November and December have been TOUGH, work-wise. I'll tell you why, as it's something which we, as entrepreneurs and startup founders, will have to face, draw inspiration from and persevere.
First, I'll give you the background.
If you know me, you'll know that for the past 12 months, I have thrown my energy and passion into a startup project, called MySpareBrain (MSB). MSB was a web application, which was built as a proof of engineering by Tim Meadowcroft - a very talented and experienced software developer who built some highly noteable and complex products, including i2's Law Enforcement and Fraud Prevention systems (now owned by IBM after £450m acquisition in 2010) and SwapsWire (now Markit).
As Tim's wife once said to me, "if Tim doesn't know how to do something, he'll read about it until he does". That's Tim.
I met Tim when he applied with his initial concept to pitch at one of my events, This Week in Startups London Meetup, when Jason Calacanis came over last year. I had been looking into the space for a while beforehand, having worked with complex projects, copious web applications and spent an unhealthy amount of time online drowning in information - so immediately connected with Tim's mission. The product was a little raw for the event, but after a number late night telephone conversations, failed skype calls, GChats discussing the software, suggesting improvements to the design and user interface, features and other such things that I wanted to see as a user, I had bought into the concept.
Tim and I met a few times for dinner and pints, and I was really pleasantly surprised to see how reactive Tim was to early suggestions - implementing new features and integrations seemingly at will and pushing them straight up to the app, which was in an invite-only closed BETA phase.
We decided to team up, and in March 2012 we incorporated the company and took the product to the Launch Conference in San Francisco. Having applied for the main 1.0 event. I was disappointed that, in the build up to the event, we weren't able to significantly advance the product enough to be considered. Sure, our technology was great - but you need a certain sex appeal for these competitions-slash-penis-parades that we obviously hadn't mastered in time.
Instead, we took part in the Demo Pit, among a hall of other startups vying for attention of the judges to get selected to go up on stage anyway. Frustratingly, I spent the two days chasing ghosts, as the Judges tasked with picking out the startups they liked seemed to miss out our table - I don't recall speaking to one of them with the product at hand, and when I did, was told that the baton had been passed to someone else - argh! Anyway, we did get to demo our butts off to fellow entrepreneurs and investors to extremely positive feedback.
We were in SF for just over a week, as after the event, Tim and I headed down to Mountain View to hang out with other startup folks, check out the scene and hopefully meet some investors. It was during this time that looking back, I think my relationship with Tim took a strange an unexpected turn.
Whether it was homesickness, frustrations from not achieving perhaps what we'd set out to at Launch or, as Tim suggested at the time, frustrations of not being "productive". I think that meant, time not coding and adding new features, fixing bugs - to be honest, I don't know what it meant but I really should have found out, because it was clearly bugging Tim. Tim turned from a helpful, thoughtful knowledgeable guy, to an overly aggressive, impulsive, hot-headed, know-it-all for a period, and was clearly getting agitated by things.
I put it down to missing his son, being away from home and I acknowledged it, but decided to push on regardless.
After the Launch Conference, the plan was to use any momentum we had gained to work towards opening the app up and securing some late seed stage investment. By that, I mean raising circa £500 - £700,000 in venture capital.
We met with numerous VC's - from Accel, Balderton, Eden, Hoxton. I value Hussein Kanji's opinion and took the opportunity to get it when I could. I met with the true seed stage fund, Raj Ramamandi's Number One Seed and received a lot of interest.
The VC's, who supposedly did early stage, all wanted "traction". None could define traction, or even their own version of it, but they wanted it. They wanted a graph that shows a familiarly and frequently banded growth trend - "el hockius stickius".
What I took from that, was that they wanted to get on the Cruise Ship just after it left the dock, fighting with the other people who had done the same thing and pay a premium price for someone to give them a left on a posh speedboat or helicopter ride to catch up. Lesson learned.
So, I went back to the product and to business development to try and drum up some customers, some users. Anything we could do to show user adoption, activation, engagement, retention.
