Ever since I was a little kid I had an entrepreneurial spirit, though back then I wouldn’t describe it that way. Mowing lawns during the summer, shoveling snowy sidewalks in the winter, and having a paper route had nothing to do with being a “business person” and 100% to do with having my own spending money. As someone who came from a lower middle class family supported by a single mother luxuries like the newest (or even oldest) video games were in short supply.
As I moved into adulthood and began working for other companies though, this viewpoint shifted. While money always seemed a means to and end, I began to view it as a byproduct of something else. After a decade spent working at a managerial-plus level I had come to realize that I didn’t want to build someone else’s dream, I wanted to build my own. Being that I am a professional online marketer meant that the type of company was already in mind, but what type of company?
The Boring Route
One thing that I’ve never been a huge fan of is all of the “social” companies that have sprouted up over the years. As a career direct marketer the idea of starting a business with zero idea of how you could eventually drive revenue is just bananas to me. Sure, a lot of companies have some pretty cool ideas and fun apps, but at the end of the day a business is meant to generate revenue.
That meant that instead of creating the new Twitter for Australian Soccer Teams or the Pinterest/Kongregate mashup for tweens I went with something far more boring: classified ads.
If you go back 20 years the classified ad in the local newspaper was how you found a job, how you found a house, how you found a used couch. The internet disrupted this (and sounded the death knell for the printed newspaper industry) and saw the rise of the age of Craigslist. Now, I have to say that I love Craigslist. It’s was the right place at the right time and it is far and away the leader in the classified advertising place.
To me though, it can be done better, and that’s where the idea for List Here came from. More than being just an updated UI for posting ads, my dream for List Here was and remains to be a viable way to local businesses to reach new customers. Of course private parties can still post their free ads to sell their stuff or find moving boxes, but in addition the guy who owns the furniture shop down the street should be able to reach customers and show off his actual inventory, not just a local on Google Maps or a 3.5 star rating on Yelp.
I actually had the idea for what I wanted to build before finding a URL. Luckily I was aware of the awesome tool Domains Bot and was able to snatch up ListHere.com for a mere $10. For development I originally looked at Elance as an option and was quoted out just under $100,000 to build it by a firm is Russia. Considering that I only had $25,000 to get Version 1.0 out this was not an option. It’s around this time that a developer friend said that I should look at Ruby on Rails as a more agile solution and I started reading up. Instead of going the Waterfall route and building out a massive project with all the bells and whistles I could focus on a lean app with the basics. I found a local Ruby firm that had great client feedback and about 8 weeks later List Here was a living, breathing application.
It used to be that I would read a story about a startup raising $5 million or $10 million in funding and I thought to myself that it was an insane level of hubris and waste at work. Now that I’ve started my own business I still think that there is still a lot of silliness with venture rounds, but my opinion has softened a bit after running into a lot of things that were unforeseen. To summarize, you will need a lot of resources for the million and one unforeseen issues that will come up.
Bugs, break and more!
The first one that I’ll mention to would be online entrepreneurs out there is that your app will break. It will break at night and during the day. It will will break when you click to login and then click “About Us”, but not the other way around. You will find bugs and have performance issues as you build traffic.
Why? Is it because you have terrible developers who wrote bad code? Not necessarily (though that definitely doesn’t help). It’s just the way it works when you go with Agile. A good development house will run tests and have performance suites like New Relic in place, but as you continue to build out your app and add new functionality or change others, unforeseen things will pop up. These aren’t dire events that will crush your business, but in the beginning it will add to your stress levels. It’s like dropping $100,000 on a sweet new Mercedes and then having transmission troubles within your first 1,000 miles. Not the end of the world, but boy does it hurt. The thing you need to remember when it comes to technical issues and scaling is that you’re in good company. Twitter had major scaling issues in the beginning and any time Facebook has slow performance it’s on the front page of CNN. As the British said during WWII, “Keep Calm and Carry On”.
The second problem you’ll face, especially if you go the self-funded route as I did, is getting traction. It turns out that Kevin Costner is a filthy liar and when you build it no one will give a rat’s behind about it. You’ll get a fancy CrunchBase profile and send out a Press Release waiting for champagne to fall from the sky while Engadget labels you “The Next Steve Jobs”. Then you’ll wake up from that dream and realize that you did not win the lottery of startups and that you have a hell of a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears ahead of you. Building a user base is incredibly hard, and unless you get really lucky it can be expensive. While getting to the front page of Reddit and getting slammed with new users may be the dream, it’s most likely not the reality.
What others are saying
While you’re working day and night building your user base, you’ll probably also hear a good amount of negativity, which you need to avoid like the plague. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me that I shouldn’t bother with my dream because Craigslist already exists. Anyone who says anything similar to you is not someone you should associate with. That is not constructive criticism (which you should welcome as much as possible). If you talk to people with that line of thinking, Facebook was a waste of time because Myspace already existed (not to mention Hi5, Bebo, Orkut, and many others). Larry and Sergey at Google shouldn’t have built it because we already had Yahoo!, AltaVista, Mamma.com, and Ask Jeeves. The list goes on, but in the end you have to keep the faith – other people may not be in love with your idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Sure, you should have some differentiating factor in there, but even incrementally better sites for the purpose of XYZ can be very successful.
The myths of overnight success
The final thing I’d say about being a startup owner is the myth of the overnight success. I’m now over $150,000 into the build of List Here along with countless hours spent pushing it forward. We’re just now starting to get some real traction and very positive movement on the revenue side of things, but from the outside looking in you probably wouldn’t guess how long and how hard it was to get there. The same is true for most other startups out there. For every rock star, into the stratosphere of success web company there is out there, there are a thousand others run by people quietly toiling behind the scenes. The only thing that separates those entrepreneurs from failing is their own determination, grit, and patience.
Written by Steve Duffy, Founder and CEO of ListHere | Email: steve (at )listhere (dot)com