Jon Verlee is the founder of Breeze Church Management Software. I was given Jon’s name from a friend who was emphatic about Jon’s story being told. Part of her enthusiasm for Jon’s story is that it is one that so many people can look to as a potential template for their journey.
Jon Verlee is the founder of Breeze Church Management Software. I was given Jon’s name from a friend who was emphatic about Jon’s story being told. Part of her enthusiasm for Jon’s story is that it is one that so many people can look to as a potential template for their journey.
We discussed Jon’s very intentional pathway to entrepreneurship. We talked about how important it is to have a passion and motivation beyond money when you start your business. You will discover that anyone, at any age, under any family dynamics can pursue their entrepreneurial dreams in a way that places family first. In talking with him, it was apparent that he was never seeking to launch a business that would make a fast buck or establish overnight fortunes. No, he was playing the long game with a strong desire to build a great product. This is Jon Verlee’s startup story.
“Our culture idolizes the story of the entrepreneur that cuts ties of stability and throws all caution to the wind to pursue their dreams. That narrative suffers from a selection bias because you only hear the stories of the survivors.” – Jon Verlee, Breeze
“Start something. Start it small, no need to risk everything for it. Just simply start something.” – Jon Verlee, Breeze
Connect with Jon on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jon-verlee-a42106b4
Jon on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jonverlee
Breeze on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/breezechms/
The Startup Story community has been so incredible sharing our podcast with others, and we thank you! We do have more stories to tell and more people to reach. There are three ways you can help.
First, the most powerful way you can support this podcast is by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Second, follow us on Facebook and Instagram, and be sure to share your favorite Startup Story episodes with your friends and on social media. Tag or mention @thestartupstory.co so we can give you a virtual high five and a thank you!
Lastly, share the podcast on LinkedIn. The Startup Story podcast is for entrepreneurs. Don’t underestimate the power of sharing on LinkedIn so other entrepreneurs can discover us.
With your support, we hope to further our reach in encouraging and inspiring the founders of today and tomorrow. Thank you!
Special Guest: Jon VerLee.
The Startup Story - Jon Verlee
Jon Verlee: Hi, I'm Jon Verlee, and I'm the CEO and Founder of Breeze Church Management Software, and this is MY startup story.
James McKinney: Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.
Sponsor Ad: The Startup Story would not be possible if it wasn't for the support of our sponsor MovoCash. Move money like a miracle with MovoCash, the free money app that kicks cash. Download MovoCash app on iTunes or Google Play today, and you'll get your slick new MOVO card in the mail.
You are no longer dependent upon digital currency alone, but you'll have a card that allows you to purchase at POS stations, restaurants, buy online, anywhere that you want to use your money.
No Credit Check or Credit Impact, Quick Direct Deposit FDIC Insured and Free To Register and Activate.
Support our sponsor MovoCash. Visit movo.cash or the startupstory.co/movocash.
James McKinney: Before we jump into our episode this week, I want to share a review that was posted in iTunes by Joel Masters who gave The Startup Story a five start rating and wrote, "Love the depth that the podcast goes into with the entrepreneurs story. Truly inspiring." Thank you so much, Joel. The hope of The Startup Story is to tell the real and in some cases very raw entrepreneurial story that often does not get told out there. In fact, my hope in pulling back the entrepreneurial curtain is that we'll be able to expose the challenges that one will face so that when they do jump into entrepreneurship, they have a real perspective of the journey as well as understanding that our challenges and the challenges that you're going through are not unique to you. All of this is to help inspire you and all of our listeners to keep moving forward. So for all of you that are listening right now, if you have found any value in any of The Startup Story episodes, please leave a review on Apple Podcast. I will continue to read one each week, so plug your brand in the review as well. Post your URL, give a little shout out to yourself. Giving your business a plug is the least I can do if you take the time out of your day to write a review.
Now let's jump into this week's episode. Our guest today is Jon Verlee, the founder of Breeze Church Management Software. I was given Jon's name from a friend who was emphatic about Jon's story being told. Part of her enthusiasm for Jon's story to be shared is that it's one that so many people can look to as a potential template for their journey. One that doesn't entail throwing all caution to the wind and risking it all.
