San Diego was a hotbed of tech startup activity back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with many young entrepreneurs making a name for themselves and their companies while also surviving the infamous dot-com bubble. One of those hot companies was Active Network, which pioneered online event registration. Founded in 1999, the company, which is still going strong today, is now headquartered in Texas and owned by Global Payments, but fueled dozens of entrepreneurs who still call San Diego home.
I caught up with one of those entrepreneurs, Justin Ramers, former Director of Digital and Social Media at Active and current Founder & CEO, San Diego-based Teamvibe. Below Ramers reminisces about his Active days, how he launched a company that streamlines and automates internal communications for companies, and why he loves San Diego.
The Deets: Ramers moved to San Diego in 2006 when his first startup Axia Golf Solutions, Inc. was acquired by Active. “I always joke that if Active was in LA instead of San Diego, I might have turned it down,” he said.
“Active had just created a new golf division and our audience had grown organically to over half a million golfers,” Ramers continued. “Our members combined with other acquisitions of tee time companies helped launch Active’s new golf division. I was brought on to run product and development for the new division and did that for a few years until Jon Belmonte (former CEO) lured me over to the Active.com side where I ran digital marketing and social media for most of my time at Active. I finished up with two years on the Business Solutions team working with large clients on corporate events.”
Opportunities: “One great thing about Active is there were always opportunities to work in new roles or new divisions to keep things interesting. My role also allowed me to work cross-functionally so I got to know many co-workers from the numerous business units, product lines, and departments.”
Comradery: To Ramers, the culture was by far the best part of working at Active. “I had never been in a really large company before but was amazed at the comradery across the organization and even throughout other office locations,” he said. “This was especially impressive considering that Active’s growth was largely fueled by several dozen acquisitions and merging of cultures is always a huge challenge. As someone who was new to San Diego, it was especially great for me to work with a bunch of super fun people who became very close personal friends as well. There were no shortage of romantic relationships that sparked at Active.”
Creative Development: “Senior management (at Active) did a great job of allowing people to create and run with new ideas and programs that often drove innovation and real business results,” Ramers said. “And they were also proactive about showcasing the great work that employees were doing on an everyday basis. It all added up to a great work environment that so many people in San Diego wanted to be a part of. I would regularly have friends ask me for job openings when we opened new positions, we would get hundreds of applicants instantly.”
Culture Shift: “As someone who was at Active for almost 10 years, it was also fascinating to see how that great culture shifted after the IPO and eventual sale to private equity. What was once a strength of the company turned on its head once communication broke down and employees started to jump ship before the eventual move to Dallas. It became a case study in both the power and benefits of great culture and how quickly it can fall apart when not cared for correctly.”
Moving On: After Active.com, Ramers joined event management software company Lanyon as Senior Director of Digital Strategy. About a year later (in 2015), he launched his own startup, Teamvibe, which streamlines and automates internal communications for companies.
“Teamvibe was born as a direct result of everything I saw and learned at Active,” he said. “Every month we would send several million emails to Active.com users about all kinds of things they were interested in (running, cycling, golf, etc.). I learned how powerful and effective email can be when it is targeted, relevant, and delivered on a regular schedule.”
“One day I realized those same best practices should absolutely be used with your most important audience – your employees. Active had done a good job of communicating with and celebrating employees to build culture, but struggled to do that at scale and with any consistency. Teamvibe automates that entire process of internal communications for companies and employees.”
Core Technology: Teamvibe’s content engine allows any employee to supply important business updates, team wins, and kudos from every part of the organization and automatically delivers those via a once-a-day scheduled email. “The regular updates build culture, transparency, and even creates healthy competition between teams,” Ramers said.
“Since Teamvibe works for any type of company, we’ve seen some really interesting clients across various industries like tech, finance, healthcare, government, and many more. We even have a 100-year-old lumber company loving the product.”
The Team: Teamvibe currently has seven employees, most of whom work remotely. “We are a small but mighty team,” Ramers said. “It’s actually amazing what a small team of rockstars can accomplish when you eliminate corporate friction.”
Career Prep: Ramers gives props to his experience at Active for helping boost his career. “I learned a lot about the impact of internal communications and culture on the success of any business. But additionally, Active was great at launching new products (almost mini companies) inside its walls. I learned a lot about building, launching, and growing technology products and the challenges involved. It was also really valuable to learn how to navigate a larger organization and get things done while dealing with many stakeholders and business owners.”
Business Tips: When asked about what lessons he took with him from Active, Ramers offered the following advice:
- Move fast and break things.
- Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
- Under promise, over deliver.
- And most importantly, over communicate with your employees and co-workers. Any lack of information inside a company will create speculation and gossip every time.
Sunny Diego: Ramers, originally from San Francisco, considered moving back to the Bay Area to launch Teamvibe. But, he quickly came to his senses. “It became clear that the pros of San Diego outweigh the cons,” he said. “Costs are (slightly) cheaper (in San Diego), employees are more loyal, and my large network is always eager to help with introductions. We’ve also used some development resources in nearby Tijuana, which have been great. Oh and the weather here is not bad either.”
SD Startup Vibe: “I think San Diego is a very solid second tier startup community. It’s not – nor will ever be – a San Francisco or New York. But it’s on par with Seattle, Austin, Denver, etc…. Although we could certainly use some more investors down here,” Ramers said.”
The best thing about San Diego, he said, “is that you feel like everyone is genuinely willing to help each other succeed. I’m an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at Connect, which is a 100% volunteer based organization. Every month, I see top-notch executives giving up their time to help startups for nothing in return.”
“The networking events are hit or miss,” he added. “But if you are proactive and hustle you can find top quality people that will take a meeting and help you when they can. San Diego Startup Week has grown in size every year and is now a must-attend event for any startup. One ask is that it would be nice to see the larger companies in town help support the startup scene a little more with their time and dollars.”
Ecosystem: “It’s really cool to see where all the ex-Active people have landed since the company left town,” Ramers said I’ve seen some great “Active-like” cultures form at companies like Classy, Events.com, GovX, Lytx, and many others. And several startups have been born from super talented Active alumni. I wouldn’t have traded my time at Active for anything and hope to get together with the old crew more often in the future.”
Editor’s Note: This is part eight in a series about the early pioneers of online race and activity registration, the subsequent companies they went on to create and run, and how they are still “active” in the San Diego tech ecosystem. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 & Part 7.