Recently the Netsetter had the opportunity to speak with Jared Goralnick of AwayFind and Set Consulting. Check below the jump for both audio and text versions of Thursday Bram interviewing Jared about himself, his business, and his advice for you.
Download the interview. (Right-click and “Save link as”)
TB: Today I’m here with Jared Goralnick who is the creator of AwayFind, as well as the consultant behind Set Consulting, and a couple of other cool projects. Jared, the first question that I want to ask you is, what is AwayFind?
JG: Well, thanks for having me here Thursday. AwayFind is a web application that helps people to not get interrupted constantly by their email. When there’s urgent messages, it’ll notify you via SMS, voice, or IM-things like that so that one can close their inbox for a good portion of the day and focus on what they want to.
TB: Where did you get the inspiration to build this sort of web tool?
JG: Over the past 8 years doing productivity training and things related to that, I saw that communications was taking up more and more of people’s day. It got to the point where it was about half of people’s days were spent in programs like Outlook and email and true general collaboration. But at the same time, we were trying to advocate batch tasks, where you go through one thing, you go through all of it, then you move to the next thing. And interruptions are really killing people’s days and those interruptions were coming from email. So, that was a big part of the inspiration behind AwayFind.
TB: And is AwayFind your first entrepreneurial venture? What sort of things were you doing before AwayFind?
JG: Well, I started that consulting business that I mentioned about 8 years ago, so I guess I would call that my first “real” entrepreneurial venture short of selling CDs or something at school, in high school, things like that. So it was the first real thing I ever did, or Set Consulting was.
TB: And have you noticed a lot of differences between running a business based on consulting (Set Consulting) and running a web application?
JG: Oh yeah. It’s very different running a service company versus a product company. With a service company, you’re essentially billing by the hour, which means if you spend your day wisely, you can start making money right from the get-go, whereas with a product-based company, there’s a lot of energy, time, money, and everything thrown in right up front. And if you’re lucky, you’ll make some or all or more than you’ve spent back. But at least with the stage we’re at right now, we’re still spending more than we’re making so it’s a very different dynamic to essentially front-load all of your work, but also be able to reach a much larger group.
Whereas with consulting, I kind of knew where the funds were and when I was hiring people, it was because I had more work than I could handle, but that was always a good thing because I was getting paid more, whereas with a product company, when you’re hiring new people, you’re essentially just spending more money and hopefully you’re making more. It’s just a very different dynamic.
TB: And did you have to make any changes to the way that you do business? The way you run your day when you started up AwayFind?
JG: I think the biggest different was that my day is, well, I guess there’s different stages of any company, so there are times where you need to interact more with investors or with legal, you know, there’s various logistical things that happen in the creation of a company. But, in terms of a typical day, the main difference is a lot of my time is more inward-focused than outward-focused. And part of that just has to do with the size of my team, but before, in the early days of my consulting business, I wanted to get billable hours in myself, so I was working elsewhere a lot. In later days of Set Consulting, I was able to push more of that towards my team.
But I would say as a business owner, you have to adjust your roles to whatever is the most pressing or what you’re best at. And at different times in both of those companies, those roles were very different. I’m not sure if I completely answered that question, but I’m just thinking through it. With Set Consulting, you’re constantly trying, or with any consulting business, you’re constantly trying to have a pipeline of customers. That you’re continually getting people who will hopefully be customers next month and the month after, and bigger projects and smaller projects. And there’s a lot of direct sales going on. There’s a lot of relationship maintenance going on.
Now, of course that could still happen with products. You could be selling a $100,000, or whatever it happens to be, but at least at the current stage of AwayFind, we’re doing a lot more along the lines of direct sales, so I’m more interested in partnerships and more interested in direct marketing than I am in trying to pursue an individual sale. Before if I was spending a lot of time with one customer, that was always a good use of my time generally because most of those customers were very highly profitable for me. But at this point, most customers, especially since we’re not charging, we have to take care of them because it is a different dynamic, because we’re certainly not getting paid for that.
