24 Years to Overnight Success

At Interact, it took 10 months to go from idea to paying customer. 

And then that customer canceled. 

But then, two months later, more customers signed up. 

It took 12 months for three co-founders to make a product that anyone would pay for. 

Oh, I forgot to mention that we had no backup and no savings. 

So if we hadn’t gotten customers by month 12, we would have run out of money. 

And we had declined job offers.

So we would be broke, jobless, homeless, recent college grads. 

No pressure though. 

But it all worked out, which seemed like a lucky break. 

In a lot of ways it was. 

But in my experience, luck often comes to those who work the hardest.

My co-founders and I had been working hard for a very long time before Interact got traction. 

I had started my own company seven years before we began working on Interact. 

And my co-founder had been building websites for the same amount of time. 

And my other co-founder had been designing websites for nearly a decade. 

So, really, if you add it all up, it took us 24 years to get a paying customer. 

*Steps on Soapbox*

image1 33

It really bothers me to see news articles come out about “new” companies.

Especially when I know the founders and can tell you that the company is anything but new. 

This happened to us; a piece came out in a prominent magazine about Interact. 

But at that point, it had been four years since we’d launched. 

And there’s a prominent creator who most people know from a viral social post.

But they had been working for 10 years before that post went viral. 

The reason this is so detrimental is because it can make you feel stupid if you are trying to start something.

If it’s your first time venturing out from a corporate job.

Or you’re just getting started with a side business.

And nothing is going your way. 

It’s so easy to feel like you just don’t have the stuff. 

That this isn’t the life for you.

And maybe it’s not.

But if you let discouragement make the choice for you, it will nag at you.

*Steps down from soapbox*

Now I would like to show how those 24 years of experience made it possible for Interact to get a paying customer in less than one year. 

  1. Knowing the power of persistence. 

When I was 16, I traded a set of speakers for a laptop through a sketchy Craigslist transaction. Once I looked up the value of the laptop, I realized it was worth 4x what the speakers were worth. So, I taught myself to wipe the computer and reset it to factory settings—and then I sold it. 

I made a $250 profit. 

And bought myself Uncrustables for lunch at school the next day. 

That was the pinnacle of my life. 

Balling out with two Uncrustables for lunch: f*** you, plastic-wrapped, soggy, government-subsidized school lunch—I have my own money now!

But that success was short-lived, and the $250 was gone real fast. Turns out spending all your money on food is a quick way to go broke again. 

So I tried to figure out how to repeat my success. 

And quickly found it was really hard.

Deals did not just fall into my lap.

I ended up figuring out that there were opportunities to snag deals on laptops people were selling on Craigslist. 

But I had to be ready at a moment’s notice, 12 hours a day. 

And I had to advertise, saying that I wanted to buy people’s broken laptops (which I taught myself to fix). 

Most deals happened in the span of an hour. 

Someone would text me, we would arrange a meeting, and I would buy or sell—60 minutes or less. 

It taught me to be agile and very quick on my feet, understanding that I really had to show up over and over again to be present when “luck” struck.

I also learned that it can take a long time to get a pipeline going for deals. 

That first laptop trade happened in January, and I wasn’t consistently buying and selling laptops until July of that year. 

So I’d learned it takes time. 

Those two factors were vital in the success of Interact. 

Because our first customer came from an article I wrote. 

But it wasn’t my first article. 

It was article #150.

I had written 100 blog posts on Interact, and another 50 guest posts. 

Persistence and showing up. 

To be honest, I probably would have given up if I hadn’t learned the lesson from selling laptops. 

  1. Knowing everything is learnable

Perhaps my favorite story from the beginnings of Interact is that the idea-to-initial-build process went like this: 

Three co-founders in a hot tub. The idea for the company is tossed out. 

We mostly write it off because none of us know how to build a platform for making quizzes. 

At that point, all we’d done was web design projects for static websites. 

Then my co-founder, who is a programmer, decides to try learning a new programming language so he can build a platform for creating quizzes. 

While he was on vacation with his family in Hawaii. 

And he figured it out. 

On that vacation. 

illustration of guy with laptop on a beach

By the time he came back, there was an initial version almost ready to go. 

A big part of the reason he knew it was possible to learn something totally new like that is because that’s what you do when you take on web design projects. 

When a client asks for something, you basically just say “yes.”

Even though you don’t actually know how to do what they’re asking for. 

Then you go back and figure it out. 

That’s how you make money. 

And it works out, because everything is learnable.

Sometimes it just means staying up all night and maybe launching products that accidentally charge people $1,000 instead of $10.

Then waking up to realize people have been trying to buy stuff, and there are charges for thousands of dollars getting declined. 

But let’s just slip right past that one. 

My point is it *almost* always works out just to learn things as you go. 

And that is truly only something you can know once you experience it. 

Because it’s just too dang scary otherwise. 

But you only learn that when you do freelance work for years, like my co-founder. 

And it’s a big part of why we were able to succeed in a short amount of time, with our backs against the wall. 

  1. Knowing how to act fast 

Our third co-founder had been designing websites for people 10 years prior to working on Interact. 

When we were doing web design projects together, we once got a job at 3:00 p.m. 

The client needed it designed by the next day. 

And 12 hours later, at 3:00 a.m., he had designed the site, front to back. 

He was used to that, because clients often demand extremely quick turnaround. 

Which was part of Interact’s success. 

Because when we would add to the product or launch something new, he could design an element for it within hours. 

And it allowed us to go through the necessary iterations to land on a product that would perform. 

But rapid change is not something you learn without working for yourself. 

Because large companies—smartly—move slow.

It’s in their best interest to be deliberate. 

A startup with no paying customers is the exact opposite. 

It’s in your best interest to test as quickly as possible. 

And his background moving super quickly on a moment’s notice was part of what led to getting those paying customers. 

And now for the part with practical advice. 

If you’re in a place where you have an idea to work on but don’t know the steps to get to a paying customer, here are some practical steps you can take. 

  1. Show up with value consistently. The articles I referenced earlier were all about marketing and growing online businesses. I would write them on our own blog and also on industry publications for marketing. Over and over again. Showing up is vital. 
  1. Learn, launch, and experiment. We had probably 25 product updates in those first 12 months, which required lots of experimenting. Most of the time, things were drastically broken. There was a period when people could make a quiz, but there was no login system, so they couldn’t save it. I would get emails from people who were royally upset (and I don’t blame them—sorry if you were one of those people). My point is it won’t be perfect, or maybe it won’t even work—just launch it anyway. Better to be alive with something that is garbage than not alive with something you think is awesome. 

That’s pretty much it. 

Okay, I hope you enjoyed this. Best of luck to you. And if you want to join a group of people who operate based on creating value and sticking it out, come check out the Interact creator community.

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