Marc: “Do you know the best thing about startups?”
Marc: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.”A famous conversation between Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreesen of Andreesen Horowitz.
It’s been four and a half months since a lunch meeting that changed the course of Sage from idea to realization. The amount of ground I’ve covered in the startup world in a few short months has absolutely astounded me. The strong relationships I’ve built in a short time because of shared blood, sweat, and tears are like none other that I’ve seen in my 20-year career in information technology. Founding a startup is hard. It’s a constant struggle. You’re always either overwhelmed or teetering on the edge of being overwhelmed. Having that shared experience with other founders just seems to knock down emotional walls.
The age-old (sage, if you’ll pardon a pun) advice about seizing an opportunity when it presents itself never goes out of style. Six months ago, I had that opportunity present itself to me in the form of a new introduction, Jonathan Katz. Before I get to that, let me finish the backstory of how I came to meet him.
After joining Philly Startup Leaders (PSL), via their Slack channel, I began to read through and post a few comments here and there. I was mostly getting my feet wet but also trying to establish relationships with new and interesting people. The startup world, like many other walks of life, is all about relationships. People help people they like and respect. It’s not rocket science, but you sure would think it was for some people. However, you can’t build those relationships until you put yourself out there, show a little vulnerability, and do the leg work to strike up a conversation.
Within a couple of weeks of joining PSL, I’d managed to have a few useful back and forth discussions on my startup and those of other founders. But an opportunity to meet more founders opened up when one of the PSL team members posted a call for committee members for PSL’s 1MillionCups (1MC) chapter. I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, but it seemed like a way to meet other founders, exchange ideas, and grow. So I jumped at the chance. Turns out that 1MC was just the next step I needed. 1MC was started by the Kaufman foundation as a way to assist founders and introduce them to other entrepreneurs and startup founders. It’s a monthly meeting where two startups each spend about 30 minutes pitching their startup to a gathered audience, and then open the floor up for questions, comments, suggestions, etc. The meeting’s purpose is to help founders connect with others, hone their messaging, and accelerate their learning curves.
As it turned out, joining the committee would lead to my introduction to Jonathan Katz and open the door I needed to get Sage off the ground. Jonathan’s company, Jove, was one of the presenters at my first 1MC meeting in February 2020. The two of us ended up chatting after the meeting, and I talked with him about Sage, the advice platform and knowledge marketplace I was working on. He was intrigued, and we decided to meet for lunch.
Finding the Nugget in Any Conversation
Every conversation is an opportunity for something. The key is recognizing it when it slaps you in the face. My lunch was just that sort of slap. Jonathan ended up bringing Josh Evans, one of his co-founders, along with him. Josh was great and came across as one of those guys that you wanted around when the servers all crashed at 3 a.m., bringing down your entire web backend. If the s**t hit the fan, Josh could clearly fix it.
The three of us spent the next 30 min talking through my Sage concept. I laid out the ideas, my early plans, the perceived roadblocks that had kept me from getting any real traction, and everything in between. The conversation was proceeding at breakneck speed. The nearby clientele at Panera waiting to get their Sierra Turkey sandwiches and broccoli cheddar soup were probably just rolling their eyes at us. Another bunch of nerds from Penn trying to solve world hunger. Spoiler alert, neither Jonathan nor I went to Penn. Josh did, as I learned towards the end of the discussion. My 30-second evaluation of him above was clearly spot-on.
I mostly just listened as Jonathan and Josh peppered me with questions. At one point, Jonathan looks at me and says, “so how can we help?” How can you help? I thought this discussion was the help. We were exchanging ideas, picking holes in arguments and concepts, pontificating on how my idea might work. But I’d done this before. I’d done it so many times with so many friends and advisors that I’d lost count. You want to know how much actual movement I’d gotten from those many, many, many discussions? Zero! Zilch! Nada! I was still at the same place I was six years ago.
As a founder, when someone asks "how can I help?", stop, pause, internalize the question, and think of 1 or 2 asks they can help you with. They want to help you. You invariably need help. Let them!!
But that question… “how can we help?” That’s the pivotal question. That is the question I’ve heard so many times now as I’ve gotten more involved with founders and startup communities these last few years. It never really clicked until someone asked me how they could help me with my own startup.
I’ve had people ask me how they could help in a general business environment. But I rarely take them up on it. It usually feels like you’re putting someone out and should just take care of the problem yourself. This time, though, I NEEDED help–and I finally knew it. When he said those words to me, something just clicked. I looked at him and said, I need to find some developers. It’s clear I can’t do this on my own. Maybe I have the technical chops to learn how to do this in about six months if I didn’t have a wife, kids, and a career I’m passionate about. But that’s not my world. I’m 44. I bring a lot to the table when it comes to experience, relationships, big picture thinking, sales knowledge, customer priorities, and the like. What I don’t bring to the table is unlimited time. We had just welcomed our second daughter to the world in January. I was a busy father of two.
Jonathan proceeded to tell me about a developer he’d worked with from Bangladesh, named Chayan Biswas. Chayan had helped him put together a couple of smaller websites. That concerned me a bit, as Sage was going to be a major undertaking. He wasn’t sure if Chayan had the requisite skill set to tackle the project, but he also said it doesn’t hurt to have a conversation. I agreed. That was Thursday, March 5th. Chayan would soon become my lead web developer and a critical component of my design team.
Our timing for this intro coincided with some big lifestyle upheavals. The world was about to change dramatically with the Covid-19 pandemic. We may have just begun to comprehend all the negatives that will come from the spread of the coronavirus. However, it did contribute to more free time on my schedule as daily commutes were gone, multiple-day business trips were on indefinite hold, and my opportunity to add more hours in the day to both family time, as well as Sage, materialized.
Looking at my journey to get to this point, it should be obvious that a number of concurrent steps had to come together to get here. Lines were drawn and dots were connected. I had to make thoughtful decisions on when and where to invest my limited resources of time and energy. I also needed to be aware of new opportunities and what was required to take advantage of them. For those following at home, I met Chayan because I met Jonathan. I met Jonathan because I joined 1MC as a committee member. I joined 1MC as a committee member because I joined PSL looking to meet other founders. I joined PSL because of my desire to get more involved in the Philly Startup community.
In my next post, we will discuss how the two of us tackled the early design and requirements process and laid the foundation for the next three months of software development work. A good developer knows how to boil down requirements into something they can actually code. It’s not as easy as it sounds and the process we went through, in my opinion, is one worth sharing and could be useful to other founders about to do the same.