If you’re genuinely thinking about founding a startup starting a company, and occasionally worry that the deck is stacked against you, then this post is for you.
I can’t claim that Sellingly is a runaway success (yet), but I can certainly tell you that it’s possible to do something substantial, and build tools/apps that people use, outside of the world of incubators and away from the glare of “startup culture”.
Let me start with my stats. If you subscribe to the popular/conventional wisdom around startups, there was never much of a chance that I’d succeed:
- I’m a solo founder with a DIY attitude
- I’ve raised $0.00 in funding
- I live in Toronto
- I’m married
- I have a huge mortgage
- I have 2 kids (a 2 year old and a new born)
- I have a well-paying and demanding day-job (VP at a non-glamorous company)
- I’m in my mid-thirties
Before I go any further, I should also mention that I’m not new to the world of startups. Back in the early 2000s I built and ran “community sites” — aka. Social Networks — before the likes of Myspace and then Facebook took over and basically killed the market for the rest of us. (Good for them — they built much better applications than I did.)
I’m also not a stranger to the lure of incubators. Back in 2008, I applied (as a “solo-founder”) to ycombinator and was invited down to Mountain View to pitch the team.
Aside: The screenshot below is one of my favourite stories with respect to my ycominbator experience. I applied to the program without knowing anything about it or its prestige. To be honest, I filled out my application in under 30 minutes and then completely forgot about it. Then, some time in October 2008 I got a message from “pg” telling my to check my account for a question. I honestly thought it was spam and sent a few e-mails back-and-forth asking “pg” for technical support. Can you imagine anyone from today’s crop of applicants being this naive? See for yourself:
The innocence of youth … what it looks like when you don’t know who “pg” is.
“It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans“
Don’t for a second think that I’m down on incubators/accelerators or whatever they are calling themselves these days; I’m not. What I am down on however, is the culture they create (their ‘fans’) of which I’d have to include myself for at least a few years following my YC experience.
What happens, to me anyway, is that focus that should be squarely directed at building something great is drawn towards “building something that will get me into YC/TS/500S/etc). I saw myself going through the cycle first hand. Here’s a true sequence of events that played out around a YC application cycle:
- Read through PG’s writing on startups he’d like to see
- Try to come up with a ‘grand’ idea that kind of matches one (who care whether or not I’m passionate about it)
- Start drafting a pitch
- Realize my pitch needs to look substantial: buy a domain, pay for logo design, setup a blog and write some fluff
- Finish my application
- Wait, refresh inbox, try cold-emailing anyone associated with YC
- Get rejected, feel burnt out, totally abandon the idea I pitch them..
I know I’m not the only person who’s been through the cycle. In fact, I’d bet that there are hundreds if not thousands who are in the middle of it right now. And it certainly isn’t unique to YC. When that application fails, or if it’s just not the right time of year, there’s always a dozen other high-profile ones along with regional and new incubators to regurgitate your application for…
The Ah-Ha moment
It all changed for me when I started to think about creating a business and a life — and I stopped thinking about incubators, exit strategies, valuations and any other garbage that was distracting me and guiding me towards making decisions that weren’t true to my values and passion.
Perhaps never making it out to San Francisco and the valley are actually my secret weapon. Perhaps it’s the fact that everything I do is now judged against the idea that I need to provide for my family … all I know is that I woke up one day and just wanted to create things that people use and to create a company that was fun for me and anyone else who joins me to work. Truthfully speaking, it’s actually the second part that I’m more excited about. The idea of creating an environment were unique and driven people can come together and create products that people love is my #1 priority. If that wasn’t, why would I be doing this?
So, how am I doing it?
If you’ve made it this far, and are actually curious how I’m making this happen will the ‘deck stacked against me’ as I mentioned above, here’s how:
Note: This was my routine before my daughter was born last week — who knows what it will look like now…
A typical day for me involves waking up, spending 5-10 minutes with my wife, saying good bye to her and than caring for my 2 year old son. We’ll read, play, eat, soil ourselves and eventually, make our way out the door.
Next I arrive at my day-job where I’ll settle in for a typical day of chaos. I work at a pretty flexible company, so I’m in a little after 9 and generally leave a little before 6. If I’m lucky, which is about 1 day a week, I’ll have a little downtime at lunch and I sneak in a little work fixing a bug or writing a new landing page.
After work, I head home where I join my wife and son for dinner and our standard bedtime routine.
Once he’s asleep, my wife and I will cuddle up, enjoy some quite time and maybe a little Breaking Bad.
She’s gets tired early, so around 10:15 she’ll make her way to bed, I’ll grab a laptop and my second day begins. On a good night, I’ll be up until about 1:00 – 1:30am plugging away at whatever is needed.
Weekends aren’t much different – I steal time whenever I can (most notably, running to Starbucks when my son takes a nap) and just do my best to balance a real life with the idea of creating something new.
What I’ve learned:
This routine has taught me a few very valuable lessons.
Firstly: If you don’t love and believe in what you’re doing, there’s no way you’re going to succeed. The reason my YC applications were terrible is because there’s no way I’d work 20 hour days to make them happen. Life is short, and if there’s something you don’t want to do, chances are you’ll either cut corners or find a way to avoid doing it entirely.
Secondly: When your time is limited, you have to learn to make better decisions. I used to have a lengthy “warm up” process whenever I got in front of a computer. Check my e-mail, check my favorite blogs, check my email again, watch a few videos, and ….. then I’m ready to go. When you’ve already been awake for 15 hours though, and you’re just starting your second job (your “startup”) you can’t waste time like that. Every minute I have to work is precious time to me know. I’ve learned to think through problems while I drive, brush my teeth or even walk up the stairs. When I sit down in front of a computer, I’m accountable (to myself) to make sure that I get the most from that time.
Lastly: Nothing is impossible. Sure, Sellingly may not been the most talked about sales email application on Techcrunch, but I built it, I own it and it’s growing. Despite what many see as insurmountable obstacles, I’ve managed to build a product and a company on my own without “disrupting” my family or my life.
It’s definitely possible to make it happen, regardless of your circumstances. So, if you’re looking to start a company — even if it’s one that competes with Sellingly — I say: Go for it! If I can do it, anyone can do it.
Have a great day.