One Year, Six Products: What I’ve Built and Learned

Exactly one year ago I quit my job with the dream of starting a technology company.  I didn’t have a plan except to work hard and learn.  Yet I could have used a lot of advice in the early days, which is why I’m writing to you today.  My hope is that the below advice will help guide some of you if and when you make the decision to quit your job and pursue a startup.

I have two blog posts summarizing the year and the six products I’ve built.  The first — the post you’re reading right now — is a telling of what I’ve done, what products I’ve built and what I’ve learned from each.  The second — which I’ll post tomorrow (UPDATE: here it is) — is a summary of advice for others who are in a similar position as I was a year ago.

1) FoneDoktor: Android App for Optimizing Performance

FoneDoktor was my first project after quitting my job.  I spent 2-3 months working three days a week on the project, spending the remaining two days on whatever I wanted.  I worked out of my living room, where I setup a comfortable home office.  FoneDoktor was my first mobile app, and really my first consumer app since college.  I had a ton of fun getting back into the consumer side of things and learning Android.  I decided to stop working on it after the first version was released.  I still see a lot of potential for FoneDoktor, but at the time my desires shifted to the next project.

During those two extra days per week, I built two partial products — a Craigslist search tool and a celebrity photo browser powered by Twitter.  I never launched either of them.  However, both helped in the soul searching process while I figured out what startup I wanted to pursue.

Lessons learned from FoneDoktor:

  • Android was a lot of fun.  I wrote getting started instructions
  • Consulting is a great way to support yourself while you’re looking for a startup to pursue full time.  You can pay the bills and have the flexibility to explore and soul search
  • Working from home is incredibly productive, at least for me.  But be sure to make an effort to get out of the house and interact with others
  • Don’t let consulting work monopolize your time.  Make sure you work on your own projects, too

2) TownSquared: Ning++

TownSquared was a startup I worked on for about five months with my good friend, Eric.  He’d kill me for describing it as Ning++, but that’s more or less what we were trying to do. We incorporated the company together and eventually decided to part ways despite our mutual belief in the product’s potential.  We’re still great friends, though, and I’m glad we didn’t let business get in the way of that.  TownSquared was great for a number of different reasons:

  • I got decently good at Rails and Javascript
  • All my backend work was accompanied by a beautiful frontend, courtesy of Eric
  • I pitched a good amount of big-name investors
  • I got my first taste for how hard startups are
  • I saw first hand what happens throughout the seed funding process
  • I was exposed to the incorporation process
Five months of living expenses, an incorporation, and a trip to New York for investor meetings greatly reduced my personal runway.  But the whole process was totally worth it.  I’m closer friends with Eric than I ever was.  And for the first time in my life, I pursued my very own startup, a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

Lessons learned from TownSquared:

  • Get out and talk to other entrepreneurs — working in a closed area with your team gets lonely and cramped
  • Don’t incorporate a C corporation until you absolutely have to — usually when you decide to raise money.  A LLC is much cheaper, easier, and faster
  • It’s hard to build a product for many months without launching.  Try to launch something quickly and iterate — you’ll feel better about yourself when you see progress
  • Don’t pick a team because your skills overlap.  Pick a team because you work well together
  • Your team doesn’t need to have all the necessary skills for long-term success.  Build a team for short term success and hire for the rest later
  • New York is a great place to do a startup — the city is amazing, the investors we met were awesome and energetic, and the entrepreneurs are passionate and fun.  (we didn’t actually work out of New York)

3) CriticallyIn: Events that need Critical Mass

CriticallyIn was an idea I had that I totally believed could be big.  With my newly acquired Rails and Javascript skills, I learned Bootstrap and built the product in three weeks.  I got the idea because I had two events I wanted to plan that fit CriticallyIn perfectly: a zoo animal bar crawl and a mock Tour de France style mountain-top celebration.

I didn’t give CriticallyIn a fair shot at success, mostly because I had doubts about its growth potential.  CriticallyIn would need to compete with both Facebook and Eventbrite in the mindshare of the consumer, and the product isn’t distinguished enough from the other two to become a serious contendor.  That said, I had an awesome time building the product and have no regrets whatsoever.  I pitched a few investors, too, and learned even more about the fundraising process.

Lessons learned from CriticallyIn:

  • Do your homework before you talk to investors: understand who your competitors are and will be, what the market size is, and how you’ll gain market traction
  • Doing a startup by yourself is strictly harder and more lonely than doing a startup with co-founders
  • Try to validate your idea before you build it.  The product only took me three weeks to build.  Some early validation would have saved time
  • Bootstrap is awesome if you’re someone like me with zero front-end skills

4) BreakStreak: Helping You get into a Routine

BreakStreak is an idea I saw a lot of promise in as well, but the product itself was more ambitious than I was willing to take on — it would have required a mobile app, website, and complex logic.  So I built a totally fake product as an experiment.  Some of my friends were upset with me for leading them on, but overall I’m very pleased with the outcome of BreakStreak.  I learned that BreakStreak was a good idea, but my product vision was off by a long shot.  And I only wasted two days figuring this out!

