In this episode of the Founder Origin Series, Sherry interviews Jason Cohen of WP Engine, about his early days in college and starting companies. And how being a son to two teachers shaped his success.

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Episode Transcript

Rob Walling:Welcome back and thanks for joining us on this week’s continuation of our Founder Origin Series. This week, Sherry interviews Jason Cohen of WP Engine and A Smart Bear. You might know Jason for having spoken at MicroConf several times. He has one of the, in my opinion, one of the best talks about bootstrapping a start up that I’ve ever heard. And he’s been known to frequently drop tons of start up knowledge on his blog, asmartbear.com.
 If you get value out of ZenFounder or out of just this series of founder origin stories, I encourage you to head over to supportzenfounder.com, where we have a patron running, and even a couple dollars a month helps us keep the show going, pay for the editor, and helps us keep the quality of the show as high as possible. I hope you enjoy this week’s episode.
Sherry Walling:What’s your total company count at these days? How many have you founded?
Jason Cohen:Oh, four.
Sherry Walling:Four. Okay. And what was your first entrepreneurial endeavor, before the formal companies. When you were a kid, did you have a lemonade stand? Were there things that you were concocting to practice your entrepreneurial skills?
Jason Cohen:Yeah, I had a quote on quote, general store in elementary school with paper and pencils for people who forgot it, and they could buy them for a quarter. But of course, nobody has even a quarter. So it didn’t work.
Sherry Walling:Did you work on credit? Or trade for jelly beans? How’d you work that out?
Jason Cohen:It just didn’t work. I think … I don’t know if I’ve always thought I wanted to start a company. But, I definitely have always had projects. That’s absolutely a thread from even very little when I would either write a book, whatever that means in second grade. Or then with the computer, writing very simple programs. There was always projects. And so, I think it’s more like being obsessed with projects and that turning into something, rather than I want a business with a P&L and a balance sheet and employees and how am I going to build that. That sort of came secondarily.
Sherry Walling:Like you wanted to make something first.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:And foremost. What kind of kid were you? How would you describe your personality as a kid?
Jason Cohen:Well, I was a class clown, but mostly in the disruptive way as opposed to the witty way. So, definitely never liked being told what to do. I mean, not that everyone likes being told what to do, but almost needing to not do whatever it is that we’re supposed to do. Oh, we have homework. Great. I’m going to try to get it done in a quarter of the time and then do something else, even if that’s as benign as reading a book. It’s not like it’s an anti-establishment. It’s just, I want to decide what to do.
 And then obsessive about projects again. So again, in the good and bad way. The good way in which you are able to make progress even as a kid on something. Because if you spend enough hours on it, then you learn things and I don’t know, you do something. But also in the bad way of, maybe you should go outside. Maybe you should play sports.
Sherry Walling:Like that hyper focus on whatever you’re making and doing and working on.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:Was it hard for you to shift gears and be disrupted when you were working on something?
Jason Cohen:Yeah, yeah. I couldn’t … didn’t want to do that. It’s like infinite patience and time for whatever was interesting or whatever I wanted to do, and zero patience and zero effort on whatever I didn’t.
Sherry Walling:How did that go with adults in your life?
Jason Cohen:Actually, a lot of adults I think, including my parents and teachers, had the attitude that this is in general going to be useful. Like, it’s good to be able to focus for years on something. That is a skill. And it’s part of how you become either an expert or accomplish something or whatever is the devotion of the time and now we would say, deliver a practice, right?
 But on the other hand, you also have to do your homework or have to do your chores or have to be a human, right? And so I think, actually pretty consistently, there’s sort of this balance of you don’t want to kill that part, but you have to be a complete human which means you can’t just do that. So I think I was sort of allowed to do a lot of it anyway.
 Like as much as possible, but still have to do laundry and vacuum the floors and whatever other chores were mind as I got older. And I did play the piano since an early age. And I took karate for a while when I was a kid. So there were things … Of course those were also things that I was devoted to, right? But at least they were varied.
Sherry Walling:So it sounds like in some ways you got lucky in that you had parents and teachers who understood your drive and determination for the positive. For what it might lead to later rather than seeing it as rebellious or disruptive or disrespectful, or …
Jason Cohen:Yeah, I don’t think you could take it as being rebellious, because it’s not like I was trying to disrupt anything else. It was just I wanted to work on this story. Or I wanted to work on this program. Or I wanted to whatever. And like, that’s clearly not trying to do something bad to somebody else.
Sherry Walling:Right.
Jason Cohen:This is clearly not the intent. So I think there was no doubt about the motivation and the intent and that it wasn’t malevolent. It could still be extreme.
Sherry Walling:I’m a little bit surprised that you described yourself as class clown, although I know you’re funny. But what about class geek? Was that part of your identity as a kid?
