Gunner Technology shouldn’t be around anymore.
Cody Swann founded Gunner Technology in 2010 as an experiment to put into practice what he was learning from his MBA program at the University of Florida.
“Look,” Swann said. “I’m a practical guy, so all these things we were learning in the MBA program was great, but I wanted to see what use they were in the real world.”
So Swann created Gunner in the final semester of his MBA program, which he was doing remotely while managing the Social Media team for ESPN.com from Los Angeles.
“The idea was for Gunner to be a one-man show, doing for other people and companies what I was doing for ESPN,” Swann said.
In practice, that meant building a lot of web sites for smaller companies using WordPress, which was the most popular web site builder and content publishing platform at the time and then using third party as well as custom WordPress addons to manage marketing from Search Engine Optimization to Social Media Optimization.
And the jobs came from anywhere.
“It was weird because I wasn’t really looking to take on a bunch of work,” Swann said. “Remember. This was supposed to be an experiment, but I also didn’t want to turn away work, either.”
So Swann divvied up his time between ESPN, his MBA and Gunner Technology’s growing clientele.
Gunner Technology provided the most challenge.
“Honestly, the work wasn’t difficult,” Swann said. “I was just setting up WordPress sites and customizing them. That’s not very challenging, but success put more demands on me and I couldn’t focus on doing just one thing.”
Through Gunner, Swann was becoming a one-man Swiss Army knife – writing code, configuring hosting environments, consulting clients on handling their growth online, editing content and much more.
There was another problem, too.
“The head of our department at ESPN quit and the company wanted to relocate my group to Seattle,” Swann said. “I was not a fan of Seattle.”
So shortly after he got his MBA, ESPN shutdown the group, and anyone who didn’t want to move to Seattle was let go, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“During my MBA studies, I realized that corporate world wasn’t for me,” Swann said. “I wanted to be in control of my own successes and failures. I loved my time at ESPN, but I need to work in a meritorical environment. The higher you go, the more that isn’t the case in corporate life.”
So the plans for Gunner Technology changed a bit.
“It went from being an experiment to the way I was going to put food on the table,” Swann said. “At least until my next thing.”
That “next thing” was a product-based startup, which Swann said he can’t even remember what it was about now.
Gunner Technology flourished and his stopgap became his future.
Within a year of running Gunner Technology, Swann realized its potential lay way beyond building out WordPress sites.
“At ESPN, and Disney as a whole for that matter, we used a proprietary Java-based coding platform to build out product,” Swann said. “There were a lot of problems with it; not so much the platform itself, but it’s almost always easier to hire and retain top talent if you’re dealing with open source solutions.”
ESPN realized this and asked Swann to identify an open source alternative and build a team around it.
He chose a relatively new framework called Ruby on Rails.
“I looked at probably 20 different frameworks across at least five different programming languages,” Swann said. “Rails intrigued me a lot because the framework made getting up and running quickly so easy, and the developer community was large and very helpful.”
To imagine the difference, think of working in a company where only the people who work for the company can help you out, Swann said.
By contrast, Swann said, open source is like working in a company where the people who work for the company can help you out, but so can everyone in the company’s industry, too.
“With that much help, very few things can’t get solved quickly,” Swann said.
By carving out a sizeable portion of ESPN.com and building it out anew on Ruby on Rails, Cody gained invaluable expertise in the framework, which he wanted to focus on with Gunner Technology.
“At this point, I was still terrified to hire a full-time developer other than myself,” Swann said. “Ruby on Rails was great because, a developer who has ever worked on one Rails project, can start contributing to any Rails project very quickly.”
So Cody shifted his focus away from building and running WordPress sites to building custom solutions for startups and larger companies using Ruby on Rails and a project management style that he also learned while at ESPN.
“Agile is pretty funny,” Swann said of this style. “The alternative is waterfall development, which large companies love to hate but are too stuck to move to Agile.