Jon Verlee: There is this story that our culture idolizes a bit, and it's the story of the entrepreneur who cuts ties with everything that is stable and everything that is guaranteed, and just goes after the dream. It's one of the most inspirational stories out there. It's why our culture focuses on it so much. It's the story of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and it's these tech heroes to many who have jumped in and gone for it. However, that whole narrative suffers from a selection bias, specifically that you only hear the stories of the survivors. You only hear the stories where the hero comes out on top, and you don't hear the story of the guy who takes the inheritance money that he has and he jumps in and starts a business and two years later, is broke and has to go pick himself up, and try to find some job doing anything that he can. You don't hear the story of the marriage that nearly ends because of all the stress that this adds to it. You don't hear all of the disaster stories which, if I had to guess, would be far, far, far more common in the scenarios where an entrepreneur cuts their ties with stability.
James McKinney: In this episode, you will hear a very intentional pathway to entrepreneurship that really should get more attention than it usually does. You will learn how important it is to have a passion and motivation beyond money when you start your business. And you will discover that anyone, at any age, under any family dynamics, can pursue their entrepreneurial dreams in a way that places family first.
What I loved about meeting with Jon to record his startup story is that I felt like I was interviewing Ryan Seacrest. Seriously! He has to be Ryan Seacrest's twin that was separated at birth. Okay, obviously I'm kidding. No need to call TMZ up with fake news alert, but he looks just like Ryan Seacrest. You have got to check this out. So aside from the Ryan Seacrest look alike thing, what I really loved about Jon's startup story was that it was so apparent that he was never seeking to launch a business that would make a fast buck or establish some fortunes for him overnight. No, he was playing the long game and just desiring to build a great product. I'm sure this perspective comes from, well, his upbringing.
Jon Verlee: My parents weren't necessarily entrepreneurs. My dad was a doctor and my mom was a stay at home mom. There was definitely a strong entrepreneurial spirit within me. Specifically, on the technology side. It was in middle school, put together a website related around a video game I was into at the time, but then moving on from there as I got into high school, I put together a bit of a social networking site. I use that term very broadly. This was in the pre Facebook days, but essentially building this community on this platform for friends and I to connect back then. Then even into high school, too, playing around with what would it be like to start a web development company and what could we do with that. This was in the very early 2000s so there's a lot of excitement around web development and where the future is going then.
James McKinney: It's funny you talk about you created a website about a game you were playing, because I think it was in episode four or five, we had Zack Knickerbocker who is an Amazon Merch entrepreneur. One of his first technology plays was a website around a video game he was playing. So there's definitely something there I'm going to have to explore with people wanting to create websites around video games that they were playing.
So growing up though, again, parents that have stable jobs. So there's a culture of stability there and you're exploring in this tech scene. As you're getting towards the end of high school, what did you know you wanted to do?
Jon Verlee: You know, it's funny. At the end of high school, it definitely wasn't anything related to the tech scene or the entrepreneurial side. There was a lie that I found myself believing. It was in high school, as many kids are, they want to be as cool as possible and the whole nerd/geek image wasn't fitting that at the time. So I distanced myself away from that. So ironically it wasn't until around grad school that I came back and realized that geeks are actually the ones who are the coolest ones of all, and embraced that a bit more and dove back into that side.
James McKinney: What did you think you wanted to do?
Jon Verlee: First off, I wanted to be a police officer. That pivoted as I went to college and got involved in a Christian organization, a Christian camp here in Michigan and really fell in love with the student ministry side of things. So as I went through college, got increasingly involved with my church, and then after that went on to seminary pretty quickly, as soon as I started college, was then heading the direction towards ministry and in fact that's where I went after graduating, full time.
James McKinney: So in college, you moved from being a police officer. Again, I'm thinking through the mindset of these things. You were raised by a doctor and a stay at home mom, and so the mindset and the subliminal messaging is stability, right? It's not risk taking. Those were very stable jobs.
Jon Verlee: True.
James McKinney: You get into college, and thinking police officer. Again, stable job. Obviously, there's a risk to that in the protecting and enforcement side of things, but a stable job. Then you get connected with the student ministry and now you're thinking in ministry. All purposes from the exterior, again stable job. So your first gig was inside of ministry, right?
Jon Verlee: Yeah. I think on the surface, there's a lot of stability that's represented in whether it was my upbringing or the job that I was working in full time. But I think that during a lot of that time, if you were to dig beneath the surface, it was like there was this sub plot that was happening, where I was exploring what can I do that's more of my own initiative, something that I'm leading, something that I'm running. I think in high school, that probably came out the most in web development side, the social networking side, or playing around with starting a web design company. In college, while it was a bit dormant, as grad school started up and I was engaged in that fulltime, I was enjoying it but also found that I had some energy, some passion that wasn't being satisfied by that. So that's where I revisited the web design dream of running a web design company, and started out being a freelance web development. In fact, carried that through underneath being fulltime student ministry worker.
