Santiago Jaramillo’s resume reads like an excerpt of an Indiana Chamber of Commerce pamphlet: A Colombian native who spent his teenage years in Florida, sparked a startup idea on a New Zealand boat, turned down a Silicon Valley job, and instead picked the Hoosier state to launch a new company.
Copy and paste it verbatim, and his story sells Indiana better than any public relations materials ever could. But Jaramillo isn’t selling the state. He’s pushing software. And since 2011, as CEO of Bluebridge, a mobile app company, he has sold it well. The company now employs 50 people in a sleekly designed office that looks like it could hold three times as many workers. (See: Indy’s Coolest Tech Offices)
Bluebridge’s growth has resembled the success of several software companies in central Indiana. A business-to-business application that has taken a relatively small amount of venture capital compared to its coastal tech colleagues and focused on a steady rise rather than skyrocketing revenue and rapid hiring.
At 26, Jaramillo’s ascension hasn’t mirrored that of his generational peers. With higher levels of student debts and fewer assets, Millennials are much less likely to start companies than their Gen X predecessors. But the small crop of local entrepreneurial-minded twenty-or-thirtysomethings who have had success are often doing it with the help of former CEOs turned investors and mentors reinvesting in the next generation of talent.
“Santiago is tough-minded and persistent, and that goes a long way,” said John Wechsler, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Launch Fishers who served as one of Santiago’s first mentors. “When you’re smart and resourceful, it’s tough to beat. When you layer on sensible and considerate, it is a wonderful recipe for success.”
I visited Jaramillo recently at Bluebridge’s office in Fishers to talk about entrepreneurship, mentors, and the ups and downs of running a tech company in Indiana.
How do you think we can get more people to start tech companies in Indiana?
Well, it’s got to start with the school system. It’s got to start with conversations like “Why take French? Why not take html?” It takes students understanding the digital underpinnings of the new economy. It’s got to start with kids understanding the coding side and entrepreneur side and doing things early like Lemonade Day.
The fun part that we have in our generation is we have tech pop culture celebrities. Some look down at that as overhyped and too aspirational. But these kids are growing up seeing kids like Mark Zuckerberg and others that are building businesses and new tech while they are young.
You have to encourage it like [Zack Baker] at Noblesville High School. He was able to apply that creativity to that school. The school didn’t shut it down. They embraced it, and that kind of encouragement is trajectory impact for him. He was encouraged to take risks. For every kid like that, there are 10 others who don’t [build tech] because they didn’t have a coding class.
Why did you decide to launch your first startup rather than take a regular job?
I had other options. I was offered a sales job at Google in Mountain View, [California]. I had interned at ExactTarget and had options there. I decided not to do those. My parents really questioned me on that. Conventional wisdom is to get experience, learn on someone else’s dime, and once you’re ready and have more skills, go out on your own. But I think the earlier you start, the less risk you have because you have less to lose.
Other than going to college here (Jaramillo graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University in 2011), what drew you to Indiana to launch Bluebridge?
It was the people. It was the fact that John Wechsler, who is a serial entrepreneur, spent hours and hours sharing coffee and advice with me. Ron Braunbaurger at Bitwise Solutions gave me a desk where I worked early on, and I offered equity to him for it. He turned me down. That generosity, that Hoosier hospitality, that’s why I stayed here. There is a humble confidence that we are doing big things in tech, but we are doing real things with strong concepts. I had a network of customers and advisors that were willing to meet with a young guy to keep me going.
What does central Indiana need to help tech grow?
There’s a huge demand for software engineers. The appetite for technical talent is only going to keep increasing. I would speculate it is far exceeding supply. Folks have to go outside to find that talent.
We also need continual improvements around quality of life. People want to work at a great company in a great area that has walkability. I see really encouraging improvements there in downtown Fishers with new construction and new path and trails.
We can do better with our external reputation. There are two parts. First, we sometimes have this self-effacing Hoosier humble confidence that can swing too much into being ashamed of Indiana and talking down Indiana. That does us no good. We’ve also had highly publicized controversies that make us a look like a backwards prairie state, which we are not. We are a state that is doing innovation at a world-class level.