A Startup for Chickens
(trigger warning — picture of deceased chick in egg that failed to hatch)
I didn’t really expect this. Becoming a FOUNDER Seeking FUNDING for a STARTUP? Not part of my original plan. Nevertheless, becoming a founder entered my life and it changed me. Much more of it than I expected has left a bad taste in my mouth, but the part about it being an incredibly exciting, exhausting, and life changing journey is true. Excitement, depression, the elation of finding teammates and partners, extreme mania leading to burnout, fights with family, the toll on my marriage and myself — trying to found a new company based on a brand new product doing something innovative is exhausting. Especially when you’re working full time, have a pregnant wife, and a toddler. What was I thinking?
Now I’m here, about two years after it first started — even though I had no idea what was starting at the time. My not-yet-company is going to be a thing, regardless of whether or not we receive outside funding. That part of the journey starts in 2019, and is just another step along this path. Something new to learn, and I now understand that even if it fails, I’ll learn, grow, and be changed. I’ve learned to not trust or take this industry and the accompanying cast of characters at face value, while also learning the value of the lessons it has to offer.
I’m not a startup blogger, nor do I have a plan to become one. I didn’t find many TOP TEN TIPS TO LAUNCH YOUR STARTUP articles helpful, so instead, I offer you the story of a startup. Maybe it’s not a startup. Maybe it’s just another company. I’ve decided to reject to possible title of a failed startup.
Two Years Earlier
It was a hard to choose. I’d been searching for weeks. There were hundreds of varieties to choose from. I knew it didn’t really matter which I picked, but I wanted it to feel right. I knew enough about myself to know it needed to be rare, or at least uncommon. It needed to catch my eye. I wanted to fall in love right away — I didn’t know if that was possible. I definitely didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing — that’s always been how I rolled.
Then I saw them.
I had just found my chicken breed — Pavloskaya. They were black and gold, crested, and beautiful. There were very few of them in the USA. They were from Russia, and had only recently been imported. Perfect. I’d been building up a varied flock for awhile, and it was time to figure out what my breed was and start hatching.
I found someone on the other side of the country who would ship me fertile eggs. There was one hatchery that had imported them from Russia, and unsexed chicks cost $99 each. Wow. I didn’t want chicks shipped through the mail (I don’t like the idea of newborn chicks spending their first few days in the dark at the mercy of the USPS), and paying a few dollars per egg was a much better deal anyway — I’d just have to hatch them myself. I’d only incubated eggs once before, to not-great results, but that time I was not prepared. This time I thought I was.
I grew up 45 minutes outside of NYC (assuming no traffic — a terrible assumption) and spent a few years outside of Chicago. My wife Meghan and I had moved to rural Washington 2 years earlier and started a small rescue farm (which is now at capacity — please don’t send us tales of more animals that need homes!). It was a big change of pace from urban/suburban life. I wasn’t sure it was a change I wanted at first, but now I know it was the right path to take. Before we’d moved here, our life and marriage seemed to be falling apart, but the change of pace and ability to find ourselves individually had put things solidly on a positive trajectory.
When we first moved here, I was working remotely doing FPGA work for a software defined radio company outside of Chicago, IL. I switched to freelancing electrical engineering after that, and found myself with a pretty healthy and stable income. I loved the freedom of working for myself and, combined with the fresh air and quiet of rural living, I was living the dream (well, the dream of some people)— and finally had a game plan for my chickens. A friend told me that I needed to find more friends — I said I had plenty of friends.
“Friends who are not chickens.”
I wasn’t sure where my career was going, or what a career was even worth to me. I’d never been happy with how society and business worked, and I didn’t like how engineering worked as an industry, though I loved being an engineer — building useful things fills me with joy, and the ability to be self-driven in what I worked on was glorious. I’d worked in a variety of industries, as an engineer with a bit of management thrown in — chemical process equipment, defense, aerospace, automotive, radio…and I had the confidence and connections (plus luck!) to land contracts and work for myself.
I figured I’d cruise through on contracts, save money, build up a small engineering firm, work with people I liked on things we enjoyed, and that’d be that. Ditch the 9–5 and have plenty of time for farm life — emphasis is on life for me in this work/life balance. What was important to me was developing this newfound freedom to live life, be myself, and grow with my family — which now included horses, alpacas, miniature donkeys, sheep, dogs, a chinchilla, ducks, and of course, chickens.
Hatching those eggs shipped across the country didn’t go great. I put eighteen eggs in the incubator. Some of the air cells had detached during shipping. I researched, researched, researched. There were best practices, but there was also conflicting information. Who was the authority on how to hatch eggs? What about when they were shipped? Are there special considerations for particular breeds? Why do I like chickens so much anyway?