While yes, there was this level of stability that was always there. There was also this restless creativity that I was seeking to find an outlet for.
James McKinney: Yeah. I think that is extremely common for a lot of people to have the job that they enjoy and maybe even love, but there is another need that they have an internal passion for creating. It sounds like you were meeting that need through your freelance work in web design. So how long were you balancing those two worlds of fulltime employment within ministry and freelancing on the side?
Jon Verlee: Sure. So got into the freelancing because I had some extra time. I was, at the time, in an underwhelming internship over on the east side of Michigan. With that had even more passion to start something that I really cared about and was excited about. Got involved with that and really, it never stopped. I was involved after that in ministry for probably four, five, six years until I went full time with what I'm doing now. During all that time was involved on the web design side, web development side as a freelancer.
James McKinney: As I'm thinking through the idea of being on fulltime staff ministry, was it at a church or were you just at a-
Jon Verlee: Yep, at a church.
James McKinney: Okay. So fulltime staff in ministry at a church and how relational that is, versus freelance work is very autonomous. How was the balance of those two for you? Because they are two very different vocations.
Jon Verlee: As I look at myself, there is definitely a strong relational component to who I am. There's a very strong technical component to who I am as well. So being in these two worlds was a very healthy outlook for me to be able to express both of those. I'd worked with students and I loved student ministry, and I love everything that goes into it, but at the end of the day, people don't always do what you tell them to do or what you recommend, or what you think is the best path. Get done with the greatest serving talk, teaching ever and they're still going to make their own choice. There's something very cathartic then about sitting in front of a computer, writing some code, and you can run that script again, and again, and again, and it does what it's supposed to do. Living in those two worlds I think was very helpful personally for me to have a way to express both of those sides of my personality.
James McKinney: You're saying that's why Jesus was also a carpenter, because He knew people weren't going to listen so He had to build on the side?
Jon Verlee: I love it.
James McKinney: That is a great description of the two worlds. And you're young, and so inside of the student ministry and the freelance work, when did you start seeing this gap? Because what you created was specific for ministry, for churches. So how did that project become an enterprise? What came across your desk that you said, "Hm, there's an opportunity here to serve churches and ministries better in the web space." So let's walk just through that journey.
Jon Verlee: I might even take it a step back before then to talk about a failed journey within that context.
James McKinney: Oh yes, absolutely.
Jon Verlee: Before getting here. While I was working at the church, it was almost as if this desire to lead and launch something of my own was growing stronger and stronger. There was a component of that in ministry, but I was looking for more. And so as the freelance web development work continued to increase and get larger and larger, it caused me to wonder is this the direction that I should go fulltime instead, and step out of ministry and pursue freelance web development and see where that goes?
I had worked in this church for quite a few years. I had great relationships and so it wasn't an easy decision, but finally looking at the numbers, it looked like yeah, we could swing it. It might not be a super comfortable lifestyle at least at first, but I think we can… going to do this risk. You hear about it all the time, the entrepreneur who chucks security and finally takes that leap and goes for it. So I asked my boss if we could chat and we went out and grabbed some pizza for lunch. I told him, "I'd like to quite. I really feel like this web development side, I want to explore this and I want to go down this track." Again, great relationship there and he was sad but very understanding and all that.
Being in student ministry world, there's a few times in the year that are better times to quit than others, and so I had given something like three months advanced notice here to be able to step out in the summer. It was probably like February or March. So I started then on the track of heading towards exiting. One of the significant stops along that road is to let all of the families that you're connected with relationally know, "Hey, I'm not going to be your son/daughter's youth pastor anymore. I'm going to step away." It was a Monday if I remember right where I needed to send out that email. I remember going up to that day it was kind of this general sense of anxiety that I tried to push down. Maybe it's just the jitters, it's change, whatever it is. Finally Monday hits and it was this overwhelming sense that this is not the direction that I need to go. From a faith perspective, the only thing I can call it is the Holy Spirit's influence, but it just did not seem like the right choice.
I remember picking up my wife from work and she took one look at me and she said, "What is wrong?" Basically spilled all of this, and the next day had a very humbling conversation with my boss asking if I could un-quit. Graciously, he said, "Absolutely. We'd love to keep you." I stayed on at the church.
Looking back on that, it was certainly this entrepreneurial drive that was pushing me forward, but in a direction that wasn't the best yes. It also probably wasn't all that stable from a financial perspective either.
James McKinney: Yeah. So obviously looking back on our journey, things become a lot more clear but can you see that moment where you un-quit, how pivotal was that for what is ultimately your current startup with Breeze?
