One Life

May 3, 2011


On Saturday, I proposed on a sailboat on Bainbridge Island. When I started searching for a boat, the task seemed daunting, but a quick search on airbnb didn’t just locate a boat – it yielded a sailboat bed & breakfast. How romantic is that? I found the perfect restaurant for the night using yelp, and emailed with the chef to arrange a special desert. A simple update to my Facebook relationship status saved me hours of phone calls, allowing me to turn off my phone and enjoy quality time with my new fiancé. The internet didn’t just help me with my proposal: I met my fiancé on match.com.

The experience made me think about who I’d be without the internet. In college, almost all of my plans were made by instant message – I’ve never liked using the phone, and I was lucky enough to live in the first generation that could get away without it. I found my first job out of college, at a startup in New York City, through craigslist (along with a sublet, an apartment, furniture and a mover).   I even found my job at Microsoft through craigslist. The job was in internet advertising.

The internet has shaped my life as far back as I remember. As a shy teenager trying to figure out life, I realized I probably wasn’t the only one, so I started a website called Teen World where I gave others advice. Over time, it grew into an interactive community for young adults called CheekFreak. Around 1,000 users visited each week to escape the real world and be themselves, and it was a huge part of my identity. I only made a few hundred dollars before I went to college and shut it down, but I don’t regret all the work. I still smile when I read emails from visitors, including several who said they were considering suicide before visiting.

When you get knee deep in your startup, you get lost in topics like fundraising, usability and dashboards. But let’s not forget why we’re really here: to shape lives. While many think task management is a boring subject, I’m excited by how it directly ties to people’s quality of life. What if I can increase your free time? What if I can help you feel better at the end of the day? The spark that gives birth to most startups is a selfless realization that you can help others. Making it sustainable is secondary, and it’s only here that most fail.

When you read that 90% of startups fail, remember that the definition is strictly financial. Don’t forget that you originally set out to help people. You’re only a true failure if you don’t improve 1 user’s life. Of the 90% of “failed” startups, I wonder how many founders consider themselves failures. I wonder how many have a letter from a user that still makes them smile. I wonder how many are proud of the lives they shaped. And I wonder how many wouldn’t say their startup shaped them.

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Did You Grow Last Year?

January 10, 2011

I left Microsoft to embark on a one year experiment. 12 months later, much is still up in the air. I thought we could launch a product within a few months, and either gain traction or fail by the end of the year. While LazyMeter is almost in beta, it’s clearly taken longer than planned. This week, a few friends naturally asked how I feel about the first year of my experiment, and whether I have any regrets.

Life is good. I’m thrilled with the product we’re building, our LLC had significant revenue from consulting, and for the first time in recent memory, I can say I’ve grown. I’ve left my comfort zone, networking and returning to code, and I’ve rediscovered things I love to do like writing. This was very different than the years I spent distracted by things like salary, levels and promotions that now feel meaningless. While I couldn’t figure out the source of my dissatisfaction at Microsoft, I now realize I had to leave because I was waiting instead of growing. Looking back on the past year, I’m not upset with the opportunity cost, or things taking longer than planned. I’m thrilled that I no longer feel stuck and have made steps in the right direction. When I look to the future, I have countless options. I’ve never been closer to where I want to be, and I’m figuring out where I want to be at the same time. Leaving Microsoft to found a startup has been nothing short of a successful journey, no matter where I end up.

A critical component of happiness is continual growth. We should always try to make progress towards our goals. You don’t need to achieve your goal, but you do need to move towards it, even if just turning in its direction. While it’s easy to dream big for the future, these dreams are often intimidating, so it’s no surprise that so many New Year’s resolutions are abandoned. Each New Year’s, we look to the future, but we should start with the past. Specifically, we should ask ourselves whether we grew. Meaningful New Year’s resolutions are in response to this question.
This New Years, I suggest you resolve to grow. It’s fine if our New Year’s resolutions are lofty and unrealistic.  Dream big.  What really matters is whether we make positive progress towards our goals. If you’re not proud of your progress – if you feel stuck – then this is the year to make a change. I really enjoyed Marcello’s Open Letter to the Seattle Startup Community because it both sets goals for 2011, and appreciates the progress made so far towards the vision – have you made the same analysis for your life this year?

Entrepreneur? Just Make Something

November 21, 2010

My weekly post from Seattle 2.0 (overwhelmed by the response so far!).

A startup begins with uncertainty. From idea to launch you will have breakthroughs and setbacks, and you will often question yourself. You will put a lot on the line, and the process will take longer than you expect. But there’s a moment when the fears subside, when you can see the light on the other end of the tunnel – it’s when you use your product for the first time.

