An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Mark Sawyier, the co-founder and CEO of Bonfyre, which was honored in our:
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in St. Louis
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Missouri
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in St. Louis
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Missouri
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in St. Louis
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in Missouri
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in St. Louis
Tell us the origin story of Bonfyre – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
I’m originally from New York City but came to St. Louis for college at Washington University in 2004 – and never left. While I was an undergraduate, I started my first business, an off campus apartment search site called MovingOffCampus.com, and later founded a small digital marketing agency called Decantery, which is where we incubated Bonfyre.
Bonfyre began as a social networking application designed to help people connect privately around events like weddings, concerts, or conferences, where we might not want to create a more permanent connection (e.g. “Facebook Friends”) with other attendees, but might want to be able to communicate with them, share photos, etc. From there, we followed the path of least resistance – focusing on corporate events, recognizing how events are one of the many ways companies invest in culture and engagement. This took us all the way to the workplace culture platform Bonfyre is today.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Across a number of hurdles, I’d say three of my biggest learnings from my 15+ years as an entrepreneur would be:
- The only thing you know for 100% certain about your business plan is that it’s wrong. Particularly in the beginning, recognize that forecasts are a mix of art and science, with a constant goal of having them become more the latter.
- The longer you are in business, the more likely you are to be successful – ensure you build-in ample time and financial flexibility to work through the inevitable unforeseen challenges and “x-factor”.
- Your team is everything. Develop a crystal clear understanding of what you are looking for in each role and invest the time required to effectively develop and screen from a strong candidate pool. At Bonfyre, we focus on Patrick Lencioni’s “Hungry, Humble, Smart” characteristics as a way to inject culture into the interview process. Gather input from others who know you to help you not only build the right role description, but also ask the right questions.
What does the future hold for Bonfyre?
With remote and hybrid work here to stay, we’re all paying the price of fewer in-person interactions. And that brings many challenges for both employees (isolation, distrust, burnout), and organizations (collaboration, micro-management, culture erosion).
Solving for these challenges now and in the future requires a comprehensive and deliberate approach – from how we engage in virtual meetings, to leaders being vulnerable and purposeful about investing time and energy in building workplace relationships. But it also requires new technology. Because it’s the separation from work that makes the “water cooler” special, and why employees feel like it’s missing from their world of work today. Helping companies create and maximize this dedicated digital space for workplace relationships and culture is a role Bonfyre will continue to play in this new era of work.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in St. Louis?
St. Louis’ tech startup scene is vibrant. We have several organizations that help bring together ideas, people, resources (including funding), and established companies – Capital Innovators, Arch Grants, T-Rex, Cortex, Regional Chamber, SixThirty, Danforth Center, and STLMade to name a few. We’ve also seen maturation on the critical aspect of startup funding with firms like Arsenal Capital Management, Cultivation Capital, and Lewis and Clark, along with Angel groups like the Billiken Angels and Arch Angels. Finally with great local universities like UMSL, WUSTL, and SLU, St. Louis has a lot of talent and resources to offer startups.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
One of our core values at Bonfyre is “Think Big, Start Small”. This reflects our entrepreneurial mindset and the balance we strike between developing the bigger picture view of an idea with the experimentation required to know if it’s really worth pursuing. You need both, but don’t want to let “perfection be the enemy of good” and part of evaluating the viability of an idea is the viability of testing it – if you don’t have the resources and/or time to do so, even a good idea isn’t worth pursuing. Consider: what is the smallest possible experiment you can run to test your idea? Particularly in the beginning, this is a great way to optimize your limited resources.