Entrepreneur and philanthropist Brandon Bruce loves local business. In fact, he loves startups of any kind, along with the commitment and hustle it takes to make a new opportunity successful. It’s one of the reasons he chose Farmacy, a Northshore restaurant, for our interview. He called it “his Cheers” and lives near owner Bettina Hamblin in nearby Northshore Town Center.
That self-motivation goes back to Bruce’s childhood growing up in the tiny town of Los Olivos, California, a town so small that Bruce had only one classmate through the fifth grade in a school that had outhouses.
“Learning was very self-directed,” Bruce said. “It was good. It suited my personality.”
Bruce is a self-described generalist. His degrees are in business and law, and his work history is mostly in nonprofits and education. He followed wife Tricia to Maryville when she was hired as a professor of sociology at Maryville College. He worked there until a friend from college called him with an opportunity seven years ago.
That opportunity came to be known as Cirrus Insight, an app that works with SalesForce to link it to Gmail. Bruce had no coding experience, but remembered and was inspired by an opportunity from high school. He won an essay contest about the future of the internet and got to fly to Japan with other winners from around the world.
“It was a transformative experience for me,” he said. “I got to meet all these really bright kids from around the world. For me, software and technology were always something I’ve been interested in.”
Friend Ryan Huff took care of that end of the business from Irvine, California. In Maryville and later Knoxville, Bruce handled the customer-facing side of marketing, sales and customer support, at first alone.
“It was just us for the first nine months, but in nine months we had enough cash flow and investors to hire our first employees,” he said.
When the company grew enough to need a new office, they came to Knoxville, and so did Bruce and his family. Today, the team has 54 people, more than half based in Knoxville.
While Cirrus Insight sells nationwide, Bruce likes to keep some of the company focus local. Offices at Cirrus are named after famous Knoxvillians like Pat Summitt and James Agee. And of course, there’s the ever-present drive to succeed.
“We hustle,” he said. “We sell sales software to salespeople. Our customers are out there trying to make sales. They’re hustling, so we have to hustle along with them. We’ve tried to work very hard. An entrepreneur is a person who works 80 hours so they don’t have to work 40. When you start a business, you have like 100 jobs. It suits me.”
But it’s not just commercial startups that inspire Bruce. He also puts effort and support into nonprofit startups, including The Muse, 100 Men Who Care, and the Day of Coding at Knox County Schools.
Along with Caleb Fristoe of Great Schools Partnership and Theresa Nixon of Knox County Schools, Bruce helped organize KCS students to break the world record for the number of students coding at once, more than 8,000 students.
But why put effort into projects outside the office? Bruce says it’s just part of who he is. In that small, California town, his family was always involved. Mom served on the board of Bruce’s grade school and ran several nonprofits. Dad coached every sports team Bruce ever played on.
“It’s the whole Kennedy line,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you do it? It’s pretty easy to look at a big system like the school system and refer to it as ‘they.’ They should do this or that. But it’s ‘we.’ We’re all in the same community. It’s all our kids. We should be partners and participants. It’s ‘why not?’ It all just kind of makes sense.”
Through a deal with a private equity firm, he and his partner are transitioning out of Cirrus Insight. It’s a win for the company, he said, because it will bring more resources and expertise to help the company grow. And now, Bruce is taking his time to find what’s next for him. But you can be sure it will be fantastic when he finds it.
“What’s next? That’s a great question. I’m enjoying talking with a lot of people in the community, a lot of my friends and making new friends and listening to what can be helpful. I’m not sure yet, but I’m enjoying having time to think. I want to take a minute and think before I dive in 100 percent to do something that will hopefully make a big impact,” Bruce said.
Overall, he thinks this is a great time for business in Knoxville, pointing to “mega deals” like Discovery, Regal and Pilot.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for new businesses to come out of those,” he said. “Folks that have all this talent and great expertise. 2019 could be the year that people really go for it. It’s fun to be a small part of it.”
Since he followed his wife to East Tennessee, Bruce said he identifies with the concept of “the trailing spouse, jobs bringing not one person but entire families to an area.
“Because Knoxville as a community has welcomed so many people from all over the world, oftentimes there’s this additional influx of really interesting people who bring their own skills and talents to the area. It’s interesting to me because I am one. I’m here now, so what am I going to do? It’s a good reminder to all of us to continue to welcome smart, talented people to Knoxville. Then, everybody wins.”