Found In The Rockies

Abby Schlatter (commonFont) \\ Building a Bozeman company with community involvement at the heart

September 07, 2022 Les Craig Season 2 Episode 28
Found In The Rockies
Abby Schlatter (commonFont) \\ Building a Bozeman company with community involvement at the heart
Show Notes Transcript

In today’s episode, Abby Schlatter joins us, who is the CEO and co-founder of Bozeman based commonFont. CommonFont is a tech company that partners with the world's top companies to establish, evolve and optimize experience management solutions.

Here’s a closer look at the episode:

  • Abby’s start in Central Illinois, Harvard, Stanford Business School, Google, UNICEF
  • The decision to come to Bozeman
  • Life in Bozeman in 2013
  • Starting to hire and grow the team
  • The name commonFont and how it relates to the company mission
  • Experience Management Technology
  • Having too many tools that don’t work well together
  • Opening an office in Rhode Island
  • Who we choose to hire - commitment, heart, and grit
  • How commonFont culture has been built
  • Community Involvement - support of HRDC
  • Challenges and overcoming them
  • Thoughts on achieving success
  • Pushing through tough times
  • The “winning mindset” - rigor, discipline, and accountability
  • commonFont Confluence event



Abby Linkedin: 

commonFont LinkedIn: 

commonFont Twitter: 

commonFont Facebook: 

Abby 00:00

My dad who's been farming now, since he was a kid on the family farm said, What you learn as you go through life as an entrepreneur and a business person is the only people who lose or those who quit. And if you don't, if you don't quit, if you keep going, and you just adapt how you're thinking about success, you will be successful, and it's always achievable.

Les 00:32

This is Found in the Rockies, a podcast about the startup ecosystem in the Rocky Mountain region, featuring the founders, funders and contributors and the stories of what they're building. I'm Les Craig from Next Frontier Capital. And on today's show, we have Abby Schlatter, who is the CEO and co founder of Bozeman based commonFonts. commonFont is a tech company that partners with the world's top companies to establish, evolve and optimize experience management solutions. Welcome to the show, Abby. To start off, why don't you tell me a little bit about your story, just who you are, where you grew up, and how you ended up in the Rockies.

Abby 01:12

Thanks, Les. I'm so happy to be here. Thank you for the invitation. I grew up in central Illinois, on a farm. My parents still live in central Illinois, and they still farm. And from a very early age, I was inspired to experience new things to travel to learn to grow. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go out of state to school and to go to Harvard for my undergrad which opened up a number of new opportunities and doors for me very early in my experience as as a young adult, and that, for me has inspired a lifelong commitment to to learning to providing people with equal opportunities and access to education and exposure and carries over into to where I am as a professional today. From that college experience. I went on to do a lot of different things I wrote for a travel guidebook in a couple of different countries. I worked as a manager of a warehouse and a sales organization in Atlanta, Georgia. I went to Stanford Business School, I interned with Google and UNICEF in East Africa. I was a member of the leadership team and head of operations and finance at a high power conversion electronics company in the Bay Area. And you know, after all of that, I found my way to Bozeman and started calm and fun.

Les 02:53

So So clearly we have an absolute underachiever on the podcast today from the Harvard Stanford GSB. I mean, what a what an early career, exciting early career you had, what, what was, what was the motivation to get to Bozeman though, like I would I would think, Oh, you, you're in the Bay Area, like, that's where you still are. But you didn't stay there.

Abby 03:18

I did not stay in the Bay Area. And I think that very early on in my time at Stanford Business School, I encountered a lot of perspectives in, in my schooling where, you know, the only way to run a company is to take a bunch of venture capital funding and grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, that Stanford is very into that model of company building, and it's a good point Les, and I have no no beefs with that model. With that being said, I had this perspective that the business needed to be, for me, something that was very rooted in a local community tied to place, tied to people. I wanted to start an organization where people were highly committed to us as an organization to growing their career to serving clients to serving our community. And Bozeman very early on stood out as a place where where we could make that happen. In terms of how I actually arrived at the decision with my co founder to be based in Bozeman, there was a spreadsheet involved. It did predict that out of all of the places in the Rocky Mountain, West Bozeman was the shining star in terms of both the entrepreneurial landscape the the college at MSU. That's located here that the hard science and tech talent and the commitment to place that people personify. So I had a spreadsheet that predicted that Bozeman was the place to be. And lo and behold, my predictions were were accurate. So

Les 05:11

I gotta say, you know, I, I've known you for probably seven years now. And I don't know if you knew this or not, but I put together a spreadsheet as well, or as I call it at the time of multiattribute decision matrix. And my answer was Bozeman, too. So I guess, I guess our spreadsheets were right.

