All It Takes Is A Little Zeal: Local Company Puts Their Business Foot Forward
Take it from us, the Messenger. It isn’t always easy running a business in the Rogue Valley. And while we are now a non-profit, we’re still a business, needing to make ends meet and the trains run on time. To get a little advice and insights to what it takes to make our enterprises to thrive, we talked to a local business entrepreneur, Adam Cuppy and Trevor Yarrish of Zeal.
RVM: Can you briefly describe Zeal, what the company does, and your role within it?
AC: Zeal empowers innovators to deliver the future of web and mobile applications. For the past five years, we’ve developed custom web and mobile software for companies all over the country. While we’re headquartered in Southern Oregon, it’s rather common to have clients come to us from more populated areas, such as Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, New York, etc. We would consider ourselves a “distributed company.” Our team is located in the US, but approximately half of them are remote to Southern Oregon. My role is the Chief Operating Officer.
TY: Adam covered this well. My role is Chief eXperience Officer. We have a deep-rooted belief in importance and emphasis on the “experience” we create for all who come in contact with our company.
RVM: When was Zeal founded, and what have you learned about business in the Rogue Valley since starting up?
AC: We founded Zeal in March of 2013. All of our founding members were born or had relocated to Southern Oregon. Like many entrepreneurs in the area, we loved it and wanted to start a business here. While we had strategic justification for being in Southern Oregon, we didn’t found the company here for strategic reasons; we love it here, and we were more driven by that than anything else.
Looking back, it was a wise decision. The cost of operations was a fraction of much larger markets—especially San Francisco—and as we got more involved in the small but growing technical community we realized we were far from alone. However, there was a real problem: Many people assumed Southern Oregon was not rich with opportunity and many local companies were not tapping into one another to share resources and/or services; simply, Southern Oregon did not yet have the public reputation of being a budding technical market.
Much has changed over the last five years. While we have seen community groups grow and shrink, we have seen more and more participation from local businesses, economic development groups and drive from higher education to evolve and align their curriculum to the tech industry.
With the emergence of the Rogue Tech Collective and an explicit focus by SOREDI, Rogue Workforce Partnership and other public organizations and entrepreneurial groups to make awareness an enthusiastic part of their public agenda, Southern Oregon is an ever growing tech destination. And… it still takes more time and more focus. We have to continue to build up the community, support our local education ecosystem, and fully engage and encourage local entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses here.
When we moved into our current office space, we had the explicit intention to “be a beacon” for software development and tech entrepreneurship. We encourage the use of the space by local technology and entrepreneurship groups and welcome students to come and work in the community side of the office space.
This year, we’ll be making portions of our space open for co-working to software developers and tech entrepreneurs.
RVM: What has been your favorite project since starting Zeal?
AC: I would say the most gratifying project was working with an agency in Portland to produce thewaywesee.it for OneSight, a non-profit committed to providing eye wear for underprivileged people around the world.
We developed a web application that used facial recognition technology to detect the user’s facial proximity to the screen. As a pre-recorded video played, the web application would blur the video to simulate a moment in the life of a fictitious near-sighted 10 year old girl without glasses. As the user moved closer the video would come into focus, and as the user backed away, it would blur.
Not only was the project technical exciting, the purpose of the initiative was wonderfully fulfilling.
TY: This is a tough one for me to answer. Each project brings new challenges, and each client brings new process and awesome people. Some projects have been interesting, fun, and purposeful like the project Adam mentioned. Some projects have enabled us to grow as a company. With some projects, we have been able to have a massive positive impact on very large organizations.
RVM: What do you think is the biggest challenge of starting/running a business in the Rogue Valley?
TY: There are inherent challenges we faced because we made the decision to start our company in the Rogue Valley based on the quality of life here, knowing we were building our consultancy so far removed from the primary sources of potential clientele. We decided that this is where we wanted to live and be and that we would make it work. So, the struggles were not unique to the Rogue Valley, and they were not unknown going in. Our struggles are the inherent struggles faced in rural areas.
RVM: How do you foresee Zeal will change in the future?
AC: Yes, the question that every business would love to look into a crystal ball and discover the answer to.
In truth, I don’t know. However, I will say that our ongoing intention is to grow people beyond the limits of what Zeal can offer and ambassador forward innovations that solves real world problems.
As a young business, we put a lot of focus on who we are, what problems we want to solve, and for whom. When we started Zeal we knew that it would grow beyond just writing custom, “work for hire” software. The macro-level problem we wanted to solve was to bring more engagement, enthusiasm and excitement to the product development process. We wanted to debunk the unfair stereotypes around the people in our industry, and help great teams come together and great ideas come to life. (And, with a name like “Zeal” it’s easy to be reminded of that.)
So, if I did have a crystal ball… I would hope to see a body of work that proved that big hairy audacious goals are anything but that; that in fact, they were more attainable than we realized at the time. I would hope to see team members grow beyond Zeal with an enthusiasm that’s pervasive and infectious. I would hope that we’ve been, and continue to be, a diverse, emotionally rich group of thinkers, tinkerers and entrepreneurs. And, I would hope that our company evolved in ways that were not predictable, but continued to maintain the same core values (“To Serve. To Craft. To Ignite.”) and altruistic purpose that got us here.
