Four years ago, Chris Patton taught himself backend programming in order to build Punchpass. Today, his company has customers in over 50 countries, and is growing to over five employees by the end of the year.
Hey Chris! Thanks for chatting with us. Let’s jump into it. What is Punchpass?
Punchpass is web software used to track customer class attendance, and the passes & punchcards that a small business might sell. So our clients set up their classes, accept class reservations online, sell/assign passes to customers, and then take class attendance. We are primarily used by the fitness industry - yoga studios, fitness & personal trainers, etc. But it’s pretty flexible software so we have a wide range of client businesses. The majority of our customers are very small local businesses, and they use Punchpass to run their core business, and to enable online transactions like class reservations and pass purchases.
Sounds super useful. Can you take us back to how you started it?
I was actually trying to get a different web application off the ground! I was meeting with a business in Williston that offered kids classes, and they also offered fitness classes.
In the course of the conversation they said they had another problem around tracking their fitness class attendance. They took class attendance on a paper list, and then had to copy each of those attendances to the customer’s index card, which they kept in a big box. They were at least 30 days behind in entering their attendances. That meant they had NO visibility into how their business was doing, and there was a lot of manual work. (This is why you should be paying attention as an entrepreneur when a business tells you about their problems!)
A few months later I was at a crossroads - the app I was trying to grow had only a few paying customers, so I needed to learn to code to support them. Hiring developers just for support was out of the question. Over the years I had done a lot of the front-end work for apps I had built, and I had enough of a background that I felt that I could figure it out. Plus if everything went downhill, at least I would have a solid programming skill to get a job!
The best way to learn how to code is to build something, and I immediately thought about the problem tracking attendance at the fitness studio. Didn’t seem that complicated (famous last words!), so I built that.
How did you get your first customers?
I cold emailed a bunch of Zumba instructors by finding them online. Just explained what I was building, and my hunch about the problem they were facing. I pretty quickly received STRONG validation that this was a big problem for them - there was no simple, affordable software they could use.
So I then continued cold emailing dance fitness instructors and studios, and eventually got 10 to agree to be beta clients. The first 100+ customers were all through direct sales. We’ve done some Google Adwords and Facebook ads, but the majority of our leads today are from Google search.
How did you fund Punchpass?
The initial startup capital was revenue from a business I was shutting down. But primarily by keeping costs low. One of the great things about a web software business is how cheap they can be to run. So what you are investing is your time. I’ve always chosen to grow businesses through bootstrapping instead of raising capital.
However we did place second in LaunchVT. That let me bring on my current business partner a little earlier, start paying myself a regular salary, and took the pressure off being able to pay the monthly credit card bill!
You mentioned a business partner, tell us about the process of adding a co-founder.
I started Punchpass myself, and bootstrapped it for 2 years. But eventually it became more work than I could handle - I wasn’t making any progress moving the company forward. I had always planned on bringing on a co-founder at some point - someone who complemented my skill set, and who I could trust to take on running parts of the business without my oversight or involvement.
I convinced a local friend, Sharon Crites, to join me. Her kids had started high school and she was looking for the right company/situation to get back to work full time. It’s worked out great - Punchpass has grown significantly and we’ve set the foundation for growing the team to 5 people by September.
How did you pick Vermont as the home for Punchpass?
Well primarily because I lived here! We moved to VT in 2004 from Cambridge, MA - really for lifestyle reasons….VT was where we wanted to live. So I’ve never considered starting the company anywhere else. One of the great advantages of a web software business is that location doesn’t (usually) matter. Some of my first customers were in Perth, Australia - that’s about as far away as you can get from Burlington!
What are some of the upsides and some of the challenges you see in building a tech company in Vermont?
The major upside is the approachability of the tech community. It’s small enough that it’s easier to make connections between people, and everyone is willing to help. And I think there are strong roots here back to the Boston & NYC tech communities, which are two of the biggest in the country.
One of the downsides is the flip side of the community size - it’s a little stagnant. And connectivity is still is a big issue once you get outside Chittenden county. It’s hard for the rest of the State to attract tech workers when there is little to no cell coverage.
Any advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in Vermont?
Get started! Hack something together and get it in front of prospective customers. If you can get people/businesses using a super basic, simple version of your idea/service you’re going to get great feedback on what you need to do next. That gives you the momentum you need to keep improving what you’ve started with, AND figuring out exactly what the problem in the market really is.
Too many entrepreneurs have a vision of what their final product is going to look like and think they need to go right to that point. They should be spending a lot more time thinking about what the most basic version 1.0 of their product looks like. And don’t be afraid of doing some manual work in order to test your assumptions - you don’t have to automate everything right away. Entrepreneurship is a long path so don’t worry about the end point…just take the first step.