Abby 05:30

Great, great minds do think alike, Les.

Les 05:33

That's so funny. So So Bozeman was the place and what what at the time were you were you working at for for Medallia at the time, because I know you spent some time at Medallia, right?

Abby 05:44

I was not. So I actually took a leap and coming to Bozeman, left my job and moved to Bozeman without any employment at all, I spent time teaching at the College of Business at MSU. And doing a lot of freelance consulting, while while also remaining really committed to the idea of starting a company and being an entrepreneur and just looking for that, that right moment to make that happen. And the idea and the opportunity that would help me do that. That opportunity did come through our partnership with Medallia, which is one of our technology partners that we still work with today. And my co founder and I decided to where he had been at Medallia for for some time, as head of their global professional services team, we decided that an opportunity existed to form our own company to provide services in that technology ecosystem, which common find today is much more, you know, diverse and multifaceted in terms of the technologies that we work with and the clients that we serve. And we've grown from that base. But that was the initial impetus that allowed us to take this step.

Les 07:05

Exciting. And that was was a 2013, around 2013 

Abby 07:10

2013. That's correct. 

Les 07:11

Right, what was what was Bozeman like, like, all the way back then?


Last, let me tell you, when, when we first moved to Bozeman, I had so many people, friends of mine, dear friends saying, Oh, you'll never make it there. It's a cow town. It's in Montana. It's cold. Did you not see that winter is nine months of the year and in so many doubters and skeptics, and that has changed tremendously as you're well aware of it over the course of certainly the last five years, but but also really, during the pandemic, with, with many people recognizing Bozeman as a community that has a very high quality of life to offer. I would share when we first moved to Bozeman, there were one of the things that drew me to the place was this sense of like a real pioneering spirit. There were there were a lot of people who were trying to get something going, who had, you know, a job that they were working in full time, but then a side hustle. We had a great, great group of local entrepreneurs that we would get together with that we call tiny CO and it was a bunch of founders who like, really were, you know, the extent of the company there. There weren't more people who were kind of powering these organizations at this time.

Les 08:39

A group of companies of one or two.

Abby 08:42

Right? Exactly, was it really was tiny and, but but just a lot of enthusiasm around this idea of creation, building something from nothing. And And with that, you know, helping our community in Bozeman really grow and be stronger and be more vibrant and be a place where more people could could make their their lives because there were jobs here as well.

Les 09:08

Yeah. What was it like back then? I mean, so you started the company. 2013 20 was 2015. Kind of the official year we started hiring employees?

Abby 09:18

We started hiring in early 2015. And we did our initial employees still recount how they interviewed in our basement. And when we did, we did actually get an office before they started, but we had no desks. We hadn't yet run down to Salt Lake City to buy a couple of pieces of IKEA furniture. So it was it was pretty sparse at that at the beginning, but I will share less. Those three employees who joined us in our founding year 100% of them are with commonFont today as senior members of our team so kind of kind of awesome. Yeah.

Les 10:00

Yeah, that's amazing. So So was that there was sort of the the hiring of those employees was like, you know, basically fine putting a stake in the ground like this is it we're going at this we're doing this. What was in the company you had you had named the company and branded the company already at that point, commonFont, that's what you were, going by?

Abby 10:18

We had, we had named the company. Yeah,

Les 10:22

Tell me about tell me about the name because it's I love I love the history of the name and what it means, you know, when I, when I think about my first impression, I was like, oh, is, you know, does it have to do with designing text or font or, but it has nothing to do with that, right? 

