Ep #10 | Trust Your Gut


Charles Brian Quinn, also known as CBQ, is a passionate technologist, a programmer at heart, an entrepreneur to the core, an investor in people, a builder of products, an ardent salesperson, a loquacious speaker, a fumbling writer, and a self-proclaimed coffee snob. He enjoys sailing, running, and racing two-wheeled vehicles in the mud and on the track.



Shantel: Hey, everyone. We are so excited to have CBQ on the show today. CBQ, welcome.

CBQ: Hey, thanks for having me.

Shantel: Yeah, of course. I'm eager and excited to engage with the listeners and tell more about your journey and what makes you imagine more. Can you kick it off with telling everyone how you got started and what's been keeping you busy right now?


CBQ: Yeah, sure thing. Well, again, thanks for having me. I've been a big fan of the Imagine Media and the work that you guys are doing for quite some time and a regular listener of the podcast. I appreciate you taking me on. I have been an entrepreneur my entire life. That means I'm constantly trying to start things and failing quite good at them. But when I got out of college ... I went to school for computer science and just loved computers, grown up around them ... I knew I wanted to build software and technology. Just fascinated by it still to this day. I tried to start a company and it failed miserably. It was way too big for my britches, an idea around putting computers in cars. I did all these inappropriate things like have a version of the business cards before I had lick of revenue. I'd learned a ton of what not to do, but it was great practice. I went and did consulting for a software company where I learned how to go on site. Because I was pretty personable and good at the job, the company would put me on the worst clients, the clients that were super-upset. I'd come on site and try and diagnose what's going wrong. That's where I learned really hardcore consulting and training and teaching. Loved that job. Had the opportunity to start another company with a friend of mine. Another idea that was way too big for its britches. Had bad timing in the market, way too early. Had a great experience though. That led me to start my own thing right on the tails of that failing. I knew that I was good at consulting, and I made the leap to go and start doing that. What was crazy about that is that I did everything the opposite. For instance, I didn't have a business plan. I didn't have any business cards. I remember printing some business cards off on the printer and running out the door for the first networking event I went to. I remember in the previous businesses that failed, I met with a banker because I was told that that was set up the bank and all that stuff. The business I started, called Highgroove at the time, I didn't do any of that. In fact, I remember the very first time I set up a bank account was when I had two checks that said Highroove on there. I was like, "Can't cash these. I guess I should form a bank account." Doing everything the opposite and doing it last minute and really focusing on value and being useful was the epiphany for me. I started that company, Highgroove, grew it to about 26 people, probably about three million in revenue and was regularly working with a friend of mine. At the time we ran a company called Big Nerd Ranch, and we had been working together. We even had similar projects. We were doing training. One of the things that was happening is that my people in my company were wanting to expand in other areas design, mobile apps. We were building a lot of the back ends, too, these software, these mobile apps and things. They would do the front end. Our clients kept asking for more and more services and then a number of other funny stories for another day. We decided to merge. We merged in November of 2012, and we formed Big Nerd Ranch. It was a bigger brand and better name. We took a lot of the operational excellence and the culture and everything and combined the two companies, and it continues to this day. It's a great company, and I served as CEO for two years. I grew the company along with my Co-Founder, Aaron Hillegass, who's a brilliant entrepreneur as well. I stepped down to serve on the board. I came back recently for a project. That's what I'm doing now. I'm a principal at Big Nerd Ranch. I help connect good companies to us as well as I serve on the board of a couple other companies as an investor and an advisor. All that brings us to today where I serve on the board of Lawn.com, a small brewery, and I have a number of other investments that I'm hopefully working on and can announce pretty soon.

Shantel: That's great. That's very exciting. I want to dive into the merge between Highgroove and Big Nerd. But diving back a little further first. You mentioned college was the first stab at your first business. Were you raised in an entrepreneurial family? Were you inspired by entrepreneurs growing up or someone around you that sparked that interest in starting something on your own?


