Dream, Believe, Create
As I type these words, I’m winging my way to Sacramento airport, and then to our Roseville Office, from my home base near Seattle. Although I’m the founder and CEO of Escape, I moved to Washington state six years ago.
Prior to my moving, our amazing COO Ramona Marshall had taken over the day-to-day operations of the company. After I moved, she also took over the sales responsibility. This allowed me to focus on a variety of special projects to benefit the company.
This is my final trip to the office as an Escape employee! The company’s shares are owned by me and V.P. Chad Guest. We are selling our shares to an amazing SF-based private equity firm, and I will join the ranks of the retired. Of course, Ramona will continue in her role, so please don’t think our company is changing significantly. Chad is electing to keep working and will have a role in the development area.
I couldn’t be more proud of the company Escape has become. In 1985, I set out to build a great company and with a lot of good fortune and hard work by many, this dream came true.
One of my photography friends does a talk he calls, “Dream, Believe, Create.” And, he weaves these themes into meaningful ideas for photographers to up their game.
When I look back at my 32 years at Escape, these themes apply to the company and myself as well.
I dreamed of building a durable, ongoing concern that would truly serve an important market. And, I dreamed of making it a great place to work and create - somewhere I would want to work for the rest of my career!
The most important of these is surely “believe.” Not in the religious sense, but in so many other ways. I believed I would find a great market and we would become important to that market. One by one, employees believed in our cause and became contributors to the dream. And then, our customers believed that we would take care of the Business of Education. Today, over 400 organizations believe in our products and services.
Software is an art, not a science. It’s the product of our collective requirements and imaginations. We created not only the best school business system to serve all aspects of our market - from small charters to large COEs - we created processes to continually evolve the system around an ever-changing set of requirements.
What’s in a Name?
There’s a long story about the name Escape Technology, which I won’t go into here. But, an important aspect of the name lies in the verb escape, as in escape the old way of doing things. Remember, when we started there was lots of paper (even punch cards!), inefficient processes and cranky old mainframes. Yes, we were the very first company to offer school business systems utilizing personal computers.
Sonoma COE was our fourth COE, and even branded their implementation, “Journey to Escape.” Not choosing “Towery Software” was very deliberate. I always intended the company to continue on long after I retired.
What I’m Most Proud Of
The completeness of our integrated system. I believe since our journey began - in various departments like the warehouse, child nutrition and purchasing - we gained insights as to how important it is to serve every department and to integrate everyone together efficiently.
A great place to work. I take great pride in the fact that we have many employees that have been with us 10 years, 15 years, even 20 years and more. Many people have worked at Escape longer than any other job. In the beginning, it was hard for us to deliver on competitive salaries. In those days, we employees were true believers! But, in time, we fixed that and have been able to contribute significantly to our employees’ well-being, including retirement.
Rising to the challenge. To have a Finance/HR/Payroll system run by COEs in California is one the most difficult IT challenges in the country. So many large firms have tried and failed, or performed so poorly after some years the organizations would kick them out and replace them with Escape. We have gotten better and better every year. When I go to the office now and see what all of our amazing people are doing, I’m beyond impressed. Ditto for talking with customers at events like our Beyond Escape User’s Conference.
Dream of a plan, believe in it daily and create success. I still find it amazing that we cooked up our business plan in 1989. Briefly, at that point, we had numerous “departmental” modules for districts. The odds were certainly not in our favor to move beyond that humble beginning. We dreamed that we would create an integrated finance module, encompassing all that we had done so far. And then, we would build HR, including position control that tied to accounts and the finance module. And then, we would create the most difficult of all, a payroll system that tied everything together.
I’ll never forget when Bill Pieper of School Services said, “Bob, it’s the holy grail! You guys did it! Position control that drives both budget and payroll!”
The final phase of our plan was to adapt our system to be appropriate for large COEs and their districts. This coincided with the rise of Microsoft Windows in the late 90s and so we had a double challenge.
Perseverance. The years 2001-2007 were the most difficult of my life. We realized we were too small to both continue to develop and install the DOS programs, and build a brand new Windows-based system architected for COEs. Downsizing from 35 employees to 19, with reduced pay and basically no raises, we Escapees really had to gut it out. Strong doses of "belief” were required daily.
I can never say thank you enough to all of the customers that believed in us, helped us, and stuck with us throughout these years, and my fellow Escapees, including business partners Chad Guest and Barry Collins (Barry retired six years ago).
The Ramona Era
Unlikely as it would seem, we did achieve a usable, Windows/SQL-based system appropriate for COEs and districts, and we were ready to launch in 2007. And then, the most amazing thing happened when we met Ramona Marshall. She’s someone that redefines organization, tenacity, people-sense and sheer hard work. It was a perfect match. She was looking for a smaller team than her previous corporate America role. We learned so much from her about implementing and managing large projects.
We have had many wonderful hires who became contributors, but none like Ramona. Only because of her, I was able to move to a peaceful spot up in Washington. With her guidance, we were able to grow much more rapidly than ever before. Productivity soared, as did our output of regular, quality releases. Our customer base responded in kind, telling the rest of the good folks around the state about the quality of our team and products. We like to call our customers “The Family” and the family grew nonstop.
Last year we missed cresting 20,000 users by just a handful. There’s nothing better than serving end users so they can serve other employees and ultimately the students in the state. Many billions of dollars of payroll and retirement flow through our system statewide.
So, for me, the timing is perfect. I turn 60 in November, still young enough to pursue my hobbies with passion and keep my brain fully engaged.
Our process to find a quality company to invest in our ownership began in earnest last fall. We retained an investment-banking firm that I had been visiting with regularly for several years. About 70 private equity firms expressed interest in us, with ultimately about eight making offers.
We certainly learned that we created a highly desirable company. The fact that we are so successful against all competitors and the tenure of many large organizations truly impressed them.
While we had a good feeling about nearly all of them, Alpine Investors stood above the rest. They don’t just want to buy ownership and grow companies, they want to begin with great companies and make them greater. They specifically look for companies like Escape, proven companies with great market share, led by founders. They have processes and resources to step up the game of each employee and the company in general. Having Ramona continue to run operations means the new CEO (great guy by the way, you will meet him shortly) can focus on growth strategies.
One of the factors that helped Escape has been my involvement in a group called the Chief Executive Network. It’s a group of tech CEOs that meets twice per year with a purpose of improving each company. It’s been invaluable to me. And, Alpine has their own version of it, with the companies they own. And, that is just one of the many resources they are bringing to the table.
Chad and I are so impressed with Alpine that we chose to leave some equity in Escape. Seems about best investment we can make.
In closing, I really want to thank every customer, every user, and all my fellow Escapees. It has been very rewarding to serve the School Business community. I’m excited about the future at Escape. It’s going to be a great new chapter. Bon Voyage!