Abby 10:38

It has nothing to do with that. Although the idea of a universal language is also one that kind of speaks to our name, if that's how people associate it. So the naming story is that my co-founder and I, when we decided to start commonFont, and also side note, last, my co-founder is also my husband, which we can talk about that. And when we left our jobs and decided to start this, this company, we had one pursuit on a three week trip to Italy, which was to name it and the name had been very elusive up to this point, we've had all these naming name-storming parties with friends, we, you know, have done all of this work to try to figure out what the name would be in it, we just hadn't arrived at it yet. So we took a trip to Italy, we were sitting in a piazza, or a kind of a public square, a gathering place for for the community. And there's this fountain in the middle of it, and there are kids running and playing by the fountain and, and we were doing a naming exercise. And we both wrote down on our piece of paper, the term font, which is, you know, the archaic or Latin form of fountain. And then we switched papers, because, you know, this was our one objective in Italy, in addition to eating a lot of great food and drinking a lot of great wine. And we both wrote down the word common. So we had we independently kind of arrived with this commonFont, and what it stood for what it represented was this idea that our company would both, you know, it was required, because we're a services company, we have, we are going to learn, change, grow, adapt, always. And in that fountain, with its ever flowing water from the spring represented that concept. Additionally, the concept of a commonFont represents a communal gathering place shared benefits, our commitment as an organization is that as we are successful, organizationally, certainly our employees are, you know, benefiting from that success both that success both in terms of their growth, and, you know, rewards as employees, our clients are benefiting from that success. And our community is benefiting from that success. So we, we have a number of stakeholders that we serve at commonFont, and our name strives to represent that.

Les 13:16

Such a great brand and so, so well representative of what you do, and and your, your the great culture and team you've built. We'll get to that in a little bit. I definitely want to talk about that. Because you've got an amazing team and culture. But first, why don't we? Why don't we explore a little bit about what you do what the company does, in particular, I think, you know, I think the term obviously, Experience Management Technology is kind of foundational to what you do and it's somewhat of a newer term. Could you do a little just description of it for for listeners so they can understand it? What it is?

Abby 13:51

Absolutely, then last I'll share also the the technological advances in our industry, and what they are making possible is just rapidly changing the definition of the term Experience Management what that means. So I'll share a very discreet answer and then I'll share a very expansive answer answer to that. So I'll give you two definitions. So experience management is the art and the craft of of essentially, managing experiences and making those experiences better. This is something that 100% of large companies and small companies are, you know, needing to do are engaged with and are striving to do for their customers so that they continue to can continue to retain business grow, grow their clients, reduce churn all of these great business outcomes. We work with technologies that our clients who are large, you know, fortune 500 brands, leverage in order to manage experiences with customers. work at scale. So that is the simple definition. The expansive definition is, you know, what if you could not just, you know, think about how an experience went, and try to make it better next time. But what if you could anticipate what that experience might be in in the moment, make it better alter the path provide an alternative option for for the customer, or the employee, because employees are part of this spectrum as well. And, put them on a flat plate in a place where they are choosing a different course, or, you know, as a company, you are offering them something to to make them stay or to purchase if they're on your website, for example. And so our industry is rapidly becoming one that, you know, transitioning from one that thinks about the past and thinks about how to do it better next time to one that thinks about the future and actually makes that future happen. And the technologies are advanced and in getting more advanced in that regard. So what my team does,

Les 16:13

it seems to me, it seems to me that that is not, that is not a trivial undertaking. I mean, the fact that technology has advanced to allow this sort of real time or near real time, opportunity is pretty fascinating to me, like, is there has there been a major breakthrough in the past few years that has allowed for this sort of, you know, is it mostly like just broad based tools? Or is there something has there been a major breakthrough that has allowed for this to be possible?

Abby 16:47

I think there have been a lot of micro breakthroughs. And importantly, the pandemic just fueled these expectations among customers and among employees for how they interact with an organization what that omni channel experience looks like, the ease of it, their ability to be known by companies versus targeted with ads, like all of this has resulted in a snowballing effect. And, and frankly, I like the technologies are still getting there, there have been a lot of advancements are one of our technology partners. Qualtrics has made some real leaps and bounds in this space over the course of the last year. With that being said, companies still a tremendous benefit tremendously from a services partner in the form of commonFont, who can help them understand how all of these different technologies fit together cohesively to help them achieve their business goals. What we see among our clients is, you know, there are a lot of companies that are buying technologies in a very point solution based way or you know, they'll have one big business stakeholder who's like, this technology looks great, let me buy that. And then they end up with this proliferation of tools, none of which are working together in a cohesive way that is intended to really drive outcomes with a customer. And that's what our organization helps clients do.

