Up until recently, I was the solo founder of eventLo, a recommendation engine for upcoming social events. I even wrote a post about some of my experiences as a solo founder. About a month ago, that changed, as I merged eventLo into SpotOn. Here's how it happened, and some reflection on the last month.
I was chatting with Charlie O. back in September when I first heard about SpotOn. He mentioned that their CEO, Gauri Manglik, was deeply passionate about the space. He also seemed worried that the space was a bit crowded, but I wouldn't let that deter me. I was on a warpath with eventLo, and wouldn't be scared off.
Over the next few months, I heard about SpotOn through several friends in the tech scene. It was probably my closest competitor and most buzzed about startup in the 'local' space. I was interested, but wary.
Back in early January, things changed. My friend Zach had met Gauri at a local tech event and mentioned the connection. Apparently she had been hearing about eventLo for a while as well. Zach suggested we meet and arranged a lunch.
Over several lunches throughout January, Gauri and I met, chatting about our visions for the space. It was easy to open up to each other because our products were adjacent, but not overlapping from a product perspective. From a business perspective however, we were on a collision course.
It really wasn't too long before our talks were getting serious. Tech infrastructure, team makeup, business direction, funding objectives. We knew where it was heading, but were still both just dabbling our toes in the water. As we got more comfortable we really started opening up, and finally, like a dating couple, the question was out there. "Are we talking about combining forces?"
The coming weeks were filled with rapid due-diligence. Team introductions, tech shares, planning meetings, co-working sessions. We confirmed that we all worked complementary to each other, and agreed to join up. Cap tables with Gauri and Orion, investor meetings, and finally an annoucement at the Hoboken Tech Meetup.
So, what changed on my end? A lot of things, but the biggest was a realization that when complementary skill-sets combine, the result is far more than a sum of the parts. Seems obvious, but it was hard to internalize until I felt that intense sense of collaboration in those early meetings. The early lunches set the tone for what was possible, and reminded me that the best way to delegate is to give up control to people more expert than yourself. At this point in my life, I'm a better CTO than a CEO, and Gauri is a better CEO than I am. Focusing on technology and product is how I am most effective, and I've come to truly embrace that. In a lot of ways, Gauri handling CEO responsibilities frees me up to do what I do best, which is building great tech products with a solid team.
Through this entire experience, I've learned a lot about myself. The biggest is that I don't want to be a solo founder at this point in my life. Building a business is much more than building a tech product, which is what I'd like to focus on right now. Now, I've got a killer, well-rounded team and driven partners. We push each other, which really gets you through the slow days. The shared passion is an unbounded source of energy, and every idea gets rapidly iterated and improved upon as soon as it's uttered. This team is lightning-dynamite-laserbeams, and the potential is mind-blowing.
If I had the chance, I wouldn't go back and change anything because I've learned so much. On the other hand, I now understand that finding the right founding team should have been priority #1, and done before I ever wrote a line of code (it's easy to let product take up all of your founder-search time). Another reason is because once I started building eventLo and called myself CEO/Founder, it erected a wall between myself and potential co-founders. The whole time I was thinking "the more I build, the more control I'll have long-run." I should have embraced the possibility of giving comparable equity to passionate partners who would have added gasoline to the fire.
To the founders and aspiring founders out there: I'm not suggesting you avoid solo founding, but be aware of who you are personally. Having the right team is invaluable, and brings with it more than just skills and another set of hands. Solo founding is emotionally tough and will push your limits, but it is also a self-learning experience unlike anything I've ever experienced.
However big your captain's table, keep strong and carry on.
Over the past month, I've had nightmare customer service with Motorola, regarding my dying Droid. Being blatantly lied to and misled by several representatives (including an L2 supervisor) put a sour taste in my mouth.
Rather than let this post turn into a rant, however, it spurred a lot of personal thought about user experience. In my mind, UX is the interface by which users and customers interact with your company. This interface covers many different fronts: product, policies, support, tone, etc. There are a million UX design tactics to employ, but I like to think about it holistically.
