SHEER MADNESS: Batter Up!

by Jim Burnett, founder of ExpertOpinions.info

Spring training ran long. At least for us. In fact, it bled right through the All-Star break.

As a matter of fact, spring training for my site, ExpertOpinions.info: Your Guide to THE BEST of [Almost] Everything!, dragged on for some 15 months. It started early in 2013, when I began attending meetup events in the Bay Area and putting together the material we needed to begin presenting to VCs and big angel investors.

An updated pitch deck. (Little known fact – PowerPoint presentations aimed at start-ups investors were dubbed “pitch decks” in honor of Los Angles Dodger great Sandy Koufax and his dazzling arsenal.) A comprehensive business plan. An extensive proof of concept/field study to validate our revenue model. A functional demo, which was finished early in 2013.

By early 2014, we thought we were ready to go. “Not so fast,” said mentor Steve Hoffman, the very same Captain Hoff who is publishing this column at Founders Space.

Hoffman bluntly said we had to significantly upgrade the look of our demo if we expected to raise any money whatsoever.

“It’s just so competitive out there,” he told me. He also suggested that I think about finding a real job.

That last remark stung. But Steve made his point. Since I’m out-of-date myself – a start-up founder in his 60’s – leading off with a tired-looking demo was hardly the way to make a splashy first impression

So commenced a search for a designer and developer/coder/engineer – the terms seem to be used interchangeably – to spruce up our demo.

The requirements were threefold: (1) Find two people with superb talent; (2) Willing to work cheap, preferably for little or no cash and a small ownership interest – a necessity given my present state of poverty; (3) And quickly – I was hoping for a two-week turnaround.

Yeah, good luck and fat chance. We were looking to fill an inside straight on the river or stab a winning 30-1 shot at the racetrack.

Securing our designer was an amazing piece of luck. I was at the gym one night and mentioned our site to a friend. A tall, lanky guy with longish hair who looked like a snowboarder or surfer dude overheard our conversation and asked what I was working on.

And that’s how we found Scott Howard, artist/musician/graphic designer who creates gorgeous pages for high-end ski and surf magazines. His office is in downtown Nevada City and we met a few days later to thrash out the design for the demo. Scott was willing to work for a piece of the action instead of cash and crank out the job before he got busy again with other clients.

Score!

It could have been even better. Scott works with a talented local programmer who also was willing to work for an ownership interest in lieu of cash. He even prepared a detailed proposal to move ExpertOpinions from our WordPress site to a more sophisticated platform that could eventually accommodate hundreds of thousands of pages. It felt like Xmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza combined.

Until I got greedy. The programmer needed two months to do the work, sandwiched in-between high-paying gigs for other clients.

I didn’t want to wait that long. So I decided to find someone else who could code Scott’s redesign and wait until later to upgrade the platform.

That was my first mistake. But hardly the last. I found a guy in Sacramento who owns a web design/development firm and specializes in WordPress. He agreed to work for a piece of the action and a token payment of $200. It sounded perfect.

Until it wasn’t. He did some initial work on the home page and a few other pages. And then came a flurry of excuses, promises, and apologies.

After two months I fired the guy. By this time, I was totally stressed and aggravated. Mostly at myself.

So the search began anew. I tried ODesk, sifting through potential developers from Belarus to Pakistan to the Netherlands, who were charging anywhere from $8 to $65/hour. But potential language barriers and quality control issues made me wary.

Then I found a woman in Ohio who had designed and coded a beautiful photography website and claimed superior WordPress expertise. I was thrilled when she agreed to a token payment of $100 and an ownership interest.

“I like helping startups,” she told me cheerfully over the phone.

Nightmare City. During the next three weeks, she did exactly zero work. Nada.

When I pulled the plug, she said it was just as well.

“This project has been a real hassle,” she groused.

Geez, imagine what a pain it would have been if she had done anything!

Next up – a coder I’ll call “H” who lives north of the Bay Area. Desperate by this time to get the work completed, I agreed to a quite reasonable fee of $50/hour. I borrowed some money from my cousin in LA to pay for the work. The coder assured me he could finish the job in less than 10 hours and within a few days.

