Well, actually I’ve been doing something like entrepreneurship for the past ~14 years, but the last 2 mark the first time I went all-in, hence the title.
This write-up is mostly for my future self. It’ll be interesting to read this in a few years and compare to my thoughts/experiences on the subject. You are more than welcome to tag along, though. If you have any thoughts or arguments either in agreeing or disagreeing with me, please, do not hesitate to express them in the comments.
On starting up
I had an idea for AdDuplex in December 2010. There’s nothing radically new about it. That said, for some reason, no one thought of it at that time (at least as far as I know). Anyway, I decided to scratch my own itch and implement it on Windows Phone. Some thought (and probably still think) I was stupid not to jump to iOS and Android immediately once I got proof that developers really needed and liked a service like this. Some also said that should’ve moved to Silicon Valley immediately and I would’ve been “golden” by now. Well, I didn’t and I didn’t.
I think the most likely outcome of both moves would be either dying because of money running out before we get to something meaningful across all the platforms, or, in case I managed to secure enough funding to start, being forced to “pivot” to something that has a better theoretical chance of becoming “a billion dollar company”. More on that later. Anyway, I’m enjoying being an important part of the Windows Phone and now Windows 8 ecosystems. And I like living in Lithuania. And we will see about that summer house in California ;)
One thing that really helped me start this was the fact that I had reasonable semi-passive income from now defunct .NET part of amCharts. Ironically other 2 big pushes came from really bad news from Microsoft. First one came in a form of only 30 countries “allowed” to develop for Windows Phone. This is now resolved, but If not for that blow I would probably be developing some mediocre WP apps at the moment. Another big blow came right at the time I’ve started seeing traction with AdDuplex. At the first Windows 8 announcement event Microsoft has famously “forgotten” to mention WPF/Silverlight or any other XAML/C# based development technology as a platform to create Windows 8 apps. This resulted in the sales of our (amCharts) WPF/Silverlight controls dropping to virtually zero. It was a clear signal that I needed to find a new occupation and a source of income ASAP. So I jumped from being 50/50 involved with AdDuplex and amCharts to something like 90/10 and then going all-in with AdDuplex.
As I mentioned having a passive income was very important, so I think you should always think about having some passive income so it’s way easier to jump aboard your next crazy idea. Check out The 4-Hour Workweek for some ideas on this. In case you don’t have that, but itch to start something, I think its more productive to stay at a 9-to-5 job and moonlight, than trying to mix entrepreneurship with some consulting work. I’ve tried to do that for more than 10 years and it never actually worked out. Both sides suffer, but the startup side suffers more. Consulting brings real money in after all.
There’s always an option of getting an investment for your startup. Good luck with that. Unless you have a Name or are a world class bullshitter this is a waste of time in the very early stage, imho.
On being a solo founder
Right when I had the idea and got unreasonably excited I’ve shared it with a fellow developer (who should probably remain nameless). He tried to cool me down by saying he doesn’t think it’s such a good idea, and even if it is, we would be blown away by the big boys once they figure there’s something in it. My next several attempts to “recruit” co-founders failed in a similar fashion. I guess it’s the main (only?) disadvantage of being a startup founder in mid-thirties – most of the people you know have families, mortgages and other commitments, and their minimum viable income expectations are much higher than when they were 10-15 years younger.
Anyway I decided that enough is enough and I’m not going to look for co-founders just for the sake of it. There was a limited list of people I’d like to team up with and I’ve exhausted it. And, after all, I thought I had everything needed to for the first step – I can do the server side myself, I can do the SDK on my own, and I have a sense of “ugly”, meaning I know that if I really try to Design something it will end up ugly, so I should keep it simple.
They say being a solo founder is hard. There’s no one to kick your butt when you are slacking off. There’s no one to say something optimistic when you think you are screwed. Etc., etc. Well, I don’t see this as anything tragic. Sometimes it actually is really productive to slack off a little. No matter how counter intuitive this sounds. There’s also a benefit of having no one to fight for “who deserves more” and there’s only one “because I said so”. Decisions are way easier to make. Sometimes even dangerously easy. In any case I think there are obviously cons of being a solo founder but there are pros too. Definitely nothing tragic about it.
My idea of a perfect business is something in the middle between what VC world calls “lifestyle business” and “a billion dollar company”. In other words I’d rather run a $10m 5 person business, than a $500m 300 people company.
Unfortunately in my experience most of the Silicon Valley crowd is anally fixated on the “show me how this is a billion dollar company?” question. And by Silicon Valley I don’t mean the exact location in California (even though it is in high concentration over there), but places all over the world trying to replicate SV. The question is totally understandable for large VC funds. This is how their mechanics work and it’s fine. But all the lower levels of the ecosystem are very focused on how you are going to raise your next round, therefore everyone looking to invest $10k is asking the billion dollar question. Some people tell me this is not the case and there are lots of investors who don’t care about that and “I totally see you being acquired for $50m”, but immediately follow by “but we only care about $100m+ opportunities”. Anyway I’m obviously exaggerating and I don’t have enough experience in this since I never seriously looked for an investment, but from the limited experience that I had I came out with this takeaway. Take it or leave it.
