What a long strange trip it’s been

…and it is just getting started.

The days are bleeding together. One day flows into the next and the religion of strong late morning coffee to drive away the fogginess of sleep depravation has claimed another late night as a convert. My spine aches from seemingly endless hours in this chair slouched under a desk to low for my long legs. Fighting the lure of distraction I check my email, answer 3 or 4 support tickets that have come in since 4am when I finally carefully made may way into bed as to not wake Sally.  As the coffee takes hold and my tired brain makes an effort to assemble the mental checklist of the days tasks ahead the inevitable smile of content creeps across my unshaven face as I look at the sales numbers for the day before and behold the miracle that is the graceful sweeping arc up to the right of month over month sales.

So begins another day in the life of my bootstrapped startup, our budding overnight success 8 years in the making.

The red pill

In 2003 months after college I embarked on a journey with a single minded purpose; retire at 35. After reading the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad I knew that working for someone else was not going to bear the quantity of fruit I was seeking. I started a web design agency using the only non blue collar skill I knew and enjoyed a measure of success through 2006 ramping to as many as 7 employees for a time. Dumb luck and crystal ball like timing got me in and out of the booming Phoenix real estate market with a tidy profit. I made the first attempt at moving from service work to a product based business with a party planning social network we developed. Shortly after we doubled down with our own seed money and tried again with the prototype that would later become page.ly. In early 2009, burning up savings but long on hustle I forwent all but a few consulting clients to focus strictly on the product. November 2009, a few months after page.ly was launched and barely earning enough to cover the cost of the single server it ran on we were at a crossroads.

I knew with time the little seed of a business we planted would blossom but there was a fear we might bust before the harvest. Low on energy, and very low on patience with this our 3rd go at a startup we set a deadline for April 1st 2010. If this business didn’t cover it’s existing expenses and have enough for me to take a small salary we would pack it in and I would do the very last thing any entrepreneur wants to; admit defeat and get a “real” job.

Spring came with a good vibe that proved the adage: patience is a virtue. Taking a salary from the business now we had to double down and reinvest everything else. May thru August delivered consistent 22-45% growth month over month. Hot Damn I think we are on to something.

Some days I focus on business administrative tasks, most I write code in 12-15 hour unbroken blocks improving the system and automation.  If our first year was all about the product our second year now is all about driving exponential growth.

Lessons so far from the rabbit hole

Along the way I have learned some lessons and have been disappointed by some friends and blown away by the willingness of complete strangers to offer to help and evangelize our brand with everything in between.

The greatest thing about doing a startup, is choosing one people like to like. They love  it and do everything they can to help others love it. These people are a godsend to a startup or any business for that matter. They may not even know you as a person yet they saw value in your product or service and they evangelize it like a missionary on a pilgrimage. We are so fortunate to have created a brand/product that people seem to like to like.

The second greatest thing about doing a startup I have found is converting a hater into customer. There is always that person that just wants to hate your product, because they cant understand why you would charge money for something they feel they could do themselves or some other reason they pulled from their box of troll tactics. That conversation with them (perhaps after some of your community has extolled your products virtues on your behalf) where you take their hand and walk them through your value proposition with personal attention and patience where they do that 180 turn around and become your newest customer and community cheerleader is something I cannot get enough of.

The third greatest thing about doing a startup is the direct line between your efforts and the thickness of your wallet and the total freedom of the entrepreneur to do as they chose. You have absolute control over your time, how you chose to spend it, and the rewards you reap from it. The personal discipline it takes to stay focused and not be distracted is measured on a scale that sadly most do not possess. The traditional moving away from pain motivation people utilize will only keep them at even, or in this economy less than even. Every successful entrepreneur I know leverages moving towards pleasure motivation to carry them up and above that even mark. That new Audi or that coveted inc.500 listing, something is pulling the successful person towards the goal. If you only do enough to keep your ass out of the fire, and not find the internal fortitude, motivation, and discipline to consistently reach for the next step, your ass will always be getting burned. Some people never learn to take control of their own time as they are so conditioned to be told how to spend it.

