Tag Archives: nickler

WTF is Success?

Image

This guy gets it.

In my younger years, I owned a 1973 VW van.  It was a sweet ride, slow as hell, but smooth, and the pull out bed in the back was perfect for lazy afternoons and hazy nights after hitting the bars.  Because I thought I was some kind of badass, I had written on the back of this shit-box, ‘don’t laugh, your daughter might be in here’.

As is the requirement when you own such a vehicle, there are times when society (and your well persuasive and most likely criminal friends) requires that it be used as a hotbox.  While it was foolish, I’m a slave to convention, weak willed, and like all stupid things it seemed like a great idea at the time. It’s also at that point that I learned how words lose their meaning once you’ve said them a few times.

Jumping into the startup scene is just like climbing into that van.  It looks like a party on the outside, and everyone inside is smiling, but mostly they’re just repeating the same words over, and over, and over.   Those words sound so cool when you say them the first time, and your mouth forms them slower, savouring the nuances and dissonant tonalities, and one smart asshat giggles to himself when he cracks ‘I just had a vowel movement’.   By the end of the night, everyone is convinced that they’ve achieved enlightenment, but the reality is they’re just high, and everything sounds cool when you’re high.

Success is one of those words that gets passed around the startup bus.  It’s not a word we were worried about in those days, clearly, but lately I’ve chewed on that word daily, draw it across my palate slowly, and spit it out to read the tea leaves.  I have read about, dissected, and listened to every successful person as they describe success in ways most people can’t even consider.  I have become a connoisseur, a success sommellier, my nose has become attuned to discover its signature where many can only taste bitter rejection, and I have experienced it in so many flavours that I have become a connoisseur.

I can’t help but feeling, however, that I had a better understanding of it back in that van.  Ignorant, carefree, reckless, and directionless.  Back then, I could reduce success to a moment.  A goal scored, a paycheck cashed, third base with a pretty girl, these were tangible successes that produced immediate results.

I wanted to change the world like any 20 year old does, but it was so distant a possibility, so grand an ambition, that despite talk being cheap it was the only thing I could afford.

Now however, I have had my taste, and I want more.  The genie is out of the bottle, I know we can change the world, the technology is in our hands, I have solved problems, built million dollar companies, and built a family.  My tastes have grown more complex, though, and while every day I tell myself to be happy with that sunset, my beautiful family, my relatively good health, I can’t help but start looking for my next fix.

Once you believe anything is possible, how can you sit by and wait for someone else to do it?

Building Nickler has been humbling.  I was prepared for the ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ mentality, I was prepared for the crippling rejection from investors with little appetite for risk and even less vision for the future, I was even prepared for the mental stress of the debt I’ve racked up.  What I wasn’t prepared for was being cut off from the steady drips of success through my veins.

Every project gives you little goosebumps along the way, keeping you in the game, motivated, pushing for the next little rush.  Building the restaurant group, I rode those waves hard, 16 hour days of pure adrenaline, stress, and victory were easy to string together, and months went by like a blur.

Those are the times that you attract outstanding people to your cause, because awesome people look for other awesome people.

Nickler has been a grind.  We started sprinting at the beginning, thinking that what we were building was a little app that would be quick to develop.  Wireframes, workflows, logic, and integrations were dutifully planned out, three months turned to six, six turned to 9, and we soon realized we had created an entire platform.  The genie grants wishes, but will always play his tricks, and I found myself reaching too far, a victim to my own ambition.

We had patted ourselves on the back for solving the problem on paper.  We solved it elegantly, simply, and the market validation responses were rabid.  All we had to do was build it, and building it with one developer has been like washing the Empire State Building with a toothbrush.   There are no easy shortcuts to take, it either works completely or it’s useless.  So we trudge on, and very soon, we’ll be ready for launch.

Success, that fickle tart, has been playing hard to get.

