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Notes on the Slow Burn of a Startup

Preface

On the topic of a startup, if theres any kind of message to impart it’s this:

You shouldn’t start a startup unless you have a real issue with authority/being told what to do. If you’re ok with those things, you can get hired at an amazing company or startup and do what you love with way less responsibility, a way healthier lifestyle, and a cool group of people.

I don’t mean the above in a negative way, but in genuine way. Nothing has challenged me as a person as much as running a startup. But…it’s a constant struggle and I often don’t actually get to do the things that I hoped the startup would allow me to do (or worse I have to do those things + a ton of other things). Generally:

  • I don’t sleep that much
  • I basically work day and night, all year long.
  • I’m generally awoken by all kinds of phone notifications
  • I don’t go out unless theres some real reason for it
  • I generally have an unhealthy lifestyle (it’s getting better now!)
  • Most money my startup makes, is by definition, not “mine”

So with that, where am I now?

I’m Technical Director of zero11zero, and lead the nVoid division, where I get to be a part of some of the largest interactive media installations. I’ve written a book. I got mid-way through a second and decided to turn it into a blog series. I went to International Space University and graduated as class speaker. I have a ton of side projects like SpaceJobs.US, STEAMakers, Delta V Challenge, and others, and I try to contribute to Open Source projects when I can or at least release tools I make for free.

I don’t believe in luck. I believe you reap the rewards of your effort, and if you keep yourself open to all the experiences happening around you, your effort and openess will take you far.

So how did I get here?

I went to University of Toronto, Faculty of Music, and quit before finishing my classical music performance degree. I have a problem with authority and I don’t like competing, and classical music school is a lot of both.

From there to where I am now has always been a number of simple things:

Persistence, discipline, long hours, hard work, commitment, sacrifice, and patience.

Everything I know, I learned through lots of Khan Academy, Codeacademy, Udacity, Wikipedia, YouTube/Vimeo tutorials, who knows how many books, many forums, communicating with people better than me, etc. Nothing fancy and nothing costly.

When I left school, I was in a bit of a no-mans land, because unlike other stories you might hear, I didn’t leave school with a brilliant idea of what I wanted to do or a problem I wanted to solve. I only knew what I didn’t want to do anymore. I met many cool people who were making creative and interesting electronic music, and decided to follow that for a bit and see where I ended up.

Meanwhile, really incredible electronic music shows were being put on, like Richie Hawtin’s Plastikman and Amon Tobin’s ISAM. I wanted to have stuff like that in our shows, so I volunteered to figure something out to make our lights blink with our music.

This led to me starting to perform live visuals while we were also performing live music. It started simple with blinking lights, and some videos that pulsed. This got me involved in some different media development environments.

Checkpoint: nVoid founded here because what I was doing seemed cool and new!

As I figured stuff out, I made some tutorials to make it easier for others to learn these things (it’s still kind of the wild west in this field). Coincidentally, the tutorials led me to meet great people who got me some work developing some visual systems for some interactive media installtions. Interestingly, once this started, I was doing less and less music, since I was developing more complex generative visual systems. I was open to it and went with it.

To actually sustain myself and build a startup, I had to increase my skillset quite a bit. I learned a ton more software development, maths, and how to make Windows not BSOD regularly. This proves you can learn anything on the Internet for free.

I did this in a loop for about 2 years, and it’s built nVoid up to be a small team of incredible people, and we’ve gotten to work on some of the largest interactive media installations with our partners. We’ve worked with Kanye West, Google, Nike, Under Armour, Armani, The Burj Khalifa, Cannes Lions, The Seattle Art Museum, and more. Of course, there were all kinds of growing pains, and gaining a partner in the business along the way has been an incredible addition.

During the above loop, I decided it was too hard to learn all the things I had to learn to create these installations, so I wrote the first book ever on our specific development environment. Releasing a book for free, ironically brought us more business and increased the talent pool.

To continue growing in our niche, we joined a collective of like-minded companies, called zero11zero, and nVoid has become the technical division. Our work has grown to many other breeds of projects, as well as doing more R&D. This proved interesting, but I didn’t really feel as rounded out as I would have liked to be, so I started searching for some cool things to learn.

I attended a Space conference in Toronto, got a brochue for International Space University, and went to their 9 week intensive program (while still managing development back at nVoid). I met a ton of incredibly smart people there and learned a ton of new sciences in a very short amount of time.

