Friday, July 1, 2011

Update On the New Company I'm Starting

Back in January I announced my plans to start a new company. I had a lot of nice people contact me to wish me luck or to propose collaborations, so in case anyone is interested, here's how things have been going!

I spent a lot of time brainstorming various business ideas. One of the best things I did was take a train up to Pennsylvania to meet with one of my role models, angel investor and renaissance hacker Gabriel Weinberg. He strongly encouraged me to pursue the solo founder route and also helped me narrow down my list of ideas to 3-4 stronger candidates. He also really encouraged me to start building things, one after another, and keep learning: this process would very likely lead me to an interesting business (vs. trying to create an elaborate business plan and sink years into just one product). I also had several people pitch me on their own cool ideas.

By the end of this process I was overwhelmed! I was really surprised by what helped: I made a mind map of all the things I was considering working on. Forcing myself to create a visual taxonomy of ideas made something very clear which I had not been conscious of. I learned that I'm only interested in building products where:
  • I can charge money up front (vs. things that depend on advertising at scale) 
  • There's a chance to learn about new technology, or challenge my technical skills in some way
  • The problem I'm solving is something I can be passionate about
Those are super obvious criteria but I had not laid them out ahead of time, and I had put too much emphasis on the first one at the expense of the last one. Now I think all three are of equal importance.

I spent a couple of months working seriously on two of my ideas. One of them I bailed out on after realizing I didn't care enough about the problem. The second one I have postponed for awhile, because it's a video game, something very cool that I haven't seen elsewhere in the market, but I'm not sure how interested I am in the games industry. The game was very exciting to work on because of the technology involved (I used all kinds of awesome HTML5 goodness like the ImpactJS engine and websockets, and created a RailsConf tutorial based on what I learned, which someone translated into Russian!). But I was less enthusiastic about the product as a full-fledged business.

A couple of months ago I met Tom Ainsley, an entrepreneur based out of Baltimore's Emerging Technology Center (ETC). We became friendly through various tech networking events like Ignite Baltimore, and also because we're both members of the ETC's ambassador council. He had a great idea for a product that hit all three of my criteria. I don't want to say what it is yet, not because I believe in keeping ideas secret or staying in stealth mode, but because I want to have the business fully up and running for awhile before we publicly launch it. Whatever minimal "social media juice" I have I want to save for that day! Check out "Don't Launch" for an explanation of this strategy.

Besides thinking it was a good idea, Tom brought something to the table that almost nobody in his position does: he had already had a contractor build a prototype, and he already had paying customers for that prototype. Most people who pitch new web business ideas to potential cofounders or to angel investors have not put any capital into their idea (like Tom did when he hired that contractor) and as such they don't seem very "for real". Also, many have a lot of unexamined assumptions about how the idea will make money (something that's very obvious for Tom's product).

You can create the "Tom effect" for yourself without spending a lot of money, by the way. I recommend you outsource development of your prototype idea using Derek Siver's excellent guide. You might also consider teaching yourself to code something. Either one of these things is a way to prove you are "for real". Here's more advice about how to "earn a cofounder".

Tom and I spent some time discussing the idea and getting to know one another over beers at the Charles Village Pub, and eventually we decided to go into business together! I'm rebuilding his prototype as a minimum-viable product now, using Rails and running everything on Heroku's awesome new Celadon Cedar stack. I don't want to say more about the product right now publicly, but if you meet me in person I'd be glad to give you more details!

I'd still like to try being a solo founder some day, but in this process I've learned something very important: as passionate as I am about all facets of entrepreneurship, I'm most interested in technology development. What gets me most excited and engaged is using technology to build things that solve real problems. So for now I'd like to specialize in being a CTO/technical co-founder. That seems to be a sweet spot for me. I'm grateful to have teamed up with a talented businessperson like Tom so I can focus on the most personally meaningful work.

I will be posting more regular updates as things progress, so stay tuned!

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