Episode 141: Ryan Frazier and Kenny Cason
In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Ryan Frazier and Kenny Cason, co-founders of Arrived and University of Arkansas alumni. Read more...
More About This Episode
In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Ryan Frazier and Kenny Cason, co-founders of Arrived and University of Arkansas alumni. Frazier and Cason explain how they built their successful businesses through entrepreneurship and friendship. Listen as Frazier and Cason detail the evolution of their company, from startup to acquisition.
0:00:06.5 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education in your life today. I have with me today. Ryan Frazier and Kenny Cason, who are cofounders of Arrived. They are both alumni of the University of Arkansas. They have been involved in other early-stage companies as well. I thank you both for joining us today.
0:00:49.6 Kenny Cason: Thank you.
0:00:50.3 Ryan Frazier: Yeah, thank you so much for having us on.
0:00:53.3 Matt Waller: Before we talk about Arrived, I'd like to start with the story of how you two met, and how you've been involved in business together?
0:01:02.5 Kenny Cason: Yeah, that we met that was well over 10 years ago now, back in college. And at the time we met just because we both studied Japanese, so we just had that in common. And admittedly at the time, I didn't actually know Ryan was involved in business, I don't think Ryan knew I was interested in doing tech business, as a programmer, he was studying business and we actually didn't connect on this until after I had moved to Washington DC, I was working my full-time job at Lockheed Martin, Ryan was working his job and I was actually needing a logo built for my website. So I posted it on Facebook and Ryan volunteered and made this really awesome logo with a Rubik's cube and my company name around it, and I loved it, and we kept talking about business ideas and I liked where he was coming from and he seemed to like some of my ideas. So we just basically agreed that, "Hey, let's start something." So we just unanimously decided to quit our jobs and move back to Arkansas and start a business idea.
0:02:04.8 Matt Waller: Kenny you were in computer science and Ryan was in business. So it would be unlikely that you would cross paths.
0:02:12.4 Kenny Cason: Yeah.
0:02:12.7 Ryan Frazier: Well, we cross paths through the taking Japanese class together. And so we met through that and found a mutual interest there over time.
0:02:21.1 Kenny Cason: Definitely. I didn't know about all the startup and entrepreneur programs and stuff that are available. It wasn't actually until like my last year or so in college when I even knew that this was a career option.
0:02:33.4 Matt Waller: Of course, we're going back to a face-to-face, but during the pandemic in the business school only about half of our classes were face-to-face. And you... It really does reduce the chances of people like you to meeting. And our audience hasn't heard yet, but you two have generated some really good technology together and businesses, created jobs, created wealth, and it started with a collision that was unexpected. So, Ryan, would you tell me a little bit about your first venture together?
0:03:06.6 Ryan Frazier: So the first company Kenny and I started together was DataRank, and that was back in 2011. And I think originally the insight was really around just on value in social media data. The fact that all of these people, all over the world are talking about any topic you could imagine, and sharing their thoughts and feelings on those topics. And at the time we were really interested in using that data to understand well, what products are people buying and why are they buying that? And at what rates are they buying them? And we use that data to basically forecast earnings reports for public companies. People were talking about things they're buying in real-time and public companies are reporting earnings a quarter in reverse, and so this was this kind of real-time feed on purchase behavior. And so that was kind of the insight that led us to start this business and led to us raising some initial angel funding in Arkansas.
0:04:01.3 Ryan Frazier: Also through network that we got introduced to through the university, and then over time that product evolved. We kept, working with customers, Kenny kept and the team, kept developing the technology and our customers ended up becoming more of the CPG companies like Procter & Gamble and Clorox and Coca-Cola really leveraging it for consumer insights and kind of like an always on focus group, not surprisingly being in Northwest Arkansas, we saw that market and develop the technology in that way.
0:04:32.8 Matt Waller: You both have interest in foreign languages, and Kenny, if I remember correctly, you really like Japanese and Chinese?
0:04:39.1 Kenny Cason: Yeah, yeah, correct.
