From Freelancer to Founder: Episode 1
From senior software engineer at IBM to freelance developer, I had a pretty amazing career start. I always dreamt about starting my own company, and last year it happened.
Yet, the way it happened was somehow unexpected. Here’s my story.
I never quite felt the urge to quit freelancing. I loved it. And I still do. You know you mastered your art when you make a decent living while enjoying maximum freedom. No agencies, no managers: just you, your clients and your craft.
From the beginning of my career, I dedicated a lof of time learning to code in the best possible way. I became quite a good developer. That was personally and financially rewarding. As a freelancer, I worked with some of the world’s biggest and most influential companies, including Microsoft, AXA, Nestlé and CBS. It allowed me to live in France for a couple of years before eventually moving back to Canada, where my wife and I got our first baby. If you were wondering, my wife tagged along with me in Europe. As far as I know, I am the biological father.
So why the hell would I leave this life? Plenty of money, trips and freedom sure isn’t bad at all.
A specific moment triggered a chain reaction, the moment when my wife discovered that I was hiding something from her.
That something was really bad. I mean, it was. But not that bad.
I had created a simple tool to log the work I did for clients. Nothing too fancy, just a plain old calendar where I could add time entries for clients or any billable tasks. Then, when I was ready to invoice my client, I just had to convert all those items into an invoice. It automatically added my tax information to the invoice and sent it to the client via email. In about 20 seconds, I billed all my clients at the end of the month.
Oh, and as an extra, it generated my tax remittance report. Ah, my double entry bookkeeping was also being generated. I could provide them to my accountant so he would spend his time on more valuable tasks than data entry.
To set the context, we live in Quebec City. We have a Provincial Sales Tax (QST) and a Federal Sales Tax (GST). That’s if you bill only in Quebec. My wife is a freelance writer. She published two games, so she gets royalties from Ontario, which uses a Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). And she works for a magazine in New Brunswick that uses another set of HST (yeah, we got a couple of HST in Canada – I wonder why they call this the Harmonized sales tax). Did I mention she published a book too? And that her games are also sold in France, Belgium, Switzerland? She spent about 6 hours a month billing her clients, and that’s because she is super-organized. Now I did not talk about her tax remittance report, which was quite a mess. Four taxes, different rates. Did I mention accounting? No wonder she was upset when she found out I didn’t show her my tool.
She kindly asked me if I could (forced me to) let her use my software. I added user accounts, isolated data per user, and two hours later she was in. From that moment, she saved 5 hours 50 minutes per month, not even including taxes time. In fact, she could have saved even more time. It was so quick to use she did not believe it was doing the job properly. So she started double checking everything (Free QA!).
My wife began to talk about her newfound peace of mind to some friends who were also freelancing. I eventually let them use my homemade tool too. One night, around a couple of beers, I tossed: “Hey guys, maintaining the system costs time and money. I think that would be fair for you to pay.” Most of them (we all have a cheap friend, don’t we?) took 20$ from their wallet and gave me that money. As a tribute to their initial commitment, the pricing of Momenteo is still 20$ per month.
I decided it was time to give it my best shot. Momenteo was officially born on January 5, 2015. My goal for that year was nothing less than building the best freelancer accounting tool out there. There was a lot to be done — a lot more than I expected. Launching your own startup is quite a bumpy ride, trust me!
Momenteo was launched on December 9, 2015. I do believe my first goal was reached. It’s still just a beginning, but I’m very proud of the product we managed to deliver with such limited resources.
Here is a quick rundown of the challenges I faced last year, along with the good moments, in chronological order:
- Turning my personal tool into a marketable product (MVP)
- Finding my first 50 paying customers
- Making it to our local chapter of Shark Tank (Dragon’s Den)
- Hiring my first two employees (a developer, and a designer)
- Paying those first hires (uh-oh moment!)
- Finding money
- Receiving an email from Dragon’s Den to inform me that even though I received an offer, I wouldn’t make it to TV
- Refusing the Dragon’s offer
- Moving from my basement to a proper office (39 weeks pregnant wife request)
- Finding money
- Realizing that my marketing skills didn’t match my development skills
- Giving shares to two marketers
- Firing one marketer and getting back the shares
- Redefining the brand vision
- Hiring an expert brand strategist to give us a hand
- Paying the brand strategist (Second uh-oh moment!)
- Finding money
- Moving the current product from full-stack Ruby On Rails to Angular backed by a Rails API
- Soft-launching a completely rebranded/revisited product with our current customers
- Managing change with the current user base (some users always think the previous version was better)
- Receiving praises from the current customers saying that after all, the new version is good
- Hard-launching the product and getting press coverage
- Pitching to angel investors
- Writing this blog post
I did pitch to angel investors at the very beginning of 2015. I did not land any investment on their end: “Good entrepreneur for a great project. Come back in a year or so.” As you may imagine, I was upset. If I was the one supposed to build this company and they knew it, why would they choose to pass?
As a matter of fact, I am now so grateful they did pass. First and foremost, I would have burnt that money to get the same amount of learning. I had no idea what it took to build a company from scratch, and I don’t think money would have helped in that particular area. Secondly, I am now in the perfect spot to raise angel money. Why? Because I don’t need investment to grow. I mean, we are bootstrapped, we make a decent living out of Momenteo, and our story’s still at its first chapter. The best is yet to come. I’m exactly where they wanted me to be. These investors wanted to fuel the growth of my company, not my learning as an entrepreneur.
So here we are, one year or so later. I have a meeting with the same investors this afternoon. My choice now is both simple and hard: should I build a rapidly growing startup using investors’ money, or should I keep it a lifestyle business, like in my old freelancer’s days?
I’ll be sure to let you know which path I choose.