Getting Started: How Wufoo Went from Concept to Launch

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Do you have an idea for a great new web site or web service that helps solve a real problem or provides useful content or a helpful service? Do you want to move forward, but aren’t sure how to get started or if you even should? I discussed this question with Kevin Hale, co-founder of Wufoo, and asked him to explain how Wufoo came up with their idea and how they went from idea to actual product.

brian-avatarKevin, who was involved in the original idea for Wufoo and how did it come about?

kevin-avatarThe company was founded by Chris and Ryan Campbell and myself. In 2003, I was doing some writing and design for a small division at a research university when I met Chris, who was doing some web application development there. Chris introduced me to his brother, Ryan, who at the time was still a student and writing all the database programming examples for his professor’s computer science textbook. For about a year, we talked constantly about how frustrating it was to build these really boring forms and databases for our employers, who failed to appreciate how much tedious work was involved just to create something simple as a contact form or an online survey.

brian-avatar

I think we can all relate to similar frustrations we encounter in our jobs, and many times, though we think of helpful solutions, it’s difficult to get past just talking about it, and actually get started on building something.

How long did it take between when you had the idea until you began to take action on it and how much decision making went into deciding it was a good enough idea to proceed?

kevin-avatar

While we thought about the idea around 2005, we didn’t start writing the first lines of code until after we got accepted into Y Combinator in January 2006. We knew right away that it was a good idea, the trick was figuring out how to architect our time to give us the opportunity to just sit down, focus and build a prototype. While we started off on the bootstrapping route, it wasn’t until we got funding that we were able to work on it full time.

brian-avatar

Many startup teams find themselves in the situation where they work a full time job while trying to build the startup, and they also have to bootstrap it as well. Do you have any advice to startup teams in this position?

kevin-avatar

Successful bootstrapping is all about discipline and stamina. Every scenario I’ve ever heard is some variation of coming home exhausted from regular work and figuring out how to muster additional energy to do more work. There’s no secrets from what I can remember from our own experience and from what I’ve seen others try. It pretty much sucks. Especially if you like anything else interesting in your life…like family, friends, hobbies, relationships, etc. My advice is that you remember your motivations and do what you can to stay positive. I honestly believe that if you figure out how to dedicate a solid few hours of work every single night to your side project, there’s no way it doesn’t manifest into something. It might not go exactly as planned, but something always happens. Oh, and document everything. People are voracious for the products of productive people. There is some wild fascination by all of humanity about those moments that show how things happen behind the scenes. That knowledge and more specifically that kind of sharing attracts not just an audience but potential fans—people with an intimate understanding of your process, justifications and roots. That’s invaluable.

brian-avatar

What were the first steps of action you took once you decided you wanted to build Wufoo?

kevin-avatar

On the steps of the Austin Convention Center at SXSW Interactive 2005, all three of us were talking after a day of panels and we decided that there was absolutely nothing separating us from any other successful person at the conference. That’s when we decided to start a blog and that lead to a magazine that we charged for, to help us moonlight program at nights. Eventually, we got inspired, scored some seed funding through Y Combinator and built something that liberated us from the land of the cubicles.

brian-avatar

It sounds like the first thing you had was confidence, which is something I find lacking in a lot of individuals who wish they could build a product or a service, but don’t feel they have what it takes. And yet, as you said, there really is very little in skills and experience that separate those who succeed from those who never start, other than the commitment to do so.

You said you decided to start a blog first. Was that in order to build credibility, an audience, something else? How long did you run the blog before starting to build Wufoo?

kevin-avatar

All of the above. It’s not even our formula. We heard this strategy for the first time from Jason Fried of 37signals fame at a session at SXSW many years ago on doing big things with small teams. They started their relationships with their users with their blog Signal vs Noise long before they built Basecamp and we all know how that story is going (hint: well!). Anyway, we ran Particletree for about a year before we got into Y Combinator.

brian-avatar

I know from experience that sometimes the most difficult part of getting started with an idea is choosing the name and the url for it, and some teams also have to decide what platform to build it on. At what point in the process did you choose the name and the url, and decide on the technology platform?

kevin-avatar

The name came up some time after a few weeks of coding. One of the people accepted into Y Combinator at the time was Beau Hartshorne, the creator of instantdomainsearch.com. He did all this crazy algorithmic domain name availability matching system and was able to give us a list of 5 letter domain names that were still available. We all went through the list and Wufoo just jumped out at me. I really liked it because it was a combo of two bands I really liked : Wu-Tang Clan and Foo Fighters. I kept saying over and over and eventually it stuck. The platform was based on what we knew well at the time from working on Particletree, our web development experiments blog at the time.

brian-avatar

When during the process did you bring on other members to the team or involve other people to help you build a product ready for launch?

kevin-avatar

So we started writing the first lines of code in January 2006 and we launched later that summer in July of 2006. It was still just the founders then doing all the development. We did, at the time, outsource our server management to a boutique company based in San Francisco at the time called Bitpusher. They handled all of our infrastructure, hardware and networking needs since that wasn’t our strong suit. Because we were (and still are) a small team that desired to stay a small team, we didn’t hire for almost two years.

brian-avatar

What are the advantages of staying small? What would you say to Founders and CEOs who want to hire a large team right away in order to speed toward the final product?

kevin-avatar

Honestly, best of luck to you. And I mean it. I don’t believe in the idea that there’s only one correct way to build a company. Companies that make a lot of revenue tend to be big companies. So if you want to make gobs of money, there’s a pretty strong correlation there. A few things that we like about staying small is the discipline it places on everyone to make the most of our resources to serve a large and growing audience of users, the very intimate and positive culture we’ve been able to develop that we’re very proud of, and because we are a company that offers a profit sharing plan with employees, the math works out in our favor if we keep it small.

brian-avatar

Did the original idea go through many changes from what we see today?

kevin-avatar

The initial vision of Wufoo was actually as an ASP content manager with the ability to allow for unlimited inputs and reversible forms, which means they could be used for both backend management and public submission. Basically, the worst elevator pitch ever described. As we wised up, ASP turned into PHP and we tried to narrow our focus to form building.

brian-avatar

What forces helped you to ‘wise up’? Was it bouncing your ideas off of others, or just you zeroing in on it as it came together?

kevin-avatar

Well, PHP was open source and therefore free and for a startup that’s a big thing. Plus, they have a great community that’s easily accessible and so that was also part of the calculations over a language like .NET.

