How a Winning Psychology Fueled a $20-million Profitable Tech Company

John Qualls grew up on the West side of Indianapolis—on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak.

“I felt like I was in this situation and I needed to find a way out,” John recalls. “I was a straight-F student in high school and around 15 or 16, I realized I was going absolutely nowhere.”

john-qualls-eleven-fiftyBut in the following years, John would prove to himself that he isn’t the kind of guy who sits around waiting for something to happen. He has a winning psychology. John’s quest has taken him literally around the world and led to him starting a technology company that would end up reaching profitability and $20 million in revenue within its first three years.

In this candid interview with John Qualls, you’ll learn:

  • how he made a million dollars in sales selling out of a bookstore,
  • how John started one of the first cloud hosting companies (BlueLock), and
  • why he’s now leading the charge in software development education at Eleven Fifty
  • …and more!

I was lucky enough to work closely with Qualls at his first startup and can tell you that there’s more substance and life experience in John’s pinky finger than there is in the average startup founder. I’m confident you’ll learn something by watching the full interview here:

On the go? Listen to the whole Winning Psychology Interview Here:

Why a Winning Psychology Drives Success in Startups

I rode shotgun with John Qualls in the early days of BlueLock as we scaled annual revenues north of the million-dollar mark. It was there, riding between sales calls, that I was able to witness first-hand John’s remarkable psychology.

I credit his consecutive successes to three core traits, which you can see from watching our conversation:

Winning Psychology Trait #1: Let Gratitude Give Life to Your Dreams

Winning Psychology

John’s childhood on the West side of Indianapolis didn’t give him a clear path for growth. But despite his limiting circumstances, something told him that there was something more out there, beyond his immediate reality.

This belief in abundance led Qualls to join the Marine Corps, which would establish a strong foundation of skills and habits while exposing him to other areas of the world.

“Living in Japan, I had this tremendous appreciation for what we had in the United States,” John says. As I’ve worked with John through the past five years, it’s become clear to me that his attitude of gratitude has fueled a powerful abundance mentality. These qualities have become John’s startup superpowers to weather the storm of entrepreneurship while allowing him to see opportunity where others do not.

Winning Psychology Trait #2: Let Go of Excuses

“I’ve seen it kill so many companies and so many people’s career,” says Qualls. The cancer that has killed so many ambitious dreams is something that John calls the “Can’t, sir.”

As in, “I’m sorry, I can’t, sir.

John Qualls - Winning PsychologyAnd John doesn’t let any such language infect his mind. That’s because this kind of self talk limits creativity, ambition and ultimately, potential.

“Why can’t you do that?” was John’s attitude while making moves in his first professional role after returning to the United States. And while John humbly credits his success to naivete, it’s clear that it’s the lack of perceived limits that allowed John to think big—and swing big.

By letting go of excuses, John found early success in sales, selling more than a million dollars in contracts out of a bookstore by simply approaching people who picked up books from the “computers and programming” section of the shelves. That same lack of limits gave John the ambition to pursue an RFP in the early days of BlueLock, which would turn out to be a pivotal multi-million-dollar contract with Lehman Brothers.

Winning Psychology Trait #3: Stop Playing to Not Lose. Play to Win!

“It literally about killed me. I was sleeping 8 hours total each week for about 8 months straight,” John recalls of the days following the signing of the Lehman Brothers contract at BlueLock.

And John credits his success to this focus on moving towards a goal, as opposed to focusing on avoiding negative results. He calls this paradigm shift playing not to lose vs. playing to win.

This relentless pursuit of positive goals has empowered Qualls to make difficult decisions, like replacing himself as CEO of his own company after three years of consistent growth. But it continues to drive his efforts today, as John continues to elevate the level of talent in his home state of Indiana.

“It’s about finding your passions and getting involved with people,” John says. As the President of Eleven Fifty Coding Academy, Qualls is working to help people learn to code. He’s attracting and training the best people and companies to grow their tech businesses in Indiana—something he refers to as “brain gain.”

