From Side-Project to Startup in 6 (crazy) Months
You know that feeling you get when you just know your idea is going to be the next big thing? Well none of us had that feeling when we first started working on DashMetrics as a side-project. I’d love to rewrite history and tell you we knew our project was going to take off from the start, but this began like any other passion project. We had this hard problem of trying to make data visualization easier for the average person to understand without a dashboard looking like some hi-tech stock trading program with crazy looking candlestick charts, or a DevOps monitor displaying two-tone colored website traffic in real-time. No, we were going tackle the gnarly task of making metrics look sexy. It felt like our calling.
People rarely remember exact moment a side-project or startup began, but this one was easy to trace back to its origins. Let me paint a picture for you. It was a cold and windy Winter night in Upstate New York. The date was December 3, 2016, I remember because I’d pumped for that night’s Saratoga TechOut event thrown by my friend Steve Wilcox. A couple of friends and I were heading out to a local bar called Henry Street Taproom for the meetup.
A couple days earlier my friend Mubs Iqbal, later to be voted the “2016 Product Hunt Maker of the Year”, pinged me on Slack and asked if I had a few minutes to jump on a call.
(this is Mubashar Iqbal, or just “Mubs” to us)
Mubs had an idea he wanted to run by my to solve a pain-point I had running my monthly Sharatoga TechTalks in Saratoga Springs, New York. At the beginning of each meetup I welcomed the audience, and then give them an update on our meetup’s stats such as how many Twitter followers we have now, and how that’s an increase of X from last month. Then I rattle off the stats for our YouTube and Meetup group subscribers. It’s a pain to pull all those stats manually each month, and Mubs’ idea was to automate the process by pulling them via API and displaying them on a dashboard I could display on the screen for the audience. Nothing cutting edge here, but at the same time there wasn’t anything on the market that we felt had the right UI and appeal we were looking for. It was like we were having a Vulcan mind-meld. I’d been thinking the same thing, but I’m not a Developer. In my Product Manager mind I envisioned a sleek UI designed with colored metric tiles that jumped off the screen. We ran into our friend Joe Arcuri (one of the most amazing UI/UX Designer I’ve ever known) at the bar and pitched him on the idea, and with a simple “Yea, I’m down.” he was in.
(this is Joe Arcuri, he’s usually wearing a hat)
Over a few rounds of drinks and wings we discussed the idea, agreed on an equity split among the 3 Co-Founders (sent via email a few days later just to cover all our bases and ensure we had a paper trail documenting our agreement), and planned to work on getting a MVP stood up over the next few weeks as we headed into the holidays. Soon after New Years we had a fugly MVP in a DEV environment, and the skeleton of the app was starting to come together. We styled the website, applied branding, and began sharing it with some friends to get feedback.
With positive encouragement from everyone we demoed the app for we asked our friend Jason Kuruzovich if we could pitch our new side-project at the February 1, 2017 Startup Tech Valley meetup. At this point we were still calling DashMetrics a “side-project”. We had a couple of conversations about whether we should incorporate, and if we did should we go with a company name or form a venture holding company with the assumption this wouldn’t be our last project together. At some point a stake had to be put in the ground, and I just made the executive decision that “Yes” we would incorporate, and that “DashMetrics” would be the company name. On January 28, 2017 we incorporated using Bizfilings, and would later have our lawyer Eric Leander, of The Wagoner Firm, write up our founders agreement and all the other legalize you need a good lawyer to worry/handle for you (valuable lesson from my past — surround yourself with different lawyers you can call upon whenever needed).
The decision to incorporate wasn’t made without a lot of consideration. We knew we needed to get a Stripe account if we wanted to accept payments, and I knew I didn’t want my personal bank accounts tied to a venture with a couple of friends (my wifey is the most understanding woman in the world, but there’s limits). I also has a vague idea forming in the back of my mind that we might want to raise funding if we started to see some real traction (more on that in a later post).
