Java Script: Former freelancers forge a bond and a business over coffee
Sam Pillar and Forrest Zeisler discuss the early days of Jobber
by Cory Haller
It’s the quintessential first date: coffee and conversation at one of the cafés in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district. But for Sam Pillar and Forrest Zeisler, it was the beginning of a different kind of relationship. They both used the coffee shops in and around Whyte Avenue as office space for their work as freelance computer programmers, and became friends as a result of their frequent run-ins. “I worked from the SugarBowl, Remedy Café, and the Starbucks at Chapters, among others,” Zeisler says. “But I think it was mainly at Remedy that I would run into Sam.”
A glance at each other’s laptop monitors revealed that they were working with the same computing language, Ruby on Rails. “The information on the screens is a pretty distinctive thing: black background with code,” Zeisler says. “If you’re a programmer, you recognize the tools of the trade.” The common interest led to many conversations between the two, and eventually to Pillar pitching an idea to his new friend that would become Jobber, a rapidly growing company that the two co-founded a year later.
Pillar, a 31-year-old business graduate of the University of Alberta with a background in computer programming, says the idea for Jobber, which provides cloud-based business management software for small businesses, came to him while he was contracted to do a handful of freelance software jobs. Many of the jobs were for field service companies that did landscaping, house painting and general contract work. Because they tend to operate on a door-to-door or location-to-location basis, finding one product to manage the business can be a challenge. As a result, Pillar’s clients were relying on an assortment of quick-fix solutions, with multiple web-based applications to handle everything from invoicing to employee tracking. He knew he could do better. What the companies needed was a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business management application that could bring all the elements of their business under one roof without the upfront cost of installation-based software.
And so, with Zeisler’s help, he created Jobber. “The idea was to provide customer relationship management capabilities, task and calendar management, job tracking, crew scheduling, automated quoting, invoicing – everything, really – all accessible from any device or computer any time it’s needed,” Pillar says. “With the growing number of employees carrying smartphones, it seemed like the best way to efficiently run a business. It needed to be something the guys out in the field, mowing lawns or painting houses, could update and track at anytime.”
“It started as a side project,” Zeisler says, “but we always had a business in mind. We worked evenings and weekends until we had a working model that you could use and see. We began talking to business owners in the specific industries we were targeting just to sound them out. We wanted to know we were on the right track.”
They were. And so, in October of that year, tired of meeting in crowded coffee shops, they “squatted” (they offered to pay for the space and were rebuffed) in the office of Plumbheavy Design, a graphic design studio owned by mutual friends. They dedicated more of their time to their mutual project, and eventually hired their friends to help them give their new company an identity. They also carved out more specific roles for themselves, with Pillar taking on the role of CEO and Zeisler becoming the CTO.
“At some point it became obvious that someone needed to focus on the business side of things, and Forrest was always better at the engineering side than I was,” Pillar says. Zeisler sees it the same way. “What was probably the last straw on the camel’s back, where Sam left the programming and just never came back, was during our first round of financing,” he says. “We needed someone to handle all of the legal stuff, like dealing with accountants and lawyers and pouring through legal documents. Sam really threw himself on that grenade for us.”
The pair moved out of their temporary digs and into their current office on Whyte Avenue in August 2011, officially launching Jobber a month later. Once it became clear that the software was going somewhere, they quickly set their sights on finding investment capital – and a bit of mentorship to go with it. “I think we got pretty lucky in terms of who we were able to meet,” Pillar says. “But to give ourselves some credit, I think we had a product that spoke for itself. There are a lot of people out there trying to sell an idea and you really can’t do that anymore. There are just too many ideas to fund, and we had a product – a business – that already had paying customers.”
The search for angel investors took the pair to Vancouver in December of that year. There, they were introduced separately to an investor that was high on their list: Boris Wertz, one of the top tech angel investors in North America as well as a founding and managing partner of Version One Ventures. Zeisler laughs when he thinks back to their meetings with him. “Two individuals met him at two separate times pitching the same company,” he says. “I guess he liked it both times.”
He can afford to laugh now. In January and February of 2012, Zeisler and Pillar closed their first round of investments with Wertz, Christoph Janz of Point Nine Capital (an early-stage venture capital firm based in Berlin, Germany) and a couple of smaller buy-ins from Vancouver entrepreneurs who wanted to get in on the ground floor.
Jobber has continued to grow, posting double-digit, month-over-month increases in most key performance indicators, including revenue and new users, for the past year. In order to keep up, the pair has made additions to both their development and support teams. They’ve added more money, too, and earlier this year raised an additional half a million dollars from their original investors, money they will use to improve the software, add to the team and reach deeper into the field-service verticals.
The secret to their success? Find a gap in the market, and fill it. “We picked a totally unsexy product in an unsexy market,” Pillar says, “but the problems we address are real problems for real businesses.” And while the pair has been busy, Zeisler says they still find time to indulge in the habit that brought them together in the first place. “We try to leave the office and grab a coffee on Whyte as often as possible.”