Jason Cohen:So in elementary school, it wasn’t really like that. In other words … I don’t know. There wasn’t that dynamic of geek yet. And anyway, that was before there was computers and stuff to sort of have that word. But then in high school where that is definitely possible, I went to a magnet school. So yes, except there was a lot of people in that group where it wasn’t really a problem. And in fact, the star quarterback of the football team was also in my vector calculus class in senior year. So, it’s hard to … It’s hard to …
Sherry Walling:It wasn’t … You weren’t an outlier in that way.
Jason Cohen:Yeah, there was still the cool kids and the geeks. And that was still true. But it wasn’t like a bad ’80s movie style thing. It was like, well that’s what this school is.
Sherry Walling:Yeah. Everybody was … What’s that character’s name in Breakfast Club? There’s like the clear geek character. But everyone was sort of of that makeup is what you’re saying.
Jason Cohen:Or enough.
Sherry Walling:Enough.
Jason Cohen:The critical mass to where it wasn’t really like that. I mean, there was definitely the cool kids and the stoner kids and the geeks. That was true. But it was more like, okay, so there are these different groups. Who cares? As opposed to a hierarchy that mattered.
Sherry Walling:So how did you first encounter technology?
Jason Cohen:We had a T1-99 4A computer pretty early, and that had basic built-in … This is a computer with 16K of RAM. So we had one at home and you wrote the program everyone writes in basic, which is ten print Jason, 20 go to ten. Enter. Then it, yeah.
 So there was that. And then later on we got a Mac Plus, apparently in the mid-80s when that was a thing. Which was pretty amazing. And things like Hyper Card. But, we did have it at home and again … So my mom was in … She was an administrator in the school district, so she had a degree in education. And my father was a professor at UT. And so, two teachers in the family. So it was sort of set up for, oh, this is something that I have a proclivity for an an interest in and whatever, so.
Sherry Walling:They wanted to make it available.
Jason Cohen:Yeah, yeah.
Sherry Walling:So did you love it right away?
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:That became … Yes, I did. That became one of your early projects.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:Beyond those, you know, early scripts and the early things that everybody did with basic, when did you feel like you were interacting with technology in a more advanced way. Or in a way that was really fueled by your curiosity that was sort of beyond what maybe your peers were doing?
Jason Cohen:So, when I was 13, I made a program for the Mac using a tool called Hyper Card in which I had a simulator for these little, I called them bits. But they were like little bugs with legs on them. And it was like logo. It was like, go forward ten and go left 30 and that kind of stuff. Except they also had things like eyes and smell and stuff. So they could … There was a variable in there where they could say how much smell there was of some other bug.
 And so, by going left and writing a program to go left and go right to try to seek where it goes more, it would find the other one and it would leave a trail so you could see it trying. And then, what if the other bug was moving. How would it follow the other thing? Or what if it was moving randomly. Or what if the other one was trying to do the opposite? What if they were in a box where it was trying to do the opposite and run away, but there was also walls. And so, would one actually catch it or could it stay away forever? What if they were going at different speeds?
 And so I wrote all of that. And then I wrote a manual. So there was like this … I still have it, printed out. Like this many paged manual of how to do all this stuff as a user of this thing. And I had a really … It’s really funny in retrospect, but I had a funny like pitch almost. So you can see the start up is there in the pitch, but none of the money.
 And the pitch was, you know the problem with biological experiments is just there’s so many variables. Like, you can’t control for everything. But you can here, because the only scent is the scent that is in this room. And the only, you know … And the light is uniform because it’s a simulation. And, you know, obviously you also wouldn’t learn anything about real biology, so.
Sherry Walling:There’s a finite number of variables and you’re controlling for all of them.
Jason Cohen:Well, I left that part out. So. But there’s like this pitch of why this is great for experiments.
Sherry Walling:How many hours do you think you spent on that?
Jason Cohen:Oh my God. Thousands. I mean, this was like a multi-year project.
Sherry Walling:Hmm.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:And you had the … The stick to it-ness as a 13 year old.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:To have an idea and carry it through and stay with it.
Jason Cohen:Yeah. And I even had the … I printed out the manual a couple of times and there were different years in the copyright notice. So, yes.
Sherry Walling:That’s awesome. In some ways it sounds like you grew up in a family that was particularly well-suited to help you really thrive given kind of who you came into the world as. So you had two teacher parents, and your dad was a psychology professor, right?
Jason Cohen:Right.
Sherry Walling:I’d like to point out. Because psychology. What … I mean what else … How would you describe your family and kind of how they shaped you?
Jason Cohen:Well, my dad was more … Less interactive and more the person that you want to make proud. And my mom was more a Jewish mother who loves her boy no matter what kind of thing. My dad used to say, you know, mommy will love you no matter what. That’s the difference between mommy and daddy.
Sherry Walling:Dot, dot, dot.