Persistence is one thing, but lately it feels like it’s flirting with insanity.  I’ve had no choice but to diversify and get my fix elsewhere.  It feels like cheating, but when you’ve got mouths to feed, a mortgage, and an entrepreneurial addiction, the justifications come easily.

Six months ago I started http://www.andersenwoodwork.com with a genius in the trade, Neil Andersen.  We do cabinets, custom architectural millwork, and installations.  Despite a slow start, today we’ve got two crews running and are on pace to hit $1m in sales this year.  I’m damn proud of what Neil and I have built so early, and it speaks volumes about his reputation in that industry.

I filmed six episodes of a TV show called The Audience.  I met some outstanding people, and we spent five straight days each episode solving other people’s problems.

I worked as a chef at a local daycare, for giggles, cooking for 45 toddlers, and realized we could streamline their culinary system while improving the quality of ingredients with only a few tweaks.  I built a new business model for corporate that showed them how to increase quality and efficiency with only organic and local produce for less than they were currently spending.

I learned how to box, lost 25 lbs, and cracked a rib.  I probably would’ve broken my jaw as well if the rib hadn’t gone first.  The rush of battling pain, exhaustion, and big men who want to hurt me was the closest I’ve got so far to the fix I need.  I find myself looking for scary guys to fight, I convince myself they’re packing heat to avoid fighting them.

Sometimes I convince myself of little lies to keep the illusion that I’m in control.  I’m not.  The biggest lie I tell myself is that I can do anything, be anything, and achieve my dreams.  My dreams include private islands with submarine caverns, genetically engineering Unicorns, and becoming a martial arts expert.

For two years my plan was to build, launch, and grow Nickler into an outstanding success, and I’ve failed at that, so far.  I had charted a path to success, and that path has felt like a complete shit show, a gong show, a complete goat rodeo.  Lately I’ve been thinking I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Success isn’t a thing.  It’s not an achievement, a milestone, or an award.

Success is an idea, and the more you play with it, study it, and seek to understand it, the less it means.  Stop studying success and go chase failure, you’ll learn far more and have way more fun.

Discuss on Hacker News

Advertisements

The Hunger Games

Why being broke is the best start-up strategy there is.

Sean Sherwood, Nickler

Startups are hard, but not because entrepreneurs don’t have an appetite for hard work.  Rather, it’s the constant rejection, the inability to convince people of your glorious vision, and the ever present threat of failure that make pushing forward seem like reckless insanity.  The secret to startup success is in embracing that insanity.

I look back to opening the first restaurant, at a time when I had no money, no network, a few close friends, and a cat named Monty, so named for his awkward resemblance to one Mr. Burns.  He wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but he had the kind of human personality to make you think twice about the possibility of reincarnation.  Opening day of the restaurant, after pulling a complete 30 hour work day to get it open, Monty got hit by a bus.

I got the call at the restaurant as I was doing the books trying to figure out how to manage the ridiculous amount of debt we had just put ourselves in.  I was alone in an empty building, sitting in an empty kitchen, and felt like the last part of anything beautiful and hopeful had drained out of me for good.

I saw that memory as a tragedy, a sad time in my life, but recently I found my thoughts drifting, and the memory wafted into my mind for a moment with a different perspective.  I remembered the terrible crushing sadness, and then the cold, clear certainty that followed.  If there was a fate, destiny, or karma, it was trying to push me down, kick me in the junk and make me quit.

Obviously I did what any male in his 20’s would do, and promptly gave fate the finger and did my level best to make sure it couldn’t see me cry.  Fuck fate, I’ll make this shit happen until it throws me in front of a bus, too.

We did, eventually, make it.  It was hard work, and we were young enough to know everything, which meant we had no idea what we had to learn.  The lessons came fast, and were unforgiving.  Every single mistake cost us precious money, and they came like waves, so that just as we caught our breath, another was upon us.  We were destined to drown, and saw it clearly.  With no moves left, we just started trying to earn one customer at a time.  It sounds simple, even cliché, but it forced us into a mentality that analyzed every single second of our customer’s experience, what went well, what needed to improve, and what they really wanted.  Not surprisingly, it worked, and after three weeks we saw a huge increase in sales, most of our new customers had become regulars, and we hadn’t done a lick of advertising or promotion.  Six months later we were playing to full houses, a great staff, and some of the best years of my life.