0:04:40.2 Matt Waller: How many years have you been studying Chinese?
0:04:43.5 Kenny Cason: Formally three, four years in college, the same for Japanese with an addition of a year in study abroad in Japan. But then honestly, all my friend groups is something I pay great credence to the university for is the large amounts of international students. So I was fortunate enough to have like a large Taiwan, Chinese as well as Japanese friend groups, and they took me in with open arms and taught me Japanese, I got to use Japanese everyday with them, and my wife and children are Chinese, and we actually met when I was studying abroad as well. And so Chinese has always been our daily language we use at home with the kids and family. And so fast forward 15 years later, it's just became a way of life in a way that I didn't anticipate when I first started studying them for sure, is that first is looking for a Spanish alternative to try something new, who would've known. [chuckle]
0:05:37.0 Matt Waller: That kind of interest you have majoring in computer science, interested in languages, interested in business ventures. It's a little bit unusual, it's very eclectic, and same with you Ryan, you both have these unusual interests. Did you two know before you went to college that you wanted to start your own business at some point?
0:06:02.4 Kenny Cason: I don't think I thought that far ahead. I think my life was a... I'll say a simple and humble in Northeast Arkansas, and I spent a lot of time trying to really just figure out how can I live. And so I had like a mowing company growing up and I went to college. I joined the military and I was just very pragmatically minded of how can I make some money and survive. And I got into the university, and honestly, programming just became super, super fun. I already started falling in love with it in high school, and before I knew it, my physics major was a computer science major, my hobbies were programming and it actually wasn't, again, until my near senior year of college, I even considered the option of entrepreneurism. I was three years in internships with Lockheed Martin, again, military, and I was just thinking a very traditional business, which I think is a great option, but I didn't realize just how fun entrepreneurship can be, and it's the great challenges it provides, the great rewards it provides. And so it's been an evolution, and I think it still will be.
0:07:10.2 Ryan Frazier: Go into college thinking, "I wanted to be an entrepreneur... "
0:07:12.6 Matt Waller: I really am.
0:07:13.0 Ryan Frazier: "With that as well."
0:07:13.7 Matt Waller: There was never even a moment where...
0:07:14.9 Ryan Frazier: I definitely did not where I thought that was the path that I wanted to take. I was also always definitely thinking of two different paths, one was a career, go work at a company. I was really interested in the technology sector, I'd say, and when I thought about how I spent my time in college and what I was focused on learning, I was very interested in the technology side of things, but a lot of what I think became entrepreneurship for me really grew out of hobbies and personal interest, and I always kind of saw it as that. If I look back, I do see like, okay, I was fairly entrepreneurial in terms of some of the things that I was doing with my spare time, but it just got to a point, especially after graduating, that some of those hobbies took on lives of their own. It became obvious that they could be commercialized and maybe there was potential there, and I was getting more and more excited about some of those things that I saw initially as a hobby, that I realized this could be a business or it could be a path, and I think that was an incremental realization over time.
0:08:23.7 Kenny Cason: Yeah, I'd like to just add to that and say it was kind of a synergy because if I look at my whole life, I would categorize myself as a creative. I love building, I love art, I like producing things. So it doesn't matter if it's art on paper, a wooden trebuchet or code, or art and code together, I love creating stuff. And to know that you can do that in the context of business and make money, it's kind of a fun way to take the creative outlet, and the creative hobbies of mine and then maybe put it towards work. And I think if you can merge the two, A, it becomes less like work and more like fun, and you get that synergy bonus of having your hobby work in your favor.
0:09:05.1 Matt Waller: So you two have been friends and working together for over 10 years. Tell us the rest of the story about DataRank.
