#FOUNDERSTORIES: Josh Kunin

(Note: This article originally appeared on LinkedIn. The author is William Jiang.)

What’s your story and how did you get to where you are?

I’ve always sort of been into computers. My grandma bought me a TRS-80, trash-80, for my birthday one year, and that was it. I think I spent more time messing with that than playing games on my Atari. I remember going to computer camp in the early 80s and being fascinated with the idea of writing a line of code and then watching what happened from that bit of code. Early on, it was just messing around with Basic and Pascal — making little games.

Fast forward to 1995, I graduated from art school, went straight into working at a special effects studio, doing physical effects. That was something I wanted to do since I saw Star Wars in 1977. After seeing the 40-year-olds looking like they were 70 from breathing all the chemicals involved in physical effects, I decided that maybe that wasn’t going to be the best job for me in the long run. Coincidentally, around the same time, the internet was becoming practical. The release of Firefox 1.0 in 1994 got me excited about the internet, and getting back to coding again. I decided to ditch the life of breathing toxic chemicals for a living and exchanged that for melting my eyeballs writing lines of code.

What is Waitlistr and how did it get started?

As with so many startups, it started as a dinner table conversation with my brother-in-law. He had a pre-schooler that he was trying to get into a school that had a long waiting list. We got to talking about the lack of transparency of waiting lists; like that not knowing where you were on the list without hounding whoever managed the list. I had just finished a big client project and was just exiting another startup called eDivvy, so I was looking for another idea to keep me busy. I knocked out a prototype in a couple of weeks and just put it out there. We tried to get some traction by calling preschools that had waiting lists, but we quickly learned it was going to be an uphill battle getting through the bureaucracy at these schools — it would be too expensive to get conversions. Since we had a prototype, a good domain, and cheap shared hosting, I decided to just leave it up and move on to other projects.

A couple of years later, after I upgraded MySQL or maybe it was PHP, it broke. I didn’t realise it until I started receiving customer service emails. Mind you, I had completely ignored the site for a very long time, and was shocked to see that there were people actually using the site! I had come to a crossroads of sorts. I needed to either shut the site down — the code was old; it was a prototype after all — or put some time into it and rebuild. Again, the timing was good, I had just left another startup, called Tipglo, and decided to hire one of the PHP devs I worked with there to rebuild Waitlistr from scratch.

After relaunching the site with more stable code and upgraded UX(user experience design), it started to grow at a significant clip. In 2016, I decided it had reached the point where there was enough market validation that it deserved a lot more of my attention. It was time to raise a bit of money and put together a small team, so that’s what I did.

You mentioned that you’re lucky to have such a quality team. What are your thoughts on how a startup founder should hire?

There’s really no right way or wrong way to find the right people to work on a project with you.

If you’re going to bring people in on an equity basis, it’s really important to bring in people who are passionate and believe in the project. When bringing someone in, I highly recommend bringing them in on a trial basis, where you pay them for the hours they work, before committing to an equity relationship. This gives you an idea of how well you’ll work together, and gives you both an easy out if it’s not what you expected. The first place I started my search was my own network. I went to Meetups; people always ask what you’re working on at those. Co-founder dating sites are great too. I found Dennis, my COO(Chief Operating Officer)/Head of Product, through one of those. We talked for about eight months before deciding we were a good fit. We then found Jonatas, our CTO(Chief Technology Officer) and kick-ass dev, through a job post on Angel.co. That was definitely the long route, but it gave me a higher confidence that I found the right people.

The other route, that’s much quicker and perfect for building MVPs (Minimum Viable Products), is to outsource using sites like UpWork. The trick is thoroughly vetting candidates — it’s so easy to hire the wrong person. It sounds obvious, but really make sure they can do the work you’re asking them to do. Anytime I’ve outsourced, I’ve spent a lot of time writing a solid functional doc; more functional detail is better. You have to think of outsourced devs as devs who will build literally what you ask them to build — don’t expect critical thought on how your product should behave from them. Ideally, you’ll find someone you can go back to time and time again. For product development, and depending on what your network looks like, friends can be an invaluable source for advice and bouncing ideas off of and get early validation for an idea or new feature. It’s invaluable to include those people as part of your team, officially or unofficially.

One of the things you said that was important to you was user experience that’s simple like Apple’s. Could you explain how you want to portray that with Waitlistr?

