Fibernet recently sponsored a luncheon for the Utah Valley Entrepreneurial Forum featuring the founder and CEO of Scan, Inc., the company that developed the enormously successful QR code scanning mobile app of the same name. The luncheon was held in a scenic 8th floor event room in the Zions Bank building in Downtown Provo and catered by Old Town Grill. In a sentence, the venue was prime, the food delicioso, and the speaker outstanding.
Dressed in workout sweats, sneakers, and a long-sleeved soccer tee, Garrett Gee could blend in seamlessly on any given college campus, but his attire was noticeably out of place amidst the business professionals who gathered to hear him speak. Upon arriving with our outside sales manager, Bretton Lind, I didn’t know what our speaker looked like yet, so when a kid looped around our table handing out QR-coded business cards, I figured he was just a precocious attendee who was taking the opportunity to solicit business at the event. But it turned out I only had the precocious part right.
Gee’s fledgling business is less than three years old and is already being called “one of the most important companies to come out of BYU in years.” It started out as an assignment and the idea was to create and deliver a better QR code scanning app than what was available at the time. Now the Scan app has been downloaded 36 million times and is actively used by at least 12 million of those users, thanks to a marketing tactic called “growth hacking.”
It was through this strategy that they’ve made it to where they are now and haven’t spent a dollar on any sort of advertising or marketing. Currently, Scan’s revenue comes from selling custom QR codes on its website and then hosting the code. The app itself is perfectly free.
His goal is to transform the public perception of QR codes by “enabling our digital lives in the real world,” which would include making payment transactions simply by scanning a code that stores your payment information. And he’s well on his way. Last year, Gee successfully scored $1.7 million in seed funding from the likes of Menlo Ventures and Google Ventures, to name a few. Even Lady Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter, got in on the fun before Gee was done.
While Gee’s success story is pretty inspiring in and of itself, my greatest takeaway from the event was the fact that without three very specific and very hard-to-teach characteristics, none of it would have been possible. Gee’s gumption, tenacity, and individuality made all of the necessary difference in securing the funding for his company, let alone in creating a product that would attain such epic acclaim.
To paint a picture of his personality—or at least the glimpse that we were privileged to see at the event—Gee started off by introducing his wife and baby daughter, who they’d given the middle name of “Seven” in honor of his BYU soccer number. Then he gave away season tickets to the youngest and oldest attendees. (Google Ventures had also given him t-shirts to hand out to anyone without a Facebook account, of which there were exactly three—in a room of about eighty people. It’s okay; you can laugh.)
He then shared his experience navigating the pricing stigmas of the design world, which he encountered while trying to build clientele for his personal business, Capital Gee Design in 2010. At the offset, Gee designed and coded websites for friends, free of charge, until he got comfortable enough with his abilities to branch out and put a price on his hard work. He soon discovered, however, that at $16/hour, he was undercutting his skill and experience.
People thought the price was representative of his abilities, so he progressively raised it, drawing in more and more business all the while, until he was charging $200/hour for his services and his client portfolio was almost maxed out. But he couldn’t turn down work (yet another character trait that has undoubtedly contributed to his current success), so instead of turning away business, he raised costs again, thinking that the quotes would be so outrageous people would start turning him down. But all he did was further boost the perceived value of his services and he won even more business.
He took this life lesson with him when he started up Scan, the business and mobile app that is well on its way toward transforming the world of QR codes. The night the app was launched, Gee made an announcement at a party and got 12 people to download it. Those 12 downloads were followed in short order by 2000. Three months later, the app had 1 million downloads, which was when they began to be contacted by investors. It wasn’t until Google Ventures reached out, however, that Gee and his team responded and it was during their meeting with GV that the Scan app supplanted Angry Birds as the 10th most downloaded app at that moment.
Then began Gee’s balancing act. He had to make room for soccer, investor meetings, school, and a social life. Through the months of June and July, 2011, he took 55 flights to LA for investor meetings, and amazingly never missed a soccer practice. He took investor calls while on the road for away games, buried under his teammates’ soccer bags to block out the noise and to hide from their coach. In the end, funding was secured on February 23, 2012 and this TechCrunch article was published. And there’s a story behind that too, which only further drives the point home about what personality traits are required to be a player in the big leagues.
Gee had envisioned early on that the TechCrunch article which would announce their funding would be written by TC author Alexia Tsotsis and he wouldn’t back down. Despite significant push back from the PR team assigned to them by their investors, he hounded Alexia’s social accounts until he received a personal response from her that said, “Can you be here in 15 minutes?”
Since Scan was located in California at the time (they’ve since relocated to Provo), he jumped on his bike, yelled at his phone for directions to the TechCrunch offices and high-tailed it to her desk. He made it in time and spoke with her en route to one of her many meetings, making a point to discuss only his impression of her and her writing instead of his business. As a result, she promised to contact him that night and had an article written and published about 2 minutes before the midnight deadline.
Despite opposition from the very hands that were feeding him, time constraints, and even physical obstacles, Gee made his vision a reality. In his own words, Gee says, “The most consistent ingredient of success is inconsistency.”
When he was beating the pavement in search of investors, he faced a lot of rejection and disappointment, until he made the conscious decision that he wasn’t going to try to fit the mold anymore. He shed his business suit and tie and adopted the look he was most comfortable with, something he’d wear between practices or en route to class, backwards baseball cap and all. He advised the audience to be unique, to follow their own passions especially when others are trying to categorize you or the organization you represent into something familiar that already exists. Google didn’t set out to be another Yahoo, and Facebook was hard to categorize when it first emerged.
His individuality was and is one of the ingredients that contributed to his success, along with sheer gumption and tenacity. These traits are difficult to learn if you’re not just born with them, but without them, success in business just isn’t possible.