Les 18:24

Very cool. And as part of that journey, I mean, you started out it was it was Medallia only originally, you just mentioned Qualtrics. I assume you've got some other partners as well. Have you have you internally needed to build out? I mean, obviously, you have your own playbooks and expertise, but have you had to build any sort of lightweight tools as well to help you manage or sort of tech enable your services?

Abby 18:51

Yes, we have, I would share a couple of things. You know, I think first from a training mindset and development standpoint, we've always worked with our teammates to consider themselves as problem solvers and and individuals who leverage technology and creative ways first versus, you know, teammates who work with a particular platform. So as teammates progress and advance at commonFont, we seek to develop them in ways where they are gaining additional exposure to different technologies, different tools. Importantly, that's always paired up with with client need and how clients are seeking to push forward and innovate. So it's a very, you know, that relationship where we're innovating and pushing ourselves in tandem with our clients, you know, in seeking to really solve the next problem for them that's out there that has helped our teams develop, grow and advance our capabilities over time. We do solutions in addition to the work that we do within certain technology. platforms, we've also developed capabilities to, you know, build custom applications outside of those platforms and, and have developed some integrations that are out of the box between platforms as well that are more, you know, productized, or solutions based. All of these things are, represent different ways that we can meet our client needs and help them, you know, put these technologies together in a way that's more cohesive and impactful for their business.

Les 20:30

Awesome. I mean, what a, what a cool opportunity that you've, you've really found here in this growing space. What in speaking of growing the team has been growing, right, you mentioned going to 2015, from 2015 to 2022. Where are you today in terms of team size and footprint and all that fun stuff?

Abby 20:50

Yes. So we are over we have eclipsed the 50 person mark, which is exciting. We have two offices. So we're obviously headquartered in in Bozeman, we now have a second office on the East Coast in Providence, Rhode Island, which is a fantastic place. 

Les 21:10

The Bozeman of the East Coast. 

Abby 21:12

That is, that's right, Les, we're pretty intentional about picking our places. And the you know, I think, a quick plug on the team, right? Like we take people who may not have technology experience or or direct experience in what we do. And we you know, work with people who are highly committed and who want to see the organization and themselves be successful to to help build their careers, right. So if you've got commitment, if you've got heart, if you've got grit, if you've got talent, but you you also want an organization to like help you package that all up and take it to the next level, commonFonts a great place for teammates who want to do that,

Les 21:58

for sure. And I gotta tell you, the the handful of employees come and find employees, I've met interactive, I mean, interacted with all just world class, like A player's amazing, amazing people. What, so obviously, recruiting those people, as has been part of your ability to really build a great team, but internally, you you also I think the company has a reputation of having a really amazing culture. Can you talk to us a little bit about your philosophy, how you built that culture, you know, in tips you can share for other founders in our region that are trying to do the same?

Abby 22:31

Sure, I think key to key to our culture, and probably at the deep core, and center of it is the concept of service. We serve clients, we serve each other, we serve our team, we're generous in our assessments of other people, we seek to help and to collaborate and equip and enable. And that concept carries over in a lot of ways in terms of how our teammates support one another in terms of how they serve our clients, and in terms of how they serve the organization. So So I would say culturally, that concept of service and the the fact that we look for that we insist on it, when we hire individuals, and we cultivate that in our teams, we celebrate it, right? It's like, if, if you like, you know, are performing at a very high level, or you have a lot of capability, but you're not demonstrating service and care for others, there's not a place for you a common fine. And we've been very clear and consistent about that over time as a foundation to our culture.

Les 23:44

That's great, a great foundational, great, great foundation to build off of for sure. And speaking of that, you know, I think one of the things I've I've most admired about you as a as a CEO and founder in our community is your commitment to the community. Can you talk to our listeners a little bit about how you've managed, I mean, usually, as a startup founder, it's like 100% of your life is your job. And it's like, I understand that, like I've been there, but you have paid particular attention to building better community as as somebody who's a member of this community, what and what have you done? Who are some of the groups you've worked with? Talk to us about that.

Abby 24:23

Sure. And I'll share less i Unfortunately, I do fall in the category of 100% of my life is my job. And in addition

Les 24:33

You just gotta give 120.

