The Growing Pains of 2016
It’s time to talk about the pain and everything that went wrong in 2016. Even though 2016 was the best year of my life, there was still a lot that sucked. I want to be very transparent about it and at the same time help myself mentally file it away. Here goes…
I started the year by booking a last second flight to a little fishing village in Israel to try and save my company; a mission that would ultimately fail.
Firehawk had been around for 2.5 years at that time. The company was doing everything it was supposed to be doing. We were building amazing software products for our clients, and they loved us. We were able to charge a very nice premium for our services. There was never a shortage of work. And our work-life balance was more comfortable than I had ever imagined it could be. So much so, that I spent January working on the road in California (Tahoe, SF, driving the coastal highway, Palm Springs), and David was halfway around the world avoiding winter in NYC.
Things, from the outside, were great.
On the inside, we grew Firehawk into the company that it was supposed to be, not the company we wanted it to be.
When we started Firehawk out of the ashes of my previous development company, our objective at the time was simple. We knew that there was a better way to build software products than the typical dev shop model, and we wanted to prove that. Long term, we wanted to build out a few software products of our own and create some recurring revenue. Short term, we wanted to build amazing products, get paid nicely for doing so and wait until the right idea came knocking at our door.
We waited for the perfect idea to coming knocking, and it never did.
We had a lot of ideas. A handful of them were really good, and yet for one reason or another, they didn’t make the cut. About a year in, I had an idea for a product, but David wasn’t really feeling it. We had 2 weeks in between projects and built a quick and dirty MVP to test out this idea. It did what it needed to do and showed us that it wasn’t worth continued investment.
Another year went by before an idea hit me that was worth pursuing. All this time in between, Firehawk was doing an exceptional job at what it was designed to do. We doubled our prices, our designs were better than ever, our code was flawless, and we always had people willing to hire us. Great from the outside, but recurring revenue was still at $0.00. We dubbed this the “Golden Hamster Wheel.”
Ready to make the plunge again, we spent some time building out this new idea. It was going to be a clear home run and create a very nice recurring revenue stream with virtually unlimited expansion potential into other markets. There was one major risk with this idea, and I was confident that I’d be able to overcome it if and when the time came. The time came, I wasn’t able to overcome it and that risk became the projects downfall. Three days before Christmas 2015, we received a cease and desist letter. And that was that.
Licking our wounds after threatened legal action, I decided to work from California while David was working from Israel. Nothing like a 10 hour time difference to bring us together.
As my time in California was coming to an end, I realized that it was happening again. The same thing that blew up my last company was showing its ugly face again: alignment.
David and I were out of alignment and Firehawk was suffering the consequences. He was frustrated that we weren’t making any tangible progress towards our recurring revenue dreams, and somewhere along the line the recurring revenue products had become secondary for me. It was much more important to me to be building the best products. I wasn’t against building out our own recurring revenue products by any means, but that was no longer my primary objective. Firehawk was now being pulled in two different directions, and it wasn’t going to end well.
When I finally wrapped my head around this lack of alignment, David still had two more weeks left in Israel. I bought a plane ticket the next day and off I went. (Side note: leave extra time for security checks when purchasing a flight to Israel one day before takeoff.)
We had several powerful and brutally honest conversations during my visit to this fishing village. David wanted recurring revenue. I had the beginnings of an idea that I thought could make that a reality. We left Israel with the understanding and commitment that I was going to explore this idea and simultaneously focus on bringing in better projects and opportunities for Firehawk.
While David continued to crush our Firehawk workload and took on more responsibilities there, I would spend more and more time experimenting with this new idea and chasing down better opportunities for Firehawk. I gathered a lot of feedback around the problem and solution, built an MVP and tested it out with a handful of people which involved a lot of manual processing. The results were positive enough that we decided to dedicate a month of our time building out the real product. David wrote some unbelievably powerful software and we were off to the races.
At the same time, two very interesting opportunities came across my plate for Firehawk.
The first was an opportunity to partner with an entrepreneur to build an app that we all felt had serious potential. We agreed that it was risky, and that, despite the risk, it made sense for us to dedicate one month of our time to building this for equity. This turned out to be a big mistake. The project died virtually the same day as the software was completed. That was a less-than-pleasant punch to the face. The other opportunity was a great win. We built an incredibly powerful platform that turned out to be some of the best work we’ve done in the history of Firehawk. The client is beyond excited with what we’ve built, and I have a revenue sharing agreement in place that will yield some nice upside for me in 2017.
Back to the bad stuff though. Our recurring revenue product was still making $0.00 after a month of dedicated development time and a lot more of my time. David was rightfully not happy with these results. I had a couple of partners lined up to pilot the software that could have brought on a few hundred paying customers. The problem was that we didn’t have the proper amount of automation in place to be able to handle hundreds of paying customers. We needed more development time to get there.
Why invest more development time into a product making $0.00? Well, I believed that with another few weeks of development time, we would have exactly what we needed to start the recurring revenue train. David did not agree. We didn’t invest any more time to its development. That was the death of that product.
We were now faced with a very clear reality. Firehawk had been alive for over 3 years at that point. We had 3 failed recurring revenue products. While Firehawk was very successful in creating software products for our clients, we had not made any progress towards our recurring revenue goal. My mission to a fishing village on the other side of the planet to save my company did not work. David was presented with an interesting opportunity to build some software outside of Firehawk that has recurring revenue potential, and off he went. While David explores the potential of this new product, we will still collaborate on building the best products at Firehawk but be much more selective about the work we pursue.
My main focus is to help the best people build the best products. Where there are opportunities for David and I to work together to make that happen, we will continue to do so through Firehawk. At the same time, I am more committed than ever to building the highest quality products. I’m working now to ensure that I have the capabilities and capacity to make that happen.
Ultimately, I will look back on 2016 as a minor flesh wound. In that moment though, the pain was very real. Now I’m able to recognize the gift that it was. Every time I’ve experienced significant pain, it has led to tremendous growth and development. I’ve never been more excited about what lies ahead. The path forward is crystal clear. Thank you 2016. You were exactly what I needed.