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.
Clay Collins started Leadpages in 2013 with Tracy Simmons and Simon Payne as a lead generation platform for SMBs. Under his leadership, the saas company went on to raise $38m before he would step down, turning over the reigns to veteran software executive John Tedesco. After a brief break, Collins came back with Nomics towards the end of 2017. Part 1 can be read here.
What did you do after the interactive survey software startup fizzled out?
The pendulum swung back in the other direction, thinking that I was going to become an academic, I moved to Iowa and went to Grinnell College to study psychology.
How did you finance college?
My grandparents paid for college, fortunately. As I mentioned earlier, he was a farmer and the type of person to wear blue jeans and a tshirt every day. Hardworking people and it paid off.
What happened after you graduated?
I moved to Minnesota and started a .Phd program in neuro psychology. But I didn’t really care for academia – it was hard for me to make the necessary connections and accept the institutional aspects. I ended up dropping out after my first year, but I ghost wrote a book on human rights with former professor that was published by Oxford Press which led to a fellowship in Ghana doing housing rights research with a NGO. From there, I went to law school in Madison for a short while as well circa 2006, though also stopped early.
It was around that time that I began a personal development blog in 2008, and ended up moving back home with my parents in California.
How did that go?
In retrospect, I didn’t know much about personal development but of course when you’re 25 you think you know things…
But I learned a lot about publishing, distribution, promotion, etc. from that experience. I stopped after about a year because I jumped more into marketing by launching The Marketing Show website in 2009 which would be a stepping stone for what became Leadpages. We – together with Tracy Simmons – monetized that initially through services and training.
How was that?
It was great! Leadbrite, a lead generation wordpress plugin, was the first product came out of The Marketing Show and we ‘pre-sold’ $40k worth of in 2012 to jumpstart it. Then there was Leadplayer, which was a youtube video wrapper (when that was allowed). That first year, we generated almost a million dollars in sales between product and services.
Did you ever anticipate that it would turn into a company that would raise tens of millions of dollars in venture capital?
No (laughing)…we were just winging it and iterating. It was just a continuum of instinctual moves for the first few years but I’m glad we went through that because it built confidence and experience through some ups and downs by the time we were ready to scale.
How do you think that rapid growth shaped you as an entrepreneur?
It’s changed my life and had a profound effect. When you are playing on that level, you start to see the world in a different way…it wasn’t just a blip but maintained consistency for me over a few years.
What was the best part of that journey for you?
Learning to see and strive for excellence in different roles: engineering, legal, operations, etc. When you’re doing it for the first time and truly going big, you don’t exactly know what world class looks like until you’re among those greats.
What was the hardest part of it?
When you have to part ways with people who are conscientious, hard working, and well intended but don’t yet have what it takes to play at that level. When a startup business is growing really fast, the skills needed tend to change really quickly. But then again, I fired myself!
Why are you doing it again now and start from scratch with Nomics?
Because I really love starting stuff! The space from 0 to $20 million in revenue is my sweet spot. Turning macro trends down into micro products that can go mainstream is thrilling.
Meanwhile, you’re also a husband and father of two newborns – how does that change your entrepreneurial mindset?
It’s changed my perspective on life and what’s important. I actually think that I’m far more effective now with less time than I was before with all the time. And my self esteem is higher while the ego has been tempered.
What is something specific you learned from the Leadpages experiences to bring over with you?
So much…I mean I learned how to actually be a software entrepreneur from Leadpages. Specifically, I think it’s worth it to part with the cash and equity necessary to hire the best possible people right away. Separately, when something core needs to be fixed, fix it before continuing to launch/build out other capacities.
What advice would you have to the next generation of entrepreneurs who haven’t started their journey yet?
The startup space is filled with so much unqualified advice, it’s too easy to let others influence, or even hijack your reality. Just trust your own instincts!
What does entrepreneurship even mean to you?
Taking an idea to a commercial reality while falling in love with an alternate version of the world that you are creating.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
This is some deep stuff that really makes me think beyond the interview, so thanks for asking me these questions. Thanks for putting the time in to tell my story and spotlighting the other repeat entrepreneurs out there.