Program Report – Joe Colopy- Founder of Bronto Software

The Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Annual Tribute Luncheon this month celebrated the start-up culture in Durham. The keynote speaker was the founder of MapQuest, Chris Heivly. Chris is also involved in the start-up culture here and started by asking everyone to imagine themselves as 10 year olds who decide to build a fort. His point was that you didn’t do a lot of planning then, you just went out and looked around and built that fort with whatever was available. MapQuest started as an attempt to improve on the trip planners we used to get from AAA.

Listening to Joe Colopy tell the story of how he started and built Bronto Software, my first thought was that I was beginning to see a pattern here and building forts was a good analogy. Bronto was the leading provider of email marketing software for the top 1000 email retailers from 2014 to 2016. Joe sold the company to NetSuite for $50 million in 2015 and it was subsequently acquired by Oracle. By that time Bronto Grew to over 300 people and $50 M in revenue across 5 offices, with headquarters here in Durham on the American Tobacco Campus and other offices in New York City, Los Angles, London and Sydney.

Before sharing all this, Joe told the story of how he and his wife to be, Karalyn, ended up in Durham. When they were both college students in Massachusetts they headed off to Florida for spring break and Durham happened to be where they stopped halfway down. After college, they joined the Peace Corps.

After returning, he talked himself into a job with “a quirky little company called Redhat.” But in 2002, maybe hoping he could duplicate Redhat’s success he co-founded Bronto working at home. When looking for some place to live, he and Karalyn, thought they might want to live in Chapel Hill but were discouraged (amazed?) at the prices there. A friend suggested Durham which he described as “bohemian.”

They discovered they liked the texture, grit and “fertile soil” for starting a company here and took up residence in Durham. He described Durham as “good fertilizer” which prompted Jim Leak to comment about the nature of a lot of fertilizer. Even though Jim lives in Durham he has some weird connection to Chapel Hill. It may be some comfort to Jim that Joe’s undergraduate work was done at Harvard but his MBA is from the Kenan-Flagler School at UNC.

When asked about what Durham needed to do to keep it going he made an interesting suggestion that I haven’t heard in a while, that is, that we try to recruit a few large companies to locate their headquarters here. A common observation that was often made before Durham’s revival was that it wasn’t a headquarters town to major corporations and even what it had, began shrinking when Glaxo absorbed Burroughs-Wellcome and then was combined with Smith-Kline. Then Liggett moved out and  CCB was absorbed eventually by SunTrust, etc.  In cities like Charlotte a few headquartered companies like Bank of America could get behind and drive development without checking in with a headquarters in another state or country.  Capital Broadcasting, which isn’t actually headquartered in Durham, may be the closest thing we have now to that kind of force now.

If anything, there is a counter trend going on with even the venerable Research Triangle Park trying to duplicate/complement/compete with the nimble, collaborative, gritty start-up culture of the American Underground.

Joe is not resting on his money colored laurels. He still wants to build forts and his umbrella company for that he calls Colopy Ventures.

So far this write-up has probably not done justice to how much fun it was to hear his presentation. He was lively and funny and the smile of Past President Vandana Dake as she introduced him is probably a sign of their friendship and the fun she has had designing spaces for him over the years.  That fun carries over to the new company’s website at where the header proclaims that it is “Scaling Awesomeness in Durham.” A tweet recorded on that page from two weeks ago, announces that Joe would be telling funny Bronto stories at DSI Comedy on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Based on how well he did with our audience, he probably knocked them dead there as well. The video below is the last quarterly video he recorded as the owner of Bronto and shared during the presentation. If you weren’t there or don’t know what commerce software is, it’s interesting to watch.

I also want to personally thank him for drawing my number in the raffle and announcing it so dramatically. That probably means I’ll buy a six pack of Sierra Nevada this week instead of my usual PBR.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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