Jason Cartwright, the founder of BizSpark startup Contructiv has written this post (also listed on his blog) about some of the lessons he has learnt with the first year of starting his business Contructiv. Thanks Jason for sharing the good the bad & the ugly of this first 12 months!
Just over 12 months ago I had the idea for Constructiv. It was around 1am when I woke, I knew if I fell back to sleep I’d likely forget it, so I got up. I grabbed the nearest exercise book and started writing. Designs, workflows, feature lists were all amongst it. Around 7 pages and 2 hours later I fell asleep.
Constructiv is a chance for individuals to be recognised for ideas and an opportunity for business to see them. I quickly fell in love with it. The idea quickly became like a virus, consuming almost every spare second I had. My active mind was constantly thinking of building the product.
After thinking through some early details, I decided to go for it. There was really only two potential avenues to execute on the idea, get someone else to build it, or build it myself. I decided to get a local developer to help out as my background was in multimedia and UI, not the back-end programming that would be required. As a married guy with kids, life understandably got in the way, but the process cost a couple of months. I’m thankful he was honest and admitted it wasn’t going to happen at the time rather than it drag on and delay for any longer.
Living in Albury Wodonga the talent pool isn’t exactly deep and I did my best to get the word out amongst friends to help me find an alt. I wanted local as I want to build a relationship with this person who could potentially come on-board as a co-founder if things worked out and it became a business.
The internet is an amazing resource and I always take the approach that I can learn anything I don’t know. I often look at people and other roles and question, what is it about them that makes them so special that I couldn’t do that job. The answer is almost always nothing. Sure there’s some natural talent when it comes to physical things like sports, but if you’re willing to put in the hours, you can learn anything online.
Early on I decided to build on the Microsoft stack, it had a large developer base internationally so I figured that many people can’t be wrong, right? Fairly soon after deciding on Microsoft, I looked into Bizspark, an initiative from Microsoft to help out startups. If you’re application is accepted (mine was), they provide access to their MSDN software catalogue for free. They also provide a base level plan of Azure for free. This was a fundamental turning point in the creation of Constructiv and is the reason I have a beta site working today. WIthout it, it simply wouldn’t have been possible, certainly not in the timeframe. I am concerned about the cost of Azure once the free period ends, I’ll need to get creative about how to finance that.
Bizspark requires an ABN, so I registered online, for free, then shortly after had my ABN.
One of the key ingredients from BizSpark was Visual Studio 2010, something I’d never used before. Coming from Dreamweaver it was a bit of learning curve, but a quick course on Lynda.com with a free voucher and I was comfortable with most of the concepts.
As a front end develop, I had extensive knowledge of Adobe’s Creative Suite, but very little experience as a programmer. I was potentially embarking on a journey that would require tens of thousands of lines of code. While I look back now, to build it from scratch would seem like a daunting task, it never felt like it at the time.
Breaking a large project into smaller digestible chunks was something I was good at. I often found that when I focused on a specific function of the site, that created more questions (and development) than it solved. Ultimately this extra development resulted in a more functional, usable site, so constant scope evolution is a great thing.
I spent the next few months teaching myself ASP.Net C#. There were many times where I needed to make decisions like WebForms vs MVC, often stumbling into a religious war that I find ultimately irrelevant. I’m laser focus on the end goal, so I want to build a beta of the site that does what I envisaged, how that happens is almost irrelevant. Sure one programming technique over another may result in scale issues down the track, but if it works out, investment or revenue will afford extra developers to rewrite or fix it.
I decided to go with WebForms as it had the visual UI that I was used to, along with the programming in code behind I would need to build the functionality required. While covering technology on techAU, I heard of and been sold on the idea of Microsoft’s Cloud architecture Windows Azure. That would soon power the back-end of Constructiv.
I remember watching Foundation Episode 3, where Kevin Rose interviewed Phillip Rosedale, better known for creating Second Life. He explained his philosophy of being open and transparent about building a project and suggested that the benefits would far outweigh any potential downsides. I completely agreed and registered a Squarespace blog and began writing about the project.
Shortly after I grabbed the domain Constructiv.co from Hover and the site was live.
I’m not going to lie, building Constructiv has been crazy. Remember I’m building this around a regular 9-5 to pay the bills, my Australia technology blog – techAU.tv, flying around the country to press events, holding down a girlfriend and occasionally seeing friends and family. Most day I get between 4-6 hours sleep.
