First down and tech to go
Football hero Phil Brabbs kicks down many doors to epitomize Ann Arbor’s entrepreneurial spirit
By Christine M. Tracy
2002 was one of the best years of Phil Brabbs’ life. On a hot Saturday in August the University of Michigan kicker, a walk-on from Midland, attempted a critical 44-yard field goal. The Wolverines were trailing Washington by one point. Brabbs had missed both 36- and 42-yard attempts earlier in the game. “If he hits it, he’ll be a hero for years to come,” predicted an ABC Sports commentator. With five seconds left, Brabbs set up for the kick, and as time expired he put the ball between the posts for a big Michigan win. Overcome with joy, Brabbs started doing circles around the field before his teammates buried him in a big heap of bodies.
After graduating in 2004, Brabbs moved to Charlotte, N.C., to work for Accenture, a technology consulting firm. Like many Michigan grads, Brabbs and his wife Cassie missed home and wanted to get back to Michigan. Not long after, Brabbs was back in Ann Arbor unpacking a moving truck on a 15-degree-below-zero February day. As he settled back into life and winters in Michigan in 2007, he was dreaming big dreams, not only for himself, but for the state.
• The digital economy is changing everything about Ann Arbor, whether we’re ready or not.
The son of a Dow senior construction manager, Brabbs believed manufacturing was hurting, not helping, desperate cities like Detroit. “The state needs information technology to rebuild,” he mused, and he began imagining how to make that happen. Every morning for almost three months the ambitious young engineer got up at 6 a.m. to compose his manifesto, “Brabbs.Inc.,” a 50-page business plan that was “life-giving not soul-sucking.”
Brabbs dreamed of implementing his plan and launching his own business, but his wife became pregnant with their second child. So when Iris was born in fall 2007, he chose the stability of a corporate position and started work as a product manager for Thompson Reuters, an international information management company just a mile from his home.
The financial security of a corporate job and its perks — life and health insurance — soon became crucial to Brabbs and his growing family. He had survived a near-fatal pulmonary embolism a year earlier, which was followed by a series of blood clots. The initial diagnosis was a “clotting disorder.” Brabbs’ doctors wanted him to stay on Coumadin, a blood-thinner, for the rest of his life, but a friend urged him to get a second opinion.
Brabbs saw oncologists at the University of Michigan Health System, and in 2008 the Michigan football hero who delivered “The Kick” in front of 108,000 fans faced personal challenges much more daunting than the Washington defensive line. One day after his 28th birthday, Brabbs was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood with a survival estimate of three to five years.
• Poplin: Does this new technocracy jibe with the community’s shared vision for A2?
Instead of withdrawing or slipping into depression, the cancer diagnosis motivated Brabbs to double-down on life. He vowed to fight the staggering odds and to avidly pursue his dreams, and for a while, he did just that. He underwent highly aggressive cancer treatment — 13 cycles of chemotherapy within 15 months and two bone-marrow transplants. He made a deal with God to give him 10 years to get his young family settled.
Brabbs felt his clock ticking and launched headlong into life. “The cancer accelerated my desire to make a startup a success,” says Brabbs, and in December 2009 he launched Scoutforce, a recruiting tool for college coaches that connects them with student-athletes and parents.
Ruby, Phil and Cassie’s third child, was born in spring 2010. That same year he started the Cancer Kicker Foundation to raise awareness for myeloma research and continued to work as product manager for Thompson Reuters.
To make it all work, Brabbs got up at 6 a.m. daily and fell into bed at midnight. The 18-hour, coffee-fueled days eventually took their toll on the football hero, whose 200-pound frame shrunk to 170.
If 2002 was one of the best years in Brabbs’ life, 2012 was one of the worst. In January, Brabbs was hospitalized and his life unraveled. “I crashed. I was trying to win at too many aspects of my life. Physically my body couldn’t take it. I had taken on the world and was about to lose everything, especially my family,” he said. Early angel investors in his startup demanded the loan used to start the business be paid back, instead of converting it to ownership or equity in the business. This is something which they almost never do, said Brabbs: “We didn’t have the money to pay them so they took control of the company.”
To make sense of it all, and to survive, Brabbs developed a philosophy he calls “failing forward.”
“Failure is actually not a bad thing. Growth comes from failure, but you can either fail forward or fail backward. Failing backward is when we start to get pulled down. If we fail forward, we’ll move forward and make progress,” he said. As Brabbs envisions it, to “fail forward” in life requires managing stress and developing reliable mentors. Just as in weightlifting, these mentors act as spotters who stand next to you, tell you the truth and make sure you don’t take on too much weight.
In addition to his wife Cassie, one of Brabbs’ mentors is his friend, Daniel McCollum. The two met in 2005 when they both worked for Accenture. “He’s been my ‘spotter’ for 12 years now. He’s the one who says, ‘Phil, you have your cancer cure foundation, you have your day job, and you just had a third kid. I think we need to pull back some of those things. This is too much for you.’”
With the help and advice of his spotters, and to pay the bills and support his family, Brabbs continued to work for Thompson Reuters, transitioned control of Scoutforce to its investors, and pared down his life — except for that half-marathon he ran in October 2012 in Chicago “to set a health-related goal.”
At the same time he was getting his bearings and healing, his friend and mentor “took the big jump.” McCollum quit his job at Apparo, a nonprofit management organization, to launch Torrent Consulting. Within a year, Brabbs left Thompson Reuters, and his life and health insurance, to become Torrent’s second employee.
‘The case study’
Torrent now has 56 employees who work to help more than 150 clients implement Salesforce, a private, cloud-based platform used to streamline and automate sales, marketing and customer service. In just four years, the company has experienced phenomenal growth and is high on the list of Inc.’s fastest-growing companies.
Brabbs and McCollum sounded like proud but philosophical parents when Torrent’s employees met via video streaming to celebrate the company’s fourth anniversary on June 28. As her co-workers munched on birthday cake and brownies, Torrent’s people and culture manager, Kendra Miller, asked Brabbs and McCollum to reflect on the founding of the company. “I knew my fate rested on my own efforts,” said McCollum. ”We didn’t want to take the same path as most companies. We’re not just building the company to sell it.”
“We knew we had to become the case study because we’re in a position to see what other companies are doing and not doing,” said Brabbs. “Most startups fail. I didn’t think we’d be this big this fast. The only way we’ve been able to go from two people in two different states to 56 people in nine different states and a different country is because of the way we innovated our communicating and connecting. We’re onto something bigger than customer life cycles. We’re building a new way to do business that other people want.”
General Motors will soon tour the company’s offices to find out how to successfully hire talent without relying solely on resumes. “The Torrent Way” is to hire based on values and fit, according to Brabbs. “We want people in our company that we would trust with our children,” he says. Torrent interviewers want to know what motivates a prospective employee and what he or she is passionate about. “If I know the type of person you are, and I know that you have our values, then you’ll fit here,” said Brabbs.
Instead of staring at computer screens, sitting at dedicated desks and spending time reading, composing and responding to email, Torrent employees communicate via a real-time video stream, wear FitBits and bring their children to work where they play with Legos and learn how to write computer code.
“Corporate America is trying to push the whole idea of work-life balance, and I think that’s wrong,” said Brabbs. “You shouldn’t have to try to balance your work with your life. To me, it’s all life.”