Alumni Spotlight: Jeff Jahn (07C)

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fast Lane

Jeff Jahn

Note: This story originally was featured in the fall 2017 issue of Berry magazine.

Jeff Jahn is quick to brand himself a “recovering introvert,” so it should come as no surprise that his first business pitch left him so panicked that he broke out in a rash and nearly bolted for the door. That he held his ground – and landed the job – speaks volumes about the inner drive of a self-taught computer whiz who launched his first business, hired a full-time employee and bought a house while still a student at Berry. 

There are many ways to describe Jahn’s career journey. Conventional is not one of them. Insatiably curious, intensely creative and powerfully motivated, the 2007 Berry graduate has forged a path all his own from enterprising teenager providing technical support services out of his parents’ home to successful business owner with six different startups to his credit. 

“Being an entrepreneur means you aren’t afraid to take risks,” he said. “You have ideas. You might not be sure what you want to do with them, but you’re going to go out there and figure it out without the safety net of a boss or company to protect you.” 

Sitting in the Kennesaw, Ga., offices of DynamiX, the award-winning Web development firm he founded as a Berry sophomore, Jahn almost could be mistaken for one of the students he now mentors in the college’s Campbell School of Business. He sports a DynamiX t-shirt and slight beard and is surrounded by toys and other curiosities symbolic of childhood passions that continue to inspire – from Hot Wheels cars and Disney toys to a life-sized statue of Bart Simpson. 

“A lot of what drives me now are the things that I thought were so cool as a little kid,” he said, noting his habit of picking up a new toy car for the office whenever he goes shopping with his son. “If you lose that and ignore what got you excited, that’s when you start to not know who you are anymore.” 

Jahn labors under no such uncertainty. He’s a hard-charger, plain and simple, from the sports cars he drives to the company he has shepherded to explosive revenue growth (35 percent to date in 2017 alone) and extraordinary recognition underscored by more than 750 national and international awards since 2014. 

Finding his voice

Given all that he’s accomplished in the 10 short years since he graduated from Berry, it’s hard to believe this 2016 and 2017 finalist in the Atlanta Business Chronicle Small Business Person of the Year Awards was once so painfully shy that he often bumped into people because he was staring at his own feet.

Ideas were never a problem. As long as he can remember, Jahn has been dreaming up new and interesting ways of doing things; recently, he stumbled upon a boyhood sketch of a drone-type vehicle for delivering packages, complete with a giant slingshot to get it airborne. Interaction was another matter; he simply wasn’t comfortable around people. He ultimately overcame this obstacle by attacking it head-on and forcing himself to talk to everyone and anyone who would listen, from strangers in the grocery store to friends of his parents. 

“I always try to push myself,” he explained. “The things that make me nervous or are anxiety-causing I make myself do so that I get past them.” 

Especially astute about technology – he built a computer with his dad when he was only 9 – Jahn eventually spun conversations with his parents’ friends into an impromptu business providing IT support for local businesses. He loved the work but shuttered the enterprise after a year due to the inherent and sometimes embarrassing limitations of trying to run a business as a teenager. 

“In 1999 there were no cell phones for kids, so companies would call our house line, let my mom know they wanted to speak with me, and then I would chat with them about their needs,” he recalled. “At the conclusion, since I was 14 and couldn’t drive, I would ask when they could pick me up.” 

Up and running

Jeff Jahn at computerJahn’s next experience in entrepreneurship, and first official business startup, came at Berry. Motivated by the desire to obtain a “really cool alarm system” for his supercharged Mercury Mountaineer SUV, the cash-poor sophomore began looking at services he might exchange for it. Finding the retailer’s Internet presence to be lacking, he decided to build a new website for them, even though he knew nothing about Web development. 

Within three months, he had taught himself to design and code and created a website from scratch. Ready to make his pitch, Jahn donned a collared shirt, drove to Atlanta and entered the business unannounced. He boldly walked up to the first person he saw but was able to spit out only a few words before panic rose in his chest and red splotches broke out on his face. 

“Hi … umm, you have a website, but it’s not very good,” he stammered. “I made you a new one. Can I have an alarm?” 

A passing salesman’s exclamation – “Dude, what’s wrong with your face?!” – only added to his misery. 

“I almost ran,” Jahn recounted. “I was like, ‘They don’t know who I am yet. They won’t remember me. I can run, and nothing bad will happen.’” 

Instead, he shakily agreed with the salesman’s assertion that he must be suffering an allergic reaction and somehow closed the deal. 

“I think she felt a little bad for me,” Jahn acknowledged about the woman he had first approached. “She said, ‘You know, people come in here every week trying to sell us a new website. You’re the only person who’s ever come in with something already built. It’s better than what we have. It’s cheap. Let’s do this.’” 