The day of Startup Tech Valley came, and we were just about to launch our software Live into Production on GitLab when their servers crashed. We were in a panic (well mostly just me). With only a few hours to the event there wasn’t enough time to switch the DNS to a new repo, and we were also hosting our Marketing site on GitLab. I headed to the event while Mubs manned his computer waiting for GitLab’s service to come back online. Literally with minutes to spare their site was brought back up, Mubs pushed our code to Production, and just like that we were Live. I took the stage and something inside me came to life. I was no longer talking about a side-project in front of 250 of my closest friends; I was launching our new company and it felt amazing. I’m sure I mumbled and rambled through my pitch (there’s video proof out there if you want a lesson in how not to pitch a new startup), but I got through it and walked off the stage to a waiting crowd who for some reason wanted to talk to me. It was surreal. Only 8 minutes earlier I was just the next presenter, but now I’m the CEO of a new startup (as in only a few days old). We got a lot of great advice and feedback that night, and talked with 2 prospective customers who said they wanted to be our 1st paying customers (we hadn’t even integrated Stripe yet, or decided on a pricing model). Over drinks and dinner later that night we felt our side-project become a startup.
We were in the throes of Winter in Upstate New York (think bitter cold and windy), but we were heads-down designing the user onboarding experience and coding the framework for API integrations. We would meet in person just about every 2-weeks (but chat on Slack daily) in a friend’s company offices after hours to whiteboard workflows, debate architecture, and discuss our next sprint over pizza and a few drinks.
We launched our “soft-Beta” in early April with about 170 users from our pre-launch mailing list; I call it “soft” because I’m not really sure what a typical Beta should really look like. I heard someone once say “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product then you’ve launched too late.” Turns out that someone was Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder of LinkedIn. If you ask me truer words have never been spoken. But they (Plato) also said “necessity is the mother of all invention.” and I can vouch for that. Between the start of the month and mid-April we pushed code just about daily, and by the time we launched on Product Hunt on Wednesday, April 19 I was pretty damn proud of what we’d built! Now I’m not going to go as far as saying everything worked as designed. We certainly had some unique “features”, that other less kind people might calls “bugs”, but we were getting closer to a product I could be proud of.
If you’re feeling really confident, think your product is in pretty good shape, and feel like you know who your ideal customer is, then I highly suggest you take the reality check that is launching on Product Hunt. Nothing brings your ego back into check like complete strangers pointing out the spelling mistakes on your website (note: Designers aren’t known for spell checking their work I learned, and we now call them “easter eggs”), or users saying your registration screen is too complex (hard to whittle the required fields down from name, email, and password but we’ll looking into that).
We spent weeks planning our Product Hunt launch, strategizing about the best day to debut, putting together our product description and screenshots, and deciding which friend we should ask to “Hunt us” (Thank you Eric Willis @erictwillis!). After a lot of planning, a few good connections, and a lot of luck, we were featured on the front page of Product Hunt in the Top 10 all day.
That was also the day Facebook launched (3) new products, and held the Top 3 spots all day. For anyone familiar with Product Hunt everyone knows big companies are supposed to launch their new products on Tuesdays, but in all fairness Facebook was holding their F8 Conference so we’ll give them a pass (Mark if you’re reading this holah at us!). We finished the day with 430 upvotes, and were honorably mentioned in a tweet by Ryan Hoover, Founder and CEO of Product Hunt (Thanks Ryan @rrhoover!). We were pretty proud of the support from the community, but we were even more stoked by the 525 new users that signed up in the 48 hours after our Product Hunt launch.
Along the way from side-project to startup in 6 (crazy) months we learned a lot about what DashMetrics was really about, and who we were building it for. Today DashMetrics is on a mission to help Marketing teams and Agencies to tell the story of their campaigns using easily
digestible infographic dashboards. What’s never changed is our passion for working together as a team of friends, and our quest to make metrics sexy!
(that’s me, Chris Thompson, in a completely unstaged photo shoot with my friend’s Mac, and always with a Redbull!)