The Awl: Dan Shanoff! Not long ago, after some scheming, you left a job and started your own company and its first publication, Quickish, which is sports-oriented, and in beta, and provides immediate, quickly done news and views and updates. You plan to expand beyond sports in the future. Dan, why did you do this?
Dan: I have wanted to create my own company since I had my first job, where I was employee No. 1 for a couple of MBA drop-outs that got some seed funding from AOL to start a content site to keep AOL subscribers enthusiastic and engaged to be paying by the hour to be on AOL. It was 1995. The mandate was to try anything and everything, and I loved it.
Everything I have done since then—working for different start-ups and some more traditional companies—has been in this attempt to recapture that. I’ve helped build successful products, even a few from scratch. But this time, I wanted to put myself in the position of creating and testing the concept, working with partners to make it happen and ultimately launching and growing it with a team I build—where there was no corporate net.
So with that perspective going back to the first real inklings of the consumer web, I can say this: There has never been a better time to start a new company—particularly one focused on the consumer internet.
It doesn’t matter that I have limited (self-) funding. It doesn’t matter that I have two little kids and a mortgage. It doesn’t matter that my tech development background is nominal. It doesn’t matter that the competition is as ferocious as it has ever been.
What matters is two things, one external and one internal. Externally, technology and distribution and information got a lot more accessible, to the point where someone like me, with only a limited background in tech development or fundraising—could start a company.
But internally—and that’s where the motivation really has to come from—this was my now-or-never moment: I wanted to try to build my own company. If I didn’t, I could already envision myself 5 or 10 or 20 years down the road regretting it, profoundly. I had to try.
And here’s the best part: Despite the pressure and the
uncertainty—like nothing I’ve ever felt, really—there isn’t a job
in the world that I find more interesting or exciting (or
harrowing) than the one I’m in the middle of now.
The Awl: You have an MBA, which is handy, so you’re not an editorial-only person who’ll be useless on the business side, but: why did you decide to launch without cofounders?
Dan: Fortunately, “Editor Dan” and “MBA Dan” have a pretty good relationship.
For some good reasons and bad ones, “solo founder” developed a bit of a stigma in the start-up community—particularly the oh-so-dreaded “non-technical solo founder.”
I get the theory: How can a solo founder without a technical background do what every start-up needs to do: “Ship.” Launch and build products.
By necessity, I think it needs to be a bit more nuanced than that, depending on your product, your experience and your network. If you’re trying to hack together a cool new app like GroupMe? You damn well better have a technical co-founder.
In the same way that start-up information has been made infinitely more efficient by the VC/entrepreneur media ecosystem; the start-up funding pipeline has been made infinitely more efficient by AngelList; the infrastructure systems have been made infinitely more efficient by Amazon or Rackspace; and the distribution system has been made infinitely more efficient by Facebook and Twitter…
…I think there is an opportunity for solo founders to bring together domain experts to help get products from idea to traction, at which point you’ll hit the milestone where the market—namely, investors and customers—indicate to you that your company can grow through bringing on more talent, whether that’s additional founders or just super-motivated employees.
For a content-focused company like mine, there was an intense focus on the initial product design and development. I was lucky enough to be able to work with Hard Candy Shell the best UX firm in the world; for those months of work, they felt (and still feel) entirely like my partners, even if that’s not the capital structure. And I was lucky enough to know the founder of Jolly Science, a start-up web and software development company that wanted to help me build and improve the products; again, everything about the relationship has felt like a partnership. I consider them every bit as much of a part of my team as any future co-founders or employees.
Both Hard Candy Shell and Jolly Science were professionally and personally invested in my company’s success (and I’m not talking about equity, but their sense of commitment to making it succeed)—that gave me the confidence to proceed as a solo founder, and I think the product is as good as it could have been, arguably because I focused on working with specialized partners.
Again, I see this as very specific to me, with this company, my
resources, etc. You have to do what fits your business and your
personality and your vision. And so that’s not to say that a great
co-founder situation isn’t phenomenal. I just hope folks can see
there are a couple of different ways to go. Part of what makes this
such a great time to start a company is precisely because there are
so many partners out there you can come together with to help you
build a great business.