Jon Verlee: Jim Collins talks about good being the enemy of great, and while it's tough to say with certainty, as I look at it there was a path forward there. We probably could have made it work, but the vision of that path is so much smaller than where things are at today. I was at the time looking for an alternate job essentially is the road that I would have been pursuing there, rather than leading an incredible team with a joint vision and focus and passion which is an unbelievable privilege to lead. So I think I would have been trading great for good.
James McKinney: That's awesome. That is awesome. How much of that journey, where you felt compelled to quit and move forward in web development but yet in your processing and in the promptings that you had, you realized that wasn't the step for you to take. How much of that was driven by the curiosity of the what might happen versus maybe some frustrations you had with your job at the time?
Jon Verlee: It was not driven by any frustrations at my job. I loved my job. It gave me life. I was thriving there. I felt like I was good at it, so it was entirely on the side of what else could there be and where could this go.
James McKinney: That is awesome. So how did Breeze come to be? And again, so now you un-quit. The assumption is you're all in, in student ministry. So from the un-quit to the preliminary ideas of Breeze, what was that time span?
Jon Verlee: After the un-quit, exactly like you said. I was all in on student ministry. It wasn't a, "Hey, I'll hold off a little bit longer, or grow it a little bit more." It was a total pivot of I'm in. While I kept up the freelance work on the side, it wasn't necessarily with the vision to grow it into something that I would someday totally move over to. It was then about a year later or so that our church brought in an alternate church management system. For those listeners who may not be familiar with that category, it's essentially software that serves as the operating system of a church. Keeps track of people, keeps track of groups, keeps track of giving, who gave what and when. End of year statements for tax purposes, secure child check in, automated follow-ups, a whole bunch of stuff, follow up reminders.
So we've got this category of church management software and our church brought in a new platform to serve as our church management software. Having an internal seat to the table and watching how that transition went was extremely insightful. First off, there was a lot of frustration about it. Church change can be frustrating in general, but the software that was brought in was also quite complex. Sitting where I did, I was one foot in the ministry world and another foot in the technology side, which is dangerous combination at times.
James McKinney: Especially for the vendor.
Jon Verlee: Especially for the vendor. So I was able to take a look at what was happening on the church side and think through it from a technical lens with essentially the thought, "I think this can be done better. And by better, I specifically mean simpler and easier." The church that I was at was most people would consider a mega church. We had something like 80 or 90 staff members at that time. So in the end, the staff was able to with people in a very specialized role, support it. You've got a tech person. I think we had a database person at that same time. So it ended up working out. But all of that kind of boiled down to, "Hey, if a church of this size with this many resources has this much trouble making a transition to a different church management software, how on earth does the more typical church which is between 200 and 600 people on a given weekend, how does that church navigate this? Is there room to serve small and midsize churches with church management software that's specifically geared toward them?" so that was the spark.
That said, it was a spark for quite a while and didn't grow from there. As I continued to understand the scope of what church management software could do, sure it's people but also groups and whether you do with small groups in that, and forms and online giving. It balloons out pretty quickly and can be rather intimidating. It was probably a year or so until I wrote the first line of code.
James McKinney: And when you wrote that first line of code, why? Why did you do that? Because it wasn't that your church needed it, because it had its own system now, so where was your mindset in that? What did you see? Were you engaged by another church to build something smaller for them? What was your thought process in why you wanted to write a code for a more simpler solution to something that is complex for other churches?
Jon Verlee: The best analogy that I have is a cup and a pitcher full of water. You're pouring the water in slowly, slowly, slowly and finally it's just too much and it flows over the top of the cup. It was like there was this growing passion and interest. It wasn't all of the sudden, but just throughout that year after seeing that transition and wrestling with the idea, it was growing more and more and more. Seemed to be the perfect fit of where my passions were, being both the church and also technology.
What finally put it over the edge was just a little bit of time that I had available. In the student ministry world, during the holiday season, during the Christmas season, a lot of programming stops because people are gone on vacation, kind of go with the school schedule. So it was during Christmas break, had a few spare minutes over at my in-laws in their basement with my computer, and thought hey, let's just go for it. But "let's" I mean me and a very supportive wife, and at the time our first child, our four month old daughter at that point. It was really, again to recap this slow growing passion combined with a little bit of time to dive into it.
James McKinney: When you wrote that first bit of code, what did you think the future was? Was your mindset I'm going to build something incredibly awesome and I'm going to leave my ministry job and build an enterprise? I want to go right back to that very first moment where you start writing code. What was your thought process on what you were about to accomplish?
