Brett Hurt, WG'99
Brett Hurt, WG’99, can’t help that his conversations are authentic — it stems from who he is. At the Joseph Wharton Awards Dinner, he delivered a powerful speech on how significant Wharton is to him and to the larger entrepreneurial community. When he meets you in person, he tells the story of his mother, and why he named his blog Lucky7 after her. When he meets with entrepreneurs as an investor, he focuses on listening to their needs. Even his business, Bazaarvoice, seeks to “change the world, one authentic conversation at a time.”
When did you become an entrepreneur?
At Wharton, the end of my first semester, a former senior manager at Deloitte Touche, contacted me and said, “I’m in over my head on a project, for the Adult Education Department for the state of Louisiana. I need someone with your skills to deliver on it.” I asked, “When is it due?” He said: “The first week of January!” I went for it and ended up working every day of winter break until 3 a.m. in the morning, with a five-minute break to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, to create a complete client/server-based system. It was a test of my will. I made great money, but much more importantly, I proved to myself that, if I had the willpower to perform this large project in only three weeks, then I could be an entrepreneur — I could be self-sufficient. That was the founding of Hurt Technology Consulting, and I went on to do projects for the Wharton School and others (mostly Wharton alumni), leveraging, by the way, brilliant undergrad students in the Wharton Management and Technology program.
What character trait allowed you to work that hard through winter break?
There are many different backgrounds and personalities of successful entrepreneurs, and I’ve found only one common characteristic, and I’ll tell you how I know. I attended every single presentation when an entrepreneur came to speak at Wharton. One I’ll never forget is when Farhad Mohit, WG’96, the founder of Shopzilla, returned to school to speak. It was 7 p.m. at night in a classroom, and only 20 people showed up. He talked about how he had been eating ramen noodles for over a year, how humbling it was to have graduated from Wharton and have no salary, no money coming in for over a year, while all his classmates were doing well financially. But he had just finally received his first round of funding. I left that night and was in heaven. I thought, “This is exactly what I want to be.” Overall, I attended at least a hundred of these kinds of presentations at Wharton, and I learned the one thing they all shared was persistence. I saw housewives who had founded companies, academic types, skinny people, Asian people, short people, and the only thing they had in common was they were all very, very persistent, and that was me during that first winter break. I went on to grow Hurt Technology Consulting. During my summer break, I did a big project for the Wharton School (a virtual classroom application that was used by Wharton for four years) and made twice what I would have if I had worked for someone — plus, it took me only half the summer. So, the other half of the summer, I built my first e-commerce platform, allowing my wife and I to launch an online nutrition company. If I hadn’t done that, I would not have created Coremetrics.
My classmates probably looked at me year after year, thinking, “Idiot” and then finally, “Genius!” So, persistence is the key trait, and the dot-com bust shook out people who didn’t have that trait, who were just in it for the money. If you’re not passionate about it, it is hard to be persistent — you can’t fake that. You can’t fake working until 3 a.m. in the morning. The Founding Fathers of this country had nothing — they couldn’t even afford boots for their soldiers to take on an empire. As I wrote about on my blog, it’s how Steve Jobs could ask Bill Hewlett for spare parts when he was 12 years old, and why Bill Hewlett had to help him — it’s in our country’s DNA.
What was your greatest challenge?
Coremetrics was gut-wrenching. I sold the three companies I had founded at Wharton, which were all generating good cash flow, and put everything into Coremetrics during my last semester, because I thought it could change the world, which it did. At first, in 1999, money was falling from the sky. We got Accel Partners and Highland Capital Partners, which put $15 million into our Series A, after Wharton alumni like Ralph Mack, W’82, and Lincoln Brown, W’02, had seeded the company. We signed dot-com clients like crazy — we were ringing the new-client cowbell in the office all the time. We relocated our headquarters to San Francisco to be closer to clients, which were mostly dot-coms. Shortly thereafter, when the dot-com bubble burst, our client base went from 80 to two. I had to lay off most of my team and almost threw in the towel. One night, I fell asleep wondering if we would make payroll. The next morning I woke up with a smile on my face. My wife asked, “Why are you smiling?” “Because,” I said, “this is what I do; this is who I am.” We talked it over and rebuilt it from 2001 to 2005. Accel Partners, especially, stepped up to the table. Coremetrics became the second largest player in the industry, and in 2005, we sold it to IBM for close to $300 million.
What lessons did you learn along the way that made Bazaarvoice such a success?
The direct outcome of the scar tissue from Coremetrics was to create a capital-efficient business. We grew our next company, Bazaarvoice, steadily over six and a half years to create a $100 million revenue run rate (our run rate at the time of IPO), with only $24 million in funding — and we had $12 million left in the bank at the time of our IPO. The secret is to collect as much cash upfront from annual contracts with clients and use that to fund the business, so you make your business more client-funded than investor-funded. You need the right culture to be capital-efficient, and I’m proud that, during that time, Bazaarvoice was rated as the No. 1 place to work in Austin, Texas, over multiple years — as we grew from a small to large company. Also, employees created 15 new companies to date in Austin, as a result of working at Bazaarvoice.
What does Bazaarvoice do?
Bazaarvoice means the voice of the marketplace. If you go to a major retailer’s website, for example, and you read customers’ reviews, and leave your comment about a product, all of those interactions are hosted by Bazaarvoice. We are behind the scenes with companies around the world, in 38 international languages.
Why do clients trust Bazaarvoice to handle such a sensitive part of their businesses?
To have customers trust you with their customer service, you need to have incredible uptime and service levels. The best convincing is by word of mouth, and our own Social Commerce Summits play a big role in that. Of course, we participate in conferences, like Shop.org.
