“With something like this, there’s a lot of risk involved. How do you deal with that?” I ask Chris Dornfeld, president of Bonfyre App, a successful new St. Louis-based startup that has quickly garnered a whirlwind of attention. “Don’t become an entrepreneur,” he says. He’s joined by Mark Sawyier, 28, the startup’s CEO and co-founder and Raymond Gobberg, 26, co-founder and Director of Communications. While Gobberg and Sawyier are still in their twenties, this definitely isn’t their first entrepreneurial rodeo. They’ve been working together since they met at Washington University in St. Louis as undergraduates and developed two other startups, Off Campus Media and MovingOffCampus.com from the comfort of their fraternity house. They later connected with Dornfeld, a seasoned entrepreneur whom they’ve dubbed “the Ozzie Smith of business and technology strategy.”
“Be authentic, be who you are. You can’t do it alone,” Gobberg says, when asked to come up with a piece of sage wisdom for new entrepreneurs. As a team that’s managed to build one of the most exciting, cutting-edge new social media apps on the horizon, this response is refreshingly human. It becomes easier to look past their titles, and see the people behind them.
Sawyier hails from New York City and attended Trinity School in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a college preparatory school where 40% of the student body studies either Latin or Greek, 60% take at least two languages, and most all graduates matriculate to Ivy league schools and prestigious universities.
Gobberg, from Cary, Illinois, was awarded an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to attend Washington University. His father was a celebrated Vietnam veteran, who pushed his son to follow in his footsteps. After graduation, he spent two years at the Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico before he was deployed to southern Afghanistan in early 2010, where he led 125 ground combat missions and helped aid government officials in Zabul.
Dornfeld was named to the St. Louis Business Journal’s “40 Most Promising Business Leaders Under 40,” at the age of 26 in 1999. He had already co-founded Metropolis St. Louis, an organization focused on retaining young, talented people in St. Louis. Since then, he’s been helping to pass the baton to young entrepreneurs and facilitating the growth of others, the same way the community here helped him.
Together the diverse team assembled the building blocks for Bonfyre, an app that organizes content around events and experiences, rather than relying on person-to-person connections that most social media apps use. With the latter, often users wind up with “a news feed full of noise,” as Sawyier calls it, essentially a mass of useless material that clogs up news feeds, unless you’re just dying to see a barrage of political rants and emo song lyrics posted by your random acquaintances. That initial frustration became the launch pad for Bonfyre. “We go through a series of experiences that aren’t predetermined structures,” says Dornfeld. “You’ll hang out with a different group of friends, different co-workers, and that evolves over time. It’s constantly changing. This creates a framework to share social media within the construct of how we live our lives.”
The team unveiled the app at DEMO in October of 2012, and since then have quickly garnered impressive traction and investor confidence. The app was named one of The 14 Most Interesting Startups to Emerge from DEMO by TechCrunch, and currently their clients include the St. Louis Rams, Relay for Life, Dance Marathon, and ALIVE Magazine, to name a few. They’ve also assembled an all-star lineup on their board, which includes Jim McKelvey, the co-founder of Square, and Matthew Porter, CEO and co-founder of Contegix.
So how on earth have they managed to do it? “What about these guys made you want to mentor them?” I ask Dornfeld. “Now you’re on the spot,” Gobberg laughs, glancing over at him. Dornfeld’s answer is earnest and sincere. He describes Gobberg and Sawyier as young people who “didn’t perceive they had every answer to everything in front of them, and are really hungry to go out and change the world.” Having Dornfeld on their side was a huge advantage for Sawyier and Gobberg. “When Mark and I met, we were a couple of college kids with what we thought was a decent idea,” says Gobberg. Since then, with Dornfeld’s help, they’ve come quite a-ways.
The way they interact with one another is quite a contrast from the leadership of other major players in the startup world. Facebook became a multi-billion dollar enterprise that started with talented students who connected and began developing ideas, similar to Gobberg and Sawyier, but has reduced its proprietors to objects of media fodder who routinely sue each other for exorbitant sums of money.
Digg, a pioneering social news website, had similar problems with leadership that led to the demise of the company’s net worth, which was $164 million in 2008. In October of 2010, the company laid off 37% of its staff, went through three CEO’s in less than six months, and sold to BetaWorks in July of 2012 for $500,000, mere pennies in comparison to its initial value. According to a 2012 eWeek.com article, Digg “died a humiliating death earlier this week at the tender age of 8 by being slowly cut into pieces and sold off like a cow.”
However, this is the reality of leading a startup: even if an idea is superb, beats out loads of competition, acquires respectable venture capital, and wins the confidence of prestigious proponents, it can still be subject to internal disagreements and selfishness, unsurprising for a field which Gobberg himself says is comparable to a ground-level military operation in some respects. Both involve “long hours, limited resources, unforeseen challenges, team camaraderie and a sense of accomplishment for helping build something from nothing,” he says. A lack of synchronicity amidst a company’s leadership inevitably reverberates outward, coloring everything and everyone’s experience, from CEO’s to users and interns stuffing envelopes.
