Business

Now 26, Boisean dropped out of college and built multimillion-dollar company

Now founder Nathan Barry hustled to land initial clients for Boise startup ConvertKit

Experts in the tech startup world often talk about focusing on tactics that "scale," meaning avoiding spending time on one-off work. But ConvertKit founder Nathan Barry said non-scalable work, such as cold-calling potential clients, was critical f
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Experts in the tech startup world often talk about focusing on tactics that "scale," meaning avoiding spending time on one-off work. But ConvertKit founder Nathan Barry said non-scalable work, such as cold-calling potential clients, was critical f

Nathan Barry has accepted the fact that his company, ConvertKit, might be well known in circles online but remains invisible in Boise.

Barry’s startup reported $6 million in sales last year and expects more than $8 million in 2017. He has 25 employees, including five in Boise. But the 26-year-old works at home or at The District, a Downtown coffee shop.

When people ask what he’s up to, Barry says his company offers email marketing services that help professional bloggers promote their work, sell products and expand their audiences.

Those people stop short of calling ConvertKit “cute,” Barry said, but they don’t get that blogging can be lucrative, or that ConvertKit had more than 13,800 subscribers, up 10.6 percent in the past 30 days.

“People say, ‘Oh, bloggers. Cool. You work out of The District.’ Sometimes I want to say, ‘Dammit, I built a real business.’ ”

EARLY START

Lynn Weimar home-schooled Nathan and her other five children at their home in the Wilderness Ranch between Boise and Idaho City. She said Barry, her fourth child, challenged her as a teacher because he quickly understood concepts and completed his work.

“He was quite a bit different,” said Weimar, now a nurse in the St. Luke’s Health System. “He always had to be ahead. He always wanted to keep up with the older kids. He was always in a hurry to grow up.”

When Barry was around 13, he started his first businesses. He received $75 for designing a logo for the Idaho Chess Association, beginning his career in freelance design. He also used a skill saw to make deer, bears, wolves and other wildlife figures that he’d sell door-to-door.

Weimar said the family never had much money, and Barry learned early on that he would have to earn cash in order to purchase items he wanted. On one trip to Boise, he wanted a new pair of pants. So he asked his parents to pull over, and he knocked on several doors until he’d sold enough wood pieces to get the pair he wanted.

“That’s just how he operated,” Weimar said. “If he wanted something, he found a way to do it, from the beginning.”

Barry attended Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce functions to network and drum up work. At 18, he tried to join the chamber’s Boise Young Professionals but was turned down because he was too young to attend events at drinking establishments.

Barry was still being home-schooled and was only 15 when he successfully tested into and enrolled in Boise State University in 2005. He studied marketing and graphic design. He enjoyed school, he said, but he enrolled to learn skills that would help him land a job that paid well. He started lining up $10,000 jobs to build websites. In 2007, he quit school to freelance full time.

Work dried up when the recession hit. In 2009, the 18-year-old accepted a job at Unity Media Group, an Eagle digital-communications software business where he had worked as a contractor.

Ken Holsinger, then Unity’s chief operating officer, hired Barry to develop software based on the strength of his portfolio and his methodical nature. Before long, Barry led a four-person development team.

“Nathan has always been one of those guys you’d never guess his age,” Holsinger said. “He carries himself well. He’s very impressive.”

SWITCHING GEARS

Barry left Unity in 2011 to return to freelancing, this time as an app developer. While handling contract work, he launched three of his own apps in the iPhone store. One was a flashcard system Barry built to study coding. The second was a habits app, tracking how users built consecutive-days streaks for exercising, studying or anything else. The third helped people with speech disabilities create sentences by tapping tiles on their screens, linking words or phrases into sentences that the app would then say for them.

The apps eventually brought in an average of $2,000 per month in sales, he said.

Barry created the speech app with input from his sister-in-law, who works with children with severe autism. That app was his best-seller.

Barry had also launched a blog and built an audience writing about lessons learned in app development. He also started writing a book on app development, using his habits app to prod him to write 1,000 words each day.

He published “The App Design Handbook” in 2012 as an e-book downloadable from his blog. The basic book costs $39, but he also offers packages including useful code and other app-building resources for up to $249.

Barry said he hoped to make $10,000 over the life of the book. It made $12,000 in the first 24 hours and has made more than $200,000 since its release.

He attributes its success to the title — and the text when anybody linked to the book — because they contained simple terms that ranked high in search results, something he had not foreseen.

“The title includes stuff people Google for,” he said. “Because I wasn’t clever enough to find a fancier name, I ended up ranking well for the actual search terms.”

BACKBURNER

As he wrote two more e-books, Barry continued blogging and working to expand his blog’s audience. He used MailChimp, the largest email-marketing services provider, to stay in touch with his subscribers and to hawk his products.

Barry said he had to work around MailChimp’s limitations to perform basic tasks. In creating a service for any online business, MailChimp offered too many features that made it cluttered for any specific user, he thought.

So he decided to build an automated email marketing tool exclusively for professional bloggers like him. In early 2013, ConvertKit was born.

Within six months, the startup brought in $2,200 per month in revenue. Then it began losing steam. Barry was writing his second book, and had started speaking at conferences. ConvertKit was on his back burner.

After another year, Barry said a friend told him to either kill the company or “give it the time, money and attention it deserves.” Barry sat idly for another six months as revenues flagged. Finally, he invested $50,000 from his e-book sales into the company. He hired longtime collaborator David Wheeler as lead developer, and he hired a customer-support employee.

FRONT BURNER

Barry publishes his company’s sales, subscriber numbers and history online, a rarity in the startup world.

ConvertKit brought in $1,300 per month in October 2014, the month Barry decided to double down on it. By July 2015, after landing a few big bloggers as clients, the company climbed to $50,000 per month. By the end of the year, it reached nearly $100,000.

Wheeler’s work was a catalyst, Barry said, so Barry made him a co-founder. Two years later, Barry obliged when Wheeler asked to be bought out of his shares so that he could chase more of the early-stage startup work that he likes best.

Barry said he owns 96 percent of the company now, with employees owning the rest. He said he receives an average of two emails a day from venture capitalists interested in investing but has no plans to sell part or all of the company.

Holsinger said his former employee is following in the footsteps of local success stories such as TSheets, an Eagle timecard software company, and Cradlepoint, which builds wireless routers and offers cloud networking and protection services.

The only difference, Holsinger said, is that TSheets, Cradlepoint and other startup successes nearly failed before turning a corner. ConvertKit flew as soon as Barry made it his priority.

“He’s breathing rare air for anywhere in the country, not just in Boise,” Holsinger said. “If you can get to seven digits without significant funding, no matter what the story is, that’s impressive.”

Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @ZachKyleNews

Craft + Commerce Conference

ConvertKit will host the Craft + Commerce conference June 23-25 for ConvertKit clients and blogging experts at Jack’s Urban Meeting Place in Boise. Barry expects 300 people to attend the event, with best-selling author and marketing expert Seth Godin headlining a long list of speakers. Tickets are available for $599.

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