Lessons learned from BreakStream:

  • Customer development is everything — find out what customers want and what they’re willing to pay for.  Figure this out before anything else
  • Figure out the best way to get good customer development — usually surveys aren’t good enough.  Building a fake product was very effective for me
  • Don’t wait for a lot of customer feedback to make a decision.  Chances are good you’ll never have enough customer feedback
  • Start with a minimum viable product, get it out quickly, and continue customer development as you iterate.  A fake product is about as minimum as you can get

5) CharmRoom: Your New Way to Discover Beauty

CharmRoom is a product I built for a friend’s startup as a consultant.  Unfortunately I can’t talk about it because it’s still in a closed beta, but I had a great time building it.  I worked on CharmRoom while I got MemCachier (explained below) off the ground.

Lessons learned from CharmRoom:

  • Consulting is a great way to sustain yourself while you get through the early days of a startup (which in my case is what I was doing with MemCachier)
  • Try to consult for someone who’s better than you at something.  In my case, the CEO of CharmRoom has given me a ton of great advice and perspective on business in general, fundraising and negotiation

6) MemCachier: A Managed Memcache for the Cloud

MemCachier is the sixth product I’ve worked on this year.  I’m pursuing it full time with David and Amit.  We incorporated in April and have been working our asses off ever since.  I’ve been having the time of my life, too.  I’m writing code, creating marketing material, discussing and deciding on company strategy, negotiating with partners, talking to customers and working with an awesome team.  We’re growing fast and trying our best to keep up.  I couldn’t be happier.

This year has been about finding what startup I want to build.  I’ve struggled to figure out what I truly love, and what I’m truly good at.  MemCachier, I’ve learned along the way, is in a space that I both love and am good at.  It’s the perfect blend of opportunity, passion, and expertise, all packaged up in a company that I love building.

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Lessons learned from MemCachier (so far):

  • Raising money takes a long time.  It’s a full time job.  The process will distract you from running your business.  Spend as little time fundraising as possible
  • Investor meetings will beat you up; investors are good at picking holes in your business.  Don’t let them get you down.  But listen to their feedback
  • Raising money is not success.  Plenty of companies get started without investment.  Ask yourself if you really need money.  If you don’t need any, don’t raise any.  Be honest with yourself — you’ll have an easy time convincing yourself that you need money
  • Institutional investors aren’t the only option.  Depending on your capital needs, money can come from banks, the government, friends and family, Kickstarter and probably other places I’ve never heard of
  • Strive to find early adopters that love your product.  Constantly interact with them and learn why they use your service.  Give them small tokens of appreciation for their help (e.g., Amazon gift cards).  MemCachier’s early adopters have been incredibly helpful
  • Being cash-flow positive is a big deal in the investment community (that is, when your costs not including salaries are lower than your revenues)
  • When you find the right business to build, you’ll know.  I’ve had doubts about each product I’ve spoken about in this post, except for MemCachier
  • Again, don’t necessarily incorporate a C corporation.  A LLC or something similar works for many businesses.  Figure out what you need and make a decision.  C corporations are expensive to incorporate.  But you can’t raise money with a LLC

THANKS

I want to thank a number of people that have helped me along the way.  I couldn’t have had such a great year without your help and support.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Your friendship and support is a constant energy in my life that I’m incredibly grateful for.

  • Christophe for your constant advice, friendship, and help
  • Nutron for your movies and UI/UX skillz.  Next time I won’t let you beat me gokarting
  • Jen for your love, support, and cooking :)
  • Eric for your worldly analysis.  Oh and for your friendship, too :p
  • Amit and David for putting up with me
  • Dad, Mom, Carly and Peter for always being there
  • Zoo for your kindness, positive energy, and fun attitude.  And for putting up with me
  • Ashley for Tia’s and the Family Dinner tradition
  • Kimball for your generosity regardless of my lameness
  • Ryan for setting the pace on those dirty uphills
  • All my Mission Cycling buddies for forcing me off my computer a few times a week
  • Hodges for all your marketing insight, even though you’re an asshole
  • Dror for your patience while I pitch 100 ideas to you at once
  • Omer for your frankness.  I owe you a hot chocolate
  • Dust for an excuse to go to Kansas.  Stoked you’re back in CA!
  • Todd for your technical advice and ice skating dates
  • ATM for kanyezone.com — without it I may not have survived
  • Andrew for your athletic inspiration and BBQ ribs.  You’ll kill Ironman Switzerland this weekend!
  • Glenn and Jay for always being huge inspirations and role models.  Jay, I’m still comin’ for ya on Hawk Hill
  • Whit for your patience and endless advice
  • Umed for your energy and negotiation tactical advice
  • Andy for your great soul-searching advice during those times when I didn’t know what to do
  • And everyone else I’m forgetting — friends, family, coworkers, cycling buddies.  THANK YOU