When life presents game-changing opportunities, go with the pivot, says ModusBox CTO Kent Brown


Kent Brown, co-founder and chief technology officer of Seattle’s ModusBox, with his wife Annie in Bellingham, Wash. (Photo courtesy of Kent Brown)

Kent Brown has learned to embrace the pivot.

Five years ago, when his twin boys turned 18 and Brown became an empty-nester, he jumped from being an employee of Microsoft to taking the risk of helping launch a startup. That company is ModusBox, a Seattle-based business focused on the integration of tech products and services. Brown is a co-founder and chief technology officer.

Three years ago, ModusBox was presented with the opportunity to work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project was in mobile banking, helping people in developing countries get access to digital financial services like savings and money transfer through their mobile devices at a lower cost than currently available.

ModusBox went for it. The initiative has expanded the company’s focus beyond financial considerations alone and into the realm of social impact. The startup has turned from commercially licensing its products to offering open-source software to provide more benefit to its customers, community and partners. And it shifted from being oriented only to the U.S. supply chain market to working with governments, credit unions and telecoms in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The move to working in the developing world has provided some welcome perks, particularly in employee recruitment.

“We didn’t set out to do that, but having that mission focus and doing good in the world has attracted people and gets them excited about the job,” Brown said.

And now Brown is working on one of the most challenging pivots so far: doubling ModusBox from 100 people today to 200 in the next year.

Ironically, one of Brown’s motivations for leaving bigger tech companies was a desire to work somewhere small where he could play a very hands-on role.

“What I’ve loved is having a say in the culture and direction and strategy,” Brown said. He is having to update his strategy to match ModusBox’s rapid growth. Brown’s roles span product and engineering management as well as product marketing and sales.

“Rather than dictating too much,” he said, “I’m learning that delegating responsibility while staying very involved, and directing on principles is the best way I can help the company grow in the right direction.”

We caught up with Brown for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

ModusBox co-founder Kent Brown on safari in Nairobi, Kenya, during his first trip to Africa a couple years ago. He traveled for the project his company is doing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They’ve built a brand called MojaLoop, which works on mobile banking payments. (Photo courtesy of Kent Brown)

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: 15 inch MacBook Pro (typical developer’s machine). It’s ironic because I spent most of my career working on Microsoft technologies. I switched not because of problems with Microsoft, but it fit better for the tools and ecosystem I work with now. I think it’s good to be well-rounded, but never figured I’d switch from almost all Microsoft technologies to almost none.

Mobile devices: iPhone 6s. Yes, I’m one of those slow upgraders Apple probably hates.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: I don’t know if I can name a specific favorite. I’ll say I’ve gone from being skeptical about the possibility of the “paperless office” to rarely, like maybe once a year, printing anything or reading a physical book/magazine/paper.

A lion spotted on Kent Brown’s safari in Kenya. “Unfortunately (or fortunately) I didn’t get one with both of us in it,” he joked by email.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I’m the only one in our open-floor office who has my own office. This works because a.) I’m noisy since I’m always on speaker-phone meetings with one of our engineering teams or customers around the world, or at the whiteboard designing solutions with the team and I don’t like to bother others, and b.) I don’t work well listening to other peoples’ noise. I have an autonomous standup desk that works because I get tired of standing or sitting too long. I stand probably 60 percent of the time.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Assuming you are ambitious, work as hard and as much as you can manage cheerfully and healthily, and no more. Go in early, “leave it all on the floor,” and forget about work when you’re home.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I’ll surf 15 minutes a day on Facebook. I don’t post much but like to see updates from my extended network and feel more connected to family and friends on the other side of the country. I use LinkedIn for professional networking.

ModusBox co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Kent Brown. (ModusBox Photo)

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? I use my unread emails as a queue, re-marking some as unread after reading them because I’m not ready to respond. When busy or traveling the unread list might get up to 20 to 30, but usually it’s five to 10.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? Around 30, most are repeating standup calls, two to three management team meetings and one to two customer meetings.

How do you run meetings? Most of my meetings are scrum standup meetings so we follow the usual protocol. Because most of our employees are remote, many working from home, I usually schedule 30 minutes for 15 minute meetings to allow some social chatting to build connections.

Everyday work uniform? Jeans and a t-shirt. Living the startup dream!

How do you make time for family? I go in to work early, come home by dinner time and generally don’t work at all on weekends.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Golf whenever I can (about once a week in the summer). I go to the gym two to three times a week. Walks in a nearby park by the lake help, too.

What are you listening to? I don’t listen to music much (I should change that). I just finished season four of “Better Call Saul” and loved it.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Drudge Report. Not necessarily from a political bent, it just has an easy format to see most of what I’m interested in and it has become a habit.

ModusBox’s Kent Brown and his wife Annie on holiday in Jerusalem on their 25th wedding anniversary. (Photo courtesy of Kent Brown)

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? Bible

Night owl or early riser? Naturally a night owl, but have trained myself over the years to be an early riser because it better aligns my work life with my home life. I’m usually at my desk by 6:15 a.m. It also helps because I live on the West Coast but manage teams and talk to customers around the world.

Where do you get your best ideas? At the whiteboard working with other people.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I respect Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of the Microsoft Cloud and AI Group. I was in meetings with him occasionally while at Microsoft, but I’m interested in how he is able to be so effective as a leader of a large organization while staying sharp technically.

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