Travis Devitt, BHP ’06, is the Director of Growth at Aceable, an Austin-based startup focused on mobile apps for required education courses. He leads user acquisition efforts in both paid and unpaid channels, manages analytics and reporting for products, and assists with product management and marketing. Travis is also an Angel Investor and is very connected to the startup scene in Austin.
How did you learn about the Tradecraft program and what was your experience like with that program?
It was a culmination of a couple years of figuring out what my next move would be. I majored in finance and was very focused on investing. I spent the first 8 years of my career doing investing and hedge funds. I loved it, but I didn’t love the work product. I didn’t feel like we were making society better or contributing to society in a meaningful way. I started thinking about what else I would be interested in doing. I had been interested in technology and tech startups since high school and I minored in MIS at UT. I thought about doing a startup of my own or going to work for an early-stage company, but I realized I needed to build up my skill sets before taking that next move.
I started looking at 12-15 week boot camps that were full-time, intensive experiences. I searched and found Tradecraft—a boot camp for people wanting to get into startups who don’t want to be developers. They were focusing on the other skill sets startups need, which are sales and business development, growth marketing, product development and design and user experience. Growth marketing is really a combination of technology, business and marketing, which was a really fitting combination for me, so I chose that track.
I moved out to San Francisco for the 12-week Tradecraft program. I really enjoyed my time there and connected with a lot of smart people in the startup eco-system in San Francisco, both in and out of Tradecraft. They brought in mentors from the top startups in town. We worked on real-world projects with startups, so we were learning by doing, like how BHP does with case-based learning. It was a fantastic experience – I put a lot into it and worked long hours, but I got a lot out of it. I stayed on with a startup I had as a project there called Naja as their sole marketing person for a couple months. After that, I consulted for a few startups, waiting for the right opportunity.
Aceable ended up being that right opportunity. How did your connection to Aceable come about and what are your goals for the company?
When I was at the hedge fund, I had started doing some investing on the side in some startups with my own personal funds and one of those was Student Loan Genius, a startup here in town. The CEO of that company was good friends with the CEO of Aceable. Aceable only had 5-6 employees at the time. They were both at Capital Factory and knew each other well. I shared my interest in getting in at an early stage with an education-based startup. They were looking for someone to help with mobile marketing and analytics challenges they were having. I wanted to work on a mobile product because I feel like mobile is the computing platform of the world, so it was a good fit for me, and I hit it off with the CEO
Aceable wants to be the provider of mobile education for required education courses. Today we are focused on the driver’s education space. We were the first company to offer a full certified drivers education course on a mobile device. You can take all of your online driver’s ed through an app. We also focused on making the content mobile-specific in design. We still have a lot of market share to capture in the driving space, but our big vision is to conquer a lot of the required education courses, whether that is scuba certification, real estate licenses, TABC certification, etc. We have grown from $200,000 in annual revenue when I joined to having high seven figure, approaching eight figure goals this year.
For students interested in entrepreneurship, what would you recommend for them to do right now while they are in school?
Think about what skills you can develop to become a contributor. Whether that is at your own startup or someone else’s. Entrepreneurship is glorified, but there is a lot of unsexy things about it. You have to wear a lot of hats, get things done, and be resourceful. There are a lot of skill sets from engineering the product, to marketing the product, to design, and so on. Develop those skill sets outside of the classes you are taking. If you are developing a web product, learn Java Script and HTML. If you want to develop a mobile product, maybe learn Swift. Be self-directed learners. You need to be able to understand all the different functions that make a business successful. Our CEO interfaces with the product team, marketing team, development team, design team and customer experience team. You need to understand all of their functions, what the constraints are and what kind of people we need to hire. There is a lot to learn, so start now. Even just reading can be a significant benefit. Follow thought leaders to familiarize yourself. Read a book on venture capital term sheets from Brad Feld. Go to a startup demo day. If you have the opportunity, go intern at a startup. That is really the best way to learn.
You have been involved in the startup scene in San Francisco and Austin. How would you compare the two and what do you think are Austin’s unique advantages?
The two things that are night and day are the volume of people working in startups and the volume of startups that exist in San Francisco/Silicon Valley—the largest startup ecosystem on the planet. There is a movement for startup ecosystems to develop outside of there and one of those is Austin. I loved being part of that community, but cost and quality of life were big factors in wanting to come back to Austin. It is much less expensive to live here. If you start a company in Austin, you know where the resources are and that you will have community support from other entrepreneurs. It is more competitive in San Francisco. There are opportunities to have more visibility in Austin if you are successful. It is a little harder to raise capital in Austin, but I think that will change in the next few years I wanted to be a part of what is happening here.
How many startups are your currently investing in and what metrics do you use to determine what you will invest in?
I am invested in 13 companies, so I have slowed down some. I want to let the current portfolio play out. When there are good opportunities though, I don’t want to pass on them. I care about the market and the idea, but I care equally about the people starting the company. I used to think it was more important to back companies investing in large markets, but after watching companies succeed and fail from my portfolio, a lot of it has come down to picking the right people to bet on. I want the entrepreneurs who can fight through the adversity and will their way to success. I am looking for new approaches in big markets of course. If it is a limited market, with a 70-80% failure rate, you can’t back the 2-3X winners, you need to back the ones that are the 10X-100X to make your portfolio make sense. The 20% that survive need to be very successful.
Valuation plays very little role. Most startups are raising in the same valuation range anyways. I am part of two angel networks in town. Next Gen Venture Partners, a nation-wide Angel Network with an Austin Chapter, is the one I am most active with It is a group of people involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We bring value in the form of investment and advice. We also learn from each other at the same time.
How did your early roles in hedge funds prepare you for the type of work you are doing now?
It helped me become sharp at analyzing numbers, but also analyzing people. That has been as important as the financial analysis side. You have to understand numbers and income and cash flow, but understanding how people affect the business is also critical. That translates into hiring. You have to figure out if they can actually do what they say they can. For Aceable, I grew the marketing team from one person to seven of the right people. Hedge fund roles also gave me the toolset to quickly research markets and industry verticals, which will be critical for Aceable going forward.