0:09:14.7 Ryan Frazier: With DataRank, we experienced the full start-up journey and life cycle over something like seven or eight years together, and I mentioned we started to productize DataRank into a technology product to provide consumer insights for brands. We got invited to Y Combinator and moved the business to Silicon Valley to participate in that program, and really learned from the top minds, at least in our view, that we really looked up to and admired as we were building our business, got the opportunity to learn from them. And then we moved back to Arkansas to keep building the company. And then ultimately were acquired by and merged with a company called Simply Measured in Seattle. And that moved us out to Seattle and integrated the team and technology there. Ultimately then going through another acquisition by Sprout Social, which is a great leader in the space, and actually went public, I think, a little over a year ago now. And yeah, so we kind of had that journey from idea to going through the fundraising process to acquisitions, and really getting to see, I think, that full life cycle.
0:10:20.4 Matt Waller: You guys have worked a lot together, you've been co-founders. When you run a business together, you inevitably have conflict as time goes by, and yet you two not only made it through founding a company, developing it, being acquired, working together at the company that acquired you, and now you started another business together. So you've learned how to manage conflict and how to work together. A lot of times after people have gone through one firm together, you don't see them necessarily doing another one. So what's your secret for success in that way?
0:11:00.9 Kenny Cason: Yeah, I'll just say that it is hard, finding a compatibility, finding people very compatible with is tough, so you should always, I encourage people all the time, constantly meet people until you find that mesh. It's been pretty low effort for us to warm this friendship because I feel like we've had good trust and communication from day one, and Ryan's honestly one of the most open-minded, good listeners that I know. And when I think of conflict, I think, jokingly, it's probably more likely to be me, I'm a little more rough than Ryan. So it's getting to work with Ryan and he handles conflict well and provides good insight and walks through scenarios. And honestly, it's been educational for me, and again, it's been easy 'cause Ryan's been awesome. Having that trust, at the end of the day, if we have a disagreement, Ryan, A, is gonna do his best to explain it to me and not just tell me. At the end of the day, if I still don't understand or agree, I'm just going to defer to Ryan, because I trust him, and we gotta make a decision and we're gonna go forward. So I just feel that the trust is there and the history is there, so it makes it a lot easier, for sure. The long story short is it's been a pleasure.
0:12:09.9 Ryan Frazier: Yeah, I agree, that communication has been a really important part of it. Any time there is conflict, or even before it gets to conflict, just sharing what's going on and being willing to talk about it and having empathy on both sides. I feel like we both have always kind of felt like we looked up to each other and we could learn a lot from each other, and I think that kind of sustains the ego in these environments when we're trying to move really quickly and make a lot of decisions so that we can build these businesses and teams and make the progress we wanna make. But I think it comes back to communication, as Kenny was saying, and yeah, I think that leads to that trust element that we've been fortunate to have through this time working together.
0:12:54.3 Kenny Cason: Yeah.
0:12:56.8 Matt Waller: Communication, open communication and as you mentioned, listening, it's so important, and it's not a real plentiful thing out there. So when you find two people that can work that way and communicate clearly and listen to one another, appreciate one another, that's so important. They say, trust is built on three primary things: One is competency. You've gotta be competent. Two, you have to believe that the other has your best interest in mind. And three, you've got to believe the other person has integrity. They'll do what they say. They'll be honest with you. It's powerful when you can get a team. Two people that trust each other and are competent. You can get a lot done. It's pretty amazing.
0:13:42.0 Kenny Cason: It is, I just wanna add like, I mean, one of my first experiences when we were working together was Ryan again, the not technical person supposedly, hopping in and programming HTML and CSS and doing some of our early web designing, and you learn Ruby on Rails and built like a Pinterest-like website. And for insects, I love insects. And Ryan has this, the empathy for tech which I think is important if we're gonna go to tech company, you want your business-half to really understand and care about the tech needs, the importance of investing in tech and hiring a good first-class team. And so I feel like Ryan really kinda jumped in head first and learn tech, and then also let me do the same thing to kinda understand other sides of the house as well. And so I think that mutual understanding of each other's area also is really, really important, whereas a lesser CEO would maybe say, "The tech is not my problem, you deal with it. Just make it work. That's all I care about." And I never get that vibe from Ryan, and I think at this again... Think it's really important. It's a common thing I tell and sell people, even during hiring and interviews and stuff, because I think that determines what kind of technology we're able to run.
