If you’re looking for an excellent case study on tech startup founders, Chris Bullock has all the ingredients: A drive to answer interesting questions, an eye for data, identification of a target user base, an openness to communication, discovery of a problem that needs solving, adaptability, and a plan for growth.
It was all of these elements that led to the creation of his startup, ClearGov, which gathers budget and other data on local governments and presents them in an easy-to-read graphical format. ClearGov also offers local governments the advanced tools they need to record and share their budgets.
In this edition of Founders Journey, Chris tells the story of how his startup evolved from a simple question, how he gained his first customers, and later acquired funding.
More information: https://www.cleargov.com/
Chris Bullock, co-founder and CEO of ClearGov Inc., has over 20 years of product management, marketing and business development experience in data analytics and transparency-centric software services.
Prior to ClearGov Chris co-founded Sky Analytics (acquired by Huron Consulting Group), a legal analytics and benchmarking platform that revolutionized the legal industry. Before Sky Analytics, Chris spent 7 years as the Global Director of Product Development for Investor Relations & Analytics Software at NASDAQ and Shareholder.com.
Chris holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!
Chris Bullock 0:00
They run into issues where they’re trying to get initiatives passed. But the the town votes down and they they need to build trust and they need to build support in their community. And they know that transparency is one way to do it.
Alexander Ferguson 0:22
Welcome to UpTech Report. This is our Founders Journey series. I’m excited to be joined by Chris Bullock from Cleargov. Part one of our inner interview, we heard how he founded cleargov to really solve, initially the transparency issue around local governments and but it’s evolved into overall budgeting. And it’s fascinating to hear definitely check out part one if you want to hear more about their product. But this interview, I want to dive a little bit deeper, Chris into your story, how did you get to where you are today, and you can start before clear having before five years ago? Yeah,
Chris Bullock 0:57
I went to University of Colorado in Boulder got a degree in marketing and no entered the business world just kind of in a sales role. I founded a couple companies after that, really kind of random industries, you know, everything from an importing business to a custom clothing line to a software business and, you know, frankly, had some successes and had some failures. And but you know, even in the in the companies that didn’t work out, I think, just learned a ton eventually joined a move back home to the Boston area and joined a company called shareholder calm, which was actually a transparency company for look for public companies, the early days, the early 2000s, not a public companies are starting to go online and needed to start being more transparent to the the financial markets, putting their stock charts, stock quotes, SEC filings online. So you know, I was in business development there did sales there. And that really kind of, I learned a lot about how companies view transparency. And so that kind of started that vein in my career.
Alexander Ferguson 2:14
Killed for clear gov. Yeah, we then moved
Chris Bullock 2:17
into a product that gathered data scrape data off of SEC filings to see what fund managers what stocks that were buying and selling created an online database for companies to better understand and target potential investors. So for instance, one of our early clients was Google, when they went public, they wanted to see what investors were buying Apple and Microsoft in New York. So when they can, when they went to New York, they knew who to meet with, that eventually caught the attention of NASDAQ, and our company was acquired. And I spent a number of years at NASDAQ moved into product development, I’ve always had a passion for product development. And that was quite a unique ride. We were really kind of the the part of the founding of this Corporate Services Division at NASDAQ, where, you know, once a company got listed on NASDAQ, they would have software services to sell to them. And so we we ended up buying a number of companies to, to really build out that suite of services. And it was it was a great company to work for learned a lot. But you know, it’s very, very different from a startup and in a smaller company and longing to be back in it. Yeah, I wanted to be back in the startup world. And as luck would have it, the founder of shareholder.com. He’s got my name wrong, wrong. Gruner, very successful entrepreneur, founded this other company called Sky analytics and asked myself and another guy from NASDAQ, Doug ventola, to join us as co founders. And the idea behind this company was was legal transparency and analytics. And I was not a big fan of the legal industry. But the ability to maybe bring some transparency to the industry, I thought was kind of unique and eventually joined that company as chief marketing officer and co founder and really spent my time on marketing and product development. And there our data set was legal bills. So we convince companies like Apple and JPMorgan Chase, Johnson and Johnson, RJ Reynolds to send us all their legal bills. And we would scan those legal bills in and build out this database of billions of dollars, where a company could actually go in and type in a law firm and see all their spending with this law firm see all the attorneys out there using and actually compare attorney rates and matter costs. So we could actually show one company if they were overseas. Spending on an attorney compared to what they were charging other companies, for instance. So did that, for about four years had a great run, the company was eventually acquired, and eventually founded clear. Gov while I was at the acquiring company.
