March 14th, 2011
Why I broke up with Portland to build my startup… and why we’re back together
[Editor: It’s been a while since we’ve had a guest post from Darius Monsef, founder of COLOURlovers (one of the first Portland Web startups I started following here on Silicon Florist). Want to hear more from Darius? Swing by PIE on Tuesday afternoon.]
She was a dream city with everything I hoped for. I was willing to work long hours and scrape by on the leanest of incomes to make things work. I tried again and again… but ended up having to abandon her to find real opportunities in new cities. On my journey I travelled to the mystical land of Startups. I saw over the wall into the secret garden and I’ve returned home to share what I’ve learned… and to be happily together with PDX again.
Falling In Love With Portland.
Before my story of leaving Portland begins, it helps to know how I got here. After leaving my childhood home in Hawaii and moving to Boston for college, I realized that the itch to build things was greater than my desire to be in a classroom and took a job with a small web design and development shop in Portland. (My mother’s side of the family has always been in Portland and I’d visited often growing up.) It was at this small shop that I cut my teeth building dynamic sites and services.
COLOURlovers was born one long weekend from two parents: Experimentation & Inspiration. I mocked up a design and wrote the code to allow people to choose a color, name it and then let others rate and comment on it. (HotOrNot.com for Color.)
This was a social experiment to see how others might see colors differently. Do you absolutely love this color? Does this one make you vomit in your mouth a little? When the MVP (minimum viable product—I didn’t use or know this term at the time) was working I shared it with a flash community I was a member of and started getting great feedback. From there I added the ability to add a color combination of 2 to 5 colors as a palette. And with that the site became more than just a rating site and an inspiration source for people looking for color ideas to jumpstart their projects.
tl;dw: Five weeks after I built COLOURlovers v.1 I left to Thailand to volunteer for a month after the Tsunami struck. I ended up staying for 5 months and cofounding an international relief organization. (LO Review Story.) After two years I stepped down from operations of the organization to return to tech and try and hit my home-run. So I can do that much more good in the world.
Breaking Up With Portland.
After returning to Portland, I took a small family angel investment to hire a developer much better than me to take over building the site. In its current state, tt was falling on its knees from continued organic growth combined with my shoddy coding. I found a local developer on craiglist and hired him to rewrite things. (Chris is now a partner in COLOURlovers and has written all the code that makes the site run now.) I started going to local startups events to meet other founders. I went to pitching events to try and meet investors. I wrote for blogs like this to get awareness in Portland. And the more I tried to really make something happen the more I realized that Portland and I needed to see other people.
I don’t love being Darius Downer and crapping on the Portland web startup scene, but somebody needs to critique what needs to be critiqued and bullshit needs to be called what it is. I care very much about Portland and would love to see the startup scene change, both for my own company and for every other founder hungry to build their ideas here. But Portland is not a great town for startup founders right now. And it won’t change from the top down. We as this generation of founders need to bleed more to make the road easier for the next to walk.
So, if I can help any of my fellow founders please let me know. I’ll bleed with you.
A Startup Community Needs 4 Things: Ideas, Talent, Ambition, and Capital.
We have amazing people with great ideas in Portland, some of the best creative comes out of this town. Portland also has skilled tech folks. We’re hiring our team out of Portland for this reason. And it isn’t like nobody has ever made it big out of Portland, there are several great PDX web companies (Urban Airship, Kongregate, and Jive Software, for example) whose ambitious founders overcame what obstacles were in their way.
What Portland doesn’t have is capital. Founder friendly, fast moving seed capital. I tried raising money in Portland—granted it was a couple years ago—but all I got was dicked around by a VC that didn’t really have money to invest and ended up just using me as a screen to social proof leads. And from the outside, my inexperienced and misguided attempts to pitch valley investors went nowhere.
A Startup Community Doesn’t Need 4 Things: Coaches, Advisors, Hired Guns, The Cullens
It totally makes sense that somebody would want to see that you’re willing to bleed for your ideas to test your commitment & passion. But run away from people asking you to bleed into their mouths. There is some truth in “those who can’t do teach…” And many of the people out there selling their coaching / advising skills haven’t had any material success in the space where they espouse wisdom. Be very wary of any coach who needs your money.
Coaches are on the same spectrum as advisors and investors… but not on the end you want. Paul Graham once cautioned me about advisors: “Be careful about getting advisors. An advisor is just somebody who doesn’t believe in you or your idea enough to invest in it.”
