I moved back home to Pittsburgh, PA to figure out my next move in life. After a couple weeks of a too comfortable lifestyle I was ready to get on with life as soon as possible. I came back home to Pittsburgh for the month after 3 years of an entrepreneurial journey around the country. I was making a living and paying down my student loans with different entrepreneurial endeavors I started all over the United States. Having graduated from Penn State in May 2010, I was moving along on the student loans, but was ready for something bigger. I now knew how to turn companies profitable quick and make revenues above $1M a year, but I wanted something more long term. By happenstance I got a call from an old friend and I decided to take my entrepreneurial adventures to a new height and start a startup in Sunnyvale, CA while living in San Francisco. I flew out the next day with a suitcase full of clothes and quickly after moved into Crystal Tower Apartments in North Beach. I later found this apartment complex was home to many Y Combinator startups. There was a magazine titled “Billionaire” that was sitting around our mailroom for quite some time, and when I finally looked at the name I saw Drew Houston. I took the magazine. I later met my wife in this building too, so note, if moving to SF: Crystal Tower Apartments.
As I searched online looking for resources on how I could help “create a billion dollar company”, and “disrupt an industry” — I finally found a website that had good, true content. This site’s author was real and told it like it was. He seemed to really get how good companies were built, and I loved his idea of doing things that don’t scale. His site was a little basic looking, but his messages were strong and insightful. The site was paulgraham.com.
As I read further though, I started to feel like a trespasser on Silicon Valley since I wasn’t technical. He suggested startups have all technical founders if they can, and that “business people” don’t offer much. At this point I really respected the guy, and I thought to myself, “Fuuuuuck, I’m just a business person, should I learn to code?” If I already didn’t have imposter syndrome as an entrepreneur, this definitely solidified my thoughts as an IMPOSTURE.
What’s a stranger in a strange land to do in a city that never goes two sentences without saying what they do? I need to learn how to code, of course. Basic HTML and CSS every night after a 10 hour day and 4 hour round trip commute from North Beach to Sunnyvale. I learned to make a nice personal website with my projects, a picture, and some cool features. The problem was, I didn’t like it. I saw my technical friends hack away until Karl the Fog came knocking on our window, and they loved it. Well to be fair, they hated it, loved it, hated it, loved it, smoked a bowl, loved it, loved it, played some guitar and then finally finished, but you get my point. I pretty much just didn’t like coding.
Having my personal website was something cool to show friends and possibly investors, but I still had a business to run, and we needed to show growth. Ahh, what I love! Giving the people what they want. I put on my entrepreneur cap, saw what was working, dug into why it was working, and decided this is what we should scale. I took the airport parking vertical of the startup from $40k a month in sales to $800k in under 2 years. This felt good. It is my true self.. entrepreneurial grit. And I loved it!
While the company grew, of course, the people did too. My one co-founder was now able to afford not working his 9–5 job, and came on and we hired a lot of people. We tended to disagree on basic fundamentals though, and this came out more and more as we were working together in the same building. I wanted to focus on giving the people what they wanted, and creating the best experience for them possible (even if it wasn’t through our web app). He wanted higher revenues and more growth. Though both of these are important, looking back I still believe always working towards perfection on the user experience and giving the people what they want is the best north star. Revenues tend to follow this, and this thought was how I scaled our parking to $800k a month.
Since I moved to the Bay in 2013 we were always pitching investors. It seems that there are two types of venture investments in Silicon Valley. The first is with founders that don’t listen to customers and lie to themselves so much that they actually believe the lies they say about their startup. Then, they are met with VC’s that just want to invest in a company so badly that they believe the lies of founders, and actually invest. One lie built on another until a company exits or the truth comes out. I have seen this so many times in Silicon Valley, and worked first hand with startups like this that have raised $30M+. If you work with them and something goes wrong, they give you a small refund, make you sign an NDA, and sweep the story under the rug. What’s worse is that when they eventually sell for less than their funding in an acqui-hire they never reveal the price. Their egos get to stay large while new startup founders will rinse and repeat this equation to raise investment — never knowing it’s a path to ultimate failure. Unless you’re trying to just look cool. Then, it might be successful for you.
The second type of venture investment is with founders that have some technical ability (PG was right) and entrepreneurial hustle and grit. This is what I believe good investors invest in. It’s no BS and you can feel it from the founders. Gagan Biyani the founder of Sprig is a great example of an admirable entrepreneur that grew a startup in a solid way, but found it just couldn’t work. I believe the founders of Stripe, AirBNB, Lyft, Zapier etc. are all the same type of perfect mix of hustle and skills.
So what about me though, did we ever get an investment? We found it. A VC that was friends with a new executive we hired. It was a long road, but we eventually got the $1M. I need to give credit to my co-founder who I believe is the first type of founder from the above example, but he relentlessly sold the VC, and got him in for $1M.