Alexander Ferguson 5:19
So definitely transparency happened multiple times throughout your career, so it seems almost natural that you’re just is it a desire or like an innate desire?
Chris Bullock 5:32
I don’t know. It’s just, I think transparency isn’t important. You know, I think it’s important. And I’ve always had an interest in, in government. And frankly, I’ve kind of thought of, you know, how can I have a positive impact and in particularly in the government space, and it wasn’t until, you know, I had these series of experiences and working at different companies, that kind of led me to this point where, where it kind of all came together. But yet, it’s, it’s an interesting vein in my career, for sure. clear that
Alexander Ferguson 6:12
this is the first company that you found it by yourself. Yeah, no, I found several times.
Chris Bullock 6:18
Yeah, I’ve gotten some, some some other companies along the way. But yeah, this one, I did start by myself, you know, I had a development firm out of out of Belo roofs that, that I have used in the past and, you know, worked with a couple guys there to get the site off the ground in the summer of 2015.
Alexander Ferguson 6:41
So did you bootstrap at the beginning? Did you raise funds? How did you begin? As far as launching it?
Chris Bullock 6:48
Yeah. You know, I did, I did boot bootstrap it to begin with and self funded to begin with. I, once we built the site, and we actually built the site with Massachusetts, New York and California municipalities at first, just thinking that they’re probably the most tech savvy states out there, and they had good data. Then I went out and gathered the the email addresses of every town manager in Massachusetts and just sent them an email and literally just said, Hey, my name’s Chris Bullock founded this website, where we took your your finances from the DLR and transformed it into these infographic websites, you know, let me know what you think. And so I emailed probably over 300 Town managers. And literally within minutes, I started getting emails back from them saying, hey, this site’s great. And hey, can we can we can we update our data on this site, or they didn’t like who we were comparing their town against, they said, Hey, we want to compare our town against this town and just ended up having a lot of different discussions with the town managers. And from those discussions really learned two things. One is that cities and towns actually do want to be transparent. They, they run into issues where they’re trying to get initiatives passed, but the the town votes come down. And they, they need to build trust, and they need to build support in their community. And they know that transparency is one way to do it. And they’re just, you know, they saw clear gov as maybe a tool to help them do that. But the data that we’re getting from the state was a couple years old, it was very high level data, summarized data didn’t have a lot of the details that they wanted to share. So that became the first learning. And the second learning was that they they love the benchmarking of their site. We had one one city, one town, actually say to us, you know, hey, I just spent literally the last three or four days trying to do a comparison of our finances versus some other towns, finances. And here, you come along and just send us some a website that does all the comparisons for free. He was literally laughing at me, but he said, Look, I want to do some of my own custom benchmarking, right, we want to, we want to say for instance, how much are towns in a 25 mile radius, that have similar number of road miles? How much are they spending to remove snow and ice? And so we had that data, and we can allow them to run those custom comparisons. And, you know, from those conversations found that hey, maybe there’s a product here, and literally just said to them, you know, what, if I built this for you, we paid me $1,000 Or something we didn’t want to what we were charging them wasn’t as important as the fact that we could charge them. I didn’t want to give them away anything away for free. So we signed up, I think five or six towns for 1000 Couple $1,000 each, and you know, that funded the the ability to kind of build this, build the initial product, and, you know, eventually, you know, brought on some some folks to help Bring on that data, get more data from other states also, you know, introduce us to some some other communities in the area. And yeah, we’re off and running and signed up a few dozen cities the next year in from there, we, that’s when we started to do some, I started to do some fundraising started to meeting and some look, what year was this 2016 thing. Okay, so the next year started, you know, networking, doing a lot of networking, met with a lot of local advisors, in entrepreneurs. And one thing led to another and ended up bringing on some some angel investments. One of one of the investors was a guy by the name of Brian Burdick, who was the president of zoom info, and also of a company called Vizio. And so he had a tremendous background and said to me, you know, Hey, have you ever thought about bringing on a co founder, and frankly, I hadn’t, but I was more than up to my eyeballs in the weeds. I mean, I couldn’t even breathe, there was so much going on, in the company in, in one, you know, we eventually figured out a way to a deal that work for both of us. And he came on on January 1 of 2017. You know, it was with his background and his contacts, were able to pretty quickly raise around venture capital
Alexander Ferguson 11:37
funding itself throughout the years, probably not a stranger to attend and what that looks like curious, what what’s the biggest mistake one could make when seeking funding? And also finding co founders?
