Alumni Spotlight: Taylor Sundali '07

14883666_1762637107323179_69485398748786083_o-1Taylor grew up in the ranks of the SVSEF cross country program, graduating from Wood River High School in 2007 and heading east for school in 2008. After attending Middlebury College and skiing for their cross country team, he moved to Detroit after being selected as a Venture for America fellow. Taylor went on to start a company, Compass, that orchestrates the implementation and finessing of websites for small businesses. Taylor now lives in Philadelphia, where he continues to help business owners improve their web presence and grow their companies. We took some time to chat with Taylor about the unique path he took to get to where he is today, and how SVSEF has influenced the way he approaches work and life.
What was it like to make the transition from growing up in the Wood River Valley to attending a small liberal arts school across the country? Did you feel prepared for that change?
I was more prepared than I initially thought. I remember thinking how hard it was for me to get into this school, and how studious most of these other students must have been in order to make it there. After a while, though, I realized how many were very similar to me. Good student-athletes who were, overall, more intellectually curious than anything.
One of the harder things to get used to, to be perfectly honest, was the climate. It was the first time I was entrenched in high-humidity and high heat… it was weird for the weather to stay warm all night.
How did you hear about Venture for America? Why did you choose that route after college?
Venture for America was introduced to me by a great friend from college, Astrid Schanz-Garbassi. She heard that I was unhappy working at a stuffy, corporate gig that I landed right out of school. Basically, I needed a change. We spent about 1.5 hours over the phone one night talking about the program, and how good of an opportunity it was for me.
Did you have a sense for a while that you wanted to start your own business, or is that something that developed over time or with certain experiences?
Totally. I always knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial and on my own. VFA was a perfect opportunity to safely play in that space. I cut my teeth a bit with a window washing company I co-ran in high school, but it wasn’t anything to create a career around.
How did Compass come about?
Compass was an idea that me and my friend (Mike) had when in the VFA Fellowship in Detroit. We were dabbling with ideas on the side of our main jobs, and his parents were in the market for websites. They had just gone to an agency, and had been quoted at obscene rates. We realized we could provide the service they needed at a much lower cost.
After we helped them out, and made a little bit of side cash, we saw the seed of an idea. Digital marketing services vary wildly in quality and price, and there wasn’t any centralized marketplace that addressed the core problems of small business owners (like Mike’s parents). On the other side of the marketplace, Freelancers were having a hard time finding work, managing projects / client expectations, and dealing with the overhead involved in building websites. There are plenty of talented designers, but not all of them are willing to deal with the additional work to freelance. A marketplace that matches the two intentionally was clear to us, and that’s what we’ve been building ever since.
What are the goals, mission and values of the company?
A lofty question!
Our current goal is to hit $1mm in run rate (annualized revenue). This is very specific, but it indicates a somewhat-scaled company. It would also, based on our projections, get us to a profitable stage.
Our goals after that are much loftier. We really want to be the go-to digital service provider for all small businesses. If someone is looking to get a business off the ground, they’ll come to us to get started for all digital marketing.
We explicitly value Alignment, Transparency and Sustainability. These three have manifested in a lot of cultural and business practices that go counter to both startups and other digital agencies. We think this is a very good thing!
Were there moments of doubt at all starting out?
Of course. Many. That being said, my cofounder is much more of an eternal optimist than I am, so it helped to keep me motivated. (note, I also helped keep him a bit more down to earth).
What do you enjoy most about the job?
It’s oddly addicting to build a company, and it’s really hard to put a finger on this feeling I get when doing so. It’s oddly similar to the feeling of improving in an endurance sport like Nordic Skiing. The more intentional, good work you put into it, the better it performs and the more positive feedback you get for it. I’d say this feeling I’m trying to describe is best correlated to building the strength and endurance for a sport like skiing.
How does your business stand out from other companies that focus on website building services?
Above, I mentioned one of our values of Transparency. We keep open and transparent throughout the entire process of building a site, which is something that many agencies hide.
We like our customers to know precisely what they’re paying for, how long it’s going to take, what tools we’re using to build it, etc. Our level of transparency sets us apart from all the other guys.
The other major thing is purely our model. We’re outsourcing all work that can be done by freelancers. Many shops that build sites have every type of person in house (developers, designers, project managers, sales people). Compass… we have project managers.
Development can be outsourced by tools and Content Management Systems.
Design is outsourced to our freelance designers.
Sales is largely outsourced by our referral system and other hacky-growth systems.
On the most challenging aspect of building a company:
The lifestyle. I miss being outside.
How do you describe the value of a program like SVSEF? What aspects of the program have you carried over or applied to your current job, or any steps or experiences that have come in between?
The work ethic it requires to be a dedicated athlete at SVSEF has helped me build this company. I think that was something I always had, on a base level. That being said, SVSEF helped me hone it and apply it to something that matters.
Without the real experience of refining that skill with skiing, I think I would have had a very difficult time picking up this business and running with it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Save your money.
How have you come to define success?
One word: Happiness.
Learn more about Compass here. Thanks, Taylor, for sharing your story and insight.