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Luke Cooper: One Understanding of Universal Pain Away from Building Inclusive Products

Luke Cooper, an attorney-turned-tech-founder of Fixt, an online company that sends technicians out to help people fix devices such as phones and tablets, is a forward thinking executive with professional expertise in technology operations, strategic planning, product, and leadership. A dynamic, change agent who offers robust success in propelling startups and re-organizing mid-sized companies.

And when you hear a story like Luke’s, and where he’s come from and how he’s succeeded, it gives hope for people who are going through hard times to realize that they can truly overcome an obstacle that’s in front of them; They can push past and they can find the silver lining and they can take the high road.

This was one of those episodes that I walked away from feeling very heavy and so grateful for everything I have been given in my life. I think Luke is a true epitome of somebody who does that in all circumstances. It’s not easy, but it’s a choice. Luke’s made that choice time in and time out when things got hard.

He is doing some incredible work helping kind of evening the playing field and removing unconscious bias and helping black entrepreneurs to have the opportunity to go and build their dreams like he has. It’s just so special to know him, work with him, and just stand alongside him shoulder to shoulder to help him push his dreams to the forefront. 

Transcript:

BRYAN WISH: What is the One Away moment you want to share with us today?

LUKE COOPER: I have so many. Thanks for having me today. I think the one I want to talk about is one that built a lot of compassion in me as a young man. I grew up in abject poverty. My dad was in jail most of my life. I was fortunate to go to prep school. I think the belief that I had, as a young black kid living in the inner city in the projects, was that if you were white, you were doing well. You were successful. You were happy. You were wealthy and your life was fundamentally  better than mine. When I got to private school, I saw that kids from all across different sects of society, whether a lot of money or no money, dealt with the same kind of challenges that I did. Maybe not precisely the same in terms of poverty or not having enough money for food and things like that but certainly pain was universal and I saw that. What it helped to do was build compassion in me in a way that allows me to think about products more openly and in a more full way that incorporates different viewpoints. 

BRYAN WISH: I can hear you and understand you. Pain is something we all experience no matter how successful you are or where you grow up. Give us some insight on how you grew up, where you grew up, and what was difficult to you. Also, what enabled you to go to private school to be able to see and make this observation from a young age?

LUKE COOPER: The desire to fit in, as humans, I think we’re really geared toward that. We want to find our tribe. We want to find the place that we fit. It’s true of business as well. You’re building products not to satisfy some foolish, selfish aim. We build products because we want those products to make the lives of the people that we support, work with sell to better. We want them to be a part of our community. The desire for me to be part of a community really led me to observe why I wasn’t part of that community or what were the feature of that community that were necessary for me to understand and interact with in a way that would allow me to be part of that tribe. Seeing all the challenges and pain and connecting to it allowed me to just think about it more openly that way as opposed to some of the other folks I know that look at things a little close minded. 

BRYAN WISH: When you entered into that new world, what was that like for you? Did you fit in with those people?

LUKE COOPER: It was eye-opening. One of the key things you need as an entrepreneur is adaptability. You don’t learn that just in a vacuum. You have to learn as a consequence of going through hardship and having to change or having to evolve yourself or your product in a way that meets the demands of the market. When I got into the environment that was different from the one I grew up in, as a 12 year old kid, I instantly saw areas that were just different. Social customs and things that were new to me. Wanting to be part of a tribe and wanting them to be part of my tribe. I think it’s a careful give and take. It’s a balancing act. Initially, you as a young person, you feel the pressure to completely capitulate and do whatever the tribe wants you to do or behave that way. Over time, you find your courage and your value system. You find common ground between you and the folks that you’re interacting with. I was able to do that over and over again. That’s an important skill to learn if you want to build anything important in life.

BRYAN WISH: You mentioned your father being in prison. Would you  mind sharing with us what your role in that and how that has shaped you as a person?

