Pittsburgh Technology Council October 2019 TechVibe Radio Interview
October 24, 2019
Rivers Agile Founder and CEO, Ben Wilson, sat down with TechVibe host, Jonathan Kersting, and Pittsburgh Technology Council President and CEO, Audrey Russo. Below is a transcript, but to listen to or download the full interview, click here.
Jonathan: Audrey, we’re back. Hanging out here at the Huntington Bank podcast studio where we’re doing pretty much all of our recordings these days. I love hanging out here, it’s a lot of fun.
Audrey: It is. It’s a lot of fun. And I LOVE that we’ve got Rivers Agile in the house.
Jonathan: Again, man.
Audrey: Because we knew him when he was a baby.
Ben: Back again.
Jonathan: Back then they used to call him Benny Wilson back in the day. I know.
Ben: No, never.
Audrey: Never, never. That I don’t remember.
Ben: I do remember the days, though, of the weekly meet and greets in the hallway at your old building
Ben: You know, with my FedEx business cards.
Audrey: Yeah, and we would be like, we gotta use this guy.
Ben: A new look on QA, right?
Audrey: You gotta.
Jonathan: Now, you’ve been doing some crazy cool work lately.
Audrey: And now you’re like sooo grown up.
Ben: It’s been a great couple of years. It’s been really nice.
Jonathan: Before we jump into that, let’s just do a little reset so our listeners just kind of know what Rivers Agile is all about.
Jonathan: And what’s driving the heck out of your growth these days.
Ben: Well, you know that story has changed.
Ben: Back in you know ten years ago, we were a…
Jonathan: Oh my God, 10 years ago.
Ben: Well, actually 11. Believe it or not.
Jonathan: Oh my God, you’re a tween, dude.
Ben: Unique, boutique QA consulting firm that just had a different vision on Quality Assurance.
Ben: We could get you to market, you know, quicker, you know, less risk and things like that.
Ben: Now, today, we’re a full scale technology consulting firm.
Audrey: But see, you were one of the first that I met when I started my job.
Ben: I know. Isn’t it great?
Audrey: I love that.
Ben: And now we’ve grown up.
Audrey: I have not, but you have.
Ben: And we introduce 6 to 12 new innovations to the market each year through our clients. It’s amazing.
Audrey: And I know, everyone loves it when they get connected to you also.
Ben: Well, you know, I think that we’ve been in the market long enough where people have heard of us, other people have worked with us and recommend us, where back then, they just hadn’t heard of us.
Jonathan: See, you got some good momentum going, it seems like, right?
Ben: We do.
Audrey: Good memory, good momentum, good work, good, now, all the things that he’s working on now so let’s, let’s talk about where you are now and what you do.
Ben: So, we still remain in the entrepreneur sector, okay, in fact, you may have heard our announcement recently at the Build412 Tech Showcase that we are opening up the Rivers Agile Workshop here in town, um, where we will continue to push that, that envelope where we can work with entrepreneurs, I can give back some of the lessons that I’ve learned starting a technology company.
Jonathan: Yes, so you’ve got some battle scars!
Ben: I do, and I want to help people avoid some of those if I can.
Jonathan: Just remember this, chicks dig scars. So, it’s cool. Yeah, I’m just saying.
Ben: Ah, so, that’s an exciting initiative for us. And um, one that has, we’ve certainly got a lot of feedback already.
Jonathan: Yeah, how was the first one when you launched that up? I feel like it’s such a great way for you to take the time to give back out, to kind of get the next generation of entrepreneurs going.
Ben: Well, that’s exactly what our mission is, right? We’ve enjoyed some success and we want to help others.
Ben: You know, put their foot into the sector, right? And so we’re opening the Workshop here on the North Shore and we’re very excited about it and we’ll actually dedicate a part of the building for, you know, entrepreneurs that want to be in residence and we’re going to invest in some of these groups depending on what their business model looks like.
Ben: It has to fit within you know what our target is.
Jonathan: Of course.
Ben: You know, FinTech, and AI and Machine Learning, um, but there’s plenty of those entrepreneurs around, right?
Jonathan: Exactly. And this is all coming out of the ah, new space? Are we talking about the new space?
Ben: We can talk generally about the new space.
Ben: We’re very excited. So, we finally outgrew our space in Canonsburg.
Jonathan: See, that’s what I love hearing. Yeah.
Audrey: How many conversations have I had with you about this?
Ben: At least 10. Absolutely.
Audrey: I’m serious.
Ben: And you know, it’s, believe it or not, it’s the second office that we’ve outgrown. And…
Jonathan: Goodness, they’re like tube socks man, you wear them out and get a new pair, they’re bigger.
Audrey: There was no talking to him about this 10 years ago.
Ben: No, because we did most of our work on-site. You know, and really the expense of it for a young, lean startup, um, looking at office space can be daunting.
Audrey: And you were stubborn.
Ben: And I’m a little, little bit stubborn.
Audrey: Just a little, just a little, but that’s what makes the work great.
Ben: Yeah, we’re excited about – the team’s really excited to be able to move in. You know, a lot of folks are working you know or live a little bit north of the city.