I spoke at Josh Liu's first Unsexy Startups meetup, and talked about the startup's dilemma - consumer or enterprise? and how the lines are greyer than ever before.
MSB could be a great individual consumer application. It worked great for individuals, privately, securely, there and then. Right now. But, it would work even better as a collaborative tool, where users could co-invest in the process of collecting, gathering, organising and interacting with information like they have never been able to before.
MSB would equally be a extraordinarily useful tool for teams, groups, departments, companies to collectively share information around organisations - cutting the huge amount of cost, wasted time and inefficiencies that searching for information and information overwhelm has caused the economies of the developed world.
But, as a team of two unfunded founders, where do you start? Is it a leap of faith? Go with your gut? Or can you collect some data? Qualitative? Quantitative? What type of samples do I need?
On the train to London one day, I was preparing a deck for a meeting and a guy got on the train and looked at my Macbook's screen from across the aisle.
"SpareBrain? I could do with one of those!". That was a common reaction to the brand.
For the next two hours, the man and I spoke in depth and excitedly about the product, my vision, and his failed attempts to find the right solution for the University where he was Dean and Head of Faculty.
I met up with the man, more politely known as Professor Oren Leiberman from the acclaimed Arts University Bournemouth, many times after that and in September 2012, we ran a pilot of MSB with his Masters Architecture course.
Through this time, I became convinced that this product would be great for students, academics and teachers to interact with information. But, something was missing to make this viable from what we had right now. Users needed to be able to collaborate.
This was reinforced to me when I visited the Business Faculty at the University of Winchester (where I studied). The investment and advancement in facilities was staggering and all geared around collaboration - collaborative spaces, large screens with communal study/seating, connectivity everywhere. Collaboration is key.
The other reason was economics. I could spend 2 to 3 months researching and courting higher education Institutions to sell our product. I would invest that time because I know that by securing an advocate, the product would organically proliferate to the rest of the internal-community. through natural, useful, organic collaboration. But alas we didn't have it. Instead, I would have to sell once to get a point of entry, then sell again to every individual to convince them to use the solution - not cost effective, not sustainable, not viable.
Tim asserted that although collaboration was on his roadmap, it was a significantly complex feature set that wouldn't be done anytime soon and made it clear that it depended on the securing of VC funds to enable it.
So, I changed tack and investigated the consumer play.
It was much harder to get any meaningful data here, other than emotional, qualitative responses of our early users (circa 200) and their reactions, feedback and thoughts on the product. This is one example:
I was convinced, based on my own use (I came to depend on the app and my 100+ charts, 1000's of nodes of information, notes etc.) and from feedback like this and more of it, that at a consumer level, this product had legs.
I wanted to see how we could move from Private Individual App, to that plus more socially integrated publishing tools. I had a vision of people using MSB as a way to publish their "workings" of the different information resources they collect around a particular subject. MSB allows the free-form visual layout flexibility that makes information tactile, expressive and allows for freeform creative thinking. You may use it for planning projects, gathering source material for writing essays or blog posts, researching the competitive landscape, gathering tools and libraries for building websites - all sorts.
The time invested in curating that content, adding one's own unique notes and annotations, adding meta information, assigning relationships - both explicit (via links) and inferred (by placement, color, size, clustering, chunking) is extremely valuable, but notably, the output can be damn useful to other people interested in the same topics.
I could see full charts (a collection of objects or nodes of information) being shared on social networks, individual objects being shared from the context of the chart. I could see charts being embedded along with the blog article, essay or report for a deeper look at the sources which, keep up to date with active information in real-time.
To do this, again would require some evolution of the MSB product and more development. It already had the ability to distinguish Private and Public charts. But the interface for sharing Public charts was far from optimised for such purposes. It was just an interactive view of all my Public charts displayed in the app, which to someone who had never used the app before, is a very daunting first experience and not one that is geared to immediate understanding and subsequent adoption.
But, that's what I had to work with, so I ran some tests. I picked up on some topical and popular conversation threads via the Open Coffee forum in London. One of which that kept appearing was the subject of Explainer Videos - who much do they cost? how do I get one made? how can I guarantee quality? how much traffic will I get? does anyone know a script writer/motion graphics artist/animator/illustrator/voiceover artist?
