Jeff Corn took a “super nasty” fall on his mountain bike and broke his pelvis, shoulder, and tore his rotator cuff. A long recovery time gave him time to think about what he really wanted to do with his life. That turned into Virtuance, a real-estate marketing company that developed the HDReal image processing system. Virtuance now has 10,000 customers, but back in the day the company had one server and it was kept in an employee’s house—and the employee quit in the middle of the day. He chats with Clate and Scott about establishing company values, small business tips, and being named one of the 10 best places to work in Denver.
Mentioned in this podcast: “Leading at the Speed of Growth” by Katherine Catlin
Automation helped Jeff grow his business, how could it help yours? Check out our e-book 25 Things Every Small Business Should Automate.
Jeff Corn: Just having control of my own lifestyle, control of my own time and control of my own destiny really was what got me over the edge so to speak.
Scott Martineau: That’s Jeff Corn sharing his inspiration for why he decided to go into business for himself. Stay tuned to hear his complete story.
Welcome to today’s episode of the Small Business Success Podcast. I’m Scott Martineau.
Clate Mask: And I’m Clate Mask. We are cofounders of Infusionsoft and we’ve got Jeff Corn with us here today. Jeff, great to have you.
Jeff Corn: Yeah thanks for having me. It’s great to be here guys.
Clate Mask: You bet. Will you take a minute and just tell us about your business and let all the listeners know where you are in your journey?
Jeff Corn: Absolutely. So my company is called Virtuance. We are one of the nation’s leading real estate photography and visual marketing firms.
Jeff Corn: So we specialize in photography, online marketing specifically for real estate and what’s really unique about it is that it’s certainly a niche market for us, real estate is the only thing that we do. We’ve developed some technology called HDReal which is an automated image processing system that’s designed specifically for real estate. So we work with just shy of about 10,000 real estate agents around the country. The business is five years old. I’ve got a co-founder and another partner and we’ve got just about 30 employees now and roughly 100 photographers around the country.
Clate Mask: That’s awesome. Congratulations, that’s really cool and you guys are doing some great stuff. So making it easier for real estate agents to sell and market a house by doing great things with photography and making the house look great.
Jeff Corn: Yeah absolutely. It’s an exciting space because it’s changing so quickly.
Jeff Corn: The way that real estate is bought and sold today is completely different from how it was 10 or even 5 years ago. So it’s a fun space to be in. We get to see the impact that we have not only on the real estate agents and their business but also it’s one of the most transitional periods of anybody’s lives dealing with that kind of transaction and we’re in the middle of thousands of them all at the same time so it’s pretty impactful in that way for sure.
Scott Martineau: So Jeff take us back five years ago and tell us the story of what kind of pushed you over the edge, not saying you went over the edge like a cliff, but tell us what you were doing before and what inspired you to start your company.
Jeff Corn: Sure. Well it’s pretty funny actually, I mean it’s not funny, but it’s funny that you say it that way because I did actually go off of a physical cliff.
Clate Mask: Are you serious?
Jeff Corn: And we didn’t even chat about this before.
Jeff Corn: So I was working for a real estate developer, a development company, we were building office buildings, retail shopping centers, medical office buildings, and one of my responsibilities was to market the properties once we would either buy them or build them. So I was realizing how much money we were spending on marketing and was kind of scratching my head about this for a while. But getting back to the physical cliff, so to speak, so I went out for a camping trip to Moab, Utah and took my mountain bike out there and I don’t know if you guys are mountain bikers at all but if –
Clate Mask: Scott is. Scott is a mountain biker, I’m not. But there’s a reason I’m not, so. [Laughing] And you might be about to tell them exactly why I’m not a mountain biker.
Jeff Corn: Right, well it’s the reason why I am one but it might be the reason you don’t want to become one after this, yeah. But I was on slick rock and anyway I took a super nasty fall, went off about a six or seven foot cliff that I didn’t really mean to. So I broke my pelvis, I broke my shoulder, I tore my rotator cuff, long story short I was in the hospital for about six days and I began about a three month recovery to learn how to walk again.
Scott Martineau: Wow.
Jeff Corn: And so it provided me some time to really think about what I was doing and what I wanted to be doing and with what I had learned in my mind about the way we were marketing properties and just having control of my own lifestyle, control of my own time and control of my own destiny really was what got me over the edge so to speak.