Abby 24:36

In the 120%. We so we've always had this philosophy with commonFont from the early days, and I should share we're a bootstrapped company. So early days it's it's my co founder and I sitting at a really small table, like trying to figure out how to serve clients and and how to do all of the administration administrative functions as business But we did Bootstrap, we had to be profitable from the beginning, in order to keep doing what we did and and we needed to survive and surviving was success. And we always thought, you know, if we ever survive just a little bit, we're going to make sure that we're treating our employees really well worth treating our communities community really well. And we're remaining committed to our founding principles in that regard. So as commonFont has achieved success over the years, we have made that that commitment to community core to how we do business, we've done that through volunteerism from the early years. And then we also have started doing charitable donations. And I think we began donating as an organization to groups in our community really early days, like 2015, before we really had much cash at all to put towards that, but it was part of our commitment. A couple of years ago, we were in a good spot to to make a more substantial contribution to our community. And we paired up with HRDC, who is a group here in Bozeman, that serves individuals who are homeless who are suffering from you know, hunger and inadequate, you know, food, shelter, resources, etc. HRDC had an objective to to build those men's first year round homeless shelter and food resource center, a campus and and place that the community really needs based on our size these days, and the lack of affordable housing in our community, and common find, chose to donate half a million dollars to that organization, and also has been committed to, you know, sharing, sharing our perspective about the role that companies should play in giving back to their community, helping to promote that concept, helping to get others engaged in in this particular group, and, and cause and really making that centerpiece a centerpiece of what we do.

Les 27:12

Yeah, I mean, it's, it's, it's such an amazing commitment to make, especially for a company your size, but I think it's such a great example, as well for you know, what, what we should be expecting of, you know, the types of commitments to these sorts of initiatives that continue to make Bozeman an amazing place to live and an amazing community. That's, that's tight. So thank you for that. That's amazing. So 2021 Shifting gears a little bit, but 21 You were named for the fourth consecutive year on the Inc 5000, fastest growing company list. And right and I think the stat I saw was like three year revenue growth of 214% or something, something to that, that tune. So amazing. It's all been all been rainbows and unicorns, right.

Les 28:08

What I want so yeah, so I it's always like, I know, it's it's never as, you know, as great as it may seem, but like, let's get real about some of the challenges and because I think challenges in Region challenges as an early stage founder, because I think this is where our listeners hopefully benefit from, not only empathizing say like it's, it's, it's hard, but it's doable. Right. So can you talk to us about some of those challenges and just tips or advice you have for overcoming them?

Abby 28:36

Sure. I think that every period of commonFont has had its discrete challenges and opportunities. You know, like I said, early day, early days, it was all about surviving. As we progressed through that survival phase, it's become more so about building leadership at our organization. Transitioning we'd like to say transitioning from founder led to leader lead and having the having the you know, the strength of talent in our leadership ranks and in really focusing on growing a lot of that internally. That's been a big push for us over the last couple of years. I think for us as well, like we have worked so we've been fortunate with a lot of organic growth a lot of these clients that we have served have been really committed to spreading the word about common five and that has led to great results over time and hence the the Inc listing and and our place on that. We've also as an organization as we've grown, we've also need to mature needed to mature in certain ways. And in the last year, I have built with my team, a commercial will function a finance function, recruiting and hiring? Right? Like we're building out all of these things as we go. Yeah, exactly. Right. And and then as we get those in place, I'm like, wow, why didn't Why didn't we do that sooner? You know, but I do think that I was having a conversation with with my father, the farmer, earlier this year. And I was like, man, you know, it's like, every time I think that we're crushing it, and just like, you know, we're at the next level, something like shows up, and you're like, wow, we need to address this. And this is a challenge and a problem. And, you know, my dad who's been farming now, since he was a kid on the family farm, said, you know, the only people who would you learn as you go through life as an entrepreneur, and a business person, is the only people who lose, or those who quit. And if you don't, if you don't quit, if you keep going, and you just adapt how you're thinking about success, you will be successful. And it's always achievable. I think as an entrepreneur, I would say, and, you know, this is probably something you're well aware of to last, like some days, it, there's, you're like, looking at the mountain in front of you. And it does take effort to get yourself fired up, motivated to go out there and get other people fired up and be that source of of inspiration and commitment to kind of keep going and keep positive. And, you know, that's that's what building a company is, is all about.