Nothing beats the feeling of using your own product – experiencing your idea turned into reality. Think of the first time you used the products that you use on a daily basis. We all try and reject a lot of betas, but sometimes you get to use products like Facebook or Google for the first time. These products immediately scream “This is the future.  You need this. Use it.” It’s truly exciting to find a new product you will use every day. Now imagine that feeling for something you’ve created.

The most fulfilling day since I left Microsoft was when I used LazyMeter, my startup’s product, for the first time. I immediately lost all doubts about the effort and risks.  There’s a unique satisfaction that comes from making something; I have seen a vision come to life, and even if no one uses it I have solved a pain point in my own life. No matter what happens from here on, I am happy to have built something.

Since leaving Microsoft, I’ve realized how important creativity is in my life. This doesn’t just apply to startups. If I have to go back to a full-time job, I will make sure that I continue to create. No longer void of energy after a day’s work, I’ve written code, made homemade wine and countless meals, learned guitar, and written posts like this one. In this culture of consumption, I find it fascinating how much satisfaction I get from something as simple as preparing a meal.

The tie that binds entrepreneurs is an innate need to create something instead of just consume. When denied this need, we feel empty. This is why we’ll put so much on the line, why we’ll get right back up again when we fail, and it’s also why the startup community is so supportive. The good news is that anyone can make something, whatever situation they’re in.

Whether or not you are doing a startup, I ask you: What have you made lately? And what will you make next?

 


From Microsoft To Startup: Recognizing The Right Idea, and Getting Started

September 23, 2010

I am now a regular contributor to Seattle 2.0.  Here is my first post published yesterday.

One year ago, I walked into StartupDay 2009 with one question: at what point should I quit my secure job at Microsoft to work full-time on my startup? So of course Hillel Cooperman of Jackson Fish Market, the first speaker of the day, almost immediately said “don’t quit your day job”.

For the first time at StartupDay, I met successful entrepreneurs who had gone through what I was beginning, and their advice was priceless. For example, I learned there were options other than full-time job and full-time startup (e.g. consulting part-time).

I’ll never forget how StartupDay helped me rationally approach the decision to pursue my big idea and set more achievable goals. During lunch T.A. McCann, CEO of Gist, advised me not to quit my job before almost everyone I pitched my project to liked it. Suddenly I had an attainable goal to get me to the next step: fine-tune the idea first. Three months later, almost everyone we spoke to wanted to use our product, and we were ready to hit the ground running.

Beginning is the Hardest Part

The idea for LazyMeter came in June 2009. While I have business ideas every day, this one would not leave my mind, even when I tried to forget about it. I was at Microsoft for over 4 years, and I was comfortable. It was a recession and my colleagues at Microsoft were being laid off. My job was very secure and I wanted to quit? Go figure.

I met my technical co-founder at the August 2009 Startup Weekend. We were both passionate about solving the task management problem, and we went rogue to work on our unofficial project. The concept grew on nights and weekends and soon it became clear we would need to dedicate ourselves full-time to succeed. A business analyst at Microsoft, I naturally considered everything that could go wrong. I could run out of money. I could have a health problem and go bankrupt. My next big promotion was just around the corner. You get the point.

Worst Case Scenario vs. Potential Benefits

In the end, my analysis revealed the potential benefits greatly outweighed the risks. Realistically, the worst-case scenario was that I would have to get another job. However, now I would have built a product from scratch, which could mean finding a job I enjoyed more or paid a higher salary.

At age 27, this was the time to take risks. Everyone I looked up to professionally had taken a major risk in their career; most, even at Microsoft, had been involved in a startup. I also applied the regret minimization framework that I learned about at StartupDay, and it was suddenly a no-brainer.

Things Work Out

In January, I wrote a letter of resignation and clicked send. I am now a self-employed entrepreneur. My startup, LazyMeter.com, is near beta testing. I own an LLC with income from consulting. You’ve probably never heard of me, I haven’t received funding, and I’m living off a fraction of what I made at Microsoft, yet my quality of life and satisfaction have never been higher. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Joining Seattle 2.0 As A Regular Contributor

I find it fitting that I’m submitting my first regular contribution to Seattle 2.0 this week, days before StartupDay 2010. Looking back on how I walked into the conference a year ago, and how I’ll walk in on Saturday, is extremely satisfying. My transition is still in its early days, and I look forward to updating you on my journey and lessons learned.


Where in the World is Aaron Franklin?

September 10, 2010

I’m finally back in Seattle for more than a week.  Today I attended the first networking event I’ve been to in months, and was pleased to run into recognizable faces asking me about LazyMeter, why I stopped blogging, and why I had a beard.  To the naked eye it may have appeared as if I’d gone insane, but actually I was just busy and traveling a lot.

