We’ll start with the announcement.... It is August 18, 2008 and we at Cognomen just launched our first web application called PleaseBringIt. PleaseBringIt is like a really smart, really convenient online sign up sheet. It helps people organize events, specifically it helps coordinate things and people for an event. At PleaseBringIt, you create lists of stuff you need and then people come to that page and sign up for those things. We hope that people like it and use it – it's perfect for folks organizing dinner parties, teachers organizing parent conferences or classroom wish lists, churches organizing volunteers for a community event, etc.
OK SO: that’s the product. Our company developed PleaseBringIt over the course of five months from an idea we had about 1 year ago. Our company is two people; and as of last year, neither of us had ever built an entire web application, ever.
THE EXPOSITION: About 10 months ago, my boss Liza Cunningham, and I traveled to Chicago to attend the first SEED Conference - a joint effort by 37Signals, Coudal Partners, and Segura, Inc. We read about it on Signal vs. Noise (the very popular 37Signals blog) and hoped it would be a great opportunity to expand our thinking as a company. At the time (and still today), we were a small web design company that used a number of 37Signals products – most especially their project collaboration tool called Basecamp. 37Signals represented to us the kind of business and design thinking we both appreciated and emulated. Well encapsulated in their book Getting Real, 37Signals employs a kind of “Emperor has no clothes” approach to conventional design and business wisdom: "Getting Real," they write, "is about skipping all the stuff that represents real (charts, graphs, boxes, arrows, schematics, wireframes, etc.) and actually building the real thing.”
Often, with our clients, we suffered through the conventional wisdom, inflated processes and long meetings. Influenced by Getting Real, but also by David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Timothy Ferriss's Four-Hour Workweek, Merlin Mann's 43Folders and, of course, by our own experiences, we began to question and look at our own business: what we were doing and why we were doing it? We designed websites for other people and were (and still are) pretty good at it; but we questioned how our clients approached their products and the process they used to get ideas into the world. In response, we started forming practices that fit how we thought about design and how to get our own ideas into the world. And that’s when we read about the SEED Conference.
THE LIGHTBULB: I won’t go into depth about the content of the SEED Conference – you should go, you should read Getting Real, you should check out Coudal’s site and Segura’s work – it’s all pretty amazing and inspiring. What I want to get across here is how much the conference fired us up. They really championed the idea of the creative entrepreneur, the person who develops business opportunities out of their own ideas with very little compromise. Starting a business, developing a product or an idea, these things can be done they said; and within the web world, they can be done very well with limited time and money. All the speakers shared their processes for pursuing and then infusing creativity and passion into their own ideas. For Jason Fried, aphorisms like "avoid meetings", "stay small", and "build less" helped 37Signals move from client work to building their own products. Coudal shared stories illustrating how ideas (sometimes bad) always lead to other ideas (sometimes really very good) if you allow yourself to actually act on your ideas. If you have an idea, make time to work on it and then actually work on it. Simple as that – stop wasting time; stop making excuses. Have ideas; work on your ideas; don’t have a meeting about it; do it; go.
THE IDEA: Liza had an idea. From her experiences as the parent of a young child in school, she constantly received messages from the school about things for which they wanted her to sign up: volunteer at the fundraiser; donate school supplies; sign up for a parent conference; give these certain books to the library. Often these notes got lost, resent, tacked to a bulletin board, and possibly acted on. It took extraordinary coordinating power on behalf of the school – getting the notes to parents, following up, coordinating the often overlapping replies – to do something very simple: ask people to sign up for stuff. Sign up sheets are a great piece of technology when everyone shares the same space; not so great when they don’t. The web is a great way for disparate people to coordinate and communicate, but while there are lots of list-making tools on the web, we couldn’t find a tool that worked like a sign-up sheet. We had the entrepreneurial spark: That’s a good idea, we thought. That’s our idea. We should work on that, do it, go.
THE WORK: Like I said earlier, neither of us had ever programmed a web application before this. We designed sites and then sent them to any one of a team of developers with whom we worked. For the PleaseBringIt idea, we thought about contracting out the development work, but eventually realized that for logistical, creative, and financial reasons, we needed to develop it in house. I had always had an interest in development, and so while Liza took over concept and design work, I improbably became lead developer.
We didn’t start work right away, we were too busy with client work. Several months passed before we could carve out time for our idea. In retrospect, there was no other way, of course – as the character Jerry says in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, "Sometimes you have to go a long distance out of your way to come back a short distance, correctly." At the time, however, it felt as if our great idea would go the way of most ideas – unrealized, undone, oh well it would have been cool but oh well.
THE LEAP: To her credit, Liza is a believer in stuff. She believes in the philosophy behind the Getting Real aphorisms – stay small, avoid meetings, don’t do functional specs – and because she actually believes in them, she is not afraid to change or even drop things that don’t fit her philosophy. After a few months delaying our new idea, spending time on projects with big companies, lots of meetings, weapons-grade spec sheets, that’s exactly what she did.
