Me, the quasi-accidental entrepreneur

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 25, 2010, 9:50 PM | comments: 0

I read a blog post today from Nate Kohari about his experience building a product, launching it and later getting acquired. I first heard of Nate something like a year and a half ago as the author of a dependency injection framework, and because he was from Akron.

His story is interesting because he deliberately made something interesting, that he cared about, and made money with it. He's very much a deliberate entrepreneur, whereas in many ways I just kind of fell into it. Sort of. I was 27 when I started my LLC with the intention of selling my forum app, and I think in the two years it was viable that only added up to about $20k. That was kind of accidental for me, and I never knew that ad revenue could ever be substantial at that point either, so I still put myself in the accidental category.

But one thing that Nate wrote struck me like Lohan on a frantic crack binge behind the wheel:

"It made me remember what it was like to build something because you loved it, not because nameless customer X needed it for generic business process Y, and not because it was the next story or defect in the backlog."

I keep reading that over and over because it's so profound to me. I've never quite been able to summarize the difference between working for yourself, and for The Man, but this is it. Wow. I'm not suggesting that it's a binary condition, because I've "loved" things in every programming job I've ever had, but the parts that seem to bore me or annoy me always fall under these categories.

Doing the things you love is sometimes harder in a day job, and in my current position, I'm trying to figure out still how to do the things I love. The business has requirements and things that just have to get done. That's why we have jobs. I'm still not used to an environment, however, where we're generally trusted to find the balance ourselves. The HR culture stifles that exploration, however unintentional that might be.

I had an interesting conversation with our director the other day. He was asking about the sites I run and what not, and said that he found it surprising that more people in our line of work didn't also have these kinds of things going on. He runs some projects on the side as well, only he donates the revenue to charity (something I'd happily do if I had his salary ;)). I asked my boss (who now answers to the director) what he thought about this non-phenomenon of revenue generating side projects, and he said that for him at least it was an issue of time. But countless other devs I know simply don't engage in the side projects, and I too find that surprising. It causes me to wonder, what makes me and this director more the exception than the rule, and does this create opportunities for me that I haven't identified?

I was very surprised to see today, when I was looking at finances (again), that POP World Media has generated about a quarter-million dollars since 1999, not counting the $100k I negotiated for the sale of popworld.com. That is nuts. Granted, the profit on that has only been about $50k over the decade, but still. Why couldn't I have had this "hobby" in college? I could've had my own place, paid my tuition myself without loans and be fat with all of that beer money.

The guy that I worked for very briefly in 2008 told me I was only an accidental entrepreneur because I didn't apply the knowledge I actively used to make other people money, and I didn't have the right idea yet. I think he was generally full of shit, but he might be right. It felt like such an underhanded comment that it motivated me to substantially turn around CoasterBuzz in 2009, and even now those actions continue to pay off.

So the bottom line is that I have to keep in mind that I've been around so much success and failure that my experience is very broad and robust, and I need to reclaim some of that 27-year-old drive and remember that I can make things happen. I've done it before. Being a little naive and idealistic has its advantages, and I hope get some of that back.

 


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