A less than awesome thing about doing a startup is the toll it takes on you physically and mentally. I offer daily thanks to the body shape defining genetics I was blessed with as my lack of exercise and poor eating habits have not added more than the 10 extra lbs. I have amassed since college. Sitting in a chair in front of glowing led screen for hours a day is not going to win you any Mr. Universe titles or burn off the calories from the beers you had at dinner. The stress that comes with making the gamble of a lifetime is not easy to bear for some either. We were all (nearly all of us anyways) taught to go to work, collect a paycheck, and pay your bills. This system has been the backbone of the American economy since the industrial revolution and our schools are agents of indoctrination into that mindset. Trying to unlearn that is not easy for many. Wonder where your next paycheck as an entrepreneur is coming from to pay the mortgage? See the third greatest thing above. That uncertainty is not for the feint of heart.

Sadly I have found that some you may think that would be most solidly in your corner and ready to help you succeed seem to offer little more than dismissive reminders of your possible failure. I had a business/personal coach I worked with for a year or so and he always preached that “when you are moving forward those around will likely try to hold you back”.  They don’t consciously want to see you fail, they just subconsciously don’t want you to succeed before they do. In my life I have changed my friends and colleagues many times, each time moving toward a group that offered a new level of business saavy or encouragement. I think it’s normal and just something you do as you grow as a person.

Get your fix.

Why bootstrap? Why not? We gave a half-hearted effort early on to seek some capital and have at least done a mental exercise every quarter since revisiting the idea but always come back to the same place; it just takes too much time to chase the money when instead we could be earning it (building/promoting the product). That and no one bets on an unproven horse. Fact. We have to succeed before anyone is likely to invest and by then we don’t need it. In addition Sally and I have talked about it a length and we are not sure we want to be that kind of business. When did lifestyle business become a bad word? If your lifestyle is financed by a few million a year in high margin recurring business revenue how is that a bad thing?

We are just boarding the express train heading up the curve looking back at the chasm we just crossed. The mainstream customers are coming daily in increasing numbers and I see this manifest from the types of support questions we are fielding now. These next 2-3 years will see us climb up that bell curve towards the peak. We’ll have options along the way to exit early or keep going, either of which we have decided are to far in the future spend many mental cycles on an exit. Early on we measured things in terms of days, then weeks. Today we talk about metrics in 90 day cycles, with a eye out on the horizon beyond that a bit but not too far out as that seems like a loss of focus on what’s in front of us.


Everybody’s doing it

Depends who you run with I guess but everyone I know is working in or for startups. Well not everyone, some are still in the service/consulting business but I know their heart is the product space. While it may be in vogue it is more a matter of necessity I think in this economic climate. If this recession and bubble burst has not proven that the game is rigged against the working man to everyone with a brain cell I don’t know what will. People are taking their future in their hands and making a go of it for better or worse because the consequences of failing cant be any more damaging than standing in an unemployment line as a 99’r with a foreclosure notice under your resume.


And finally

This has been a brain dump of thoughts bouncing around in my head for a while as I have been feeling introspective and reflective of late soaking in this small taste of success from our 8 year grind.

There have been times I wanted to give up. Times I wanted to cut someone. Days I shake my head in disbelief at the high school games people play in business. Moments of sheer ecstasy and marathons of stress. Minutes spent in disappointment of those to show the smallest bit of respect and gratitude in return for my time and energy given to them. Hours of great conversation with smart and well meaning mentors. And a whole lot of time in between those other moments where I just had to dig deep and grind it out hoping someday it would pay off.

A friend of mine measures his day in mental cycles, so whatever he can get out of his mental computer and down to paper or crossed of his list saves cycles that can be applied elsewhere. I have done that here. Took a short moment to breathe.

2.5 years to go until I am 35.  My life is a relentless push towards my goal. My motivation to succeed is unwavering. Time to get back to work.

I LOVE WHAT I DO.