Jon Verlee: The vision certainly was not as big as it is now. It was much, much smaller. While I was at the church, the software that we had brought in that was confusing, I had written a little bit of code on top of it. It was an open source software and so was able to get a taste of what it would be like to combine those two worlds. There's at least one church that I connected with that was interested in the open source software that I had written. I don't think there was this great big vision other than simply thinking, "Hey, some people have found this helpful. I wonder if there's room for others to find church management software helpful in this space?" The vision was bigger than just, "I'll write some code and see what happens." It was certainly hey, I want to create a product here and meet with churches and see where it goes from there, but in terms of having a big amazing team and getting to do it with others, and having an international vision in how everything fits together, that wasn't even close to where I was at at the time.
James McKinney: You brought up when you were writing that first bit of code, "we" jumped into it, and that "we" being you and your wife. When your wife married you, you were looking at student ministry as a career or you were already a pastor at the time? But either way that was on the radar I'm assuming, correct?
Jon Verlee: Correct, yes.
James McKinney: So I don't think she had in her mind that she was marrying an entrepreneur and the levels of risk that come with that. So what was that dialog like as you were contemplating the first time to quit, and then the un- quit, and now I'm going to write this bit of code, and then I'll ask this question again when it actually comes time to you leaving ministry to do Breeze fulltime, but what were all these conversations like with your wife at the time? I think that's one of the things we don't talk a lot about as entrepreneurs, is having that dialog with our spouse. Because we think the journey is just us sometimes, but when you're married it is not just "us." Successfully married, it is not just "us," so what was that dialog and journey like with your wife?
Jon Verlee: So you're absolutely right. It is not a solo decision. The first time around, it was just Kerrie, my wife, and I. Then the second time around it was the pivot to Breeze, it was my wife but also like I mentioned our four month old daughter. So kids add a whole new element of complexity into that. In our case, I certainly have the most supportive wife on the planet I truly believe. She has sacrificed so much from a purely financial perspective, which is often where this conversation rotates. There wasn't a huge amount of stress.
I think that's largely because even in the scenario of the quit and un-quit, the freelance direction, I was already doing it. There was already a healthy enough income stream from that, that we knew that it wasn't like there's this big cliff that we were going off of. I think largely that spared us from a lot of conversations that might be more present if it was just this dream that didn't have any track record of potential success yet. The trust that was built by the direction that things were already heading was a major contributor, and then giving future trust to where it would go.
James McKinney: Yeah. That's awesome. That is awesome. So you write the first code for Breeze. How long until it became something that you had to devote more time to and you knew, "Okay, I have to leave student ministry now."
Jon Verlee: So listeners here, I'm sure many are familiar with the concept of MVP, minimum viable product, which is essentially how little can you do to still deliver the core value that you're looking to deliver. That core value usually being your differentiator, how you're different than others so that your product or your service will be attractive to those that you're advertising to. In our case, I was the one writing code and it was late nights, weekends, that whole thing. It took about eight months to write that first MVP of Breeze.
It was following that, that I then entered what I call the Starbucks era of Breeze, which was essentially reaching out to local area pastors and church administrators and saying, "Hey, would you be willing to meet at Starbucks? I'd love to walk you through something I wrote. And if you want it, you can have it for free. The only compensation I'm looking for is feedback." The MVP stage was for about eight months, and the Starbucks era was around three or four months. Looking at it, I definitely had a competitive advantage by being in the church space. While the MVP wasn't perfect and there were some tweaks that needed to be made, there weren't any major pivots in our scenario. I think that the broader lesson there is that there's a lot of value to pursuing a direction that you're already very familiar with and already passionate about. I think looking at the market broadly and saying, "Hey, what's the most lucrative opportunity" or whatever it is, not only are you entering a space that you're probably not familiar with, but if finances are your primary motivation, it gets hard and that's not a good enough motivator at some point. You need to truly care about it.
James McKinney: 100%, yeah.
Jon Verlee: All that to say the Starbucks era, about four months or so of meeting with churches, was mostly on track. Made some tweaks and then it was at the end of the first calendar year where there were two paying churches that signed up, and that was extremely exciting because that's the ultimate test, right? You can meet with anybody and buy them coffee and guilt them into saying yes to try your product. When somebody's taking their own money and putting it on the table for something that you've built, that's the real test of if you've built something of value or not.
James McKinney: So the moment you have paying customers, now you have customer support. There's a lot of infrastructure that comes with supporting a SASS solution, so was that the turning point where now I need to go, or were you building an enterprise that was completely outside of you so that you can maintain a 9 to 5, but ministry is not a 9 to 5, so a fulltime job?