It taught me that my best work comes when I’m seriously fucked and out of options, and maybe I’ve been ignoring that lesson for too long.

Success does funny things to entrepreneurs.  At some point they lose the ‘entrepreneur’ mentality and become businessmen and ‘managers’.  Some of us get nervous, like we got lucky, and if we don’t fight like badgers to keep it, we’ll be right back in the kitchen crying over a dead cat.  For me, each new venture required slightly more capital, was slightly more ambitious, and required hiring more and more staff to manage them.  I was trying to build a fortress, as if the rolling tide of mistakes would keep crashing forever, and the only defense was bigger walls, more sales, more cash reserves, and more venues.

When I sold, I remember feeling that I had lost the spirit of who I was, and the spirit of what had created the success to begin with.  I had become a manager, and it was a betrayal of the philosophies that had brought me this far.  It was time to divest.

Starting Nickler was a perfect tonic, not only was it something I was driven to create from over a decade of hating paperwork, but it was in a completely new industry, technology and accounting.  It was pretty clear I was about to get schooled like the new kid in gym class, but the deep end of the ocean was beckoning, and this time I was wearing water wings, and had developed a taste for brine.

The learning curve was just like the last time, except fate was kind enough to spare my cat.

I still had some bad habits, like hiring fast, pushing to product, and pitching before we were ready.  I tried to raise investment like we did with the restaurants.  This time, however, the investors weren’t impressed by a nice bottle of wine or a cute bartender, and selling them the dream got me kicked out of too many meetings to mention.  I was sure the quickest path was the best path, and that meant raising enough money to hire a big team.

So I spent, and pitched, and hired, and pitched, and bitched, and pitched some more.  I knew I needed to learn how to pitch better, and relished the opportunities to practice, but we were about to be out of money, fast, and I was running out of moves, and investors.  Finally in February, I sat down with the team and we had ‘the talk’.  March 1 was the end of the money, and it was up to Don (our CTO and my co-founder) and I to take it the last 10 yards.  We stared deep into the abyss that day, and questioned every decision that had brought us here.

And then we jumped.

It was time to embrace the insanity.  Don sold his car, dropped every expense but his phone, and moved in.  I started looking for odd jobs to keep the coffee flowing and the internet on (thank you ayoudo.com!).  Shit just got real.

The world changes when you have no goals left but to get yourself fed, survive, and make it until the next day.  Your heart gets hard, but your mind gets focused.  There isn’t any question of motivation, because the luxury of choice is removed.  There is no think, only do.

Two weeks ago, after getting rejected by Ycombinator, we sat down and chose one of our beta customers.  This will be our first customer to earn.  We took apart the entire app and rebuilt it, piece by piece, in a painstaking process of perfecting what our users want from Nickler, and removing everything that didn’t make the workflow smoother, simpler, and relevant.  It was gut wrenching to delete features we’d spent weeks building, but we need to eat, we need to continue, we need to earn the first one, so that we can move on to earn the next one.

I heard a quote from an old movie on Paul Gaugin, who, upon learning his neighbour who worked in government was also an aspiring opera singer, told him quite succinctly “you’ll never make it as an artist, because you don’t have to make it as an artist”.  Basically, feed yourself with your craft, and you’ll soon learn whether you’ve got the stones for it.

I’ve never been happier with our company, its goals, and the vision of where we’re headed.  I’ve lost ten pounds, I’m running every day, and can just barely hear the Rocky theme going on constant loop in the back of my mind.  Our partnership has never been stronger, as we support, motivate, and challenge each other to get through another day.

Sure, I’m broke, but I’ve never felt more alive, more focused, and more determined to make this happen.

I’ve never felt more like an entrepreneur.