Jason Cohen:But he was joking, right. He was joking. But, it still gives you the idea of, but, you need to do something. And of course there’s the old joke which is so true that in Judaism a fetus becomes viable, like how old does it be before it becomes viable. And in Judaism, a fetus becomes viable when it graduates from medical school.
Sherry Walling:Then you’re a real person.
Jason Cohen:Yeah. So, either you’ve got to be a doctor, a lawyer, or business is like third. Successful business, then you’re back up to the top tier. So I guess it worked out. I think the … I mean the attitude which I later said which I think is true is you want to let kids figure out what is a good match for them. And the trick is when they try something for a while and then they want to stop. And then figuring out, like, because everybody tries stuff and then wants to stop. Everyone goes through a dip.
 And then the question is, do they really need to be pushed through that because really this is right for them and they will see that later? And they will be glad that they got pushed. Or is this really a bad fit, and right, they should stop and that’s not good. And of course, you can’t know the answer. You have to just try to do your best. And so, I felt like that happened.
 So when I was doing basketball for a while and wanted to stop and I did. But then, three or four years into the piano, I kind of got into this dip and wanted to stop and they didn’t let me stop. And that was good because then I got back into it and I ended up taking lessons for maybe 15 years. Until college. And even today I try to play at home. And I still have the piano which I grew up with, which is nice. So that was good that they pushed me through that. But certainly good that they did not push basketball. That would be bad.
Sherry Walling:I don’t know. You could’ve had a whole MBA career, Jason. I feel like that’s the path not taken for you.
Jason Cohen:Right, I could hold the lens. Take pictures of the players.
Sherry Walling:Maybe like a point guard.
Jason Cohen:No.
Sherry Walling:Are you an only child?
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:Okay.
Jason Cohen:Which is great for me because I like to not be bothered by the other siblings and have all of the attention and so on. That’s good. Yeah, we have a seven year old daughter now, and she’s also an only child. And we’ve talked about it before, like, but even when we talk to her about it, she says that she’s glad too.
Sherry Walling:It’s … It works. It works. I think actually both of my kids actually probably wish they were only children. But, it didn’t work out for them.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:So neither of your parents were entrepreneurs in the traditional sense.
Jason Cohen:Oh, the reverse. They didn’t understand it. And in fact, almost no one in the family … I guess no one was an entrepreneur. Yeah, there’s a lot of artists. My mom’s sister has taught photography at the University of Akron in Ohio. Her other sister was also an artist. So, it’s like a family of artists and teachers. My dad’s side, his dad was a professor at blah, blah, blah. Right. That kind of thing. So it was all teachers and artists.
 And then, so me with computers, math, because I also got a minor in math in school. And then not getting a regular job. I mean, I did have a regular job actually for a while. But, especially during college. But then, I’m just going to do something else that’s not … I don’t even know what it is.
Sherry Walling:Were they freaked out by that? I mean, how did those early conversations go?
Jason Cohen:Yeah. Yeah, but I think the notion was like, for them was, you know, the worst case is this just doesn’t work and then you do go get a job. So, you know, so far it’s been fine. So I don’t think they … They weren’t like against it. They just couldn’t understand it. Or relate to it. And they were just like, I don’t know what this is. But okay.
Sherry Walling:Right. So long as you don’t come live in our basement, then it’s fine.
Jason Cohen:My dad didn’t want me to come back home. My mom, you know, like anytime.
Sherry Walling:Your mom will love you always. Your dad’s like, okay kid, you’re done. Go.
Jason Cohen:Which, I mean, I didn’t want to move back home. But, I was always industrious in that way too. Like I worked all through college. I got a scholarship anyway, a full ride in college anyway. Which my parents were thrilled at because they had saved up for college. And then I ended up getting a full ride, and they were like, great. So they did pay my room and board for the first two years. They’re like great, we’re keeping the money though except for here. Here’s the dorm money
Sherry Walling:Right. Here’s a place to sleep.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:And now we’re going to Tahiti.
Jason Cohen:But I worked all through college. Because I wanted to.
Sherry Walling:Yeah.
Jason Cohen:And so … And that was a sort of regular job. It was at a start up, actually, but it was … And again, I did get a paycheck. I wasn’t worried about that. So I was able to save up a bit. And so, after college, I had a regular job for like six months. And then had the first start up. And that’s when … And I did say, you know, here’s my line in the sand. If my savings dips below this, then I’m going to stop. You know, that kind of thing to be responsible about taking a risk.
Sherry Walling:But they really supported that risk. Certainly as you made it a logical risk.
Jason Cohen:It was … Well, that’s not even why, I think. It was more … It was more meta than that. It was like I worked through college because I wanted to work. It’s not like I’m not going to get a job. That’s just not in me to not do. It’s not going to happen. The very fact that I would construct a way to mitigate the downside of the risk is exactly why I don’t need to be worried about it, right?