So essentially, you have to rely on different scales of efficiency and you have to have to consider how you’re spending your day because it’s a very different thing when you’re charging by the hour, in which case you’re actually encouraged to spend more time on something versus when you’re sure you can reach tens or hundreds of thousands of people with something you’ve done once, where you definitely want to do it right, but you also have to be careful how much time you spend on it.
TB: Definitely, definitely. You mentioned that you’re working with prioritizing different tasks because you’re not charging for AwayFind, yet how do you decide where’s the best time to spend you’re money when you’re working on a product that isn’t necessarily bringing in a lot of revenue yet.
JG: Even companies that don’t take in revenue have a stakehold in investors. So, for example, we have some investors, so we have certain bench marks, certain milestones that we do have to reach that relate to what we’ve told them, but I’d say that’s the least important of the milestones because we’re both in the same place where we want to be charging and want to have certain numbers that we’re hitting and so there are certain metrics you need to focus on and that’s how we decide things.
So, for us, we have a strategy in terms of where we are with the different distribution networks we have. We need to get into certain distribution networks, that’s one of our big milestones. Of course, we need to put in a payment system so we can make more revenue. A few people are paying right now, but generally speaking there isn’t a public-facing way to pay. We are also working a lot on testing. So, for us, it’s all about getting users to be active and join the product so that when we do turn on the payment features, we’ll keep those customers, as well as building relationships that can put us in a place so we can amplify our message.
Those are probably the two biggest priorities, but again every day you have to choose a lot of different things because there’s time spent on marketing, time spent on fundraising, time spent on managing your team. Difficult product decisions, moving your architecture around, security. There’s all these different things and there isn’t one right answer. There are certainly different fires to put out at times, but at the end of the day, it’s all about if you’re not making money, what is the quickest path to getting there, and the most reliable path to getting there.
TB: Definitely. Can you talk a little bit about who’s on your team, how you put your team together, how you found the people that were right to work with your product?
JG: Oh, that was a long process. I started AwayFind as sort of a side project of Set Consulting, so I probably did a lot of things wrong because I just relied on my existing team and just outsourced it to some country far away from here and see how they go and that was a learning experience for me. I think the thing I learned in the outsourcing process was if you’re having other people working on something that you’re not super familiar with in terms of developing languages or methodology that you don’t traditionally work with, you need to have somebody who does work with those kinds of things to evaluate.
And I think that was the biggest mistake that sidetracked us a lot in the beginning, working with people we couldn’t evaluate, whether they were some of the best or some of the worst. Obviously we could tell when they were delivering, but we couldn’t tell whether what they were building was functional or build for the future. So I think we went in a lot of circles for a little bit of time, but eventually I hired folks through relationships and some of those were looser relationships, some of those were stronger. And the first, I mean I had a designer already on my team who was really, really strong from Set Consulting and he stuck around.
I had a front-end person on my team who was doing a little bit with Set and a little bit with AwayFind, but I think the real big step for us was bringing on a full-time engineer and somebody who could be a jack of all trades, that understood from how to set up servers all the way to AJAX and stuff that was in between. Initially we used PHP and eventually we used Java.
But I think the first, for me, having a full-time person really dedicated to the project who understood the entire process of building commercial web applications was really the first big step. Then, overtime, we hired people who were a bit more specialized. So, for example, at this point, we have a system man if you want to talk about the far end of the severs, then you’re moving all the way up to front end. We have a few back-end engineers, we’ve got 3 of them. And they focus on slightly different things. We have a couple mobile developers. We’ve got a front-end developer. And we’ve got that same designer. So, we’re now at 8 full-time people, as well as a couple part-time folks. And as we grew, roles became more specialized.
TB: Wonderful. Now you mentioned that you outsourced at least in the beginning. Do you feel like it works better to be in the same place as your team or do you feel comfortable working with a team that is decentralized?
JG: My team is completely decentralized. We actually are in different countries, so there’s people here, there’s people in Argentina on my team. The thing that’s biggest to me is that you know when people are working and ideally you’re in the same timezone or as close to it as possible. Working with some people in Argentina for example, they’re one hour ahead right now. Occasionally they’ll be two hours ahead depending on the time of year. That’s really reasonable. There’s plenty of overlap in the day and it’s more a question of what time you get up than anything else. Working with people who are 10 or 12 hours ahead though is miserable.
