The Pittsburgh Technology Council (PTC) kicks off 2019 with a new Chairman of the Board — Jason Wolfe. He replaces ANSYS Board Chair Jim Cashman after nearly a decade of service to the PTC’s Board of Directors.
“Jim’s service and leadership to the Tech Council has been immeasurable,” said PTC President and CEO Audrey Russo. “He guided the Tech Council to new levels of services, offerings and value as we now surpass 35 years serving the local tech industry. His impact on the Tech Council and local industry has taken us to the next level.”
“I’m excited for the new leadership, insights and energy that Jason will bring to our organization,” Russo continued. “Even as Jason is in the middle of building his next tech venture, he has committed much time and resources as our new Chairman to ensure that the Tech Council can be an even more effective resource for those building and running tech companies in Pittsburgh.”
Wolfe is one of the Pittsburgh region’s most successful technology entrepreneurs having conceived, scaled and successfully sold several tech companies in the online coupon/giftcard space. TEQ Associate Publisher Jonathan Kersting sat down with Wolfe to learn more about his background and vision for the Pittsburgh Technology Council.
Jonathan Kersting: Congrats on being named the new Chairman of the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s Board of Directors. You have deep experience building successful tech companies in Pittsburgh. First, tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in tech. And, give us some of the top highlights of what you have accomplished over the years. Our readers will be impressed!
Jason Wolfe: I grew up in the Milton Hershey School – mhskids.org (school for disadvantaged children) where I lived with 16 other boys in a home from 1980 to 1987. I put myself through college, somehow, and afterward was in an accident and had two major neck/spinal surgeries. While recovering in 1995, I was not able to drive so I taught myself how to write code (Perl/HTML/CGI/Photoshop) and built the first coupon website. I was living in my 12-year-old rusted Jeep at the time. This is how I became interested in technology, by circumstance. I built that coupon site to eventually raise $500k in venture capital, got it to 20 million visitors per month and sold it to a public company right before the bubble burst in 2000.
I went on after that to build another technology company, Direct Response Technologies, to 70 employees and our affiliate tracking tools were tracking billions of transactions per month. We sold Direct Response to a public firm in 2006. I focused on GiftCards.com starting in 2008 and built that to 120 employees and billions in gift card sales and sold GiftCards.com to a public firm in 2016. Today, I am building the next generation product for the market, we have 40 people currently working at our incubator in Greentree under the parent Wolfe, LLC. I have received several awards over my years, but am most proud of being the Alumni of the Year of the Milton Hershey School in 2014.
JK: What got you interested in joining the board of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and then accepting the role of Chairman?
JW: I was invited by one of the city’s most accomplished lawyers, Marlee Myers, to join the board after she and I were judges together for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the year award program. We had very similar insights into the companies which we were judging, and she really appreciated my entrepreneurialism. I served on the Pittsburgh Technology Council board for a few years and have gotten to know (PTC CEO) Audrey Russo and her amazing team, and their passion for Pittsburgh technology. I see such great growth in Pittsburgh around technology. I know a lot about technology as I am a self-taught developer. I know not just the engineering and mechanics of technology, but also how it can be used for good in our city and beyond. I think I can be helpful.
JK: Where do you see the biggest opportunities for the Council to impact the region’s tech sector and its entrepreneurs?
JW: I know we can invent more things here in Pittsburgh in technology. We can be a leader with ideas and then actually grow those ideas into viable businesses. The PTC serves the technologists and entrepreneurs, as well as the bigger companies looking for our region to grow its technology workforce.
I think the more we can “grow our own” success stories, wealth and leaders in Pittsburgh, the better our shots are for continued growth and leadership in our nation, regarding successful technology ecosystems.
JK: Having built a number of tech companies over the years, tell us what you think are the key assets and challenges to starting and scaling a business?
JW: Key Asset: I have learned, over the years, that relationships matter most. I was initially a software developer as I started my first company, and I spent a lot of time behind the computer. My success would have been limited had I stayed behind my screen. Once I got out, met people, interacted and grew my network and relationships – I grew. The smartest person in the room may not be the most successful in business, I would wager on the most connected and the person who grows their relationships with real people.
Big Challenge: Finding the right talent for your company to grow. Once you move beyond you and a few people working on your business, you need to then add policy, procedure and process. It is a challenge when you hit 100-150 or so employees to find the experienced local talent to lead technology-based companies of that size; our pool is small. So, you will either hire from outside the region (which has its challenges) or you will try to train, which then takes you away from your mission.
JK: Can you share any advice for those out there looking to either start a tech venture or take their venture to the next level?
