My Innoview with Wayne Crosby

Yes, I'm coining a new term - "innoview." Don't know what it means, I'll let the audience decide.

Wayne Crosby (wcrosby at gmail.com for those that want to reach him) and I launched a complete rewrite of Webstore by Amazon last year, bringing a large dose of creativity, innovation, and bar-raising customer experiences to the market. I truly enjoyed working with Wayne and he was arguably the largest reason for the success of the product and its launch. Wayne is now off to bigger and better things, namely launching a new company after incubating it via Y Combinator.

JR: Tell us a little about what you are doing now.

WC: In January, Robby Walker and I founded Zenter, Inc. with the goal of building the next version of presentation software - not just PowerPoint online. For the first 10 weeks of 2007 we did nothing but design, code, sleep, and leave our apartment once day for a little tennis. All of the hard work seems to have paid off. We have written 40k lines of code, filed 2 provisional patents, created several million dollars worth of value, and have already talked to acquirers in this short time. It's been the most exciting and rejuvenating 3 months of my life.

JR: Congrats on your rapid success! What gave you the inspiration to try Y Combinator as an avenue to launch a new company?

WC: In early 2006 Robby and I started talking about doing a startup. Y Combinator had completed 3 sessions at that point, so we contacted several of the teams and most seemed to be doing well and had nothing but good things to say about it. Y Combinator was founded by Paul Graham and the team that built and sold Via Web to Yahoo! The product was re-branded as Yahoo! Stores and became the #1 ecommerce application. With my background in ecommerce (Go Daddy's Quick Shopping Cart & Amazon's WebStore) I felt like Y Combinator was a natural fit for us. We spent about 2 weeks brainstorming about a product that we felt would benefit from a program like Y Combinator. We settled on Presentation Software and haven't looked back since.

JR: How has your concept been received by the community?

WC: We have received almost the same reaction from everyone (technical, business, angel investors, and VC). At first people don't understand why we would want to do PowerPoint online. However, once they see a demo and understand that we are not PowerPoint, but the next generation of Presentation Software, they get really excited about it. At first I was hesitant to the idea as well. I thought "Presentation Software isn't sexy - I want to do something that is going to be innovative and revolutionary." But I realized with that thought there was something there. Presentation Software is a proven multi-billion dollar industry that has not had a significant feature upgrade in 15 years. I then asked myself, "What would make it sexy, innovative, and revolutionary? If PowerPoint were built today without the desktop limitations of yester-year what would it look like?" Low and behold we have been able to get a lot of people excited about Zenter. We are still in private beta, but have given several demos and have been picked up on quite a few high profile blogs including:
business 2.0,
several investors,
and of course this one.

JR: Was Y Combinator what you expected?

WC: It is the truth when I say the 3 months at Y Combinator were THE BEST experience of my career thus far. Robby and I laugh about what it would be like to do this without Y Combinator. The instant credibility and connections you get by just being part of Y Combinator are amazing and really give you the greatest chance for success. Y Combinator does not give very much money to their startups, and they ask for about 5% of the company. Many people on the blogs feel this is too little money for so much equity. As someone who has been through it, it was a bargain and I would do it again in a heartbeat. It comes down to the famous watermelon vs. grape analogy. Would you rather have 95% of a watermelon or 100% of a grape?

JR: Mmmmm.... grapes. What was a typical day or week like at YC?

We basically lived by the following schedule 7 days a week for 3 months.
10am - Noon: roll out of bed and stumble into the living room to sit at the computer, check email, blogs, news for the day and start coding
Noon - 12:30: eat our $2 Lean Cuisine lunch - My personal favorite is Swedish Meatballs
12:30 - 7pm: Heads down coding, music played all day long and we alternated days to pick the play list which worked well
7 - 8: Kick Robby's ass at Tennis on the apartment courts. I think I may have won 3 sets over the entire 3 months. But they were always like 6-4 and it got us out for some exercise.
8 - 9: Make and eat gourmet dinner - mostly tombstone pizza, but occasionally Red Baron when they were on sale. Care packages from family were also extremely helpful to make sure we didn't eat too poorly.
9pm - 4am: Code like the wind - maybe do a design session or two if we are trying work through something particularly hard.
4am - 10am: sleep