And a hired coach is somebody that is primarily motivated by your cash. If they truly believed in what you were doing, they’d invest in you.
Coaches < Advisors < Investors < Baby Unicorns
With that being said, we do have two official advisors. Both are active entrepreneurs who have a ton of amazing experience. They’ve continued to give me advice and support without asking for anything in return. In appreciation for their time and their continued support, we made them advisors. I also have dozens of fellow founders that I count as advisors. Which brings up another piece of wisdom: Get advice from people actively in the game.
The kind of mentors, coaches, and advisors (incubators included) you want the most are people who are invested in you and your success. And their are tons of amazing successful entrepreneurs and investors out there actively investing in startups. You just might have to look outside of Portland to find them. I highly recommend Angel.co and am happy to help any startup ready to start pitching investors refine their pitch and put together a funding strategy.
(Full Disclosure. I was once on Team Edward, trying to survive as a bootstrapping entrepreneur by coaching other startups for cash. I hopefully gave greater value from my lessons learned than the blood I drank.)
And along with the for hire coaches there are organizations that I think could do a lot more to help web startup founders:
Most startup founders don’t know SCORE, because it is a dinosaur of an organization that is meant to help small business owners get started. While this may be useful for brick & mortar / mom & pop shops. It is not at all helpful to internet startup founders.
I reached out to SCORE to help get business plan advice and fundraising help. I was matched up with an older businessman and met him at the their offices. Only a short while into my meeting with this “advisor,” he told me that he couldn’t help me through SCORE, but if I worked with him outside of SCORE (gave him equity & finders fee) he could help me get investment.
The internet world moves fast. Hell, I’m only pushing 30 and I feel like an old dog in this game. SCORE doesn’t have advisors who understand the current web startup world and will have little value to provide you as a founder.
While better than SCORE, I don’t think OTBC is providing the value it can be to the startup web scene. I think they are a great resource to hardware, biotech, and physical product companies. But if OTBC really cared about helping Portland web founders, they’d be networking their faces off with SF & NYC investors and other successful startups. They’d be deal makers and intro-magicians helping Portland founders meet the investors they need and get partnerships off the ground with other successful companies.
I was a paying member for a couple years. I went to several of their events. One even I went to was a business plan writing workshop (FYI, you don’t need a business plan. AT ALL.) and I approached the speaker to introduce myself and get some specific feedback. He blew me off.
Like OTBC I think OEN provides real value to companies outside of the web startup scene. Their beauty pageant events will waste your time. Time if you invested building your MVP, you’d be launched.
Seeing Other Cities.
While bootstrapping COLOURlovers in PDX, struggling to raise, and take things to the next level I was recruited by the team at Microsoft working on Photosynth. I accepted the offer to move up to Seattle and head up building community and web product for their killer application, thinking that I could use the serious increase in pay to fund my startup and use my spare time to work on things.
I overestimated how far the extra cash would take me and underestimated how taxing a day working in middle management at MSFT would be. I wasn’t able to engage the startup scene in Seattle much but I was able to bang out a new project while up north (Friendscall.Me) and ultimately get it acquired.
With my entrepreneurial soul being sucked dry in Seattle, and with the extra motivation of an amazing woman (now my wife) I moved to San Francisco to live the startup dream.
San Francsico has been amazing. Even before getting into Y Combinator, simply having a city made up of founder peers was opening my eyes. (I wrote about the values of doing Y Combinator here.)
Not to overhype it, just honestly… SF has been like Disneyworld for me as a founder. But I still love Portland and think it can be a Disneyland. Let’s make some magic happen.
Make-Up Love’n with Portland.
I’ve wanted to share a lot of these thoughts for a very long time, but felt like I needed to exhaust my options, try every service I could, and prove things out before making any critiques.
Well, I love Portland. I REALLY want to see it thrive as a startup hub. We just raised a large seed round from some of the top VCs and Angels. We’re hiring here in Portland and supporting the local economy. And while SF will continue to be my homebase, I’ll be in Portland often and supporting the startup community as much as I can.
I realize that there are a lot of service providers here in town, the coaches and the advisors that are not going to like what I have to say. And trust me, being critical is not one of my favorite things. I’ve built my personal brand around LOVE!
But I’m not here for them. I’m here for my fellow founders and I’ll take your flames to support them.
If you have a startup that you’re bleeding for. Come bleed with me. I’ll do all I can to support you. And with the success of this generation, we’ll grow a thriving startup community in Portland.
(Image courtesy Iwona Erskine-Kellie. Used under Creative Commons.)