Most people won’t. Which means those that do change everything.
- Bryce Roberts
After a meteoric rise, LivingSocial has had a tough go recently. Between layoffs, lowered valuations, competitor out-maneuvering, and one of the longest downtimes I’ve ever seen in a consumer site, it’s pretty hard to imagine them fully recovering from this to the grandeur that they used to be. For better or for worse, online forums have been watching, and in some cases even cheering, it’s demise. I’m sure seeing that the support of your local community that once championed you has reversed polarity can only worsen the decrease in morale they’ve been experiencing in the past few months.
I want to thank LivingSocial.
- They showed it was possible to build a wildly successful startup in DC. Not DC meaning Virginia. Downtown DC. If you’ve had a chance to visit their office, you’ll be amazed this is a few blocks from the White House, not the Golden Gate Bridge.
- They built a team of some of the sharpest product talent in the world – and then grew their own via Hungry Academy.
- They inspired the local community – everyone knew someone who works or worked at LivingSocial, and loved it.
- Groups like the DC Tech Meetup, ProudlyMadeInDC, and Foster.ly, while not directly created because of LS, were able to ride the rocketship of enthusiasm over LivingSocial’s early success, and help serve as continuing beacons of entrepreneurial activity in the region.
- The talent created and incubated in LivingSocial’s many offices have and will feed other startups in the area, kickstarting the flywheel of talent that a startup ecosystem so badly needs.
So, LivingSocial, thank you.
And if anyone at LivingSocial (esp. dev/UX/design/sales) is looking for their next opportunity, Contactually would be happy to have you. Email me.
In 2010, I started working on a startup called Struc.to. It’s dead now, not even worth the hosting costs or domain registration. All that’s physically left is ~300 stickers I never distributed, a standing banner I haven’t gotten around to throwing out, and a dog bowl my wife had made for me (or Astro) as a gift.
Struc.to had the chance to be one of the first BaaS (backend-as-a-service) platforms – a cloud RESTful backend for your web and mobile app. You wouldn’t need to worry about managing or scaling a database, dealing with schema, form validation, APIs etc. We would handle it all for you, even giving you embeddable forms you could inject in your web app.
I was pretty lean starting it up. I hired a designer to put together a landing page, and ended up building a really great brand + style to go along with it. I first unveiled it at Digital Capital Week, got a couple video interviews, blog posts, and other coverage. My friends and local tech supporters rallied behind the idea. I received enough validation that it was worth building, so I started building out the full platform.
Poor Validation – A signup on your landing page is completely different than someone creating an account, reading your API docs, setting up an app, and coding something real. I had lots of people who supported me and liked the idea, but in hindsight, it was largely surface level. I failed to really dig in to my customer development interviews and get 100% clarity that this is something that people would use/need.
MVP Complexity - As I started building out the app, it hit me - this is going to be really hard. There is a whole lot that needed to be built out before the first person can reliably build on it. Even when I dogfooded my own service, I found myself running into major missing pieces.
Distraction - It was always a side project, as I was overbooked doing client work, which was far more lucrative than the margins Struc.to could have ever afforded. I betrayed a key rule.
The number one thing not to do is other things. If you find yourself saying a sentence that ends with “but we’re going to keep working on the startup,” you are in big trouble.
Struc.to never really died, as it was never really alive, just a side project, competing against paying client work, and losing all the time. I just went from spending 90% of my time on consulting work to 100% of my time on consulting work. But when people would ask me how Struc.to was going, with genuine care and interest, I would lie, and say “it’s going great. we’re launching soon.” I hadn’t worked on the codebase in months.
It was a lesson I was not willing to repeat again. When we started seeing Contactually had legs, I tried to figure out how we could dedicate more time to Contactually. 500 Startups, more than anything else, was an opportunity to burn the boats. The day we signed with 500 Startups, I started winding down my consulting gigs. There went any distractions. Contactually just celebrated it’s two year birthday, with 16 employees.
In college, I had put together a little bit of money from internships to buy a basic CD setup. I was terrible. I sold my equipment.
When freelancing, I was making enough money to buy a proper rig – Technics SL1200MK2s, Rane mixer, Scratch Live, coffin case, etc. I took months of classes. All I needed to do, in my mind, was put in my 10,000 hours and I’d get to some comfort level.
But then I started Contactually. I put all my professional energy into that. I strained relationships with my family, weakened or lost friendships, gained weight, and let my household (finances, investments, etc) collect dust. I can count on one hand the number of times I powered on the mixer in the first year of starting Contactually.
I believe strongly in focusing on three things. I sold my turntables.
There are many opportunity costs in being an early stage entrepreneur. While I am better at splitting my time between professional and personal activities, trying to be a DJ will be my opportunity cost.
When comparing friends’ respective industries, one point of pride for the early stage tech community is the strong focus on giving back and helping those one, two, three billion rungs below you up the venture ladder. I would not be where I am today without the advisors and mentors I’ve connected with – whether I’m on the phone with them every day, or simply exchanged a quick email with. Steve Blank points it out here.
While not a seasoned entrepreneur with multiple exits under my belt, I’ve been advising and mentoring others through a number of venues (including Acceleprise and 1776). As someone who has usually gone through whatever a mentee is dealing with in prior years, months, or even days, I can lend some insight. Usually, it’s “here’s how I screwed it up, this is what I would do again” flavored advice.
Where I can add the most value:
- Product design and specifications
- Technical issues
- How to recruit and support sales/marketing talent.
- How to screw up, or not, as a CEO.