Jeff Corn: And so there were a lot of conversations, I think I spoke with my co-founder every single day on the phone as I was lying in bed doing rehab about the possibilities and what kinds of things we could do. About three months after that accident Virtuance was born.
Clate Mask: Wow that is awesome. I’m sorry for the experience but it’s interesting that we really do need a push many times to start a business. I mean Scott and I hear this over and over, there’s a reason why Scott referred to it that way and not fun that you had a literal push over the edge to make it happen, but cool that you were able to create that and I think you said it in your words there. You said that magic work, control, you know, control of your lifestyle, control of your time, control… And that’s one of the main things that we hear again and again and again for why people start a business; that control that we’re after that’s so elusive. So good for you for starting it, that’s exciting.
Scott Martineau: So tell us about the co-founder decision, was that hard one, easy? Sounds like you were conspiring before it all came about. But was that a difficult decision? Do you regret it today?
Jeff Corn: Which aspect of the decision specifically?
Scott Martineau: Well just to go into business with someone else verses by yourself?
Jeff Corn: Yeah, absolutely.
Clate Mask: By the way, I regret that every day with Scott.
Scott Martineau: Just trying to give Clate some therapy here.
Jeff Corn: You guys want to share your story? [Laughing] Yeah, you know, it is a difficult decision for sure. I think that there are so many benefits to it and when a partnership works out well it can be so powerful; the sum is obviously greater than the parts right?
Scott Martineau: Yeah.
Jeff Corn: But it was really about seeing that we had a mutual interest, right, in the same thing, but that we both brought completely different things to the table and that was what I think made it obvious at that point that it made sense to partner up. There’s no way that I could be where I’m at with the business without my co-founder and I’d like to think that he would say the same.
Clate Mask: Yeah, that’s awesome. I say exactly the same thing, I’m joking obviously about Scott, it’s been amazing to work together and same with Eric, you know the three of us as co-founders. There’s no way we could accomplish what we’ve done without having that support together and the way we complement each other, but I think it is a real issue. When Scott asked that question, we hear this many times from entrepreneurs, and one of the things that I think people don’t adequately take in to account is frequently how much longer the financial suffering is if you’ve got a partnership. I mean frankly there’s just only so many dollars to divide up between two or three people.
Scott Martineau: We bring that check home, we’d all get our knives and forks and carve it up into little morsels.
Clate Mask: But congratulations to you for making it work and for getting to a place where business is successful and 30 employees and 10,000 customers in five years, that’s great progress, so that’s really cool.
Scott Martineau: So what do you think makes a partner relationship like that, you know, co-founders, what makes it work in your opinion? What does it take to create great chemistry?
Jeff Corn: You know, I would say that it’s about open communication more than anything. But it’s also about having aligned motivations, right? So the first thing when going into a partnership which is often times the hardest thing I think is thinking about the absolute worst case scenarios. And so that’s when you bring attorneys in and everything else and I think that immature partners, if you will, will shy away from all of that because everything’s great of course when you’re starting a business.
Clate Mask: Scott and I were immature apparently. We didn’t need any of that stuff. [Laughing]
Jeff Corn: Well I speak from my own experience too right? So yeah, I mean I think that there was a day where other smaller business ventures or what not where I didn’t want to really approach the –
Jeff Corn: Hard questions and think about all the bad stuff because when you’re first starting dating, whether it’s a partner in business or otherwise, it’s not like you would talk about having a prenuptial agreement on the first date right? And I think about it in the same way, but you’re smart to do it. I mean if you’re going to really go into business with somebody you need to know that you both are motivated by the same end game. Whether that is about building a lifestyle for yourself, whether it’s about how you can help your employees and contribute to the world or all of the above; if you’re not aligned in that vision I think it’s very difficult, or it would be very difficult, to be in a partnership with somebody.
Clate Mask: It’s funny you’re saying that because we totally agree on the open communication and on the aligned vision. And the interesting thing is as you’re talking about the alignment, I’m thinking back to the times where Scott and I would have it out on certain issues.
