Over the past 10 years and across three states, tech entrepreneur Rory Groves has built a proven resource for weather tracking and analysis. His company, SWIFT Weather, builds software that is now used by hundreds of commercial, residential, and governmental organizations across the world to track weather in real time.
His software pinpoints where severe weather will strike and ultimately helps people make better informed weather-related decisions.
Three months ago Rory moved back to Minnesota after running his business in other states for the past few years. We’ve previously reported on multiple tech entrepreneurs born in Minnesota (or who were otherwise strongly tied) but eventually left the state to start or run their businesses.
Rory is unique because he left the state and then came back — because he loves it here.
“My wife and I came to realize — for both personal and business reasons — that we missed Minnesota,” Rory said as I sat down to hear his experiences of starting and growing in multiple states. Below is a transcript of our conversation:
Mike Bollinger (MB): Tell me about how SWIFT Weather got started.
Rory Groves (RG): SWIFT Weather was started at the intersection of my contract programming career, my hobby of storm chasing, and a restlessness to do something more than sell my time. One of my big lessons along the way has been that there are many ways to make money, but if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it wont have legs. I started building SWIFT Weather on nights and weekends in 2001, and as that business started to grow I started cutting back consulting hours.
MB: How has the business evolved over the years? Did you raise any money?
RG: Initially, we grew strictly organically. By the time I joined the business full time we had 4 years of website traffic, a customer base, and name recognition. We expanded on that with Google AdWords, SEO, and weather plug-ins for 3rd-party websites. We grew 20% per year through 2009. In 2010 we grew 80%.
We raised a little money from an investor in the family, but have not had to use those resources yet due to self-funding from revenue. We’re going to grow organically if possible, but we may reach a tipping point where we need bridge investment given our aggressive plans for growth in the next three years.
MB: At what point did you leave Minnesota?
RG: When I decided to make the leap into SWIFT Weather full time, I had that rare opportunity many people dream of: to work and live anywhere while building the business. My wife and I moved to Montana for 6 months while I worked on Weather Defender, now our flagship product. I really just needed 6-12 months to get out and spread my wings. We then moved back to Minnesota briefly where my wife took a job that ultimately led to an even better opportunity for her in Omaha, Nebraska. At that point (2008) I had expanded my product line, and I was ready to build a business. I leased office space in Omaha and started recruiting for my first employee hires.
MB: How long were you in Omaha?
RG: We were in Omaha from January of 2008 to September of 2010. Omaha was a very friendly place, but I had a bit of an ‘outsiders dilemma’ . It wasn’t the right fit for me. We very quickly brought on programmer, a marketing consultant, an independent sales rep, and got an office. Long story short, it didn’t work out very well. One of my employees took job offer elsewhere and one moved to be with family, so I transitioned back to consultants. I once again found myself in a position where I could live and work from anywhere.
MB: What made you decide to move back to Minnesota?
RG: Beyond the fact that we love Minnesota lakes and trails, and we have close family connections here, I personally felt that Minnesota was a better place to grow my business. The technology community is strong, and the technology talent is strong due to the universities and schools providing skilled workers. I felt there were more opportunities for investment….not necessary on the money side of the equation, but on the mentorship side. And that’s the place I’m at right now. We’re approaching a respectable amount of revenue, and I need help learning how to grow the company.
Having spent time away, then moving back to Minnesota, it reaffirmed our affection. Timing was perfect in that we had nothing tying us down: I found myself working with consultants again, and my wife had sufficient experience doing what she wanted to do and decided to take a break for a while.
Since moving back our suspicions have been confirmed. I’ve found more well-connected mentors, and have been surprised all over again at the generosity of peers and people’s willingness to help. My wife told me, “you went from barren desert to the promise land.”
MB: You were away from Minnesota for 2 years. Did you notice any differences when you came back, good or bad?
RG: Actually, yes. There is a momentum here that I didn’t see before. Two years ago there was no Project Skyway. Two years ago there was no TECHdotMN. Two years ago there were no Startup Weekends in Minneapolis. While away for so many years I felt like I was spinning my wheels—it was hard to find the right advice and move my business forward. After getting back to Minnesota I’ve had no less than a dozen people (executive business mentors) steer me in the right direction. I haven’t experienced anything like that anywhere else.
MB: So what’s next for SWIFT Weather?
RG: We’re going to make huge leaps forward in the commercial side of our business in 2011. We are looking to double the size of our company every year for the next 3 years. We’re going to identify and verify verticals, staff up, and build better products. I’ve figured out what to do right by doing everything wrong first. I’ve learned enough about growth that with the right help I can grow this. But help is the key, and I plan on surrounding myself with mentors. It’s an exciting time for the company and me personally. It feels good to be home.