One client quickly became two, with Jahn once again trading his work for upgrades to his car. With the interior of his Mountaineer tricked out in just about every way imaginable, the ambitious college student began considering other applications for his new skill set. Just a few weeks into his junior year at Berry, he took steps to make Web design his business, sketching the name “DynamiX” on a note pad and filing the paperwork for an LLC. 

Growing pains

Being a full-time business owner and a full-time college student wasn’t as easy as his early successes made it appear. Jahn lost money on project after project, learning some tough lessons in the process. One unscrupulous client disregarded a signed contract and forced him to build a second website for the price of one, threatening to put him “out of business” if he didn’t. 

“That helped me see where the red flags were,” Jahn related. “You never learn that stuff except by painful experience.” 

A welcome helping hand was provided by Dr. Paula Englis, a member of Berry’s business faculty who today directs the college’s growing entrepreneurship program. Recognizing his potential almost immediately, Englis became Jahn’s champion, making herself available as a sounding board for his ideas and sharing his story with other faculty members, encouraging them to be flexible in allowing him to make his business the subject of his class projects. It didn’t always work out, but most often it did. 

“Faculty loved having a living ‘case’ in their class to use as an example, and they wanted to help him with his business,” Englis explained. 

This support proved critical as Jahn juggled the needs of his business with a full 18-hour class load and other challenges of college life. In fall 2006, the Berry senior hired his first full-time employee and – finding himself in need of a new home after his off-campus living arrangements fell through – bought a house in rural Cobb County, resulting in a two-hour roundtrip commute each day. It’s no wonder Englis lauds her former student as “one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.” 

Jahn is equally gracious in praising his Berry mentor, marveling at her level of commitment and beaming with pride when recalling a celebratory text she sent years after his graduation when one of his subsequent startups – Home Elephant, the first neighborhood-based social media platform – earned a mention in Fast Company magazine. 

“She was so invested in my success that she had set up a Google alert so that she knew right away whenever something cool happened,” he raved. 

Risk rewarded

Jeff Jahn and FamilyIn the years following graduation, Jahn married Berry sweetheart Amber Cole, a 2008 alumna, and worked tirelessly to put DynamiX on the map. A breakthrough came in 2012 when he had the opportunity to build a website for political commentator and former presidential candidate Herman Cain. The challenge was tremendous – three weeks to overhaul an existing bad design in preparation for a July 4 national launch – but so were the potential rewards. 

“What I’ve found is that life is a plateau with stair steps,” Jahn said. “You make a good decision, you go up a step. You make a bad decision, you go down a step. This was an opportunity for us to either move up several steps or fall down the stairs and go out of business.”

Working 20-hour days for the next three weeks, Jahn and his small team of designers met the ambitious deadline, satisfied the high expectations of their client and ensured a seamless launch for the site. As a result, DynamiX was catapulted to new heights of visibility and credibility in the industry. That upward trajectory continues today, allowing Jahn to be extremely selective in his choice of clients while keeping the business intentionally small. 

“We don’t want to be a factory,” Jahn said of his staff, which totals 13. “We want to take on a handful of really cool projects, do them right and not try to be everything for everyone.” 

Spreading the wealth

Jeff Jahn at DynamiXThe success of DynamiX and other ventures has resulted in numerous personal accolades for Jahn, including the Berry Alumni Association’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Award. It’s also made it possible for him to indulge in certain childhood fantasies – the Ferrari F355 Berlinetta some classmates might remember from a poster on his Dana Hall wall is now parked in his garage.

Away from the office, he takes a cue from his father in the time he devotes to son Patrick and daughter Emily. The family-first mentality modeled by his dad – himself an entrepreneur – was reinforced by a 2015 automobile accident that reminded Jahn “to stop being an overworking idiot and focus on the things that matter.” 

One of his priorities is Berry. Jahn is intentional in his service to the college and sees great things on the horizon, particularly as others lend their support to an entrepreneurship program that is building on the institution’s inherent strengths. 

“Berry does things that other colleges don’t,” he enthused, “because they’re not afraid to try stuff out and see if it works.” 

A recent appointee to the Berry Board of Visitors, Jahn is actively exploring new ways to assist Englis and the next generation of aspiring entrepreneurs. One result is the “Ninja Fund” for entrepreneurship at Berry, which last spring opened the door for two students to win a regional “pitch” competition in Nashville, Tenn.

“I know there’s more support today than there used to be, but I want to be in a position to help facilitate the things that I had to do myself,” Jahn said, adding with a laugh, “I got three hours of sleep pretty much every night my senior year. I want other students like me to get at least five.”