When we spot a “startup gazelle” — an agile, fast growing company — we sometimes think ,“How did they do that overnight?” But there’s always more to the story.
Some of Utah’s greatest technology stories begin with founders who met in college (or skipped the university phase altogether), driven by routes to success they declare “they knew all along.” Others take a gentler and less pre-determined route to their rocket ships to success.
Avii, provider of the Avii Workspace practice management platform for tax, audit, advisory, compliance and management consulting, is one of the latter. On January 25, after more than 16 years as a custom development house, the company led by BYU alumni team Lyle Ball (CEO), Jason Caldwell (CTO) and Rod Sturgis (CIO) formally launched the robust platform they’ve been building in secret over the past 30 months.
Avii Workspace defines a new level of automation and artificial intelligence with a unified workspace for employees and a single portal for clients that power all exchanges and workflow elements, including
· secure document exchange,
· project/task management,
· budgets and human resource planning, and
· integration with other SaaS systems and data sources.
It generates live progress status, KPIs, dashboards, actionable data, and business intelligence all from a single, unified SaaS.
Another SaaS, you say? But of the thousands of technology companies emerging from Utah’s Silicon Slopes, Avii has a different story than the legendary founders who’ve sometimes skipped the traditional schools, raised hundreds of millions in capital and rocketed to billion-dollar-plus valuations overnight. Avii’s launch, in contrast, arrives on the heels of $2M in bootstrapped development, testing and pilot programs by tax audit and advisory customers like KPMG and Withum (now customers) and 18-years of experience in the accounting industry space to the “overnight success” they are celebrating today.
A Fortuitous Path
All three founders of Avii completed their college degrees at BYU. Sturgis holds a degree in Information Systems (IS) from BYU’s Marriott School of Management and Caldwell, from the same BYU program, with an emphasis in Information Management and a love of programming and data. The two were not acquainted as college buddies, with Sturgis completing his degree in ’91 and Caldwell in ’96. Meanwhile, founder and CEO Lyle Ball, graduated BYU in Business Communications and Public Relations in 1993.
WordPerfect was the catalyst that brought Caldwell and Sturgis together. Sturgis joined in ’92; Caldwell in ’96 (after the company had been bought by Corel). In parallel, Ball joined WordPerfect as a marketing manager in ’93, where the acquisition by Novell in ’94 spun him into a series of roles in the Ray Noorda/Canopy portfolio of companies including cofounder roles at Caldera, where he garnered the opportunity to expand and monetize Open Source technology, and spin-off Lineo, which introduced open source to the embedded market. He later advanced Web 2.0 application technology through Bungee Labs. Along his path, Ball has been a principal executive putting more than $90M in venture capital to work from private equity firms Frontier Capital, Epic Ventures, Venrock, Northbridge and Amp Capital as well as strategic investments from AMD, Hitachi, Intel, Motorola, Samsung and others.
A Company Of Our Own?
Caldwell was highly comfortable with entrepreneurship, raised by a father who’d owned a number of companies through his life, but had no desire or experience in creating a high-growth company with venture capital funds. Sturgis, while he deeply loves technology and the ability to make a positive difference, had no aspirations of beginning a business at all. But destiny had another agenda for both.
“First we worked for WordPerfect. Then Novell. Then Corel,” Sturgis recalls. “Then came the beginning of the Dot.com bubble burst in 2000. We
d been through nine jobs in eight years…then when the Dot.com bubble burst, we were all laid off at once.”
As the two considered their options, they decided to go out on their own rather than to join the throngs of colleagues who were seeking employment elsewhere. “Hey, if it lasted six months, we felt we’d still be better off than anywhere else,” Sturgis said. So they found some customers and began a custom software programming shop.
Through 16 years, the business progressed through thick times and thin.
“We had a few partners leave us,” Sturgis recalls, but the two soldiered on. In one of several admirable moves, the two adopted an “open forum” policy with employees.
Says Caldwell, “There were several times we gathered the team and said, “Hey, we’re wrapping up our current project in three months and we’re not sure where the money will be coming from after that. If that makes you nervous, it won’t hurt our feelings if you decide to look around and move on.”
Only one person in their 16-year history ever did. But the policy of openness continues to define Avii’s enjoyable, highly empowered and productive culture to this day.
Automation + Growth: A Winning Combination
By 2016, the two had created a company with no debt, happy customers, a number of jobs created and a healthy amount of cash in the bank. But where could they go from here? They began to strategize with the various experts they knew, including Ken Knapton, a Utah entrepreneur with an MBA from BYU and a master’s degree in IT — who is currently a doctoral candidate for Walden University. Knapton suggested they meet Lyle Ball, by now a serial entrepreneur who’d, among other things, secured venture funding with numerous of his teams and turned a few companies into something better…most recently achieving revenue increase of more than 50% in a two-year period as COO for then 25-year-old translation company MultiLing.