This has yet to happen at Bonfyre. Gobberg and Sawyier haven’t forgotten the most important thing they’ve achieved. “It seems like you guys are friends,” I say. “We are,” says Sawyier, without a millisecond of hesitation. Of the many uncertainties that come along with starting several businesses, one constant throughout the whole crazy ride has been the true friendship they’ve maintained. “One of the things that I love the most about what I’m doing is I can share [it] with the people I really care about in my life. I take great pride in that,” says Sawyier. To Gobberg, Sawyier, and Dornfeld, the word “friend” signifies a very specific set of responsibilities to one another.
A 2010 New Yorker article profiling Mark Zuckerberg, who is the same age as Sawyier, describes Zuckerberg as “distant and disorienting, a strange mixture of shy and cocky,” and says that “sometimes he pauses so long before he answers it’s as if he were ignoring the question altogether.” This type of aloof disposition is not uncommon in the tech world, filled with clammy-palmed, misunderstood geniuses, but could not be further from the leadership of Bonfyre.
Yet while Facebook continues to be fiscally successful, its leadership tales of woe have been told over and over again, from Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book entitled The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, to the 2010 Academy Award-nominated film, The Social Network. With literally thousands of apps and startups popping up on the media horizon, new technologies truly have to stand out in order to achieve any level of traction, and their leaders must be in sync in order to maintain it.
These innovators clearly have the X-factor. But without a juicy story of nefarious activity driven by genius, money, and betrayal, what is that inexplicable piece that sets this startup apart from the rest?
“I have a Nutri-Grain bar in my office. Do you want one?” Sawyier gently asks Dornfeld before the interview. From the outside, this is a small interaction. But it signifies a level of care that reflects a deep understanding of how human beings work. They know what it means to be tired, to be lonely, to be afraid, to be anxious, to want to connect, to try to connect, to make mistakes, to be vulnerable…sometimes one at a time, and sometimes all at once.
There’s a sense of familiarity between them, earned by hours upon hours of whiteboarding, planning, and hashing out ideas, which happens everywhere from the conference room to Dornfeld’s dining room table. They’re constantly deferring to one another, or referencing previous conversations. In essence, Bonfyre has become the result of all that distilled humanity, which has preceded a successful social media app. Social media itself is a technology that hedges on the fundamental idea that people want to connect to one another in a profound way, and have a natural desire to be involved in each other’s lives. Without that ostensibly basic understanding, it’s near impossible to develop a sophisticated product which will provoke a response.
The relationships between Sawyier, Gobberg and Dornfeld have translated into an understanding of how human interactions best function in the context of a mobile app, which begins with the interactions that transpire between them. They must have a fundamental respect for one another. “You spend as much time with your co-workers as you do your family,” says Dornfeld, consistently a calm and tranquil presence that nicely offsets the fountain of ambition that pours out of Sawyier and Gobberg. “You have to choose them wisely and be really committed.”
Leadership aside, most startups don’t even make it through the initial phases of development and acquiring venture capital. But this team made a lot of savvy, smart business decisions right off the bat that have propelled them forward. I ask if they were ever afraid. “We’re taking very calculated risks. And the risk shrinks over time through that iterative process,” says Sawyier. “What our military does in Afghanistan is a situation that should have fear,” Dornfeld adds, nodding at Gobberg. “There are real risks there.”
They continue to be complementary of each other in a way that is almost bizarrely genuine. According to Gobberg, Dornfeld helps them to “eliminate all the noise and focus in on the things that move us forward,” which Sawyier corroborates. “That’s very well-said. I’ve always said one of my biggest mistakes was not finding Chris earlier.” But they’re a team, each with a different, yet fundamental objective they must carry out for the company to work. “Building anything is a team sport,” Dornfeld responds. “Warren Buffet alone did not build Berkshire Hathaway.”
Their attitude of mutual respect is a microcosm for how the entrepreneurial community has begun to function in St. Louis. “It’s evolved a lot,” says Dornfeld, who has been a major player here for years, and remembers when the technological horizon was fairly meager. But now, with programs such as Arch Grants, St. Louis Arch Angels, and a burgeoning creative community of startups, Dornfeld has been amazed at the level of growth. “Having worked to grow the entrepreneurial community for almost fifteen years in St. Louis, there are lots of good stories to tell now… …There are multiple pockets of creative activity bubbling up. It’s really exciting,” he says.
“Traveling to other communities around the country and realizing how much is happening here relative to the rest of the country,” he pauses, as though prepared to voice something else, but simply says, “It’s pretty remarkable.”
“How has that happened?” I ask him.
“I think it’s been a lot of people slowly building momentum. You’re seeing lots of institutions who have been getting more aggressive and progressive about their attitudes and support. That’s the future,” Dornfeld remarks. “It’s been a slow, methodical effort.”
Gobberg’s initial piece of advice, “Be authentic, be who you are. You can’t do it alone,” acquires another meaning. On a conscious level, he reiterates the necessity of teamwork to effectively develop a startup. But having a closer look at his language, perhaps he also means you can’t be who you are alone either. None of us exist in a vacuum.
The team at Bonfyre has transformed itself into a much larger force to be reckoned with than just a CEO, president, and director of communications. Those titles could appear anywhere and mean anything. But here, they’ve laid their armor down and allowed themselves to genuinely connect to one another in a way that has enabled them to begin effecting real change. They’ve become defined by each other, and their lives could have taken extremely different directions had they not met. Perhaps their message is to let that process occur. Let yourself connect to the people around you, and let them teach you how to change the world.
For more information about Bonfyre, visit www.bonfyreapp.com