In this episode we had a chance to sit down with Chris Yokley. Chris owns Altegra Technologies and CigarClub.com. Cigar Club was birthed out of last year's Startup Weekend in Mobile. I love the idea and am excited that Chris and his business partner, Jeff, have been chosen as finalists in Alabama Launchpad. They will be competing this month for their slice of the $250,000 pot. Anyway, Chris and I talk about everything from dropping out of high school, to how he got started in tech, and he also mentioned falling out of the sky on an ultralght. You can find CigarClub.com on Facebook and Instagram too. Make sure to follow them!
Chris: I am Chris Yokley, and I am the owner of Altegra Technologies and co-founder of cigarclub.com.
Marcus: Welcome to the podcast, Chris.
Chris: Thanks for having me.
Marcus: Yeah, man. You and I have known each other for [crosstalk 00:00:19], full disclosure to the audience, you and I have known each other for a couple of years, and so I'm excited to get a chance to sit down with you and talk about business a little bit more, although that's a regular occurrence with us, but also share that with the audience, because I think you're doing some really cool things, specifically with CigarClub. But before we get there, we always talk a little bit about how the person got started. Are you from Mobile? Did you grow up in this area?
Chris: Yeah, I did, actually. Born and raised in Mobile and moved around a little bit. I've lived in Semmes and Theodore and Mobile and West Mobile, and all kinds of places. Started out here and came up, ended up at Mary G. Montgomery High School for a short time and became a high school dropout, which was awesome, because I took a couple of years off. Just really hated school. Kindergarten was pretty good.
Marcus: But everything after that was ...
Chris: Yeah, everything after that was not ... just uninteresting. After dropping out of school, I worked a couple of years and I found out you could go to college with a GED, so I got my good enough diploma, and went and registered out at Faulkner, and started up there and jumped right back in, and actually started college one semester earlier than I would've actually graduated. It worked out well for me, and that's where I went on to meet my wife, and went up to Troy and got a degree from there and moved back to Mobile ...
Marcus: That is wild.
Chris: And the rest is history.
Marcus: You went back to school after deciding that you hated school. What went through your mind when you ... ?
Chris: Two years of working at an auto shop was a pretty good wake-up.
Marcus: Yeah, yeah!
Chris: Jumping between an auto mechanic's shop and a Winn-Dixie, you see how limited your options are, and school seemed like ... I dropped out of high school kind of on accident. It just worked out that way. I'm glad it did because I probably would have taken some time off before I went to college but [crosstalk 00:02:31] because I dropped out of high school, ironically, I started college early. It definitely was just a series of experiences that led me down a crazy path that ended up working out that way.
Marcus: What did you study at Troy?
Chris: At Troy, it was Information Systems and Business.
Marcus: Information Systems is a lot of programming and stuff like that.
Chris: No, actually, it wasn't. I got my feet wet with programming when I was in the fifth grade. An older friend of mine had come home and was in a higher math class and they had to get TI-85 calculators. He showed it to me, and he was showing me that you could write programs on it. And so I went and saved my allowance for a little while and bought a TI-85 calculator and started writing programs. We wrote games. I wrote programs that would do my homework, because it was no fun. Of course, once you write a program that can do your homework, you get pretty good at doing your homework. That was where I got my feet wet with programming.
When I went to college I was, like I said, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I majored in General Studies until I went to Troy. When I got to Troy, they wouldn't let me major in that anymore, so I had to pick something and Computers seemed like a good thing. I took, like I said, Information Systems, and there were one or two programming classes that I really enjoyed and really loved. But to go and get a CS degree, which was the full programming background, then it would have been a lot more math and added some to the time that I'd have had to stay in school, so I stuck with Information Systems.
Few months before I graduated from Troy, had an interview at Mobile Infirmary and thought it was for a networking job and got there and it was for a programming job and accidentally got that one, too. The rest is history. I ended up working at Mobile Infirmary for two years as a programmer.
Marcus: It's like the dog that catches the car and he just ends up chewing on a bumper.
Chris: He's like, "What do I do with this?"
Marcus: No, it's interesting. I don't know that I knew all those. So you are now a programmer. That's the punch line, right?
Marcus: So, how did you get started with that? Was it the Mobile Infirmary?
