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.
Mitch Coopet and Brian Bispala (together with Matthew Dornquast) co-founded Code42 in 2001 after they had met two years prior through industry. Code42 has grown up to hundreds of employees and $135M+ in VC funding, though all three of the company’s original founders have since departed.
What did you start collaborating on when you met back in 1999?
Bispala: We were making money together with a team by providing consulting services for the first few years while we experimented with a variety of products on the side. Eventually, we began working on Crashplan, Code42’s flagship backup product, back in 2005/2006 with a group of about 10 people including Matthew Dornquast who would become CEO.
Coopet: We officially launched Crashplan in 2007 at Macworld on CDs!
I remember asking “How much should we sell it for?” and Matthew said “$19.95 – an amazing Macworld discount because retail is $59.95”. We sold every copy we brought the first day.
The next day, we were literally burning discs at the booth on the spot to distribute the package since the demand was way more than we expected. People were waiting for their CrashPlan CD to be burned and excited to be in on the ground floor of “something huge!”.
The big takeaway really was when people came back a day or two later with feedback and asked us for a business version, which led us to think that there was a much bigger opportunity with an enterprise product. So that next year we launched Crashplan Pro at MacWorld in 2008…and like having kids, the second time around – it is easier! But it wasn’t until 2010/2011 that we really gained traction and turned the corner.
The two of you, together with Matthew, scaled Code42 up for the next ten years, which could probably be a book in-and-of itself; but what kept you going as partners through thick and thin?
Bispala: knowing that we were either going to win or lose together was a big part of what kept me going.
Coopet: I always tell the story of one of our first employees who started making enough money to buy a new car with his newlywed. I think that all our employees, from number one on up into the hundreds was able to improve their quality of life through Code42 and that is what made it worthwhile during the tough times.
Did you ever take pause to step back and think ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’
Bispala: there was just no looking backwards, it was about solving problems from technology to staffing and we worked through them.
Coopet: I think we were tired of being poor for the first few years which means there’s no choice but to march on and make money.
Were you simultaneously raising kids? And what was that like with family life?
Bispala: It helped that my wife had a stable job. We both worked a ton during those years and made sure to carve out the time for our three kids at the time.
Coopet: During that time my then wife was extremely supportive. My advice for others would be to make sure that your spouses are understanding and accepting of the entrepreneurial lifestyle before choosing it.
Has being entrepreneurs affected your children?
Coopet: I see my boys on the weekends now, which is actually more than when I was living with them. We always focus on having fun and that naturally involves talking about the difference between VC and PE, or operational efficiency, etc (laughing). And I’ve gotten them involved in some tech programming, like coderdojos and creative stuff like movie making, mixing music, etc.
I think they know about business as a concept based on the fact that they have a better life than I did growing up, and are old enough now to understand how it got to be. It’s important to me that they understand and learn their own work ethic as they mature.
Bispala: (laughing) I do talk about business with mine as well, much more so than the narrative when I was growing up which was generally ‘go to college and get a job’. My wife too, has become an entrepreneur since, starting a small knitting and crafts shop…I think they know that their parents work hard and have had good fortune along the way.
Are you still shareholders in Code42 and have you cashed out at all?
Coopet: We have taken some money off the table, and yes we’re still shareholders, rooting every day!
Bispala: Code42 continues to work out for us.
Have you come across that much money before?
Coopet: The short answer is no
When you left the company in the 2016/17 time frame, did you take anytime off before jumping back in with Rambl?
Coopet: Once you’re a founder, it’s hard to go back, meaning it’s just not in the cards for me to work for somebody else at this point. So I took zero time off but the shift did afford me the time to be more calculated…I saw it as an opportunity to get to work on the cutting-edge in artificial intelligence. It’s like being a speedboat driver again vs. a cruise ship captain right now, which is how Code42 came to be for me at the end.
Bispala: I left Code42 later than Mitch and had transitioned my role over and was working less intensely for the last year, which afforded me some time off for a pseudo-sabbatical.
Why together again now, and without Matthew?
Coopet: I think Matthew is at a different point in his life. Startups take a helluva lot of energy and commitment. Starting again, there was no question I would want Brian to be there. He’s been with me just every step of the way and was up for doing it again.
And talk about removing risk…when you think about the reasons why startups typically don’t work over time, it often has to do with the differences between the founders.
Bispala: There’s pros and cons to it, but knowing someone like Mitch and I do helps us accelerate years of relationship development. It’s essential to be in business with someone that you really trust. We basically arrived at the conclusion that we are better together than apart. The flipside is that we didn’t have that “new” perspective, which is why we were thrilled to bring Josh Cutler on board as our third cofounder.
Have you ever had a riff?
Coopet: We’ve learned how to argue in a healthy manner…it takes practice, patience and emotional endurance…
Bispala: It’s about talking through things until we arrive at a mutual conclusion.
What is a strength or weakness going into it again?
Coopet: even with our experience from Code42, there’s lots of new things happening almost immediately. For example, raising and pricing a seed round, which is just something we didn’t have to do with Code42 – that was a first. I think there’s an opportunity here to take some of our previous knowledge forward but also learn – especially in technology, as you know, is always evolving and challenging.
Bispala: Personally, I gained a lot of insights from Code42 regarding people and teams that will be valuable for Rambl. There is no playbook, we’re already making mistakes and learning new things…it’s all about humility with a continuous learning mentality.
How has your entrepreneurial mindset changed over the years?
Coopet: The hard part is to keep flexible, adaptive and not assume old lessons always apply…We’ve been in the ring for a long time now. If you don’t value learning, this is a hard way of life. for me, the big difference this time around is DIY/bootstrapping vs. using capital as a tool to accelerate growth from the start.
Bispala: I think the balancing act is getting easier and more fun….Code42 was 24/7 for some time because we didn’t know what we didn’t know so we were trying everything.
Have either of you done an angel investing?
Coopet: I have a few, my heuristic is to place bets on people over products.
Bispala: Yes I have as well, when I like the founders and the market.
What is your motivation in doing so?
Bispala: I’m betting that it will turn into a financial win, sure, while also supporting other entrepreneurs.
Coopet: for me it was to try it, be on the other side of the table, and my assumption is that it’s going to zero so anything that comes back will make me happy.
What is your advice for the emerging entrepreneur out there?
Bispala: It’s important to find someone, a business partner, that you can go on the journey with.
Coopet: No-one else has all the answers…I view the world now as less black and white, right or wrong. It’s about asking better questions and getting good information in return. Untie your emotions from the uncertainty.