Clate Mask: I remember there was one point where we needed to find a new office building, we were outgrowing out office and I had this certain vision in my mind of what it was going to be and Scott had this different vision of what the office should be and we were like, should we lease a bigger building that we could expand in or go buy something and it was an experience where we talked to each other and were like, oh wow, we have a different vision of where we’re going with this. And we had to work through it.
Scott Martineau: We were going to go build our first house together.
Clate Mask: Yeah. We had to make some adjustments but I think for us, that fact that we had very open communication and a commitment to each other and a commitment to what we were trying to accomplish generally, it made it possible for us to work through some of those different issues and obstacles that came up where we would go, oh wow, we actually are not aligned on this; we need to think through this better. Because invariably no matter how well aligned you think you are at the beginning, there are issues that come up and so if the communication is very open, and if the commitment to each other is very strong –
Clate Mask: The commitment to the real purpose of the business, maybe not so much the exactly how we’re going to get there, you can work through the how’s, you can work through some of the different what’s.
Scott Martineau: That’s interesting because I think entrepreneurial zeal tends to throw entrepreneurs into action really quickly, that’s kind of a natural course. But the problem is when you’re not aligned like you’re talking about; I mean imagine misalignment at the foundation of the business where the two co-founders, how much energy and frustration that will cause over the life of the business verses getting it handled right up front, getting aligned, getting clear, and if there’s not alignment or it’s unresolvable you make a decision to pass on that, but, fantastic.
Clate Mask: Yeah. Hey, so tell us this Jeff, I know our listeners are saying, okay, hey that’s great, you got a business where you’ve got 10,000 customers now and you’ve been going for five years and things are looking really good, 30 employees; it’s not all rosy, we all understand that.
Clate Mask: Tell us about a really tough time, you know, a time where you thought man, I don’t know if we’re going to make this, I don’t know if we’re going to make it through this, tell us about the dark parts that you’ve been through.
Jeff Corn: Yeah for sure, I mean it’s funny because people always say to me, so when did you know that you made it, right? Or it’s great that you’ve made it.
Scott Martineau: Oh, we’ll ask you that in a minute.
Jeff Corn: I still don’t think myself as made it; I don’t know what that really means, right? We all have a grand vision and I think the bigger that vision is, the further it will take us right? But yeah there have certainly been some incredibly tough times and I’m sure that there will be tough times ahead as well; I mean it’s a roller coaster ride as you guys know. But I can certainly think back to, geeze, where to begin.
Clate Mask: There’s a long line.
Scott Martineau: We just watched your eyes; it was like your whole business flashed before you.
Jeff Corn: Right?
Scott Martineau: That was awesome.
Jeff Corn: So I can tell so many stories but we’ve been fortunate in that generally speaking the growth trajectory of our business has been a steady one. But some of the early, early days were very technology intensive. From a hardware standpoint, from a software standpoint, we’re a volume based business and if something doesn’t go right on the tech side, we feel the pain immediately.
Clate Mask: We don’t know what that’s like. We’re not sure what you mean. [Laughing]
Jeff Corn: Yeah, you have a sense of that? [Laughing] So I can think back to one time we had a server, one server, that was running all of the functions that had to occur essentially to deliver the photoshoots to our clients and we didn’t have an office at the time, we were in between offices – there’s a whole other story there.
Jeff Corn: So we had one employee who had this server at his house and I recall, this was eight months into the business, and I recall that he ended up quitting in the middle of the day and we had this server at his house –
Clate Mask: You had your business at his house. [Laughing]
Jeff Corn: Yeah, right? Yeah there’s another lesson for you. And so I remember driving over to his house, it’s like 3:00 PM in the afternoon, we had to have the server up and running and have control of it by 4:00 PM or 4:30 PM at the latest to be able to meet the deadlines. I got to his house and he wasn’t there or he wasn’t answering the door. And all I had was an email from him, I think he left a voicemail on my partner’s voicemail saying he was quitting. And so I wait around for 20 or 30 minutes, finally he showed up and I remember just grabbing the server and running back and plugging the server in at my house and it’s like everything you’ve worked for for eight months you see flashing before your eyes, right?
Clate Mask: Yeah I have this image of you running with the server in your hand like bolting back to your office, that’s great. [Laughing]
Jeff Corn: That’s about what it was, so trying to configure the server, get it setup and you get through it. But there’s times like that where you just think for everything we’ve done, everything we’ve done right, these silly little mistakes and in that story you can point to a lot of big mistakes right? But yeah, its things like that that you look back on and you have to laugh now, but I can tell you two dozen stories where that one came from.
