The No-BS Story Of How Our Startup Started Up (And The 5 Rules)
Everyone wants to be the one-stop-shop of everything. The Airbnb of their industry. Whatever. At this point, that kind of talk is just that — talk. 99% of successful companies are built on a solid foundation of caffeine, bad decisions, costly mistakes, and an irrational unwillingness to quit. This is a story about how UpLaunch came to be, and all the crappy ideas and dumb-luck successes that led us to actually becoming a legitimate software company.
I started a company called Run Your Gym in 2013, and it was just me. I was building websites for affiliate gyms. My buddy Jake, who is an UpLaunch co-founder and our Partner Director, had a gym in Gettysburg that he was opening and needed a website, so I hooked him up — and the (not so novel) idea was born.
I knocked out a few websites, met some cool people, but it was never more than a side hustle. That is, until this one time Jake and I had breakfast.
He wanted some changes to his website, and we sat down to go over them. That conversation led to some discussion about a greater vision — a vision where we were going to launch this massive venture that would provide web design services, consulting, business systems automation, and e-learning courses for gym owners. The good ol’ “four pronged approach” — what could go wrong? We were going to “kill it”.
Fast forward a few months, and we had lots of plans, lots of ideas, and jack shit for execution. Maybe — just maybe — two people trying to launch a web design company that also provided one on one consulting that also provided automated business systems that also wanted to build out a suite of e-learning courses was too much?
Yeah. Too much.
Rule #1: If you try and do everything, you’ll accomplish precisely nothing. Learned that one the hard way.
So we pared down. Websites? I was an alright web designer, but nowhere near the best — and there were already a handful of top notch web design shops catering towards affiliate gyms. So we dropped it.
Consulting? There are about a half dozen solid affiliate gym focused business mentors, and hundreds more outside of that industry. They all do a great job helping people get their businesses squared away, and we decided to ask ourselves if it would be better to have those consultants as potential partners or as competition. There went the consulting idea.
Then we got to the business systems automation. There HAD to be a solid solution out there for people to automate their funnels and intake process, communicate with their members, and build business systems, right? I mean, RIGHT??
I think we’re on to something now.
It was like a 10 year old at the McDonald’s soda station. Start with half a cup of membership management software, add a dash of MailChimp, a little Google Forms, a shot of Excel, and top it off with a bunch of hopes and prayers…
Yeah, we WERE on to something.
Sure, there’s software out there if you want to take the time to build all your own campaigns, or hire someone to build them for you. But there wasn’t anything out there for someone with some killer marketing campaigns to build them, productize them, and deploy them to thousands of gym owners without a two month long on boarding process.
This is supposed to be the part where we’re like “Yeah bro, I coded some shit and Jake sold it to every gym on Earth bro, and that’s how we’re the most viral unicorn Silicon-Vally superstar app ever bro!”
Give me a break. Anyone who thinks that an overnight success is an actual thing just didn’t stay up fucking late enough to see all the work getting done.
We hooked up with one of the fitness business mentors that we knew (What’s up Coop!) and Jake went on his podcast to talk about a program that he had run at his gym to get people off the couch. We wanted to use it as a springboard to build up some interest about our software that we were going to create (no big deal, right?) — so we decided to give the content for the program away, and sell an automated version of it for a hundred bucks.
Maybe we would sell ten or twenty of these automations, which was a completely manual process for me to set up — create a landing page on a WordPress Multisite installation, link up 3 other apps using Zapier integrations, insert logos, addresses, branding information into the content — you know, the whole “do stuff that doesn’t scale when you’re small” philosophy.
Podcast went live Monday morning. By lunch we had sold a half dozen. I knew right there, halfway through my turkey sandwich, that we were a) screwed, and b) going to eventually be super successful.
Day 2 — we had our 20. To make things better, after we on-boarded those 20, one of the key programs we were using to power the automations had a massive bug and all 20 sequences hung up for no good reason. Not going to name names, but it happened on Christmas Eve, which made it extra convenient.
I picked a new program to switch everyone over to, recruited a few of my buddies to help, taught them how all the apps worked, wrote up a 60 point checklist of how to launch an automation, and we made it happen. Got all the accounts migrated over in the middle of a campaign with no data loss and only a few hiccups. First big win.
Day 10 — we had 50. Lots more work.
Day 21 -we had 80, and tripled the price to make it stop. It didn’t, but it did slow down.
We were overrun. We made a little money (but not nearly enough). We were tired. But we didn’t fail, and most importantly:
Rule #2: Validate the market before you make big moves. Short term chaos is preferable over long, expensive mistakes.
We kept rolling. We captured pre-sales for this software that, at this point, didn’t even exist yet. We didn’t charge people, but we did authorize the CC charge and have them on a waiting list (thanks to Celery for making that easy).
We decided it was time to create an MVP. I’m not here to bullshit you, we didn’t call it that because I didn’t even know what an MVP was unless we were talking about sports. Minimum Viable Product, as I would soon find out.