There were terms with the investment though. Apparently the investor asked us to exclusively take his investment for this round, though I’m not sure if my co-founder was just saying this. Either way, if we took this investment we would have to turn away the $300k+ we shook on with friends, family, mentors, etc. After a soul crushing call with my mentor telling him we weren’t going to be able to take his investment I felt crushed. This person I grew to admire so much was so cool about me totally breaking my word. It made me think.
After talking with my mentor more, he said he was really just investing in me. He said he’d do so again in anything I got involved with in the future.
I decided to leave the startup, and now my mentor is actually my business partner.
To be honest I didn’t purely leave because of this fundraising debacle. I was also losing control of the growth strategy of the baby that I created when it was just me and a customer service rep in the office. I also never had control of the full customer experience being non technical, and it was not a good experience. All of this really sucked at my soul. I hope I never do anything again in my life that sucks my soul. It’s not fun. If you are reading this and your soul is getting sucked by a person, job, circumstance, etc. LEAVE. Nothing in life is worth your soul getting sucked. I think some people don’t know what this means (good for them), if you do, and it’s happening… LEAVE!
I founded NOSON Inc and Brett, my mentor and friend, invested $100k to get it started. Looking back now I can see how immature, and for lack of better terms, stupid, I was in the early stages of NOSON. Though I had learned so many lessons from this previous startup, I was back at it, and making some of the same mistakes. I was out to raise a round of money based off of a $1M valuation and I created nothing. I thought the track record of growing a business to $800k a month in sales would easily get me investors, especially in a market I already knew, but this wasn’t the case.
Brett scheduled meeting after meeting with potential investors and some lifelong friends. I was a nontechnical co-founder again raising a round. I had contracted a team to build the product from a new startup. Except Paul Graham was right, and not for the words he said, but for what I am. I’m non-technical, this is just truth, and I had no idea what was going on with the product.
We were expecting the product to be ready by June 1st, and it was way behind being finished and it was already a month later. I sent a note to the CEO demanding answers.
The $100k is quickly running out while I’m spending money on the build ($55k total) and paying myself a small salary ($5k/ month). Money was almost out, and my entrepreneurial juices (finally) kicked-in. I had to build something. I had to start generating revenues now. I couldn’t mess around.
So I went back to what I knew. Sales and hustle. I called a lot of off-airport parking operators that I knew from being in the industry for awhile, Brett also connected me with others. I had long candid conversations about how we could create a win-win solution for them.
From there, I went to the basic drag and drop website builder that I had I built websites with in college, Weebly.com (whose founders also happened to go to Penn State, #weare). I created some pages and linked it with a Typeform for the checkout. And the Typeform had Stripe integrated as well! Within a day, I was generating revenues.
I want to pause to say one thing. There are so many bright people that advise building startups, or in this case, small businesses that are using technology as a backbone, in the same manner. The advice these bright people give is “find a way to build what you’re looking for in the quickest, most efficient way possible.” MVP’s (minimum viable products) are a popular term to throw around, but I think many founders forget this simplicity. For any business, there is likely a simple way to make a first build, and this is what: proves the concept, generates traction, and will make you attractive to investors.
So, I now have a Weebly page built and reservations coming in, but what I am suppose to do with the traffic? Luckily while I was working on sales I was using a tool named Zapier for my automation. I looked into Zapier and saw that they were integrated with Typeform, nice! So, I created a zap to send form completions to Google Sheets. It worked :). From there I created a zap anytime a new Google Sheets row was created to send a receipt e-mail with customer data. I was amazed. And thought.. maybe I am technical!
Zapier became my best friend. I created zaps to obtain Net Promoter Scores after reservations. To send reminder e-mails and text messages to travelers. I even created zaps to automate my social media (it’s @TAirportParking: follow us for constant Denver Airport Parking updates… shameless SEO plug).
Being non-technical in Silicon Valley (or the Bay Area for me now since I’m married AF and living in Marin) can actually be easy if I’m just honest with myself and doing what I love to do.
Top Airport Parking is the site I built with Weebly, Typeform, Zapier and a couple other simple tools. If you’re non-technical and want to learn how to easily do this, just send me a message on Twitter- @pmm621.
A note to my technical friends. I mostly agree with PG’s advice, it doesn’t make sense for technical founders to seek out non-technical founders. I especially agree with this advice when someone non-technical has a “great idea” and they don’t go through at least the above steps they can to create an MVP. I will say that grit and hustle is needed in a founding team — and depending on what the team has, a non-technical person on-board that doesn’t take no for an answer could be a great addition.
A note to my non-technical friends. If you have an idea on an “app” to build and just need “an IT person” to build it: FIND A WAY TO BUILD AN MVP YOURSELF. The steps are above and I’m happy to help. Once you get traction you might even be able to hire an engineer if you make enough money from your concept, or raise funds after proving some results.