CBQ: My father was always very entrepreneurial. Even to this day he has a private practice. He's a psychologist and he's done everything from private practice small consulting. In fact, a fond member I have is an office he rented. I remember us tearing down one of the walls so that he could have a little receptionist area to see patients and still having the sign outside, Dr. Quinn. But even before that, one of my really formative memories is that one of the things that my parents taught me ... Both my mom who's a nurse and my dad who's a psychologist and very entrepreneurial ... is that value is created. I think a lot of people incorrectly assume that when you have a business that it's a zero-sum game and that you have to take money or take investment or take something from someone in order to produce something else. What's crazy about that is the thing that taught me that is when we were very young, this is late '80s, we started a recycling business. The concept was really simple. We sent out these flyers to everybody along my street in my neighborhood. This is in Gwinnett County in Atlanta, Georgia. We told them, "Hey, instead of throwing away everything, you can recycle glass and plastics." Again, this was late '80s. There was one place downtown where you could take the stuff and get a little bit of money for it, cans and things like that. We co-opted my mom's van, and every weekend on Sunday we would drive up and down and go and collect items from everybody. People loved it because they were just, we were saving the environment. It was very good. Then we would take it to the recycling place and get a little bit of money. It was crazy. I remember thinking like, "Wow, we basically created money and value and this need and the service out of what was other people's trash." To me, it always told me that, again, value can be created from anything. If you provide a valuable service, if you have something that you're doing, you can create something from nothing. That it isn't always something that you take. Again, parents who always supported me in my endeavors. I do tease my dad who was a child psychologist and I tell him, "Man, Dad I would be so much more successful if I had some kind of terrible, traumatic event that I had to overcome as a child." He laughs and says, "Uh-huh," knowing that as a child psychologist he definitely dealt with some pretty tricky situations and kids who really had traumatic events. As much as we laughed about it, it's recognizing the fact that I am very lucky and blessed to have such a idyllic childhood. But, yeah, lots of formative lessons growing up and entrepreneurs within the family.

Shantel: That's great. I love when you mentioned that value is created. You come from a service background and correct me if I'm wrong, but most of the companies you've been involved in and advised are service-based companies. Correct?


CBQ: That is true. I love consulting. I think providing a service and taking what I would consider to be individual contributors who have knowledge, giving them a process and a better team and a culture and tools and techniques. It just gives me chills to see that happening. I love service business and I love professional services businesses. I love training businesses. Partly that stems from my personality. I think that the way you'd say that negatively is that I enjoy pleasing people. I think the way you say that positively is that I love empowering people and I love being the hero. Nothing gives me higher satisfaction than someone saying, "Hey, you and your team did a great job. You helped us achieve X." To get paid for doing that is like a double-whammy. As you know as a service business, too, it's fun and it's exciting and I love it.

Shantel: That's great. Well, I'd love to dive back into that merge, the merger. I imagine that was a new experience for you and one that you hadn't done before. Was there something that, a big takeaway you took from it? Or the biggest lesson you learned from that experience specifically?


CBQ: Sure. Many, many lessons. For me, again, it was the right move for our clients, our customers. It was the right move for our team. It was the right move for me personally. Since you asked, I'm very achievement-focused, very goal-oriented. At the time, I had made the decision a few years before to start on an entrepreneurial journey and really to, it was a big deal for me to take that role of the CEO and to not be the sole developer or the sole individual contributor. I took that on. One of the goals I had was to grow a business and a company. There were certain milestones: number of people, revenue, clients. A lot of those were things that I wanted to do and set because the challenges in it become more. I love the challenge of trying to grow something and lead it and guide it. To me, it was a fantastic challenge. As for exact learnings, if I could give advice to someone considering a partnership, a merger, an acquisition, a sale, buy-sell. Culture is super-important. When people look at Big Nerd Ranch and the previous company that I'd ran called Highgroove, it was funny because people would say things like, "Oh, yeah, that makes sense. I see that you all merged. In fact that's funny. I saw all of you all eating lunch the other day." We did. We have offices right down the street, so we would always eat lunch. We'd do lunch and learns and half Big Nerd Ranch office would be in ours, and then we'd go over to the Highgroove office and do another one. Our cultures were very, very similar and that's hugely important, hugely important. But what I will also say is that despite all of the similarities, as the main CEO and foster of the culture and proponent of it, when I look at it, it's like the back of hand. I know it down to the very, very, very core of it. There are slight differences and there were slight differences that came about and really have to be modified and looked at. We had a number of ways that we did that. But interestingly enough, a lot of the cultures between the two, there were things that were very, very similar. But things that were quite, in a superficial way, different that we had to rectify and really embrace and put together. Ultimately, it did become a better organization, a better culture for the combining. But in the beginning, a lot of people were like, "Well, wait. Why did we do things that way?" Others were like, "Oh, I don't see why we did it that way." It had to do with differing small, small things with the culture. Culture's huge. That's what I would say as a learning for sure.