Jon Verlee: The vision that I had for what it would be, one of the areas that I was most off was customer support. I had this image that if we build the easiest software there is to use on the planet, nobody's going to need support. It's just going to run itself.
James McKinney: Like Field of Dreams, if you build it they will come.
Jon Verlee: Absolutely. I could not have been more wrong. And so I mentioned two paying churches at the end of the first calendar year. Keep in mind, I'm still working fulltime at the church. As the next year starts, was able to find an advertising channel online where other churches were looking, and began to get some more traction. So three, four, five, ten, fifteen. It was right around when there were 20 or 25 paying customers, not necessarily enough to live on but enough to know all right, there's interest out there. This interest seems a bit more broad than simply people that I'm really nice to and sit down across the table with. I think I need to make a change here to be able to better support them.
At the time, and anybody who's listening who has lived in both worlds at the same time, you can commiserate. It's challenging to hold a fulltime job and to perform all the responsibilities that you're in charge of there while also supporting the ups and downs that a startup can bring. So it'd be moments like sitting in a church staff meeting and everyone's talking around the table, and my phone's ringing in my pocket. That's either a support call or a sales call that I worked my tail off over the preceding months to get to this point for that phone call to come in, and now I can't take the call, and something inside me dies when that happens. It was that tension that I was feeling, which eventually caused me to make the next transition in terms of my full time job.
James McKinney: You have two customers beginning of year one, you've counted up to 25 was that a two year span or what was that span?
Jon Verlee: That was about a third or halfway through the year. At the end of the second year, we were serving right around 100 churches.
James McKinney: So what was your, and again we don't talk about scalability this is more just about your entrepreneurial journey, but what plays into this for me is you're working fulltime. You're a youth pastor, and for those that are unaware pastoral staff does not get paid a tremendous amount of money so it's not like you have a ton of cash reserves to fund your advertising. How did you get those first 25 that helped set you up to leave fulltime employment for this? What was your funding of this startup?
Jon Verlee: So there's a couple sides to that. There's the development funding side and then there's the marketing.
James McKinney: Which you did all the development, correct?
Jon Verlee: Right. So as for anyone listening in terms of at least the technology space starting something, if you can code, it makes a big difference because then you are spending sweat equity rather than dollars, which don't get me wrong sweat equity is certainly valuable. Time is extremely valuable but oftentimes it allows for a bit more flexibility. Learning to code is a lot of fun. So there's that whole direction too, just to be able to get it off the ground. So yes, in our context it was bootstrapped. I think the only expenses were $6 or $7 fee for a shared hosting environment until things got a little bit larger.
On the marketing side, there really wasn't in the early days a whole lot of money going that direction either. We found a site that is essentially an aggregator of different verticals so you can pay to be listed on that site. Well, this site said, "You know what? We'll give you $50 for free, just kind of jump in." That was the best $50 I ever spent. But for us, that really seemed to work out well. We weren't crazy aggressive in terms of bidding there, just enough to have some exposure and it wasn't until later on when the cash flow was stronger that we became more aggressive on the marketing side.
James McKinney: So how long has it been since you've left fulltime ministry to grow Breeze?
Jon Verlee: So I talked about stepping out of fulltime ministry. I didn't step into Breeze fulltime at that point.
James McKinney: Really?
Jon Verlee: I stepped out of fulltime ministry into part-time ministry at a different church. Again, there's this level of… there's this primary story of stability and this undercurrent of entrepreneurialism that outlines the journey here. So I stepped out of the fulltime role into a part-time role, and roughly 20 hours a week or so. It was a great scenario where I was able to work out of the church that I was also working at as a youth pastor, and so part of my time I would spend programming, and part of my time I would spend hanging out with students or teaching or helping structurally on the student ministry side.
So I was there roughly 13 or 15 months or so, and they knew my trajectory going in there to begin with. It was really cool how that all worked out, but bottom line was even when I could see that there was traction, I still wanted a little stability before finally taking that step out. In fact, our first hire or two, or perhaps three that I made - contractors part time - but those first three hires or so happened while I was still working part time at a church.
James McKinney: Oh wow. That's incredible. So do you think, we framed it up as stability but do you think that transition from full to part time, was that a financial decision? Was there a little bit of fear in going all in? Do you think, now looking back, that maybe you would have gained more traction had you gone all in earlier? What is your perspective now looking back on that transition from full to part time, however long that period was?
Jon Verlee: It's difficult to say what would happen if you went a different route.