We seemed to hit it off. “H” said he only worked a few hours per day, enjoyed a living arrangement that gave him free rent, and wasn’t a big fan of capitalism. He schooled me on a few WordPress tricks so that I could update a few things myself.

I liked “H’s” laid-back vibe. But when he did only two hours of work during the first week, it didn’t seem quite so groovy. “H” told me he just couldn’t get into it – the job was too tedious. Then he basically dropped from sight – or at least e-mail contact – before informing me he was leaving in a few days for a vacation to Portland.

To make matters worse, it became clear the job wasn’t going to be completed in 10 hours or within my limited budget. So I pulled the plug with the redesign about 40 percent completed.

Depressed and despairing, I sent e-mails to a few people in the Nevada City area pleading for suggestions. A well-connected friend steered me to Evelyn Fassett, a local designer/developer who had been a software engineer in a previous life. Evelyn doesn’t advertise her services, so I had missed her the first, second, third, and fourth time around.

We met for three hours at a local coffee shop and Evelyn cheerfully agreed to complete the job for $200 and an ownership interest. She did a fabulous job, adding some way-cool design touches of her own and cranking out the work in two weeks.

And so the 4-month redesign nightmare came to an end.

But it wasn’t a waste. As the redesign dragged on, I read Generosity by Richard Powers, one of my favorite authors. (Powers’ The Goldbug Variations and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 are my two favorite books.)

Generosity is about a young woman who, despite a horrific childhood in war-torn Algeria, is sunny beyond all rhyme or reason. Is she mentally ill? Does she have a “happiness” gene? And if so, can it be identified and implanted in the rest of us?

I was particularly struck by the book’s discussion of the “negativity bias” that social scientists have discovered. To put it simply, we’re genetically programmed to feel the sting from difficulties and defeats, large and small, much longer and more painfully than we derive joy from our large or small triumphs.

As a character in Generosity explains, “We remember a compliment for about 3 1/2 days but we hold on to a criticism for months. We think unpleasant events last about 60 percent longer than same-length pleasant ones … We need about five positive events to compensate for one comparative negative one.”

Start-up founders cope with negative events all the time. Yet we have to remain congenitally upbeat and optimistic – at least in public.

So I’m looking at the vexing 4-month redesign nightmare, with its constant setbacks and dashed hopes, as a valuable learning experience, an opportunity to confront my own negativity bias in order to roll with the punches a bit better in the future.

Actually, I’m more bullish than ever about our prospects. As columnist Christopher Mims recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, bat-shit crazy start-ups are attracting millions in VC, corporate, and angel money.

A social network limited to sending a one word message — “Yo.” Food service delivery businesses valued at $400 million. A start-up that delivers $20 of quarters to your house for the bargain price of $27.

And what about YoHoHo, the start-up devoted to all things Pirate, which just raised a seed fund of $100 million from Disney?
Okay, I made that last one up. But the others are the real deal.

“It isn’t hard,” writes Mims, “to conclude that Silicon Valley has jumped the shark. The entire Bay Area appears to have given up on solving anything but its own problems: those affecting the same 20-somethings who are building these start-ups.”

So why not us. We might be a bunch of older, unconventional, eclectic, outliers, but we’re not bat-shit crazy enough to charge $27 bucks for $20 of coins.

Plus, at least a few start-ups that are kinda/sorta/marginally in our Consumer Internet arena have raised $15, $20, $50 million or more in funding, even though their chances of turning a profit appear to reside at the intersection of Slim & Are You Kidding Me?

We might not be in midseason form right out of the gate, but we’re ready to step into the batter’s box and slug for the fences. And at the risk of steering this baseball analogy off the road and into a deep ditch, you might say we’ll be hitting and pitching at the same time.

Anyway, if you can hit .300 or better in the majors, you’ll earn millions. If we hit .300 by piquing the interest of three out of 10 VCs/Big Angels, we could raise millions.

Batter Up!

PREVIOUS MADNESS:

Sheer Madness: Starting a business in your 60s is anything but glamorous

Sheer Madness: Building a billion-dollar business or going bust

Sheer Madness: With VCs get an intro or get lost

Sheer Madness: Animal Farm, Part I

Sheer Madness: Animal Farm, Part II

etc…

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