From Scratch: What I Learned Taking PencilBlue From Concept to MVP - 1

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Earlier this month, we launched the promotional website and developer blog for PencilBlue, our foray into the world of online publishing platforms. It was not only a public relations milestone for us, but a massive technical one as well. going online was the culmination of many months of extracurricular work and the first in many tests of our company's vision, for when your product is a tool to build websites, every detail of your own website is up for debate. This scrutiny is magnified even further when PencilBlue's key value propositions are based on the premise that other products in a "red ocean" market aren't up to snuff (for more details, read this post on our developer blog).

I've led development of several applications from concept to market, and I've been hyper-focused on the web development space for years. Despite this, bringing to life a product in a genre that absolutely everyone has at least some opinion on has taught me more about the software business than anything that preceded it. Here's my journey and what I learned.

Don't be afraid to take on an 800-pound gorilla, but know exactly why you're doing it.

When I told a few of my confidants—developers, business mentors, and family—my plan to compete with one of the only software tools that's a household name, the overwhelming response was major, deserved skepticism. WordPress has tens of millions of dollars in funding and I would be bootstrapping. It has an 11-year head start. It has developer loyalty and I would have to start from user zero. No one even comes close to its market share.

The skeptics were all right. I had seen enough software fail through blind duplication. And I had abandoned more side projects than I can count, simply because I didn't see them ever gaining major use.

I had to sell myself on this product standing a chance, and I came close to quitting, multiple times. I told myself over and over again through those first weekend coding sessions that the market is ancient, unchallenged and running on outdated web platforms. The key would be to overload my product with key features the competition doesn't have and would have to completely rebuild its platform to gain.

With this in mind, we looked at every feature and answered the question, "Does the genre traditionally do X well or poorly?" We refined when the answer was the former and rebuilt from scratch when it was the latter. If we'd been overwhelmed by the size of the competition and just tested the waters by building an extremely simple publishing platform for Node.js, the product would have been released already. But it would have no unique value to anyone other than die-hard Node advocates.

By going the other route, I've yet to have anyone, including all the original skeptics, look at the result and not immediately see us as a legitimate competitor to WordPress. I'm so happy that I sold myself on my own vision in those first months and, with the eventual help of our team, saw it through to completion as I failed to do with so many projects before.

A major key to success is understanding and accepting what you suck at and finding others to pick up the slack.

Every personal project I worked on before PencilBlue was just that, personal. Ask a professional software engineer what he or she is doing on the side and you'll probably get an answer that doesn't involve other developers. Programmers have a tendency to see their pet projects as a way to do the one thing they can't do at their day job—be completely uncompromising. Unsurprisingly, this is why most side projects go nowhere.

I had reached that crossroads with PencilBlue. Working solo for about two months, I had built a proof of concept application that could display blog posts and do a few things that were unique to the genre. At this point, I could have continued to press forward and kept complete control of the intellectual property and equity. I was considering it.

During this time, I was invited to a meet-and-greet at UNC Chapel Hill with Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, as he made a stop on his book tour. After a nice dinner and some conversation with local entrepreneurs and educators, I was ready to ditch the speech and get home. It had been a long day and my wife, who was eight months pregnant with our daughter, was waiting for me. Fortunately for PencilBlue, my friend and partner in REAL (which I previously wrote about here), Josh Anderson, guilted me into staying.

It was just a small portion of Ohanian's presentation, but it really struck home for me. He spoke on the balance between his co-founder, Steve Huffman, and himself; how Reddit wouldn't exist as it does today without their efforts to prop up each other's work and tear down each other's bad ideas. I had an immediate revelation that PencilBlue would go nowhere if I didn't find someone to take over the core architecture of the platform and challenge my overall vision. While I'm a top-level engineer of interfaces and user experiences, that doesn't equally carry over to distributed system architecture. I could continue, on my own, to build what would be a fairly solid platform, but it wouldn't be the game changer I was banking on.

I already knew that I wanted Brian Hyder to be in charge of the technology of PencilBlue. I had gotten to know him through another startup he had worked for and knew that he was the right fit and that he was looking for a new project. He reviewed the source code for a few weeks, gave his feedback, and said he was willing to come on board as long as he could rebuild the entire backend of the application.

