A Healthier Lifestyle Helped Lead This Tech Exec to His Next Venture
Austin—Douglas Ferguson needed a change after his diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes at age 30.
As a career software engineer and technology executive, Ferguson has been a part of the Austin, TX, tech scene since its first heyday in the 1990s. The diagnosis, which he received in the mid-2000s, was a product of that sleepless, sedentary, and hectic lifestyle that many software developers and executives experience.
Ferguson’s condition took him through highs and lows over the next decade, but change came to fruition in recent years with a healthier way of living. He incorporated boxing training, Pilates, intermittent fasting, a Paleo diet, and other ways of improving his health, which he chronicled in an article for Austin Fit Magazine last year.
“I have transformed my body and my mind, and my newfound health has impacted other areas of my life,” Ferguson wrote in the magazine in 2018.
At the same time he was improving his health, Ferguson was debating another change common for those in the tech industry: Should I leave the security of my job to start my own business?
Ferguson is a transplant to Austin, among hundreds of thousands of others who have increased the city’s population by some 63 percent since he moved to town in 1997. Like so many others chasing the local tech and music scene in the ‘90s, he moved here to work in software. He began as an engineer, and quickly moved up, earning a senior engineering position at cloud marketing business Coremetrics (which sold to IBM in 2010, after he’d left). He moved on to become chief technologist at RoadStoryUSA, which he followed up with chief technology officer roles at BuzzStream, Famigo, and, most recently, Twyla.
It was at Twyla, an online marketplace for art started by HomeAway co-founder Brian Sharples, that Ferguson began considering a change. In an interview with Xconomy, he says he was unhappy with his role, and was searching his soul for what might be his ideal work situation. In May of 2017, the company’s board of directors announced it planned to cut staff. Ferguson volunteered. It was time for his own business.
“When working for a single company, you are more focused on one set of problems that may grow and get complicated over time, but you lack the diversity of perspectives you see when working with many clients,” Ferguson wrote in an e-mail about starting a company. “As a fan of continuous improvement, I’m always curious to reveal inefficiencies and find a way to improve. … I guess you could say that my life has been about change management, so I’m really adept at helping companies through it.”
That’s what he figured he’d do with his new business, Voltage Control, a consultancy through which he facilitates workshops for startups and large companies that aim to solve problems related to user-focused products.
The initial plan for the business was different: Ferguson thought he would offer himself as a CTO for hire, targeting early-stage startups that couldn’t afford to bring on a senior engineer or executive full time. Soon, he discovered a demand from more mature startups and larger businesses who needed help solving problems with specific products they were developing. Ferguson began applying the principles outlined in the book “Sprint” by three employees of Google’s venture capital arm, GV, including Jake Knapp, who Ferguson says he has previously worked with.
Knapp developed the process, now known as “design sprints,” at GV and used it with numerous businesses the firm backed. It requires small teams to spend five straight days working to solve a specific problem, anything from how to bring on new customers to the best way to develop a new analytics feature. Over those five days, a small group from a company will map out the problem, develop prototypes, and test them out to create a solution, Ferguson says during a phone interview.
“It forces people to turn an abstract idea into a concrete solution,” Ferguson says.
In a city like Austin, where startups, technologists, and consultants are a dime a dozen, it can be tough to stand out, especially if you’re applying a concept anyone can read in a book. Ferguson says he has gained traction with his business, however, in part thanks to the connections he developed over the past couple decades in Austin—one customer has been travel rental company HomeAway, where he facilitated the development of a new product. But Ferguson also argues that his technical expertise and experience has earned him business, in particular from companies that tried to run similar product development projects on their own and failed.
“I’ve seen a lot of these things—I know where they can go wrong,” Ferguson says.
If a company uses someone internally to facilitate one of these workshops, the person can easily be aware of and get caught up in office politics, he says. Having decision-makers involved is necessary for the process, but a staff member who is facilitating can be influenced by the current executives, whereas Ferguson can work with less bias. “It’s not going to impact my 360 review,” he says.
Ferguson says he now keeps a list of about 20 contractors he can use to work as facilitators to help him with demand. His past customers have included Favor, the on-demand delivery service acquired by grocer H-E-B last year; Austin-based ZenBusiness; a large credit card company; and his former employer, Twyla, among others.
The process of shining a light on a problem, revealing inefficiencies, and improving them, is what Ferguson says he loves about working in user-focused technology design. Starting his own business and improving his health have helped Ferguson develop professionally and personally, he says.
“I still have difficult days, but I’ve made tremendous progress. I used to dread working out; now I crave sweat,” Ferguson wrote in Austin Fit. “This transformation made me less self-conscious and things began to fall into place,” he tells Xconomy.
Now, Ferguson says his decision to move out on his own surprises him—he had no idea what it would become or how much he would love it.
“Every new thing I learn is a stepping stone to the next opportunity,” Ferguson says. “Working outside of a specific organization allows me to seek companies that are facing one of these moments, help them through it, and then move on, instead of sticking around and waiting for the next opportunity for change.”