Tuesdays were a special day. Every Tuesday night Paul Graham makes dinner for all of the Y Combinator companies (including several past session startups) and invites a special guest speaker to give advice. This year's lineup was very impressive and included:
Joe Kraus: Founder of Excite and JotSpot
Evan Williams: Founder of Blogger and Twitter
Greg McAdoo: Partner at Sequoia Capital
Mark Fletcher: Founder of OneList and Bloglines
Paul Buchheit: Creator of Gmail and Web 2.0
Ron Conway: World's largest Angel Investor
Sam Altman: Founder of Loopt - one of CNNs top 25 company to watch in 2007, and arguably Y Combinator's most successful company to date
Jame Hong: Founder of Hot or Not
Bradley Horowitz: Head of Yahoo! Small Business Mergers and Acquisitions

Over 60% of the speakers play or played an extremely important roll in our company. For example, we were struggling with a name for the product when Evan Williams came to speak. He owned Zenter.com and we ended up trading a little stock for the domain and to get him as an advisor. He now has an active interest helping Zenter succeed and even offered office space to us in San Francisco.

JR: So, with the sleep and eating schedule its basically like college? Watch what you eat or you'll end up with my physique. What was different at YC from what you expected?

WC: One of the hardest things about doing a startup is surrounding yourself with successful and supportive people. This was one of the main things that attracted us to Y Combinator. However, when we applied I was thinking these roles would be filled by Y Combinator founders and some of the speakers. I completely underestimated the value of fellow entrepreneurs who are going through it. Y Combinator companies have an incredible bond and help each other out more than I ever expected. There is an apartment building in San Francisco nicknamed the "Y-Scraper." The apartment has an unusually high percentage of Y Combinator startups in it. The eight there now are:

Every one of them is on the path to greatness and it creates an environment like none other in the world.

Also, Paul Graham is ALWAYS right. But at the same time, he lets each of the teams figure things out on their own without forcing his view. For example, Every week at the dinners he would say, "Just build something people want - don't worry about raising money now" and then would hear people say something like "Raising money takes a long time, plan on 6 to 8 months". This was petrifying to us. We were watching our small round of seed funding run out day by day and we were supposed to plan on 6-8 months after we started the fund raising process to see more. Shouldn't we start ASAP? I can only speak from my experience, but building something people want is the hard part - raising money was easier than I expected.

JR: What was the downside of your experience YC?

Y Combinator requires you to move to either Cambridge, MA (Summer session) or Mountain View, CA (Winter session). The night we submitted our application to Y Combinator, we found out my wife was pregnant with our first child. The hardest decision my wife and I made was me going off to do a startup while she remained in AZ. We bought video phones and used Skype video conferencing every night to stay in touch. The video phones helped a ton, especially since I only made 1 trip back home in the 3 months. Looking back it was absolutely the right decision for me, the family, and our future - but it sucked not being around her for 3 months.

JR: What advice would you give entrepreneurs now that you have been through this experience?

WC: I'm far from an expert on this one - but here is my advice for whatever it's worth:

