Hello readers of www.learnthestartup.com. Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience because at some point in our lives there is nothing more important than that :)
At first I must say that I'm not a "success story." I didn't build a multi-billion-dollar business, so if your stakes are high, you better learn from somebody else. On the other hand, I was able to survive in the software business for about 20 years and even made a comfortable living out of it, virtually retiring at 28. "Virtually" means that I mostly drove with my friends around the country, partied, played games, and read books in my 30s until the market evolved and I got back to business.
Now I'm 41, I've already launched and sold another software business in just a year. Now I'm launching the next one, this time with a clear long-term vision. I will get into details of it closer to the end of this interview.
Can you share a little about your story and how you got to where you are today?
I tried to make the story short but I also didn't want to miss important details which may answer popular questions like: "How did you get your business ideas?" or "How can I validate my idea?" or "When will I exit and retire?" So, if you don't need all these answers, you can safely skip it.
It's funny that I started my business because I was lazy. You always hear that entrepreneurs are people who work hard but I hated hard work and I always dreamt that some day in the future I will no longer need to do anything but read books and code software just for fun.
I became unemployable long before I started my career by getting expelled from university in my 5th year because I stopped showing up for lectures and I was missing exams. There was a valid excuse for that from a programmer's perspective: I was too excited by a software project I was building to have enough time for exams. In spite of that, I got my A+ "golden" grade diploma, just as a confirmation of my previous achievements... but maybe because these diplomas were printed ahead of time and nobody bothered to order yet another printing job at the government facility.
From this moment my life was a proof that I'm not only unemployable but also a bad self-manager as well:
- I got fired from my first job as a webmaster because I mostly coded something but didn't care about website marketing
- I found some success at the next job because I was allowed to code all day long - I eventually quit it for a freelance job because I was too lazy to work at the office
- at the end of my professional career I first outsourced then quit my freelance job because I was too lazy to code something I didn't want.
Finally I got excited by an idea to launch my own business, but I also learned that I can't really predict what will happen in the future no matter how hard I tried:
- I started to learn marketing and found that it's a good idea to start with an affiliate website, so I googled how to do it and started to promote posters with dogs. Yes, literally: the website was selling printed posters for $5-$10 and I got a "generous" commission of $1 per sale
- After opening a Google AdWords account and purchasing some clicks, I still had no sales. So I thought deeper about what to sell and found that I purchased a website template when making the website, which means that somebody else like me may need that, too
- I ordered a custom designed pack of templates at a freelance website, started to sell them using Google AdWords, and got my first order. It was fantastic!
- I reinvested profits I made back into more PPC traffic and conversion rate optimization until my ad outran my top competitor... then immediately got a DMCA letter claiming that my templates were stolen
- I found that the freelancer who sold them to me just copied everything from this competitor, so it was a valid claim and I had no business anymore
- The day after I noticed that I already have an almost ready-to-sell product that I developed as I optimized Google AdWords campaign
- I then invested about a month into polishing it, finally launched, ordered some clicks and got no sales in 24 hours, then gave up and got back to freelance
- I got tired of working for hire again in 3 months, resumed the AdWords campaign "just in case" and got the very first order for my software product next morning... then the next one... and the next! I remember this day the most in my life!
- I reinvested everything I made back into marketing, got enough money to quit the job the final time
- a week after I did that Google shut down the tool my software used, so I had no product again
- I invested yet another several weeks into making it partially work but still far from being perfect
- I gained 45kg in previous two years, got diagnosed with cancer and had 2 weeks between the surgery and biopsies results to think about what am I doing with my life.
That's when I finally understood that "coding" isn't an answer. And, by deeply analyzing my actions and their outcomes I found that I always made money when I did marketing and lost money when I coded for too long. Lesson learned.
On the other hand, I hated to do marketing and sales. So, when I got an offer from marketing guys to form a JV, I gladly accepted it and it was my first real success: about 1,200 sales in just 48 hours! But I also got so tired of the product that I launched a PPC marketing agency on the side to have a backup just in case, knowing how unpredictable life can be.