So, for me, unless you want to spend all your time writing amazing specifications with zero room for question, it makes a lot more sense to be in the same time zone, then over the course of the day you can ask these other questions, and then also over the course of the day, you know that they’re working. And it’s not that you don’t trust your team, but there’s something to be said just for that comfort of being able to ask a quick question when a customers has one and knowing that they’re there at least most of the time. So, to me, time zone is the biggest factor for where people are located. And, of course, English.
TB: Yeah, English can make a huge difference, I think.
JG: Yeah, you want everyone on your team to be absolutely perfect, or as perfect as necessary to have conversations at the speed we’re having right now.
TB: Well, one of the things I found very interesting is that everything you work on seems to be connected in some way to the field of productivity. How did you get started with it?
JG: Sure. My background was software engineering and I worked for a bunch of start-ups and I worked for the government, and I saw that the technical people at the Federal Trade Commission where I was working were particularly inept at the basic applications, like Word and Excel and Outlook and things like that. So I had this premise that if these really technical people can’t use these seemingly basic applications, then what about people who use this all day long?
And what I started realizing was that regardless of the tool, there are usually people who are learning it along the beginner, intermediate, advanced axis and very rarely along the “if I use this all the time, what is the most practical way of doing it?” If you take the same route to work every day, chances are you’re going to explore the shortcuts and the backroads, but most people never did explore that on their computers. They didn’t explore it with the Office Applications, unless you were taking a course that was specifically designed to be the most practical way of doing something if you’re doing it every day, which is usually not the easiest way to teach things, then usually people didn’t have the best methodologies and ways that they could use their applications.
So that was kind of the premise behind my previous company. And over time, that process that I called software efficiency training kind of moved to a higher level of productivity in terms of a lot of time management and things like that. Now, how that factors in with me personally is I was always someone who struggled with focus, I’ve always had a million different things going on and I’ve found myself struggling sometimes to stay on task. I always get things done on time, but like anybody else that is in front of the Internet and social networks and I was susceptible to that.
So, as time moved on, I moved to a higher level of time management and wanted to tackle things that I felt were challenges for me and I also was noticing around me that more and more people, who may or may not struggled with it at a younger age, were becoming more susceptible to information overload and issues around tension management. I basically just realized that there are good ways to deal with this stuff, much of the ways you blog about Thursday, there’s a lot of great ways to deal with email overload and with a lot of things coming at you, and I wanted to build more and more tools that could help people with that. Either from a training perspective or from an actual software perspective.
TB: Well, I assume that you use AwayFind yourself, but what other tools have you found really useful?
JG: I don’t know if they’re all productivity tools, but I live off of Skype, where we’re having this call, I live off of Basecamp. There are neat little tools that I use like TimeSnapper, which keeps track of what you’re doing over the course of the day so you can play it back and see how much time you spent on specific things.
I like using RescueTime, which is very similar, and what I like about RescueTime is it lets you block specific applications, or specific websites. I guess actually it just blocks specific websites now that I think about it. That’s what most of our applications are these days. I mean I use SnagIt all the time, I use Google Apps and a few of the plug-ins for it. I use Yammer to talk to my team. There’s a lot of things that I use on a daily basis.
TB: Ok. I know that you’re involved with Bootstrap Maryland. Would you mind telling us what that is and what got you interested in it, and that idea?
JG: Bootstrap is a group that helps young entrepreneurs, usually people who are in college, or usually in their 20s, sometimes early 30s to learn the best methodologies for building tech start-ups. It’s a combination between inspiration, like a “Yes! You can do this, even if you’re an engineer you can start a business” and providing the tools. A lot of tools that I just don’t find in the Washington D.C. area.
What I mean by that is if you were in San Francisco and you were starting a business, there would be a “culture of risk” surrounding a lot of the universities. If you go to Standford, a lot of your friends are probably starting businesses, particularly if you’re in engineering or technology. So you recognize that the risky path of starting a company is a possible path. People here don’t see that as a possible path, so we’re trying to inspire them and show them it IS a path and then giving them the education and the tools that are kind of really contemporary.