UX is the interpretation layer between customers and the insiders in your company.
The closer your internal view is to the external view, the more users will trust you, and the more fulfilling your company will be to be a part of. Letting the marketing message diverge from the internal attitude is a slippery slope towards becoming faceless. Customers naturally gravitate towards offerings that have soul, and cultures that they can relate to.
This is by no means an academic list, but here are a few things that I like to keep prominent when considering UX decisions.
- There's always a competitor. No matter how great you feel your product is, there are 20 other things competing for your users' attention. Treat them with respect and go the extra mile. Win their hearts with honest dialog and transparency. Give them reasons to become a believer.
- People talk. Whether good or bad, people share news. Give them something good to talk about. Friends don't forward press releases to each other, but they do share great new tools, first-rate experiences, and good surprises. If you can make an experience special or personalized to a user, you're going to have a huge leg up over companies that assume all of their customers are the same.
- Rich enough for power users, easy enough my parents can use it. Granted my parents are pretty tech-savy, but that's not the point. UI matters, and is an important component to UX. Trim the fat, then trim it again. 5-star restaurants don't worry about the trimmings they throw away, because their goal is to be breath-taking, not the cheapest.
- Build for your target market. Don't be afraid to change the world, but make sure it has context. Think Google Search vs. Google Buzz. Both were technological breakthroughs, but only search served a burning need and played into a context people were comfortable with ("How do I find things on the web?"). Buzz may have been useful to people willing to make the leap, but without filling a compelling need, it was just a blip on the tech world's radar.
I was looking for a 5th point to round it out, but that would be disingenuous. There are plenty of tenants to building a great UX, but these are the ones that I focus on. Hopefully they're helpful.
Finally, I'd like to thank Charlie O'Donnell and the nextNY crew for selecting myself, Alexis Goldstein, James Swetnam, Danielle Banks, Michael Horn, Lindsay Kaplan, Alexander Taub, and Emily Miethner as nextNY Fellows. There will be some pretty interesting stuff coming up related to the program, so stay tuned.
Once again this blog has gone dark for over a month. That seems to happen whenever I get extremely busy. No apologies for it however, as it's been a productive month.
At the end of November, the first public alpha of eventLo was launched. We're holding back on any marketing or PR at the moment, until a few key issues are sorted. As it stands, the site actually looks quite vanilla, but there's a lot more going on than meets the eye. I'm likening the current site to that of an iceberg, where 90% of it's mass is below the surface. Expect to see that power wielded in the near future.
Over the month of January, we'll be hitting on several initiatives, including product improvements, market validation, and a heavy refinement process. I'm thrilled with how much we've accomplished in such a short period of time. The beautiful thing about having invested time in infrastructure and architecture is that future development, iterations, and improvements can be implemented at breakneck speed, without a rickety and patchy framework to hold it back.
I'll be keeping the eventLo blog up to date on eventLo issues. That frees up CleverKoala to once again focus on tech industry commentary and the life of a startup technologist.
Over this next year, I'll be focusing a lot of the writing on my emergence from a software focus to a broader tech industry focus. Still expect the nerdy how-tos and tech-heavy details, but much of it will be coming from a broader perspective. As my responsibilities have grown, so to has the perch from which I see my surroundings.
New Year's resolution: learn to sell, responsibly
Brad Hargreaves had a phenomenal post on his blog yesterday. The core of it was a warning that succumbing to the groupthink of tech circles will hamper innovation, and lead you to develop your products for the wrong customers.
I agree with what Brad posted. The tech scene can be a succubus eager to suck down your time and innovation. It's easy to adapt your business to the ideas of whatever big-shot graces you with his thoughts. No matter how experienced or tech-famous they are, however, you can never please everybody. Think about how many investors pass on companies that eventually get funding. Even the pros aren't always right. Don't compromise your vision.
