Host of Hacker Noon Founder Interviews
What's your background, and what are you working on?
When I was 12 years old, I used to play a computer game called Ultima Online with my uncle. My uncle wrote banking software for a living and he’d automated his characters so they were way more productive than mine while he was working all day. I wanted to crack the video game like he had so I got a bunch of books he recommended and started learning to code. That’s how I got started as a developer.
I didn't see programming as a career at first. I worked a bunch of different jobs, trying different things, and that gave me plenty of experience in different areas, none of it felt really me. While I was working at Blackberry, I met the team from GoInstant at a hackathon just by chance. I instantly fell in love with them and how they were the first people to use Node.js in production. I later went and joined their team which is how I met the other Manifold co-founders.
Manifold is all about being the easiest way for developers to find, buy and manage their favorite developer tools and services everywhere they want to use them. We want developers to be free to use what they want to use where they want to use it instead of getting locked into a particular cloud vendor’s ecosystem.
What motivated you to get started with your company?
When GoInstant was acquired by Salesforce, we had to take all the services we’d used to build GoInstant and hand them over to Salesforce. This was a huge headache for us because we’d concentrated on building an amazing system for our customers and hadn’t spent much time keeping track of who set up each service. We had to go through each service and figure out who had set it up, who owned the credentials, how it was getting paid for and basically audit our whole system manually. It was hugely painful, and we realized that every team using managed services to build their apps probably had the same problem we had.
We also noticed that developers on Heroku would look at moving to other platforms like AWS or DigitalOcean but they’d stay in the Heroku add-ons ecosystem because they couldn’t get the add-ons they liked anywhere else, and the best niche ones were with Heroku.
We believed that when we started Manifold we could be completely cloud agnostic and advocate for both our providers and our developers by providing a bridge between all the different ecosystems. Why settle for a not-as-great service just because of which cloud provider you picked 8 months ago? It’s just software, why can’t you just glue together all the services you want to build your app?
What went into building the initial product?
Manifold was originally called Arigato. There were four of us at the beginning: Jevon, Jeff, Ian and myself. We were all working on everything - we were building the product, talking to prospective customers, pitching to investors and spending a lot of time figuring out if what we wanted to do was actually viable. And then Nick Tassone joined us. He’s an incredibly talented creative person that we had worked with before while at Salesforce, and he was able to get us to say goodbye to Arigato, and the Manifold brand was born.
We started out by building a prototype CLI for the shopping experience based on Node.js. It took about three months to get things into a minimally working state, and we took that prototype and used it to raise our seed round. I moved home from San Francisco to join the rest of the team in Halifax while Jevon worked from Cambridge for the first few months.
We nearly derailed ourselves early in the development. We built a tool called Torus that helped us manage distributed secrets across clouds and with the multiple orchestrations we’d envisioned, and we kinda fell in love with this one small piece of what we were building. We actually became pretty focused on it and got dangerously close to losing sight of our original plan. We decided to kill Torus in order to save our focus and shift our attention back to Manifold. This was one of our saddest days at Manifold and was very hard for us to do.
Once we got back to focusing on Manifold, we stop using Node.js and focused on building all of our tooling in Golang, which is what we still use today.
How have you attracted users and grown your company?
Manifold is a marketplace so we have the classic bootstrap problem of any two-sided market: You need both buyers and sellers but the buyers won’t come if the sellers aren’t there, and the sellers won’t come if there aren’t any buyers.
We decided to start with the sellers - the providers building services for developers. We knew we had to put together a compelling vision based on taking a long-term view that ecosystems were an emerging trend and that Manifold would be a great way for them to get ahead of that trend. Then we approached a group of independent services we knew and respected in the industry and asked them to take a long-term bet on us. Happily a lot of them said yes!
On the developer side of the ecosystem, our focus was on building a compelling developer workflow with first-class integrations. A compelling vision wouldn’t be enough; we had to make that first experience demonstrate that the dream was real. The experience had to speak for itself in many ways.
We learned very quickly to focus on creating value for each side of the marketplace that would attract the other. You need to hit a point where the marketplace is a place they both benefit from using or it just doesn’t work. This is much harder than it sounds.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your
Our business model is very simple: We take a percentage of the revenue earned by providers selling services to developers. Our business grows when developers and providers are both happy: developers can easily find, buy and manage the services they want, and providers have lots of happy customers.