This ‘thing’, this crazy entrepreneur-hacking-startup-think-about-it-all-day-and-night-never-stop-pushing-for-growth thing is like a drug. It’s been a trip indeed.

Preconceived Notions

I was in a roundtable the other day with some smart folks and mentioned that I have never worked “for the man”, besides a short internship after college I have been self-employed my entire professional life.

Afterwards someone asked me if I felt it was a positive or negative not having the corporate experience. I gave some quick answer about not missing out on fluorescent lights and cubicles. But a minute later while walking to the car I gave him another answer after processing the question a bit more.

I feel I am at an advantage because I do not have any preconceived notions.

Notions like how a company should be run

Think about it. Sure I had to learn some things the hard way. But overall I was free to create a company that was not weighed down with baggage brought with me from a previous experience.

What’s your experience? If you left a corporate job to go out on your own.. did you feel free to design the company of your choice, or did you have  a “this is the way it is done” mindset? Good and Bad.

Under the Radar

Old Adage it is who you know and the circles you run in..

Saw this post and it started me thinking.

We have had some conversations about seeking investment for our company page.ly, but are really too busy growing it to spend much time on it [raising capital]. We are profitable, acquiring new customers daily, and have a steady up and to the right revenue graph, and we are doing it all bootstrapped with next to $0 in marketing outlay.

Actual Snapshot from our page.ly dashboard

Since we have not really dedicated ourselves to seeking investment, this is is really just me thinking out loud: Seems the techstars and Ycom‘s of the world are the way to get a startup funded these days. I wonder how they would work for a company like ours that is perhaps a bit further along path.. (moved past the idea stage into a cashflow business) but not as sexy a model as the next whatever. I would be happy for the advice and mentorship, but really seems  the “street cred” and connections/introductons that come with going through a program like that are of the most value.

We are flying under the Radar… I kind of like it.  But I struggle with the question of what could we do with a money injection, how far could we go, and how fast.

I see some of these companies getting funding, and of course I am not privy to their board meetings but I ask if the world needs another 1 of those, or how do they plan on making money. As far as I am concerned the “we need 10 million users then we can monetize with ads” model is dead.. but some folks are still investing in those ideas it seems.

Just random thoughts.. back to work.

Refresher course in networking

SXSW was sic.

Got a little refresher course in networking. And here is my take-away:

Dont talk about business, or ask “So what do you do?”.

It seems like a natural question.. you are at a business conference with lots of others from out-of-town. So asking what someone does or where they are from seems logical..

All I can say is some of the best interactions I had with folks had nothing to do with business. Example: I met someone in the VIP area of a party I was at and we spent the better part of 10 minutes having a great and engaging conversation about Magic and Bird (for you kids.. best NBA sports rivalry of all time). Never caught his name… because at a pause in the conversation I asked what he did.. he deflected with a nonsensical answer and bailed. Oops.. Not going to namedrop but later I find out he was bigtime.

Also I spent the better part of 20 minutes talking with a prominent VC about our shared passion of road racing our cars… He mentioned we should connect later and I went into business mode talking about investment for our business, he went cross-eyed on me and said “Who cares about business, I was talking about cars.. We should go out to the track together sometime”.

Lesson Learned..  I should have known better. I have been an entrepreneur selling my services, and now my product (pagely) for the better part of 8 years and in that time have learned that personal relationships come first, before the business. Seems I just forget that point twice over the weekend.

Business Machines

MoTown was machine, a solid gold hit making machine.

Talent + Creative/Catchy Musical Hooks + A marketing/promotion machine = solid gold hits for 40+ years. Just from 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 top 10 hits. They developed a repeatable hit making process, a formula, a hit machine. Talent goes in once side, Hits exit the other.

MoTown also led the charge integrating black music mainstream. They launched acts like Stevie Wonder and The Supremes.. exposing “black” music to white listeners everywhere.  This was pre civil-rights. Can you say Disruptive? Game changers.

Is it possible to find a similar formula for business? A process that put’s smart talent and ideas in one end, and cranks out hit companies on the back side? Is this what the likes of TechStars, and Y Comb are doing? I dont know. Just asking the question.