Clate Mask: That’s great.
Scott Martineau: We had a closet where we had our servers and by the way one of our employees worked in that closet because we were a little bit out of space, probably against all fire marshal laws, but the way that the circuitry worked it was on the same circuit that the microwave and the toaster oven.
Scott Martineau: So we were cool if you were just running the microwave, but as soon as somebody would microwave and toaster oven, bam –
Clate Mask: Customers apps were down, everything went down.
Clate Mask: Who turned on the microwave?
Jeff Corn: Literally the exact same thing happened to us about a year later, after that story. Exact same thing, microwave, our employees decided to have a banquet on Friday, I was out of town at a conference I think and I get a phone call that all the servers just went down. We couldn’t figure out what happened, the power went out, had to flip the breaker, so they’re running around the office building trying to find the maintenance guy to flip the breaker because they plugged in a skillet or something that shut the server down.
Scott Martineau: I’m sure your customers understand, right?
Jeff Corn: Oh of course.
Clate Mask: It’s lunch time.
Jeff Corn: We invited the customers to the Friday banquet so they understood.
Clate Mask: No that’s great. Thanks for sharing some of the dark times and tough times.
Clate Mask: I know that for entrepreneurs, going through the tough stuff, it’s exciting to hear about your business and being at 30 employees and yet there are times where people feel like I just don’t know if I’m ever going to get there and I think what we hear over and over as we talk to successful entrepreneurs is just that tenacity and that will to keep pushing through it. You know what we saw in your face as your business flashed before your eyes a few minutes ago it’s all of the times that you pushed through that so just a congratulations to you for the success that you’ve achieved and we always love to hear what things you would recommend. So for listeners out there, what’s a characteristic or a trait or something that you say, hey, make sure that you’re developing this capability as you grow your business so you can be successful?
Jeff Corn: Yeah absolutely. There’s a bunch of them obviously and I think a lot of them sound very cliché but the reason we hear them so often is because they’re true right?
Jeff Corn: So I would that persistence and consistency is a huge piece to the puzzle. I often say that the definition of success is just consistency over time. If you really think about businesses and people in general, there are very few people who do a lot of things consistently.
Clate Mask: Yeah.
Jeff Corn: And if we can only focus on the few things that we’re all going to commit to doing consistently over time, I’m a firm believer that that leads to success. Now it’s important that you’re doing the right things over time, right? If we focus on the wrong things, that’s not going to get us very far. But that’s a big piece of the puzzle and I think that in particular in the early stages, that was and is the most important piece of the puzzle. I just read a book called Leading at the Speed of Growth.
Scott Martineau: Yeah, I have it.
Jeff Corn: I’m sure you guys are familiar with it.
Scott Martineau: Yes.
Jeff Corn: And it think it’s high on my mind because I just finished it recently, but it’s a book that really speaks to the different stages and what gets you to a million bucks doesn’t get you to five million doesn’t get you to 10 million. You guys know the story. But certainly that persistence, some people might call it grit, just to hear no and keep moving forward, I mean I’m thinking about the dark times we’ve had in our business, really was in those early days just how many times can you hear no and still believe what you’re doing? I remember sitting in meeting after meeting with software developers that we were interviewing who whether we were interviewing them for a job or as a contract –
Jeff Corn: We just heard over and over, you guys are never going to be able to build what you’re talking about, or if you do it’s going to be a seven maybe eight figure build, you know, there’s just no way.
Clate Mask: And did that kind of thing, you’ll never be able to do, did that motivate you or did you just – like some people will just put armor on and not let them penetrate them, and other people will be like, you know what, I’m going to show you. So which version of it was it for you?
Jeff Corn: I think that it was a combination and going back to having a co- founder and a partner, that was an area where it really was very beneficial to have two of us hearing those no’s together because my mentality at that time was very much to say, gee, maybe we should listen to the writing on the wall here right? And I have to give my co-founder credit for being the one who really saw through that vision. So at the same time you can have foolish optimism right?
Clate Mask: Right.
Jeff Corn: So it’s just a matter of really believing, but believing because your hypothesis is based in some kind of reality.