It was really insane. We onboarded 5 people. Each onboarding process took about 30 days and required a checklist to be completed that was about 200 steps long. More WordPress, lots more Zapier, along with Unbounce, InfusionSoft, Knack, duct tape, popsicle sticks…it was “Frankenstein” as we called it. But it worked. We built funnels, we generated our first 5 subscriptions (legit recurring revenue, wahoo!), and people liked it. They also liked the content that shipped with the platform, and our campaigns were helping them get business.
Rule 3: Even if you validate that the market wants what you have, make sure they’ll actually pay money for it.
We went through a few ideas and trial runs at this point. We toyed with the idea of hiring a high-dollar software company to build the app for us, and actually came really close to going down that path. We instead pivoted at the last minute and partnered up with a large company who would use some existing technology to do the heavy lifting on the backend, leaving us to build our campaigns on top of it.
We met some incredible people at that company, built some really cool relationships, and went full steam ahead. And although we learned a ton and were finally able to onboard a few dozen gyms, it still just wasn’t quite right.
We needed to build OUR vision. No matter what the cost (dollars, time, effort, etc), we were determined to build the software that we had discussed with our clients. The software we saw in our heads when we closed our eyes. We had to do it ourselves.
Lots of people say that companies without technical co-founders have a pretty bad chance of making it. I see why. So I became a technical co-founder. I hit up a Rails bootcamp (what up Firehose Project!!) and attacked it like a rabid animal. I went in there with one goal — to learn how to build our software. I didn’t want theory, I didn’t want to learn how to be some idealistic coder who argues about tabs vs. spaces…I needed to make this thing come to life. And I did.
Lucky for me, I also asked for help. I knew that our platform wasn’t the typical “first app” that people create, and also knew that I couldn’t effectively be the only person writing code and also be the CEO. I went into our weekly office hours meeting and asked a few questions…then I just dropped it: “I’ve got some pretty cool stuff going on if anyone wants to jam with me.”
30 minutes later, I was pair programming with the guy who would become UpLaunch employee #1.
Rule 4: Your ego is stupid. Ignore it. Ask for help, build a team, and do everything you can to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room.
So we coded for a few months. Nonstop. I thought I was kicking ass at building this app until our newly-minted Lead Developer pretty much stomped my face into the ground with the speed at which he could write code. That’s when I developed a brand new skill set as a product manager — if I couldn’t plan the sprints, write the user stories, and figure out what would make it into our initial release and what wouldn’t, I’d be wasting an incredible resource. So I got my shit together, planned it out, and we made it happen.
As we built out our platform, it became apparent to us that this was going to be much bigger than just gyms. We had all the building blocks — a completely innovative way to handle task management (that nobody in the industry had thought of), native appointment booking, full CRM functionality, bulk email and SMS capabilities…we could scale this thing big time.
That’s what spawned the partner model, and what put the Run Your Gym brand to bed. We brought in a talented marketer (Partner #1) that we knew from the fitness industry to take over creating the campaigns, handle the direct sales, and support for his customers — essentially building his business on top of ours — which let us focus solely on helping him and building the platform itself.
That’s a process that can be replicated. Another partner, another industry. Another 5 partners, another 5 industries.
I don’t mind being transparent — we gave up a large percentage of our revenue in exchange for that ability to scale. Lucky for us, we picked the right partner (hey Mike!) and we’re developing a close-knit and mutually beneficial relationship — and will still be able to help a ton of gyms in the process.
Rule 5: Don’t be SCARED. Take a smaller slice of the pie and instead focus on making the pie itself as huge as you possibly can. Run your business based on abundance instead of scarcity.
We talked about names for a while, and found UpLaunch — I cold-emailed the guy who owned the domain and social handles and he agreed to sell it to us — huge lucky break there. I promised him that we would do great things with the brand, and I think we’ll fulfill that promise.
So now, we’re here. We’re going to market with our first offering for gyms at the end of August, and will be starting the search for our second partner sometime before the year’s end. The platform is rock solid, doing things that nobody’s been able to pull off yet, and we’re still hustling our asses off to make it happen — just as hard as we were hustling on that one Christmas when everything broke.
No, we haven’t “made it” yet. We’re not getting invited to our favorite podcasts yet (but if anyone wants to hook us up with Pat Flynn from SPI or Guy Raz from How I Built This, feel free), and we’re not taking selfies in our Ferraris (nor will we ever be…gross). We’re just a bunch of hardworking dudes who are getting ready to hit the market with something awesome.
But even to make it to this point, it’s been a crazy journey. This is the part that most people view as the starting line: launching a product. That’s true in a lot of ways, but the people who have done this before realize that it’s not just an idea and a week of coding — it’s a long process that’s taken us almost four years to complete.
But here we are. No more day jobs, no more side hustles. 100% UpLaunch, all day, every day. And we’re looking forward to showing the world what we can do.
Got a cool story about your startup, product, business, or something else? Drop it in the comments, cause I love talking with people and I get lonely easily ;)