LUKE COOPER: My father going away to prison was devastating when I was a kid in some ways. He had been in and out of prison for a long part of my life. Him going away now meant it was more the same but longer duration. I was at a dearth. I don’t know how, without the intervention of other things that came into my life, I would have gotten past that. I think I would have wound up selling drugs, using drugs, and probably in jail or dead. That was something I dreamed about and thought about and had nightmares about every day up until maybe August when I exited the company. It just feels that’s where you belong when you come from that. It’s not where you belong. You belong wherever your mind and soul can take you. They can take you a lot of places. The intervention of two things helped me deal with my father going away. One, I got into this program called NFTE (National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship) and I learned how to  build companies and build businesses. I started with the solar powered microwave that I sold hotdogs in.

BRYAN WISH: How old were you?

LUKE COOPER: I was 12. All of this happened to me when I was 12. I started building these solar powered microwaves, selling hotdogs in them, and I made money. I was like, “Wow, I can use my brain and my hustle just to change my trajectory. I should do that. Legally.” Then I was so successful with it that I won my science competition and my business competition. Just more healthy self-esteem building in me, showing me that despite the fact that your father and your personal life was what it was, you could have an immediate material impact on that by hustling and thinking of ideas and creating value for other people.

BRYAN WISH: What sparked those interests?

LUKE COOPER: One of the key attributes of a good entrepreneur, of a good human being is the ability to constantly observe and you’re constantly looking for perspective. Early on, perspective looks like a weird thing. When you’re a kid growing up, with nothing, perspective is I’m looking for a way out. Over time, that desperate sort of search for a way out morphs into a more refined, I’m just looking for things that are better or things that will improve whatever it is I’m working on that day. My product, my idea, my team, my culture, whatever those things are. Those early experiences of abject poverty and being poor, led me to be more observant of the world around me and thoughtful of the world around me. When you’re thoughtful of the world around you, you just see things. As a kid, I saw all kinds of things. When I was in college, I saw a guy who had gone to law school and used law to do something else. I was like, okay, I didn’t realize you could go be a lawyer and then go do something else after that. All these little observations opened up my world into what was possible. That’s all we’re in the journey of is figuring out what’s possible so that when we get to the end of life, we don’t look back and say, “I left a whole bunch in the tank.” 

BRYAN WISH: It’s interesting that you, from a young age, found a  better way forward for yourself through your ideas. In prior conversations, you said going to law school helped you in a situation with your dad. You mind going there?

LUKE COOPER: Maybe the only important thing I ever did as a lawyer was argue the release for my dad. He went away when I was 12. It was a quick trial, maybe a week, not even. My dad was in the streets. He started out selling drugs and using drugs and that can only lead to bad places. When he went away to prison for drugs and spousal abuse and other stuff, he deserved it. There’s no question about that. Everybody deserves a second chance and deserve an opportunity to make whatever they messed up right. I felt my dad deserved that chance too. He had done a lot of work in prison to better himself. I was graduating law school and I had either just taken the bar or right before I took the bar, there was a parole hearing coming up for him. He had done 12 of the 20 years he had gotten as part of the former conviction. I think forgiveness is an important thing. I think it’s overlooked too in society. It’s something we don’t dish out evenly in society. We dish out forgiveness based on our relationship and understanding and connection to the person we’re giving it to. If it’s a person we really connect to, really understand, really know, they get a lot of forgiveness and grace. If it’s a group of people we don’t understand that well, we haven’t worked to understand the context well – like the fact my dad was living a life he chose to make some bad decisions but he was choosing from a group of bad decisions that were already given to him. Understanding that context is important because it can allow you to forgive people. I very much wanted to do that. I wanted that for my mom, for my dad, and for my sister, our family. First thing I did was I got in touch with the prosecutor who had put my father away initially and rightfully so. Steve and I had been in contact right around the time that my dad was being considered for parole. I told Steve my intention was to support his release and he supported that as well. He thought my dad had done the work also and he was going to be supportive of that as well. He wasn’t going to argue too fiercely against that. 

My first thing as a lawyer was sitting in an administrative hearing room, court room arguing reasons for my father to be released on parole. Fortunately, he was released and got out. It was a reconnection of sorts. It was a miracle. It’s unbelievable that he was able to come out. My dad is his own man. He’s since passed away. He didn’t really ever figure it all out but none of us ever really do. He was able to live a somewhat decent life toward the end of his life and move on. I think that’s what it’s all about. 

