It’s been an astounding six years since a web-designer friend and I began work on our first product. Our goal was to design a software-as-a-service product that would grow into a business which could support us both financially. We ran individual web design/development companies but often worked together, and had become good friends very quickly. We took a product I had developed for myself and started a new version. It was codenamed Kiwi.
Kiwi came together quickly because of our excitement for what it represented: the possibility of having complete control over our product. Clients could never dictate what limitations we had to work around and there was no red-tape from legal and I.T. teams. After six months of highly motivated work it was stable enough to begin using internally, and shortly after we made agreements allowing local companies to use the service during development. Interested company contacts were piling up fast – from health insurance agencies to sports product manufacturers.
One woman even overheard us during a lunch meeting and was so interested she gave us her card. We we’re excited. We felt like we were in complete control. We had outlined a set of features that had to be present, and were perfectly clear to each other about what had to wait.
Soon we had too much client work – several large deadlines for some extremely demanding corporate clients drew our attention away. I’ll have to be honest and say my partner in this product began dropping the ball on his portion a lot more than I was, but I figured it was a temporary saturation of work.
Lesson #1: Don’t worry about losing focus on a side project. Your budding idea needs you to be your best, and if you’re putting in too many hours or neglecting paying-work, you’re going to suffer. If you return and can still feel as motivated about the idea, you know it’s the right project.
Six months went by before we were able to get back to our product. Meetings resumed, excitement levels came back, and we were sure launch day was approaching. However, I was still noticing delays from my partner that didn’t make sense to me. I thought I’m able to get my work done and I’m working all day, teaching at night, and I have two kids as well, so why is he not getting his work done? His schedule is less busy than mine!
I’m the kind of guy that when I have a product I want to make, I run with it until it’s made. I may lose steam or take a break but my partner would go weeks without doing any work outside of the office. He’d just relax at home. Deadlines were being missed. I’d keep asking when tasks would be done, I’d ask if they could be done by a specific date and they rarely were. He was the best at what he did so I was too afraid to make an issue of out of it.
Lesson #2: You need to be open to your partners scheduling decisions as long as they can consistently keep up with the progress of others and make their deadlines.
Lesson #3: The moment you feel something isn’t working, bring it up. Don’t settle for something if you’re not happy.
We consulted with several investors for advice on getting funding to complete the project. We felt that this could be the solution to our lack-of-time issue. We ultimately decided that it wasn’t smart (thank god) but we did add three new members to our baby company.
Three former coworkers and friends of my partner came on board. I didn’t know them until just prior to their joining. They had once built a software company from the ground up, sold it for lots of money to a large corporation and had the experience, resources, and connections to help us create a spectacular company.
We all had mostly-weekly meetings in our office for a year. A lot of great ideas, a lot of debates that changed how we thought about our product and its potential.
Lesson #4: If anyone shows up at the next meeting having not done a single bit of work, and has no good excuse, it’s time to figure out why they’re on board.
I could have not wasted an entire year.
These guys were clearly smart, clearly experienced. They just weren’t right for this product. Two of them were programmers but had no experience programming for the web. They had no exposure to our target market and knew only what we told them about our competition. They all had other endeavors already and found it hard to focus much time and energy into the project. This delay was made worse when my partner entered another long period of time without a single minute of work. Six months, at least.
During this time I had completely re-written the core logic of the application based on a much-improved version of our internal framework. I spent time training the partners on the technology, setting up code access and emails, and doing a lot of organization work. I wrote a ton of “product direction documentation” which felt like busy work from elementary school. I’m sure 37Signals would agree.
Lesson #5: Adding super-smart, previously successful partners to your company is worthless if they’re not right for the market. You’ll get a year of generic business help and crazy white board diagrams but you’ll also have another year without a product.
Somehow we all stopped meeting and six months later I realized they had essentially ceased to exist. Not one email. In 2009, I requested that we drop the three individuals from our company and my partner agreed. I felt bad about the decision but it was clearly not working.
Lesson #6: As the founder, the business and the product is your first priority. Get rid of everything that honestly isn’t contributing to it.
We eventually stopped working on Kiwi because the market had become absolutely saturated with competition. So many products were encroaching on our territory that we felt less and less confident that we could make any money. Our ambition dropped to the lowest of lows.
In October 2009 I made the decision to begin building a bug tracking application. I had long been complaining about the existing tools and finally had a light-bulb moment about why I should spend my time making a new one.
I already knew we could make a killer interface that was easy enough for clients to use but also powerful enough for us (developers). I already knew that I could eliminate the issues I had with existing tools. My realization was that I could build a product that allowed our deployed applications to report back errors rather than storing them locally, so that we could easily track those issues and be one-step ahead of our clients.
Whether or not this product would ever be used by others, it was going to be perfect for me.
Lesson #7: If you can’t actually use your own product, you’re not supposed to build it.
Work began. I was initially going to build the entire application myself to avoid the problems I had before. However I quickly realized that the interface could use the perfectionist’s touch, and I asked my partner from Kiwi if he would be willing to put together some designs for this issue tracker. He agreed. Six months later I had a lot of my work completed. The interface was moving along, but slower than I would have liked.
Soon it was mid-2010 and the effects of the recession were starting to hit us both. We were struggling with a long list of clients that suddenly couldn’t pay us, and new clients were nowhere in sight. I used some of my suddenly-free time to market for new work, – but the rest went into the new product. My partner did the opposite – he put in even less time on our product than he did when things were busy.
By 2011 I was fed-up with the lack of progress on the design. There was so little progress from my partner I assumed he was no longer interested. I began looking for a new designer and it wasn’t long before I had several candidates. A few weeks later I had narrowed it down to one.
I was excited about the new designer as I had heard of his work before, and he seemed extremely interested in the product. I emailed my partner with the news.
After several days of no response, I eventually got an email from my partner apologizing for the lack of focus and consistent problems with the project. He outlined ways we could get back on track and was trying to save our friendship. He asked for another chance. I decided that it was best to try to work this out and give it another shot. Not only did I think his work was unbeatable, but he was a good friend.
My choice was upsetting to the candidate I had selected. I should have, and could have handled that a lot better.
Lesson #8: Sometimes, saving the friendship means stopping the partnership before you truly wind up hating each other.
Like he promised, he recommitted to the work and after several months we had the product almost ready for a private beta. Despite having a sizable portion of the design work still incomplete, we decided to go ahead with a beta. We settled with a very ugly sales page and sent an email to a few hundred friends and coworkers. Things were looking up. Snowy was closer to launch than Kiwi had ever been.
Lesson #9: Nothing motivates you like seeing people use your product. It can be hard to see what doesn’t work but the amazing fact is that you have the power to fix it.
We both dealt with some personal issues that delayed us in the last half of 2011 but by early 2012 we were on our final stretch. Yet suddenly, we lost a few more months because my partner has become unavailable for the work. I ended up taking over the remaining bit of design work. I’ve been cranking away with final tweaks and testing and we’re finally ready to launch a product, two and half years after we started, and six and half years since we began this endeavor.
I’d like to introduce Snowy Evening. An issue tracking application with an incredibly clean and easy to use interface, powerful features that blend seamlessly, and a lot more.
Built with determination, and run by a guy who’s truly invested in it’s survival. I’m in it for the long haul.
Lesson #10: Working with people who don’t share your work habits or ability to sit down and make progress is like swimming upstream. Do your best to find partners who truly match your personality. Like marriage you’ll always have differences but if you’re all driven and can manage themselves professionally, you can make it to product launch. That’s when the real journey begins.
As Snowy grows, I’ll continue posting here about the behind-the-scenes.
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