Last week I continued my exploration for Darden’s Professional Advancement Course by meeting with a local mobile app development company, WillowTree Apps.
*Note: Some of the comments below are my interpretation and opinion from what I actually heard from Michael — take these as my opinion and not necessarily the exact quotes or opinion of Michael Prichard or WillowTree Apps.
I thought it was great Charlottesville had an app development company and when I visited last week, I still had this impression WillowTree was a small, boutique app developer (maybe 10-30 employees). But what I missed in the last five years was WillowTree’s explosive growth and progress. WillowTree is now over 180 employees, expanding to a second building in Charlottesville as well as Durham, NC, and has numerous Fortune 500 clients. So my obvious next questions… how?
Michael Prichard (@heybluez) is the CTO and founder of WillowTree in Charlottesville, VA, and in less than in hour, he shared his perspective and experience on starting a company. WillowTree has been successful because Michael and Tobias had a vision for what their company would be like… an autonomous working culture where a directly responsible individual (DRI – a concept used by Steve Jobs at Apple) is able to have a team of designers and coders sitting in close proximity under one roof and allowed to work free of micromanagement. WillowTree has also been so successful because they hire the right talent and have been doing this longer as a group than most app development companies in America. They consistently have more demand than they can accommodate and now have the reputation, portfolio, and expertise to attract some of America’s top businesses as clients.
In combination with my previous talk with Hillary Lewis of Lumi Juice, I think I’ve got a good idea of the challenges I would face if choosing the start-up path, but also some key characteristics required for success.
Passion. Michael made one thing clear, you better be passionate about what you are doing if you plan to launch a start-up. Don’t do it for money or to be your own boss, do it because you love what you’re doing. In my opinion, this is valuable information because passion is likely what will get you through many of the other themes.
Hard work and long hours. Both Michael and Hillary reinforced that launching a business is no easy task. There will be long hours and a lot of ups and downs both mentally, physically, and financially. Starting a company may mean handling human resources, operations, development, and technology with a very small staff, and both entrepreneurs indicated they worked in excess of 100 hours a week when getting started.
Money. Do your best to raise a lot of startup capital on your own, doing your best to avoid taking money from anybody unless you really have to. In the beginning, having money to operate is vital, but everybody you take money from will have a say in your business so choose your investors wisely. Of course, if you’re launching something on a larger scale that requires lots of capital, I guess the lesson-learned is be mindful of who you take money from and what it will mean for your business.
Also related, if making money is the primary goal, launching a start-up may not be the best option. There may be times where you’ll forgo pay for many months at a time or you’ll reinvest your earning to help the business grow. Refer back to ‘passion’ for how you get through these times!
Luck. While Michael and WillowTree CEO Tobias Dengel (@tobiasdengel) deserve much credit for planning and implement a successful culture and attracting the right employees at WillowTree, their success is also attributed to luck. They entered the mobile app market at a key time in the industry and quickly became a market leader by being in the right business at the right time. They were able to attract the right talent to establish and reinforce the right reputation. I like what Michael said… “I didn’t make any of this happen, we all did it, everyone here made WillowTree what it is today.”
I’m definitely on the fence about the idea of starting my own business after Darden. On the one hand, I have something I’m passionate about and want to do, without necessarily having a company in mind that already does it. This would mean a lot of hard work, long hours, and only a fraction of a chance I’d replace my current income. On the other hand, I could grow in my current job and hopefully be promoted in the future or join a company that satisfies my desire to apply my experiences to help others and make a difference. For now, I’m going to continue enjoying the exploration.
In future posts, I’ll discuss another informational interview I held with a defense consulting firm and then I’ll hopefully post my advice for asking for and hosting an informational interview! Look for them soon.