Selling a startup at the age of 15

It didn’t begin as one.

It was April 2009, my second trip to Mexico. Back in the day I would freelance, and at the time I had a client who wanted me to develop a data aggregator for Craigslist. Coincidentally, I was finishing up the project right around the same time I went on vacation. My thought process was that it’d be a simple scp over to the client’s box and I’d be on my way, but never before had I met IIS. A good third of my vacation was spent on getting that Perl app to run on a Windows box.

There’s got to be a better way, right? This was before the PaaS boom, Heroku was the only option out there and it didn’t support anything but Ruby. So, come summer 2010, I wrote my own, for Perl. I called it Phenona.

It took a few months of learning about network topologies, Redis, ØMQ, LXC, redundancy, distributed systems, et. al before I was ready to jump in. And only halfway through coding did I realize that this could be of some utility to others. So I scrapped and rewrote it with others in mind. No billing system even in sight (a la 37signals) but in December of that year, I was ready with what one could call a private beta. Given my $20/month budget (my allowance at the time), the idea was to let a tiny bit of people in to give feedback, then hopefully jump straight to a launch.

The response surprised me. I’d devised a registration form that would ask each prospective user a wide array of questions so that I could get a better perspective of the market. Yet even with the additional friction, 10 users registered within the first week. Then another 10. Then 50. Then 100. Each day I would log on to MailChimp (fantastic service) and read the comments of the day and would be surprised again and again about the various backgrounds people were coming from and the ideas they had for improving Phenona. In the meantime, I was navigating the innards of the CPAN build process, getting a client library out the door and iterating, iterating, iterating on the server-side.

One day, I got an email from ActiveState. They were getting into the cloud business and wanted to talk about Phenona. Phenona was written in Perl, for Perl apps, and ActiveState is widely known for the excellent ActivePerl, so it was a natural fit. For obvious reasons, I can’t go into detail about the months that followed, but it was quite the rollercoaster ride. I learned the concepts of “due diligence”, “indemnity”, contracts, lawyers and more lawyers, and even family law in Washington state (I am an emancipated minor). ActiveState was fantastic to work with through it all; they’re seriously the nicest people in the business.

Come June 14th (2011), it was go time: announcement day. A regular school day, I might add. I got up at 5am to be able to push the blog post to the Phenona blog in time and send the tweets out, and headed off to school.

The Register was the first. Then Geekwire. But aside from that, the 14th was quiet. So was the 15th. But on the third day, something happened, and suddenly my inbox was full. The few weeks that followed were insane. An interview for KOMO (local news station in Seattle), a video interview for national TV in Russia, the GeekWire podcast, Skype interviews for various bloggers, dozens of email interviews. A news outlet had emailed the principal of my school to get a quote, and the principal had forwarded the email to all my teachers. It started out as flattering but quickly progressed to exhausting, to the point where the red (1) on the Mail icon in the OS X dock would cause an involuntary sigh.

But it was worth it, many times over.

Over the past year, I’ve met more fantastic people than I can possibly count. The support and encouragement from the crowd has been much more than I could’ve possible asked for when I committed the first line of Phenona’s code years ago.

So where have I been since June? Working behind the scenes on Stackato, which is in many ways a continuation of the Phenona idea: frictionless deployment to the cloud, as widely accessible as possible.

And of course, in my spare time, I’ve been thinking about the next big idea. An entrepreneur’s spirit is a crazy thing.

Hacker News discussion here.