Shantel: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I think the culture in general, it's really fascinating. We put a lot of intention in our culture at Imagine Media as well because people want to go to a place where they enjoy and they're inspired everyday and excited. But sometimes, thinking of the Googles and the really techie places, scooters for reason come to mind when I think about company culture, or ping-pong tables. I would love to dive deeper into what your thoughts are in a successful culture in a company, and what were some of the framework that you guys put up? Whether that's a hiring process or just diving deep into what looked for in people and what was important as you guys continued to build that culture?


CBQ: Yeah. That's a great point. On the culture, there are things that I would call cultural artifacts, right? Which are all the things that really surmise how you operate. How the things that you do influence the services and the business and even the customers. When I think about a company's culture and some of the things we're doing, I think it has a lot to do with just all the little things that add up. You mention a ping-pong table and it may be trite these days to have a software company and not have a ping-pong table. But what to me is the higher level cultural artifact is by having one what does that show? To me, that the cultural implication of having that would be we value either people who work hard and play hard and who enjoy a balance in life work that it may be a little mixed. Those are interesting things when you think about it as well as the scooters. It's interesting on that when you have a big office and people are constantly, you want them to get around and contribute and collaborate. Because as your company grows, I've noticed myself that sometimes people will be like, "Hey, I just realized, we should be doing X." You're like, "Wait, I thought that was what we were already doing and that that was already operationalized." You need to get people out there talking. One of the ways was to get scooters so that they can scoot over to someone's desk or someone's office or be able to do that and, as well, go get snacks and get right back to being in the zone. In terms of culture, what we've done, a lot of things. I'll give you a good example, one that I really love is ... I admire your culture, too, having interacted with many of your employees. I think you guys do very well at this. You want to reinforce the culture constantly as a CEO and then as your senior leaders. One of the ways we do that is via an award. We call it Nerd of the Moment. Anyone can award it to anyone. What you do is, it's fun because of course we built software to do this. But in our Slack channel it pings and say, "Oop, John has been awarded the Nerd of the Moment." Then what you do is you take a core value. Our core values are: brilliant, kind, hardworking. You relate the award to how that person has exemplified one of those core values. In doing so, what you do is you reinforce the behavior, and you're also helping the company both reinforce it from that. It becomes this self-perpetuating thing. But culture is something that you always have to work at. There are things that we would never do like, for instance, free car washes. It's a perk that we think is silly for a bunch of bicyclists. But probably not something that we would value or even fits in with what we do because we feel like, "Hey, when you're separated, you're away," or things like that. I'm a big proponent of it. It's something that you always have to work for even as you try and grow your product and value.

Shantel: I love that. I don't know if you've heard of our Nate. Have you heard of Nate?

CBQ: No. Tell it to us.

Shantel: Okay. Certainly I'm sure we got this idea from the Nerd of the Moment, but we have a weekly light bulb. At one point we thought our icon was gonna be a light bulb, and it symbolized illuminating or imagination. So illumi-nate or imagi-nation.

CBQ: Love it.

Shantel: We coined this light bulb that now sits on someone's desk in the office, Nate. He gets passed on every week to someone who exemplifies those core value and it's announced publicly in our company meeting every week. Then that person's responsible at the end of each day to tell the entire company a fun fact about them and a strength or weakness of theirs just so that we can continue to get to know them better.

CBQ: That's great.

Shantel: But I love the idea of people can award someone else something, so I'm glad you mentioned that.