Sherry Walling:They trusted you, obviously. Yeah. You know, one of the things that we’ve talked about in some of our personal conversations is you losing your dad when you were in college, right?
Jason Cohen:No, it was after college by quite a bit actually.
Sherry Walling:Okay, okay.
Jason Cohen:He was diagnosed a year before I went to college but they only told me when I was going to college.
Sherry Walling:Okay.
Jason Cohen:That’s why … so I always think of it as when I went to college. But it was a year before. But since they didn’t tell me, it’s what’s kind of in my mind.
Sherry Walling:This story of cancer didn’t begin for you until you went to college.
Jason Cohen:Right.
Sherry Walling:But you knew he was sick when you left.
Jason Cohen:Well, yeah, but the way it worked was I graduated from high school. And so it’s the beginning of summer. And they say, well, your dad has cancer. We have to go to Little Rock. So we lived in Austin. We have to go to Little Rock, Arkansas for a bone marrow transplant. So we’re going to be gone all summer. You’ll move yourself into college. Bye. Oh, here’s how to pay the bills.
Sherry Walling:Wow.
Jason Cohen:So, they like … Okay. So summer at home and then went to college. And so that was obviously an odd way to be informed and …
Sherry Walling:Welcome to adulthood.
Jason Cohen:Well, and again, they later said the reason was because it’s difficult and why … I mean, it’s a funny thing, but they were trying to protect me in high school from the distraction. And so you could argue whether that’s good or bad. And whatever. And it’s … I think as a parent, you just try to make some good choices.
 And not only … If it’s a mistake later on, not only should you just say, well, okay. Everyone makes mistakes. But also, it’s not even clear if it is a mistake. It’s not even clear … It’s just not clear. So, there’s no … whatever. You just try to do the right thing and that’s that.
 Anyway, so, but he finally died in 2004. So that was four years after I graduated from college. Eight years after I left for college. So it was quite a while after that.
Sherry Walling:I mean, that seems like a … You know, significant thing to happen, you know, in your young adulthood. This is when … So you’re four years after college. You’d started your first company by then.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:Do you feel like he got to see a glimpse of who you would later become as a successful professional?
Jason Cohen:A glimpse, yeah. Because … Well the first company was a consulting company. It was okay. We got up to a little over a million in revenue a year, which is great. But then it very quickly went down to effectively zero, and then it was post-bubble. It was like 2001. And then … It was post-bubble, and then 9/11, it was like ugh. This is too … This is not a good time to do this. And so it dissolved.
 Then though in 2002 is when I started Smart Bear, which … And also IT Watchdogs was at the same time. This is a complicated story, but basically there were two start ups at the same time. And Smart Bear I did on my own, and IT Watchdogs I had a co-founder. And the co-founder there … So I had started Smart Bear. And IT Watchdogs guy, his name is Jerry, he said you should come do both of these things. And I was like, what do you mean? And he said, well, one will probably fail. So do them both and then just stick with the one that succeeds.
 Because at the time, Smart Bear was just a hobby. The software that is was just a hobby. I wasn’t making money on it. And I had a good consulting job. So this was like the big leap to … Because, like, consulting is obviously a company. But it’s not a start up in the same sense as like product or a retail business or something.
 Consulting, there’s almost never any start up funded needed. You just, you know, you sort of quit your day job when you get your first other job. Not to say it’s not difficult and all that, but it’s not the same sort of risk and scariness as going to zero revenue.
Sherry Walling:Yes. And spend a bunch of time building something that maybe people will buy.
Jason Cohen:Right. Like it’s not the same … It isn’t the same thing. So I was worried about making that leap. So, I absolutely credit Jerry, Jerry Cohen, my co-founder at IT Watchdogs for making me take that leap. And his argument was actually kind of the same as what I said earlier, which is, you can always just get a job. Like, you know. You can always get a job. So just do it. Because you can and you’re young and you don’t have any attachments and so on, so just do it. Which of course, he was right. But he still had to convince me.
 So I did both. And of course, they both succeeded. And that was a problem, because you can’t do two start ups obviously. So, I focused more on IT Watchdogs at first. And then as that one grew, I focused more on Smart Bear. And then eventually we sold IT Watchdogs in 2005. And then I was really able to only focus on Smart Bear. So, that’s how that sort of navigated.
 So it was at Smart Bear, and I guess IT Watchdogs too. But I was really kind of almost out of that when my dad actually died. So I associate all of that with Smart Bear. And I had one employee at the time. So I remember that time very clearly. Because, you know, there’s only two people in the company, so you need everybody to be working all the time to make it work.
 And I remember him saying, you’ve got to go. You’ve got to go get to the hospital and all that. Because my dad was in the hospital of course a lot. And I was at the hospital a lot, which was good. At some point you do need a break of your own, right. And work is an escape from that. And that’s, I think, of course that can be unhealthy. It could be used in an unhealthy way. But it can also be used in a healthy way. You can’t just be in the hospital and stare at a monitor literally all of the time, that’s not healthy either, right?