The three met for a breakfast at Kneaders in Lehi. Caldwell and Sturgis were simply thinking of getting acquainted and picking his brain. Ball considered the company a possible executive coaching client. But as the three got acquainted, it was clear that Ball possessed experience in growth from recurring revenue and leveraging capital markets the original founders did not. They, in contrast, had Big 4 Accounting firm customers and 16-years’ experience developing government-level secure software solutions for clients such as KPMG. Combined, the three were ideally positioned to pivot the business to a SaaS model, scale rapidly and achieve rocket growth.
To Infinity And Beyond
Where will the magic of Avii’s automation take them? First, to their new SaaS workflow automation platform, Avii Workspace, launched in February, 2019. Additionally, they are advocating a new industry concept — “SaaS Hub” — that defines a deeper level of interconnectivity between SaaS systems and other data sources.
While the earliest customers for Avii Workspace are “Big 4” and other large enterprises, Avii’s secret sauce is that the platform is applicable and affordable for the other 80% of the market — the 400,000 CPAs who work for practices of 20 or fewer employees, with limited budgets and no IT staff, but have a burning need for the kind of automation, big data business intelligence and delivery of client service that Avii’s platform provides.
Avii disrupts industry hot-spots with a flexible pricing model for individuals and teams, offering full automation where needed for a software subscription price that is merely dollars per head.
For practices with established preferences for existing solutions such as Microsoft Office 365, Box, or other accounting and SaaS programs, the platform can incorporate or integrate the software functions and data of choice.
How are customers responding? While pilot customers continue to thrive and grow in their working relationship, seeing product signups arrive unbidden in the weeks since the formal launch have been a “surreal experience” Caldwell says. Something is working. The company has engaged key advisors including serial entrepreneur Jan Newman, of Novell, KeyLabs, Altiris and Vivint Solar success along with Greg Butterfield of WordPerfect, Vinca, Altiris, Symantec and Vivint Solar (now cofounders of Sage Creek Partners). They’ve obtained other key experts as well and are assembling an all-star cast of leaders who serve on the company’s soon-to-be-announced Advisory Board.
Beyond their company success, Caldwell continues to enjoy a life in a family that is filled with music. “Everyone is a musician,” he says of the family that includes his wife, a kindergarten teacher, two daughters, and a drummer son who “plays in four bands.” Caldwell plays guitar (upon questioning he admits he went to school with the help of music and humanities scholarships as well an academic scholarship and a writing role for the university newspaper).
In a similar way, Sturgis enjoys his life “as a motor head,” riding dirt bikes, motorcycles and racing cars. He notes that of his four children, his two girls were on motorcycles at age 5 and his boys at age 6, as it took them a little longer, he recalls, to “pay close enough attention.” He’s been an avid participant in his children’s sports and with his wife takes pride in living in the same home for 25 years, to create a consistent upbringing. He met his wife, a fellow BYU graduate, in his third year at the university as she majored in recreation management. “She was a good catch,” he quips. “And she can catch.”
Ball, likewise, enjoys a personal life filled with church, community service, a plethora of extreme high-adventure activities and wanderlust fueled by a career of international leadership roles. Famously, in the months that followed the 9/11 tragedy and the subsequent closure of one of his companies, he took an opportunity he knew he and his wife might never have again and moved their family into the mountains for a four-month period of bohemian camping. During that time, they came off the mountain for five days for the birth of their fourth child, and on Saturday nights to replenish and worship. He also surfaced for a few hours a week to deliver on consulting projects. He pivoted his career while the family bonded and grew in a blessed period of solitude as the nation floundered in stress. It is a decision they have never regretted to this day.
In the coming months, solitude will be a rare commodity as the company builds its channel and for the first time in its 18-year history participates in a VC capital raise to accelerate its ongoing growth.
The founders don’t mind the hard work and are unified on one element in particular — for an opportunity like Avii, Silicon Slopes is a perfect place for gazelles.
Notes Caldwell: “It used to be that Utah was a great place for entrepreneurship, but when a company reached a certain momentum, they would move out of state. But no more. Now we see large enterprises and outside ventures bringing their teams to Utah to grow.”
“It’s exciting,” Sturgis continues. “It’s attracting more developers, more money, more collaboration, more advancements for K-12 STEM education and it’s great for us all.” He smiles and concludes with an expression that delights me as well. “Silicon Slopes has a new set of wheels and is accelerating in record time.”