TY: Adding to what Adam said…One of our primary goals is to add as much value to as many people as possible. We love the idea of supporting people doing amazing things to help fix large local and global issues. We also love the idea of helping grow communities where people thrive and ideas become realities. Building software is a very expensive endeavor, and as such, this barrier to entry either stops most ideas before they can become a business, or is what kills a business before it can get the necessary traction to succeed. I see us also having a focus in the coming years in working to help more startups enter the world and thrive.
RVM: You both have experience with acting and with coffee; how did those careers influence what you are doing now?
AC: I have a degree in theatre from SOU, and worked at OSF, briefly. Prior to Zeal I was the Creative and Online Media Director for Dutch Bros. Coffee.
As an actor, I learned to be rather comfortable in front of other people. Much of what I do involves public speaking at technical conferences around the world. I’m invited to give approximately 8 – 12 talks every year. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking in Taiwan, Australia, England and many places in the US. Most often I give “soft talks” which focus on team and personal development.
One of my favorite talks marries both theatre and software. It’s called “What if Shakespeare Wrote Code?” At its core, the talk is about the poetry of writing software. What could we learn from one of the world’s most prolific poets and playwrights?
In improv, you learn the its #1 rule: “Yes! And…” Which translates to, one, accept the current situation as fact, and, two build on it (iterate). On my wall I have a white board. Lately, I’ve been writing down my principles. One of them is “Never redefine, iterate.” This comes from both acting improv and agile software development. It’s essentially a reminder that you can always better what’s been done, so get it out there (deliver) and work with it.
During my time at Dutch Bros. I learned an immense amount about what great customer service looks like. I truly believe that DB will go down in history as one of the greatest customer service companies of all time. Their love of the customer is inspiring. The boundless enthusiasm at each location was an incredible example. When we founded Zeal, we baked those same ideals into the company (e.g, “Zeal”). While in my role as the Creative Director at Dutch Bros. I spent a fair amount of time building and developing promotional campaigns, a majority of my time was spent helping franchisees understand how to embed the culture into their advertising; and how to use digital media to “extend the Dutch Bros. experience beyond the [drive thru] window.” My customer was not the one buying coffee. My customer was the enthusiastic, ambitious entrepreneurial franchisee, many of which had been baristas themselves. I find the same passion and “young” ambition in entrepreneurs and budding software developers. Their excitement to bring something they believe in to life is magical. To be a part of that is an honor. That’s why I love working with both groups – they are in a constant state of enthusiastic growth – they want to be better.
As a side note: a couple of years ago, I was asked to speak on “growing beyond Dutch Bros. and into a compelling future” at their company-wide culture conference “Coacha” (approximately 2,000 employees from across the company). It was one of the most honoring professional experiences I’ve had. It was a rather full circle moment for me.
TY: I too attended SOU for theater and had a very prolific theater career in the Rogue Valley, as well as staring in a movie when I was younger. Being an actor is about understanding what makes people tick, how they translate meaning into emotion, and then how to provide an experience for others that moves them in some way, whether that be laughter or tears. I believe us having these skills have helped Zeal maintain a focus on people, relationships, and the experience that take place in those relationships.
I have a deep-rooted passion for coffee. I was massively impacted by the magic I saw Dutch Bros. Coffee create in our community. I was 14 years old when they started and I was in awe of what they created with so little. There were always 10-20 people crowded around their little 10×10 popup tent in downtown Grants Pass laughing and having an amazing time. I went to work for them a few years later as a barista and was with the company for about 11 years moving up in the company to ultimately become the Marketing Director. In that time I learned so much about service, people and creating an amazing experience. That coffee was what we did, but not who we were. I believe we have carried those values forward and expanded on them in our own way.
Coffee had such an impact for both of us, that when we opened our location in downtown Medford, we decided we wanted a portion of the space to have a coffee house feel where we could invite the community into commune, share ideas, and grow together.
RVM: I understand there is an event coming up having to do with the Rogue Tech Collective. Can you tell me a bit about what the RTC is, some details about the event, and what purpose it will serve?
AC: The Rogue Tech Collective was founded by local businesses, such as Zeal and CBT Nuggets, as well as SOREDI and Rogue Workforce Partnership. Its intention was to bring the tech community together and shine a light on tech businesses in the valley. Last year, the committee coordinated a tech tour that brought students in from all major universities and colleges (SOU, OIT and RCC). As OIT had pointed out, many graduating students simply didn’t realize that Southern Oregon had jobs that compared with many other regions, such as Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. For those students wanting to maintain the Southern Oregon lifestyle, there were options that they may not even know about. This tour was intended to address that problem and bring awareness to what we (the community) could offer.
The feedback from the participating students was stellar! It appeared that the tour achieved its mission and brought many prominent Southern Oregon businesses into the spotlight.
TY: Adding to what Adam said…The RTC is considered the Tech Sector Strategy of the Rogue Valley and you could probably get a quote from either Jim Fong at the Rogue Workforce Partnership, or Colleen Padilla at SOREDI as to our role and impact there.
The event you mentioned, the Rogue Tech Tour, has been postponed until next spring.
RVM: Where do you see yourself in five years?
AC: I will speak to the impact we hope to have in the Rogue Valley in the next 5 years. We are working with a few other companies in the Southern Oregon to create an awesome Coworking network that would allow a small company or professional to have an office space in Medford, Grants Pass, and Ashland concurrently, with the hope better connecting the business communities with each other. The vision then is to create a distributed incubator network where successful pre-existing local businesses help support the startup community. We want to help put Southern Oregon on the map as a Startup Community where it is easy to start and run a business.
37 N. Central Avenue, Medford