Clate Mask: Right.
Jeff Corn: So it really was a combination but I’m very thankful that it was the perseverance and the belief in the vision that won out in those cases because we wouldn’t be where we are today obviously without it.
Clate Mask: Right, very cool.
Scott Martineau: So Jeff this is the part in the podcast where I would ask you, hey, tell us when you felt like you made it.
Scott Martineau: But it’s clear to me you don’t want me to ask you that. So I’m going to change it, tell us maybe the most rewarding time in your business that you can feel and what made that happen?
Jeff Corn: Sure, great question.
Jeff Corn: I think there’s a few things, but any one of them relate back to the culture that we built, the values that I think people at Virtuance hold to be true and stand by. We were just awarded one of the top ten best places to work in Denver.
Clate Mask: That’s awesome.
Scott Martineau: That’s great.
Jeff Corn: And there have been awards and there have been different accolades and what not and milestones that we’ve passed as a company, but I don’t know that there’s one that I’m more proud of than that one. Because at the end of the day what we’re doing is we’re here to help people build their lives, build their dreams and we’re all working really hard and if we’re not having a good time doing it then what’s it all for right?
Scott Martineau: Yes.
Clate Mask: We’re there with you.
Jeff Corn: Yeah go ahead.
Clate Mask: Yeah, we love it. That is exactly the philosophy here.
Clate Mask: We feel like why be in business if it’s not going to be a great benefit to your customers, your partners, your employees, everybody that’s associated with the business and I think that it’s so fun to talk to successful business owners because the vast majority when they achieve a certain level of success, that’s what they want. They want to now create something that’s much more than being about themselves or their own financial security, they want to create something bigger and there’s a whole movement out there called conscious capitalism that it really all about that. It’s the kind of thing that Scott and I have been trying to build here for years at Infusionsoft and we feel like we’re going to be able to do it on even a much bigger scale, so congratulations to you on that.
Scott Martineau: Yeah, seriously. I’m going to add Clate and I were both part of a coaching program and it was a little but sickening to us to hear – I remember distinctly a conversation, there were several entrepreneurs and one of the guys is like, “man you know what” –
Scott Martineau: And he’s just kind of frustrated about his business, “I just wish I never had to hire an employee, manage them or fire them, if I could do that, this business would be amazing.” [Laughing] And everybody is like yeah, yeah. There’s like this sickness.
Clate Mask: Bravado around, yeah we don’t want employees, they’re awful. [Laughing]
Scott Martineau: We’ve talked about that a ton. I love that you’re sharing your example and I love that our listeners get to hear somebody who’s been on the other side of that and you’ve led and intentionally created a culture and you’ve seen the benefit and here I am asking you what the thing that has been most rewarding, it’s not all the success, it’s not the income, it’s not the freedom, it’s the fact that you’re creating this culture for your employees. It’s magnificent and I hope that our listeners can maybe check any thoughts they have of just hesitancy toward having employees and realizing that it literally can be more rewarding than anything else in your business.
Jeff Corn: Yeah for sure. I mean look, I’ve been in that place too. There have been times where, and I think we’ve all felt that right?
Jeff Corn: That, oh geeze, how much simpler would this all be if we could control absolutely every aspect of it and unfortunately people are the greatest asset I believe of any well run business. And they also can be the greatest liability if they’re not the right people, if they don’t have the right values, and so yeah, I’ve felt that, absolutely. I think that having a value set in a business that is a shared value set is the most impactful thing that I think any business owner could do and if I could I’ll just share a quick story about how we put that in place because I was the nay-sayer, I was the guy you were talking about. If you rewind about four years ago I was very involved in the startup scene and I would go to all these events where it’d be founders of new companies and we would all talk about what was going on.
Jeff Corn: I would laugh about it because the one commonality was that when you walked into a startup’s office, you could see the 10 values up on the wall right?
Scott Martineau: Yeah. [Laughing]
Jeff Corn: And they all seemed so trite to me because I would laugh that a founder of a company would start telling me their values and I would say stop, let me finish the list for you, I know what they all are.
Clate Mask: Integrity, honesty… [Laughing]
Jeff Corn: Yeah, they’re all the same right?
Clate Mask: Right.