Now I’m back and it’s 3 am

I’m writing this as a break from working on some new interactive media installations and doing some R&D on augemented reality user interfaces. 2016 has a ton of incredible things coming for myself, nVoid, and zero11zero. I continue to grow as a person and learn more about all kinds of things. Would I say I’m successful? Definitely, but there’s so much more I’m looking forward to accomplishing.

I mentioned that the message of this piece was that you shouldn’t start a startup unless you needed to, but it’s also that the path to success comes in many shapes and sizes. Some forms of success are viral and happen overnight, whereas my journey has been a relentless and long march. Don’t give up, keep your chin up, there’s hope for anyone who’s willing to try hard, and school isn’t the only route to success anymore.

Tips I’d give my past self

So with all that in mind, here’s some notes (quite non-linear and annecdotal) I think regularly, in hopes that if you hear some of them here, you can get a leg up and save yourself some future hassle.

1. Buy low, sell high

I don’t even know where I heard this, it’s almost comedic, but it’s the difference between making it an extra month when payments are delayed and not making it.

I remember this video from Harlan Ellison called “Pay The Writer”. He hits the nail right on the head when he mentions that your clients aren’t out with an eye patch and a tin cup. So buy low, sell high! Get as much as you can for as little as you can give! You sure as hell know your clients are 100% trying to do the exact same to you. They want the most they can get from you for the least cost to them. So buying low, and selling high isn’t so much about you taking advantage of someone, but about being tough and getting yourself a fair deal.

2. You aren’t your startup.

One of our biggest challenges early on was the separation of startup brand and personal brand. As a service startup that was started on my skills , for a long time Elburz was synonymous with nVoid (Elburz as a Service). Over time as our team grew, this became a growing pain for our clients who had known and worked exclusively with me and wanted to continue working with me. Also, finances are a pain in the ass when you don’t separate your life and your work. The easiest way to start the separation is to actually try to pay yourself regularly and use your own money for your own things.

3. Never be afraid to try something shitty again (because it might be great)

Like I said, I dropped out of school, did a bunch of stuff, then went to a random Space conference (even though I have no business in the Space industry), and then ended up at Space school.

Even though I hated university with the intensity of a million stars, I decided to put all that aside, said “what the hell?”, and gave it a shot. It was an awesome experience, and I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t open to trying something again that I thought was shitty.

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4. Learn to send emails and make nice PDFs

In all the talk of making a startup and doing this and that, no-one mentions that you’ll have to become a professional email and PDF maker.

You can’t escape a world of emails. I generally make a connection in person once, then talk to them over email. It’s pretty common to talk to someone over email way more times than you will in person. That’s only heightened when crossing a lot of timezones. I need to be able to represent myself properly in a few lines of text sandwiched between a subject line and my email signature. I can’t count the number of times a well-written email has solved a situation caused by a poorly written email. And all those project management tools aside, I still end up co-ordinating projects, milestones with clients, vendors, suppliers, external crews, travel plans, and more via email.

Tip: It’s slightly backwards but the first thing you’ll think when you get somewhere without Internet is “Hmm, now would be a great time to catch up on all those starred emails I have!”. So make sure you can do your emails offline.

Same goes for PDFs. Every time you want money from someone, you will have to send them a short and luxurious PDF. Pitch decks, design reviews, and proposals all need to be pretty and in PDF so non-tech people can open them anywhere/anytime.

Tip: Just go ahead and get Adobe Acrobat, because for all the cross-compatability of PDFs, you’ll sooner than later need to open a PDF in Acrobat for any of it to work properly. And you might as well try it in Acrobat before emailing the sender and telling them it’s not working. Because they’re just going to say “Can you try it in Acrobat?”

5. Always save Slippy.

This is a life lesson from Star Fox 64. If you get it, you know exactly what I mean, and if you don’t, then you have no idea what I mean.

Star Fox 64 was a game where you fly a starship as a fox (thus star…fox…) and you had a rag-tag team of animal companions with their own starships and you’re trying to save the galaxy or something. Other than you, there was Falco (a bird), Peppy (a rabbit), and last but not least Slippy (a frog).

Slippy’s only function in the game was to get chased by bad guys, then he’d fly across your screen and radio you to shoot at the bad guys chasing him. Ridiculous, but there’s a life lesson in there, and that is that your loyalties lie with your team, not anything else. I don’t think anyone in the right mind ever ignored Slippy.

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