'Sidepreneur' Brad Westfall charting new career path

August 29, 2013

A Rainmaker is someone who makes something happen: at his company, in his career, in his community. The Rainmaker series showcases department of information systems alumni who are catalysts of growth and change.

Brad Westfall knew from a young age that he would someday pursue a career in business. So it was no surprise when he launched his first enterprise after he had completed only one year as an economics major at ASU. Between his freshman and sophomore years, Westfall formed a business called AZPixels and began designing websites on a freelance basis for his fellow students and local businesses.

The venture merged Westfall's longtime interest in business with his passion for computers, which he developed while taking programming classes in high school in his native northern California.

"I decided after my freshman year that I wanted to get more into Web design, and that is also when I decided to change my major to Computer Information Systems," says Westfall, a 2006 graduate of the W. P. Carey School of Business. "CIS offered me the perfect mix of business and computers. I learned the basics of business, and between my CIS classes and electives in computer programming I definitely learned object-oriented concepts."

After graduating from the W. P. Carey School, Westfall created his business as a legal entity, AZPixels LLC, which he has continued to operate over the years even while working for other companies. Today, he is in the midst of developing a "pet project" on the side that he hopes will eventually become a lucrative business on its own.

Westfall’s career is an example of what has been called “sidepreneurism,” a multi-careerism trend that many so-called “Millenials” are living. A CIS degree prepares students well for this new environment.

Side trips with the CIS degree

Westfall, 30, says that like most CIS majors, he interviewed "at all the usual places," including consulting firms and tech companies such as Google. But his heart really wasn't in it, which one company, Vianet Management, noticed from the start.

Vianet is the Scottsdale-based parent company to numerous websites, including Roommates.com, PuppyFind.com and MusicianAudition.com, which help subscribers find roommates, pets and band members, respectively.

"They told me they couldn't keep me happy as a full-time employee because I was more of an entrepreneur," Westfall says. "So they gave me an office and they let me run my business while also doing contract work for them."

AZPixels grew to include 12 Web developers over the next four years and the company worked on about 150 projects. Its clients included ASU, the Arizona Department of Education, the University of Arizona's Workforce Education and Development Office and AlphaGraphics.

But by 2010, the strain of running a business wore on Westfall. "I got a little burned out on doing my own accounting and billing and stocking the fridge with goodies to keep my employees from going to another cool tech company," he says. "But most of all I got away from doing the tech work, which is why I got into it in the first place."

Westfall decided to take a full-time job with Vianet Management and put his own company on the back burner. His role was to create new website projects. Over the next two years he worked on such sites as MusicianAudition.com, GeoData Server -- which allows other websites to access geographic data for the United States, and Dashboard -- a customer service tool that allows access to various company websites and administrative capabilities.

He also helped improve the quality of the company's IT infrastructure, including its e-mail server, and planned SEO strategies and content.

Even though his duties were on the technical side, Westfall's title was chief technology officer, or CTO. After two years as a full-time employee of Vianet, Westfall decided to return to his first love, AZPixels. But this time he kept it a one-man operation, which he runs out of his Phoenix home.

"The (Arizona) Department of Education wanted me back and I had other new projects, so I returned to working for myself," he says. "There are no worries about accounting and billing and keeping employees happy."

Realizing the ultimate dream

Westfall now finds himself at a crossroads between continuing on his current path with AZPixels and completing his side project, which he hopes will take him on a path road to success. The project he is developing is a website that he hopes will generate recurring revenue, something he has thought about creating since working on the successful sites at Vianet.

"It is my ultimate dream," he says.

The business he’s developing will charge a monthly fee of about $10 to allow people to create their own websites and receive technical assistance. Westfall says there are a few other similar businesses out there, including free ones, "but I think they are all terrible. They are really hard to use."

Westfall says that his version will be simple enough that anyone who can post to Facebook will have the skills to use his site.

"Some people think you need a completely new idea, but I believe I can develop a better site than the other ones out there," Westfall says. "People bring their ideas to me so I have my theories about what will or won't work. We don't need another Facebook or another Twitter, but there is room for other choices for this kind of service. The fact is there is no good $10-a-month service out there for website development."

He says he expects it to be up and running sometime in 2014.

"I didn't think it would be this big of a project," Westfall acknowledges. "This is the biggest project I have ever worked on, and I am doing it part time. The work that pays the bills keeps getting in the way."

Networking and connecting

Since graduating from the W. P. Carey School, Westfall has remained plugged into the tech community in Phoenix. He is the founder of Phoenix JavaScript, a user group for JavaScript enthusiasts that sponsors presentations on various Web development topics and posts videos of the presentations on its website, phoenixjavascript.org.

I'm really happy and proud of its success," Westfall says of the group. "The work I put into it is paying off through better connections. I even got a new client from it."

Westfall learned the value of networking and staying connected while a student at W. P. Carey, where he served as president of DISC (Department of Information Systems Club), which focuses on career development, leadership, collaboration and community involvement. DISC members network with leading firms and professionals from a wide range of industries, gaining valuable insights and exposure to the inner workings of their field.

"The connections I made through the CIS program were amazing," Westfall says. "You have the opportunity to meet so many people. In fact, I got my connection to the Arizona Department of Education through a teacher. All of my good connections came through ASU contacts."