Inside Track: ‘Efficiency nut’ Chris Harper finds hard work always pays off
COO’s fascination with computers, coding leads to lucrative career.
For some, it takes a lifetime to find the right career path. Chris Harper found his around age 12, shortly after his family moved to Ada.
Growing up in a house that had 11 computers, courtesy of his father’s job with Xerox, Harper found himself drawn to the technology that inhabited his home. The machines were fascinating in their own right, but Harper also was fascinated by the intricate local area network connection that allowed all 11 computers to access the dial-up internet of the mid-1990s.
“That probably kicked off something in my head,” said Harper, now partner and COO at The Lead Company, an online-based provider of auto insurance leads. “I thought it was incredible that I could do something from my house and then load it from school, but at the same time, someone from Japan could load that same site. So, I spent a lot of time getting to know website stuff, CSS and building websites.”
As he began to learn about coding and building websites, Harper noticed his school, Forest Hills Central High School, didn’t have much of a web presence. So, in his spare time, he created rangerpride.com, the school’s first unofficial website.
Ranger Pride began as a pet project for Harper, something school-approved that allowed him to learn more about building websites while still serving a purpose to visitors of the site. And while honing his craft, Harper implemented more functionality in the site and developed applications to help subvert some of the difficulties that came from the integration of education and technology in the early age of the internet.
For example, Harper noticed when classes were held in the computer labs, it would take several minutes at the start of class to get all the students onto the same web page. So, he set up a simple application that redirected all the computers from Ranger Pride to whatever site the instructor was teaching that day, saving valuable class time and teaching Harper a valuable lesson about himself — he was an “efficiency nut.”
In 2002, he had the idea to get his parents and their friends to take pictures of Forest Hills Central’s prom and host the photos on the website the following week. While online photo galleries are nothing groundbreaking these days, at the time, it was massive. Thousands of hits flooded the site from classmates accessing the prom photos.
All through high school, Harper worked to find better ways to use the internet and technology, helping out friends and neighbors with their IT questions on the side. By senior year, he was working for the school newspaper, the Forest Edge, where he shined again with his self-taught computing skills. Harper developed a web-based publishing client, which allowed the student reporters to write and file their stories for review, and the teachers to edit and approve the stories in one place.
All of Harper’s hard work in aiding the faculty and student body in his four years at Forest Hills Central led to a front page article in the Forest Edge’s last edition of the year, titled “Mass chaos will ensue when Harper leaves.”
After graduation, Harper studied at Michigan State University, where he faced a new dilemma — on a campus of more than 40,000 students, how could he stand out like he did in high school? So, prior to his arrival in East Lansing, Harper secured a job through his dad’s contacts working at the MSU Print Services shop, which had merged with university relations.
By the spring of his first year, Harper built a web server that housed a number of websites and departmental information for the university. While he was on spring break that year, the server crashed. So, Harper fixed the server remotely, making an impression on his bosses and solidifying his importance within the university.
Through four years of college, Harper worked for university relations, becoming the go-to guy behind the scenes for any tech solutions that occurred. He created a contact list management system for the various departments to send out email blasts to their clients, an application that became the backbone for university relations’ web presence.
He continued to work for university relations after graduation, moving up the ladder in the department, until he received an offer from a former high school classmate.
David McFarland, founder of Odyssey Lead Generation, had hit a wall. Further investment was needed, and needing to pivot, a mutual friend recalled Harper’s reputation as a tech guy and recommended McFarland reach out to him to develop the web applications for the business.
So, while working full time at Michigan State, Harper built a platform that works as a real-time auction site for insurance leads and The Lead Company was born. Between Harper’s experience in designing and programming websites and McFarland’s experience as a licensed insurance agent, the partnership was a natural fit.
“Our clients know that we know our stuff,” Harper said. “We build our own technology and have a good inherent understanding of it, and as a licensed insurance agent, Dave has a good, natural understanding of the services that we’re offering and why it’s important to our clients.”
After the site launched in 2010, the company started to flourish, and Harper took a leap of faith. He chose to leave his job with the university in favor of a self-employed job at The Lead Company. In 2012, he sold his house in East Lansing and moved back to Ada — seven doors down from the house he grew up in, the same house where, once upon a time, he had completed IT client work for the owners.
“That was kind of a really cool introspective moment where I realized that everything had led up to this,” he said. “Because I had been in this house before, never thinking I’d get to a point where I could live in this house.
“I’ve always been the guy who puts in the time and knows that, at some point, it’ll pay off. If you just put your head down and do the work, it’ll reward you with something — even if it might not necessarily be something you were expecting.”
For Harper, that hard work began at 12 years old, teaching himself how to code and program websites in his bedroom, eventually turning his passion into a lucrative career.
“When I was a kid, I would stay up until 3 a.m. building some new Ranger Pride feature,” he said. “And what was the payoff? A lot of people would say, that was a lot of time spent building something that made you no money. And I don’t think that’s true. Looking back on that, it’s pretty easy to point at that and see how that helped me to get here.”