(Tweet this story, or your own growth story with the hashtag #BrainGainIN)

How can you invest in these three psychological traits for yourself? We all have these qualities within ourselves. The question is…

Will you continue to invest in them? Will you continue to invest in you?


Who’s Got Your Back? Using Kickstarter as a Validation Tool

jayson manship on stage at the hi-fi indyHow do you validate your idea? This is a common question asked by entrepreneurs and demanded by investors. You think you have a good idea for an app? Prove it, knucklehead. Maybe you survey potential clients or customers. Maybe you build an MVP and go to market. Maybe you get a Kickstarter… Wait, that doesn’t sound right… Or does it?

Upping the Auntie on Idea Validation

Last week, we heard from Jayson Manship, Founder and “Lead Nerd” at inSourceCode, an Indianapolis-based WordPress development company that has built bad ass websites for companies of all shapes and sizes. In addition to being incredible at WordPress development, Jayson and his team are also wildly passionate about building small businesses. We saw this passion first-hand at the #FightForSmall Launch that we co-hosted with them and it was on display again last Thursday night. This time, the idea was bigger and smaller all at the same time. What if you could build an online community for your local community that would provide extremely high visibility to small businesses while rewarding bloggers and content contributors with gift cards to those businesses? The idea is a little out there, even by Jayson’s standards, but he doesn’t believe it’s up to him to decide…

Jayson is entrusting his community with this decision in the form of a Kickstarter. If you like the idea, donate. If you don’t, leave it alone. It’s the simplest form of idea validation we have at our disposal, so why don’t more entrepreneurs use it?

Advantages of Using Kickstarter to Validate Your Idea

The secret no one really wants to tell you: Kickstarter doesn’t have to net you a dime for it to be worthwhile if you’re an entrepreneur. If you’re using the medium solely for idea validation, you could offer swag such as T-Shirts at cost in exchange for the vote of confidence. Many entrepreneurs talk about selling two to three times before you build something. Why not sell a few dozen times instead and use T-Shirts as collateral?  You can also use Kickstarter to offer early-adopter benefits. This is most common with video game developers who offer backers the ability to get themselves actually built into the game as a character. While Kickstarter touts itself as a funding mechanism, it’s really an  online marketplace for ideas.  “I like this idea, so I’m going to vote with my wallet.”  If that’s not customer validation, I’m not sure what is.

Issues With Kickstarter

Kickstarter could be a great source of validation, it could also be a nightmare. With most forms of idea validation the worse case scenario is that your idea doesn’t hold water and you move on to something else. Do to the public nature of Kickstarter, if you hit your goal and you don’t deliver a solid product, you could face massive consumer backlash. Additionally, when people back a Kickstarter, they feel a sense of ownership to that brand. That sounds like an awesome perk, right? Well, not if you want independent control of your company. What happens if you make an unpopular decision like Oculus Rift selling to Facebook? You face no legal ramifications, but you could have a serious PR issue to manage. 

Whether a Kickstarter is a good idea for your company or not, I’m curious…

How Did You Validate Your Idea?

When you were starting your company, what did you do to validate your idea? Who did you consult? How did you test the market? When in the process did idea validation come in? What advice do you have for someone looking to validate their own idea? Drop a comment, we’ll be sharing the best answers! Thanks for coming out last Thursday! We had an awesome event in an awesome venue in Fountain Square called the Hi-Fi. If you’re in that part of town, they’re definitely worth a look. To learn more about the Fight For Small initiative or to donate to the Kickstarter, click here!

Sproutbox Founder Brings All-Star Tech Speakers to Bloomington

bloomington tech conference combineA lot of tech heads here in Central Indiana may lament the fact that they’re so far removed from places like Austin and San Francisco when we hit conference season. Thanks to Sproutbox Founder, Mike Trotzke, however, you can get your tech conference fix right here in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. 