0:14:50.8 Matt Waller: That point you made about Ryan being a business major who also learned some technology on his own, I think is a message that is very important. We've been trying to get that message out to our business students, and we've created all kinds of ways now. Since you all graduated that students can learn more if they want to, and we've experimented with a number of things, but it's one of those things that does take extra effort, and there's no reason you can't do it on your own. I mean, there's so many tools out there now. If you want to learn Ruby on Rails or Java or Python or whatever it may be, there's great online tools for doing that. I wish all 60,600 of our business students would do it.
0:15:39.1 Kenny Cason: Honestly, everybody can learn to code. It just takes time and effort. It's super fun, and I'm willing to answer questions, as much as I can, about it too. I always recommend people learn to code. And really, everybody diversify, learn lots of stuff, putting together with lots of different thoughts and ideas is... That's the path of building and making new stuff. Computer Science people, hey, we don't have to work at a desk and code all the time, 24/7. You can build stuff. You can take on building a product. Or if you don't wanna do that, find a partner. I found the partner to help with my areas that maybe I don't do as well, and it's definitely, definitely open to everybody, I think.
0:16:15.6 Matt Waller: If a business student is listening to this and they think, "Well, okay, I'd like to do that." What would you recommend they start with?
0:16:23.5 Ryan Frazier: For me, the approach was, yeah, through personal interest and like yeah, almost as I mentioned before, lots of these endeavors were more kinda hobbies in a sense. And I always found that using that to drive learning something new, where you can buy it off a project that allows you to get something to completion, really helped me. Early on that might mean using a platform that gave you a little bit of code, but it did some hand-holding for you, like Shopify, if you're an e-commerce store or you're in there doing some configuration for web flow, if you're building a website. And then gradually kind of abstracting some of that away, but trying to find some bite-sized projects where you can actually see fruits of your results.
0:17:56.0 Kenny Cason: Anybody at any point in their learning, I recommend taking on a project. It can be really small, like selling a WordPress page or building a game or building a web app, but have a goal. That's something you wanna accomplish, so that you're there able to google how to do it. If you wanna build a website, you can google how to build a website. So having that project in mind, you can work backwards on how they build it. But if you look at it, it's just like, "I'm gonna go learn programming. It's a mountain taller than Everest, and it goes up in every direction. And you might be lost. So pragmatism wins for getting started in learning, I think.
0:18:31.0 Matt Waller: So Kenny and Ryan, you at one point, you moved to Seattle from Arkansas. And you have moved around a little bit, but your moving enlightened you to an opportunity. Would you mind talking about that?
0:18:45.3 Ryan Frazier: Yeah, and I think that really is part of the story for how we got here on starting a new company with Arrived. And we have a cofounder in this business, Alejandro, who also moved around a lot and was originally from Mexico, wasn't a University of Arkansas alumni. Although I am sure he would love the university help to get them there. But as we were kinda building the business and growing that business of DataRank, moved around a lot to be close to investors and then customers and then through an acquisition. And really started to kinda question like, "What does the ownership of homes look like for us?" And from talking to Kenny and hearing his thoughts on owning rental homes and wanting to kind of invest in that as an asset. But us being kinda frustrated of like we weren't really in the same place long enough for it to make sense to buy homes or invest in homes and also be able to be confident that we were gonna be there and be able to manage those properties.
0:19:46.3 Ryan Frazier: At the same time, I think we were starting to ask the questions of like, "Why is ownership of homes, why does it exist the way it exists today where you save up a bunch of money, and then they put all of that money into a single home and it's kind of at odds in how we think about, investing in a diversified manner and modern portfolio theory and managing risk, and why couldn't, you own like 1% of 100 homes or even more than that, but still have that connection to single family home ownership?" And so that really led to Arrived and where we're at today which is building this platform, where essentially anyone can invest in rental homes, starting with 100 bucks up to 100,000 bucks or even beyond that. And essentially, we buy homes, break them into shares and allow people to invest and own those shares, in the same way that you might invest in shares of a stock.
