As MetaGeek has grown, so has its CEO.
“Nobody’s born a CEO,” MetaGeek’s Ryan Woodings says. “You learn on the job.”
He should know.
The company he started as a side project in 2006 is now one of Boise’s top technology companies, with more than 30 employees, a 30% annual growth rate and a shiny new office atop the Owyhee Plaza.
Today, life at MetaGeek is pretty awesome. But that wasn’t the case in early 2008. The year before, Ryan had brought in what he thought was a professional manager to run his young company and serve as CEO. Ryan hoped to spend less time running the business and more time doing what he loved, designing and improving the company’s products.
“I have a master’s degree in computer science, but I never took a business class,” Ryan says. “I knew nothing about business. I thought someone else could do it better than me.”
He was wrong.
Things came to a head one morning when his bookkeeper, who also happens to be his mother, came to Ryan insisting he take a closer look at the company’s finances. Ryan did, and he didn’t like what he saw.
“It turned out there was almost no money in the bank,” Ryan says. “Accounts payable was huge and it wasn’t even showing everything. We had ongoing fees of $20,000 per month for our hardware designers and those weren’t accounted for. It was a mess.”
That was 8 a.m. By 4 p.m. that afternoon, Ryan was once again head of MetaGeek.
It was an experience that has shaped Ryan’s view of leadership. “Not knowing doesn’t make anything better,” he says. So now he seeks to understand every aspect of his business, even the parts that are difficult to see.
In fact, Ryan spends most of his days working on the invisible. Sometimes it’s MetaGeek’s products, tools to help IT professionals see and improve invisible wireless internet connections. Sometimes it’s the unseen forces of building a business.
Not bad for a company that was never meant to be a business at all.
The idea for MetaGeek grew out of a minor annoyance Ryan was experiencing in his previous job at a hardware company, where he worked as a computer programmer. As convenient as Wi-Fi is, it turns out that a lot of things — from microwaves to baby monitors — can disrupt the connection. To sort out the problems, companies utilize tools, called spectrum analyzers, to help them see the invisible offenders. At the time, these tools were large and unwieldy, usually stored on a cart that could be rolled around the office. And for some reason or another, Ryan often found his employer’s large, clunky and expensive spectrum analyzer parked in his cubicle.
So one night Ryan went home and hacked together a simple, handheld version of the same tool. It worked great. This, Ryan thought, could be a good opportunity to learn more about business by starting a little company on the side.
As a programmer, the software wouldn’t be a problem. He could handle that himself. But the hardware? That would have to be purchased.
“The hardware I needed had already been designed, but the minimum order was 240 pieces, and that cost ten grand,” Ryan recalls. He did the math and figured if he could sell them steadily, say 10 a month, he’d be all out in a couple of years, learn a lot, and make a small profit in the process.
“The plan was to make it a nice side project,” he says. But the early response stunned him.
“I sold 65 the first day and sold out in three weeks,’” Ryan says. “I knew by the end of that first day that my original plan wasn’t going to hold up. This was a full scale business.”
A few weeks later Ryan went to his boss, explained his situation and offered a letter of resignation. But his boss wouldn’t accept it. “He convinced me to go part-time to see how it would go, but after six months of working part-time I had made more than my annual salary at my job, so I had to leave. I figured if it turned out to suck, in a year I could go get a job.”
But it didn’t suck.
Instead, MetaGeek continued to grow and Ryan knew he needed help. His first hire? His mom, to help with the books. “She had done some Quickbooks stuff so I handed over a box of receipts to see if she could help,” Ryan says. “She’s been here every day since.”
A few months later Ryan brought on former co-worker and current MetaGeek Chief Technology Officer Brian Tuttle, who Ryan now refers to as his co-founder. “Neither of us had any idea of what we were doing in terms of management, but we’ve grown into a good leadership team. Brian’s evolved into a great CTO.”
As the company matured, so has Ryan and his leadership team, who have spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about the company’s core purpose — its reason for being beyond making money.
“Why are we really in business?” Ryan asks rhetorically. “Sure, we make spectrum analyzers, but we are more than that.”
The answer they uncovered is both straightforward and amorphous: “What we’re really about is making work awesome,” Ryan explains, pointing out that the awesomeness he’s aiming for begins with his company and its employees, but ultimately expands to his customers and even the City of Boise.
Stepping into the MetaGeek office, this goal of making work awesome is evident everywhere, from walls adorned with phrases like “Awesomeness Happens Here” to its corner ping pong table with a view to its programmer-friendly desks. The company even uses generous employee perks, including a $5,000 “bonus” for taking a vacation, to ensure employees don’t burnout because of overwork.
“Besides just making your time at MetaGeek awesome, how do we help you make your life awesome? Encourage you to actually take vacation,” he smiles.
Ryan also believes that MetaGeek’s quest to create an awesome workplace will have a big impact on the broader Boise community as some of his employees eventually leave to start companies of their own.
“If you share this idea that work should be awesome, we want you to work here,” Ryan says. “But we want Boise to have lots of awesome places to work. That’s good for everybody. To get more awesome companies, some of them will have to come out of MetaGeek.”
That’s a lot of awesome.
Note: Learn more about MetaGeek at Metageek.com.
Photography by Joe Jaszewski