I came really close to getting a sort-of institutional Angel/Seed investment once. As close as having all the investment papers reviewed and negotiated with lawyers, but things fell through in the end due to something you could probably call force-majeure. I had a technically less attractive (from pure economics) offer from my friend/previous business partner on the table, but I wanted to get a more “formal” investment at that point. One of the reasons I wanted that, was my belief that having an outside investor would indirectly introduce more discipline in my solo act.
Anyway, I ended up getting that FFF (friends, family and fools) investment. The reason I need it was that half a year after I’ve started I found myself deadlocked most of the time. I was a developer (server and client), designer (ahem), marketer, sales person, support and everything in-between. Once this thing has taken of I couldn’t perform any of these things effectively. I was making some money. More or less enough to feed me, but not enough to safely hire someone to help with some of those functions. So I needed a buffer to get to that next level. And I got it.
So far at AdDuplex I’ve only hired one person, so not much wisdom I can provide here. That said I ended hiring based on cultural fit over (perceived) competence more than a year before reading a post by Brad Feld of the same title. I’ve interviewed 4 people. All had very similar salary expectations. I ended up hiring the youngest guy with less experience on paper, but the one my hunch told me was a right fit. I’d be lying if I didn’t see the most potential competence in him over the other 3, but most likely the decisive factor was the fact that he just felt like the best fit. One year later I’m totally happy with that decision.
Once I’ve got accustomed to people calling what I’m doing a startup, I started paying attention to startup accelerators. Not that I ever seriously considered setting going to one of them as my goal, but I’ve sent a couple of half-assed applications to TechStars and some others. In late 2011 I’ve learned about Startup Sauna and applied (again half-assedly) via their referral track. Needless to say half-assed applications don’t get you invited. When Startup Sauna had their warm-up in Kaunas in early 2012 I applied and prepared more carefully. My reasoning for doing this is documented in this post. Long story short, we’ve got invited to the final program, traveled to Silicon Valley and talked to a ton of smart people and investors (smart people too ;). It was great and it was a great way for introvert technical geeks to expand social horizons dramatically, learn a few things about running a business and get a real life experience pitching your product to real investors.
In short, I think if you can get into a great accelerator like Startup Sauna you shouldn’t think twice. It really does accelerate things for you. Even if the thing it accelerates is failure, it’s still a good thing. “Fail fast” and blah blah blah.
On networking, PR and marketing
One of the main realizations over these 2 years was that personal connections are as important in the capitalist community of the 21st century as they were in the Soviet economy of the 20th. Great product is as important as ever and likely more important than it was in pre-internet days, but lack of visibility could be more tragic than before too. The main asset of PR agencies (besides the ability to write boring press releases with stock CEO quotes) is personal connections to media. If you start working on your connections after you launch your product its probably too late and using a PR agency is probably the easiest way to get in front of the media.
Luckily for me I loved Twitter way before I could so conveniently claim that I’m using it for work ;) For an introvert geek like me Twitter is an awesome tool and the channel I made most of my personal connections through. That said real life interactions help deepen the connections you make on Twitter and this is one of the things I wish I realized sooner. I was averse to the idea of going to social gatherings, conferences and such, but I’ve started changing my outlook on it and I can even say I started liking it recently. Obviously the process is long and you have to go through a phase when no one knows you anywhere and it’s really boring and even depressing, but as I said, this is the large part of this entrepreneurship thing and not doing it handicaps your business in a pretty major way.
I have a whole post on the subject of networking for the geeks like me. Hopefully I’ll get to posting it soon.
I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure I’ve travelled more over the last 2 years than in the previous 35. It’s amusing to see how my own view on the travels changed. Just a few years ago I would thoroughly prepare for each trip I take. I would be puzzled by the lack of desire from, say, conference speakers to go sightseeing during their trips. I’m not at that point yet, but I already feel that quite often I have to force myself to go check out the surroundings during one of such trips.
It also takes its toll on vacations. The thought of going to some all-inclusive-lazy-laying-by-the-pool resort was nauseating to me just a few years ago. Now this is my most coveted type of vacation. Second only to not going anywhere at all.
We are at a point again, like I was a little more than a year ago, when we just have too much stuff to juggle for just the two of us. Again, we are making enough money to carry on with what we do, but not enough to expand comfortably. And I’m confused as for what to do next. Should I look for investment? Should I double down on the money making side of the business even if it means sacrificing the growth? These are the questions I have opposing definitive answers to every time I wake up in the morning. Oh, well, uncertainty is probably the most certain thing about entrepreneurship.
Anyway. This was probably the longest blog post I’ve ever written and I should wrap it up and go do some real sh*t. Overall I’ve enjoyed the last 2 years very much and wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’ve been out of the real job market for too long (12 years) and I don’t think I want to go back anytime soon or any time at all. So, I love what I’m doing and this what I hope to be doing until I get rich and lazy (not that I ever wasn’t lazy) or until I die trying. We’ll see how it goes.