James McKinney: It sounded like you were growing fast, that's why I was asking that q.
Jon Verlee: For me, there is a risk averse side that's strong enough to curb me from taking the jump away from benefits and all that with the fulltime role. But at the same time, the income from Breeze wasn't strong enough to just jump into as a family. So it didn't seem like the most stable move. And at this point, we had twins on top of our first, so we had three kids. So that changes the ballgame a bit too in terms of the home dynamics.
There is this story that our culture idolizes a bit, and it's the story of the entrepreneur who cuts ties with everything that is stable and everything that is guaranteed, and just goes after the dream. It's one of the most inspirational stories out there. It's why our culture focuses on it so much. It's the story of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and it's these tech heroes to many who have jumped in and gone for it. However, that whole narrative suffers from a selection bias, specifically that you only hear the stories of the survivors. You only hear the stories where the hero comes out on top, and you don't hear the story of the guy who takes the inheritance money that he has and he jumps in and starts a business and two years later, is broke and has to go pick himself up, and try to find some job doing anything that he can. You don't hear the story of the marriage that nearly ends because of all the stress that this adds to it. You don't hear all of the disaster stories which, if I had to guess, would be far, far, far more common in the scenarios where an entrepreneur cuts their ties with stability.
As I look back on it, could we have grown a bit faster if I had stepped away from ministry sooner? Perhaps. But I also think that there's a value that I have for stability and recognizing that there's a wise way to do things, and that there's a way that many times doesn't turn out so well and holding that tension in check while still pursuing an entrepreneurial dream.
James McKinney: Oh, that was so perfect, and thank you for capturing the intent with my question because I do, that hero status, people shoot for glory rather than success a lot of times. There is an opportunity for glory and going all in, and betting it all on the table, and sleeping on a friend's couch, and selling your car to fundraise. Some amazing stories that come from that. But ultimately, what we should be pushing for is a successful company that contributes to the lives of our employees and the mouths we feed through there, and those that we serve as well as our families that we support.
I love that you were able, that now we have a great startup story to talk about the gray areas. It's not black and white, it's not all in or all out. There's the slow transition to fulltime in entrepreneurship or running your business. So I thank you for sharing that. So with you going fulltime now, how long has that been?
Jon Verlee: It's been right around three and a half years.
James McKinney: Has the growth of Breeze been as successful as you hoped it would have been when you started being fulltime three years ago?
Jon Verlee: Yeah. My vision now is even larger than it was three and a half years ago, and I think it's hard to separate that from the growth that we've seen. As we get more and more traction, it opens up just some mental blocks that may have been there before to be able to dream even larger.
James McKinney: That's awesome. Now, it sounds like, because I want to make sure our listeners have a full and clear picture. The story of Breeze sounds easy. It sounds I don't want to say Midas Touch because you did a very intentional, you were very strategic in how you managed resources and your relationship, and the growing family that you had. But in your three and a half, or four, or almost five year journey with Breeze, what has been probably one of the most challenging moments in that journey for you?
Jon Verlee: When you say the word "easy" what comes to my mind first actually precedes those three and half, four, even six years. It was preceding that the desire to start something and feeling like what I was working on wasn't big enough, or wasn't getting the traction. That entrepreneurial spirit had been there, even while doing the freelance work. So while working for other people, there was still that thought of, "But what could I start? What could I launch? What product could I do?" I was involved with a couple of projects that didn't really go anywhere. One of the first moments of frustration I think is simply being in that spot of I have a desire to start something, I feel like I am wired to be an entrepreneur, but I don't know what it is. That alone, the desire without direction, is a tough place to be.
As Breeze started, another tough spot to be is the grind. Late night after late night after late night, working over the weekends while balancing that to still have a healthy, happy marriage and to be a good dad. That's a tough tension as well. Sacrificing family for the sake of a business is not a trade off that I'm willing to make, and so what gets sacrificed the most? Well, sleep and so you can do that for a time, and I did, but that gets old as well after a while.
James McKinney: When you look back on your journey, and I ask these last two questions as our time comes to an end, I ask all of our founders who are so gracious with their time and share their startup story, but when you look back on your journey, who are the people that you point to with such an incredible amount of gratitude for because of the role that they played in getting you to where you are today? The reason I ask that question is I truly believe that if we forget all of those that contributed to our life and we start thinking that we did this on our own, it will inevitably lead to our failure. So when you look back on your journey, who do you point to like, "Man, they played such a huge part in my life." Even if just for a season, but who are those people you look to with such incredible gratitude for where you're at right now?