Chris Bullock 11:52
Well, the ladder, I think that’s just the luck of the draw. I mean, you hear a lot of you hear a lot of horror stories, frankly. And, you know, Brian, and I knew each other for for a couple months, so it was definitely a shotgun wedding. And, but I think it worked out well, we have a lot of complementary skills, I’d say, you know, when looking for a co founder, you want to look for complementary skills, you know, I really, you know, focus on product development, and marketing and branding. And he’s focused on, you know, revenue generation and retention and, you know, operational side of things. So we really have a great complementary set of skills. I think. So, you know, again, I think that was really lucky and fortuitous that we met. You know, as far as venture funding, it’s not just a numbers game, right? It’s, it’s, I think, speaking to as many folks as you can, and finding people that believe in what you’re doing, that are passionate and what you’re about what you’re doing, and really getting out there and networking.
Alexander Ferguson 13:02
Numbers game, you’re no stranger to numbers. And
Chris Bullock 13:05
look, I mean, I I’ve heard you know, there’s there’s many, many big companies out there, that, you know, you would be surprised nowadays that they got shut down their, their first 50 100 pitches, right, and now they’re billion dollar unicorn company. So, just because you’re getting turned down, you just can’t let that stop you.
Alexander Ferguson 13:30
Getting the funding is one step, building the team and then growing the team so that you can manage the growth of the companies the next piece, what what have you seen are a common mistakes when it comes to to hiring and how to avoid that.
Chris Bullock 13:46
Yeah, um, you know, hiring is definitely something that is a challenge, right? And I think it it really comes down to you know, connecting with people being prepared for interviews and asking the right questions. It definitely helps to network and note and hire people that you or someone that you’re working with knows, we’ve we’ve been lucky enough to bring on a lot of folks that I’ve worked with in the past Brian’s work with in the past and you know, we bring them on and they they know people so I think that’s been one of the best ways to build a team is taking a network out through the people that work there already. Because they’re they’re known quantities. Otherwise, you know, in a sales team, you know, that it’s probably a numbers game there. But yeah, it’s it’s it’s a it’s a real challenge finding the right people. I’d say that’s probably the biggest challenge in building a company is finding the right people
Alexander Ferguson 14:50
beyond the resume itself, what methods used to assess the potential of a candidate if somebody’s looking to hire
Chris Bullock 14:58
No, I I frankly They just like to have a good conversation with them. I like to get a feel of who they are, what they’re about. And, you know, I talked before about finding smart, passionate and compassionate people. And I think that you can, you can kind of ferret that out and get a get a sense for people, as you’re, as you’re talking through through them in certainly when you’re interviewing them, you’re asking them questions about the role and their experience with with that, that type of role in their background. But beyond that, you got to be able to connect with someone I think, too.
Alexander Ferguson 15:36
As the team grows, I mentioned it’s another pieces to manage the culture and the growth of it. Over the years for you, well, actually, how big is your team today?
Chris Bullock 15:47
Including our development team are probably over about 40 people now.
Alexander Ferguson 15:51
Gotcha. And and what have you seen as lessons learned, as far as as you grow? how things change what you need to manage? Yeah, I
Chris Bullock 15:58
mean, look, cultures, culture is really important. And we we’ve always tried to do things to build, build a team. And you know, it’s a lot when we had, when everyone was in the office, we did a lot of events. And we had hosted a, you know, annual biannual parties and Christmas gatherings and things like that. But it’s certainly been a challenge, particularly this past year, we’ve we’ve held zoom happy hours, where we’re talking about doing virtual card tournaments and things like that. I mean, we’ve got to you got to get creative and really try to stay connected. We do virtual stand up every single day. We we do something that Mike, my co founder brought to the table where, a couple days a week, we asked, we have a we have a question of the day that we ask, you know, what’s your biggest fear, and then we’ll draw, you know, three, three people’s names out of the hat and the team and they have to say what their their fears are. So that kind of helps you get to know each other something like that each week? It’s a different question. So there’s a lot of different things you got to do, you have to be really, really conscious of building that culture and staying connected kind of just beyond day to day work activity.
