REPEAT is a special interview series underwritten by CliftonLarsonAllen where we take a deep dive inside the minds of Minnesota’s rare repeat technology entrepreneurs. Repeat means to start a tech company, exit said company, and return start another one.
Scott Burns cofounded GovDelivery in 2000 and subsequently exited the tech company once and for all via Granicus merger in 2016, after selling it to Vista Equity Partners one month prior. He then returned to cofound Structural — an employee success software firm — in 2017.
When and where were you born?
In Duluth, Minnesota, 1975
What’s the first conscious memory you have of business, entrepreneurship, or even money?
It goes back to my very early childhood. My father was a business attorney in Duluth and he loved his job. He was always talking about entrepreneurs that were doing different things in the business community. I remember the pride he felt in supporting them, and in some cases being one of them, from our many dinner conversations.
How old were you when sitting around the table, as you recall?
Were there siblings part of it it too, or was your mother?
Yes, I have three siblings and we were all involved…the three things we talked about in our family were politics, community, and business. My parents were really driven to impact Duluth, to make it better by jobs, volunteerism, and supporting great elected officials. My mother was on the school board for many years.
What was the first thing you ever did that resembled the act of business?
At one point, probably around age five, I was going to try and breed gerbils and guppies to sell them for less than the pet store. That didn’t last very long. I also I remember playing around with rare coins. So, definitely nothing serious.
How about after that, what did you do that made any real money?
My father had a knack for getting me horrible summer jobs. One job, around age 16, was scraping and repainting the railings at an affordable housing complex. Throughout high school, there was some lawn mowing and even caddying that — but sports really kept me from working too much. I also did just enough manual labor that I realized I wanted to use my brain over my brawn.
I wasn’t really one of those kids who anyone would consider to be a young entrepreneur. I was somewhat interested and dabbled in stuff, but as a young person, my heart was really in athletics, so I channeled all of my competitive energy, mental focus and free time into that.
My main sport was downhill skiing which I started when I was two years old. I was focused on it from a very young age and that’s how I like to do things – at the highest level, with lots of focus, and certainly competition.
Skiing dominated my life for many years so entrepreneurship really came afterwards for me, further down the road. I channeled some energy after I quit skiing into politics, but I got more interested in business because I wanted something more merit-based, more tangible, and more agile.
My character and approach is more informed from the skiing experience than anything else. The time I devoted and the hard work were always worth it in skiing because it was something that felt like magic when a run came together well. I get a smalll taste of that feeling today from a product launch or a new client. More importantly, I love working hard when no one is looking.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I attended Dartmouth in New Hampshire, a great school academically with a top tier skiing program. I studied economics and environmental studies. College certainly showed this small town guy from Minnesota a whole new world was out there.
How did you finance college?
My father was really driven to finance our education, as his father had for him. I took out some loans and also worked along the way at Lutsen Resort as a waiter and in paid internships at an investment bank and a law firm.
As a second phase of my life, I became interested in using technology to have an impact on politics. For example, I used early versions of email and digital connectivity to grow the membership of a political organization I was involved in. When I used email for the first time and was able to scale impact and reach, I was hooked.
Where do you think that interest comes from?
My religion at home growing up was to wake up everyday and try to leave the world better at the end of the day from where you started. There’s different ways to make that happen, but it’s how my parents talked and how they raised us. Their mindset really was that ‘I have a lot going for myself so make use of it out there’ – almost a sense of obligation to take advantage of the everyday opportunities ahead in life.
And the standards were really set high, I’ll be honest that if I received an A- grade but an A+ was possible, that was a conversation that we were going to have.
Was that expectation equal across the board with you and your siblings?
I think they adapted to each of us where they could.I never felt that they were disappointed in me but always that they wanted me to be be my best. .
A lot of parents think it’s more important that their kids are coddled vs. challenged…but being challenged can be motivating as long as it comes with unconditional love.
Which I’m guessing you feel you had growing up?
Definitely, my father is my best friend and coach then as now. My mom has been inspiring in her community work and takes a lot of pride in even small accomplishments of her kids.
Were there then or are there now any side effects to your feeling of obligation towards humanity?
A lot of highly motivated people are a bit unsettled, at least I would say I am. I proceed with a sense of urgency that every day needs to be spent wisely. I know there are others out there who are more happy day to day, with a sense of complacency, which I respect and can even be jealous of – but it’s not my lot in life to wake up in the morning and feel comfortable.
Even when I was off, between GovDelivery and Structural, I just felt an obligation to use that time really well. I could have been out playing golf. I did have some nice ski trips, but I wanted to make sure that something useful came out of that period.
Going back to college at Dartmouth…
I went to Dartmouth, and actually only did skiing for one year before I quit. By the time I got there, my dreams of making the Olympics were pretty dead.
Quit? Was that the end of your run, so to speak?
Looking back I was on top of my game around age 14 and never really got better. Even at that young age, to go from being the best at something and have it not pan out was an amazing inoculation towards fear of failure. Once you’ve truly failed at something that you’ve worked at for years, you realize that people still love you, friends are friends, and you’ve just been doing it for yourself all along and no-one cares as much as you did.
The ability to recover from that and reallocate my energies towards new things gave me confidence.
Do you consider that a failure?
Yes, it was a tremendous failure for me. I had a goal and I set that goal, put everything into it, and I didn’t achieve it. I’m 42 years old and it still hurts! Life moved on quickly for me though to different things, maybe better things.
Do you think that has shaped you later on in life?
It taught me three things:
- That you can move on from failure; it doesn’t define you forever.
- I only regretted times that I didn’t go for it, when I tried to finish instead of winning. That sense of approaching things with more courage is the second lesson.
- I still love competing, and I make sure to love every hour of every day doing it – all the emphasis isn’t on the end result.
You can see how skiing was much more important to me and influential than my first jobs.
What kind of work did you do during college?
I had a 10 week internship with in an investment banking firm Smith Barney during my last year of school. It was my first exposure to working around the clock, which was the norm there. It was by far the most grueling job I’ve ever had. But it was fun, amazing, and intense at the same time.
There was no doubt around that I was working the hardest and standing out…again, it brought out my competitiveness. I got a job offer out of it, but I didn’t take it because there wasn’t enough impact for my satisfaction.
From there, I got a job working at large law firm in DC as a paralegal. I also worked my tail off there, only to realize that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, it just wasn’t for me.
Some other interesting work that I did was living and studying in Kenya doing research. Navigating the Kenyan Wildlife Service was the craziest thing. You can’t imagine how hard it was to get a quality research paper done in Kenya circa 1995. But I found that incredibly stimulating to be there.
You haven’t really mentioned money yet, what does money mean to you?
Growing up we had money, my father was generous, and we had plenty so it’s not the same drive for me as maybe it is to some. Entrepreneurship, to me, has always been more about making an impact than getting rich.
Money is like a time on a scoreboard in a ski race. It’s a great way to measure success of a business in revenue, profit, and shareholder value. No-one can argue with that, it’s universal like time, and it is one of the things that makes me enjoy the work I do.
The actual money I do have isn’t all that important to me, personally, to be honest. My big splurge after selling GovDelivery was getting my wife a new car and upgrading our kitchen.
What did you do after graduating from college?
I considered going into politics, but kinda soured on that once all my candidates had lost. Instead, I applied at McKinsey in Minneapolis, which was one of the best decisions I have ever made. And that’s what I did for two years, prior to leaving to join a a software startup in Colorado as the eighth employee.