Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and performance science. Grace writes a regular column on happiness & leadership for WRAL TechWire.

Triangle consultant and coach Grace Ueng, shares key highlights and lessons from Joe Colopy, co-founder of Bronto, whose exit to NetSuite is one of the most storied tech success stories in the Triangle.

What a treat last week to interview Joe Colopy for the Harvard Club of the Research Triangle’s CEO Coffee Series. I met Joe 25 years ago when he was wrapping up business school at UNC Kenan Flagler and starting at Red Hat, and I was leading marketing at OpenSite.

Joe Colopy’s story

In my check-ins with Joe, I saw how over 13 years he grew Bronto steadily from its humble beginnings, faced twists and turns along the way, before his noted exit to NetSuite for $200 million. During one of the twist moments, he said that he had reached out to me for an interview and then bailed when he decided he would stick with continuing to forge ahead with Bronto. He said he felt bad about that, and apologized.  Kudos to Joe for staying the course!

Joe is well known in the Triangle for his Bronto success story, in bootstrapping and putting in $5,000 along with three years of no pay, thanks to his patient wife, Karalyn, who kept the lights on and mortgage paid through her paycheck. Red Hat’s IPO payout during his short stint there also helped to cushion their start-up months.

After his exit, Joe purposely took a year off from doing anything notable to decompress and think about his path forward. He then started his new chapter with Colopy Ventures, the name for his family office, which he views as sort of a “keiretsu” — an interdependent group of companies — focused on Triangle tech, entrepreneurship and the community of Durham.

I share highlights of our conversation: how his family and growing up in Akron shaped him, why he chose Harvard, raising the 4 X’s with his wife, Karalyn, shaping Bronto’s unique culture, and what Colopy Ventures is up to today.

Lots of brothers

Joe was number three of four boys, grew up in Akron, Ohio, and attended public schools. His father was a municipal judge and his mom, who grew up in Puerto Rico, was a law school graduate, unusual for a Puerto Rican woman in the early 1960s. In addition to his three brothers, Joe had five much older half-brothers, so eight fraternal influences. At the dinner table, he had to fight for his pork chops with so many brothers!

Joe Colopy, his three brothers, and parents in Akron

As a young boy, Joe was exposed to his much older and brilliant half-brother, Bob, the only one of his many brothers in the tech world, who graduated from MIT, then Stanford and led a storied career.  From that influence, Joe envisioned someday being like him and perhaps even driving a red sports car with an MIT sticker!

Then his older brother Jim went to Harvard, and Joe went to visit him there and started to see a glimpse of a possible life beyond Akron and imagined going to college there too.

Joe said that he grew up “standing on the shoulders of others.”

Beyond Akron, turning up intensity: A force for good

Upon hearing Joe’s dream, his wise father responded, “your ambitions have to be beyond your classmates.”  While Joe appreciated the values of his hometown of Akron, it was not a “fancy” place, more of a blue collar town.  Not many of his peers went away after high school. Half of Joe’s brothers did not attend college.

Joe, however, sensed there was a world awaiting him beyond Akron.  So he ramped up his intensity on his schoolwork, turning the “obnoxiousness” of his middle school years into a force for good. He was very independent, and developed a propensity toward science and technology.

He applied to Harvard, MIT and Duke. He ended up choosing Harvard. Since he already had such a focus on STEM, he thought he could round out his interests at a place like Harvard.

Karate Kid moments

A prolific storyteller, Joe recalled the impact of “Karate Kid” on him.  I made it my date night movie this weekend, to be sure I understood what Joe meant.

He believes that for everyone, especially entrepreneurs, you have “Karate Kid moments” through your life, like in “Slumdog Millionaire” where the guy is able to answer all the questions, because of all the bits he had learned along the way.  For days, Mr. Miyagi directed Daniel to execute seemingly menial labor utilizing very specific movements such as waxing cars (wax on, wax off) and painting a fence (wrist up, wrist down), all while remembering to breathe in and out.

When Daniel becomes highly frustrated at serving as his “slave” and not teaching him karate as promised, Miyagi shows him how it is the repetition of these chores that has helped him to learn the defensive blocks of karate through ingraining its key movements into his muscle memory.

Bronto bootstrap

The same is true of the Bronto success story.  Day-to-day execution is what enabled the steady growth from $17,000 in 2002 to $170,000 in 2003, to $50 million a decade later. There was no magical moment, no genie that popped out of a bottle to create an overnight success.   Instead, the team worked very hard and iteratively.

“Most good things are built over time,” Joe shared.

The Bronto software team

Partners in work and life

Joe’s cofounder, Chaz Felix, put in the other $5,000 bringing the total to $10,000 cash plus sweat equity.  Chaz focused on operations and areas that were his strengths.  They complemented each other and worked well as partners to lead the growth of Bronto.

At Harvard, Joe met his wife Karalyn, who has been his partner in life since then.  After graduating, they served as teachers in the Seychelles and in Ecuador.  As the sole breadwinner, she worked while he earned his MBA at UNC and then floated his ability to survive during the first years of Bronto.

Together, they have four children, and soon after the first was born, they decided she would stay home with them. He credits her greatly for taking care of a lot of the kid responsibilities while he was focusing on boot strapping Bronto.

Their beautiful names all begin with X.  Instead of my trying to tell the stories behind each, Joe shares most humorously in our chat which I will share so you can hear from him directly:

The alliterative names X1-X2-X3-X4 bring their children closer together as a common unit and make it easier for their parents to text regarding each!

They stay close with family FaceTime calls each Sunday.

The Colopy Family

Audience feedback

Windy Zou Kohl, a tech entrepreneur, who recently moved from Hong Kong to the Triangle, shared that Joe is living proof of three wise sayings:

  1. There’s a saying in China: Successful people attribute their success to luck, while unsuccessful people blame fate. That’s certainly very true of Joe. His unpretentiousness and modesty, despite his outstanding accomplishments and contributions, were most refreshing.
  2. Behind every successful man, there is a strong woman. I would argue, an equally successful woman. That’s also true of Joe and Karalyn. Charlie Munger also said that one of the most important decisions a person can make to ensure a successful and happy life is choosing the right spouse or life partner. Joe has done well.
  3. Have a bias for action, follow your bliss. There’s no grand plan in life – how Joe moved to the RTP area and how he picked one of his business partners are both examples of taking actions instead of overthinking, as you can always adjust and pivot along the way. When he sees an unfilled need, he sets out to fill it, like GrepBeat and his VC funds. He embodies the can-do entrepreneurial spirit.

Next Week:

Bronto’s principles which shaped their culture, and what’s up with Colopy Ventures.

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a management and marketing consultancy that since 2003 has been helping leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential through conducting strategic reviews, marketing audits, and coaching.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles in marketing, business development and product management at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. A TED speaker, her work has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, and Inc.

Contact her firm for more information on Grace’s flagship workshop, HappinessWorks™.

Subscribe for free to her Happiness & Leadership@Work.  You will receive one research based lesson each week to learn to be a happier and more productive leader: click here