Ross Buhrdorf sold his first company for almost $4B. His most recent venture has raised tens of millions of dollars to make starting up a company even easier for millions of new entrepreneurs.
During our interview on the DealMakers podcast, Buhrdorf shared how he learned the art of the side hustle from an early age, and has since raised close to half a billion dollars in capital for his startups, went through an IPO, and has completed over 30 acquisitions of other companies. Plus, what he has learned about delivering remarkable customer experiences, the difference between successful and not-so-successful ventures, transitioning from CTO to CEO, and how to experience more zen when launching your next business.
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Born To Hustle
Ross Ruhdorf was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. As soon as he could, he headed for the warmer weather of Austin, Texas, where he ended up going to university and still lives today.
Ever since he can remember his parents encouraged him to have side gigs and entrepreneurial hustles.
He says in addition to their regular jobs, both of his parents always had side hustles of their own. Whether it was home decorating and renovations, or a dump truck and salvage business, they were always doing something.
By middle school, Buhrdorf was shoveling snow through the winter to earn extra money. In the summers he would be outside chopping wood.
Risk & Value
Ross discovered computers and headed off to the University of Texas for his Computer Science degree.
Pursuing his interest in technology, he interned with Data General. The company hit a billion in revenue in a single year. Just six months later economic struggles brought a lot of layoffs.
They kept him on because, well because he was a cheap intern who was providing them with plenty of value. That was his first wake-up call that it wasn’t any riskier to go and start your own business than to work in corporate America. There are no guarantees when working for someone else, so why not do it for yourself.
In fact, today Ross says his top piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is that “fear is a liar. You just have to jump in and go for it.”
He says the difference between successful entrepreneurs, and those who are not is that they take action. They just make the leap.
They also accept the truth. They acknowledge challenges and risks, but embrace them, and look for opportunities.
Where there is fear, that’s where there is the opportunity for growth. While a job in corporate America might feel comfy, the truth is that it is no safer than entrepreneurship. In fact, he says “you get paid a nice salary to get intellectually stuck because.” It cons you into stagnation and not learning or improving. You’ll learn how to do it when you just go do it.
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This experience inspired him to take more risks in his career. So, he started by going to work in startup-like environments.
The first was an internal startup at Tandem Computers. Then he went onto Hal Computer Systems, which was acquired by Fujitsu.
Then it was on startup, Excite.com. As one of the first team members, he saw his options go from being worth $4 to peaking at $300. Then the market bust, and he lost a lot of money. He saw a lot of very big technology companies get hit and plummet in value during this period.
His big takeaway from this experience was how important it was to be providing true value to customers while having real revenues and a solid business model. Without that, it is very volatile and risky. No matter how many eyeballs you are getting, and how much money you are raising, and how big you think your company is.
This got him really focused on building a sustainable business, unit economics, and building to really give value to customers.
Then Ross took the leap for himself. He became the founding CTO of the vacation rental company HomeAway. After raising over $450M, acquiring 28 plus other companies, and going through an IPO, HomeAway was bought by Expedia for $3.9B.
Rather than retiring, Ross made it 10 long months before he could no longer resist going back at it with another startup.
Ross Buhrdorf’s latest venture is ZenBusiness, where he is now CEO.
Ross and his co-founders saw the opportunity to take on the company formation space and do it better than anyone else in the marketplace.
Today, ZenBusiness handles all of the back office, headache creating paperwork associated with starting up and managing a business. They are bringing the zen for everyone from small businesses to micro businesses and solopreneurs.
Today, ZenBusiness has over 200 employees, has raised close to $70M, and has over 100,000 customers. They are attracting thousands of new customers each month, and have a 4.8 out of 5 ratings on Trustpilot.
Storytelling is everything which is something that Christian Owens was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) where the most critical slides are highlighted.
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Listen in to the full podcast episode to find out more, including:
- Transitioning from CTO to CEO
- Why keep doing startups after a big exit
- Creating value for customers and investors
- The fundraising process
- Acquisitions as a growth strategy