“Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.” -Nolan Bushnell
I have started a small handful of companies–some successful (SpinShark – sold to PM Digital), some not (The Kilroy Group crashed and burned so hard they brought in FEMA). And the start is always exciting. You are full of ideas, opportunity, visions and dreams. But then the work
Adchemix, my current company, started innocently enough in the shower. I was in the midst of one of those deep-thought reveries, chewing through problems that I wanted to solve, enshrouded in steam and hot water. And then the solution hit me. It was electric. I ran out of the shower, soaking wet, and started writing down my explosion of insight. For some other founder, that might be the start of an amazing overnight success story. But, truth be told, that shower was nearly 3 years ago. (And I have taken other showers since, but few have been as exhilarating).
It wasn’t until April 2013 that Adchemix finally got off the ground. I was a solo founder. I started one other company as a solo founder, but it was a services business, where I needed nothing else but the services I could provide. Adchemix is different; it is a big data driven marketing platform. We are out to change the way marketers capture search and social traffic. And not only was I a solo founder, I was a solo founder who didn’t know how to code. At the start, I was just a guy, dripping wet, who had an idea.
Let me be blunt, I think being a solo founder sucks.
Here are the instructions on the back of the “solo founder who can’t code” shampoo bottle:
1. Wake up.
2. Wrack your brain trying to figure out how to make the idea real.
3. Rinse & repeat.
An idea but no team
With this lightning bolt of an idea and some crudely dashed off diagrams, I set off to find the elusive tech prodigy who could turn this into a string of well-formed code. So, I started meeting with what felt like thousands of engineers and coders, hoping to find the right person. I had countless lunches and coffees. Here were some of the responses I got:
“Dude, that’s a lot of data.”
“You can’t do that – it’s not possible.”
“Outsource this to India. You can get like a million developers for short money.”
“Exactly how much money do you have?”
I was there at the edge with an idea, passion, and experience. I was ready to create something great. But with each one of these failed meetings with development folks, I was left in a place where no wants to be – alone. Without a team, the solo founder can’t iterate. You can’t make leaps. You can’t celebrate milestones. You can’t commiserate in failure. I needed the team or at least a cofounder.
So I set out to raise money based on my concept and my experience (I have been working in search for the better part of 15 years). Not only was I a solo founder, but also a solo founder with 5 kids and a stay at home spouse. I was carrying an idea that I couldn’t put down and the pressure of providing for my family.
In one of my meetings with a potential investor, after telling me that he was very excited about my idea, asked me bluntly, “What kind of car do you drive?” Bewildered, I answered “A 2008 Town and Country minivan”. He replied, “Great, sell it, build your product and then we can really talk.” I thanked him for his time and left before he suggested I sell one of my kidneys, too. Being a solo founder is tough, but getting kicked out of the house by my wife for selling the minivan is another level of hurt.
It’s not about a skill set
Regardless of my insight and how exciting the prospects were, without a partner to create with, being a solo founder is hard. It isn’t the work that is daunting, but rather the solitude. Yes, sure if I could code it would have been easier but honestly, it still would have been difficult. It’s lonely being a CEO. The weight of the company is on your shoulders. Now, compound that with being the CEO of an idea. A company can weigh you down, but an unrealized idea can be crushing. And bearing that weight in solitude, with no team, is worse.
With other companies I started, there were teammates. There were peers and partners to bounce ideas off of. There were inane conference calls and whiteboard sessions. There were inside jokes and beers after work. When you start a business with an idea but no people, and try to take the idea out for a beer after work, you quickly realize that you are drinking alone.
Doing what I had to do
I did what I had to do. I put the idea on ice, and got a job. But it wasn’t my job, my company or my idea and I didn’t last very long in the world of working for others. The Adchemix idea simply would not go away. So, in January, I started the search again.
Except this time, I didn’t go searching for a developer. I went searching for a partner. That was a new approach. I reached out to find someone who could share the idea, rather than build my idea. The change was crucial. Now instead of being a guy with a vision who wanted to execute, I became a guy with a vision who wanted to share the opportunity. I know that this sounds like I am splitting hairs, but truly, the subtle shift from “This is the idea, can we get started?” to “This is the idea, what do you think?” was what morphed me from a dripping wet solo founder to a partner.
As it turns out, the plot of this story has taken a turn towards the grand epic I envisioned that day in the shower. We just launched in our 5th country earlier today. We work as a team. We have roadmaps, we have milestones, we have a culture. We also have revenue and are closing in on some funding that will get us through the next 15-18 months. I did eventually find that all star who understood and could execute on an evolved version of my shower idea, and I found them on FD, but that is a story for another day.