CBQ: Well, one of the things that jump in on there is, I think, one of the hardest things to do as a CEO and as a leader, as you know, is that I almost feel like it's my job to course-correct things in a persuasive, motivational way. Luckily, when you build a good strong culture and you exemplify it, you don't have to do this often. But it's one of the harder things that I think to learn as a leader as the company grows. When someone gets the award for something and you say ... I'll just give you an example. One of the core values is kind and kindness. You would think, and I've learned this the hard way at Big Nerd Ranch, that when someone does something that might not be a perfect for the client, maybe skipped a few steps or something like that. You could say, "Well, I just want to be kind and I'm not gonna say anything because that would be the kind thing to do." What you realize is that true level-five kindness would be for you to call them out and to say, "Hey, listen, what you did, I know you can do better. This was inappropriate." In me being kind, the kindest thing I can do is really point it out to you. It's almost counterintuitive, but you really have to be that exemplar of that. Making those tiny course-corrections and learning as a CEO when to do it. Praise public and criticize private. Or deliver what I would call critical feedback privately. All these things are learned over time. I usually get those right, sometimes.

Shantel: Well, speaking on those, have then gotten easier? I think it's very honorable to have these tough conversations and certainly needed in a growing company. Do they get easier in time?

CBQ: Well, I wish the answer was yes. But what I will tell you is that what I think happens, having experienced this myself, is that you start to pattern, recognize some of these behaviors or some of these things that you've heard. I've been really lucky in that. I'll give you an example. I've been involved in two peer groups and I know that, Shantel, you've involved in one of them, your Accelerator. Yours have been instrumental in leveling me out. I've joined another called YPO a couple of years ago. One of the things that's interesting being in these peer groups is the challenges that CEOs and senior leaders and C-level execs and founders and entrepreneurs seem to encounter is that some of the problems are still the same. Maybe the stakes are a little higher, but it doesn't seem like it. I'll give you an example. When I was first starting out, I remember getting a desk at a place and paying $600 a month in rent and being like, "Oh my gosh. I don't know if I can afford that. $600 that's a lot." Then we got our next office and it was $1,200 and I thought the same thing, "Man, that's a lot, $1,200." We kept growing, kept growing and the numbers became higher but the thought was the same. It was like, "Oh, man, that seven-year lease goes up to 40K a month. Man, that seems like a lot." But yet we kept going. Maybe the numbers become relative and the challenges become bigger, but the concepts are still the same. You think about things like partnership. Should we partner with this person or this company? Should we part ways with this person or this company or this group or this division or this office? I like to think that maybe some parts of it do, and maybe you get better. But there are certain things that I don't want to get better at. Firing people, for example.

Shantel: No, I'm glad you mention that. It's interesting just to reflect on that piece a little bit with the rent example. Every new hire is, we've gone through the process, so now we know how to do it. But it's still the same thought behind it. Is it the right time? Or, is this the right next step? I'm glad that you mentioned that because sometimes that reflection is nice to say, "Okay, people are going though the same things and it's just maybe at a different scale."


CBQ: I think what that means to me, and you've said it very eloquently. I'll recap my own thoughts is that at some point in the entrepreneurial journey as your people that are listening and starting a company and taking these risks. There's two things that I use to make decisions. Maybe people do this and maybe they don't. But there's data and there's gut. What I think happens when you have more experience is that you're able to, again, recognize the data that is important. Then you're also able to in your gut just say like, "This feels right." There's been several times where I've hired somebody. This one in particular that I remember where it was I remember interviewing this person and being like, "This person is totally unlike me. Absolutely loves doing the things that I hate doing." Almost to the point where I was like, "I don't know if I could relate to them as somebody I'd have a beer with." Whatever other metrics you use to think about it, but that they were just completely different and I was like, "I have to hire this person." It ended up being one of the best hires I've ever made. There's a lot of those out there. But really recognizing that the gut was this person is smart and gets things done. Knowing that the stakes are pretty easy to course-correct. But what is not easy to correct is indecision.

Shantel: That's a great point. When you mentioned grabbing a beer with someone, would love to tell the listeners a little bit about that coffee machine you guys have. Can you tell everyone a little bit about the coffee machine and the training you guys go through?

