Brant Bukowsky is a native of Columbia, Missouri, home to our very own Brian Null. Brant is the co-founder of VA Mortgage Center. He also co-founded Show Me Tickets, LakeRentals.com, Plus 1 Media and currently is a co-founder at Growth Partner. Brant is also heavily involved in his local entrepreneurial scene where he runs a monthly event for Big Thinkers and Entrepreneurs. Brant’s companies have been listed by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest 500 growing private companies three times (for separate companies no less!).
Brant has an interesting history where he has been partnered with his older brother Brock on many of his ventures. If one had to guess what Brant studied one might also be surprised to find out his degree is in elementary education and he taught 2nd grade. Brant continues to expand his fields and most recently became an angel investor.
First off, I have to congratulate you on so many successes. I hope we all can learn something from you and benefit from your experience. The first question I have to ask about is your partner. Picking a partner is like a marriage they say. If I understood correctly, you and your brother have started many or all of the businesses you’ve been involved in. How do you and your brother manage to work so well together? Does it make it easier or harder to work with family?
It has been great to be able to partner with my brother. We are pretty complimentary in that we have different strengths, yet many times we are on the same page and know what each other is thinking without even talking (it even freaks my wife out sometimes).
I hear of some partnerships that fall apart because one partner is concerned the other is not bringing as much value or working as hard as the other. That has never been a concern for us probably because we are both happy to see the other succeed, whether that be on the same team or otherwise, but we happen to be 50-50 on everything business related and we don’t worry about what the other one does. However, we both know the other is committed to helping the company succeed for the long term.
You’ve worked for someone else for a total of 1 day in your life as a pizza delivery guy. What steps do you take with your own staff to make sure they don’t have the same feelings you had about working for someone else?
I actually worked for a few people while in high school. The pizza delivery job that I worked at for 1 day was to help supplement my income as we were starting our business. I came home and realized I could have spent that time working to build our company and realized that is how I would spend my time going forward.
I think a lot of our staff has ideas of doing their own venture since we tend to attract a very entrepreneurial group of people. They may be entrepreneurial in that they want to start a business, start a non-profit, put on an event to raise money or help a cause, etc. All of those things are entrepreneurial and is a major reason why we have such as awesome team.
I think people tend to stay with us since we offer a lot of freedom and really value people’s ideas. That is also a reason we have been able to succeed – finding great people and letting them loose.
Hopefully they get compensated fairly which helps encourage them to stay. Plus, we hope we can attract and retain people who have big ideas because we wish to pursue big ideas as well. And since we have such an awesome team of people, they are able to take advantage of our great resources and actually achieve some big things with us. One part of our value statement is that “we can achieve more collectively than we ever could individually.”
As soon as I started researching for this interview I think I began to see VA Mortgage Center ads everywhere. I lost count of how many I’ve seen at this point but was shocked and continue to be amazed at the distribution of the ads. Could you tell us how you market VA Mortgage Center online and what makes it so successful?
This month our ads will get over 50 million impressions in display ads alone, so it is likely you will see our ads if you are in our target market at all. We pursue a variety of forms of online marketing including search (organic and paid), social media, viral, and display ads. We also work on creating partnerships with sites/companies that generate a lot of traffic from our target market.
We spend a significant amount of resources in trying to convert the visitor. That is done through a combination of strategies such as conversion rate optimization, drip emails, retargeting/remarketing, and optimizing the processes on the back end. We are so successful in our online marketing because we have a killer team that we have been building for the past 10+ years.
You got started in the mortgage industry simply because you heard about a friend making a lot of money in it. What were your next steps towards starting a business in the mortgage industry? Did you do market research, write a business plan, seek investment and/or some other steps?
I kept running the ticket company and my brother took on the challenge of getting the mortgage company going. He spent a ridiculous amount of hours working everyday when it first started and it was tough work as well.
We have never created a business plan (in any business) nor received funding. We just get into businesses and figure out where we need to adapt to be successful and try to do it fast and cheap so we don’t run out of money. I just read a book called “Getting to Plan B: Breaking Through to a Better Business Model” that talks a lot about this concept.
I don’t think the way we do things is the best way to go about something, but we just end up trying so many things that some of them eventually work.
You currently run an informal monthly Big Thinkers and Entrepreneurs event. Could you tell us a bit more about the event? How do you maximize the benefits for those attending and what can/should someone expect to get out of these types of events?
A buddy, Travis Smith, and I were sitting around having beers and talking biz. He brought up the idea of a mastermind group, a concept discussed quite a bit in “Think and Grow Rich”. I have read that book at least 5 times since I was in high school and was always a fan of the idea, so we just sent out an email to some people.
We don’t do much to try to maximize the benefits, we just want to get a great group of big thinkers together and let them talk ideas and network. We try to keep it relatively small and we want to ensure they are entrepreneur-types, we don’t want it to be a networking event for professionals looking to sell stuff.
Hopefully people that attend will get ideas and inspiration so they will start their own business or work on growing the business they own. My goal is to help build a great entrepreneurial culture in Columbia, MO and on the Mizzou campus. There are a lot of new initiatives with the goal to help do this so it is an exciting time to be here.
I am on the board of REDI in Mid-Missouri and we plan to host an entrepreneur summit at the beginning of 2011, so we hope your readers all attend.
I have been involved in angel investing since 2007. I joined the Mid-America Angels in Kansas City, The Band of Angels in Silicon Valley, and Centennial Investors in Columbia, MO. I have learned a lot, mostly through investing in companies that struggle to make it big. It has taught me how valuable the management is when looking at chances for success for a venture.
It is wise for entrepreneurs to seek smart money when getting funding. Smart money includes investors that bring more value than just the capital. And those are the types of deals I seek – I look to invest primarily in companies in which I can add value. Right now, I am not doing much angel investing at all outside of our new venture – GrowthPartner.com. We invest capital as well as expertise in certain areas (primarily online marketing) in exchange for equity.
However, my time is focused on continuing to build our mortgage company. We have assembled such a great team and are starting to do some really big things that it is a pretty exciting time, even though many, many companies in our industry have gone out of business.
Disclosure: During the course of this interview, Growth Partner became a contributing Partner at MO.com. Brant Bukowsky is one of the founders of Growth Partner.
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