In my family we have an expression: explode and commit. It applies to just about anything you can do, and it works best when shouted with a ferocious intensity during a critical moment. What does it mean? I guess you have to step back and imagine a bunch of kids playing high-stakes imaginary games, pretending they are jet pilots, warriors, heroes. When you give it your all, go full-force sprint, attempt a Hail Mary play, transform yourself into a fury and go nuts to achieve, to win, that’s when you explode and commit. Now that all the kids in my family aren’t really kids anymore we still use the expression, albeit applied to somewhat more grown-up topics.
When my co-founder, Arianna, and I decided to start frestyl after finishing our PhDs, we turned down cushy job offers at innovative research labs, large corporations and prestigious universities. Like every other founder out there, we wanted to blaze our own trail. We really believed in our idea, our baby. Even if the economy was going into the toilet, we decided that this was our time to shine. Our time to explode and commit.
Sometimes I still can’t believe I did that. But here I am almost two years after founding our company writing a blog post for The Lean Startup Challenge about what it means to be a lean startup, and why frestyl is the leanest of the lean. Let me try to break it down.
First of all: What is frestyl?
frestyl is a geolocalized, user-generated content platform (for the web & iPhone) that enables musicians, promoters and venues to distribute information about their concerts across the world, making it easier for music fans discover live music on a local level. With frestyl we want to change the concert industry, giving even the smallest venues and artists visibility, and making the live music experience as spontaneous and easy as Yelp has made finding good food.
David and Goliath
Our biggest competitor is Songkick, and they are big. They’ve built a great service and by hooking into each user’s iTunes, last.fm and Pandora accounts, Songkick makes sure you will never miss a concert from a band you love, by notifying you before they come to your city. Building a service to solve an obvious pain point is smart, but frestyl is cunning. The fundamental ethos behind Songkick is that people discover new bands through the digital music they find online, and then go to see them live. But at frestyl we see the world a different way. Music has always been live, and will always be live. That’s its nature. From tribal communities gathering to beat drums in the desert, to a bunch of punk kids in a squat playing an illegal show, people crave the live experience. It’s what binds us together, before language, before civilization, there were concerts. With frestyl we are building a platform that taps into and amplifies the communities that are built around creating and discovering those live experiences. Any artist will tell you that they’d rather have one fan come to their show than a thousand downloads of their digital EP. True fans are converted in the sweaty, emotional moment of staring up at a band giving it their all on the tiniest stage. frestyl is starting with the long-tail, focusing on creating tools that help support the very real communities built up around live music that already exist, and making it easier for everyone involved, venues, promoters, musicians and fans to communicate with one another. We didn’t take this road to be different from the competition (though it doesn’t hurt). We chose this approach because it’s trickier, less obvious, but the payoff is huge. If we went about scraping and partnering with ticket companies we could grab all the low-hanging fruit as well, all the top 100 concerts that fans are guaranteed to know, and work our way down. Instead we are starting at the bottom, and building a powerful tool to allow even the smallest venue or the most unknown artist to spread the word about their shows, and get feedback from the community. frestyl is small, and the road isn’t easy, but our vision is revolutionary. We are staring up in the face of a giant and we’re not scared, we’re amped at the challenge.
Ridiculously Low Burn Rate
Right now frestyl is burning about $8K per month. We’re four and half people (no, we don’t have half a person working with us, just one whole person who is part-time), all of us are relatively skinny (the combined weight of the co-founders is less than 100 kilos), and we really know how to stretch a dollar. An investor we talked to quipped, “I think my wife’s monthly burn rate is more than yours.” But we love to do a lot with just a little. It gives me crazy satisfaction to know that everything we have done, we did with less than the average startup. It’s that competitive feeling of making something out of nothing, even when no one thought it was possible. I think of frestyl a bit like a stone soup. We don’t have second jobs, this isn’t a hobby, this is how we make our living and we need to be smart about how we use our funding. Our seed investors Joi Ito & Jean-Marie Hullot have always encouraged us to be creative in our frugality, and I think it shows.