 So I was trying to navigate that. But anyway, I remember all that pretty clearly.
Sherry Walling:Trying to go back and forth between sitting with your dad and building your company.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:How was it for you emotionally? Was that like a dark season in your life? I mean, it’s just sort of hard to think about. Because on one hand, your career and the projects that you’ve been working on are exploding and are doing well. And then on the other hand, you’re losing this really important person. Did you feel like you’re sort of swinging back and forth, or were you kind of in that middle ground?
Jason Cohen:Yeah, it’s hard because it was both at the same time. So it’s hard to characterize it. Because you’re right, like Smart Bear was starting to really, really start taking off. And IT Watchdogs was now in a good place. And so that was all really interesting and exciting and good, of course.
 I should also mention both of those companies were bootstrapped. And that’s useful because of course, you know, bootstrapped companies and companies you raise money for, both very hard but in separate ways. There’s different types of hard. Anyway, these are both in the bootstrapped type, which there’s never enough time, never enough money. Just trying to make it work. It feels like a six month old where they’re just trying to kill themselves all the time. And you’re just trying to keep them alive. And that’s the state that they’re in for a while. And they finally get enough mass that they can not be in that state.
 Whereas when you raise money, it’s not that they’re going to die. There’s a year money in the bank. But there’s a different problem of how to put it to work and anyway, it’s different. And more about people and stuff like that. Anyway, so they were both interesting.
 But the other thing with my dad is, again, was eight years. That’s a long time to be facing and dealing with that. And toward the end it was clear that it was starting to go downhill, as these things sometimes do. And so, there’s also this strange feeling of inevitability and sort of like the mourning process is dragged out in font of the event. So, it’s hard, obviously. But it’s not like, oh, what a surprise. And so, you mourn. And so it’s like, after it happened, it was almost like, well I feel like I’ve been dealing with this event for like a year already. And so it wasn’t … So that was kind of strange. I mean, I’m sure it’s common. But for each individual person it can be strange to go through it even if it’s extremely common, right?
Sherry Walling:Right. You could see how it would happen. But when it’s you yourself and you’re experiencing maybe a little bit of relief or just that acceptance, maybe some piece, it’s like, oh, this is an odd experience to be having right now.
Jason Cohen:So that was odd too. And I think people grieve or mourn or deal with those kinds of things differently. And again, it’s hard to say if any one person … I mean, from the outside, if any one person’s dealing with it well. Whatever that means. So like immediately afterwards, again, I had felt like I had already dealt with it for so long that I dealt with it.
 I mean, not that it’s all over. But like, there’s not a lot more coming. And then that was true. But then four months later, something would hit me. You know, that kind of thing. And again, I’m sure that’s common. But nevertheless, you know, when it happens to you, common or not, it’s still a think that you deal with, and you know.
 But what he didn’t see is the sort of finality of some of these things. Like actually selling IT Watchdogs. Or then selling Smart Bear in 2007. Or WP Engine which is my current venture, and is now … The biggest, not just in things like revenue and whatever, customers. It is. But kind of in what it means for the world.
 In other words, like Smart Bear was a good tool and it helped a lot of people and that’s good. But WP Engine’s more like, we’re … The things we do for our employees. We have 450 employees and still growing. And the way in which we’re able to open doors so people can have careers that they didn’t have. That’s what they say. And do things that they or even people in their family have not done before. Like, this is important on a different human level. And it has nothing to do with scale. It just happens that, oh well, if there’s more of that than that’s good. But it’s not about, quote on quote, making a dent in the universe or something like that. But rather just, on a human level it’s just a bigger impact.
Sherry Walling:And something you’re super proud of.
Jason Cohen:Yeah, yeah. Of course. Super proud of it. And I’m also proud of the usual business metrics. Revenue growth and employees and customer count and crap. And I am proud of that. And that is also hard. And if you’re going to grow a sustainable enduring business, then you have to have those things, right? Those are part of it.
Sherry Walling:All those 450 people need to be paid, I hear.
Jason Cohen:Right, right, right.
Sherry Walling:They like that. They’ll stay around better.
Jason Cohen:And even selfishly, I want … I want to have built the big company with a bunch of other people, of course. And I want to make a ton of money from it. All that’s selfish stuff too. That as well. So, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting that as well. But I would say in Smart Bear, I wanted to make money. I also wanted everyone involved too.
 In fact, I gave a way a lot of the company when I sold it. Some of my advisors were like, why did you give up so much of the company? I don’t know. Because it’s ours. We built … You know, we made it. So not just me. But everybody at the company I wanted to make money when we sold it. But it was really about that. Making money and selling it, right? And we did. And that’s fine.
