of expertise found perfect harmony in 2012, when Creamer founded sPower. Troubled by the ecological impact of nuclear and coal, Creamer searched for a way to utilize technology to generate power without those consequences on the environment. A minor stumble out of the gates taught Creamer the lessons he needed to forge ahead and redefine the renewable energy production market. This out-of-the-box thinking includes shared costs in power purchase agreements and creating a sister company to purchase land for solar farms, rather than lease it. Creamer has built sPower on a culture of strategy and smart thinking that is supported by highly effective and repeatable processes, infrastructure and financial resources.
RETAIL & CONSUMER PRODUCTS
Derek Maxfield – Award Winner
On the surface, Younique is the company that sells makeup through social media. But as popular as that makeup is, it’s just the vehicle for a much larger mission, says Derek Maxfield, founder and CEO of Younique. Between using technology to help women thrive in their sales of Younique products and the company’s charitable foundation that helps educate, prevent and help victims of abuse and violence, Maxfield says Younique is dedicated to uplifting, empowering and validating women all over the world.
Everything the company does feeds into that mission—even the technologies they employ for sellers. Unlike traditional direct-sales parties, where a seller would invite friends to her home, Younique lets sellers hold virtual parties with all of their social media contacts regardless of where they live. Seventy-six percent of the traffic to the Younique site is via mobile devices, so it was vital to get that access just right.
“You never want a woman to feel dumb or like she doesn’t know what to do, because that’s going to be counterproductive, both to what we do with our mission of helping her feel good about herself, but also to the company,” Maxfield says. “If she doesn’t feel experienced and smart when she’s using our tools, she’s likely to lose interest and not want to sell our products. We have focused a lot on the experience, simplification, but making it as powerful as possible.”
“If they have five minutes while they’re waiting for a carpool, then they can do their business from their phone. We had to be a tech company that knew how to optimize things for phone use.”
It was the spring of 2010 when Jess Phillips and Trent Vansice decided to start a solar company in Utah—then ranked the No. 41 state in the nation for solar energy. The two met while working for a Fortune 500 company and made the decision to strike out on their own, starting the company in Vansice’s garage.
After streamlining their products, Phillips and Vansice began educating others on the benefits of solar power. Phillips’ father was the company’s first customer, and his home was the spot of Auric Solar’s first installation in 2011. In the past seven years, the company has grown to over 240 employees. Auric Solar currently has 16 percent market share in Utah, and is experiencing 60 percent year-over-year growth.
Jason Olsen and his brother, Shaun, began working in 2004 at the small dealership their father founded. Jason was tasked with growing banking relationships, creating a company culture and determining the company’s brand. Prestman Auto started with 35 vehicles and a warehouse, and today it has over 600 vehicles, two locations and 68 employees. It grew from $7.2 million in revenue in 2009 to $45 million in revenue in 2016.
In 2013, Olsen posed a goal to his employees: to become the No. 1 independent dealership in the country. “In our relentless pursuit, we are constantly disrupting the traditional dealership business model by creating a unique and innovative dealership that truly focuses on the needs of our clients, and improving the lives of our people,” says Olsen.
As a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security, Timothy Ballard spent over a decade as part of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and as an undercover operative for the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team.
But as a government operative, Ballard could not engage and teach other governments without the infrastructure on what to do to combat their own issues with child trafficking. Ballard founded Operation Underground Railroad to create a public-private partnership that would allow him and his team to go into other countries and help liberate children from traffickers. The program now has sent over 300 traffickers and pedophiles to prison and is working in over 15 countries.
The problem is so widespread and horrifying, with nearly 2 million children in the commercial sex trade, that Ballard admits many people don’t want to even acknowledge the problem. His goal has been to liberate children, make sure there is an infrastructure for their aftercare, and rally people to such a difficult, but important, cause. “If you even talk about a child being raped, you automatically sacrifice part of your innocence, and that hurts,” he says. “So to watch these people cross over that line and walk into the darkness to become the light, it’s amazing.”