You hear about lean start-up a lot from Eric Reese and Dave McLauren and folks like that, people who I’ve gotten to know and spend more time with and read their books and blogs over the past few years, trying to pass on a lot of that information that doesn’t make it outside the valley or the tech hubs in the US. So I wanted to give both the education and inspiration to these younger folks, who when they usually learn about entrepreneurship are listening to a bunch of 50-year-olds, gray-haired white men, who are talking about a million-dollar this and a million-dollar that and insurance and law and all this stuff that basically just scares people away from starting businesses, when in reality you can be a few guys in a garage, eating a few bagels a day, and working hard, and there’s at least a good chance that you can build a prototype even if you haven’t found your market. And I think that that’s more realistic in today’s world.
You can start a business with $10,000. You don’t need to worry about all those other details that are often preached in entrepreneurship courses and clubs.
TB: I think that that image of the older entrepreneur talking to younger people and the rest of the start-ups really resounds. It really is an issue that the idea of an entrepreneur from 50 years ago is very different from the one today. Would you say that there are characteristics of a great entrepreneur today that are different from what they might have been 50 years ago?
JG: I don’t think that the characteristics are different, per se, but I guess it’s easier now to be an entrepreneur because, well it depends on what type of entrepreneur we’re talking about. I would say that a long time ago, there were a lot more people who could run small businesses. If you wanted to open up a small convenience store or something like that in a small town, that was much more common. There were fewer big box stores, so generally speaking, more people had small businesses. I’m probably wrong on that, but it was probably easier to start a small company doing traditional things once upon a time, whereas our product companies were always very hard to do because there would be a lot of up-front costs.
Now, there is still some up-front time, but it’s not as much as up-front time, particularly when you’re talking about software. And it’s certainly not anywhere near as much investment because for $30 a month you can get access to a virtual product server and that would be all you would need until you have a fair number of customers, that you can just play with and have an environment dedicated to you.
With all of the open-source software, with all of the documentation that’s available online, with the community that’s available online, as long as you have enough to live these days, with just a couple people, or you, or however many people you have on your team. Really it’s about time. It’s not about huge up-front costs, whereas once upon a time, it really was about the up-front costs. And for product companies today, it’s just so much more accessible and available for people to start their own businesses because it’s just not that expensive.
TB: Ok. If you had a group of entrepreneurs, maybe the Bootstrap Maryland crowd in front of you, is there one thing you would tell them they need to do before they start their businesses? One piece of advice that you can offer?
JG: Oh gosh. I would suggest that they spend a lot of time on the idea and bouncing it around, not necessarily accepting what everybody says, you know, “no, this is a stupid idea and you shouldn’t pursue it,” because surely a lot of stupid ideas are possible, but I think it’s important to let somewhat of a maturation process of what it is that you’re going to work on and what it is. And also, just the fact that you let it sit in your mind and some people disagree with this, but I think that letting it sit inside your head for a few months and recognizing whether it’s something that you really want to do.
I think it’s just advantageous to be able to say “hey, I have this idea and I think it’s going to work.” And then the next thing along with that is to really find ways to test that idea, whether it be running AdWords campaigns, running a little website that’s just one page and asks people “are you kind of interested in this?” and asking their email address and things like that. There are a lot of ways to test an idea, so I think that you really need to test yourself to see if you’re really comfortable with that idea and you need to test the market, if there is any market, for your idea before you invest too much of your time in it.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. I guess deciding if you should be an entrepreneur is another thing entirely, but before you get too far down the path of whatever it is that you’re going to build or start, you need to get comfortable with it and you need to get comfortable that there is some market for it. Chances are that market will evolve and change as your product progresses.
TB: Wonderful. Well Jared, that’s all the questions I have, is there anything that you would like to add?
JG: No, I think you’ve given me a chance to share a lot so I think appreciate that. I do hope this is of some value to your readers or listeners.
TB: All right, wonderful. This was Jared Goralnick. You can find Jared at Awayfind.com, as well as technotheory.com, which is Jared’s blog.
JG: Well, thank you so much for your time, Thursday. I look forward to checking out the other interviews.
TB: Ok. Thank you.