CBQ: Sure. I will tell you that one of the values that comes out of being brilliant and very good at your craft is, one of the sub-values, is craftsmanship. At Big Nerd Ranch we have a commercial espresso machine. Our friends at Octane, which is now Revelator, we've always been good friends with them, and they hooked us up with a machine. What we always do is that you have to be trained on the machine. The idea around that is it relates back to another cultural artifact is that if you are going to have a cup of coffee, why not make it a good one? Why not care about the craft and understand how it was made? We nerd-out about coffee at Big Nerd Ranch. Again, when you go to the machine it is a commercial La Marzocco espresso machine. You do have to be trained to pull a shot, and nerds are happy to do that for you. You can schedule that and get barista-trained and certified. So, we do. We take that pretty seriously. There's also an app, an iPad so that you can know when the last bit of drip coffee, we have that as well. We have tons of pour-overs. We even have an iced coffee, Kegerators. Again, I think we take it a little too seriously. But the idea, again, around it is that when you value craftsmanship and really truly good things, why have a terrible cup of coffee when you could have a very good one? Again, you can pick and choose your battles. If your company's not into that, doesn't mean you have to go get one. But it fit with our culture, and it fit with our mantra of really the craftsmanship and understanding how things are made. You see that a lot in our company. We tend to go a little overboard on stuff like that. But it all bubbles up.

Shantel: That all makes sense. Thanks for sharing that. It's making me want a cup of coffee. I would love to switch gears a little bit to the personal side. I know you have a lot of projects and a lot of things you're really passionate about. Can we tap into the balance and how you've found a balance in your life being a serial entrepreneur?


CBQ: I'm not sure that I have a good balance between personal and life, but maybe we could ask my wife. One of the things that I do think is a strength of mine but also is a weakness is that I'm pretty intense. I can become pretty focused and obsessed. My wife has learned not to ask me anything when I'm on the computer, which is most of the time sadly. But I will say that one of the ways I've been able to do it is I am pretty goal-oriented, pretty systematic. I do tend to make time for family and friends. I'll schedule things. Even my weekends are blocked. I'm like, "Oh, cool. We're gonna go to lunch." I even schedule like, "Oh, call grandma." I have to come up with a goal. On the personal level, I'll give you an example. I have recently gotten back into running, and I made it a goal of mine to run a half marathon because I'd never done it. Then it became a full marathon. I have to work backwards from the goal. I put in a marathon training program, and then I just do it because I want the goal so badly that it's easy for me to work backwards. Another goal I have, and to get personal, is I always want a better relationship with my wife, to be more in sync with my family. I know what that is. I know what that look like so I've described it as a personal goal. I'm big on goals. Some of the things we do is, and she'll laugh. I hope when she listens to this she hears, but we have a family meeting where we go over ... I've even prepared a deck for it. It's somewhat embarrassing ... but I go over the finances and what we spend and what we're doing. It ultimately bubble up but are goals, we realized we weren't as charitable as we thought. Then it becomes a better goal for us to say, "Oh, man, we're really not being as charitable. We're not donating our time and our money." That's what we do. Out of those meetings we have more goals about like, "Hey, let's go volunteer more the ACFB or let's up our recurring subscription. Let's both become donating members to NPR."  Which we are and just doing more. But, yeah, regularly, it's gonna sound like my treating my life like a business but it works for me.

Shantel: I love that. I appreciate your being vulnerable and telling us about the pitch deck. It seems you're very intentional about your time and the energy you put into things. Have you always written down your goals? Or are they primarily in your head?