Say a startup business formula does exist. Can it exist here in the desert?

Could the Fractals, Dojo’s, Gangplanks, organize the technical and creative talent? Can the AIGA’s and AZIMA’s lasso in the hardcore creatives and digital marketers? Can we entice the TIEAZ’s and other business development, management, and sales people away from their Paradise Bakeries to co-mingle with the other parties? Could we get the ATIFs, Arizona AngelsSociallLeverages of the valley to invest? Finally can we get the local governments to understand their future tax base will be built on upon the jobs created by these these other groups working together?

Can these moving parts and energy forces be harnessed into some sort of formula, where each feeds off of and feeds into the other?

Smart people with solid business ideas, partnered with and advised by smart business people, with their ideas refined and executed by smart technical and creative classes, funded by local money, and supported by local government.

Could such a machine exist in Arizona? Naw, Lets build more houses.

Secret Societies

Regardless of what you may have heard I am not part of any secret society that is orchestrating or guiding the tech community in Phoenix. Nor is Derek Neighbors, Sean Tierney, Francine Hardaway or anyone else that you would think; if there was a secret society they would be on it.

While #phx DOES have a passionate group of individuals that are working towards their ideal of a better connected, better funded, more tech {web} driven Phoenix. The only thing secret about it is that they really wish more people were involved in pursing the lofty goal of making the greater Phoenix area a haven for smart folks with passion and ideas to succeed.

Scary shit huh.

Snooze you lose..

As most of you peeps know. Ward Andrews and I made Suntweets many months ago. We have/had plans to take it further into more of a real time, live game -> social media hybrid experience.

These cool cats at http://www.fanchatter.com/ have now done it, With funding from Y Comb.

Another Classic coulda, woulda, shoulda but didn’t and now someone else has. Great for FanChatter, their investors, and sports fans.. and a missed opportunity for me.

Lesson to me: STFU and DO IT.

Lesson to you: STFU and DO IT.

I am not going to pine on about the state of startup funding in Phoenix… I’ll leave that to Derek.

Web update

So.. thought I would just post a list of links on projects I have been working on the last few months. In no particular order.

So that was my Nov-March, what did you do?

Twitter + Superbowl = ?

cardstweets-logo.jpgLast week we re-purposed a twitter aggregation service we created (http://sunstweets.com) for the superbowl. Cardtweets utilized a set filters to pick out individual tweets from the global stream matching Arizona Cardinals, and Superbowl related terms. At the peak the filters were picking up 48 tweets/minute.  These are all displayed in the traditional twitter UI style in chronological order as they came in. It was interesting to watch the twitter stream on my iPhone as I was watching the game in real time.

The usage and feedback of the site itself was all positive. With many people asking when they will see a myteamtweets.com  in the future. So first I thought I would breakdown cardstweets a bit more to gain a better understanding of what happens when one attempts to track the swarm of conversation over a real life sporting event.

  1. People will talk about anything. There were tweets ranging from in depth (140 characters…) analysis of the Steelers defensive stand on a particular play, all the way to people not even watching the game talking about the traffic snarls in Tampa around the arena. The peripheral conversations are happening in nodes surrounding the main dialog. How does a sports franchise direct and channel this conversation inwards to engage the fringe?
  2. Fans now control the brand. I think this is the biggest takeaway here. There is an very active and lively group of sports fans that are on twitter, and they want to evangelize their home team. In a sense they are taking the conversation with them, outside the arena, outside their living room, outside the pub.. and taking it directly to other fans across time and space. The sports franchises no longer control the brand, or the conversation. The fans now dictate in real time, what the brand is, and what the brand means. The Cardinals played a heck of a game.. and they built huge brand loyalty from their efforts as evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive conversation. Even though they lost, they scored major points for giving it a great effort. Even Steeler fanz were offering props to the Cards for such a good game. But see, the community decided this, not the Cardinals.  The community came to a consensus thru the dialog that it was a valiant effort, and worthy of praise, even if they did not win.