Long story a little bit shorter — from those eighteen eggs, I have five adult chickens. Four Pavlovskayas (though only a single hen — a raccoon got the other one) and one Isbar hen. Many of the chicks did not hatch, some started to hatch and failed, and some were fully formed, but did not even seem to try. Hatching can come with mixed feelings, as demonstrated by the next two pictures — warning, one is of chick that died while trying to hatch.
Did I do something wrong? Was it bad luck from shipping? I’d read that some people get smashed eggs or had no chicks hatch. It was still a better deal than paying $99 per chick.
My engineer brain needed more information. All the information. Was my incubator working correctly? Was it working correctly, but I didn’t really know how to incubate? Why do some people say to do a dry hatch (no added humidity), and others swore you needed to maintain a constant higher level of humidity? Why were my chicks so sticky wet when they hatched? Was my incubator’s temperature stable? How can I easily track all this stuff? I’m very lazy, so it needed to be automated or I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay on top of it.
My wife’s brain needed less data, but had more empathy. We’ve had many discussions about hatching eggs, and how the incubation process differed from a hen sitting on eggs. She’s a natural birth advocate (and birthed both our daughters outside on our deck in a hot tub), and that carried through to advocating for natural births for chickens. She wondered if perhaps a reason way-too-many chicks seemed to fully develop and then never hatch could be because they lacked motivation to break out of the egg — under a hen, chicks hear the hen clucking and talking to them, and each other as they grow closer to hatching. Incubators have the loud whir of a fan. Should we be incubating differently? Should we be playing hen sounds for hatching eggs? Could the environment in which they’re incubated impact the hatch too?
I probably needed to be able to track conditions under a hen, too.
I started putting together a device from off the shelf parts to track and record the conditions in my incubator and log hatch rates. I started poking around with Arduino first, and found the Espressif ESP32 module, which could quickly allow me to connect to WiFi and Bluetooth. Holy cow, I’m so glad this stuff exists now.
I’ll just wire up a breadboard, run some power cables out, do what work I can do, and talk to some of my more software-inclined friends about how to build out the firmware and web backend to make it happen. I like to stay connected to people who had fun ideas and liked to build this kind of stuff.
I’d talk a lot more about the technical side of things, but one of the lessons I’ve learned is how few people care about that. Suffice it to say that it’s a real advantage to be able to do a lot of the actual making of your product.
I posted on a Facebook group, asking if anyone local had fertile chicken eggs. I’d hatch them and then return them — I didn’t need the chicks, I just wanted to practice incubating and start recording conditions. A stranger responded and offered me her Black Copper Marans eggs (She’s now a family friend — I’m glad chickens can bring people together!).
It turned out Marans eggs were a great choice. They lay chocolate eggs — the insides are yellow, but the outside is a very deep, dark brown. They are notoriously hard to incubate — something I didn’t know at the time. I only have a single Marans hen from that batch.
Candling — shining a light through the egg to see the developing embryo — is pretty difficult with eggs that dark. I viewed it as a challenge, and bought a little thermal camera to attach to my smartphone. I thought that a viable egg would retain heat better than one that quits (dies early), and that heat would show up on a thermal camera. Turns out, that was true — but that’s for some future tech I’ll work on, and not yet part of this story.
I started sharing what I was working on with some chicken folks, and they loved it. People were volunteering to test it and telling me they would buy one for every incubator they had. Maybe this would be my career, freelance incubation research. I could finish developing and sell this, settling into a nice early retirement while focusing on aspects of life and making the world a better place that were really important to me.
Sometime around now I came up with the name Hatchtrack. If lots of people used this, we’d be able to gather conditions and hatch rates for all sorts of difficult to hatch eggs, and figure out how to do it better. People could test different methods of hatching and be able to share their results with the world.
Something wasn’t right about the design. I was going to put a box with wires on the side of the incubator, and maybe mount it with screws. The wires would run out so you could plug it in. People would have to physically modify their incubators for this to work. I didn’t really want to do that myself. No one would actually use this unless it was easy.
I hired my first employee. I needed someone to work on the firmware/software side full time for one particular contract, and they could work on developing Hatchtrack the rest of the time, as well as work on one of ten million other ideas I had at the time. There were so many ideas — I now recognize this as a weakness. Ten thousand great ideas are useless unless they are properly executed, and to be properly executed I had to actually start executing. There wasn’t enough time for everything — I needed to focus. There’s still a box full of a product designed and prototyped in my shop that I haven’t gotten around to yet, and might not for another year. Priorities.
I was staring up at the stars on a clear night when the idea of making it a battery powered, egg shaped device came to me. Perfect.
