“If you fall you’re dead.”
Not the most encouraging words ever uttered to someone who’s scared of heights and in the process of scaling a 400 foot tower to place an antenna. Yet, this is exactly what rang through the ears of Anthony Franco as he stood 20 feet off the ground. The words of encouragement came from one of his SkyBeam co-founders. The story has a happy ending though. Franco persevered through his acrophobia and got the antenna installed. SkyBeam went on to become one of the nation’s largest wireless internet service providers.
Franco was the featured guest at the latest Denver Founders meetup on May 27th. Speaking to a standing room only crowd, Franco discussed his entrepreneurial beginnings, several of the successful companies he’s founded, and what lies ahead for the serial founder.
Anthony Franco first entered the working world while he was still in high school as a production manager with Warner Brothers. Yes, that Warner Brothers. Franco’s specialty at WB was post-production and he worked on some blockbuster films during his tenure. For instance, he worked on The Matrix, and therefore knew that there was no spoon before anyone else did.
A major feather in his cap while at Warner was that he helped the post-production department move from analog to digital in the mid-to-late 1990s. This foray into the digital realm proved a fortuitous one, as this is the area where Franco excels.
Historically in western civilization the idea of “the west” and going west have pushed people in that direction. What then made Anthony Franco do an about-face and head east to Colorado? One thing is certain: despite working in Hollywood the John Candy film “Wagons East” didn’t influence his decision.
After Warner Brothers, Franco started a web consulting company called Zudia that was acquired by a Colorado venture capital fund, precipitating the move. How did Franco decide to start his own company? “I didn’t decide. I sucked at being an employee and was a terrible manager,” he said.
Once in Colorado, Franco founded—and sold—at least two more companies: SkyBeam and Piper Software. Although heavily invested in the digital sphere, Franco managed to avoid the tech bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Perhaps the lack of soul-crushing defeat that so many felt in that period enabled him to keep founding companies.
The real reasons are much less speculative. “If you find the place where you’re actually solving someone’s problem there’s reward in that,” says Franco. When he started EffectiveUI in 2005, there were economic motives, after all the mortgage doesn’t pay itself.
Franco says that no one was thinking about user experience when he started EffectiveUI. At its core, EffectiveUI is a services firm that builds software focused on the user experience. “We don’t build front end sites, we do all the back end,” said Franco.
The preferred medium for many years was Flash. In 2015, this seems almost laughable, and Franco admitted some of the stuff others did with Flash was more sizzle than substance. However, he contends that the underlying code in Flash was actually really powerful. “When Steve Jobs killed it [Flash] we were really bummed,” Franco recalled.
So what is an effective user experience? Franco used an analogy from his days at Warner Brothers. The key to good CGI is when the filmgoer can’t tell it is CGI. When someone says, “that’s good CGI” the special effects could be considered a failure. Franco suggested the same is true of user experience. Everyone knows someone who is easily overwhelmed by technology. According to Franco this is the fault of the designer, not the user. Good UI, says Franco, is “invisible. It just gets the job done. It just accomplishes it.”
The challenge in the user experience world is that many firms focus on aesthetics rather than actual usability. Franco admits that it is difficult to compete with companies that prioritize flash (no, not that flash) and beauty over substance. “Beautiful design is the last thing you think about,” he says.
Franco built EffectiveUI to around 120 people with offices in Denver, Rochester, and New York. Despite this success and numerous accolades Franco decided to sell the company, resulting in a sale to WPP in 2012. Although he had founded and sold several companies already, Franco didn’t even realize he could sell EffectiveUI until he saw a holding company purchase one of their competitors.
When asked why he decided to sell EffectiveUI Franco was frank: “The services business is hard.” He founded the company to build products, but the services aspect took off like a bottle rocket. They didn’t end up making many products. He also found that EffectiveUI hit a ceiling in the types of contracts there were able to get as an independent company.
“I’m happy with the exit, but it was different than I thought it’d be,” he said. “Something about having founder DNA in a big company; I was oil in their water.” When pushed on this point, Franco says that in a corporate environment his creative energy turned destructive.
This type of honest reflection and self-awareness speaks to Franco’s approach to entrepreneurship. When asked about biggest obstacles he’s faced through all of his companies, Franco looked inward rather than focusing on externalities. “I never perceived obstacles,” he said, “messing up isn’t an obstacle it’s an expectation.” Most of the challenges he faced were self-imposed, the “obstacles in my head.” Of course, he also admits that his inability to recognize those external obstacles “is what made me dumb enough to do what I did.”
So what’s next for Anthony Franco? After dwelling in the digital space for so long he wanted to do something with a physical product. He took up an interest in 3D printing, partially because his coding skills would enable him to create something physical. Yet his original plan was to sell time on a 3D printers to others who needed to create prototypes. So he bought a 3D printer that was “the size of a Fiat” in pursuit of becoming the Kinko’s of 3D printings. However, people weren’t beating down his door to sign up for printer time.
As someone who has spent a lot of time in meetings and sitting through workshops, he devised MC Squares, in an effort to enliven and to promote creativity in these types of proceedings.
MC Squares are a tiled whiteboard system. Franco raised funds and interest for MC Squares through a successful Kickstarter campaign that reached $50k. MC Squares have taken off in the education space since their introduction, as well as a number of other enterprises and creative agencies.
The physical whiteboards are nice, but Franco also plans to get back to his digital roots. He plans to digitize the tiles with an e-ink display. Also in the cards is making the tiles self-aware, much like their creator, so when assembled together on a wall they can become a big display.
No matter what the product is there is one constant with Anthony Franco’s approach to entrepreneurship: passion.
“If I’m not passionate about something I don’t pursue it,” says the chronic entrepreneur. Maintaining your balance on a 400 foot radio tower helps too.