Alexander Ferguson 17:19
I like that, that whole stand up a HIPAA pulling out a name, you’re like, Oh, don’t let me be me today. As as you grow, the team obviously allows you to be able to manage more customers and be able to take on more customers for developing and growing on the marketing side, what have you seen our common mistakes or challenges you’ve run into in on the marketing to be able to get people’s attention and say, Oh, wow, this is something we should take a look at?
Chris Bullock 17:51
Well, I think our markets unique look, we were lucky in the fact that all of our target market, all their information is publicly available, I mean, we literally can get the names of every person that we want to buy our product just by going to their website. So we don’t have that problem that maybe a lot of other people do that they need to find their customer. So we can very easily target them. And yeah, so it is, it’s a matter of, you know, sticking out from the crowd. And, you know, really, I think thought leadership plays a big part in that we’re trying to keep our our finger on the pulse of the industry in offer some forward thinking and valuable content to them all the time. And I think you start building that thought leadership and that that draws them in and they start to get curious. So we just did a a webinar for instance, around you know, some some changes in a criteria around this award program. And we actually used our software to show how you could meet those changes to their criteria that industry criteria and so you’re providing value to them talking about this the changing industry criteria to get this award but at the same time you’re showing them their software so that’s kind of how we we stuck out and thought
Alexander Ferguson 19:19
thought leadership and content marketing or getting providing education is all powerful ways if you know your audience and that’s an interesting situation you guys are in you know your exact list and you just need them to pay attention. How do you as one who loves data and analytics, how do you track the success of thought leadership and and content marketing to say okay, is how is this working? What do you invest in? Where do you put your energy mindset into?
Chris Bullock 19:46
I mean, we we have a, you know, you have to track that funnel and you have to figure out you know, what are what’s the top of the funnel metrics and follow them through they’re the middle of funnel I mean tracking the funnel through Sales. That’s easy, right? You know, how many? How many opportunities? Have you identified? You know, what’s the close probability and kind of what different stages are they at. So we, you know, being a data company, you can imagine that we’re really data focused and have a lot of internal dashboards around all these key metrics that we attract, you know, with a very close eye.
Alexander Ferguson 20:23
Because of COVID, everyone has shifted, he used to do in person events and other trade shows and conferences, and now I’m in things digital. And so there’s a lot of noise when it comes to marketing and can be hard to, to say, okay, where should we invest our energy and mindset? Have you seen any winners when it comes to types of content or types of marketing efforts on online that have proven to be effective?
Chris Bullock 20:46
Yeah, I mean, it’s, it has been an interesting year. In the beginning of March, I’d one day you kind of realize that, hey, I feel like I’m more interested in attending webinars now. And, you know, just thought, well, our target audience, they’re also not home, they’re, they’re probably more open to this, as well. So we developed a series of webinars around, you know, for instance, how to how to better budget with a remote team, right, and our software happens to to help them better budget with a remote team. So we tried to really focus our marketing attentions around relevant topics, and certainly the pandemic was relevant. You know, another webinar that we’re holding is, you know, how to build trust and support and engage with your community when public meetings are no longer public, right? So kind of really, trying to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on and relate that to your business was has been important over the past year to stand out.
Alexander Ferguson 21:53
Looking forward into next year, what do you see is the maybe a largest challenge that you’re gonna need to overcome in order to keep moving forward?
Chris Bullock 22:02
Yeah, I mean, frankly, our biggest challenge right now is just keeping up with growth. And that’s been some of the somewhat of a surprise to me. And what I mean by that is, when you get hundreds and hundreds of, in this instance, cities and towns signing up, it could be companies, all of a sudden, you’ve got that many more people using the platform and that many more people asking, Hey, can I do this, and it should do this, and you get, you just get literally an avalanche of client, which, which is a high class problem to have, right, which is a great problem to have. But you know, a lot, particularly in you know, in our market and government, they may have a particular report that they want to see or a particular angle, they want to see the number and they’ve done it this way for the past 20 years. And they’ve made the switch to the cloud, but they still need to see a report that does this. And so, and these are often timely things, right, they say I need to have this report to my board by you know, August 20, or something like that. And, you know, we do our best to reply to that and respond and, and so, for us, our biggest challenge, I think, in 2020 is is you know, continuing to build that team to support that growth. I’d say it’s a great problem to have, but you definitely have to have a plan in mind and be able to follow through
Alexander Ferguson 23:30
last few questions here for you, Chris, what any books, audio books, podcasts that you have listened to recommend that you found insightful?