Something that has been lodged in my brain is Garry Vee’s saying of “you can cause a lot of damage between 9 and 2”. Most ‘busy’ people still go to bed around 10pm, but to get this built and learn at the same time, I’ve needed to put in 18 and sometimes 20+hour days to fit everything in.
You may think I’m crazy for working these gruelling hours, the fact is I love it. I’m seriously addicted. When I’ve taken time out for the movies or the like, it’s actually a horrible feeling. It’s like the time is ticking by and I’m wasting it.
Watching TV now happens via the Slingbox Player on my desktop (if you don’t have a multi-monitor setup, get one). While a lot of late nights and alone time can be isolating and lonely, it really doesn’t have to be in this ultra-connected world we live in. I’m also rarely doing a single thing at once. I constantly watch This Week in Startups, This Week in Venture Capital, Foundation and a number of other startup-related podcasts. I find it’s incredibly motivating to see the amazing products and services other guys are building around the world.
I love to watch Gary Vaynerchuk presentations on YouTube, he’s one of the most passionate, honest people I’ve ever seen and hope to one day meet. He’s like the Tony Robbins of our generation, but not rehearsed rubbish, genuine motivating, thoughtful discussions.
I’ve also watched The Social Network more times than I care to admit.
Something else that provides constant motivation is the thought that someone else out there is working, harder, smarter and faster than me and tomorrow they may be my competitor. When my head finally hits the pillow, I love the feeling of ‘today, I kicked that guys ass’.
I know that I would never make it as a production line worker. I love new and exciting challenges, then solving them and getting that feeling of achievement. It turns out, programming aligns really well with this problem solving creativity. Having small wins along the way is critical in motivation long-term.
The most recent example of this was getting Facebook Login working tonight, a problem I’d worked on for days. Overcoming that challenge was an important milestone in the development. From day one, I knew having the largest identity provider supported was a must-have feature.
Pulling these insane hours isn’t great for your health, but as someone who’s about to turn 30, I take the approach that I’d much rather work my ass off now, than when I’m 60. So I push the body to the limit, I’ve replaced my chair around 3 times in the hope I could have long coding sessions without having back and neck pains. Even with the latest addition of a $550 chair, that still happens.
I hate to think of the amount of cans of V I’ve consumed during the year, pushing your body to and sometimes past its limits means you have to do crazy things. There’s been days where I’ve had 6 cans, which is about 3 times the recommended daily intake.
Exercise is almost non-existent other than social time with friends. It’s not because I’m lazy, but because I know my body craves rest to rebuilt muscles after a workout, sleep time I couldn’t afford. So I ditched the workouts. Thankfully I still only weigh 95kg, ok for a 6’3, 30yo male.
My eyes constantly amaze me, there’s days where I’d spend less than an hour not looking at some kind of LCD display and they seem to have adapted. I don’t wear glasses (yet), but the only time they do complain is around 2am when I’m tired and don’t blink as often.
After starting the business, I created an account and transferred $1,000 into it. I also created a Pledgie donation and added it to the side of the blog. A few passionate early fans helped out with $120 of donations. It turns out the great thing about spending your own time building something is that you have a very low burn rate.
There’s been a few costs along the way like hosting and domain names, business cards etc, but there’s still more than $1,000 in the account. The downside of course is the time it takes. Had I taken the money, hired developers, I would have burnt the cash and had no knowledge for future product development. More importantly, knowing what I know now, I can have intelligent conversations with additional developers that come on-board in the future.
I never had 20k to throw into this project, but what I did have, was time. So that what I invested and I’m over the moon with that decision.
The past week I’ve engaged the services of a friend locally to help build the Windows Phone app, which will be the first mobile version of Constructiv. I’m incredibly impressed with the speed at which he takes my designs and implements them. The funny part is I told him about the idea shortly after I came up with it and he seemed unconvinced. After seeing a full working site, he seems to understand the concept now and is getting on-board. He’s not being paid, I offered, he’s helping out for free.
I never knew I was cut out for startup life, but with around 12 months of busting my ass, I love it. Working towards a product that can potentially change lives and improve the products we all use, it’s an amazing feeling. I’ve got no idea if, but what I do know is I’ll learn from it either way.
In the short term, I’m knocking over a few final must haves features, but then will get to work on a marketing strategy to gain attention for the site. I’ll take the feedback from the beta and constantly evolve and iterate the service as the users need. It’s 12 months on and I’m more in love with this idea than ever.
My theory is, Constructiv doesn’t exist because its not an easy problem to solve.. that’s motivation to go build it. At the end of the day, I wanted a service like this to exist, it doesn’t so I went and built it.