In early spring, Liza said "Let's clear our schedules and work on Please Bring It full-time. For the next couple months, we are going to say 'No'." We moved anything that wasn't critical to a "Stop-doing list". (Just as important as your to-do list; also this ties in with Merlin Mann’s Qualified Yes.) The company had just enough money in the bank for 3 months of focused time. We needed to give full attention to our idea if we were going to get anywhere on it.
This is perhaps the most challenging thing any small business-owner can do and it’s what, I think, defines the entrepreneur from the rest of us: turn away from the more steady cash flow towards the path of the great idea. By removing the net, we forced our hand and solidified a goal: Do whatever it takes to get the product out in a couple of months.
WHAT IT TAKES TO GET THE PRODUCT OUT IN A COUPLE OF MONTHS: development is a process of filling in holes, of working backwards. We had our goal – the product – but were unsure of how to get to that goal. Which is to say, we had a bunch of holes in our knowledge and experience that needed filling. Some holes we could see, most holes we could not see. We simply picked the largest hole at the time and started shoveling stuff into it.
Our largest hole was quite clearly the development. While I had spent the winter reading up on PHP and even had a couple of simple sites under my belt, we knew this wouldn’t be enough. While I had grown somewhat confident doing front-end development (HTML, CSS, and the like), the back-end was more opaque. After doing some research, and reflecting on my experience picking through those PHP thickets, we decided to build the application in Ruby on Rails. (Obviously, our decision was influenced by the fact that Ruby on Rails came out of 37Signals and is a development framework imbued with the Getting Real philosophy.) Once we had identified the name of our first hole – Ruby on Rails – we had to find someone to fill it.
We went to a friend of ours with whom we had worked in the past, a real database whiz. He had recently started working with Rails and was willing to spend some time working with us. With him on board, it seemed like we had all the bases confidently covered (design, back-end, front-end) and our goal of getting the product out in a few months felt realistic and close.
After a few weeks, however, our friend had to bow out – he was already over-committed and he simply couldn’t give us the amount of time he originally thought. He had created a basic skeleton for the application, but it needed to be fleshed out, exercised, put together. We faced a decision: do we look for another developer? Do we back-burner the project (where it would most likely stay forever)? Here, we made what I think is another essential entrepreneurial move: put your head down, ignore your doubts, go. We decided to figure it out ourselves.
Liza signed me up to take a five-day intensive Ruby on Rails course at the Big Nerd Ranch just outside of Atlanta. I’ll spare you the details of the course; suffice it to say here that the instructor, Charles Brian Quinn of Highgroove Studios, stuffed a lot of information into our brains. And while a lot of it jumped right back out, enough stuck so that when I returned, Liza and I could keep moving forward.
Holes filled, more opened up. We moved forward by moving backward, filling in the holes on the path to our goal. We honed our vision, getting clear on the really important user-experience questions, on just what our product did: users create lists; they send those lists to people; those people sign up for things. Within each action, we discussed all the small details that either made the product work or made it confusing.
All the while, we worked in a circle: Liza sent me a rough design, I would create a crude working model, she would rethink the design based on how the model worked, and so on. Where my Rails skills stumbled, Liza shored them up with executable design solutions. We kept the development moving quickly, allowing design and development to grow parallel to each other.
About a month after I returned from Big Nerd Ranch, we were given a gift that highlights another important part of the entrepreneurial experience: don’t be afraid to get lucky. Through a friend, we learned that two extremely skilled developers worked just around the corner from us, and that we should call on them when we had questions. We developed a work trade relationship (we would design their project, they would help with ours); when things got too hairy for me (i.e. SSL integration, credit-card processing, CRON jobs), I called on them; each time they pulled me up out of the weeds with a generosity that can only be called angelic.
LAUNCH: Chalk it up to inexperience, but we didn’t really have a launch day. Instead, we seemed to launch slowly over a couple of weeks. We had a working copy roughly tested and ready to go live, but deployment was the not sweet snapping tape at the finish line. Instead, it was as if we reached where the finish line was supposed to be and told we had to build it ourselves. It came with it’s own set of holes (and time delays we couldn't have anticipated). So we filled them just as we had the previous ones: Head down, figure it out, just go.
And then, one day recently, there weren’t any immediate holes to fill. PleaseBringIt had launched and it wasn't broken. There were plenty of divots definitely, but nothing you couldn’t walk on without twisting an ankle. And so, after many months of head down shoveling, we stopped, looked up, and realized we were on the other side of the gate. We had developed our idea; it was in the world, and other people could actually use it.
It was nearly a year ago that Liza and I attended the SEED conference. That sounds so recent when I write it. It has not very felt short – as no intense time period does – but I realize that it is really short. And that’s what I want to say to you: it’s not unrealistic to do what they say at the SEED conference, and it’s not that far off. We started with little knowledge and no experience doing what we ended up doing: if you have an idea, and you like that idea, make time to work on it and then actually work on it. Simple as that – stop wasting time; have ideas; work on ideas; fill in holes; don’t have a meeting about it; do it; go.