    As an aside, the same thing is happening with the Suns right now in reverse, the fanz are re-branding the Suns as a lost team. Whether it is fair weather fanz turning south, or the die-hards giving up.. the Suns brand equity is in peril. Even though they still sell out games, and sell jerseys.. the dialog is not trending in their favor.

  3. Huge opportunity exists for cross-over conversation/media. With the fanz actively engaging, in real time.. outside the walls of the arena, there is low hanging fruit available for the franchises and leagues to pick at will. Our sports marketing company (http://socialsportsmarketing.com) is creating tools and communities where this can happen. Sports franchises have the ability to reach out from the TV screen and make meaningful brand connections thru simlu-cast video, live-blogging, twitter, photo sharing communities, SMS, etc. HINT: building another walled garden, a branded membership based fan community is NOT the right approach. Go to where the fan is, at that very instance.. and engage. Don’t force them to come to you. Make it easy for your fan to communicate., within the communities they already reside in.
  4. More signal less noise. The trick with engagement across multiple channels is distilling the message down to cut thru the noise. Does a sports organization need 50 voices? or 1 strong one? Where is the point of focus? The Superbowl is a media frenzy, the advertisers and the league have 1000’s of touchpoints surrounding the game, what meaningful impressions can be made when the secret sauce is spread so thin? Pick the top online touch points, and direct the fringe to them.. utilizing communities and the inherant social graph of the individual fan.
  5. Do more with more. Identify the signals that are being received, and amplify them. The @superbowl twitter account I think popped up 4, maybe 5 days before the game.  They were late to the discussion…(only 2,987  followers). Missed opportunity this year, but they are primed for next. Admittly @cardstweets was late as well.

So in summary.. All the major sports are feeling their way thru this social media thing. Some like the Phoenix Suns, are doing it a bit better and faster then others. The energy needs to come from the top down, the fans are already talking, and shaping the brand of the players, teams, and leagues. The top execs need to make “meaningful online social engagement” a top priority or risk not having a say at all.

Community

What does community mean to you?

That word is thrown around a lot in our industry, building communities and all that. I think sometimes it is used as an empty buzzword, and other times as an accurate description of a gathering of like minded people.

The community, any community is made of disparate souls with their own self serving interests, but those interests more or less align themselves in some fashion that provides the glue to keep the community together and hopefully growing. As long as the community means something, and I dare say stands for something “bigger”, a higher purpose if you will, it will flourish. The nay-sayers, dividers, and ignorant take the stupid with them as they leave.

Within a broader community like business, there are subsets like the web crowd, the retailers, and the bean counters. At Social Media Club tonight, (after Sally‘s awesome preso), Francine Hardaway brought up an issue that faces all communities: how to outreach from the subset to influence, educate, and embrace the broader community that shares common edges with the subset. What is the answer here?

At Gangplank, the focus is community. Nurturing a new one into life.  People there are looking to do something bigger, better, awesomer, with more collaboration, more outreach, more education, and less bullshit. The form of community outreach there involves an open door that invites everyone to participate. There are photographers, web marketers, muscians, and the occasional mortgage meltdown refugee sharing the free co-working space. How do we take it to the next level? How does a group of smart, driven people break down the walls that from our side seem paper thin, but from others; appears as thick and unyielding as a brick. Does one build a ladder over the wall, a bridge around it, or do you quietly infiltrate the headquarters of the old guard establishment and drop a few percussion grenades to snap them out of their idea and energy deprived coma?

At what level does community leadership become a hindrance? Is taking a hands off approach akin to letting the insane run the asylum? Or is it necessary for some form of leadership, to establish a clear mission and objective that everyone can rally behind. You need the detail minded and big thinkers,  as well as the disruptors and technicians. What is that happy medium between input and mutiny?

One advocate shouting from the soapbox touches few, an army marching in the streets stops traffic. A coordinated campaign of education makes communities grow.

Welcome to the knowledge economy.  Participate, collaborate, and grow.. or die tryin.