When I started LazyMeter, a lot of people said it would take longer than planned – about a year to get most projects off the ground.  I thought 3-6 months would be plenty of time, but now that I’m approaching 9 months I know they were right.  The good news is that while we don’t yet have a working product, we’ve nailed the design and are very much on track to deliver what we set out to build.

The common advice for startups is to rapidly release and iterate.  This makes sense for startups inventing a new type of product, but we felt that task management was different because so many products were already on the market.  Every time I read of a new revolutionary task management application, I get excited only to find that it’s just as time-intensive, manual, and overwhelming as the ones before it.  After scrapping multiple designs, the LazyMeter team spent a week locked in an apartment in Boston (fortunately air-conditioned), and we finally found the solution for the problem we set out to solve.  The solution is simple, but powerful, and unlike anything that has come before it.  Development is underway, and I can’t wait to share a product that not only helps the user keep track of their to-do’s (the easy part), but also helps the user work through them.  Taking the time to build the right product was the right choice for our project, and I’m thankful we didn’t rush out something that wasn’t fully baked.

Another common question I get asked is “how the heck are you doing this?”.  As in not starving and living in a tent.  We’ve been consulting, building a brand, web presence, and marketing strategy from scratch.  The experience has been very valuable; in addition to income, it also builds a portfolio should we need to make additional income, and we made some great connections through the project.  When the contract expired, I was offered the title Director of Marketing to stay on.  Consulting was a good fit for us because I had extra time while the product was being built.  It was distracting from our primary project, but then again so is raising money and dealing with investors.  We are still in business and own 100% of our equity after 9 months.

Other than Boston, I did quite a bit of traveling this summer, some for good reasons and some for bad.  Overall, I consider myself lucky to have been in a situation where I had the freedom to be where I needed to be.  I traveled to Florida in May when my grandfather got ill.  I was able to visit him for a full week and be there for my grandmother and mother.  The doctor told us to say our goodbyes, but after days of sleep he made a miraculous recovery.  When I walked into the hospital room that morning, he looked me in the eyes and said “how is the business?”.  That’s my grandfather, an entrepreneur whose mind is always at work.  I told him we were making progress but it was taking longer than expected.  “Forget about money,” he said as if he read my mind, “do what you know is right and the money will come.”  I will never forget how my grandfather inspired me to become an entrepreneur, and I will never forget this advice which told me he had gone through exactly what I am going through now.  So much of this journey involves overcoming fear and following a gut feeling; if it worked for him multiple times, I know it can work for me as well.  Unfortunately his recovery did not last long; a week later I was watching the sun set from a bluff on whidbey island and the moment the sun hit the horizon my phone rang with news he had passed away.  I flew to Cleveland the next morning to be with my family.

My other trips were for better reasons. My girlfriend works in a local school district and had the summer off, and since I had the freedom to work remotely anywhere, we decided to take advantage of an opportunity we might never have again.  Our first trip was to Sitka, Alaska for 10 days to visit some of her friends.  Sitka was absolutely beautiful – I have never seen so much pure nature – but my favorite part was the relaxed pace of life.  Early in the trip, we went fishing and caught enough salmon to eat for the whole week (baked, fried, cakes, smoked).  We took a boat trip about an hour from the city to a cabin near hot springs; the cabin was double-booked so we camped instead.  Along the way we saw humpback whales, sea lions, and seals (no bears on this trip).  Our second trip was to the Oregon coast for a week when my family visited.  We rented a nice house in Rockaway Beach and explored the beautiful coast.  Our third and final trip was to Los Cabos, Mexico.  It was nice to be warm for a week, and great to return to Mexico (I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico for three months during college and love the country).  Highlights of the trip included racing a $15 million America’s Cup sailboat, a desert safari tour featuring a tequila tasting and a traditional Mexican meal on the pacific coast, and snorkeling atop a school of thousands of fish in Cabo Pulmo.  In case you’re wondering how I paid for all this, these trips were actually very affordable – if I could only make money helping people get good deals.

So that’s where I’ve been, why I’ve been quiet, and why I have a beard.  In closing, I must say it’s good to be home.  There’s something surreal about being in Seattle this upcoming weekend, and the next weekend, and the next.  I have gotten travel out of my system and am ready to work and do whatever it takes to get wherever it is I’m going.  The adventure continues.


Focus: You Can’t Multi-Passion

May 25, 2010

Today I entered an office building for the first time in months.  As I approached the building, I saw the standard group of smokers gathered near the entryway.  They stood shivering in their business casual collared shirts and slacks.  While talking and puffing, they all stared in one direction as if dreaming they had a reason to venture further from their desks.  In the lobby was a Starbucks; a middle-aged man leaned against the single pane of glass like an aging fish in a pet store that didn’t stand a chance of escape.  I shared an elevator with two cheerful and energetic employees returning from an early lunch.  One complained about a 5PM meeting.  The other mentioned a possible promotion.  In my jeans and a short-sleeve polo shirt, I felt like a visitor from another world.