This post won't be a rant on scene issues, but is more to say why the scene can be a beautiful thing, if you have the self control to avoid it consuming you. As a solo founder, the NYC tech scene has been a source of inspiration and support. This may not be as important to a small team of founders bunkered down, working on the next big thing, but for me, the opportunity to get feedback from my peers and from tech veterans is invaluable. Take what everybody says with a grain of salt, but take it regardless. Quite bluntly, without the tech scene, I would know so much less about the tech industry, and peculiarities surrounding it.
Avoid going starry-eyed and getting excited over tech celebrities. They got there by working hard and smart, and you can too.
Be honest in your feedback to others. Politeness often comes off as brown-nosing. Don't be afraid to disagree or call somebody's baby ugly. If they have half a brain and you have good points, they'll thank you for it.
It's not a beauty pageant. Know what you want out of an event before going. Being a social butterfly is useless without actual progress on your business. The scene is your support network, not your business.
So you want to be a tech scenester? Here are a few great resources to find out what goes on every week.
StartupDigest - Top notch tech/hacker/entrepreneur event mailing list.
This Week in NYC Innovation (NYC only) – Charlie O'Donnell's weekly newsletter on what's going on in the upcoming week. The only subscription email that I open every time.
Meetup.com – Tried and true. Pick a few decent niche events to get instant community around what you care about.
There are other ways to find events as well, but the 3 above provide plenty of opportunity to me. Turning into a networking junkie just serves to waste your time. Focus on building a killer business and people will want to talk with you about it.
I'm a single founder, working full-time on EventLo. This post is a candid account of my experience so far.
The whole thing has been unlike anything I've ever done. I don't believe there has ever been a time in my life where I have been so wholly committed to one singular thing. It's like a trance that never stops, though it's power ebbs and flows with my confidence levels and mental fortitude.
Going on a solo dive is not something that I believe most people can do. I don't mean this in a negative way. I mean it more that most people would not enjoy what my life has been the last 2 months. There is an incredible solitude that comes with being a single founder. There are some days I don't leave my apartment. Those are often some deeply productive days. Days which produce as much work as a corporate employee would in a week. On one hand, you mourn the loss of a day, but on the other you relish the feeling of moving the chalklines that far. It's addictive.
I make a conscious effort to stay social and remind my friends that I'm alive. My girlfriend, Shannon, is very supportive of me and recognizes how important this is to me. She's pretty amazing.
Sometimes work is like crystal meth in it's addictive capacity. Usually you're pushed by ambition to achieve in every sense of the word. Sometimes you're pushed by a fear of losing ground. It's not as much of a roller coaster as everyone has made it out to be, but I'm usually pretty level. That's not to say it hasn't been a powerful experience. I have no doubt that this will change the way that I operate in any professional capacity for the rest of my life. That's a pretty profound statement, and I'm not exaggerating.
This has been one of the best learning experiences I've ever had.
If you do this, you will fail daily. I don't mean that in a cutsie cliche kind of way. I mean that your server will crap out and you'll be "yelling at your monitor" kind of frustrated. You will be told your idea sucks by people that you respect. You will show up at the wrong coffee shop (sorry Geoff) for a meeting because your calendar is too busy. You will miss your parents calls and not get back to them for 2 days because you couldn't get free. You will stress out and try to find sane ways to deal with it. There are literally not enough hours in the day to accomplish what you want to do. Sounds nasty, huh?
I love what I am doing. It is deeply fulfilling. That simple. I'm building something that people will love and will pay me money for. I dictate my day. I am realizing a big audacious vision that is moving from my brain onto the web. I meet brilliantly creative, intelligent, and ambitious people. You will probably see some of them in Business Week 3 years from now.
The tech community is filled with people that are well worth knowing. The tech startup community really is a community. There's a feel of camaraderie that circles around tech events. I'll go out of my way to make useful introductions for people, because that's just how it's done here. We look out for each other.