So I spent a couple of hours preparing a chart of information on the subject - prices, research, tips, techniques, agencies, freelancers, sample videos - you name it - it was in there.
I shared that chart with the small community (remember, in a not ideal format) and that resulted in 10 registrations for the pre-launch BETA and activated accounts. I did that few more times with other subjects to similar results. With some proper optimisation, and putting relevant contextual information into the right places, I could get 50 registrations per chart published. That's me, with no real reach or influence, particularly in some of the topics for which I was publishing curated content.
If I could get influencers in their domain to do this, with a well designed public facing interface for sharing charts, I'm convinced that the viral co-efficient of the product would be epic. There is no better way currently - other apps and tools fall short, way short.
I explained this to Tim, when I got chance (Tim had become much more difficult to speak to, contact, get response from - meetings were fleeting and usually resulted in raising voices, frustrations and differing opinions), but similar to the Collaboration issue, Tim wasn't budging.
On the other hand, Tim felt very passionately about solving a particular issue - people saying "I don't get it" when receiving a cold intro the the app. It was true that, as a new interface for the web browser, it could be confusing - especially when you see someone else's chart full of information laid out in a way that is meaningful to them and no-one else.
And he was right, there was no point opening up the app only to have a sky-high bounce rate right at the entrance to the funnel.
So we did set about designing and building an interactive demo page - a step by step walk-through of the interface, core features and user benefits. We built it over 4 or 5 weeks, and tested it with new users to some success.
The Beginning Of the End
By this point, it's summer and Tim had taken a contract with an investment bank which started as a part-time thing and quickly sucked up all of his time. Any contact we had before this basically reduced to zero - zero response, zero input, zero action. The interactive demo page which was supposed to enable us to open up the app remained in the background, tested but not implemented to the live app.
Frustration was growing as time drifted by. I decided to try different tacks for getting Tim to do something, anything, to progress the product inline with my vision. He held all the keys to the product, he stood in front of all the gates. To him, it was his product, his code and although we were equal shareholders, by this time it was clear who was calling the shots and those shots were to not do anything. We were now acting slower than a lumbering blue-chip.
Tim's responses to my requests were becoming increasingly aggressive, like a parent talking to a stroppy teenager. And I may well have been acting like one - have you ever tried telling an entrepreneur that he can't do something? At one point, Tim told me:
To which, hugely offended and frustration reaching boiling point, I responded with:
He then asked me to clarify what I meant by that. What I did mean when I wrote it was, "that's it, I've had enough, I quit". But after a few deep breaths, I brushed it aside by saying that I was done asking about this particular task.
I decided to persevere with the Biz Dev opportunities, hoping that developments on the Customer side of things would help reinvigorate Tim's motivation and desire to get back to building - base don not what I said I wanted, but what customers and users said they wanted.
The pilot for AUB was setup to start with a talk / intro a gave on the 1st October. I requested some invites to be setup in bulk for the students, via Oren's account. This required Tim to flick a switch - nothing more. I got not reply to my request. I went to the meeting without this in place which was embarrassing and hugely frustrating. At this point in time, I knew that was it, I'd lost Tim or Tim had decided to lose me - either way, it really wasn't going to work out.
Eventually, we setup a management meeting - the first in months - where I thought we'd be able to discuss the issues, iron out the problems and get back to aligning our vision and agreeing a way to move forward together - driven by our common goal that joined us in the first instance.
Instead, after some small talk and niceties exchanged by Tim and I, whilst we waited for Tim's wife Sam, also a shareholder (minority) in MSB to arrive, I was coldly and succinctly told that Tim intended to stop our venture together, dissolve the company, take his product (the source code - in it's crudest definition) and basically do whatever he wanted to later on. I, on the other hand, would be left with nothing for my efforts.
Well, not quite nothing.
After quickly deciding that there was nothing more to be said there and then, somewhat taken by surprise by the ambush, upset by the outcome, surprised by the coldness of the situation, I retreated and took a walk around London to think and clear my head.