 But WP Engine, there’s all this other stuff. So it’s much more meaningful. And so he didn’t see that, but he did see that things were starting to work and that maybe this risky choice was good.
Sherry Walling:He saw the beginnings of it. And he knew who you were.
Jason Cohen:Yeah. Yeah.
Sherry Walling:What do you think he’d get the most kick out of? What would he be most interested in or proud of?
Jason Cohen:Today, my daughter.
Sherry Walling:He’s like, I don’t care about your business. I care about my grandkid.
Jason Cohen:Oh, yeah, for sure. Again, he’d … I had a very strict upbringing. Like, I didn’t see many movies. The rule was no food with sugar in the first or second ingredient. Sugar of any kind. So it was very granola stuff and all that. I’m sure he would spoil my daughter rotten and do everything that he didn’t do. Right? So that’d be fun.
 I guess, being an entrepreneur’s obviously a weird life. And just made it work. I think that’s gotta be good. But probably all the things I’m proud of. I would think it’s the same type of stuff, right? It’s an accomplishment and it means something. Besides that it’s an accomplishment personally, it means something to many other people.
 You know, another thing, on that same note, but one of the other things that sort of again, it’s selfish, but it’s meaningful from a childhood perspective is. So our building that we’re in in Austin. So we have locations around the world. We’re in London and Limerick in Ireland and San Antonio, Texas, and in San Francisco. But Austin is our headquarters. And about two thirds of our folks are in Austin.
 Anyways, so we’re in a building in downtown Austin and it’s at this particular corner, Fifth and Lavaca, which is kind of in the middle of things. And we’re now in about 60 percent of our building we occupy. And so, a couple years ago we got our name on the outside. You know, the big on that’s lit up at night and all that. Like, the real name on the building. Not the little plaque inside, but like, it’s the WP Engine building now, right?
 And so obviously that’s a great moment, just period. Right? Your company’s name is on a building downtown Like that’s …
Sherry Walling:You’re changing the skyline.
Jason Cohen:Yeah. Like that’s pretty … You didn’t build the building, but you’re still the scar is kind of. And Fifth Street in Austin is the primary artery to get to downtown if you’re coming from the west side of town. So, hundreds of thousands of people see that every day. And maybe more in, you know, if there’s an event, right?
Sherry Walling:And your dad as a UT prof would’ve …
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:Kind of traversed that area a little bit, yeah?
Jason Cohen:And this is old Austin. Austin has grown so much. But this is like core old Austin. This has been here since 18, I think, three? The street? So this is like, you really are changed Austin.
 Now the reason I brought that up is when I was a kid, going downtown was like really special because you didn’t … Nowadays in Austin, downtown has got all kinds of stuff. There’s restaurants and a place to go and whatever. But not when I was growing up. It was like, government, lawyers, and then that’s it. And also it was kind of a ghost town. It had gone through a slump and a bust. And so a lot of it was just boarded up. Downtown was gnarly.
 But right on the edge of downtown, there was the bagel store. And that’s where we always got our bagels. And so, on Sundays, we would go down Fifth Street and go to this bagel shop. And I remember in a car seat behind the driver’s side, I would look out the window. And I know we’d be at the bagel place, because there’d be a building on the other side of the bagel place that had this long sloping ramped driveway that went up into the parking garage there. And I knew when I saw that long sloping thing we were at the bagel place.
 But we never went further. Like, we never ventured further down.
Sherry Walling:That was the line.
Jason Cohen:Down the runway. Get the bagels and go. So that building with the sloping garage is the WP Engine building.
Sherry Walling:Wow.
Jason Cohen:That very building that was ingrained like a ducking is ingrained on the lawn, right?
Sherry Walling:You have an imprint.
Jason Cohen:Is the building. And I go up that driveway every day.
Sherry Walling:Wow, Jason.
Jason Cohen:And the [inaudible 00:30:42] is closed, sadly. Because it was great. But like everything else in downtown, everything’s a billion dollars a square foot, so you can’t have a bagel store. It has to be some hipster café or whatever. Right? Like, that’s the only thing that’s going to work. So that meant a lot to me just from a personal perspective.
 And so the reason I thought of that is because when you said, what would he be proud of, or what is my mom proud of now, that’s maybe a nice microcosm of what we’d be proud of. Is like, now your name is on that building. Like, that kind of thing. Probably that.
Sherry Walling:Does your mom come down and see you at work?
Jason Cohen:She has occasionally. She doesn’t do it a lot, but, she does sometimes. So my mom has MS, and so it’s hard for her to get around a lot. So she doesn’t … She doesn’t get around that much. But when she has come in, and there was one time when also her sister was in town. And every Thursday we have a town hall where we gather the whole company, which of course means as many as you can into the main conference room and then like a constellation map of faces, or like a Brady Bunch plus, plus on the, you know, AV screen of all the other locations and rooms and stuff.
