What I Learned: From World Traveling Programmer to Funded Startup Founder
As I sit down to write this it comes as a surprise, even to myself, that it has taken me so long. The truth is, I simply have not had the time. The last 6 months have been a journey of epic proportions, taking me from a shared flat with a French roommate in the sunny Mediterranean, to living out of a car in Ireland, to an office in South America, and finally into San Francisco. During this time, I have experienced every emotion on the spectrum… and then some more that probably do not exist in reality, but are only delusions confined to a startup founder’s mind.
Learning foreign languages and traveling was, by comparison, not easier… merely different. My journeys prepared me to become a self-sufficient leader of a team, just as I like to believe this stage in our growth is preparing me for the next. The starting point of this story is hard to pin down, precisely, but I hope that by attempting to put it to paper I can help other founders.
I know that when I read the story of a fellow founder, it helps me to realize that I am not alone in the challenges I am facing. What is really curious to me is the vast number of backgrounds and skills that founders and their teams bring to the table. So many teams that I hear about, even in anecdotes from friends, have so much experience in vastly different fields crammed between them.
My own founder story is unique, to be sure, but no more so than any other I have heard…
Inception in Ireland
Flashbulb memory: a rainy day, and me in a coffee shop in the north of Ireland. I was 2 days into my journey and so far and I was on a sort of emotional high. I had landed in Ireland, rented a car, and simply started driving. It was freedom in the ultimate sense: the open road with nothing to tie me down. I was cash-strapped, so I didn’t bother with hotels. I slept in parking lots and garages, showered at camp sites, and layered up with jackets at night. I had been traveling for years with only what I could fit in carry on suitcases, so without proper attire it sometimes got cold. I turned the heater on and bummed wireless from a nearby lobby to a hotel in my front seat of the black 4-door right-handed car.
Cafes were my connection to the “real world.” Through the internet, the tenuous thread to reality was maintained, a link to the software and products I had built before and during my travels. I worked from the road and relished in the fact that the mobile apps I had made, and even the consulting I did, allowed me to live anywhere. One day I would get a call from a client and I would be in France, the next week it would be Latvia, and so on.
I remember Ireland so well, though, because SGPlus had just taken off. The product was covered by Lifehacker, Slashdot, the MIT Technology Review and so on. I was blown away, and had absolutely no idea what to do. It was terrifying, to be honest, yet exhilarating. I managed to get the product bringing in just enough money through subscriptions to pay for the (previously unheard of) hosting costs ($2k or more per month). It was not making me money, but it was the most fame I had ever experienced to be certain.
Problems in Peru
It quickly became apparent, though, that the product was conceptually flawed. Trapped by the very growth of Google+ which it had piggiebacked upon, the browser extension (known as “Start Google Plus” before it was called “SGPlus”) was only ever meant to be a weekend project.
The code was abysmal, yet at the same time irreplaceable. To make even the slightest tweak in the cloud API (on EC2) could break the browser extension for 50k daily active users of the product. The client (browser extension) itself was a hackish attempt to insert posts from all social networks into the Google Plus stream. It worked, and the market liked it, but it was excruciatingly painful to even keep in basic working order.
I had moved down to Peru and was continuing to try to figure out how to fix the problems while salvaging what I could, eventually transitioning into a bigger, better and more stable product.
Segue to San Francisco
Amidst trying to figure all this out, I got on the phone with a family/personal friend and business mentor of mine. Rather than trying to convince me of a specific path, he merely suggested that I come up to San Francisco for his engagement party and talk to people in Silicon Valley.
It was too good of an offer to pass up. Frequent flier miles earned while traveling the globe allowed me make the trip for “free,” and I was itching to see California again. Having graduated from USC and been born in Northridge, I feel an attraction to the state about equal to my childhood home of Michigan. 36 hours later, I was landing in the San Francisco airport.
Three days after that, my flight back to Lima (Peru) had been pushed back three weeks. Six weeks later, I was putting down roots in a new apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco. The work to refine, grow, and ultimately build upon the idea set forth in SGPlus had begun. I knew it was not going to be an easy road, but I was surrounded by people who I trusted to keep me pointed in the right direction.
Taking money from friends and family to start such an endeavor is humbling. From the moment I accepted the first check to begin development from a lifelong friend, I knew that I needed to have a whole new breed of passion and desire (not to mention luck and talent) if I wanted to succeed. It was not as if our friendship were on the line, by any means, but rather simply that I now had an obligation that went far beyond myself.
I imagine it is a bit like having kids. Startup founders joke that the company is their baby, and I can see why. The emotional attachment and protective instinct are unavoidable. I realize that I have, at times, put the company above even my own health and relationships.
Of course, by saying this I do not mean to imply that it has been a bad journey (any more than parents would say that they regretted having a child). It is simply that for a long time and even to this day, I have a hard time decoupling my ego from the process. When I was traveling and learning, it was easy to not feel judged because I was constantly moving on. I the only person to whom I was responsible, and though I held myself to high standards, there was no pit of spikes beneath me if I fell.
Yet, at this point in my life I already had a sense of supreme competence and confidence. Part of this came also from running my own consulting / software company for years (since my college days), but there was also a combination of my evolution while with an ex-girlfriend and while traveling which refined the sense further. It was not hard for me to believe that I could launch a successful startup, but these facts did not spare me the belief that failure all of a sudden carried a much higher price.
Launch and Living Again
It will be no surprise to the computer programmers out there that I have been something of a hermit these past months. As the only engineer on our team at Streamified up to this point, I have been in one of the most challenging positions of my life, being that I also represent the business and strategy of the brand.
With the help of the rest of the Streamified team, though, the product is now approaching something we can be proud of. Chris and Signo did a wonderful job as we built out the foundation of the Streamified iOS app as it exists now. Then, Justine came on board to help with our message, and finally Jon helped with the website.
We’re still tweaking and refining, tweaking and refining… but, for the first time, we’ve been able to take a step back and look at the product as a whole once more. Jon, a web development expert, is on board full-time to fix the bugs with the SGPlus browser extension. Once the key bugs are squashed, he’ll be merging the old browser extension into the new Streamified platform. This will be a staged process, but eventually the SGPlus browser extension will be re-branded as Streamified. This will happen through a series of upgrades, first focusing on bug fixes in SGPlus before restructuring the extension to become unified with the Streamified product. It will still contain all of the SGPlus features, plus new capabilities as influenced by the Streamified app. Ultimately, it will become more stable and powerful than ever.
As I crawl out of my hole to start being social again, meeting my fellow San Fransciscans, I cannot help but feel that this has been just one more small step. There is still so much more that needs to be done. The feature lists we have planned for Streamified are grandiose yet achievable, with the right team. To meet this challenge, we will need to grow more: to continue to hire more programmers. Even as we refine the iOS (Obective-C) and browser extension (jQuery) clients, we’re just beginning work on our new v2 cloud API (using Mongo and PHP). If you are looking for a job in a startup and have any of these skills, drop us a line.
Zane Claes is the founder and programmer at Streamified; he can be reached at Zane@Streamified.com.