How I launched my company without outside funding, connections, or even a track record, and how you can too.

As unknown undergrads with no prior network or track record, we would have to raise $1,000 a day, from total strangers, for 35 days straight.
This is where I honestly expected the story to end.
Somehow, it was just the beginning.

In this article, I’m going to share with you my own entrepreneurial journey. Are you embarking on yours, but stuck on something? If so, let’s schedule a time to chat. I’d love to see if I can share anything with you that might help. Just shoot me an email to schedule 30 minutes to discuss what you’re working on.

I’m lucky enough to run a young, bootstrapped company that I founded. Here’s how that came to be.

In 2011, during my senior year at Virginia Tech, I was taking my favorite course — Design of Information. We had a journal check a few weeks into the semester, so the day before, I did what any college senior would do: I ran to Staples and bought a notebook.

To try and fill the minimum number of pages, I considered what problem would be so difficult that I wouldn’t be able to come to a fast solution on; one that would easily fill 10 pages.

I chose email. Everyone hated email, everyone complained about it, and it seemed that no one had figured out a good system for it (or if they had, it was intensely cumbersome).

I started to journal around email. I was trying to find the mismatch between how we actually use email today versus how it’s designed to work. My first challenge was to boil email down to its essence. I wanted to find the root of it: what the essence of email is to us today.

Once I felt that I had figured that out, I ignored all previous ideas and implementations I had ever seen, and I designed how an email client would work, based solely around that essence.

What I drew I quickly fell in love with.

I immediately showed it to my now-wife, and she resonated with the ideas immediately. The next day I showed it to a few friends, and their emphatic responses were clearly more than the minimum courtesy typically extended to a friend showing off scribbles in a notebook.

For a few weeks, I discussed the ideas with as many people as I could, refining them as I learned more, and iterating on the language I used to describe the concept. I kept hearing two things:

  1. “I need this,” and
  2. “I will pay money for this.”

That’s how I knew it was time to give it a shot.

With graduation 6 months away, I wanted to see if I could secure the funding to go full-time on the idea after college. But before turning to angel investors and VCs — a long shot, given that we had no experience, no connections, no prototype, and were still students — I wanted to first see if I could make an even longer shot work: crowdfunding.

The benefits of turning to a site like Kickstarter were that I would retain equity at this stage, and I wouldn’t be on the hook with someone else’s money if the idea failed (if it didn’t resonate in the market, then it wouldn’t be funded; conversely if it did resontate in the market, it would be funded, and a fan base would come with it — all three benefits tip together when a campaign reaches 100%, a feature unique to funding via the crowd with an all-or-nothing campaign).

We spent weeks prepping — recording a video, planning the kickbacks, very unsuccessfully reaching out to press and bloggers, writing content to publish during the campaign, starting to build up an email newsletter, etc.

In January of my senior year, with 5 months until graduation, we launched the Kickstarter campaign. We set the goal at $35,000 and the time at 5 weeks. As unknown undergrads with no prior network or track record, we’d have to raise $1,000 a day, from total strangers, for 35 days straight.

This is where I honestly expected the story to end.

Somehow, it was just the beginning.

It blew up on Hacker News with the headline “Email is broken. But we fixed it.” (which was changed midway through the day), and Twitter shortly thereafter.

People were backing the campaign faster than we expected, but we still feared it tapering off. The WIRED Insider selection was exciting nonetheless. Oh, and Jason Fried tweeting me about it didn’t hurt, either. (As a huge fan of his book REWORK, I geeked out when that tweet came in.)

A week into the campaign, David Pogue sent us a late Christmas gift:

Pogue wrote an article about Kickstarter, focusing in on just a few campaigns. One was ours.

He called our idea for Mail Pilot “ingenious.” In the New York Times. In print. At this moment, amid all the excitement, I fully accepted that this was it; I had peaked in life, and this was as good as it gets. It was all downhill from here.

Luckily, I was wrong.

After 5 weeks, our campaign ended with 1,623 backers pledging $54,205 to make Mail Pilot a reality. That’s over $1,500 a day.

With 3 months to go before graduation, $54k in the bank, and now a job offer from 1,623 fans of my ideas, I couldn’t wait to go full-time. If I didn’t have senioritis before, I definitely did by then. (Honestly, I probably had senioritis since the fourth grade.)

By June, we launched the first backer beta. In September, we launched the first publicly available version of the product — a web app.

If you’re judging the design work here, just remember — it was 2012. Plenty before the iOS 7 redesign entered the world.

This launch went so well — quickly making more than the Kickstarter campaign — that some pretty big people started reaching out. Most notably, Apple.

When asked if we’d be available for a call, I believe my immediate response was “whenever you call this number I will answer halfway through the first ring.”

Someone that handles Apple’s promos on the App Store editorial team asked us if we were considering bringing Mail Pilot to their platforms — iOS and Mac OS X (as it was named at the time). We were of course already planning on it, but at their insistence, we re-prioritized iOS over Mac.

In April 2013, we launched Mail Pilot for iPhone and iPad. Apple featured it on the front page of the App Store (at this point I was certain we had peaked, and it was all downhill from here).

Along with a Techcrunch article, this was a stereotypical startup launch success story, but it wasn’t without one large snafu that I wrote about recently.

In January 2014, we launched Mail Pilot for Mac.

This launch might look the same, but it was very, very different. It was featured with a banner, and listed as a best new app, but look in the bottom right corner. It became the #1 Top Paid app in the entire Mac App Store within hours of debut. It took that spot in over 50 countries by the end of the year. It took that spot in its category in an additional 40 countries.

This was a whole new world for us.

In 2016, we launched an entirely new product, Throttle. It took the #1 spot on Product Hunt the day it launched, quickly joining the 1,000 club along the likes of the Tesla Model X.

Do you remember how we got here?

Back up five years. Even if you’ve read this whole story, you may have forgotten: this began when an unknown and inexperienced, but eager and ambitious undergrad decided to give Kickstarter a go with a strange idea to solve a tough problem in a new way. That’s it.

If you’ve been considering starting your own thing, creating and selling your own product, starting your own business to solve a problem you see in the world or your local community, then hear this: don’t worry about all the reasons why it probably isn’t possible, or all the things that might be going against you.

How You Can Do It Too

If you’re in the beginning or middle of your side-hustle, or a full-on startup, I’d love to chat. I promise I’m not selling anything; I enjoy mentoring the startups I’ve been connected to locally, but I’d love to see if I can help entrepreneurs and founders globally that have been reading these articles, and that need a sounding board. I’d love to schedule 30 minutes to discuss what you’re working on. Just shoot me an email.

If you’re not ready to chat yet, just subscribe to my newsletter. Every Thursday, I’ll send you a new article, which will also serve as a reminder for when the time is right to shoot me an email so we can hop on the phone.

I also just moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, so if you’re in the area, let’s grab coffee.

As always, thank you for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter! Hit the link here:

Subscribe to my Weekly Newsletter