 And just for 30 minutes. And it’s just like the, as Heather, our CEO says, the dinner table. We gather around, good, bad, and the ugly. And so once a month we do what we show all our numbers to the whole company. How we’re doing. And just all kinds of other announcements and things.
 And so, they came maybe a year ago or so when we were doing our numbers and got to see all of that and … Especially if … I think you can be jaded if you read tech crunch and feel like if you’re not a billion dollar company, then why are you even bothering. That’s the tech crunch mentality which is of course ludicrous. So you can get quite jaded there.
 But for an artist and a teacher, to come see and we have these incredible numbers that are just sort of staggeringly big. And to see all the people and just see the culture. Because you just feel the culture. Because culture is what you see. And what happens when you talk to anybody. And that’s what it is. And it’s immediately apparent when you walk into WP Engine what our culture is and how strong it is.
 So for them to just feel all that and see all that, that was really neat?
Sherry Walling:So were you watching your mom’s face?
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:What was her expression like?
Jason Cohen:She kind of went like this. I’m trying to think of how to say this in words.
Sherry Walling:Like a little, sort of, proud swagger.
Jason Cohen:Of course. You know. She would like pull on people’s shirts. She was sitting down. She would pull on people’s shirts that were standing around. She’d be like, that’s my son.
Sherry Walling:That’s my kid.
Jason Cohen:So everybody knew who the queen was. And why not. Good for her.
Sherry Walling:Right. She put up with a lot of projects and bought a lot of computers. And, you know, lots of cheerleading.
Jason Cohen:For sure.
Sherry Walling:What are you most grateful for as you look back in your childhood, your early life?
Jason Cohen:Well that’s easy. I was born a cis gendered white male in Austin, Texas to two educated parents. That’s the genetic lottery. You don’t have any excuses at that point. Sure, life can throw things at you and this and that, but like, you don’t really have any excuses. So for sure, that. And so the question is, I mean, it’s not something you apologize for. It just is. Right.
 But you can ask, so what are you going to do? What are you going to do with that? And so, what opportunities can you create for others? What is going to be important? What do you value? Those are the questions that are interesting.
 Same thing with making a bunch of money. You know, I hope to make … You know we’ve already built a company that’s worth a lot. I hope that some day, I’ll make a shit ton of money from it. Okay, great, that’s fine. And then the question once again is, and so what are you going to do? Right?
Sherry Walling:Like how do you use your privilege well?
Jason Cohen:Yeah. Yeah. There’s nothing. I mean, I guess if our company were doing something that itself was questionable or exploitive. Like we win because someone else loses, then it wouldn’t be so great if we made a bunch of money that way. But that’s not the case at all. And so we’re a utility for the internet. Like the water utility. So it’s like, of course you need this. So it’s not that way. So there’s no guilt about that.
 But again, the question is always what do you do? And so, that is why I’m proud of the culture and opportunities that we make at WP Engine, because that’s a big answer to what are you going to do? And so, some of it is how we give back. In fact, our fifth value when you walk in, you see them on the wall, and we actually live them unlike most of them which are plastered on the wall but people make fun of it because it’s not true.
 So our fifth value is committed to give back. And so we do a ton of stuff. We give back to the open source communities for the software that we use. A lot. We have full-time people who only give back to the community. So I mean, we really do that. Plus dollars as well. And also to the places we live. And obviously a lot in Austin since that’s where most of us are.
 So for example, we’re one of the biggest donors to the local food bank. In fact, we may be … I think we may have been the single biggest donor last year as an organization. We volunteer our time as well, and to lots of different organizations. And so there’s a lot of ways in which we literally give back. But again, it’s what we do for people at the company where you also see … That’s not giving back. That’s making opportunity.
 So no one should be given a free ride or a free pass. But everyone should be given a chance. And giving a chance is … You know, most people don’t get a chance. And so, most people don’t have the door opened that they have to then walk through. So you can’t get a promotion or whatever and WP Engine that’s not deserved. That’s just not a meritocracy.
 But, so for example, we’re a high tech company, and so typically you expect a high tech company to have almost everyone has gone to college. But we have actually 35 percent of the employees have not gone to college at WP Engine. And 65 percent of our executive team are women, including our CEO and CFO, which obviously are especially usually not women. You might say.
 Even 50 percent of our management team in engineering are women. So everyone there is amazing. There’s no one there because, oh, well, they’re just there because … You know, that’s not … That’s just not acceptable. And anybody who’s ambitious and wants to be good doesn’t want to be given something anyway that’s not deserved either.
 You know, especially the folks who come in in our support organization, which especially does not require previous knowledge of technology or schooling and all these kind of prerequisites. That’s where you really see people where there’s not a lot of opportunities. Not a lot of choice. And especially at places where it’s hourly and then they do these tricks where you get 32 hours a week, and that means they don’t have to give you benefits. And then that means you need a second job. But now you’re working way too much. Just, you know, that whole. And we don’t have to get into all that. But basically it’s a racket bordering on serfdom or that kind of thing really. Or many of those things.