Investors are busy and can smell bullshit, so don't waste their time. If you want money, ask for it. If you actually want advice, ask for it. No need to play cute. If you have a business that they want, they'll give you money. That's their job.
The only people that should even think about starting a business are the ones who are going to do it regardless of what I say. So don't go start a tech company.
Note: I'm flying solo because I have yet to find a brilliant technical co-founder. If anybody knows a crazy-good Python nut in NYC, I'd love to talk with them.
Wow. I can't believe it's a month since I last posted to the blog.
I feel like this is me coming up for air after a deep dive, before heading back down.
Things have been a blur for me. Lots of code, lots of networking, lots of planning, some socializing.
In a wrap
The product (EventLo) is moving. Feedback has been great. Lots of people are excited to start using it.
The recommendation engine itself is still being assembled, but progress is looking good. EventLo is currently being hosted in the cloud on Amazon's EC2 service, and I couldn't be happier with my technology decisions. Special thanks to Mike at MongoDb and Shay at ElasticSearch. Those technologies have been pretty incredible so far. Also, Python, I love you.
Mentally, I'm still in one piece, something I know my parents and Shannon stay on top of. Thank you guys. Turns out solo founding is tough. More to come on that in the next post.
Neither is necessarily better than the other, and the best people can do both. Doing both at the same time, however is like trying to play ping-pong and philosophize. It's just not going to work.
To tell which state you're in, ask yourself "Am I in the middle of shit, or am I above it?" If you're in the middle of shit, you're being reactionary. You need to be in the middle in order to commandeer the ship at breakneck speed, handling the operational details. On the other hand, this sort of short-sighted view won't help you decide where the ship should be sailing.
Learn to recognize the two as separate, but equally powerful. Understand how to pick one mode or another, and only do one at a time. Don't let your reactionary side steal all of the time away from your visionary side. There is always time for big ideas.
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The most likely reason is because of you.
The only chance that you have of survival is if the title of this post pissed you off and made you want to prove me and everybody else wrong.
I'm assuming you have talent (or at least think you do). Hey, who doesn't have talent nowadays? There are a lot of talented people out there with some really amazing ideas. That's great when you're still in the honeymoon stage. How do you deal with things when it really gets rough.
How would you deal with somebody saying "This idea really sucks. Don't you have a better one?" to your face? I know that you just told yourself "I'd find out what they don't like and take it into consideration." Great, we'd all do that. It's logical. What I'm asking is what that does to you. As a person. As an entrepreneur. Does it piss you off? Does it deflate your sails? How much?
If you can't learn to steady your aim, and keep the boat stable, you will fail. That's the entire thesis of leadership. Your internal strength is what gives strength to what you do and those you lead. At the end of the day, if you can't fan the fire inside yourself, then it's going to go out. Validation of your idea and progress is great, but if it's something that you need in order to keep going then it might be time to have a little sit-down with yourself about what you're doing.
State singular, well-defined goals. Set timelines for when you want to achieve them.
Do nothing that doesn't directly help you achieve those goals. Encourage others to call you out on anything you do that doesn't do that. Anything else is procrastination, no matter how productive it feels. Keep it to 3 goals at a time. If you really need to work on something that doesn't further a goal, re-visit your goals.
Captain the ship.
Even if your startup is just you, treat it like it is bigger than you. Hold yourself accountable. Stay the course, or consciously change course. Do not run things "on a whim."
Chin up. Stay the course.
6 billion people don't see the potential that you see. Many of them will kindly tell you every problem they see with it. If your idea was easy money, they would have already done it. Prove them wrong.
When somebody rails against your project, there is no taking neutral ground. We're not robots, and that emotion has to go somewhere. Instead of letting it lower your enthusiasm, let it be fuel on the fire. Make them eat those words. Envision them in 12 months saying "Wow. I guess I was dead wrong. This is amazing."
"Changing the conversation" works for PR and ad firms. Don't fall into that trap. Cherish the roller coaster ride and make it work for you. If you hate roller coasters, this probably isn't the right game for you.