Jonathan: You’re like our neighbors now.
Ben: I know.
Jonathan: I’m so excited about this.
Ben: I can walk to your doors.
Jonathan: So, we could meet at Badamo’s for pizza.
Ben: I’m in.
Jonathan: Yes, I’m saying, I’m gonna say it right now, Badamo’s on Federal Street has got some seriously killer pizza.
Audrey: Okay, there you go. We’re trying to kick carbs for the week.
Jonathan: My endorsement, my endorsement, yes.
Ben: So, the goal is, you know I work a lot with entrepreneurs now and a lot of them have, you know as you might imagine, a shoestring budget to get to that MVP, right? And what’s happened as RIvers has grown is that it’s harder to afford a consulting company like RIvers to do that MVP even though you want them to.
Ben: And so, we’ve made a, you know, formula essentially to, you know, reduce some of our hourly rates to make sure they can afford us so we get them to market, which is the most important thing that we as Pittsburghers and in tech community continue to do this overarching push, right?
Ben: To put us on the map.
Jonathan: That’s just, I just love that, that philosophy and that attitude.
Audrey: He’s a good man.
Jonathan: I know it’s cool.
Audrey: He’s a good man.
Jonathan: And it’s working for him.
Audrey: As stubborn as he is.
Ben: Right. But you have to pay it forward.
Audrey: He’s such a good man.
Jonathan: And you’re paying it forward, which is just so awesome.
Audrey: Right. I mean you, you have a lot of scars.
Ben: One or two. One or two for sure. And here’s the thing. You know, no script fits every new company perfectly, right?
Ben: And so you have to rely on some mentors and some folks that have done it before to help prevent that, right?
Audrey: So, so what’s new? Like what are you working on that’s new?
Ben: What’s new? So, we did some very interesting and continue to do some very interesting work with Bryte, Um,
Jonathan: What’s that?
Ben: It’s an AI-powered mattress that has a compute right in the box spring, via raspberry pie, and an accompanying mobile application.
Jonathan: Wait, back up. On a mattress?
Ben: A mattress. A smart mattress! A very smart mattress.
Jonathan: That’s what I’m talking about, okay. Cool!
Ben: Watch out Sleep Number.
Jonathan: I thought I heard you correctly there.
Ben: That’s right.
Jonathan: Just making sure.
Ben: And actually it’s that work, that I believe partially influenced us to become a finalist for the Tech50 which is tomorrow night.
Ben: Very excited about that.
Jonathan: That’s crazy stuff, dude. I mean, what the heck? I just love seeing the fact that you need new space, you’re hiring tons of people, you’re nominated for awards, you’re being appointed to Boards of Directors.
Ben: That’s right, I just started.
Jonathan: Which is like super exciting so, tell me about this? Because this is pretty cool.
Ben: So, I started to do some work with the PVCA about 2 years ago and first of all, I loved it, right, because I get to be a mentor to folks that are looking for funding and I can help them shape their pitch deck, help them understand what technology they’re really building and how it might be able to be ported not just to the sector that they’re familiar with but even large scale, right? Like social sharing for example, they might be laser focused on a particular thing, but what they’re really building is an engine that can be ported to many other industries, right?
Ben: And helping them understand that they can pitch that to the venture capitalists. And hopefully solidify and get some funding.
Jonathan: So, when do you find time to sleep on this AI-enabled mattress? Because I’m thinking you got a whole lot…
Ben: So, it sits in the middle of our office, which is great when people come and visit.
Ben: But no, we’ve been working with them for oh I don’t know about 8 months now.
Ben: And really helped influence their product release, right? Because you only get one chance, right?
Jonathan: How did this connection happen? This is kind of cool.
Ben: It’s a colleague that I worked with in the trenches back in our early 20s at a startup. He’s now the CTO
Ben: I’m now running Rivers and he reached out when they had a QA problem.
Jonathan: He’s like, Ben, you still doin some QA stuff?
Ben: Well, he knows. He has that affiliation of “I have a QA problem, I know who to call.”
Jonathan: Gotcha, very cool, he brought you in.
Ben: He did. He’ll be accompanying us tomorrow.
Jonathan: Oh, really? Wow. Very cool.
Audrey: So, what do you think is the biggest learning over this last decade? For you, what has surprised you? And not battle scars, but what has surprised you?
Ben: You have to lean forward, right? Just getting one little bit of success or signing one clients isn’t enough. You have to continue to push. So, I think what I’ve learned most and maybe it’s just associated with my personality but you just keep pushing. Never rest on your laurels. Never be satisfied. Right? And if I could sit down an entrepreneur today, I’d tell them the same thing. Right? Don’t let a little bit of success let you sit back and enjoy it, you have to keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing.
Ben: Because if you’re not growing, if you’re not succeeding continually, you may be on the downhill slide, right? And you just don’t see it yet.
Jonathan: How do you keep believing in yourself? I mean at some point, you’re building a tough business, you’re going to have your ups, your downs, probably some times where you’re like, oh, I can’t lean forward anymore, how do you keep yourself driving forward then?