Last week, Katie Birge gave you 4 reasons that you should attend this year’s Combine. Today, you hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. Mike sat down with our friends at Verge Bloomington to chat about this year’s combine and what it takes to build a great tech conference–and tech community–here in the midwest. Check it out:

All-Star Tech Cast Comes to Bloomington

Nothing gets my jollies quite like great content from great speakers. If you’re looking to learn about the tech space, you’ve got to make it down to Bloomington on April 11th, because Mike and his crew have outdone themselves with this year’s lineup. 

Between bad ass Hoosiers like Jay Baer and Mike Bridavsky, you could easily put together an all-Indiana speaker schedule that would, to quote the great poet, Kelis, “Bring all the boys to the yard.”

This wasn’t good enough for Trotzke.

The Combine is bringing in Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder and Internet cowboy. If you’re into underdog stories, you need to hear Wales speak. As the man who took on the Encyclopedia Britannica armed with nothing but the power of crowdsourcing, Wales is an inspiration to techies everywhere.

LobbyCon Lets You Ball on a Startup’s Budget

In order to bring in big name speakers, you’ve got to charge bigger conference prices. But with a lineup of killer after parties and networking events that should be must-hits for every tech worker in Bloomington, how can you make the conference affordable for bootstrappers?

Enter LobbyCon. 

At less than a third of the price of a full conference pass, a LobbyCon ticket gets you access to everything except the main stage and workshops. Great deal for anyone who can’t shell out for a full pass.

I Can’t Stop Looking at Cornzilla

’nuff said.

Scaling More Efficiently Through the Power of Niches: A BlueBridge Digital Case Study

blue bridge digital case study. Scaling productsMobile app development isn’t a trend anymore, it’s a necessity for many businesses at some level. But what do you do as a company if your target market isn’t enterprise-level customers. If you don’t have large institutions busting down your door for a six figure custom build, how can you build and scale a successful business? 

Santiago Jaramillo spoke to that issue during last night’s Verge fireside chat. The nationally recognized founder of BlueBridge Digital has made his fame by being an equal-opportunity provider of technology. Thanks to Santiago, a budget of $5,000 can compete with a budget of $50,000 in the digital space.

So how the hell do you scale something like mobile development for institutions that aren’t looking to spend big money on mobile development?

The Power of Niche

The example Santiago uses is the same example that got BlueBridge nominated for a Mira Award this year. They wanted to provide mobile development for churches, but most churches couldn’t afford custom app development. So how do you provide them with an excellent solution without losing money? As it turns out, the power is in the niche.

In this example, Santiago was able to target Wesleyan Churches. By developing an effective platform for a Wesleyan app once, he was able to scale this to the level where he could serve dozens of churches with the same batch of code, making app development affordable for even the smallest budgets.

This has been the key to BlueBridge’s success. Because their mission is to bring world-class mobile solutions to small and medium sized businesses, they have a business model that would be difficult to scale if they weren’t deliberate about their client base. The secret to scaling for Santiago and Co., however, has been  deliberate client acquisition. If you’re going to take on a niche, whether it’s locally owned pizzerias, mom and pop dry cleaners, or in this example, Wesleyan Churches, the easiest way to scale is to attack that niche hard and sell the same solution to as many folks as you can versus doing custom builds.

We’ve talked before at Verge about the challenge of what is essentially “Work for Hire” jobs. If you put yourself in a position where you’re doing custom development on every single job you do, you’re not going to be able to scale efficiently. So what are some key takeaways for your startup from last night’s fireside? 

Key Takeaways

  • Find your niche and stay in your lane. If you want to build scalable tech solutions, you can’t spread yourself too thin.
  • Mobile isn’t the way of the future, it’s the way of the present. Get on board. To quote Santiago, “Every single day there are more smartphones sold than babies born.”
  • Send a consistent message. It can be extremely easy to try to be all things to all people, but the key to scalable sales and marketing is picking a narrative and sticking to it. This is something that BlueBridge has been able to do extremely well, shattering all of their sales goals last year.
  • BlueBridge is hiring! If you’re interested in what Santiago is doing with BlueBridge Digital. They’re hiring something like 3,000 people in the next two weeks. [joke] But they are hiring right now. Visit the BlueBridge Digital site for more information.

