June 11, 2012

Plum Choice: Former Blackbaud CTO Is His Own Boss at Electric Plum

Brendan Kearney  /  Post and Courier

Twitter tells the tale. Even before meeting Shaun Sullivan, it's clear from LiquidSullivan's tweets that stepping down as Blackbaud's chief technology officer last spring to start his own business has been something of a roller coaster ride.

On consecutive days last month, Sullivan tweeted, "I just had one of those overwhelming 'In the end, what does it all mean?' moments. There needs to be a word for that feeling. "Then, "I love it when a plan comes together." And finally, on May 11, "Recent events have reminded me how much I miss being part of a team."

Speaking in Electric Plum's "world headquarters," a small room in a nondescript office park across the Wando River from Blackbaud's world headquarters, Sullivan used even fewer than 140 characters to describe his new professional life last week. "It's tough, man," the 44-year-old father of four said.

Sullivan had what he described as "the best job at Blackbaud," the Daniel Island software firm he joined straight out of college in 1989. Now, he's a one-man show with tough decisions to make about how to budget his time and make money for his investors and his family.

But after "some dark days," Sullivan is beginning to see the fruits of his labor. In April, Electric Plum released GoRaise Mobile, which allows on-the-go access to Blackbaud's flagship database software Sullivan helped design during his career there.

And on Friday, when Microsoft's free web development tool, WebMatrix 2, went live, it featured Electric Plum's iPhone and iPad simulator, which helps developers see how their programming will look on Apple's popular mobile devices.

Microsoft's endorsement is "super exposure" for the simulator, Sullivan said, and could seriously boost downloads of the free and paid versions from Electric Plum's website. "It's a golden opportunity," he said.

On the move
Sullivan has come a long way since his Massachusetts youth, but his Northern roots were on full display last week at his new company's new digs.

He wore a backward New England Patriots ball cap, jeans and a T-shirt that revealed a bicep bruise he sustained playing ice hockey. Photos of the Patriots' recent Super Bowl appearances and Boston's Fenway Park decorated his spare office, otherwise dominated by a desk covered with an array of mobile devices and three computer screens. The lettering on his coffee cup was in all caps: "The Boss."

The only son of schoolteachers, Sullivan went to work in Blackbaud's Needham, Mass., office right out of college. Sullivan remembers when the company's founder, Tony Bakker, announced Blackbaud's headquarters was leaving the Big Apple for the Holy City. "He told us all, 'Let's move,' " Sullivan recalled.

Sullivan moved south and then up through the ranks as the company grew from 50 employees to thousands. He eventually led the platform technology team and became CTO in 2002, two years before Blackbaud went public. "I thought I was going to spend my whole life there," he said last week. "I just ended up getting a little wanderlust."

One shot
Sullivan had been thinking about opening his own shop, focusing on mobile web development, and when former Blackbaud colleagues said they'd fund him, he put in his papers. He called the new venture Electric Plum after a joke concept coined by former Blackbaud CEO Robert Sywolski.

"I'm only going to get this shot once," Sullivan thought, figuring he could find another job if the start-up flopped.

But the grass wasn't greener in Mount Pleasant, where Sullivan shares space with three other former Blackbaud executives. At times, he regretted his decision to trade in a comfortable corporate job for midlife entrepreneurship. "I almost called (Blackbaud's current CEO) Marc Chardon once a week begging for my job back," Sullivan said of the first six months on his own.

The simulator and GoRaise, for which he obtained Chardon's blessing, have achieved some traction but not enough to carry the company. Sullivan has accepted contract work to pay the bills while he sorts out Electric Plum's next offering. "I think the biggest problem right now is focus," he said.

Meanwhile, Blackbaud has developed native apps for the Raiser's Edge and is rolling them out this summer.

"It's funny how that's turning out to be a competitive scenario, unfortunately," Sullivan said.

Sullivan has other projects on his office whiteboard, but the Microsoft partnership could mark a crossroads in the future of Electric Plum.

It will test Sullivan's faith in the "freemium" model wherein he gives away a basic version of the simulator while marketing a more advanced version to those who really like and use it. And it also will inform Sullivan's revenue strategy going forward. "It's amazing how hard it is to get them to pay," he said of his customers. "There's an assumption from people that everything costs 99 cents."

If he can afford it, Sullivan's first hire will be a sales and marketing person, and over the long term, he plans to grow the business and maybe even attract the deep pockets at Blackbaud, which made its biggest acquisition yet, Convio, last month. "Hopefully, one day they'll buy Electric Plum. That's one of the dream scenarios," he said.

Sullivan's wife, Patty, still isn't sure about the gambit, he said. With one son on his way to college this fall, they still have two growing boys in the house. "She was scared," he said. "She is scared."

"My life is way less comfortable now than it was," Sullivan continued, "but it's a lot more fun." At least until Twitter says otherwise.