I knew I'd have to seek legal council, as I was unclear as to my position - something I really should have had contingency for.
I spoke to my Lawyer, who having confirmed as I expected that having never got Tim to assign IP rights to the company for his source code from prior to our incorporation of the company and our dual input, I had little option. I could sue him, or I could suck it up and crack on.
I'm not going to sue anyone. I hold no grudge against Tim, on the contrary I have huge respect for his knowledge, his character (I saw the side of Tim that shows just how considerate and kind a person can be) and in hindsight, it was absolutely the right thing to do. It clearly wasn't working out for either of us and a decision had to be made. That decision was never going to be easy, but it could be dignified. I'm sure I was not faultless in whatever the causes were. But I know that I tried the best I could with the resources that I had. I truly hope that Tim and I can be professional, even friends as we presumably set out to realise our own visions which may or may not cross paths.
A week or so later, I was due to give a talk on the subject of the realities of entrepreneurship, and in particular, the importance of work experience. I nearly didn't go, but a few words of support from my wife I drove the hour to King's School Winchester, to unexpectedly, be met with an entire assembly hall of year 10 students who probably wanted to be anywhere but. To say I meant every word I said and how I said it was an understatement and it was refreshing and invigorating to get the feedback from these young aspiring business people.
I benefited in many, albeit less tangible ways from my time at MySpareBrain and working with a talented software engineer like Tim. 12 months ago, I could never have dreamed about building something so complex, so cutting-edge. My knowledge of the information architecture required to build such a product, for a non-engineer, is not insignificant.
And ultimately, I had to remind myself that being bound to MySpareBrain and being associated with Tim was not the goal* - the goal was to create a product that people love, that changes the way people manage and interact with online information and with each other using technology.
And it remains and always will be the driving force.
*initially, it was part of the goal. As a non-technical (well, non-technical-ish ,depends who you are asking) co-founder in a hi-tech internet startup, everywhere you'll read, from all the usual commentators, investors and commentators-masquerading-as-investors that you need a CTO. You need a great geek. Well, I found one and went into partnership with one. Tim had all the credentials, Tim had built a solid early stage prototype. Tim could talk the talk and walk the walk. But that, in and of itself is not enough (in the UK, anyway). The technical conversation was lost on all the investors we met and never did anyone probe deep enough to understand the deep technical rationale and philosophy behind the product, the evolution of the market and the insights we had. So, it didn't matter - having a CTO is not important, at least not for raising money, unless not having one also precludes you from investment, but I don't think so. It is important for someone to take control of the technical implementation of the product, but not the product itself. The product is defined by the market and the market, or more specifically, the customers - and in turn they define the investment case. You have customers, there are more customers to be had (a lot more), you are growing - you get investment. No customers, get out of the fucking door and come back when you do.
So, with a fresh, clean slate. A new project opened up in my code editor. A new and evolved set of tools and resources. An exciting, talented, technical and creative new team. The relationships and insights from talking with real customers who are just craving the product we know they want, and the knowledge that customers are waiting to pay for it and use it. Fresh designs and no restrictions (well some restrictions, but none that will stand in my way), I set out to build the product and the Global Technology Company that I, my family, friends, colleagues, customers, investors and peers will be proud of.
Because that's how I deal with set backs. That's how I take failure. That's how much I love being kicked in the nuts. I'm back in the game, I'm all in. I'm funding it with whatever I can get my hands on - credit card debt, limited spare cash. But now I'm driving and in control.
We will build something that we love, and I don't think you and I are that dissimilar. Oh, and we will build it very soon (hint: Christmas will be very busy).
Merry Christmas One and All. Here's to an amazing 2013.
Disclaimer: I officially resigned as Director of MySpareBrain Limited on 6th December 2012, following consultation with Tim and agreement of the restrictions (there are none) of my business activities. This is my side of the story from the best of my recollection, and I expect anyone mentioned to have the right and privilege to express theirs accordingly, should anyone care to read it.