BRYAN WISH: Most kids yearn to have a relationship with their dad and develop that. You were on the other side working to help your dad and support that. I’d love for you to talk about your entrepreneurial track and what led you to Fixt. 

LUKE COOPER: Finding anything is hard. Just building anything from scratch that wasn’t there before is really difficult. Before you get to that step, you’ve got to figure out who you are and what you can do. Before I started Fixt, I really wasn’t sure of who I was and what I could do and what I should be applying my talent to. I think you can live a lot of life doing all the wrong things. Like 50 years of it doing mostly the wrong stuff. A turning point for me, I read this Financial Times article and it had this personality quiz about different things you’d excel in, different businesses, industries, etc. I remember taking the quiz and it was so clear that you are a technologist. You use technology to better the world. You’re all about using your talent, your ability to build teams around ideas that involve technology. It was so clear to me that was the direction I should go. What was so funny about the whole situation is that when I look back on my career, my career said that as well but I ignored it. Most of the big things that had happened in my career were all driven by technology investment and my own personal investment and technology ideas or pursuing certain technology driven opportunities. CTS, took the company for 180k to $55 million exit to [0:17:33 Khaki?]. I had other successful technology businesses before that. It wasn’t until I deviated away from that that I saw mixed results or poor results and a lot of unhappiness. I think we can spend a lot of our time doing that. By the time I got to Fixt, I was very much focused on I know what I’m good at. I know my strengths. I know I want to focus my abilities on solving problems using technology. Then the question became what problem do I want to focus on? I began to think about problems that I had intimate knowledge of. That’s a great starting place as an entrepreneur. You should be starting on problems that you have some sort of a vantage because you worked in that world or you have special access to certain fine details about that problem that other people just don’t have. It’s all about knowledge of the problem. Less than 5 or 6 years before that, I’d worked at State Farm as an in-house counsel. I just knew how broken that process was and it hadn’t been solved or fixed. The claims process was completely fragged. Customers were getting terrible experiences. I wanted to fix that problem. I wanted to get in there and figure out a way for customers not to have to send in the affidavit when they wanted anything repaired or replaced. I didn’t know where to start with that problem. I knew there was a big issue there but I just didn’t know where to start. 

I initially said I was going to boil the ocean. I’m going to build this web application that allows customers to see their things in real time, how they’re moving through the insurance companies, allow them to insure almost anything. It was a really convoluted idea, to say the least. The moment of clarity came for me when I’d gotten a lot of bad feedback. The idea was bad and wasn’t going to work. I was sort of down and out about that. I was in a program called Techstars. I was on a bus and I dropped my phone by accident. Everyone around me had the same reaction almost synchronously. That led me to ask questions. As I asked questions, I learned everyone had the same reaction for the same 3 or 4 problems. There’s just not that many problems in the world where not only is the problem uniformly obvious to everybody but also the lack of solutions, the same 4 or 5 lack of solutions are the same for everybody. That told me, “You should innovate here. There’s something here.” The job of the entrepreneur is not just to ideate, not just to think of an idea. I see a problem and everyone says it’s a problem, now I just go. I could have done that. 

The idea I articulated to the folks on the bus was like, “What if someone handed me a new phone when I got off the bus?” They were blown away with that. Like live dispatch, the phone, using the gyroscope and accelerometer. Let’s use that to push a dispatch to technicians and tell nearby technicians to meet me somewhere and give me a new device. It was a genius idea but genius ideas are a dime a dozen and we’re pretty much all out of genius ideas. All the genius ideas are some amalgamation of existing ideas and previous ideas that are mixed together in a smart way. The idea itself is not the thing that will help you succeed. The job of the entrepreneur is to figure out all the critical assumptions you made and start to validate those. When I started this company, the things that I observed plus the things I started to research like device prices were going through the roof. They were $1,000 and going up. In 2014, that was not the common belief. The common belief was that devices were going to go down because they’re getting cheaper and cheaper  and all the embedded technology in them was going to get simpler or more complex and thus skinnier. That just didn’t happen. The opposite was happening. People wanted more surface area for their phones which meant more glass. You have 50,000 daily Genius Bar appointments but then you have only 300 Genius Bars around the world. You have capacity issues. You have carriers doing away with subsidies. All this was happening in 2014. Those things told me it was the right condition to introduce real-time, on demand repair because the more expensive my cell phone, the less likely I’m going to get it replaced. As an entrepreneur, you have to pay attention to those kinds of things but also do the hard work of understanding your industry and the underlying economics of the industry and how its changing, evolving that are either going to speak to your success or detract from it. 