0:20:45.8 Matt Waller: So what are some of the challenges? And how did you really study the customer and understand how to make Arrived optimized for the customer?
0:20:56.3 Ryan Frazier: The one thing we learned with starting a company the other for the second time, is you can't really skip steps. We knew that there were elements that still needed refinement, in terms of the business model and how it would work, and exactly what ultimately, customers wanted. And it's an investment service today, we're allowing our customers to invest in rental properties. So they are investors, essentially. But we really spent a lot of time getting that right. That meant talking to hundreds of people and building really MVPs of the product that we envisioned and getting their feedback and buying into that before we got to the current iteration of the product that we really believed met the needs.
0:21:40.2 Ryan Frazier: And that put us on kind of a regulatory timeline, because we're dealing with securities. And I'd say with this business, that was a big, early challenge that's unusual for a startup that you would spend a year working with the government. And these government entities in our case, the US Securities and Exchange Commission to allow us to bring this product to market. And so that was a part of our story that's maybe somewhat unusual. But now that we're kind of on the other side of that, it was a great part of that process.
0:22:15.5 Kenny Cason: Yeah. So to kind of echo on Ryan's statement that the securities requirements for the company were just large. And that was a hard decision, we weren't sure that A, we needed to go down that route. And B, was that the actual right route? Is there another path to our product? And just I remember, I think getting our head wrapped around the security requirements for our company was just a huge process that can't be overstated. Outside of the business challenges, I have two kids now, I didn't have two kids when I started DataRank. So figuring out how to start up with two kids and during COVID nonetheless, it was just a lot of challenges. And it meant that we had to do a lot more upfront planning in terms of me figuring out my finances, budgeting and things like that. And getting back into the mindset of a startup and where I'm essentially gonna have to solo build the backend, the front end and everything.
0:23:09.3 Kenny Cason: And like Ryan said, without taking shortcuts, we can't take two larger shortcuts. So this product, we're building an investment platform, lots of partners and it was just enough complexity that I had to look at the project ahead of us and be like, "Whoa, that's a lot of work." And, we're about to sign up for this work, but also, what a blast. [chuckle]
0:23:33.3 Matt Waller: Okay, Kenny and Ryan, I have a question for you. If you could build a big sign and put it in front of the Walton College so that when students walk in and out of the buildings that they would see it, your message, what would you put on that sign? Kenny?
0:23:47.5 Kenny Cason: Maybe it's a sign of the times, but I would say talk to each other, everybody all over the world, all over the country and always learn. There's no greater joy than knowledge. I solidly believe that.
0:23:58.0 Matt Waller: Yeah. Sometimes when you're in school, you're just learning to get the box checked. But if you slow down and try to enjoy whatever you're learning, it's a game changer. Ryan, what would you put on the sign?
0:24:11.0 Ryan Frazier: I think I would put, "Follow your curiosity." There could be a lot of pressure to follow the right idea and follow the right path. And I think that can stress people out on like, I'm I doing the right things? I'm I spending my time on the right things? And I find that, at least for me when I look back and where have I benefited? It's really been from that, following my own curiosity and letting that kind of take me down, these different areas of interest that I don't even know what the outcome might be. But you learn unique skills to yourself. You find unique ideas that are aligned to your personal interests. And I think you can relieve some of the pressure while you're spending your time on the right things. And I totally relate with the, always be learning and it's connected to that as well.
0:24:58.8 Matt Waller: That's great. Well, thank you both for taking time to visit with me today. I really appreciate it. And best of luck on, Arrived. Very interesting, innovative idea.
0:25:11.5 Ryan Frazier: Thank you so much. Thanks again for having us. It's been a lot of fun chatting with you and getting to relive some of the early days of getting to build a relationship with Kenny so.
0:25:24.5 Kenny Cason: Yeah, likewise, it's been a pleasure.
0:25:29.5 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic Podcast, one word that's, B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now Be EPIC.