Les 31:44

Yeah, I love it. What great advice from from your father, for sure. What, so what motivates you to keep going on days when you know, things just seem impossible? Do you have any, like, do you do you have? Do you have mentors? Do you have like routines or practices that help you stay on track?

Abby 32:04

That's a great question. I should have more mentors, but I don't have a ton. Actually, I think the things that keep me going, the things that keep me motivated, are really like, first and foremost, my team, interacting with my team, and, you know, recognizing that they're in there, like in the trenches, like everybody's working hard to make our organization successful. And I find that extremely motivating, it definitely keeps me going. And then the other thing is, is winning, it's just straight up. Like doing business and working alongside technology companies for a number of years. Alongside, you know, in competition with sometimes, right I can, I can say you find a lot of people where you're like, I know that what we are able to provide these clients is 100% better than what you can do, and 100% more valuable. And we're gonna go win. And like being able to achieve success against other companies and including people who may not, you know, treat you with the respect that you think you deserve as a small and growing company, right like that, that I think is very inspiring. For me, we're very, you know, we're out to win it at common fun. And, and that's something that keeps me motivated and going every day as well.

Les 33:34

For sure, winning I love it. It's such a great, such a great theme. How How have you how has that mindset helped you, win? Helped you be successful?

Abby 33:47

I think the push to be, you know, profitable to be financial to financially perform, you know, that impetus? And you have to do that as a as a company that's bootstrapped. Right, but that, that need to serve your clients to retain your clients to do so in profitable ways. It instills a lot of rigor around decisions and assessments about like whether a decision is sustainable or not. And as we've grown and been successful, also financially, and have had more capital to kind of reinvest back in the business. We have to in we're able to think, you know, a little further out a little longer term, hey, let's think about the next two years. Where do we need to be? What do we need to build today to get there? How do we invest to make that possible, which I think less is very much in line with with how you're thinking about this at Next Frontier Capital. And I, my point is like the rigor and the discipline and the accountability to customers, for For us as a firm has been, it's the ultimate source of truth is: Does somebody want to buy from you? Do they want to keep buying? If the answer to the either of those questions is no, you have a serious problem, and you need to go fix it. And I think that, that, that, you know, single source of accountability and truth that being our clients, and whether they believe what we have to offer as valuable as something that's, that's been a real Guiding Light to us.

Les 35:33

It's that it's that adage of, you know, sort of the the best check that somebody can write isn't the investors check? It's the customers. It's the customer writing the check. Very cool. So what any, lastly, any exciting, speaking of growth in the future, any exciting announcements, predictions, anything fun that's out in front of you at commonFont that you want to share with our listeners,

Abby 35:57

I would love to predict the next best event that's happening in Bozeman, this September 12 through 14th, commonFont Confluence. So we're bringing together our clients a number of leaders, both in industry and far outside of our industry to to gather in Bozeman, so this is an in person event, it's going to be amazing, we have a great speaker lineup. And, and it's so exciting to be able to get people together again, you know, coming out of a time when when we were not gathering in person. So that event is open to our full community, including those who aren't kind of directly clients that we serve or partners that we work with. And, you know, I'm hopeful we can can invite some great Bozemanites to join us for that that event as well.

Les 36:50

Very exciting. Well, we will be sure to put the link in the show notes so that people can learn more about commonFont. Super exciting. Thanks for that announcement. And I gotta say, Abby, it's been such a joy having you on the show, as I knew it would be from a farm in Central Illinois to a tech leader in in Bozeman, and Montana, I would say or regionally, nationally, if even so, so proud to have you in our community here, showing us how to win every day. So why don't you share with us, our listeners, just where they can find more about you and about commonFont online. 

Abby 37:29

Great. Thanks, Les. I really appreciate it. And thanks to you and Next Frontier Capital for hosting this podcast as well. You can find more about us online at or check me out on LinkedIn. It's Abby Schlatter, and we'd love to connect to folks in our community. Thanks again.

Les 37:49

Thanks, Abby. Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Found in the Rockies. You can find links in the show notes or go to to get transcripts, links and contact information for today's guests. If you liked what you heard and want more, please don't forget to rate, review, and subscribe to get notified as our new episodes drop every two weeks. We'll see you next time.