BRYAN WISH: Were you practicing any meditation or into Buddhism or was it just this drop of the phone moment and you were really down and out from the feedback at Techstars and you realized all of a sudden maybe there’s something here?

LUKE COOPER: As entrepreneurs, we’re inclined – we have high capacity for delusion. We’re inclined to run out of things really fast even when the thing is running away from us. You’ve got to be careful. You can spend a lot of time that way. I was spending a lot of time chasing things that were running away from me or not running in the right direction. It was just going poorly. You can keep doing that. I know a lot of entrepreneurs that raise money and they keep doing that and they wind up with some very fractional, marginal success at the end of that or most cases just nothing. I think the hardest part of being an entrepreneur is doing nothing because it feels like you’re being lazy or you’re not doing your job or listening to customers. You’re not being productive. Sometimes the best thing is to nothing and just sit still and just understand what game you’re playing, where you are in the journey, and take a moment. On the bus that morning, I was just taking a moment. I wasn’t thinking about the business. I was letting the world around me impact me and tell me what to do. It’s just like basketball. Offense doesn’t tell defense what to do. Defense tells offense what to do. However the defense reacts to me is what I then do to get around you, to do whatever I’m going to do. I think entrepreneurship is the same. It’s the underlying circumstances in the industry and then how people are reacting to those underlying circumstances that tells you what to build. The idea is if you have someone who could do both of those things, they become a truly special person. You think about someone like an Edison or Elon Musk, can understand the underlying economic activity, fundamentals of an industry changing like payments but at the same time, has ideas for how to connect people via email into payments more effectively. Those two things coming together can create something special. The real job of an entrepreneur is to figure out all those underlying things and how they’re changing and that tells you what to then do. 

BRYAN WISH: I think you picked up on something so key and paramount. Being an entrepreneur, productivity is so key but how do you sit back, take in the moments, observe, listen to the customers, and let that help guide decisions, and let those ideas form from there? Powerful lessons to learn. You dropped the phone, did some research, and saw it was massively changing. What were your next steps?

LUKE COOPER: Build.

BRYAN WISH: How do we build?

LUKE COOPER: There’s a framework. It’s not mine but it’s a brilliant framework called Build, Measure, Learn. There’s a guy named Eric Ries. He wrote a book called The Lean Startup. He actually became an investor in Fixt. He used the service and throughout my customer discovery, he became an investor at Fixt. I called him and hounded him and talked to him and he’s one of the most notable startup people in the last two decades. He’s got this framework called Build, Measure, Learn which implies this incremental innovation that happens over time as opposed to massive investment upfront on the basis of an unknown. The whole concept is one I follow and adhere to very closely right after that incident on the bus. The first step is what is the smallest thing I can build that will validate what I just saw? As entrepreneurs, we always say – we’re big frickin’ thinkers and we think we want to boil the ocean. We want to start with a thing that boils the ocean always. That’s just how we’re geared. I think the constraint of an entrepreneur – the necessary constraint you need is maintaining that massive perspective and idea and then acting super small. How can you think really big but then act really small? The question then becomes, in the Build Measure, Learn framework, what’s the smallest thing I can build that helps validate something here? What I needed to validate in that was that – would you even demand service this way through an app? Would you even download an app and demand services with it? People sometimes jump past the very baseline assumption that they have. Another assumption I made was that people, with the app on their phone, would even understand what this was and what they expected it to do. We built a very lightweight version of the application. It cost us $500 and two weeks of time maybe. Almost nothing. With that lightweight version of the app, I just walked around downtown Boulder, 50,000 students on Boulder’s campus. We have tons of academics and other people, adults that live there. I just walked around and give my phone to people and I’d say, “What is this?” No bias because that’s the other part that we do as entrepreneurs. I am Luke Cooper. I am this great entrepreneur. I built this amazing app that does all these things. It does this, this, and this. Tell me, do you like it? Of course, they’re going to say they like it. I would just give people my phone and say, “What is this? I’m just a local entrepreneur and trying to get some feedback. What is this?” Overtime what we saw over time is the first couple times, “I have no clue what this is. Who are you? Get away from me” to eventually, by the time it was more refined, “I know exactly what this is. This is an app that will help me get my phone repaired. Does this connect into the insurance company?” People were giving us ideas. Once you set up the Build, Measure, Learn framework correctly, all the great ideas come from customers. They don’t come from you. The founding ideas, the initiating ideas come from founders. The great progressive ideas that push an idea or push a business or product through the next 4 or 5 iterative cycles it has to go through to be great, that very rarely comes from the founder. It comes from the market and customers. 