Marcus: I guess you answered that with the calculator but [crosstalk 00:05:01] tell us about the actual business.
Chris: Sure. On the business side, Mobile Infirmary was really where I started doing it on a daily basis. Every day, that was my job. That was how I made a living. I got in there and they used a language called PL1, which stood for Programming Language 1. It was an old, old, old IBM language that they wrote one book on, and it was very hard to find because the language was from the sixties, I think.
Marcus: So they probably really didn't care whether you had experience in that language, because there weren't probably many people that did.
Chris: Oh yeah. If you had any experience in COBOL or FORTRAN or C++ or any of those languages, PL1 was pretty much a walk in the park. Spent a couple years there, just working. It was enjoyable, but we ended up moving to Baldwin County up in Bay Minette, my wife and I. We started looking for jobs up there. After we had moved, few months after that, a job came open with Baldwin County Commission. I applied there and got that job and ended up spending six years there going from a Programmer Analyst, working my way up to the Software Development Manager, and for that whole time I was doing development on a day to day basis.
Marcus: And what kicked off starting your own company?
Chris: Two years into being at Mobile Infirmary I was pretty bored, and then two years into being at the county I got bored again, and I was like, "Man, I keep getting bored. What, what am I gonna do?" I ended up spending a lot more time at the county than I expected to. It was a great job. It was great people. Really, really enjoyed that experience but stayed there a long time because my wife was not really comfortable with me just ...
Marcus: Jumping ship and doing your own thing.
Chris: Yeah, you do your own thing but you don't have benefits, you don't have insurance, you don't have all of these great things that you kinda get used to. Took me about four years to get her to where she was ready for me to make a jump, still not quite on my own, but I took a job with a small company called CWS, thinking they had a little bit more both in the private and public sector that they did work in and it was a small company. It was three people plus me, so it was four total. I figured that would give me a good example of what it was to be in business for yourself and to be a small business. I spent about two years there convincing my wife that I could do just as well on my own. In 2013, threw caution to the wind and started Altegra.
Marcus: You're telling your story, and I'm remembering what it was like because in 2003, 2004, we grew up in Washington D.C. We had a house in the suburbs. I was commuting at least an hour plus, per day, one way. Actually, so that would have made it two plus hours. Yeah, it's cause it was one way was about an hour into the city from where we were, and somehow managed to convince my wife to not only throw caution to the wind, as you put it, and let me start my own thing, but also move all the way to Mobile, Alabama, which is where her folks and her sister lived. It was just the added, it's not like we're just gonna start our own thing, we're gonna just move halfway across the country to an area that we don't know anything really about, except what we had gleaned from the visits that we had made over the years and fell in love with. It was just funny.
Chris: Yeah. It was totally ...
Marcus: [crosstalk 00:08:56] But that is the mindset of an entrepreneur, right? I really don't care, I'm just gonna do this, and I'm gonna figure it out along the way. [crosstalk 00:09:03] the programming mentality, too.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, exactly. With both of those, it's so much where you sit there and you say, "Man, I want to do this, I want to do this, I want to do this," and then finally you're like, "Either I gotta shut up and quit telling myself I'm gonna do this, or I've gotta take a step and, and, really go for it."
Marcus: It's cool. You've built a lot of systems. Tell us a little bit about that first project that you had as a legitimate company and that feeling that you get when you, "Okay, well, I've just delivered this. This is, what, this is really ... "
Chris: This is really nice to get a paycheck.
Marcus: Okay, that wasn't really what I was looking for. I was thinking intoxicating, or really cool, or oh my gosh I can't believe this but I guess that money does make sense when you're trying to stay in business.
Chris: And convince your wife that you haven't totally messed your life up. My first project actually was with Hargrove, here in Mobile. It was a strange series of coincidences once again. I knew a former colleague of mine with the county had moved to Hargrove. They were looking to get some software developed. They needed somebody that could really just jump in and be devoted to it and get it done. I ended up talking with those guys. They were great. Such a great first project. Of course, I had been doing the same thing for other companies.
Marcus: Sure. It wasn't like you were a newbie, but it was your own entity that you-
Chris: Exactly. Managing the whole business side of things was new, but as far as the software projects and working with the people and the end users, that was all something that was very familiar. Those guys were awesome. We went in, and of course, this was the first time that I'd really had took full ownership of quoting out a project. If I'd lost money, wow, that's not a good thing on your first project. It was one of those things where everything hit about like it was supposed to.