Jeff Corn: We all can ascribe to certain value set and nobody’s going to say, oh that’s a bad value. But what we did at Virtuance is that intentionally did not have a value set for the first two or three years of our company. And that was why because I said you know what, it’s trite, I don’t know what our values are yet and I just don’t see the value in doing it.
Jeff Corn: After about three years, it occurred to me that we had values and that they had developed organically and so it wasn’t this forced thing where on day one we said these are the values of the company that we want to uphold; but what we did is after three years, we had about 10 employees at the time, we got all of our employees together, we went out to dinner and we reserved a private room at a nice restaurant and we sat down for about five hours and all we did is talk about the things that we value. And it wasn’t about what we value in business or in the company, it was just about what do we value in life? And what we realized was that there were so many overlapping values that were really the reason why we were all sitting in that room together whether realized it or not. And so we then formalized that and we did create a value set out of it and it’s one thing to have values on the wall, it’s another thing to really live them.
Jeff Corn: I think that one of the things that we strive to do, we certainly can always do a better job at it, but what we strive to do is remind each other that these are the values that we said we care about and this is what we’re going to live by and we’re going to make decisions in the company based on these values. And when you have a set of rules, so to speak, that everybody agrees to that dictate how decisions are going to be made, it makes making those hard decisions that much easier and then you don’t have to look back and questions whether you made the right decision because we know that it aligns with what we say we want to do big picture.
Clate Mask: That’s awesome. You know as you’re talking about it, you’re story is very similar to ours. I think there was period of time where we kind of laughed or scoffed at values and we just didn’t really feel like it was necessary to articulate them or codify them. But we go to a point, for us, we actually didn’t do it until we had about 70 employees and without a doubt it is the cornerstone of the culture.
Clate Mask: It’s the key thing and I know it does look trite for people that don’t understand it or haven’t actually gone through that articulation process. And it is an articulation, not an aspiration; you’re calling out what it, how it is that you operate and what governs behavior and so I just applaud you for doing it and I hope our listeners recognize, there is a reason why you were just named one of the best places to work and it’s because you’ve got a strong set of values that you hire and train to and fire to when people aren’t living those values. That’s what we do, it’s what we teach when we’re talking to companies in the ____ forum, and we found that people who feel like, oh I can’t do this values thing, they realize actually it’s just another thing that you learn like you learned marketing, well you learn how to lead people, and part of how you lead people is you get the right people on the bus and you get them fully aligned so they’re bought into those values.
Clate Mask: So it’s really cool to hear your story on it and thanks for admitting that you were a hater on it for a while. [Laughing]
Jeff Corn: Absolutely. Yeah the other thing that I hear all the time and I think is true, it gets back to the value of employees or what kind of relationship you have with your employees. You know, all entrepreneurship is, is just this great self-development course right?
Clate Mask: Yeah.
Jeff Corn: It’s like the best self-development course that any of us could ever take and it’s not that development course if you don’t have other people around to share it with. It’s the employees that push you to become better all the time and I think that that is the value, you know, I mean we all push each other to become better and you just can’t do that if you’re working on your own without input from others around you.
Clate Mask: Yeah. No that’s great.
Scott Martineau: Fantastic. Well Jeff, thank you so much for spending time with us today. Your story is awesome to hear you going from this place of being broken in the hospital bed to building a successful company, best places to work, 30 employees, it’s just fantastic, it’s awesome and we really appreciate you sharing your wisdom and your success story with us.
Clate Mask: Yeah we refer to a business where you are as a stage five business and that’s the point where a lot of times you can make a huge impact on the world and your community and you’re doing that, so congratulations on it. Thanks for being with us today and anybody who wants to learn more about Virtuance you can go check that out online. Any last thoughts Jeff that you want to share?
Jeff Corn: No I just want to thank you guys for taking the time, I think this is great what you’re doing just to be talking about all these things and anything that we can all do to help others achieve is what it’s all about, so thank you so much.
Scott Martineau: Great.
Clate Mask: Alright.
Scott Martineau: Alright we want to thank all of our listeners too, that’s it for this episode of the Small Business Success Podcast. Tune in again to hear more great stories and for now, go off and do great things and make your business be successful.
Clate Mask: Don’t forget to rate on iTunes and share and subscribe. We look forward to the next podcast, make sure you tune in.