BRYAN WISH: From that moment forward, what was the trajectory like for you? What did this company Fixt turn into?

LUKE COOPER: It’s turned into this central, come to you service delivery option for a $10 billion company and all of the desperate global markets that they service; Japan, Germany. We’re expanding into Germany very soon. Canada, we just signed a deal. It’s amazing to see an idea that started out as a very small thing now being part of this larger organization that is applying it to mass market scenarios. It’s become a very important artifice of [0:32:38 Assurant?]. How we got there, we acquired a lot of customers. We started with two people. Grew that base of two people to 25 people. Sales and marketing, operations, engineering, product, and finance. We grew revenue 400% year over year. We’re relentlessly focused on getting customers, keeping them, and upselling them, and then renewing them, and then getting more customers, upselling them, renewing them, keeping them. This is a virtuous cycle that happens over and over again. We did that well at spots and grew the company 400% year over year. 

BRYAN WISH: When you first started, was it a B2C vision for you and expanded to B2B?

LUKE COOPER: It was more we started B2C but your job as entrepreneur is to get perspective. Staring out B2C seems great because now we had customers using us and that was giving us feedback too but then when I started to do the analysis, it’s like, “What’s your customer acquisition cost?” Our customer acquisition cost was $150 a customer or something. We’re only making $150 off the cuff but then we have to pay the tax. We have negative gross margins. In order to scale that model, where you  have a customer coming in for episodic revenue, I’m just coming in for a transaction and I leave; I’m not going to break my phone every day. Episodic revenue and upside down sort of customer acquisition costs speak to consumer model where you need to raise a lot of money. What’s my perspective? I started looking around. My competitors raise like 25 million bucks. 90 millions one of them. 55 million another. It’s like we are an east coast based company in Baltimore. Investors here are spreadsheet investors. That ain’t going to work. We smartly pivoted to enterprise because we were again, looking at the gun that we had built which was an effective gun at the time; 2016, 2017 is when our product was market ready. Our website, our mobile applications, all those things were market ready. Then we looked around and we have competition in the consumer space and fundraising is going to be hard there. Then also what’s the bounty? For consumer, there wasn’t enough there to make it a valuable enough company. Within the enterprises, just complete white space, marketing white space. There was no solution there. No competitors. They were throwing things in boxes. These big Fortune 500 throw things in boxes and send it away. It would take weeks or days. We came in with a solution that found market attachment very quickly. We were able to close customers like NYPD, Home Depot, Stanford University, Carlisle Group, etc. and just grow revenue because we saw the opportunity. We went for it as soon as we saw it. A lot of times you’re always like trying to optimize as an entrepreneur. Don’t do that. At the earliest stages, don’t optimize anything. Follow the signal. The signal that’s glowing and strong, out of the signals you’re looking at, follow that one. Then when that dims, you’ll see another one, follow that one. You’re following signals. You’re not trying to optimize to make the signal you want glow. That’s a way to quickly fail.

BRYAN WISH: It wastes a lot of time personally and professionally. 