Jon Verlee: Number one is absolutely my wife. You had asked earlier what was the marital dynamic and how did that work as we started. I don't have this big emotional sob story about how it was so difficult to work through and we finally found the light at the end and found this way of doing it. Kerrie was just unbelievably supportive and trusting from day one. Sure, there was some financial security and easing into it and all of that, but at the end of the day stepping away from benefits and a fulltime job is scary in nearly any situation you are in. Having her support and love throughout that has been huge.
The second person is the boss that I had at actually both of those churches. So the first church that I was at, and it's the same person… The first church that I was at when I was working fulltime, when I quit and then un-quit, his name is Brady, Brady Nevers. So I sat with him and did the whole quit, came back groveling a few weeks later and un-quit. He was super gracious and understanding, and thrilled that I was still there. Then he had a transition in his own career where he moved over to a church that was still close by as the lead pastor there. So it was about a year after that where he hired me in there part-time, knowing that Breeze was doing well and trending the right direction, but seeing that there was a good fit for me at the church at least for a season there. So bringing me in there was incredibly helpful for again that stability. So in a sense, he gave me stability by holding my job when I didn't myself and also bringing me along on a stepping stone to where things are at today.
James McKinney: That's awesome. So it sounds like without him knowing, he was running a little mini accelerator there.
Jon Verlee: I love it. Absolutely he was.
James McKinney: So the last question and while your story is one that I know our entrepreneurs will glean so much great learnings from and inspiration from, but now I would like to ask you to picture yourself having that coffee with one of our listeners. Pick anyone you want, any persona, any stage of life, anything they're at. What do you want to leave one of our listeners with as they're contemplating where they're at in their journey, whether it be because they have a business and it's incredibly frustrating, not getting traction, or maybe they haven't left fulltime and they just don't think that they can because of responsibilities. Or maybe someone who's just taken a punch in the gut time and time again and is now just too, I don't know if fearful is the right word but now they're just incredibly defeated and just aren't sure that they have any hope in this idea of entrepreneurship.
Jon Verlee: My advice would be two words: start something. Start it small, find a way to ease into it, do it on the side, do it in a way that doesn't get in the way of your fulltime job. Do it in a way that doesn't put family totally on the backburner. Yes, there will be sacrifices here and there but start something. If it doesn't work, worst case scenario is you'll learn a lot and you'll still be in a good position to try something again. Don't risk everything. That's a myth, that's a fallacy that rarely works out. Start something, start it small, and go from there.
James McKinney: So I have to ask. Do you agree with Jon's assessment on how we idolize the person of the entrepreneur that throws all caution aside to build their enterprise? Well, whether you agree or not, it is absolutely true within the north American context that is what we do. We place these entrepreneurs, the ones that are willing to throw all caution to the wind, to leave all stability behind in order to pursue their dreams, regardless of all the other circumstances going on. We place them on such a high pedestal. Yes, it's an exciting story for sure, but it creates a stigma around the entrepreneurial community about what it means to be an entrepreneur. That is why I created The Startup Story, to tell the story that is applicable to 99% of entrepreneurs. Stories like Jon's that were well thought out, very intentional and strategic. Stories that take into account the dynamics of family and life stage. Entrepreneurship is for everyone, but the stories that get all the press do not empower the majority. That is what The Startup Story is all about, to inspire you through real authentic storytelling direct from an entrepreneur who is living it out as we speak, all for the benefit of helping you to start your story.
If you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I've put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. Well, I hope you will help support Jon's startup as a thank you for all the value he's shared with us today. If you're connected to a church, please let them know about Breeze church management software. His URL is breezechms.com. So please let your church staff know about Jon's incredible startup story.
Now, for my personal ask. The Startup Story community has been so incredible with sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We are a startup and the most powerful way you can support The Startup Story podcast is to leave a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory.co. Share The Startup Story on your social media, either with a link or a screenshot. Make sure you tag or mention us @TheStartupStory.co so we can see your help and say thank you for it.
Lastly, share the podcast on your LinkedIn profile. The Startup Story is for entrepreneurs, so please do not underestimate the power of sharing The Startup Story on your LinkedIn profile so other entrepreneurs can discover us. In fact, most people struggle to share good content on LinkedIn anyways, so if you want to support The Startup Story then search for The Startup Story company page, follow us, and share our posts to help encourage other founders and spread the word about the podcast. Every single founder has a story, and the startup stories we bring you every week can encourage and inspire another founder. It might just be what they needed to hear to keep moving forward on their dreams. I look forward to sharing these stories every Tuesday with hopes to inspire you to start YOUR story.