We don’t cut corners on talent. Besides the two PhD-wielding co-founders we’ve got two insanely smart engineers: Luca, a Rails core contributor, and PJ, the first employee of Indaba Music. We stay on the cutting edge of technology: we were one of the first to implement the HTML5 Geolocation API, we’ve got SSL to shear the Firesheep, we’re in the process of migrating to Rails 3. We are fast and pretty: speed doesn’t get in the way of good design, our graphics and UX are sexy. So what do we give up? The answer is superfluous luxury. I used to work in research lab where I could drop thousands of dollars on a piece of random hardware just because I wanted to. Now, we need to make smart decisions: do we need a new gadget or do we just want it? There’s no giant flat screen monitors or stacks of iPads lying around the office. I’m typing this blog post on a MacBook Pro from 2007 (that I managed to get for free with some clever social engineering). It takes my computer about 5 minutes to get nginx going, and over 15 to run the RSpec Rake task. But for now it gets the job done. And until it ceases to boot, it stays on the front line. When we needed a big whiteboard for meetings, we bought a 2 meter sheet of plexiglass for 35€ and I (using my talents as a handy-woman) cut it to size and mounted it in our “office” (which, incidentally, is also our apartment). I’m not promoting starvation here, just saying that I’m proud we manage to out-code the kids sitting in their Aeron chairs.
Rubbing Shoulders, Down in the Trenches
It’s not just the developers working on the cheap, Arianna along with the fifth frestyler, Emanuela, are the scrappiest guerilla marketers I’ve ever met. They are at several concerts a week, talking to whoever will listen and being part of the community our product is targeting. I’ve met many teams building products for a market they barely know. You’ve got to eat your own dog food, and you have to know (almost biblically, almost) your customers. When you see Arianna and Emanuela at a concert they’re not hanging at the back, they are down in the mosh pit both standing barely 160cm tall, being part of the moment, and getting to know, inside and out, their market. Getting a pint of beer poured all over them is de rigueur, but they’re unfazed. The next morning Ari & Manu are up getting the word out about frestyl on our zero dollar marketing budget, evangelizing, coming up with new ways to spread the word further, organizing concerts, acting like one of the big players and securing partnerships with national festivals and big-time promoters. They are the leanest marketing and communications team because instead of throwing cash at the problem, they are like our own personal sleeper cell, working on building an intimate knowledge in order to strike from within.
Knowing You Can’t Run on Fumes
We’re lean. You got that. But we know we can’t make something out of absolutely nothing. frestyl uses the most cost-effective tools at our disposal. We’re running on Engine Yard, Mongo Machine and Amazon S3, monitoring with New Relic and Google Analytics (having to forgo, up until now, Kissmetrics), hosting our code on GitHub, communicating with the free plans on Campfire and Basecamp, sharing files on Dropbox, and we love Pivotal Tracker, but now that it’s no longer free what will we do?! Seriously, for the Pivotal credit alone the Lean Startup Bundle is great for us. I’m always trying to stretch our budget just a little more. But at the same time I want to make sure my team is well fed and well supplied. frestyl was launched at the end of October, 2010, and as we are starting to gain traction our cloud hosting costs are going up and the pressure starts mounting to keep the lights on. Being lean also means knowing when to put fuel in the tank, and for frestyl it’s time to kick it up to the next level. I don’t envision any lavish digs, or private jets, but maybe it would be nice if we could afford a new computer every now and again.
We. Are. Lean.
My father is a life-long entrepreneur, and after trying to discourage me from following in his footsteps (that didn’t work), he gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard about running a startup: You are an unstoppable train, and you need to let everyone know that it’s their loss if they don’t get on board. That’s what being lean is for frestyl. With whatever we have at our disposal we blaze ahead. We explode and commit.