The form building angle actually came from Paul Graham, one of our investors who serves as one of the partners over at Y Combinator. What we kept describing required a lot of words and that’s terrible in a pitch situation. Since our focus was creating a UI to design the front end easier while we magically take care of the backend, it just made sense to distill it down to what makes sense from the user perspective. Content Managers, Database Application Creators, Spreadsheets and Form Builders are really all variations of the exact same concept and principles. How you choose to describe yourself is really a marketing angle and at that time, the space was ripe for something new in that category.

brian-avatar

When and how did you decide on which features were necessary for the initial launch?

kevin-avatar

In the beginning we started off with this giant grocery list of all the features we could ever think could go into Wufoo. Fortunately, we had a very real deadline created by Y Combinator that required us to have some sort of working prototype to show off to a room full of investors in three months and so that kind of constraint resulted in us removing almost 50% of the features on that initial list right away. The next deadline we made for ourselves came out of wanting to give an exclusive to TechCrunch on launch on July 5, 2006. To reach that date, we paired down our ideas to the most basic things we could think of to get a user going from build form, view entries, edit entries, design styles and create reports. That came out to something like 30 features I think. That said, we weren’t super specific and were still over zealous about our ambitions and skills and so we actually had features on that initial 30 that we didn’t finish until just this year (4 years later!).

brian-avatar

I think its very difficult for us founders when we are passionate about providing a solution to a problem to stay focused on the essentials. You mention that a hard deadline helped you stay focused and that reminds me of building PeepNote for the Rails Rumble. We had a very real deadline of 48 hrs from when we started, and throughout that time we continued to drop features that weren’t as important. We were very aware that some product had to be launched by the end or we were out. I think deadlines like this can really help teams focus, but, not everyone is competing in a competition as we were, or given a deadline by investors as you were. Do you have any suggestions for startup teams who don’t have an externally forced deadline, but still need to resist the urge to add endless features, and take far too long to deliver a product?

kevin-avatar

You’re right, constraints in the form of deadlines really help people focus their energies down to the essentials. Not much advice to give if you’re having trouble with feature creep. Most people have some sort of ticking clock in place that’s usually tied to funds if not an event in time like meeting with a room full of investors. For people worried about cutting out too many features, I feel like you can always cut something down to one really well-executed feature. Many software ideas starts as such an embryo. I also don’t believe that software is ever truly “done” and so you can always take solace in the fact that users will always ask for more features and give you opportunities to expand upon your creation. I honestly believe waiting for the big launch is a silly idea especially in this age on the web. The life of your app only just begins when your users can have at it. To me, everything before that is just posturing and guesses.

brian-avatar

What advice would you give to someone who has an idea and has decided they are willing to commit to staying with it and put in the needed time to make it happen. What are the most important next steps to take after the idea is there? What shouldn’t they do right away that maybe you see people get distracted by in the beginning?

kevin-avatar

Get it out there to real users. Critiques from other designers and developers are rarely accurate or helpful and so I think that desire to refine before launch is over expressed in most founders. If you’re planning to make money off the app directly (like with a freemium model) I highly recommend having that ready to go and out there with prices right at launch. There’s this great advice from Joe Kraus, the guy behind Excite and JotSpot, who emphasizes that you have to beta test your business model along with your software.

What I don’t think people need to worry about a lot in the beginning is speculation. Lots of arguments happen in the beginning of most startups based on postulations, hypotheses and predictions. I find those discussions usually lead to wasted energy arguing about possibilities that can’t be proven at the time. I definitely prefer to worry about decisions based on realities and can end with some kind of action item that will lead to an answer. I think what you have to realize is that arguments like those arise out of a lack of information and when you can get to the point where you can use data and revenue to make decisions about direction and focus, those discussions are so much less stressful. I’m always recommending people staying away from the future and keeping themselves in the present by making sure that what they work on is accompanied with measurement and observation. This way, when questions about the future come up, they can extrapolate instead of postulate.

brian-avatar

Great suggestions Kevin. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. The Internet startup community seems to be corner-stoned by some really helpful individuals, who truly want others to succeed and are willing to share their experience and lessons learned. I think that in the end, this helps others reach their dreams and accomplish their goals, and helps grow the Internet startup community to even larger numbers. Thanks for your time.

Wufoo

kevin-avatar

Kevin Hale is the Co-founder of Infinity Box Inc, a Y Combinator seeded company. His responsibilities include safe guarding and designing the user experience of their online HTML form builder, Wufoo, which was ranked by Jakob Nielson as one of the best application UIs of 2008. He also writes about interface design issues for the web development blog, Particletree and served as Editor-in-Chief of the web development magazine, Treehouse.

Brian Burridge is the founder of PeepNote, a CRM for Twitter, the CTO for WOMbeat, a site that lets friends share Word of Mouth (WOM) recommendations with each other, and the Sr. Ruby on Rails developer for MileyWorld, the official fan club of Miley Cyrus. You can read more by Brian at his blog and by following him on twitter.

 

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