I was talking about Hatchtrack with a new chicken person, and they said
“Wow! Great idea! I would love a device that could tell me how to set up my incubator and notify me if something goes wrong!”
Yes. Hatchtrack definitely can do that. Honestly, that’s easier to do then the data collection and analysis that I really care about it.
It turned out the reason many people care about Hatchtrack isn’t the main functionality I intended, but it’s a different application for the exact same product.
How do I sell this thing? If you make something, people just show up and buy it, right? I’m an engineer, not a salesman, dammit. I considered going door to door, selling just through Amazon, figuring out how to do Google ads — ah, Facebook. Everyone advertises on Facebook now, right?
The product wasn’t done, but I was trying to get a jump start on figuring out something outside of my experience — selling something I had built.
I started a Facebook page and started running some ads. I was pretty glad that my newfound love for photography helped out — who wouldn’t love to see pictures of my beautiful chickens? It’s the chicken equivalent of pulling those pictures out of your purse and shoving them in the face of the person working the register, cause your kids are that cute.
It was really, really easy (and pretty cheap!) to start building a social media following. I just pointed to people who followed a few other chicken groups, and they flocked to Hatchtrack’s page. There was an incredible response — people loved this! The Futurama Shut up and take my money! meme was posted. I didn’t really need to explain what this thing did to poultry people — they understood right away. People from all over the world were talking about how helpful this was, how it would help them get on track with hatching eggs, and started talking about how this would help with all if their other poultry — ostrich, emu, ducks, quail, geese. There conservationists, breeders, homesteaders — so many people thinking this was amazing. It felt great. I made videos, did informational posts, and pretty quickly a few thousand people were there. This is all there is to marketing? What’s everyone complaining about?
I received messages from people in the backyard poultry industry, and they knew this was going to be a slam-dunk hit. My mind exploded when someone in the industry felt I didn’t understand the size of the market, and that I could easily be selling 100,000 units a year. I was thinking 10,000 units would be a pie in the sky number to target.
I did some quick math in my head (that’s not true — I grabbed a calculator) and proceeded to have a panic attack, both about how big the market was turning out to be, and how in the world I’d be able to scale.
Beyond markets, money, and business, the more eggs that are hatched, the more data we get, and the better know how to hatch all kinds of different difficult species. I learned how difficult waterfowl and exotics could be to hatch, and how this same device could be used to help endangered raptors (birds for now, but it will also work for dinosaurs).
Some time in here I met my co-founder, Jeff. I posted to Reddit about my project, and he messaged me and told me about his project that shared a surprising number of similarities. We agreed to work for each other for free — he would work on the mechanical design of my project, and I would work on the electrical/software side of his. Over time, it turned into a natural transition to becoming co-founders, and it gives us a great pathway to our next shared venture.
I decided to launch an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds.
I don’t love talking about the Indiegogo. I pulled together an amazing team, some paid a very reasonable contracting rate, some working for free. It was one of the most fun times, but also the most stressful. I had a toddler and my wife was 8 months pregnant. June 4th was the launch date. I had 4,000 followers on Facebook, and I figured that was all I needed. I didn’t know or care much about marketing. I assumed people would probably just flock to the crowdfunding page, and I’d be rolling in enough cash to launch Hatchtrack to meet the needs of the whole world.
An Indiegogo rep messaged me and said he’d kept chickens, and thought this project looked cool. He said he could help bring awareness to the project, but only after it was 1/3 funded. He suggested I drop my goal from $50k to $20k, which I did. I was planning on several hundred thousand dollars coming in. Though I have a very different perspective now, I felt I totally failed. I only raised $5k. I never got publicity, and in total, very few people even went to the page. I did have a few friends jump in to support me, which felt amazing. Everyone who was seeing it thought it was great, but if there’s not that many people seeing it…
I burned through over $2k on Facebook advertising trying to get people to support the Indiegogo. Everyone seemed to think it was great, but people didn’t seem to be be as interested in clicking the link to go to an Indiegogo campaign as they were seeing cute pictures. Later, I learned about how I was using Facebook all wrong, and that crowdfunding involved a lot more than just posting your campaign. There’s a lot of marketing and awareness that needs to happen first that I failed to do. The feeling at the end of the campaign was total failure. I didn’t need to feel that way, but burnout, stress, extreme founder-overwork-mania, and overall exhaustion of doing this with a toddler, pregnant wife, and small farm meant I was mentally and emotionally finished. For a time.
I spent the next months in a funk. I’d never been so depressed. I had completely failed. What was the point in building this, anyway? I felt horrible every day. I collapsed in to myself and lashed out at people around me. I didn’t do much work. I had a hard enough time doing anything day to day, but still needed to try and keep up with my kids and the work around the farm.