The Awl: One thing that’s unusual about what you’re building as an editorial product is that it’s both somewhat distributed (as in, the front page is fairly similar to its Twitter feed!) and it’s very outward-bound. You skim; you click, you’re off, presumably to return sometime. This is a great service to news consumers! But it’s not exactly dreamy in terms of traditional business metrics, like “time on site” or sheer pageviews or what have you. How do you plan to deal with the challenges of running a publication that’s better for readers but maybe less-good for the MBA Dan?
Dan: Let’s back up: By design, I want the minimum level of engagement for the maximum number of people.
I’m not going to tell another publisher—or marketer—what their minimum level should be. But Quickish is designed to be low-commitment/high-reward, to give you a satisfying experience very quickly. You can come back once a day for 30 seconds or you can come back 40 times a day or you can come back when news breaks or during a live event knowing you’re going to have a valuable experience worth whatever time you’re willing to spend. But, at its core, as a product developer, you’ve got to know what your minimum satisfying experience is and build for that, layering everything else on top.
I maintain a focus on the minimum, because it’s when you start to get greedy with people’s time that you start to get sloppy—traffic-trolling, gimmicks, tricks, gaming, absurd pagination. And that’s just not sustainable. Eventually, people will get tired of the way you disrespect their time.
Even before the iPhone, the trend has been veering toward an “app-ified” media experience, whether or not you’re on a phone: A simple, elegant, valuable function—part of a system of simple, cool, elegant functions. Sometimes they interconnect—see Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare—but people seem to have a pretty elastic appetite for stuff that satisfies them. It’s mis-reading the era to think of engaging consumers as zero-sum, rather than trying to get a critical mass of people to make you part of their rotation, however long they might want to give you.
And so we’re focused on creating as few barriers to consumption as possible. Depending on your company’s goals, of course, getting some pre-determined level of vanity metrics can take your focus off the more important metrics. In the case of Quickish, we just want you to show up every day, for as long as you want to be there.
If their next click is to a great piece of analysis that Quickish is recommending, that’s phenomenal. Why? Because it sure as hell beats the “back” button; that next click, in and of itself, is an amazing piece of engagement; that it isn’t to a piece of Quickish content doesn’t matter in the larger fit. Because every time we send you to something great, the hope is that you’ll reward us by coming back again tomorrow for another recommendation or two (or two-dozen). Or reward us by passing something along from Quickish via Facebook or Twitter. Or reward us by just telling a friend or two you found a great new site.
At some point, that credibility reaches a scale where it fits with a marketer’s plan to reach an engaged audience. Or that credibility reaches a scale where you can pass along deals to users that they appreciate. Or that credibility reaches a scale where people are willing to pay a nominal bit for a specialized version of the product. Not even two months in, we’re on our way.
My company happens to be in a faux-luxurious position right now—”pre-revenue.” It’s an open question what business model works, and that’s OK (for now). We intentionally have multiple streams in development. But I feel really good about positioning the company’s fit for people’s behavior and interests that are evolving, rather than the ones that represent the conventional wisdom of even a few years ago.
The Awl Yes, you started-up a start-up whose revenues streams are “in development,” as is so often the thing to do these days. This is betting big on a long dream! Can you put your delightful spouse Margery, or one of your many dozens of delightful children, on the line here to explain how you made this choice as a household entity?
Dan: Margery says:
“It didn’t feel like a risk, because it’s a great idea and I believe in Dan.
“Well, let’s be fair: Everything is a risk. But to me, I would rather this kind of risk—a great idea backed by really smart business thinking and a ton of passion—than a job he doesn’t love with an established company, which is probably just as risky.
“So the big considerations were: (1) Can we afford it? (Yes, but certainly his ‘founder’s salary’ of zero isn’t a long-term solution.) (2) How does it impact the kids? (I work full time, too, so we have had to use baby-sitters a lot more, in addition to their regular daycare.) and (3) Can we account for the early strain on our relationship? (And, so far, we have, by recognizing that this first year after launching will mean that the dishwasher just gets emptied less often.)
“So far it’s been great. I can’t wait to see where it goes!”
And, later, 4-year-old Gabe sees me with my laptop open on the couch pipes up with his opinion: “Daddy, what are you working on? Qwwwwwickishhhhh?” There’s a lot of that. Hey: Another opportunity to keep refining the company pitch to a captive audience.
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