It was the right move because my partners got excited by the next shiny opportunity and quit the business, and I had no desire to run it on my own. My marketing agency got close to bankruptcy, too, because I charged too little and optimization took much more time than I initially expected when serving accounts not under my direct control.
On the other hand, I got yet another product in my portfolio: an internal keyword database we built as a part of in-house automation, so it became my next hope and I tried to sell several copies of it just to pay for my flat rent for the next month. It so happened that I got into the right place at the right time, so I made not only money for rent but arranged a downpayment for my own flat in 2 weeks.
It was the real success and I immediately hired a marketer, knowing that I will not do this work on my own effectively. So, for the next 10 years I mostly enjoyed my life by driving with my friends around the country, playing games and reading books, developing the product for my own fun and pleasure.
Then, eventually, the market started to shift towards bigger teams, so we can no longer rely on our previous business model. I started to learn management, and it's where the true fun begins :)
What do you wish you knew before you first started your first business?
Adomation is a fresh business I launched a few days ago which is based on the management model I assembled from pieces found in various management books that I've read and tested in the real world. So, it's not "a journey to" but "the final destination." Not a "proof of concept" but an almost perfect execution of it.
The most important part of the company isn't its current products or feature sets but rapid evolution built into the company from the day it was born. I'm so sure about that because I successfully applied this approach in my previous business which I launched, grew and sold for 2x in about a year. And the main reason for my exit was my desire to serve like-minded people. I really mean that, there is no marketing BS here.
When I found that I no longer need to make guesses about the right product because of evolution-based management strategy, I could finally allow myself to choose customers, not look for shiny product ideas.
I'm happy to talk to other entrepreneurs, much more than to traders of the previous venture. I enjoy every moment of communication with the market in any shape or form. I'm happy that I can help somebody to become truly successful, and I hope that we can make a big difference in the lives of a lot of like-minded people and their families.
So, the correct answer to your question will be: "I wish that I knew how fun it may be to enjoy your customers, not just make money!"
Can you describe your average day?
It's the most important question, actually, because it's what defines my management strategy. I use my own version of a methodology called "Action Research" which is focused on rapid evolution through short cycles of diagnosis, planning, execution and analysis.
On the lowest level there are one-day cycles which clearly outline my work day:
I start with a short diagnosis of our current situation, trying to find an idea for the next step. Then, after I'm done with the diagnosis, I also stress-test it to be sure that I didn't miss anything.
Then I develop a detailed plan for the work day, trying to fit everything into 6-8 hours of work. It forces me to prioritize heavily and avoid useless activities, cutting corners and focusing on what's really important. Then I stress-test the plan, trying to question each of its items. It usually saves much more time than it requires.
Then I execute the plan, starting with the most painful tasks in the first place. Pain is important because it's usually something new, something uncomfortable because of lack of knowledge or expertise. Focusing on these types of tasks enables me to evolve much faster than if I went through comfortable and well-known tasks.
And, taking into account that I'm taking all this pain, I can't work long hours, so my minimum work day is just 3 hours which I organize into six 25-minute shifts, like in Pomodoro technique with short 5-minute breaks in between.
I usually don't finish all the tasks I planned before the end of the day but it doesn't matter because even a single painful task brings much more evolution than a full day of routine activities. Everything comfortable and routine must be immediately delegated, automated or outsourced.
At the end of the day the most important part of the day comes - analysis. It's when I answer a set of questions focused on in-depth analysis of my diagnosis, plans and actions, including reflection on my mistakes and their true causes. This part of the day is really important because it enables me to take into account everything I learned today on the next day.
So, there is no long-term planning but just one-day cycles arising one after another. I really don't know what I will do tomorrow, and if I ever plan that it will just mean violation of the methodology.
In the evening, after the work day and its analysis are over, I usually relax in various ways, including coding for fun, learning management, being with the family or meeting with my friends. I work for 5 days a week, weekends are free and I can use them in a way I want. Moreover: I know that if I try to rush and work on weekends, I will quickly burn myself out, so it's just a rational choice.