- How to start growing a positive company culture.
What I don’t advise on:
Funding. While funding is often a key part of the status quo for startups, it’s not what I choose to focus on when mentoring and advising startups, nor should “introductions to investors” be a key outcome of our relationship. While I’ve raised multiple rounds of funding from angels, incubators, and institutional VCs, I have two strong beliefs here. A) There are countless others who are more experienced and can therefore provide valuable advice and guidance. B) There are so many more important things than fundraising. Fundraising is a distraction, so let’s focus on something else.
DC-based or not – let’s chat: firstname.lastname@example.org
As is common knowledge, competition is an inevitability. There are people with similar ideas as you. There are solutions your desired userbase is already using for the problem at hand. As you grow and start making waves, you’ll be attacked from above, below, and sideways.
When first learning about a competitor, I used to think it was game over, and give up.
I wasted incalculable years of my life fearing competition, letting it keep me up at night, question my startups’ mortality, and demotivating me, often to the point of giving up and walking away.
Done with that. Now, it’s a mix of emotions.
We’ve hit some big milestones at Contactually recently. We passed a big internal revenue related milestone, something that, at the outset, seemed like an unattainable goal. We raised over $1 million for our seed round. And our team can’t be fed by a couple of pizzas anymore, and we’re actively hiring.
In that time, I’ve seen total carnage around us. The perceived competitors we listed off when starting are for the most part gone. Very few startups I knew of when we first embarked on this still exist. Many of the companies in our incubator batch have fallen. You start to see patterns – the wheat separated from the chaff, and identify things that you seem to be doing right that, at least in our view, wasn’t present in others.
One thing we’ve worked hard to instill in our culture is to bring it. Every single day.
Every day, we work our asses off. We set team and individual goals every month and week, and make goddamn sure we hit them. Nothing is sacred or kept the way it is in any aspect of our company. We move fast. We challenge each other. We break things. We talk to our customers. We argue. We deploy, deploy, deploy. Our company is a stirring pot, with new ingredients being added every day.
No bureaucracy. No hierarchy. I’m the CEO, but I probably get challenged more than everyone else.
In my eyes, that is what an early stage startup needs to be. You’re building on unstable terrain, where you have no idea if your market, product, sales pitch, competitive advantage will still work the next year, month, day even.
So we keep pushing. Every. Single. Day.
Everything has to start somewhere. Contactually would not exist without 500 Startups.
Rewind back to September 2011. I was running a pretty successful dev shop. Jeff was working for me. Tony had a full time job, and was about accept a position at a later stage startup. Jeff and I had been building the prototype of Contactually since June, a concept that had evolved out of a personal pain I had with contact management. Tony was doing a lot of customer development, reaching out to people on Quora and interviewing them about their pain. I had been reaching out through my network, both doing customer development and recruiting people to try it out. We knew that it wasn’t a totally crazy idea.
But we weren’t committed to it. There was nothing to be committed to, and we all had our own things going for us. Jeff and I were up to our ears with great client work, and Tony had a full time job. I thought we could do both at the same time. But day after day, the dangling carrot of instantly-gratifying client work proved too steep. Product development started to sputter.
September, 2011 – I was invited out to San Francisco for a client’s conference, with an office to use as a homebase for the week. I used my time there as a chance to explore startup mecca, primarily by meeting up with friends and contacts, many of whom DC exiles. One of them was Paul Singh. He and I had planned to meet up the last day of my trip. Had I realized in advance how far Mountain View is from SoMA, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.
I showed up to 500 Startups, at first unsure if I was in the right neighborhood (Mountain View? Where are all the startups? All I see is a bunch of ethnic restaurants…). It was between incubator batches, and the office was empty, except for Paul. We shot the shit for a little bit, talked about the DC community, and 500 Startups. Finally, I showed him what I was working on.
“Two pieces of advice. One, you should focus on this full time. Two, come to 500, and let us blow this up for you.”
Common startup lore is that you never get something you don’t ask for, but a fortune-changing, game-changing, life-changing opportunity was dropped right in front of us.
I walked slowly back down Castro to the CalTrain, both excited about the possibility, and afraid of such a big opportunity and change. I immediately shared it with Jeff and Tony. It was an intense week of debating between the three of us, our significant others, and Paul. But two weeks later, we were on a plane to join Batch 3.
In a future post, I’ll share more about the 500 Startups experience, both before, during, and after Demo Day.
This is a visualization of where Contactually users are, based on location information we can find. Truly around the world.
I’ve been putting all of my time into Contactually. I’m hesitant to state that we’re “killing it” “crushing it” or “doing really well” as, while we are certainly trending upwards on everything that matters, every day is an intense battle amidst a sea of rejection.
Due to that, I’ve scaled back my involvement and presence in the DC startup community. Other than still co-running the meetup (which Peter really does the lions share of work for), responding to e-mails on ProudlyMadeInDC, and responding to press interviews, I’m in a passive state.
Why? The best thing I can do to help grow the DC startup ecosystem is for my own venture to knock it out of the park.
I’m a member of a number of online groups devoted to the regional tech community, and, like most online water coolers, it’s always trended negative. Lots of discussions about what’s missing. Discussing and regurgitating link fodder from blogs.
What’s missing from pretty much all of these conversations? Startup founders.
You’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution. The solution will never be made on a twitter exchange, Facebook group, or panel. In my opinion, a startup community is built on the backs of hard working entrepreneurs, sleepless engineers, and experienced investors.
Heads down, keep pushing.