A Silicon Valley startup founder drove 3,000 miles across America in a RV - here's what he learned
Melia RobinsonMay 23, 2017, 21:31 IST
GustoThe CEO of Gusto took three employees on an 11-city trip across America ... in a Winnebago.Gusto
Driving across the country to meet with everyday Americans is becoming a popular pasttime - or marketing stunt - for tech execs living in the Silicon Valley bubble.
Joshua Reeves, cofounder and CEO of HR software startup Gusto, joined the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and top investor Sam Altman when he visited 11 cities in 10 states, meeting Gusto customers and learning about their businesses, goals, and values.
We talked to Reeves about what he learned from his whirlwind tour.
"I highly encourage all tech founders to go visit customers wherever they might be, particularly if you're based in Silicon Valley," Reeves said. "It's incredible to be here. But, absolutely, this environment can be an echo chamber at times."
He plans to write an online guide for tech execs on how they can tackle a road trip of their own. His investors could benefit, as well. Gusto is backed by some of the biggest names in tech, including Google Capital, General Catalyst, angel investor Ron Conway, and the founders of Yelp, Evernote, Instagram, PayPal, Stripe, and Dropbox, among others.
In addition to making better product decisions, Reeves said Gusto can now "avoid some of the pitfalls" that exist when founders focus on "the numbers of Silicon Valley."
Reeves could have spoken with far-flung customers on the phone or over email, "but that doesn't mean there's still not value in meeting in person," he said.
They ate fried frog legs in Little Rock, danced in Nashville, and staged a Nerf gun fight at Paws & Stripes, an Albuquerque-based company that provides free service dogs for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries (and uses Gusto software).
When they weren't meeting with customers, the Gusto employees passed the time cutting together video from their pit stops and writing notes for future blog posts.
Along the way, Reeves noticed a recurring theme. The small business valued customer satisfaction above the bottom line. "It wasn't even a choice," Reeves remembers.
Unlike Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Altman, Reeves steered clear of politics. He said he was more focused on "people questions" and the things that matter most to his customers.
He also distributed checks for $1,500 for those companies to donate to a charity of their choice. Lots of the business owners invited family and local TV crews to the event.
At each planned destination, Reeves sat down with the business owners and asked questions like: "Do you remember making your first hire?" "How do you get customers?" "What drives you to keep doing this?"
Their itinerary included planned stops — like a bodega in Pasadena and a kombucha bar in New Orleans — as well as drop-ins at restaurants and cafés that use Gusto software.
Reeves planned a road trip to 11 cities and 10 states where Gusto customers live. The company rented a Winnebago for $4,000 and had it fitted with a temporary vehicle wrap.
Reeves got the idea for a road trip when he ran an experiment inspired by reality TV show "Undercover Boss." Over a few months, he shadowed a member on each of the 37 teams at Gusto and learned their jobs. He wanted to know his customers as well as his employees.
He sold his first startup and launched Gusto, which makes software that puts payroll, benefits, and other HR needs in the cloud. It serves over 40,000 small businesses.
Joshua Reeves is about as Silicon Valley as they come. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he got a master's degree from Stanford while juggling a product manager gig.