After another failed interview, Dustin Wells, then a 21-year-old University of Texas music major, took a hint.
Wells, now 33 and CEO of Headspring Systems, suspected his response when asked whether he could update the company’s Web site was the deal breaker.
“I said no, and I didn’t get asked back,” Wells said. “I figured that was why, so I went out and bought ‘HTML for Dummies’ so I wouldn’t ever have to say no to that again. I still have that book on my bookshelf.”
Wells immersed himself in the book for the next two weeks, only coming out to try his skills on a Web site for Mr. Fabulous and Casino Royale, the jazz band he played with through college.
Two years of turmoil later, in April 2001, Wells entered the information technology services industry. He launched Austin Data Works on the back of his band’s unlaunched Web site, one failed dot-com attempt and one paid project — a $450 Web site for local Realtor Clara Spriggs-Adams, founder of C.S.A. Seminars and Wells’ longest-standing client.
Headspring Systems, as the company was renamed in 2005, has since shifted from Web site production to full-service software development. It has grown to 28 employees and reached $3.5 million in annual revenue, earning it a spot on the Austin Business Journal’s Fast 50 for its 2006-08 revenues and on the 2009 Inc. 500 List.
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Wells started Headspring for less than $500. “I got no outside funds,” he said. “Even if I did, I wouldn’t have had the experience to apply it properly. So it’s probably a good thing.”
And although he’s thankful now, Wells spent much of his first year in a constant state of angst. With about $18,000 in revenue, “not a day went by that I didn’t want to go interview for a job,” Wells said.
To help level his head and turn over stones he’d never see on his own, Wells began learning from Alvin Hurwitz, a retired CEO and “invaluable” mentor he met in 2001 through the Service Company of Retired Executives, a nonprofit counseling service for small business owners.
Wells recalls it taking much commitment on his part to show up each week and be recentered. Almost as a weekly exercise, Hurwitz would write “focus” upside down in front of him and have Wells study it.
Besides focus, Hurwitz taught about balancing family.
“Family is what it’s all about,” Wells said. “He’d always say that.”
Though his flexibility working from home helped, his wife’s workload and their 3-year-old son ensured that Wells’ startup would need that balance.
“The sacrifice was really time-related,” Wells said, “taking time from my wife.”
His wife, Megan, a top sales representative at Dell Inc. at the time, supported her family in many ways while Headspring got off the ground. In addition to paying the bills, his wife was his rock when all around he saw quicksand, especially in his first year.
Wells’ now 11-year-old son, along with his 5- and 3-year-olds, regularly raid his cozy office near Bee Caves Road, where their pictures and artwork dominate the scenery around his desk.
Gone but still here
Hurwitz died almost two years ago. And although Wells can’t replace him, a big part of him remains with Headspring in the person of Kevin Hurwitz Jr., the mentor’s grandson.
Kevin Hurwitz signed on as Headspring’s first six-figure hire in 2007, thanks to a long-delayed meeting arranged by his grandfather.
“I kind of felt like I knew him even though I didn’t know him,” Hurwitz said of his first meeting with Wells. The two sat down for lunch, and Hurwitz, who was working in software development at the time, joined Headspring within a month.
Hurwitz remembers being instantly enamored by Wells’ eagerness to learn and was charmed by his desire to stop and change directions at a moment’s notice.
Now, Hurwitz gets to fill a role his grandfather once handled as the one who has to ask, “Why are we going to be successful at this when no one else has been?”
Besides bringing his levelheadedness, Hurwitz’s hiring marked a significant shift in Headspring’s business strategy. The company rebranded and began working exclusively on software development.
Wells eliminated the India-based programming staff he’d had since year two and shifted to an in-house, iterative software development technique called Agile methodology. He said the shift has been especially beneficial in Austin, where local sourcing is welcomed.
Taking command, as a student
One year after adding Hurwitz, Wells brought Headspring its next big shift with Karl Scheible, a sales coach from Market Sense, a Illinois-based marketing firm. Scheible began working with Wells weekly to achieve better balance between operations and sales. Revenues grew quickly, thanks in part to Wells’ coachability.
“He’s an example of how desire and commitment is more important than talent,” Scheible said of Wells. “He’s got the talent now, but he worked his butt off to get it.”