Marcus: That's cool.
Chris: It was a great first experience. Hargrove was great to work with, and really, wrapping up that project was kinda surreal, like you're saying, because you get there and you feel like ... For instance, with the county job, a project never really has to be finished. You get a little bit of spare time, and you can jump back in there and you do work on it because you're bored and it's government work, right? You kinda keep going almost perpetually until it's good enough, and then they leave you alone, and then you work on it a little here and there. But with this, there was almost closure. Now we still maintain and add on new features to that software that we originally built several years ago. But just having that first project close out, them be happy with the product and be using the product, and as a company and as a business owner, that really is, like you said, a very surreal experience.
Marcus: I was reminiscing earlier today. I actually found the code. I found the website, on an old hard drive, the very first website that I built for our client. It was Davis [counterculture 00:12:32] And I took a screenshot and posted it to Instagram, as a throwback Thursday. Even finding that code and looking at that again was just kinda like, "Wow, how far ... "
Chris: How far I've come.
Marcus: Because that was in 2006. That was so long ago, and things have changed so drastically online in that time period. It's amazing what we can do now that we would never have even dreamed that you could do.
Chris: Oh yeah, and I still love it. This week has been a lot focused on new technologies and me just kinda diving in and setting some tests and time aside to catch up on some things that I've fallen behind, but it really only takes six months, these days, and you're behind.
Marcus: You mentioned, in your intro, CigarClub. I know the story about CigarClub but why don't you tell everyone what CigarClub is and how that came to be.
Chris: Sure. Yeah. CigarClub. Man. It's been a rollercoaster that all started back in August of last year. There was this event that looked interesting, and I was really one of those things where I was like, "I'll just pay my fifty dollars and go to the first night and- "
Marcus: It was a startup weekend.
Chris: Yeah, startup weekend, and see if it's worth it. Like you said, it was startup weekend, and I called a bunch of people and said, "Are you going? Are you going? Are you going?" I couldn't find anybody who was going [crosstalk 00:14:05] knew about it. That's why I was on the fence. I had no idea what to expect. I figured I'd get there and it'd be a bunch of high schoolers ad me, or something. Went thought the weekend. It was just an awesome experience. The folks that put that on, [Elise 00:14:26] and everybody. I'll come back to it in a second. It was funny.
It was at Hargrove, and we all pitched, and a guy named Jeff [Zyders 00:14:37] got up there and pitched a cigar idea that was very different than CigarClub but still related to cigars. I pitched an idea as well and the way they do startup weekend, they both made the cut. I told my team. I was like, "I want to go work on cigars. You all- "
Marcus: I know I'm the one that came up with this idea but I'm gonna go over here and do this other ...
Chris: Yeah, I like cigars. It was very intriguing to me since it's always been a very digital product, to have a physical aspect to that. I saw a lot of opportunity there. We started working, and we spent the first day going through and thinking through the first original idea and how we would do that. Next day, we ran into some FDA regulations and figured out we couldn't do it or we'd have to sell our products for $7,000 a box, because it was basically a kind of a build your own cigar type deal.
We just went back to brainstorming, went through a lot of bad ideas and eventually came up with a cigar subscription service that's kinda tailored to your tastes. So you go in and you say, "I like, uh, this type of beer, and I like steak, and I like this kind of wine and this kind of chocolate," and we take that taste profile, and we build it out. and we take a look at it and figure out whet you'll like in cigars. That's sort of the basis of what CigarClub is now is that you go in, go to cigarclub.com, fill out a survey, tell us what you like, and then you can go in and actually set a few more preferences once you're registered, and then we'll ship your cigars out and hopefully you'll like them. We've been working on that since August. It's been very well received. Our user feedback is over four stars on our ratings for the cigars that we send out, and everybody who's trying it seems to really love it.
Marcus: Now, when you mentioned the idea to me a while back, I was excited for you because I have over the years, subscribed to a number of things. When they first started coming out, I think I subscribed to Birchbox, or something like that. And then my wife got tired of us receiving all these boxes with the little trial size shampoos and stuff like that, so I canceled that. But one that we are currently, and will probably for a long, long time, subscribe to is BarkBox, which I just think is the coolest thing. Everything that they do, their marketing and everything, is just really cool. But that whole idea of being able to tailor it, they do that as well, you can tailor it to the dog. There's a small dog, big dog, do they like to chew on things or are they a thrasher, do they like to destroy things, all those kinds of things.