I immediately offered him half of PencilBlue.

Until you have a finished product, those who can build it are the most valuable people at your company.

I've made this point before, but it bears repeating since it's the number one mistake made by new entrepreneurs in the software business. If I had been unwilling to equally split PencilBlue equity with a qualified developer partner, it would never have come to fruition.

I had a decent proof of concept and a slick interface on top of it, but I didn't have a world-class publishing platform. No matter how long I had spent conceptualizing the idea and building the prototype, I had built up no more equity than Brian, who would be tasked with rebuilding the entire foundation of the platform. If I was firmly in that position as a software engineer at a software company with a functioning proof of concept, then no "idea man" has a leg to stand on when he's stingy in divvying up ownership in his company.

Having Brian as an equal partner in PencilBlue has paid dividends. We have to explain every major decision to each other, and we've both caught flaws in each other's original logic. Every technical challenge has both a developer and user experience advocate and we have an equal interest in making the best decisions for the business by regularly meeting in the middle. We've both made capitulations to the other's demands for things to work a certain way, and it has always resulted in a better platform.

Graciously accept anyone's feedback, but take it as a critique of your pitch more than your product.

By the end of January, Brian and I had taken PencilBlue to alpha (a functioning product that was still missing some key features). We began to quietly demo the platform and run through our pitch deck with a few people in our network. For a while, it was rare to not get strong, dissenting feedback.

If we had enacted upon all of that feedback, PencilBlue would be a fragmented platform that aimed to serve everyone but would fail in meeting anyone's needs. It would be a mess.

That's not to say that those opinions weren't valuable—quite the contrary. After a few trips down feedback rabbit holes, we learned that suggestions from anyone other than a subject matter expert only showed us how to better market the direction we're already heading. We learned to tailor our pitches to the audience, something that seems obvious and is easy to say from behind a podium, but is rather difficult when almost everyone has a varying degree of experience with your market.

We know we're learning from this, because the feedback has become progressively less centered on opinion and is more about feature requests. You can tell that you've convinced people of your product's value when they stop asking for something different and start asking for something more.

Don't get caught up in the hype of entrepreneurism.

PencilBlue is scheduled for public release in June, well less than a year since I started toying with the idea of building a publishing platform in Node, and that's despite that it required much more software development than the average minimum viable product. We wouldn't have gotten here if we had wasted time trying to tap our networks and promote ourselves before we had a functioning product.

And, man, did I want promote our early work. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of starting your own business, especially with the romanticism that's so prevalent in startup communities. There's a whole industry built around charging entrepreneurs a fee to have their egos puffed up. It's a trap I've seen countless people fall into, and a mistake I at least partly made with every idea I had before PencilBlue.

In the end, staying in almost complete stealth mode until we had something tangible—only showing our progress to a select group of advisors—was the best decision we could have made. First opinions are everything, and companies trust their revenue generation to products, not projects. When you often only get one chance to sell someone on your work, you should actually have something to sell.

Every challenge is an opportunity to change yourself, not others.

We've still got a very long way to go with PencilBlue, and every day I'm reminded how much room I have to improve in this unfamiliar territory of being a CEO. I'm lucky enough to be married to a seasoned manager, who regularly reminds me that it's not my job to wrangle my team—the complete opposite of what my military background taught me. Instead, the best thing I can do is change the way I interact with them, so they are empowered in finding their own paths to success.

That's something I have to work on constantly, and I'm also lucky to have a business partner that never fails to remind me when I'm not pushing the needle in the right direction. I'm convinced that the key to success, in business and in life, is to not be afraid of being called on your B.S. and to perpetually work on having less of it.

As long as the PencilBlue team and I can stay true to that ideal, I believe we are sure to succeed in our mission of being the next standard in online publishing. And, as every day brings a new challenge, it also brings a new opportunity for me to grow as a startup executive. I'm sure that a year from now I'll have a whole new set of lessons to share.

Feel free to reach out to us - or call us on our BS - either here in the comments or on Twitter at @GetPencilBlue.