“It’s gratifying, watching people become converted to this cause and stand up. When I was in the government, we weren’t permitted to involve the public at large. But I recognize that if we don’t do that—if millions of people don’t rise up—there are too many kids that won’t be rescued.”
Chris Conard started working at Playworks in the Bay Area of California in 2007. The nonprofit’s mission is solving educational issues by helping students experience safe, healthy play. Starting as a program director, Conard became the nonprofit’s national expansion manager and then helped the program find roots in Utah. When he arrived in the Beehive State in 2011, Playworks only had five partner schools. Today, Conard has helped that number grow to 58 schools, serving 33,000 students. By 2020, Conard hopes to serve half of the children in Utah, with Playworks in 230 elementary schools statewide.
“We are creating the future by instilling and giving kids tools and skills where they can thrive socially, emotionally and physically right alongside academically,” says Conard.
The Green Urban Lunch Box
It’s a love of food and a passion for solving complex problems that drove Shawn Peterson to create the Green Urban Lunch Box. “I love food. I worked in the restaurant business for a long time,” he says. “But what I really like to do is take really complicated things like our food system and break them down into manageable pieces. I want to make it so that we can have a food system that is both healthy for us and healthy for the planet.”
The nonprofit Peterson started in 2010 is all about finding creative solutions to solve hunger—such as their fruit share, where participants can register their fruit trees, get them harvested, and have a third of their trees’ production go to hunger relief.
When Steve Daly became Ivanti’s CEO in 2010, he had a tough task ahead of him. Ivanti, then LANDESK, had spent nine months labeled a discontinued operation, with tremendous loss of personnel, clients and stock value. Daly rolled up his sleeves and put in the work to reorient the company back to a growth trajectory. Part of that work, he says, is emphasizing communication and empowering Ivanti’s employees.
“[Management is] not going to create the future; everybody at Ivanti is going to create the future,” says Daly. “We just have to point it in the right direction.”
Ivanti currently serves 22,000 customers, has 1,700 employees and surpassed $500 million in revenue. Looking back at the past seven years of hard work, Daly says it’s important to celebrate milestones while gearing up for the next set of challenges ahead.
“The tendency that I’ve seen—in myself, as well—is that once that problem is solved, you’re looking for the next one. And you just keep solving these problems and don’t take the time to celebrate,” he says. “When you do that, it starts to feel like everything’s just a problem. The reality is, yeah, it is! But when you take the time to celebrate, you realize the things you’ve done are pretty cool.”
“I believe the next generation of workforce cares about things more than just: ‘Did you make your revenue and profitability targets?’ We need to be doing more. I like it. I feel great satisfaction working for a company that’s doing more than just making money.”
Eric Montague bet on himself when he started Executech, a company that provides enterprise-level IT to small- and medium-sized organizations. Montague wanted to take the pain out of calling IT and started the company in 1999 without any outside funding. He took no paycheck for the first two years, believing that his model and company would eventually take off.
It did. Eventually, Montague hired his first outside employee in 2003, and now has a team of 83 employees. In the past 16 years, the company has never seen less than 30 percent growth and now has over 50,000 end users. Montague also focuses on giving back to the community, serving on the board of the Boy Scouts of America Great Salt Lake Council, as well as the Early Light Academy.
Brad Wiskirchen, CEO
One of the most pressing issues facing any company these days is cybersecurity. When Brad Wiskirchen—then-CEO of a company called ClickBank and its parent company, Keynetics—was faced with problems of fraud in e-commerce, he helped launch a new venture in Kount, a SaaS platform that simplifies fraud detection. With Kount, Wiskirchen helped stop $2.6 billion in online fraud in 2016 alone.
Wiskirchen served as chairman of the Salt Lake City Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2014 to 2015. Kount currently has 120 employees and reviews billions of transactions from over 190 countries, and protects some of the largest e-commerce retailers, such as Crate & Barrel and Staples. Wiskirchen himself is committed to community service, having volunteered for nearly 30 civic or nonprofit committees since 1997.