How important is having a partner or a supportive relationship, to be able to persist?
At Coremetrics, my wife Debra worked with me from the beginning (and for the first couple of years of the business, post-venture-capital funding). Then, Andrew Trader, WG’99, a classmate of mine, Scott Schopen, and Arthur Holcombe joined. I co-founded Bazaarvoice with Brant Barton, a genius who was very different from me, and with me until this year. They were all very important to my success and, most of all, Debra.
When I am backing companies, I am looking for three roles: (1) someone who can sell and market the solution; (2) someone who can deliver service; and (3) someone who can build it. Sometimes, one person can play multiple roles. Typically, those roles are CEO, head of sales and marketing, and a CTO. Right now, I’m backing a company with a serial entrepreneur who can play any role except building it, which is great for the first six months while you’re ramping up.
What does it feel like when you focus?
You’ve heard of that expression “in the zone.” It feels natural, as if you and your team can accomplish anything. Passion drives that. Know-how drives that. You are focused, because you believe you can change the world. At Bazaarvoice, our mission is: “Changing the World, One Authentic Conversation at a Time.” We have changed how people shop online, and how clients look at their customers. It’s a magical thing. You can accomplish things that people say are impossible. People would say that it is impossible to convince retailers, travel companies and financial companies to allow negative reviews on their sites — it would taint their sales. However, it drove sales, because people knew they were shopping in an authentic environment.
A futurist once told me that entrepreneurs create the change. Think about it. Who is Huntsman Hall named after? An entrepreneur. Who is the Wharton school named after? An entrepreneur. Who founded the University of Pennsylvania? Benjamin Franklin, an entrepreneur. All of them had incredible focus and passion.
You’ve written about “really listening to your customers and clients.”
At Coremetrics, we had competitors who had been in business for five years, but their marketing analytics solutions seemed like they were built by engineers for engineers. Immediately, I met with customers from the beginning — I had one perspective of being an online retailer, but I’m not smart enough to know what they want, so go out there and validate it, and build it with your client. It seems so intuitive, but so few people actually do it.
As investors, some business people become successful and think they are perfect and tell people how they should emulate them. I don’t believe that at all. There are lots of factors toward success, and I have respect for the entrepreneur’s critical role. Recently, as angel investors, we hosted a listening event here in Austin for startups at a coffee bar, Lola Savannah, where we wrote provocative questions on the wall and did no talking and all listening. We learned a lot, which we put into practice.
How important was Wharton for you?
It was transformational. I was motivated to be an entrepreneur when I was an undergrad, but I wasn’t prepared. Wharton gave me what I needed, and I worked my butt off. And it’s become a better place for entrepreneurs than when I was there. Of course, I had an unfair advantage. Because I was married, I didn’t have to spend time on the dating scene. Because Debra was so independent, she allowed me to take the risk to be an entrepreneur. And Debra’s business instincts are unparalleled.
The most important thing to me is our family. Tomorrow, I’m going on a YPO [Young Presidents’ Organization] father-daughter trip. It’s something that I’ve really been looking forward to. My job is to do what my mom did for me — to find out what I was passionate about, which in my case was computers. That’s why my blog is called Lucky7 — I was lucky that my mom taught me how to program when I was 7 — to help me discover my calling in life, my passion. She wanted to feed what she saw as my interest. Think about the superhuman discipline that a parent needs to allow a child to follow his or her passion to the exclusion of everything else, rather than force the child to be passionate about what everyone else is doing, like playing sports.
I love creating the future with technology. I love creating jobs, but family is the most important thing to me. That is my most critical role in life.
Brett Hurt, WG’99
Brett is the owner of Hurt Family Investments, a family office focused on start-up investments and other asset classes. Prior to Hurt Family Investments, Brett worked at Austin Ventures from November 2012 to August 2013 and focused on early-stage software investing. Prior to Austin Ventures, Brett founded Bazaarvoice (NASDAQ: BV) and served as the CEO and President for seven and half years, leading the company from bootstrapped concept to almost 2,000 clients worldwide and through to its successful IPO. He subsequently guided the company through a successful follow-on offering and two acquisitions, PowerReviews and Longboard Media. Brett continues to actively support Bazaarvoice as the Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors. Prior to Bazaarvoice, Brett founded Coremetrics and helped grow the company into a leading global marketing analytics solution for the e-commerce industry before its acquisition by IBM.
Brett has been pioneering e-commerce innovations since 1998 and online communities since 1982. He started programming at the age of 7.
Brett is the entrepreneur empowerment group RISE’s Serial Entrepreneur of the Year for 2012. He was named by Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Austin in 2009 and is a member of the Austin chapter of the international Young Presidents’ Organization. He was named CEO of the Year for large companies by the Austin Business Journal in 2012.
Brett holds an MBA in High-Tech Entrepreneurship from the Wharton School and a BBA from the University of Texas at Austin. He served three terms on the Board of Directors of Shop.org, the leading nonprofit industry association for retailers online and a division of the National Retail Federation, the largest trade organization for retailers. He also serves as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Wharton School. Brett established the Bazaarvoice Foundation and is very active in the philanthropic arena. He received the Austin Entrepreneurs Foundation’s Community Leadership Award in 2012.
Brett is the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin for 2013 to 2014. He serves as a Mentor at TechStars Austin and as a Partner at Capital Factory, and can be found blogging frequently at https://lucky7.io, to help mentor Austin’s entrepreneurs. Brett serves as the Chairman of the Board for both Compare Metrics and Shelfbucks, two early-stage companies based in Austin. He can be followed on Twitter at @bazaarbrett.
By Kent Trabing