Startup 101: Getting through the tough times

"What comes first - Success or Confidence?"

--Marty Schottenheimer

Marty Schottenheimer, the coach of the Washington Redskins back in 2001, started the season 0-5. When trying to explain what was happening with the team, he asked the rhetorical question above to reporters grilling him.

Back in June of 2000 my partners and I had finally pulled it off: we got an initial round of angel funding that would allow us to make WebSurveyor a real business.  Now we could start to hire employees, get some office space and start paying ourselves! It was a heady time - we were running at full speed, buying used furniture, setting up a spacious 1,000 sf office space that would ultimately house 14 people (yeah, it was really tight in there), buying a cheapo phone system, etc. By the end of August we were in our new customized office space, had a handful of employees and were watching our sales take off!

Reality started to hit us two months later. Sure, our sales were growing at a decent pace, just not nearly as quickly as we needed to so that we could at least break even. The market had just tanked, the Dot Bomb explosion was going off everywhere and we needed to make payroll. I'll never forget that night in late October of 2000. My partners Tom Lueker and Bruce Mancinelli were at the office with me at about 10pm on a Tuesday night, trying to figure out how we could possibly make payroll the following week. Up to that point in time we were so consumed with getting our facilities up and running and our new people on board I hadn't even thought about how tight we were running our ship. That night the reality of our situation hit me like a ton of bricks. It's now over 7 years later and I can still remember that feeling, like a heavy weight crushing down on me.

Before we took on the funding I had been doing contract development work. Well, all of the contracts had dried up just as I put myself on the payroll of WebSurveyor so for me there was no turning back. We simply had to figure out a way to make this work.

Somehow we managed to get just enough sales in the door and we were able to make payroll that month. We pushed off bills until the last possible moment and, when it seemed that it was the darkest time for our little company Bruce managed to get us a bridge loan from Beacon Ventures. It literally came at the last possible hour.

There would be other challenging times ahead for about a year after that. We rode a constant roller coaster that would bring us fantastic highs and depressing lows, though I think that night in October was a seminal moment because it was so painful to go through, yet somehow we managed to get through it. With that small success came a small dose of confidence.

I believe that success comes from two primary things: doing something you love to do and the liberal application of focused work. When I was building up WebSurveyor my passion was building software that people really enjoyed using. If it made them productive and happy and that feedback reached me it was like a powerful narcotic - I loved that feeling.

I also loved the feeling of running my own company. I had been yanked around by the companies I had worked for in the past far too much to turn the control of my career over to someone else again. That was also a huge driver for me personally.

I believe that was the key to getting through the tough times. I always knew that the product we were building was the best on the market. All we needed to do was stick with it long enough to get that momentum. I'm just grateful that we didn't give up when it looked tough - we just kept our focus and had a fundamental belief that we were doing the right thing.

If you have entertained the thought of starting your own business it must be by doing something you really love. I have met several would be entrepreneurs that fantasize an IPO or sale and believe that is the fuel that will drive them. You can see it when they talk about their business plans and see the sparkle in their eyes when they describe the equity event - they are far more excited about that than anything else. I believe that kind of thinking leads to compromised ethics and poor attitudes towards customers and employees.

If you do something you are genuinely passionate about it will build the confidence you need to be successful. In my view passion and commitment lead to confidence, which then leads to success. 

There's your answer Marty!


Anonymous said…
Hey David,
Vivek Bhaskaran (QuestionPro) here -- Good read -- thanks for sharing the "under the hood" story.

I think we also had a lot of fun competing with you guys! I know for one, Bruce and I became pretty good friends after settling an initial pissing contest ;) He then handed me over to Rich (Nadler) after the merger and then I;ve been in touch with Dean since then.

My direct email is vivek[dot]bhaskaran[at]surveyanalytics[dot]com

Would love to chat with you sometime and shoot the breeze. I bet we have some good stories to tell each other!

Anonymous said…
Thanks for the informative post. I came across recently and i found out that they have plenty of guides on building confidence. I find it really useful. Any opinions?
David Alison said…
@Ammy: I'm not going to delete your comment because I'd like to use it as an example. This is an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) post only. How can I tell? Because a quick search of "Thanks for the informative post. I came across (website)" in Google reveals that a number of posts have been planted in other blogs with the exact same paragraph.

The person that did this did a number of things right: it's very relevant to the original post so it's less likely the blog author (that would be me) is going to delete it. That relevance is also going to help with SEO. You've got your core keywords (building confidence) with a link to your site, another great SEO builder.

I don't have a problem at all with others promoting their web site in comments if it's germane to the original post and not blog SPAM. This comment is clearly not that.

As for the site that's actually being referenced? What a piece of interweb crap that is. Seriously. It's all about pimping an audio CD from what I can tell.
Anonymous said…
I like that. Thanks for sharing your entrepreneurial experience. I am one of those too... Maybe we could talk about partnering on the next cool web venture...
Hendrik said…
Excellent post. Thanks for sharing.
Anonymous said…
Hi David,
Interesting title :-)

I have been working for myself and running small IT-related businesses for 20 years and I am still wondering when the tough times will end!
If you get a chance (and have the inclination) I would appreciate it if you would stop by and then pass on any comments you might have in relation to glaring mistakes. We have some excllent products, but just can't find a sustainable way to promote/sell them.

I am enjoying all the topics on your blog. I came originally to check out your experience with .Net development on the Mac and now check your blog regularly.

Cheers from Down Under
Mark Chimes
David Alison said…
@Mark: I glanced through your site quickly and can tell you that it looks like you are not sure what you want to do so you're hedging your bets and selling products and IT services at the same time, right? Services pays the bills so it needs the same billing as the products if I had to guess.

If you opt to sell products - which I have found to be far superior to selling services - then you need to make your web site more reflective of that. I wouldn't have a single web site property that covers everything you do. Break out your products into a different domain and web site.

With a product focused web site, understand what the goal for the site is. Focus not on the features of the product but on the benefits the product provides to the end user. You can bury the more detailed technical information a bit - don't hit your prospective customers over the head with it.

You also need to focus marketing activities on driving traffic. Your products are pretty vertical, which is a good thing. Make sure you understand the size of the market and how you will be drive that audience to your site.

Looks like you have 5 products there. Can you pick out the one that has the best chance for success and focus your energy on that one? That would help tremendously.

Focus and simple messaging appear to be your challenges. This is from all of 5 minutes of looking through your site so the quality of my feedback is limited but hopefully you'll get some value out of this.

PS - I would kill the music you have playing. Very distracting.
Anonymous said…
Hi David,

Hey, thanks very much for the feedback and the promptness too.
I would love to kill the "music". I think it is not just distracting, but unprofessional. The programmer who built the site is no longer around and I know nothing about flash, but I'll have a look at it and see if I can work out how to remove the sound myself.

As for you comments about focus, I also agree. As it happens I am nearing the end of a large project so hopefully I can make a move to divide the products up into separate domains. I do like that idea. So simple.

One other question.
What application are you using for your blog? I like the clean, simple layout and the snappy response.

Mark Chimes
David Alison said…
@Mark: I use Blogger. It's free and can handle any amount of traffic thrown at it. I experimented with WordPress for a while and that didn't go well at all. If you want to get up a blog with an absolute minimum of fuss Blogger is awesome.

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