Ben: Well, you know, in some cases you have to pivot, right? We spent a lot of time and a lot of years servicing the oil and gas industry and driving innovations and delivering new software technologies.
Jonathan: Yeah, I forgot that was one of your key things.
Ben: But, during the downturn, we had to pivot.
Ben: And now 75% of what we do in any given month is within healthcare and we’re finding great success there. So…
Audrey: And what do you think that you would say is the big learning for yourself?
Ben: Well, there have been many learning moments for sure.
Audrey: So, think of one that you want to share.
Ben: Surround yourself with a great team.
Audrey: Uh, huh.
Ben: Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Then you can actually rely on that team.
Ben: Right because, number one, learn to delegate at some point in your life. Right? And those that have worked at Rivers in the past or currently will absolutely laugh to know that it took me a long time to learn that, right? But when you do surround yourself with a great team it becomes a lot easier. AND! Take a vacation. It actually does reset your brain.
Ben: I didn’t do it for years, I didn’t do it for years, I went this year and…
Jonathan: Where’d you go?
Ben: I went to the Bahamas
Ben: Thankfully, early enough.
Jonathan: For how long?
Ben: A week.
Audrey: Oh my gosh, don’t you feel horrible now.
Ben: It’s awful. It’s awful.
Jonathan: That’s crazy.
Ben: What’s going on down there.
Jonathan: Wow. SO, take a vacation.
Ben: But it does reset your brain.
Jonathan: Lean forward.
Ben: Lean forward and it allows for some creativity that maybe gets absorbed through the day-to-day when you keep grinding for years and years and years.
Jonathan: I think a lot of people and I’m the most guilty of them all is taking time out, just to not let your brain stress. And I’m the worst.
Ben: It’s true and it never feels, as an entrepreneur, it never feels like you can do it.
Audrey: I beg him. I beg him and it doesn’t work.
Jonathan: Yeah: Can’t do it.
Ben: Next year.
Jonathan: It’s terrible.
Ben: It’s your year.
Jonathan: I try. But I digress. Anyhow…
Ben: So, those are a couple things that I would say that I’ve learned over the years.
Jonathan: Very Cool. So, instead of looking back, let’s look forward because we got a couple minutes left so, obviously, serious momentum behind Rivers Agile right now.
Ben: It’s definitely an exciting time. And we’ve continued to hire. Ah, you know, we still…
Jonathan: You’re like over 40 people now?
Ben: It’s true.
Jonathan: And you’re continuing to hire?
Ben: We’re going to fill that new office before we build it.
Jonathan: So, have you hired an HR person yet to just manage all these people?
Ben: No, but I believe we’re getting close.
Jonathan: Close to that point, right.
Jonathan: So, you’re going to be hiring for an HR person. That becomes kind of weird then, huh?
Ben: Things have changed. Because you know you have to remind yourself of the whole concept of Rivers which break down all of those sort of corporate walls.
Ben: And what do you need to be successful and to drive innovation and the reality of it is, not a whole lot of process and procedures, you really don’t. However, as the company grows, you do have to get a little bit more serious about things like HR.
Jonathan: Yeah, you gotta. Absolutely, that makes a lot of sense. So, at what point does it not feel like your company anymore? Like, does it evolve?
Ben: I don’t know. I live and breathe it every day.
Jonathan: Okay, yeah, I know I’ve talked to many entrepreneurs where they’ve gotten their company to like around a hundred people and all of a sudden, it’s like I don’t know everybody, you know, it become like…
Ben: That would be a terrible day.
Ben: I love knowing everyone that works here and interacting with them.
Ben: You know we have a family picnic every year. And we have lots of new faces here in 2019 so it’s great to meet, not only their spouses, but their families and their kids.
Ben: And we rent a big jump house or bounce house.
Jonathan: It’s pretty cool to know that this company you created is kind of fueling all of this?
Ben: It is. It’s a super old fashioned concept, but people and families really enjoy it.
Jonathan: I love it, man. All the way around, just super super cool.
Audrey: So, people want to know more, do they go to RiversAgile dot?
Ben: Dot com, correct. And if want to know more about the Workshop itself, it’s RiversAgile.com/RAW.
Jonathan: Very cool. I can’t encourage people enough to check out what Ben is up to, what Rivers Agile is up to, I just love the fact that you are like trying to lead the next generation of tech entrepreneurs here in Pittsburgh.
Ben: We are.
Jonathan: And that is amazing.
Ben: We are and there’s a number of folks that are pushing in the same direction, we have to work together, for sure.
Jonathan: Exactly. Very cool. Well, I could not end the show on a higher note than that.
Ben: Thank you for having me.
Jonathan: I really appreciate you bringing the positive energy to TechVibe, Ben. You’re the best.
Audrey: Thank you.
Ben: Thank you so much for having me.
Jonathan: Great stuff, hey anyhow, next Wednesday, guess what? More TechVibe Radio! We can’t get enough of it, we keep telling all the great stories like Ben who are out there just truly kicking butt. Love it. This is Jonathan Kersting.
Audrey: And this is Audrey Russo.
Jonathan: Enjoy the rest of your Wednesday night everybody.