Lessons from the front lines: building Fetchnotes

A couple months ago, I announced the acquisition of Fetchnotes, a startup I took from ENGR 490 at the University of Michigan through Techstars in Boston. Like any startup experience, there were a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve spent the past few months trying to digest what lessons I’ll take with me to my new gig at Occipital and beyond.

In the spirit of sharing knowledge for the next generation of masochists — er, entrepreneurs — I figured I’d share as many “generalizable” lessons as possible. Plus, now when people ask me “What did you learn?” I can just send them this URL.

On product and the quest for product-market-fit

And we were sort of right:

We did find product-market fit with this “underserved majority” in the middle, but there weren’t enough of them to build a big business around (one reason we were moving more toward collaboration as time went on). The productivity user spectrum was much more binary than we thought it would be — you tended to be either someone who cared a lot or not at all. And the true majority just doesn’t give a shit. (Side note: I think this is changing as time goes on, but seed-stage startups generally don’t have the runway to wait out social change!)

On managing cash

On fundraising and investors

(So you have a gauge for relative frequency, out of the 12 entities that said yes to me, 5 were because of social proof like Techstars or another person they respected investing, 6 were because of personal relationships, and 1 was because of a deep personal passion for the problem/product.)

On PR

On growth/virality

On people

“Assume that everyone on earth is unreliable and full of shit until they prove otherwise. Except for me and your mother.” — Dad, some time in middle school

Not to mention massive misconceptions about money, press, users, etc. Overall, people tend to massively overinflate you as way more successful and talented than you actually are.

On dropping out of school and becoming a “real company” and a “real adult”

That photo is hanging on the wall of The Brown Jug, an Ann Arbor institution.

On being a founder and CEO

1) You’re privy to way more external feedback, and one of your most important roles is filtering that input appropriately and absorbing the rest.

2) You’re the rock. You can’t talk about how much you hate a certain investor, or how you’re afraid the company is going to die, or how pissed you are at an employee for something. If you do, you’re going to stress your employees out even more than they already are and fuck up the culture. This is another reason why you mostly hang out with startup founders — you need to vent to someone who gets it. Even then, you’re worried about what will get back to the wrong people. Balancing being too poly-anna with being too real is one of the hardest things about being a CEO. You need to be able to absorb the stress to keep your team focused, but also filter just enough down to create a sense of urgency. Being the rock can really fucking suck.

3) Related to the above, you live in a world of uncertainty that is fundamentally unimaginable for most people. There have been at least 3 times in the history of our company where we were weeks away from not making payroll, and I don’t think we ever had more than a year’s worth of cash on hand. You know every single way your company is probably fucked (because you listen to people tell you why constantly), but “probably” seems like good enough odds to you. You live in a world of unanswered existential questions, but you have to tell a cohesive story that keeps everyone excited — including yourself. There comes a time in every CEO’s journey where you have to convince people of something that you’re not even sure of, but you know that if you don’t all hope is lost. Over the entire course of our company’s life, the only times I can legitimately say I was depressed were on days when I had to do that.

At the end of the day, your job is to bring talented people together, and empower them to do the best of work of their lives. I succeeded at this task more than I could have ever imagined.

But it was really hard not to buy that island.

On managing stress

Closing, unorganized thoughts

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’ll update this post if I remember anything else. This wasn’t a post-mortem (we’re still alive!), but the famous epitaph from Slaughterhouse-Five is about as apt a summary of the past 4 years as any other I could think of☺

Have any questions? Drop me a line any time here if I can be helpful.

Bringing spatial computing to everyday life @Occipital. Prior: co-founder @Fetchnotes, VP @Benzinga, and chief opinionator @michigandaily. Go Blue!

Bringing spatial computing to everyday life @Occipital. Prior: co-founder @Fetchnotes, VP @Benzinga, and chief opinionator @michigandaily. Go Blue!