It’s natural over time to take a good thing for granted.  This simple walk into a building and elevator ride was a slap in the face.  “There’s no way in hell I can go back,” I thought.

Recently, I started taking my freedom for granted, and I lost focus.  This week I have been returning my full attention to LazyMeter after 6 weeks focused primarily on consulting.  While I have absolutely enjoyed working 20 hours a week as a consultant, it was more distracting than I expected.  I have a newfound appreciation for consultants.  Twenty hours a week is not as simple as it sounds.  The problem is it’s almost impossible to set aside specific working hours, as customers may request things at any time of the day.  20 hours a week of billable hours is also very different than 40 hours at an office complete with meetings, breaks and distractions.  While it has been a very rewarding experience, I now understand why consultants charge such high rates.  It’s a lot of work to manage customers and exceed their expectations, and simple projects can easily drag on.  The idea of consulting was to expand the amount of time available to develop LazyMeter.  But in reality, we made about 1 month of living expenses while falling at least a month behind in development.  We also made valuable connections, built our portfolios, and contributed to a promising new business – but was that the best use of our time?

Startup lesson: don’t lose focus. There are so many events, conferences, and opportunities like consulting out there.  But ultimately, a startup is about having a product.  Until you have a working product, development should be 99% of your focus.  As soon as I realized this, I cut down on blogging and networking.  And since this change, we have made huge progress on our product.  If you do take on another project such as a consulting, be sure to be very specific about what time you will spend on each project.

Some people are very effective at managing multiple large projects.  I’m not.  I only work on projects that I feel passionate about.  It turns out it’s very difficult to be passionate about two things at once.  Based on my commitment to consulting, I let my passion shift to another project at the expense of my own.  It’s the same reason I couldn’t develop LazyMeter while still at Microsoft.  This week I spoke to a friend at Microsoft who was also starting a business when I left.  He said “I’ve learned that it is impossible to work on your own company while working full time. All it did was make me do a shitty job on both.”  I asked him why he couldn’t do both, and he responded that Microsoft is too demanding.  This may be partially true, but I wonder if the difference between people that can work on the side and those that can’t is how they are driven by passion.  Those who work for passion will always struggle to focus on multiple projects because they’ll always feel like one or the other is being cheated of its true potential.

Fortunately, the consulting work is slowing down and we have a very satisfied client.  As I’ve turned my attention back to LazyMeter, my passion has returned in full force.  And thanks to a visit to an office building today, I won’t be taking my freedom for granted again.  It’s easy to feel free when you are your own boss.  But until LazyMeter is released, I’m not free at all – the clock is ticking.


Facebook F8: A San Francisco Treat

April 27, 2010

Last week I traveled to San Francisco for the first time since co-founding LazyMeter.  It was difficult to justify a business trip, but I decided Facebook’s F8 would be a good networking opportunity.  I can now say with confidence that the trip was well worth the investment.

Highlights of my trip included:

  • Being in a room full of people who have succeeded doing what I’m trying to do.  While I’ve heard and read that it can be done, this was the first time I really got to see it firsthand.  I was shocked by how young and happy these hackers were.  I couldn’t help but compare the Facebook crowd to the Microsoft crowd.  At Microsoft there was an attitude that young employees need to slowly work their way up the ranks; at Facebook, the young employees are running the show – and very effectively.
  • I created connections with other entrepreneurs.  Overall, entrepreneurs I spoke to seemed much more enthusiastic about LazyMeter than the ones in Seattle.  They instantly understood what we were building, and gave me instant feedback on the solution they want to see.
  • I met Dave McClure.  He’s following me on twitter.  This alone was worth the trip.
  • Between the F8 conference and after-party, I ended up at a bar with the 10 or so top leaders of and investors in Facebook, including Mark Zuckerberg.  For the first time, I felt like I was a part of the startup community.  Seeming as I never received a tab, I think they bought me dinner too – so thanks Mark.
  • Seeing Luke Shepard, good friend and Facebook engineer, speak at the conference.  It’s amazing to see people find themselves, and seeing it first-hand only makes me more driven to succeed.  Special thanks to Luke for urging me to come, and for putting me up for the week.

Also last week, LazyMeter was mentioned in a blog post by Brad Feld.  With more and more attention on LazyMeter, I’m gaining confidence that we have the connections we’ll need to be successful.  We just need the product.  With more people watching us comes more pressure to deliver.  Fortunately, we are progressing quickly.

Do I feel the need to move to San Francisco?  Look for my answer in tomorrow’s post.