When President Obama said "you didn't build that," he was referring to the fact that every entrepreneur has received some help in their life which made it possible for them to start a business. You never build anything alone. This struck a nerve with some people. With me, it struck a chord.
I am a web technology entrepreneur. Unlike some business owners, I don't feel the need to take credit for 100% of my company. In fact, I openly admit that if it weren't for the funding, skills, and encouragement I have been fortunate to receive from numerous people, I would still be unemployed like I was a year ago.
My company is called 60Best, and our website is a news and blog aggregator. Our goal is to become a major online portal for reading the best articles and following the best sources of information about whatever subject and location you're interested in.
Building a large and complex website like 60Best takes a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of guts and determination. Over the past year, I have managed to create something truly useful, and it was the hardest thing I've ever done. It took a good idea, trial and error, smart planning, lots of learning, high-level programming, diligent management, and over $75,000 in investment capital raised so far, just to get to the point of launching a beta version, which we launched last month.
I want to share my story of how I went from being unemployed and bankrupt to where I am today -- the owner and CEO of a tech startup. And more importantly, I want to tell you why I think President Obama was right when he said that no business is built alone. My own experience of starting a business from scratch has convinced me that anyone who claims they are solely responsible for their success is delusional.
The Help I Needed: Funding
So, what is it really like to start a business, and how much help do you need to have a realistic chance to pull it off? First, let's talk about money. When I got the idea for my business and decided I thought it was good enough to pursue it seriously, I had only a few thousand dollars in the bank, and I was basically unemployed. I had been working freelance as an organizational development consultant and web designer for nonprofit organizations, but my two main clients found it difficult to raise money and could not afford to pay me for more than a few hours per week anymore, and I was not able to find new clients in any better circumstances. The charitable sector of the economy had been hit very hard; everyone was cutting back on everything, not hiring new people.
Initially, I estimated that it would take me maybe $5,000 to start my company. I thought I could do most of the website development myself and hire a freelancer for a few thousand bucks to do the harder parts that I didn't know how to code. Because I had never started a business before, I had no idea of the kind of expenses I would face for company formation costs, legal fees, other administrative fees, and data entry work that it turned out I didn't have time to do once I really got going with running a business, plus the expert-level programming which ended up being a much bigger and more difficult job than I expected. To date, it has taken over $40,000 to build my company -- about eight times what I first thought it would cost. It will take about the same amount of additional funds to keep the business running, growing and developing for the next several months. This is all before we earn a single penny of revenue.
If I had known this at the beginning, I probably would have given up on the idea before I even started. I, personally, had no access to that kind of money. I began by raising small amounts of capital from family and friends who wanted to invest in my idea and help me build it into a real website. My first investor was a close friend who put in $1,000, and several other friends put in amounts in the hundreds. Eventually I persuaded my parents to put in $10,000 -- our first "big" investment (big by the standards of an unemployed guy living on a shoestring, and by their ordinary middle-class standards as well). Later, even larger amounts came from my first investor's family and friends, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much money she was able to raise for the company.
Every time we got a big investment, it always seemed like it was just a few days before we were about to run out of money, but somebody would come in and save our butt at the last minute. Our latest investment was $40,000 that was wired to our account by a new angel investor literally one day before we would have been short on funds we owed to an employee. Entrepreneurship is living on the edge!
The point I want to emphasize about funding is that if you don't have it and can't get it, you can forget about building your own business. For an ordinary person without much money, you are very dependent on the help of others to fund your idea for a new company. And you should be very thankful! Their money and their willingness to risk it are building your business just as much as your hard work and ideas.
The Help I Needed: Expert Talent
Secondly, let's talk about talent. It turned out that building the 60Best website was much more complicated than I originally thought -- by far. Yes, I have some programming skills. Most of the design of what you see on the website was my own coding. But the back end? That's another matter. Our website is based on collecting huge amounts of data from all over the internet, storing it and manipulating it in various ways to display on the pages you see. To do all the things that are required requires a great deal of expert knowledge and skill in areas that aren't my specialty -- setting up and managing servers and databases and writing large amounts of highly sophisticated back-end code.
Hoping to save money, I tried hiring a few inexpensive programmers from developing countries to do this work. The majority of the code they wrote had to be substantially rewritten or discarded, because, according to the full-time American employee I eventually hired, it was too sloppy or inefficient. Who is the employee I speak of, and how did he get his experience to do the job right? He’s a guy who spent the last 10 years of his career writing code and managing gigantic databases for the U.S. government -- the same government that created the internet in the first place, I might add.
The Help I Need: Publicity
No matter how good a product a new business creates, it won't go anywhere without marketing and exposure. 60Best is fortunate and honored to have been chosen by StartUpHire and the Huffington Post to exhibit our website and tell people about our business at the Huffington Post Entrepreneurship Expo at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte. We are one of only a few dozen companies who received this invitation. Hundreds of journalists, political leaders, business executives and venture capitalists are expected to attend this event.
If 60Best takes off and gains a large number of users and major funding in the near future, I'm sure I will look back on the great marketing and networking opportunity extended to me by StartupHire and The Huffington Post at the DNC as a pivotal moment in my company's development.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
In summary, I needed much more money than I had, so that I could hire a good developer. I needed much more advanced web development skills than I had, so that I could finish the job of turning my idea into a functional website. And now I need big-time publicity for my company and its product. The money came from other people; the advanced skills came from another person; and the opportunity for exposure has been provided by other organizations. To be sure, I worked very hard on building my business -- 60 hour weeks for about a year -- but I have to give credit where credit is due. Without the help of others, I would have no business. We all played a part to make it happen.
I also credit the excellent education I received at the University of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology -- both public institutions -- which formed my mind and enabled me to become the broad-minded, curious, innovative person I am today. I credit my friends who encouraged me to follow through on my idea for 60Best, even though I had no degree in business or computer science. They knew this would be a big challenge for me, but they told me they believed I have what it takes and should go for it. Without their encouragement, I don’t know if I would have done it. And last but certainly not least, I credit my parents, who have let me live in their house while I've been starting my business, because I couldn't afford to live anywhere else without getting a paycheck. Not only that, but the excellent way they raised me laid the foundation for who I have become in all respects.
I want to say thank you to everyone who helped make it possible for my business to come into being and grow -- financially, talent-wise, publicity-wise, or in various intangible or institutional ways. I built it, but I couldn't have done it without you! And that, precisely, is the point President Obama was trying to make about business: that entrepreneurs deserve a great deal of credit for their work, but they also need the help of others in society to succeed. I hope I'll keep getting the help I need so that my company will become a success and my dream of regaining the financial security of a middle-class life will come true.