When we started out we had a credit card gate for users but wanted to drop it in order to gain more insight into our users and lower the barriers for them to sign up. By taking a percentage of revenue from providers, we remove friction from developers signing up to services, and we make it simpler for providers as well.
What are your goals for the future?
Since launching Manifold, we’ve come to realize that lots of developer platforms actually want a marketplace of their own. Building a marketplace is complex and time-consuming and, for most developer platforms, it’s not a core part of what they’re building. It’d be a bit like us focusing on building Torus instead of the Manifold marketplace, it’s off in the weeds.
That’s why we’ve developed the Manifold Marketplace-as-a-Service. It means developer platforms can get all the benefits of a marketplace without having to do all the hard work of building one themselves, and they can tap into the broad Manifold ecosystem. Choosing Manifold’s Marketplace-as-a-Service increases the value of their developer platform as well as the overall value of the Manifold ecosystem so it’s a rare case of a true win-win for everybody.
Our big challenge now is keeping up with demand. The response so far has been beyond even our optimistic predictions so now we’re figuring out how to scale things to meet demand in a sustainable way. It’s a nice problem to have!
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
There are a lot of things that feel existential while you’re building a startup. Every move you make feels final and you lose a lot of sleep thinking about how to create value for your customers so your company can grow. But as long as you don't screw up your top priorities, you can fail at a lot of the other stuff and still end up succeeding.
This is especially true when your team is small and you can't always see the forest for the trees. You have to trust that you might need to lose the battle to win the war. Sometimes that means killing off something like Torus so that the rest of the company can thrive.
I’ve learned that mistakes that repeat themselves are a signal that you aren't learning and need to be more aggressive with your approach to solving and preventing those mistakes. As a startup founder, you’re usually trying to figure out processes and systems that stop mistakes from happening again but without slowing your company down.
Finally don’t give up. You hear this a lot, but as a founder, it is extremely important. What this means to me is that I keep my focus actively on what is important, and I’ll stay focused on that no matter what is going on right until it is finished.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The biggest piece of advice I have is to find a great advisor. You will run into challenges that someone has overcome before you, and you can benefit from their wisdom and learn from what they did or didn't do in similar situations. They may not have conquered all of your problems but they can help keep you on track. Find someone that is willing to get their hands dirty and stick with you and do the work with you that you can't do by yourself.
Trust is very important. Your advisor needs to be someone that you feel like you can be honest with about the business and someone you can be yourself around. If you can't be 100% upfront and transparent with them, you are probably working with the wrong advisor.
Books have been a great resource for me. I really like Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Reading helps you become both a better thinker and a better leader which is important.
I’ve found that when you start out in your company, you’re a good proxy for your customers. You’re the same as them, dealing with the same problems they are and working to solve them. As you start to scale and move through roles, you get farther away from your customers. At Manifold, I moved from an engineering role to marketing but wanted to stay close to my customers. Even though my role shifted, I stayed actively involved in various developer communities and that helped keep me grounded. I found that as you move from your passion and look less like your customers, staying connected to them is essential for that relationship. I also realized that even though I wasn’t using tech every day in my role, I could still make it a hobby and stay connected.
What's your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
My top tip is to be self-aware of what you suck at.
Most people have a sense of their strengths and can lean into them and forget their weaknesses. When you're starting a company, you need to be honest with yourself about what you’re bad at and willing to find people who are better than you at those things to build a well-rounded team.
Everyone talks about how important hiring is, and it is absolutely true. You need to be really good at it and the fewer mistakes you make, the better you will be. There will always be mistakes and people that just don't work out, and some things out of your control, but actively trying to improve your hiring skills will help you out so much in the long run.
You also need to be able to commit. Founding a startup will likely change the course of your life, and you need to be willing to be fully invested in it. When we kicked things off with Manifold, I looked at it like I was entering a long term relationship. Most people when they think of startups, they picture it as being quick and easy, and that's when you burn out. I went into this is fully expecting it to be 5+ years of my life which has helped my mindset in the company right from the start.
Where can we go to learn more?
Check out Manifold at https://manifold.co and follow @manifoldco.
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