LUKE COOPER: The things that’s moving away from you, document it. I tried this. It moved away from me. I thought it was going to do this and it didn’t do that. Now you’ve got that documented. Guess what? A year and a half from now when you hire four more people and they’re like, “Hey, why don’t we try this thing?” You have it documented. It didn’t work. Maybe the market’s changed. Webvan was a company that raised $620 million in 2000. It was the first come to you service for everything. Started by really smart people but it was 2000. Too early. Now it would work. 

BRYAN WISH: What were some of the personal challenges that you maybe faced and overcame while you were building a company that was scaling 400% a year? Is there anything you would have done differently? 

LUKE COOPER: Another one of your jobs as founder of a company is to manage your own psychology. Find things and tips and tricks and tools that will help you do that. I didn’t always do that super well. Sometimes my employees bore the brunt of that. If we’re not succeeding in a certain area and I can’t make this one metric move faster and they’re coming to me about a thing that is something that makes us think longer, slow down, and maybe take a couple steps backwards to fix that thing, I was probably less patient on some of those issues. I think it was purely because of the pressure that you’re constantly in as a startup. You are raising money from sophisticated investors that have expectations. You have a board. You have growth milestones. You have a very complex market that is always changing and evolving. Then you have market dynamics that extend beyond that that relate to the people that might buy you or IPO or how do those things affect your future as well? I didn’t manage my psychology super well. I did a lot of yoga. I eat super healthy. I didn’t sleep super great. If I was talking to another entrepreneur, I’d give them all those tips. Get better sleep. Another big one I’d tell them – and these are things I didn’t do well. The one thing I told them to do that I didn’t do well  is to leave tomorrow’s shit and all the problems you’re dealing with to tomorrow. If you’re at a place, at the end of the day, whether it’s 4:00 or 9:30 or 11:00, once that is done where you’ve taken the ball as far as you can take it in that day, that’s it. Leave all that shit behind you. Try to push those things out of your mind as much as you can and focus on other things. In the vacuum of safety and security, the mindfulness that develops when you’re not thinking about business, that’s when all the other great things can come in. Sometimes the great things aren’t even about the business. It’s about a way you can orient your personal life that helps you accelerate in your business. 

BRYAN WISH: That’s great perspective. I think anyone growing a big business, it’s a struggle. There’s a lot of competition with time and energy. You are post exit but still working at Fixt. I know you have a lot of personal ambitions in building a brand for yourself. What does that look like to you? What’s your vision 10 years out?

LUKE COOPER: I see an entrepreneur on every block, on every hood. I see a breakfast for every kid that doesn’t get one today. The way those two things are connected in my mind is that entrepreneurship and our own efforts and labor can solve our own problems. It doesn’t mean we don’t need government intervention. Doesn’t mean big institutions that have, for years, enjoyed a level of success built on the backs of other people or the quiet, submissive support of women that have done it for years as well, that they shouldn’t contribute or help. Doesn’t mean that, but it does mean that all the great things that you need to be great and deliver greatness to the world are contained in you. Entrepreneurship, to me, is the key to unlocking those things and there’s just not enough people who have actually done it, been through it, seen it, that can deliver that message to the masses. When I think about the world I see going forward, the end state, that message is perfectly delivered to the folks that need to hear it who can then unlock their futures and you create this galaxy of stars that shines on forever. It’s not about Luke Cooper being great. My greatness will come to an end, a very definitive end at some point. If I can make others great and they can make others great, that will continue forever. That’s how I want to be remembered. 

BRYAN WISH: It sounds like you’re giving intentional thought to your legacy and 30, 40 years out, the gifts you’ll want to create that continue to impact people.

LUKE COOPER: I have to. The life expectancy for black men in my family is some 50. I think about some of my greats I admire. Reginald Lewis died when he was 49. That’s five years for me from now. I want to do as much. I don’t want to have any potential left in the tank. I want all that to be expired as much as possible. 

BRYAN WISH: It’s been a true joy getting to know you. You’ve made a big difference in my life in a short time. Hopefully, we end up doing the same for you. Where can people find you?


LUKE COOPER: LinkedIn is a great place to find me. Search Luke Cooper Baltimore. My website nomudnomagic.com.

One Away Podcast
Leah Walsh

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