“Think of it this way. If you’re taking a cross-country vacation, and you plot out the dates and stops and the whole thing exactly, that’s waterfall. If you want to drive across the country but aren’t sure what you want to do along the way, so you have a flexible schedule and stops, that’s Agile.”
There are a few problems with the Waterfall philosophy.
“If you’ve never driven across country, how do you know what you want to see,” Swann said. “What if you see something really cool along the way or enjoy something more than you thought you would and want to stay longer? With Agile, that’s not a problem. You adjust as you go. With Waterfall, you can’t even stay at a gas station longer than planned and forget about a traffic jam along the way. It’ll throw the whole schedule off and then vacation is ruined.”
Waterfall gives a false sense of security because is has a date attached to the end, but rarely is that date met and usually, it’s not even close, Swann said.
Armed with experience in Agile and Rails, Gunner Technology landed its first big contract with a company called “Circle Street,” which was a product-based startup that enabled retailers to quickly build digital coupon campaigns based on triggers such as rain, events and time of day.
Soon after, the next contract came, this time from a product-based startup in the rental market called “RadPad.”
“These clients were just falling in my lap,” Swann said. “I’m a horrible networker and salesman so I was very lucky to get these early opportunities.”
Swann did most of the development himself and supplemented with Rails contractors as needed.
But then came another contract.
“Insanity,” Swann called it. “I was working 19-hour days. I still had my WordPress clients, too. I was drowning.”
Swann decided it was time to hire help, so he turned to an old co-worker from his ESPN days, Dary Merckens.
“This was such a big deal for me,” Swann said. “I learned from my MBA days that a bad hire early on can sink a company. I had to find a known-asset. Someone I could trust implicitly and knew would work as hard as I would.”
Swann assigned Dary to a client called Qualis, a small firm based in Rocky Mount, NC that specialized in Durable Medical Equipment management for hospices.
As Swann juggled the other clients, Dary grew Qualis into a powerhouse.
“The Qualis account is awesome,” Swann said. “You couldn’t ask for better people to work with and for the longest time, Dary single-handedly teamed with them to build world-class software that has pushed Qualis as the nation’s leader in their industry, and they’re still a client to this day.”
RadPad soon found funding and hired a full-time engineering staff around the foundation Gunner Technology helped build.
Circle Street was acquired by Valassis.
“It was awesome,” Swann said. “We watched our work lift companies into primetime. We were like a software SWAT team. If you were a startup and you wanted to get to funding, we’d get you there. If you were a more mature startup and wanted to push for an acquisition, we’d help get you there. If you were an established company, looking to take a huge leap forward, we’d help you there, too.”
Gunner Technology soon promoted Merckens to CTO and continued to expand with more developers and stuck with Ruby on Rails and Agile, which were a boon to startups and SMEs alike.
And the client roster continued to grow.
“We have never been hurting for work,” Swann said. “Until we started to expand into the public sector this year, we never looked for work. It found us, and we never felt like we had to take a project.”
Swann said that’s been key in building out the business.
“Building custom software is all about the right fit,” Swann said. “To you, it may look like just a piece of software, but for clients, this software is their baby – or their competitive advantage. It’s what keeps them in business, so we’re not going to take a job just for money… ever.
“The relationships we form with our clients are very tight; they have to be. We’re very blunt, and we ask our clients to return that bluntness – anything else is a waste of time. When there is trust and respect, you can have that type of openness. You can tell your client ‘Look. That’s a terrible idea.’ And they appreciate it because they know we have their best interest at heart. Not just that, their best interest is our best interest, and vice versa. We want our clients to say ‘Look. We expect your expertise, but do it this way.'”
“It’s about being the best,” Swann said. “It always has been. Always will be. No one at Gunner is comfortable being number two at their craft, and we’re not comfortable being number two as a company either.”
Gunner Technology creates custom software for the private sector, public sector and entrepreneurs. Check out the company livestream on Facebook, YouTube and Periscope every Thursday at 1:00 pm eastern time or catch it on iTunes whenever you want. Check back every Wednesday at 1:oo pm for a new blog post.