Key Tweets

Behind the Veil: Inside the Life of a Hackerspace

Not all hackers are hanging out in Silicon Valley. As a matter of fact, we have a lot of hackers hanging out in Indiana. So where are hackers to go if they want to build something cool? Steve from BloomingLabs sat down for a fireside chat in Bloomington to talk about Bloomington’s own “Hackerspace” and what it’s really like to be involved in such a high-tech community.

Key Takeaways

Never Overlook Humble Beginnings

The name evokes confidence. When I hear “BloomingLabs,” I immediately think of some expensive building on IU’s campus, freshly renovated with a giant ribbon cutting by President McRobbie. This hackerspace, however, started as the IU Robotics Club. The only reason it’s no longer the IU Robotics Club, in fact, is because all the members graduated and needed something else to do. Thus, BloomingLabs was born.

Value of Community

Steve insists that Bloomington is a great community for tech, and given the evidence, we’re inclined to agree. What makes this hackerspace work is the fact that they can pool resources. Given their robotics background, most of these folks like to work in hardware, and that can get expensive fast.

“I’m not spending $6,000 on a laser cutter,” Steve explained.

This culture of community reaches beyond their resources, though. Their community is built around an operating mode of trust and respect. It’s been remarked that tech spaces can get insular, but Steve has rejected this at BloomingLabs, saying “When you get a mix of people, they’ll have different ideas and be able to help each other out.”

Above all else, they’ve built a community that respects and honors its members:

“Rule #1: Be Excellent to Each Other”


In talking about the projects they’ve undertaken at BloomingLabs, Steve cites perseverance as one of the defining traits of the community. “We had some late nights trying to brain storm, thinking ‘oh, well I can’t miss work.'”

In the end, it comes down to your vision of yourself and your ability to push on.

“If we want to call ourselves a hackerspace, we have to make this happen.”

What were your key takeaways? Have you been involved with a hackerspace? How similar was your experience?

Case Study: Relevance on Navigating Startup Acquisitions

Digital Relevance Startup StoryWhen an entrepreneur takes to the stage or the web to tell their story, it’s often because they have achieved a major milestone or recently had a big win. This is, of course, fitting–we can learn a lot about what it takes to succeed by studying each other’s successes. By sharing what works at conferences, online and in communities like Verge, we both enable others to reach for higher goals and inspire others to achieve them.

But as they say, the best lessons are often the hardest ones learned. And as entrepreneurs, it’s often difficult for us to share our most significant insights because they are our hardest earned–and are the most humbling to talk about. So when Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey, two of the co-founders of Relevance, joined me on stage to share some of their most significant insights, I knew we were in for a special night.

Case Study: Relevance Founders on Navigating Startup Acquisition Offers

Passion and Youthful Enthusiasm Fuel Growth

Digital Relevance Post

Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey, Co-Founders of Relevance, share their insights on how to navigate startup acquisition offers.

Bailey and Dearringer developed interests in the internet and marketing from an early age. They loved learning about it simply for the sake of learning, and pursued SEO as a passion and hobby throughout high school. They split paths for college, but Derringer’s early experience helping his dad’s company with SEO led the friends to realize that their shared interests could turn into a business.

The business plan was born out of their passion, and as they say, was created with the kind of unbridled optimism that so often comes with youth.

Dearringer and Bailey owe much of their early success to a few key things:

  • Their mantra: “Make clients successful, make clients successful, and never forget to make clients successful.”
  • An excellent partnership program
  • Tried to ensure that every client referred them three new clients

They grew fast, hitting the Inc 500 list for three consecutive years.

“In a nutshell,” said Bailey, their recipe for success “Was a lot of passion and confidence. Granted, it was our first time doing any of this. We didn’t know what an acquisition process was like, we didn’t understand a lot of the stuff the wiser business people knew.”

“We were just really passionate and enthusiastic. You need that to keep you going in the beginning,” said Dearringer.