I had fights with my wife and fights my family. I felt like a total loser, both about Hatchtrack failing and my inability to seem to get anything done or be productive at all. I spent a lot more time with my camera, and photography brought me the most peace and happiness of anything at that time. I considered ditching it all and just doing photography (which I still consider, and may eventually do). I had the opportunity to participate and shoot some amazing events, and doing that work felt peaceful and fulfilling.
My wife was close to a saint during this time. I was not. She played a key role in grounding me and helping me to work through my depression and emotions. The partners of founders are often unsung heroes. I would have never started nor continued Hatchtrack if it was not for the support of my wife.
I don’t remember exactly what started bringing me back, but it happened relatively quickly. During this time of depression, I found myself reshuffling my priorities, reexamining what I believed about life, family, religion, society, industry — really, everything. That time feels like a dark blur, and I know I wasn’t myself or who I wanted to be, but it was necessary for me to go through it to develop into the person I need to be. I could have launched Hatchtrack without that depression, but it was that time where the lessons I’d learned over the past years really had time to sink in. I did have people I could reach out to. I didn’t reach out to them. We usually don’t.
I suppose there’s one thing that’s true and helpful in the Top Ten Startup Tips list. Don’t give up. Stop fearing rejection and failure. Just do it — after thinking very carefully about a good way to do it. Then keep doing it, and adapt as things develop.
I turned a corner. As I was coming out of depression, I felt a new drive in me. I was going to ask for help. I was going to seek mentorship. Maybe I had a brilliant idea, and maybe I could build a perfect product, but there was plenty I had to learn to make this a success. If this product was good, and the community was there, I’d be stupid to quit. Besides. This was fun.
I reached out to the local STARTUP COMMUNITY. I went to meetups, sent emails, and connected to people on Facebook and LinkedIn who might be able to help me with this thing. I felt like I had product in development, but needed to understand more about producing a business. If it had the potential to be big, that meant it’d be in the STARTUP bin, right?
I initially felt like I found people who were honestly desiring to help me succeed. In the end, my local startup world seemed to be filled with vultures. I’m certain there are legitimate folks who really can help, but how do you find them? Everyone claims to be offering valuable services, but I have had a surprisingly difficult time finding real value. Everyone knows unfunded pre-revenue startups don’t have money. If you make the choice to try and extract cash from these founders, you deserve a special place in startup hell (like having to be the founder of a pre-revenue company for the rest of your life). It didn’t help that I live in place that is known to have a poor to nonexistent startup culture. Maybe it’s better if you live in Silicon Valley, but I don’t. I live rural, and need to go to the nearest major town to find any sort of startup community at all, much less local small business organizations.
Not a single connection from these meetups or startup-oriented functions panned out. There were almost a dozen people who seemed extremely promising or qualified to be able to offer advice or connections that would be useful. Some of them just seemed to work at a glacial pace. If you take two weeks to respond to simple questions — you’re not going to be able to keep pace with a driven founder. By the time you get back with your answer, I’ve already found it myself and iterated on it twice. If you offer criticism after criticism, negativity, and can’t seem to provide anything of value, what are you doing in this world? If you offer me only contact after contact, after claiming you are the one who can give me advice, what is it you are offering? I’ve never had success with any of those second-tier contacts either.
I got lucky, or, the Global Consciousness is real and was helping me out. Many months before, someone had connected to me on LinkedIn after seeing Hatchtrack. This turned out to be someone who was willing and able to mentor me through several worlds I was unfamiliar with. In the end, I had a better business plan, explored several other avenues for creating revenue from the exact same business, and financial documents that might actually be acceptable to investors. We have spoken perhaps five hours total, but I’ve learned more in those five hours than I have from all the time spent with startup charlatans.
Now, I have product well into development (though still not finished — but I hear that these things are never really finished). I have a team of amazing people, many working for free (just for now! i promise guys!) because they believe in it, and I’m so grateful for their help. I’ve met amazing people, and learned a ton about chickens in the process — and that’s what it’s really about for me. I have plans to scale the business slowly and organically, and a roadmap for what things look like if we receive funding.
I look back at what happened, and instead of failure and pain, I see a different story. It’s a story that lines up with how a lot of other cool products and companies developed — from passion, and from pain. You start in a garage, not in a a high rise. I learned that I was able to do most of the things I thought I’d need to depend on consultants for, and that I learn a lot more when I figure out how to do something myself instead of paying someone else to do it. That I am more than my past job descriptions — and so are you.
The most important thing was for me to keep moving forward, learning, and allowing for imperfections — especially in myself.
The journey so far has changed me. I know as the journey continues, I’ll keep changing. I embrace this change along with my failures. I’m excited to be forging forward into the unknown.