Chris Bullock 23:40
Yeah, sure. There’s a few things, you know, I, I’ve got a, I got a couple kids and a business here that, that takes up most of my time. So I don’t get a TON TON of time to do reading all the time. When I open a book at the end of the night, I just fall asleep. But there are a couple books I do read. Most recently, I read a book called play bigger, which was recommended to me by our VP of Marketing Abinadi it’s a book about how to create a whole new category in your industry and then position your product to dominate that category. Right. And so it’s it’s a kind of a mind shift of how you think about your industry and how you define that category. I thought that was really interesting and, and, you know, beyond that, I also recently read a book can’t hurt me by David Goggins. He’s really, really interesting character had a very, very challenging youth. I won’t say much more about it, but he will be your mind would be blown how difficult childhood this guy had and in the story is about how we kind of overcame this troubled youth and eventually became a Navy Seal and eventually, in one The world’s leading endurance athletes and kind of the mental challenges that you go through to kind of get to those levels. I thought that was really interesting. I also like podcasts when I was driving to work. No, not this past year. But when driving to work, I definitely listen to podcasts a lot. And I think my favorite one there is NPR is how I built this. Kind of similar to this, and it talks about hearing stories of successful entrepreneurs and their backgrounds. So a lot of the name brands that you would know they cover. So I really love that NPR is how I built this podcast was great. One
Alexander Ferguson 25:39
last question for you, Chris. What kind of technology innovations do you predict? We’ll see in the near term next year two and long term? 510 years?
Chris Bullock 25:48
Sure. So I think there’s probably a couple technology innovations that I really interested in love following in one is, is green tech, renewable energy, I just think that has the potential to not only, you know, improve our environment and maintain the the earth that we live on here, but I think it can have a big, big impact on our society. You know, I’m actually one who believes that, you know, fusion energy will come a lot sooner than we think. And, you know, once we have limitless energy that borders on, you know, being free, and that’s just going to change society, immensely. From a socio economic standpoint. I mean, you think about what will happen to all the, the economies that rely on oil, when you have, you know, this much cheaper green energy, and we’re actually, you know, we’re facing that that threshold this year, I believe earlier, this year was the first time where solar energy is now the cheapest form of energy. So I think that’s really, really interesting dynamic that we’re living through, I would also say, just this whole commercial space race that we’re living through right now, and also catches my attention, you know, I’m a, I’m a huge fan of Elon Musk, and Tesla, and particularly SpaceX, and I literally watch watch all their, their, their launches, and, you know, my brother’s real, real passion about them, as always sending me updates on it. And so, I love following that industry. And, you know, I just feel real lucky that, you know, we are literally in the golden age of space travel where we, you know, starting to witness the the first commercially launched astronauts, I think that’s just incredible, and we’re gonna see moon landings and hopefully, landings on Mars. I just think it’s a it’s a really neat time to be alive. And you can only imagine what the future holds, or
Alexander Ferguson 27:55
I appreciate your excitement for the future. Chris, I I’m with you. 100%. Thank you so much for sharing your story and the insights and lessons learned over the years. Definitely. For those who haven’t yet, check out part one to hear more of Chris’s company at Cleargov and you can go to Cleargov.com. Again, appreciate your time for us. It was just a lot of fun.
Chris Bullock 28:17
Yeah, absolutely. Great time.
Alexander Ferguson 28:19
Thanks again, everyone for joining us. Our sponsor again for today’s episode is TeraLeap. If your company wants to find out how to better leverage the power of video to increase sales and marketing, head over to TeraLeap.io and check out their new product customer stories. We’ll see you guys next time. That concludes the audio version of this episode. To see the original and more visit our UpTech Report YouTube channel. If you know a tech company, we should interview you can nominate them at UpTech report.com. Or if you just prefer to listen, make sure you’re subscribed to this series on Apple podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.