 And so to have an entry level position. Because it’s true that’s what that is. But having an entry level position that respects the individual and tries to make things go well. So for example, we have a learning and development team, L&D team, inside the company, whose job is to train our folks. So that we can hire people that don’t have this and that skill, and then teach them the skills.
 And also, once they’re here, we have training for how to get a promotion. So, we have L1, L2, L3 in tech support, where of course you have more skills and you can solve these kind of problems. Of course you have more abilities, technical abilities that is. And also, customer service skills and whatnot. But we have training inside the company to help someone do that. That’s what we want you to do, right?
 Now you still have to do it. If you don’t demonstrate those skills, you can’t just get a promotion. That’s not okay. But every opportunity to in fact do that. And then, you have a lot of people … Well, a good number of people where they have other proclivities and skills. So they love spreadsheets. And so they actually like what finance is doing. Or a lot of folks come into support, and it’s quite clear they’d be natural salespeople. But, what sort of organization’s every going to give them a job except for something like, I don’t know, just cold calling some ridiculous thing. It’s not really a career, right?
Sherry Walling:You’re totally the child of two teachers. Everything’s just a sense that you love watching people develop and increase their capacity for opportunities because they’re growing their skill set.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:That’s a pretty deep part of who you are and what you’ve been part of at WP Engine.
Jason Cohen:For sure. And so, that, you know … Seeing people moving to other … Becoming engineers. Becoming marketers. Becoming salespeople. Becoming finance people. As well as stuff inside support. Or becoming account managers. Becoming managers.
 You know, one of the typical problems in a company is, in terms of promotion or advancement, is that you advance up the org chart. But that’s bad for at least two reasons. One is a lot of people don’t want to be managers. Wouldn’t be good as managers. And shouldn’t be managers. And that’s fine. And so if that’s the only way to get more responsibility and money and this and that, and that’s not for you, either you’re going to do it and be unhappy and bad at it, or you’re not going to do it, you know. Either one of those is not a good outcome.
 The second thing is just mathematically. Like, if every manager has six to nine direct reports, well then they can’t all become managers. Because only one can.
Sherry Walling:Right. The math doesn’t work.
Jason Cohen:The math doesn’t work. So, you … That can’t be the way. But since it often is, then people have to change jobs. Change companies in order to have advancement, right? Which is much harder.
 And so at WP Engine, the idea is you shouldn’t have to change companies to change jobs or have advancement, et cetera. You have to earn it again. But how else can that be. So again, like management’s definitely a great way. But that should be like one in six. Just mathematically.
Sherry Walling:Yeah.
Jason Cohen:And, but there still needs to be the other five out of six ways, or opportunities that is.
Sherry Walling:To go deeper, and learn more.
Jason Cohen:Yeah.
Sherry Walling:And move up.
Jason Cohen:Anyways, so in terms of real impact in people’s lives or what you’re proud of and everything that said. And so how to turn what are my obvious bestowed advantages who don’t have that necessarily, this is a pretty good mechanism. And not to try to argue it’s the most efficient one or da, da, da, da. I don’t know. But we’re certainly trying to do something for, at the moment, 450 people.
Sherry Walling:You can see how the story flows together. I mean, what you are naturally good at. You’re good at doing complex projects. But also teaching other people how to do it. I mean, I love that story about you. You’re writing the manuals to the thing that you made. You know, it’s not just this, oh, I made this. It’s cool.
 But it’s, I made this and I developed a mechanism to bring other people in and bring other people along and empower them to create their own projects based on the structure that’s provided. It’s fun to talk about those early days and sort of who you became before you were shaped by the expectations of society or shaped by your success. And there’s still a lot of deep connection to who you were as, you know, an eight year old to what you’re doing now.
 And I think that’s really neat. It also sort of makes me think that, you know, you’re one of the folks who really was able to create the right situation for yourself. You’re kind of, you know, doing what you should be doing, quote on quote. Existentially.
Jason Cohen:I think that’s probably true. Yeah.
Sherry Walling:Well, cool.
Jason Cohen:I don’t know what else it would be. But …
Sherry Walling:Basketball. Come on. Come on.
Jason Cohen:Yeah. Definitely not that.
Sherry Walling:Well, thanks, Jason for chatting with me. I appreciate it.
Jason Cohen:Yeah. It was fun.
Sherry Walling:I appreciate you talking about your family and it’s always cool to hear your story and things you’re thinking about.
Jason Cohen:Thanks for having me.
Sherry Walling:Yeah. Absolutely. I’ll see you in Boston if not before.
Jason Cohen:Oh, yeah. Right.
Sherry Walling:All right. Take good care.
Jason Cohen:Okay. Thanks. You too.