So it's cool that you've added that to what you all are doing, because I know that the idea of a membership in a club like that isn't necessarily a new thing. But getting people into the ... For those of you that don't smoke cigars, you may not know this, but there are different flavor profiles for the cigars, whether it's a light smoke or a heavy smoke, or has hints of pomegranate. It's just like wine. It's like coffee, really. It's from the earth. Different regions in the world are gonna have different undertones. The fact that you've added that to that is really a huge thing. But you are about to embark on something that's pretty exciting, too. We've had other folks on the show that have done this with the Startup Alabama.
Chris: Alabama Launchpad. Yeah, we're working with them. Alabama Launchpad is such an amazing program. It's really geared towards Alabama startups, and they have a startup competition that basically allows any startup in the state to apply and go through this process. You submit an application, a business plan, a pitch video, that type of thing, and you go through the first round, and then you move on to actually going to the event and pitching your idea on stage, then moving through the process.
We've made it through those first two rounds where we submitted our business plan and were accepted, and then we went and pitched in Birmingham, and we made it through the first round with four other teams so there's five teams total that will be going to the finals here in Mobile on April 27th. It's a really cool event. Like I said, there's each round, historically, there's been about $250,000 on the line. They basically take your business plan and your marketing, or your budget, not necessarily marketing budget, and then they just look at needs. They look at the different businesses and they award it according to what they feel is gonna be best for Alabama and Alabama jobs and Alabama ...
Marcus: It's been really cool over the last five years or so. I went to Huntsville a number of years ago to meet with Antonio and some of the guys at Rocket Hatch and saw what they were doing. Also, just hearing through the grapevine what was going on in Birmingham with the startup competition. Then also, just seeing what is happening down here in Mobile, with the Alabama, is it Portal? I always get it mixed up. Alabama Portal?
Chris: Innovation Portal. That's it!
Marcus: Gosh. Apologies to everybody that's involved in that, because it is an important program. Between that and 1702 and some of the other things that are going on in this area, there just seems to be a growing respect for what startups bring to an area and the impact that they can have to the psyche of the business community as well as the economic impact that they can have in an area. It's folks like you that are coming up with these harebrained, at the time, harebrained ideas, and then actually seeing those through and realizing them as viable businesses that can really change the face of an area. Hats off to you.
Chris: It really comes down ... It's not any one person with hardly any of these. The thing about crazy ideas is usually we can talk ourselves out of them. But there have been some people. I mean, Jeff and I meeting up initially and talking things through but then Todd Greer from Exchange 202 has been amazing at helping us make connections and facilitating, even sometimes just sitting there and listening to us throw crazy ideas-
Marcus: Todd is definitely a connector.
Chris: He's a connector. And then Hayley Van Antwerp. She has been amazing. She's over the Innovation Portal. We went through their ... I forget what the class is called. I'm forgetting, obviously, what everything's called today. It was open to the startup weekend teams that had gone through the process. That was such a great experience because not only did we have them, we had mentors that joined us for that. We had other teams that were in similar places along the process. Bringing all those people and all those ideas and all that feedback together, really ... We were very motivated to move forward anyways, but it really just helped take us to a new level that we wouldn't have been able to do without it.
Marcus: It's very cool. Just to go back, for those of you who aren't familiar with startup weekend, basically this an idea that's been around for a couple of years, but what they do is they get a bunch of people, and you don't have to be a programmer, you can be a high school student or a doctor or a delivery man or a waiter or whatever, get a bunch of people together for a weekend and everybody gets to pitch an idea if they like. It's highly encouraged for you to pitch an idea. Then everyone votes on the best ideas and what actually makes the cut. Based on that, those ideas are then given teams and ... I forget, do you select the teams yourself or are you assigned to a team?
Chris: You get to go on whatever team you want.
