Monday, July 30, 2012

Running a Start-Up


I'm a runner. Not a fast runner- my "fast" pace is 9:20 per mile. Some days I have to push myself, particularly when it gets above 90°F. My muscles are old and stiff, and they'd rather just prop themselves in front of my armchair. Some days I don't have the will to keep going the full 5 kilometers and I stop and walk a bit. Some days I'm riled up about something and I run faster without realizing it.

I like to think while running. The blood starts flowing to my groggy brain and synapses start firing. Before that happens, I get over the complaints from my legs and feet and chest. The music from my iPod Shuffle helps a lot. Thank you for that, Steve.

And then I get to the end of my run. I drip with sweat and cool down by sweeping the oak pollen or bark or acorns off the back deck. Even after my shower, I'm still soaked.

What makes me do it? It's not like I'm training for Olympic glory, there's no coach urging me on.

Doing a start-up is like running. I often enjoy it, but just as often I have to push myself to do things I'd rather skip. Once in a while it takes your breath away, like running on a perfect day, getting to the top of a hill into a cloudless sky. Mostly though, it's fighting to keep up a trot when walking would be a lot easier.

I enjoy building things, and I like writing code. So that part of a tech start-up is not a problem. Calling people on the phone, on the other hand, is torture for me, but I do some of that because I have to. Multi-tasking is not my strong suit. Managing creative and smart people can be simultaneously a joy and a bundle of stress.

And then there's the money. Every founder has the ever-present worry about worry about running out of money, which is tempered only by the knowledge that if you don't run out of money, you'll have succeeded.

So, about money. I'm sometimes asked why Unglue.it is a for-profit business rather than a not-for-profit. The main reason is what I just said. I like building things and technology is fun. Calling people on the phone to ask for grants- that would be a nightmare for me.

But I think it's important for a business like Unglue.it to be transparent about finances. So I've written a post on the Unglue.it blog reporting on its finances. Authors and publishers will need to be become more open about the money they expect to receive for ungluing a work, and in many cases this will be uncomfortable for them. So unglue.it needs to set an example.

It's a fair amount of money I'm putting into Unglue.it. Why do I take the risk? I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be able to make the investment, because it's an important idea that needs to be explored. But it's also like my running. What good are legs if you don't stretch them, make them work?

I'm a worrier, and there's plenty to worry about. My recent worries have surrounded things like insurance (Unglue.it's "presence" in 4 states makes that not fun). And payment providers. Amazon could decide tomorrow that we're a threat to their book business and turn off our payments account. Google could decide on Wednesday that books aren't worth the trouble and shut down their book search API. On Thursday, hackers could take control of our servers and trash our database.

But you just have to keep at it. As of the end of June, the Unglue.it team had logged 2,222 Git commits and finished 333 Pivotal stories. We've talked to hundreds of people. We've written support email, press releases, blog posts and heartfelt opinion pieces. We're keeping at it, so there's less time to worry.

The wonderful response to Unglue.it has kept the entire team going strong. Yesterday, Unglue.it signed up its 1,800th ungluer. Most likely, we'll fall just a bit short of our goal to grow that number by 40% every month. That's a very healthy growth pace, but it's still a tiny number. To give our campaigns the exposure needed to match the earnings potential of conventional book selling, we'll need to have 10 times or even a hundred times the number of ungluers. Even at 40% per month, we'll need till the end of the year to reach 10,000 ungluers. We'll get there one way or another, but it's hard to know how long it will take. It's going to be a marathon, and I've never run one.

Every now and then I'll need to slow to a walk. If you offer me some water, I won't say no.


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