  1. Get something - anything - out to the world. Pick a product that matches the resources you have available to you. Last January I started 2 side projects as my first venture into entrepreneurialism. First was a real estate site that aimed to streamline the existing processes that exist today. The second was a sudoku website, www.counttonine.com. The real estate project ended up being too large of a project to get off the ground with 1 person working part time on it. However, the sudoku site has exploded since its launch. It currently has more than 10 million page views per month and continues to increase 10% or more each month. Count to Nine has supplied a nice supplemental income while we got Zenter off the ground. It was an easy side project and ended up being what enabled me to make the transition to focusing on a startup full time.
  2. Surround yourself with other entrepreneurs. If you are not in a startup hotspot - you have one option. MOVE. I am a big believer in being immersed in a culture that supports entrepreneurs. I look at it like this - there are so many things that you cannot control that dictate if a startup succeeds or fails. The location of the startup is something you have complete control over. Why not maximize the chance of success by moving somewhere where you will be surrounded by people who understand what you trying to do? For example, when I returned to AZ and told people what we were doing I often got, "You aren't serious are you? YOU are going to directly competing with Microsoft?" Most people thought we were crazy. In Silicon Valley, people are excited about it and want to talk about how they can be involved.
  3. Pick your co-founder(s) carefully. Get a co-founder you can spend every minute of every day with - pick someone you have worked with in the past that you have a good working relationship with. DO NOT attempt to do it alone. In my opinion the best products come from small teams of 2 to 4 people. No one person is good at everything, so pick someone that compliments your abilities.
  4. Try and stay in the middle ground emotionally. Startups are a rollercoaster of emotions. Everyone will warn you of this, and it is next to impossible to avoid, so just know it is going to happen. One day you might think you are going to be a multibillion dollar company, the next you might think you are going fail miserably. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle - statistics say probably closer to the fail side. But don't let fears of failure stop you. I would challenge you to find an entrepreneur that has "failed", however you define it, and ask if they would have changed the experience for anything. I looked and never found one.
  5. It's your company - you know best. Although this is a true statement, you should always listen to people. If people are telling you that something isn't right in the product - they are probably right. Use the opportunity to really understand why they are saying that and brainstorm and see if you can come up with a better solution. It's the cheapest and best usability testing you can get.
  6. Keep your physical health in check. It's easy to not eat right and not exercise when doing a startup. Don't let it happen. The days that we ate poorly or didn't exercise were noticeably less productive than others. We quickly realized this and scheduled a daily tennis match to get us out of the apartment and moving around. Try and find a sport where you and your co-founder(s) are evenly matched. A little friendly competition is really healthy and it's a great way to settle decisions that don't really matter.
  7. Build something people want. Paul Graham would be disappointed if I didn't include this one. This is the mantra of Y Combinator. It sounds obvious, but most startups don't do it. Spend time really thinking about of your product. Is it something you yourself would use? Is it so much better than existing solutions that you would make the change to use it? If it is, you're on the right path.
  8. Think virally. Mark Fletcher had a great definition for this when he spoke at Y Combinator, "A viral product is one where users experience benefits created by others that use the product that would not otherwise exist." This is really powerful. When this works, your users become your marketing department. Think of your product in this way - do users have a reason to tell other users to try your product? If not, I'm not going to say your product is doomed, but it's an uphill battle.
  9. Get a mentor. Find someone who recommends good books to read, someone who can give sound advice on product vision, someone who can help navigate raising money, someone who has done a startup in the past year or two, and someone who is working on a complementary product to yours. These roles don't need to be, and really shouldn't be, filled by one person. I have several mentors and all have been the difference between success and failure at different stages of my career.
  10. Don't rely too heavily on existing libraries for your differentiators. This is always a delicate point with engineers. I'm not suggesting reinventing the wheel every time you start a new project. However, the features that are going to differentiate you, by definition, need to be yours alone. For example, Zenter relies heavily on JavaScript to provide a rich end user experience. We looked at several libraries (Dojo, jQuery, Prototype, etc.) and in the end developed a meta-language on top of JavaScript to meet our needs, using a tiny part of Prototype. That decision has enabled us to do things that would not have been possible if we just relied on existing libraries.
  11. You don't have to start a startup to be a part of one. There are a lot of great startups out there that are looking for people with the entrepreneurial spirit. It's a great way to test the waters and see if it is for you. (Shameless plug: Zenter is hiring! If you have crazy JavaScript or Java skills we want you. Email us at "jobs at zenter.com").

JR: I'm Java 1.0 Sun Certified, can I apply? Seriously, can you talk about what's next in your future?

WC: In the short term, we are focused entirely on getting Zenter out of private beta. We have several media events that are scheduled for next month, so more heads down coding until then. After that, the focus is going to be on building Zenter into a $100m company with growth (piece of cake?). Also, my son is due on May 22, 2007, so it's a delicate balance between getting ready for the new Crosby and getting Zenter launched. It's a great problem to have.

Longer term, I feel I have found my calling as an entrepreneur. The startup environment is very addicting, and Zenter will not be my last. We have compiled a list with dozens of ideas just waiting for some spare cycles to get going. Hopefully they won't sit idle for too long.

JR: Congrats again on your upcoming child - all I can say is don't miss the birth or you'll be writing songs like Harry Chapin (as a father that song always brings tears to my eyes and definitely focuses me on the right things in life). As always, thank you Wayne for your time. Of course I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors, more so if they involve me :)

UPDATE - Zenter bought by Google


francine said...

If you are back in AZ we would like to meet you. We are Stealthmode Partners, and we run an operation very similar to Y Combinator in Arizona. http://www.stealthmode.com. I'm interested in hearing more about best practices.

Hasan said...

great interview, thanks for all the great advice.

BTW - I have read about Zenter a few times, it sounds great, can't wait until it gets out in the public.