Marcus: You get to go on ... Basically you self-select onto whatever team or project you want to work on. The idea is that throughout the weekend that you will work on it to get it to a point where it is almost a proof of concept. In this instance, I know you had months of work. Actually you didn't birth that idea at startup weekend. It was the beginnings of what became the cigar club. Oftentimes, it's really a trying to get to a proof of concept by the end of the weekend, to see if it can legitimately move forward, which I just think is fantastic way of giving people that wouldn't necessarily have an opportunity to do something along those lines, to give them a voice and give them the assets. You've got people there that are marketing or advertising minded or programmers or they're coming at it from a different perspective. You get all that into one room and oftentimes that can be hugely invaluable.
Chris: And that's it. I've been to several events where, being a developer, I've been to these events where you've got a bunch of developers in a room and you're trying to come up with ideas [crosstalk 00:24:28]. Yeah, exactly. The problem becomes you've got a bunch of hammers in the same room.
Marcus: That's great!
Chris: Everybody sees the problem exactly like as everybody else, with just slight deviations in perspective. What was great about this is we had kids all the way down to the high school level, all the way up to retirees that just had an idea and wanted to pitch it and wanted to get some help. In all different walks of life. You had designers, developers, like I said, students, delivery worker, just everything. One of the guys on our teams installed gutters. He owns a gutter business. They go in the gutters that you put on your house. It's just a crazy collection of people from all different walks of life.
Marcus: It's a really cool opportunity. I know there's another one coming up. I don't know if that'll be before or after this podcast cause I forget the date. But make sure to find it on Facebook and like the page, because it is something that is actually very important to the business community in this area. If we're gonna encourage other businesses like your cigar club to come to fruition, then we really need to make sure that we support that. Fifty bucks isn't chump change but it's also not a huge amount of money to see something like that first hand and experience it.
Chris: It's actually, I don't know when this is going to air but it's the last weekend of this month.
Marcus: Is it? Yeah, this'll go live after that. But anyway, there will be another one, I'm sure. Because this'll be the second one. It'll be another eight months or so, and then there'll be another one. You've been doing this for quite some time. If you were talking with someone who was interested in starting their own business, regardless of whether it was a technology company or membership company or whether it was, like you mentioned, somebody that hangs gutters. What is the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?
Chris: Don't overthink it. Make sure that the financials are in line. Make sure that it's something that you're comfortable jumping, not necessarily comfortable, but whatever you're going to be doing or supplying to customers, that you've got a pretty good grasp on that, but outside of that, don't try to think through and figure out every little roadblock that may get in your way because it'll stop you. It'll stop you before you even get started. That' the biggest thing.
If I had known when we started cigarclub.com, or Altegra Technologies for that matter, if I had known all the roadblocks that we were gonna hit, I wouldn't have started it. It would have just stopped me right here before I even wrote the first line of code or started talking to people or whatever. As we've gone through the process, it's really the momentum that keeps you going and lets you push through those bad times. Even though in Altegra, which is a whole different thing, there have been times when you're just like, "Man, I don't know what I'm going to be doing next week. I don't know if I'm gonna have any work or whatever," and it always works out. God always provides a path and there's always good things happening. But if you think through all those things and you try to think, "Well, what if this, and what if that?" It'll just stunt you. You'll never take that first step forward.
Marcus: I think one of the things that I oftentimes tell people is that you don't have to know everything because the true path of an entrepreneur is someone who can make decisions fairly quickly and pivot and know that that's okay. There is no comfort, right? You mentioned the word "comfortable" and then you corrected yourself. That's because, if you didn't catch that, folks, that's because when you start down the path of being an entrepreneur, owning a business, it's always uncomfortable and you just get used to that.
Chris: It's so uncomfortable. When I look at, since August with CigarClub, some of the things that we've hit have just been crazy, stupid things that you just ... It would make a good book, you know? I don't necessarily want to get into it or have time to get into it all right now but just the roadblocks that have come up and like you said, you just gotta ... and they're anything but comfortable but you do. You have to make those decisions very quickly and then you just have to keep moving forward and a lot of the times, again it's the time that you've already got invested and the momentum that you've got built that keeps things moving forward, where if you had hit that roadblock right off, you'd have been like, "No way. That's it; I'm done".
Marcus: What are the last two books you've read that you found helpful?
Chris: Oh, man. Well, right now I'm reading Shoe Dog, which is the story of the guy who started Nike.
Marcus: Yeah, that's recently released, right?
