Burch LaPrade: There’s work to do before building a business starts

Last year, Burch LaPrade and two fellow Workiva alums, Jason Jones and Steve Siegel, started a company building software in the “exciting world” of insurance compliance software.

“We’re a cloud-based software to help insurance companies fulfill the myriad reporting requirements they have to fulfill for state-based regulations,” said LaPrade, CEO of Des Moines-based Gain Compliance.

Even though he grew up in Connecticut and spent 10 years in California, LaPrade believes Iowa represents a better place to build a business.

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

C&M: How did you get involved with this type of work?

BL: Jason Jones, Steve Siegel, and I left Workiva and we started (Gain Compliance) in August.

… We decided to go out on our own with an opportunity that was ancillary to what Workiva was working on. So, this is complementary not competitive to them. I come from a background of having run a few small companies before so I’m pretty comfortable with it, and it’s what I like to do.

C&M: Who do you consider to be a mentor? Who do you look for for advice?

BL: We’re in insurance regulation and are very fortunate to have some really good (local) advisers. We’ve got one of the senior people from Workiva on our board of advisers as well as Terri Vaughan, Dean of Drake University’s College of Business and Public Administration (and a former Iowa Insurance Commissioner). Our advisory board has really been very helpful and really good resources.

We also work very closely with customers. … We always do a lot of back and forth, and are super highly involved with our customers. I would say our customers actually drive a ton of the features and product direction.

As much as possible, you try to stay away from the idea that you meet with a bunch of people, ask them a bunch of questions, and go build just to come back — like it’s some home renovation show — with a big reveal, because it can just be very disappointing.

C&M: What excites you most about working and living in Iowa?

BL: I moved here in 2004 from the Bay Area, and I would say that this is actually a much better community to start a business in. People here are much more patient, they’re much more trusting, and they’re much, much, much more supportive. Everything about it is just easier. There’s really great talent here, and people are motivated differently. They want to work on really good projects and do interesting work with interesting technology, but I think it’s easy to find those people here than it is to find them in the Bay Area.

We’re a company building software for the insurance industry, and this is an insurance town. People in Iowa have an incredible amount of support for local businesses and they want you to succeed, which you can see with the Global Insurance Accelerator. They have 10 companies that have invested in that and it’s really to support innovation in the industry. We get that tailwind, too. We have incredibly receptive customers who are very giving of their time. Partly because we like to think that what we’re building is interesting and useful to them, but also because we have relationships with them.

This is a small town, and everybody knows each other. In the investment community as well, I would say once you can show that you’ve got an idea, you’ve got traction, and have got a direction, it actually is a fairly welcoming place. At least it has been for us.

C&M: What has been an unexpected source of inspiration for your work?

BL: We work in insurance compliance software, which isn’t super inspirational just on the face of it. But all of us really like puzzles so it’s an incredibly complicated challenge that these companies have to face. We walked in with our eyes open, knowing what we were going into was very complicated, very detailed, sometimes arcane processes that very few people understand.

I would say working with our customers has been the most fun. If you actually find a good vein to mine, if you find an idea that resonates, and you walk in and start talking to customers about their processes they start to get excited because this is their world. Just because it’s not something the outside world understands doesn’t mean it’s not a really rich story.

C&M: What advice would you have for fellow entrepreneurs?

BL: All of our success comes out of being very knowledgeable about certain types of technology. In our particular case, single instance cloud-based software with a SaaS delivery model with a fairly rich data model. …

That’s pretty hard-fought. You don’t just walk in there on day one and say, “I’ve got an idea. We’re just going to go after this,” and raise money or start building. We have spent a tremendous amount of time before we even wrote the first line of code. It goes back to a quote from Abraham Lincoln that goes “If you give me six hours to chop down a tree, I’m going to spend the first four hours sharpening my axe.” We spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about what we’re doing before we actually started doing it.

That certainly extends from writing code and building product, but also into being very deliberate and intentional about starting a company. Make sure your team has got the different roles filled. Don’t just have a business idea and not understand the technology. Don’t just have technology without understanding what the customers are going to want. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done that’s foundational before you make your slide deck, and certainly before you start writing code.

About Burch LaPrade

Age: 45
Location: Des Moines, Iowa
Company Twitter: @gaincompliance

Megan Bannister is a freelance writer based in Des Moines and a regular contributor to Clay & Milk.