CBQ: I'm a huge proponent of goal-setting and writing down your goals. I've been pretty systematic around those. It's interesting to look back at five-year goals and revising those. Every year I do goals around December and in January and for year. What's great about doing that is, the other day I was sitting there and my to-do list was overflowing. I was like, "Man, what do I do? Where do I start? I got to do this. I got to do that. I'm working on this. I got this meeting later today." What's nice is I have a weekly reminder that pops up and says, "Hey, make sure you're moving forward on your goals." I looked at my to-do list, and I was like, "Oh, I got to pay the cleaners and take this and do that and buy this." Then I looked at my personal goals and I saw a goal to help Big Nerd Ranch in a certain way. I was like, "You know what? That means that I don't need to any of these other things that I should just go ahead and do this right now. This one thing. That I can move this one thing forward." That is something that I've not been traditionally good at. I'm pretty terrible about it. I can pull up a to-do list and just do random stuff. But one of the books I've recently read and that has been really influencing, and I ended up presenting on it to one of my peer groups, is Essentialism. Great read by Greg McKeown. It is really about that and the concept that when you're looking at the things in your life that you must do, it isn't really about doing them all. There's no way. Time is finite and resources are finite. Trying to find what I would consider the pitch line of the book is the most essential items and doing those. There's a quote about if you can find those things and regularly work towards them that some of the to-dos that you can do can suddenly eliminate all the rest of them. If you were just to do the highest impact thing, and it's tough. I struggle with this as a leader, but some of the best leaders I know do this on a day-to-day basis. That also is motivating for me is thinking about what would the people that I admire and do, do as well, and that's motivating. No, I haven't always been like that. I think I can always get better.

Shantel: Well, yeah. I'm glad that you mentioned that book. It's been sitting on bedside table. I'm due to read it. I've just finished up a book called The One Thing and it sound like there's some common thread there. It talked about high-performance tasks and really the tasks that pay off and will get you closer to where you're trying to go as opposed to do the laundry. The small things that ultimately have to be done but not right away and not because you just want to cross it off the list, which I think there's some power there. Well, CBQ, I've got two questions to wrap it up and the first being: What is next on the horizon for you?

CBQ: I knew you were gonna ask something like this having listened to your podcasts. I have a couple of things that I'm working on. I started a small advisory company called Kelp Engine. It's basically the advisory services of CBQ, and it's what I use for my investment vehicle in Lawn.com and some of the other companies I do. In addition to helping Big Nerd Ranch, which is one of the companies I own and sit on the board of, there's other companies that need my help and that I am finding a ton of value at. A couple of them are top-secret. I hate doing that because I'm generally not a top-secret person. But we just haven't gotten over all the trademarks and all that stuff that it's either important or not depending on where you think I'm less concerned about those but out of respect for the others. Yeah, there's a couple of other things. For me, it's always using technology and using people, not using but leveraging people's strengths to build neat things that can create value. Look for more from Lawn.com. Look for more from Kelp Engine and our investments in some technology companies here. A generic answer but stay tuned.

Shantel: It's fair enough. Yeah. Well, I feel because I didn't catch you off guard with that one, we need to just add a fun one in there. Is there anything you want to tell the audience or you want to share or a fun quote or just a pet peeve or quirk that you are open to sharing to wrap it up?


CBQ: Ha. You know, I think what I would say that if you are out there thinking about starting something or you believe that you have a business idea, one of the things that I think has been pretty influential is just understanding that what you think. If you have a belief that there's a better way to do something, whether it's build software or to train developer to get your lawn mowed that that is probably the most important thing. It isn't the cultural artifacts yet. It isn't the people that you hire yet. I think the fundamental belief that there is a better way to do something is one of the most important things as a good friend of mine Kyle Porter, SalesLoft, says. He says, "Sales is simply the transference of a fundamental belief in the product." When you truly believe that what have is a better way to do something, you have to get it out. I know that entrepreneurs come in all sizes, shapes, forms, and people. But ultimately it's the belief that there's a better way to do something. When you truly believe that, nothing can get in your way. When I feel that way often enough about something, I love to join and start and co-opt and create. I'll continue doing that as long as I can. I hope that's useful to your audience, and I appreciate it.

Shantel: Yeah. Thank you. Last but not least, how can people get in touch with you, learn more about what you have going on?

CBQ: Sure. I have a shameless, self-promotional site. It's CBQ.com except instead of a C, you put SEE. So, SEEBQ.com and you can find links to my Twitter, which I'm on. But, as Shantel knows, I'm a poor social media follower and proponent. I have a strategy to get back on that I've sent her, and she says it's good.

Shantel: It's good.

CBQ: But now it's time to enact it. You can find me on Twitter. I tend to poke around on there, but it's SEEBQ.com.

Shantel: Right. Thanks so much. Really appreciate your being on the show.

CBQ: Thanks for having me.