Chris: Yeah. I don't know. I saw it, I bought it. I'm reading it and it's a super cool book because, really, and I love books like this that allow founders to tell their story, especially when you hear about something like Nike.
Marcus: Because it is an American icon, as far as brands go.
Chris: This guy started basically buying some shoes overseas and selling them out of the back of a van. When you think Nike, your brain doesn't go there. You just kinda think, "Oh, there were 27, you know, guys that got together and had a bunch of money and bought a bunch of shoes and put 'em everywhere," and that's not how it works. That's not how it goes. So many of the businesses that we know and love today just really started-
Marcus: Out of the back of a van.
Chris: Yeah. Out of the back of a van, on a hope and a prayer, basically. I was listening this morning to the guy who founded on How I Built This, another podcast. I hadn't made it all the way through that one but he founded Atari and Chuck E. Cheese.
Marcus: I listened to that one too. That was amazing.
Chris: Yeah, right? 500 bucks. He had 250 bucks, his partner had 250 bucks, and they started Atari. Come on. It's an icon in history especially if anybody grew up in the eighties.
Marcus: Yeah, if you haven't listened to that, I would highly suggest How I Built This. That podcast was suggested to me by Gabe who is now walking in. He's from Soul Caffeine. The guy that started Atari, his name is Nolan Bushnell. But anyway, you can find that in the podcast app, How I Built This. What do you like to do in your free time?
Chris: Oh, man. Free time. That's not something-
Marcus: It's a trick question.
Chris: Yeah, it is. Man, the kids. Hanging out with the family. That's the coolest stuff. I've got a five year old and a nine year old right now. They're just-
Marcus: Teaching them how to do backflips?
Chris: Oh, man, I didn't have to teach him anything. That kid's just crazy. He can do a back flip, and he does, pretty much do a back flip everywhere now. It's like, "All right, it's bedtime," and then two minutes later, we hear ba-doomp, ba-doomp, ba-doomp, and he's in there doing backflips before he goes to bed.
Marcus: There's a very clear comparison between an entrepreneur who learns how, "Okay, I can run a business," and a kid that has no fear of doing backflips. There's so much, you could literally write a book on the comparisons of those two.
Chris: I think you're right. Maybe that's why I enjoyed doing back flips too when I was kid. But no, my nine year old's way better at it than I am. Or was. Where I am. Other things, your regular stuff, hiking, camping, those kind of things. Really enjoy doing that. Had a powered paraglider for a while. It was my favorite hobby.
Marcus: Sounds like a really safe thing to do.
Chris: It is. It is. It is mostly. But then I've crashed it and I broke my leg all up and my wife took it away from me.
Marcus: Smart woman.
Chris: I don't get to fly that any more but that was probably-
Marcus: Folks, I know the backstory on that one, and it's a good thing that she took it away from him. He amy not be sitting here with us today. Where can people find you?
Chris: They can find me at the Exchange most days. Or they can just get in touch. Altegratech.com, Facebook, LinkedIn ...
Chris: Cigarclub.com's probably an even better place.
Marcus: If you are a cigar smoker, or know a cigar smoker, definitely go to that and sign up.
Chris: Yeah. Chris@cigarclub.com, which is pretty easy.
Marcus: Awesome. I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. Any final thoughts or comments?
Chris: I just want to say thanks. I love what's going on in downtown Mobile, being a transplant, moving away from here and then coming back in. Really, startup weekend was my introduction back into the downtown area because it had gotten a little sketchy for a little while. Just being back down here and seeing so many people, you guys one of them. You guys are running a business here but you're also doing this podcast, and you're doing a ton of other things just to make Mobile and downtown Mobile more of a community than just a location. I think that we've got great leadership in this city, from Mayor Simpson on down. And then just places like the Exchange where you have so many things going on [crosstalk 00:34:37] people.
Marcus: Yeah you can hang your shingle.
Chris: I just love that. I think that's what it takes for a business community and just a community in general to thrive. Because there are so many ideas, so many innovative things that are coming out of the community right now. I just appreciate you guys being a part of that.
Marcus: Yeah. No, it's been very cool to watch, over the last couple of years. We can talk about that offline but it's a very cool thing to see the city transform itself. I appreciate your willingness to come on the podcast and share your story.
Chris: Thank you.
Marcus: It was great talking with you.
Chris: Thanks, man.