Maybe this is what Fatherhood does to you. Or maybe it was the most recent episode of StartUp I heard on the radio. But whatever it was, I recently decided it was time to document my journey as an entrepreneur, the ups and downs, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Perhaps someday my son will find it interesting. Or maybe not. But in the meantime, I figure I can share it with you. So here it goes.
After college, I started working in marketing at a small company outside of Chicago called Air Cycle. For a while, I hated it. In fact, I even cried to my boss. Embarrassing, yes, but I knew I wanted to be doing work that mattered, something other than stuffing envelopes. Fortunately, things improved dramatically with time and eventually I was being exposed to all different areas of the business, learning about accounting, sales, operations, and management. I think that’s around the time the bug bit. The entrepreneurial bug that is.
I began reading books on starting businesses and engrossed myself in every Inc. magazine issue I could get my hands on. I found the concept of launching my own business fascinating and as I spent more and more time reading about entrepreneurs and the joys and challenges they face, it became official: I had to start my own business.
The truth is, I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. My Dad ran his own small tech company for most of my years growing up, and I’m 5th generation in a family business that has been around for 120 years. I’m sure that history had to play a role in my growing curiosity to leave a stable job and venture into the unknown, but just how much is hard to say.
Being the conservative, risk-averse type, I decided to start my first business before leaving my day job. The business idea I came up with was a direct reflection of my role in marketing at the time. It would be a website where marketers could receive feedback on their own websites from other marketers, designers, usability experts, and strategists. I called it Concept Feedback. After I convinced a tech partner that this was an idea worth investing their time in, we started building the website and launched in April 2009.
Fast forward a year and we had a close to 10,000 users signed up and 20-30,000 visitors a month. Revenue was slowly coming along, and I decided it was my time to pursue this thing full time. As Hannah, my then fiancee advised me, “There’s never going to be a better time to take a risk like this”. And she was right. No kids, no mortgage, no major responsibility. What was there to lose? If it didn’t work out I could always go find another job. So I quit.
To be honest, quitting was hard. I cried. Again. I had learned a lot, made some good friends, and felt like I was betraying them for a pipe dream. But that was the goal I had been working towards for the past couple of years. I wanted the challenge of running my own business and the responsibility of making something from scratch that was exactly what I wanted it to be.
Concept Feedback turned out to be another learning experience. My partners and I poured ourselves into it for another year, but it felt like we were banging our heads against the wall trying to make money. Luckily I had found a few part-time marketing gigs on the side because Concept Feedback wasn’t paying the bills and it was hard to say how long it might be before that would be a possibility. There were plenty of people interested in website feedback, just not too many willing to pay for it, at least not of the people we were reaching.
One of those marketing gigs involved producing tutorial screencast videos, the type that walk you through how to use a website, signup, get started, etc. It was something I had done at Air Cycle and really enjoyed. I’d learn about a website, write a script, have my friend (a Chicago radio host and now pastor) record a voiceover, and then record and edit a video using some basic screencasting software. Simple, but fun and oddly satisfying. These experiences eventually became the seed of an idea that would become a new business.
In January 2011, I registered the domain name demoduck.com. The story behind the name is a rather long and boring, but the short of it is that I thought “demo” would be a key word to the business and marketing strategy (at that point we were just making demo videos) and finding another 4-letter D-word was just a matter of running through people, places, and things, along with available URLs. Eventually, I landed on animals and decided Demo Dog and Demo Donkey didn’t have quite the same ring or associations as Demo Duck.
With a company name and domain locked in, I launched a basic template (thanks WooThemes) website on WordPress with a homemade explainer video. At the time, you could fill out a Wufoo form and pay online with Google Checkout (videos started at just $499). Within 2 weeks and for less than $100, I was up and running. This was my version of a minimum viable product (MVP) – low cost and low risk.
I quickly realized I needed to find a way to get some traffic, and more importantly, some customers. Having had a decent amount of experience with Google AdWords, I launched a low budget, highly targeted campaign, focusing on key phrases like “screencast video” and “tutorial video”. I set my weekly budget to $100 and let her rip.
Within a matter of days, I had my first customer with more trickling in every few days. I was cranking out videos, and oftentimes only communicating with clients via email from start to finish, which seems unbelievable today. A few weeks in and I already had customers requesting things other than screencast, my only skill. They wanted illustration and motion graphics. So I spent some time scouring Vimeo and eventually found a guy in Rockford to help me do my first fully animated explainer video for a startup out of Atlanta called grex.
While it may not be the prettiest video, I was quite proud of it at the time and it has since become a nostalgic piece for me, a look back at simpler times. grex kicked off what would soon become, and still is, the majority of our business – animated explainer videos (I wasn’t aware of the “explainer” term at that time and only discovered it almost a year in). There were times that first summer that I was handling 20-30 projects simultaneously, on my own. Quality was suffering and I was mixing up client names. It was time to get some help.
In a weird series of events, a guy who stayed in my spare bedroom through Airbnb a few weeks earlier would become my first employee. Overnight Demo Duck doubled in size and the project load became manageable once again. We gradually brought new creatives into the fold and our work quality continued to increase, along with the customer count. We made over 100 videos that first year and I was confident I’d found something that was working.
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I put Concept Feedback on autopilot (it was acquired in September 2014 by VWO) and moved full steam ahead with Demo Duck. I loved, and still love, the challenge of explaining a complex company, product, or service in a minute, and pairing it with fun, engaging visuals. I get to learn about new, interesting companies everyday and get to help them make a lasting first impression.
Our big break came in August 2012, shortly after finishing a video for a popular web service called Crazy Egg. Unknown to us, one of the companies founders, Neil Patel, posted an article about the video and the results they had since publishing it on their homepage. It turned out the video had increased their conversion rate by 65% and generated an extra $21,000 in monthly income. This was a goldmine for us. Not only was it free publicity to a large, relevant audience, it was also confirmation that in addition to looking good, our videos offered companies a measurable return.
Since launching Demo Duck in early 2011, I’ve had an amazing ride, going from just me and a computer in my kitchen, to working with a talented team in a “real office” downtown. We’ve produced videos for clients small and large, including some household names, and have even seen some of our work on TV. We’ve had the opportunity to take team trips to Argentina and Puerto Rico, and get to know some incredibly talented individuals. I even launched a new video marketplace called Video Brewery. Not too shabby for starting out selling screencasts for $499! It’s humbling to see how God has brought the right people at just the right time to make it all happen.
I probably glossed over a few things here or there, but I can confidently say that deciding to take the plunge and start my own business was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Taking a little time to look back on how far you’ve come can be a huge encouragement for taking the next step forward. And believe it or not, I did it all without shedding a single tear. What’s your startup story?