How to Navigate an Acquisition Offer: What to do When Someone Wants to Buy Your Baby

“We ran into some challenges in the last year and a half. Some people may have associated those challenges with changes in the [SEO] market and space–but something else was going on that people may not know about,” said Dearringer.

“FedEx was one of our enterprise clients, and I was invited to speak on a panel in front of 300 global marketers at FedEx. I didn’t even feel like I belonged there, to be honest,” Dearringer chuckled. “I was sitting there with executives from Facebook and Omnicom, and it went really well. And afterwards, people kept coming up to talk to me.”

Those panelists Jeremy spoke with at the event continued to speak with him afterwards.

“I think they were surprised that [Relevance] had worked our own way in with FedEx. He kept following us and talking to us for weeks after that, and it ended up leading to a $30 million offer for our business,” he said.

Suddenly, that youthful enthusiasm that fueled Dearringer and Bailey’s startup had propelled them into completely foreign territory.

“I think some of the people that are working on startups think about it a lot–it’s a big decision to sell your baby,” Dearringer said. “You have employees, it’s like a family you’ve built up, and it’s a big decision to think about what [an acquisition] means for everybody.”

“We immediately started going into what I would call ‘Cover Your Ass’ mode: how do we not let this slip through our hands, and capitalize on this?”

Founder Lessons Learned

Here are a few key decisions and milestones Dearringer, Bailey, and the Relevance (then Slingshot SEO) executive team reached while working on the acquisition that didn’t end up coming together:

Reward the people that helped you get there.

They couldn’t tell everybody what was going on as negotiations were ongoing, but they gave 16 employees phantom shares anyway.

Follow the advice of mentors, but don’t take your eyes off the prize.

They worked with an investment banker, and then decided to hire a CEO, then a COO. In foreign territory, they thought, best to have people that have been there before on your team.

There is a lot of risk to taking on acquisition offers as a founder. It takes a lot of time, effort, and attention away from the machine the business runs on. Though the Relevance executive team tried valiantly to divvy up responsibilities, with some working on the business and others working on the sale, the process affected a starkly different day-to-day from the youthful, optimistic culture they had started with.

The acquisition process is private, they pointed out. You can’t talk to a lot of people about it. You have to work through that process relatively alone. The buyer wants to watch you for six months, maybe more, to ensure that you and your sales projections and maintain EBITDA profitability.

“They were putting a lot of pressure on our sales team to hit our numbers, and at the same time couldn’t make hires the way we wanted to–we weren’t as agile as we wanted to be with the business at that time,” said Dearringer. “We introduced a lot of change to the business during that time, so the cover your ass mode–as opposed to being optimistic and excited and focusing on our business–was one of the biggest changes that occurred.”

“We learned a lot from them. We honestly did, even when we were in CYA mode,” said Dearringer.

Don’t let big numbers get under your skin.


Their hard work had paid off. Big time. Relevance had competing offers to buy the business, and they wound up with a top offer for $60 million.

“So that was even more material and more significant–which sent us into even more of a C.Y.A. mode,” Dearringer said.

There is a strong possibility that your business can get in a really bad spot if the acquisition doesn’t happen. I thought, ‘How do we manage that risk?’ So we hired a CEO and hired a COO.

Key Insight: The real lesson there is this: If you ever get to that goal, get to that spot, make sure that you stay fixated and positive and optimistic–the same stuff you built the business on must continue through the acquisition process. Don’t take on the protectionist mentality. Your energy needs to be focused.

And as Kevin said, “It means you will work 24/7, but that’s just part of the deal.”

Watch Jeremy Dearringer at Verge when the negotiations were ongoing:

How it turned out

After a year of over 100% growth, Relevance projected 50% growth for the year as they entered the acquisition process.

“We thought that was conservative,” Bailey chuckled. “We started coming in a little short of that–but the whole point of a long process is so that you don’t it your forecasts so they can keep negotiating with you.”

The process kept getting delayed, and ended up lasting almost a year. And that, my friends, is a lesson to learn from.