JW: There is no simple answer to this question — no “easy button.” Everyone these days wants to be an entrepreneur. I think the definition has changed. Now, if you own just a corner store people call you an entrepreneur. To me, that’s true, but not the same as a big “E” entrepreneur. Ones that have a larger idea, change a market or industry and scale up. These people, these big “E” entrepreneurs need to be willing to sacrifice time in exchange for success, a lot of it. Most people cannot or will not do this. Because they feel taking time away from family, self and friends is not worth the quality of life sacrifice needed. Grit and perseverance are critical—if you don’t invest the time, someone else will. I have also learned that building a healthy culture and hiring right is so important: embrace these two things and you will have a greater chance of success.
And to go to the “next level” you will need to be willing to give up control and let your leaders lead – your runners run. Become a visionary, stand at the top of the mast of the ship, get out of the underbelly and empower your people. Build relationships.
JK: How will you gauge your success as Chairman of the Board?
JW: I hope we can continue to grow the PTC’s impact on technologists, entrepreneurs and, at the same time, balance that with serving the needs of larger companies who will benefit from our services. I am not concerned about my personal success, I am more concerned about the impact on my son’s future in the region in technology, and what I can do to help. Also, I’d like to give Jim [Cashman] kudos for all of his efforts serving as board chair for so many years. I have big shoes to fill.
JK: When you’re not building a company and chairing the Council, what do you do to unwind and decompress?
JW: I go to Deep Creek, where we have a house. You’d find me wake boarding, skiing or at the Honi Honi. I enjoy my family and friends and like to spend time with them most.
What a Ride!
Outgoing Pittsburgh Technology Council Chairman Jim Cashman Recounts the Industry’s Many Strides Over the Past Decades
By Jim Cashman, Chairman of the Board, ANSYS
As I wind up almost a decade of chairing the Pittsburgh Technology Council, I am simply blown away by the state of technology growth in the region. When I was new to the region, more than 20 years ago, I was asked to offer opinions on the region as a “newcomer.”
At that time, my impressions were first and foremost, one of a region in the relative naissance of a technology transformation. It had all of the tools to become a technology powerhouse, but almost seemed unsure of its immense potential. I recall a sense of a dispirited mood as the steel industry had declined and much of the talk was about how to keep traditional manufacturing jobs from leaving the area.
There was some promotion of the “New Economy” (i.e. technology), but relatively few of these high tech and IT companies were in existence. A handful of companies, like FreeMarkets were starting to emerge. My company, ANSYS, was a well-regarded, established company, but relatively small. There were great educational institutions, but there was always a feeling that the best and brightest would leave the region, mostly for the two “coasts,” once they graduated.
Over that time frame, we have seen notable achievements. We saw companies like FORE Systems grow to global prominence. Excuse me for a shameless plug of the ANSYS team…During that extended period of time, ANSYS was third out of all tech companies in market performance behind only Netflix and Apple. The company cracked the $1B revenue barrier and joined the S&P500.
The region saw a dramatic growth in startups that became luminaries in their own right, including but surely not limited to Duolingo, Wombat, Vivisimo and so many others.
The region started to retain the talent we were developing. This in turn made our region an attractive place for tech giants like Google, Uber, the GE Additive Manufacturing Center, Facebook and Bosch to set up major locations here; not to mention being a very viable, short-lister on the Amazon HQ2 location. We saw a dramatic increase in collaboration between industry and academia with innovative breakthroughs in education to create “maker spaces,” additive manufacturing labs and a host of other landmark activities.
“Now the region is nationally known for robotics, information technology, autonomous vehicles, advanced manufacturing, biotechnologies and life sciences. We are squarely on the map.”
What does this bode for the future? Success can tend to breed success — even in “the Heartland.” We have leading, innovative companies; we have the major magnet-universities that are nationally-ranked; we have vibrant incubators for startups; and we have an active venture capital community.
It would be remiss to not acknowledge the role that the Pittsburgh Technology Council team has played in marketing the region, building a sense of community and helping to advocate for the creation of a growth-oriented environment that supports entrepreneurialism and innovation. Add to the mix, the fact that Pittsburgh is perennially rated as one of the most livable cities in arts, culture, sports and entertainment and one could get the sense that there is almost no ceiling to what can be accomplished in the years to come. We have developed a winner’s mentality. Building off of this promising start, we only need to keep our natural sense of innovation, our historical work ethic, maintain the quality of life, continue our pattern of collaboration and keep cranking out the next generation of leaders. Our sports teams may have to be renamed after our tech future and not our steel history. (OK, so that probably went too far. Just a concept.)
As Chairman of the Board at the Pittsburgh Technology Council, it has been a blast watching this all unfold. It has been an honor to be a participant. And, it has been a privilege to help in the construction. It will be exciting to see how our tech community continues to take this to new heights.
Mr. Cashman is Chairman of the Board at ANSYS. Prior to that, he was the President of the company from 1999 to January 2017, and the company’s CEO from February 2000 through January 1, 2017.