I think it’s more of a philosophy I bring to every project. The idea that something can always be made simpler. It’s somewhat cliche now, but the idea that the phone I had before my first iPhone had like six buttons on it — the iPhone has four buttons, but really only one important button, the home button. That idea of distilling things down to only what’s essential to perform an action should be applied to everything a user interacts with. It’s ok to start with something complex or complicated, but you have to keep boiling it down until you make it feel like it’s simple or obvious to the user.

Who are your ideal users and how can they benefit from the platform?

With Waitlistr, our initial assumption of who our users would be, preschools, was wrong. We were fortunate enough, by leaving the site up, that our user base found us and started using it. It turned out that artists and makers were our earliest adopters which for me, as an artist myself, was super exciting; these were my people. I never realised how underserved the community was. Sure there’s Etsy, which has some great tools and is a great platform for selling, but it just doesn’t fit all artist’s needs. We’re trying to fill the CRM(Customer Relationship Management) gap for artist and makers — really it’s a platform for anyone who has something where demand outpaces supply. Think of a furniture maker who makes custom pieces one at a time, or someone who runs workshops or seminars and needs to queue people wanting to attend; we address that need.

During our coffee chat, you mentioned that Waitiistr is an interesting stage different from many startups (in terms of investor responsibility and capital raising) could you talk more about what you mean by that?

I’ve been fortunate to have been part of several successful startups, and some failures too. You have to be open to the idea that every project teaches you something you can apply to future projects. One important thing I’ve learned is that success is often fleeting, unexpected, or hard to reproduce — failures teach you much more about how to succeed than you’d expect. Waitlistr is like my fifth or sixth startup that I’ve either founded or co-founded. I’ve been part of startups that have raised millions of dollars early and failed. I’ve been part of startups that have bootstrapped and failed.

Because of the way Waitlistr evolved as a product and as a company, it was really important to me to try to always keep it in a position where it never had to shut down. That meant not taking on too much money and the expectations that come with lots of investor money; not taking risks that I would normally take — debt, over scaling dev, hosting, or services. It’s a slower road, but at the same time I feel like we’re building a lot of value in the company and we have more time to listen and react to our users rather than having external pressures dictating what we need to do. That’s not to say we don’t want more investment in the future, we do, but we’re better positioned to look for the right investors rather than simply needing money to keep operating.

Have there been any interesting success stories from users who have been using Waitlistr?

We are really proud of the diverse ways our list owners have found Waitlistr to be helpful in doing what they do. Small success stories are just as inspiring to us as the big ones. Everything from first-time authors testing the waters and using their list to gauge interest in their book, to large waiting lists for overbooked events, or a custom shaving product. We see what we do as a tool to help facilitate the relationships between a list owner and their list members. We’re inspired everyday by the creativity of our users.

Do you think Waitlistr is a direct competitor to Eventbrite? Or could both be used in harmony?

We think Eventbrite is great and the world doesn’t need another direct competitor to it. That’s not to say we don’t have some overlap with them, but we’re focused on being a CRM for the artist, maker, and event-host community. We feel like there are enough services we can provide that no one else is providing. What we’ve built is just the tip of the iceberg.

What do you think makes Waitlistr unique from other event-organiser platforms?

We’re focused on building a community, not just serving one-off waitlists in a bubble. We are reaching a point where we have some critical mass in certain verticals and are seeing users crossing over between lists. Fostering that experience is going to be one of the things we focus on in the coming quarters.

What has been your biggest failure thus far, and how did you go about solving it?

Waitlistr has become much more than a nights-and-weekends project for all of us involved, but my day job is still building MVPs for other entrepreneurs. I launch new projects almost once a month, some not very complex, and others super complex so I’m used to dotting “i’s” and crossing “t’s” before launching a project. When we recently rolled out Waitlistr 3.0, it was a complete rebuild of everything; prior stack was PHP Laravel & MySQL on shared hosting, which was fine but didn’t have the depth and breadth of community support like other languages. Our new stack is Ruby & PostgreSQL on Heroku. If you’ve ever switched stacks, you know it’s not easy. Despite how careful we were to QA(quality assurance), load test, etc., our relaunch was riddled with unexpected failures. Lesson learned, sometimes you get overly excited about releasing something to the world and overlook some of the details. Perhaps we needed one more week. On the upside, it tested our team and made me absolutely sure we have the right people in place to execute a great product now and in the future.

Try it out here: www.waitlistr.com