Key Insight: “If you ever get in a competitive bid process, get it done in a quarter, and take the second best bid. It’s still a lot of money, you know?” -Kevin Bailey

Bailey elaborated, “If you take your eye off your business for that long, you can really put a hurt on your clients, your team, and your own sanity.”

On Hiring C-Level Executives.

“Another thing: Kevin and I just had kids during this time, too,” Said Dearringer. “This will change your life. It changes everything. You need to figure out how to manage your workload and balance your personal and professional life.”

Kevin added, “Another lesson to think about: some entrepreneurs talk about the concept of ‘Working your way out of your job.’ That can happen on an exit, but I think as a founder, you bring something key and very important. It’s actually VERY hard to work yoruself out of your job.

In a lot of ways, it’s harder to watch someone else run your business than to run it yourself.

Relevance Today

Relevance still has clients like Qualcom, Sears, and more. They still do what most would think of as traditional SEO services, but today, their sites are laser-focused on content promotion.

“What happens when your content marketing efforts aren’t doing enough for you? What happens when your content falls in the woods?” Dearringer asked. “We create badass content and then we promote it.”

As Relevance VP of Marketing Chad Pollitt recently pointed out, “Content is King, but Promotion is Queen…and she wears the pants.”

So how did the Relevance team weather the storm? See for yourself. (hint: they’re still on the INC 500)

As Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey said:

If you have questions about the acquisition process, if you think something like their situation is coming up for you, if you’re working on balancing your startup baby with your new baby, or something else, please get in touch. As straight-talking, active contributors to the entrepreneurial community, they’re happy to share even more of what they’ve learned from experience with you.

Go ahead and leave your questions or comments below and we’ll monitor them for response.

Founder Story: How Jeremy Dearringer Scaled Culture, Clients, and Profits while Bootstrapping Growth

It had been only three months since I quit the company. But there I was, on stage again with the co-founder of a multimillion dollar company who had become a close friend over the past two years. Only this time, we had a much different relationship.

I first met Jeremy Dearringer when I was introduced to a small (at the time) marketing tech company named Slingshot SEO. Back then, Slingshot was less than a dozen people. Little did I know that the company was about to take off—and I was going to come along for the ride. 

Jeremy DearringerWhile I worked with that small initial team, I got to know the co-founders of Slingshot SEO (now known as Relevance). As they went into their biggest growth year in history, they offered me the opportunity to join the team as the head of Marketing. I jumped aboard and worked alongside a talented founding team: Kevin Bailey, Aaron Aders, and Jeremy Dearringer.

In the year that followed, we reached record-level growth and hit the Inc 500 list of fastest growing companies in America at #58. We more than tripled revenue that year, and grew the team from 30-some employees to over 100 Slingshot team members serving the world’s most innovative,  industry-leading, and deserving brands.

Relevance dominated by setting the pace of the internet marketing industry and sticking to their core values. And it was in March of 2012, after I had left the company, that I sat down with Relevance (formerly Slingshot SEO) co-founder Jeremy Dearringer to take a look back at their recipe for success:

Jeremy Dearringer, Co-Founder of Relevance on Bootstrapping Growth

In this first part of the fireside chat, Dearringer dives into:

  • Why entrepreneurs learn to take action early
  • How to build initial momentum with an idea
  • When to delay gratification of a founding team
  • If and how to choose a co-founder
  • How to sacrifice for the greater good of the business

But then Jeremy Dearringer digs into the good stuff. Here’s the story of their acceleration:

  • How Slingshot SEO hit Inc-500-level growth
  • Finding the point of inflection for growth
  • Why managing cashflow is key to long-term success
  • The benefits of building a client-focused culture (and why Relevance has the mission statement: “Make every client successful, make every client successful, and don’t forget to make every client successful.”)
  • How to overcome the challenges of scaling from 15 to over 100 team members
  • Why company culture is more than nerf guns, workday perks, or company parties

Jeremy, Aaron and Kevin, never forget what drives the hearbeat of their brand. Dearringer put it simply, “It’s about who you get to work with. So, please don’t confuse it with activities that you do.”

What resonates with you? How are you building your culture and scaling your own growth?