The flow. Four years off the beaten path
They say you only get one chance for good a first impression, one chance to win trust. F*cking that up leaves you off the road, especially in today’s connected and fast news spreading world. I did miss that first chance, but there is nothing but gratitude for all the experiences I gained in the process. Let me tell you the story of how it all went down.
2012, Austria - utopian idea and one crazy angel
It’s 1st of July 2012. I just had a failed business experiment in Cluj, Romania, and my relationship with an amazing woman went kaput. Not a great series of events for your 23rd birthday.
Luckily, by then I also discovered the founders of DreamAcademia, Hermann and Katzi. I met them at the Startup Week Vienna 2011, the event that will later lead to the creation of Pioneers.io. The guys were calling themselves dream developers and building a decentralized movement of sorts, a movement of people who choose to follow their dreams and help like-minded people in the process. Their work sounds like a utopian world until you see their results and understand that there is no alternative in life but following your calling, everything else is a prison. So, around 10th of July 2012 I asked Katzi and Hermann if I can move over to Austria and support their work until I figure what I want (can) do next. They said yes and I will remain grateful for that my entire life.
After a few months in Austria, the idea of Dreamups was born. First as a network of coworking spaces for misfits working on exciting new tech, then (quite a change) into a platform for documenting DIY open hardware projects to solve social challenges, ex: sanitation, clean water, healthcare, energy, transportation etc. Our first pitch was possible because of DA’s network and the Pioneers Festival. I presented the idea over skype and we got 15000 Euro in no time before we even meet in person. That crazy business angel was Hansi Hansmann. Here is what he said:
*2012 was also the year I met few humans to become some of the most inspiring people in my life.
2013, Netherlands — building software for good and discovering America
With 15k in the bank and a set of web mockups, I decided to move to Netherlands and start a risky duo between “get a life out of the sugar factory” and “build a startup”. The team extended to 3 people, Shurik and Evelina joined, and we partnered with Thinslices.com for building the web app. The guys at Thinslices were amazing, I remember on my first visit to the company in Iasi, I couchsurfed over at CEO’s place and we had a good time (thanks Ilie). Else, going for outsourcing with such a small budget was a mistake.
That year, we ended up getting 10 more thousand from Hansi and win 20 thousand as Europe’s best social business, awarded by JCI. That budget was way far from enough when you need to iterate fast (and many times) and you pay outside services 6k a month. Besides, one needs to pay for a roof and basic existential needs of self and teammates.
By the end of 2013, all we managed to build was a beautified, but not super functional, version of instructables.com. It was a continuous struggle but I am grateful to our team for every single day of working together. We had a vision for a world where people openly create and share technologies to solve grand challenge. That big picture kept the energy high no matter the problems.
Considering our small progress in 2013, somehow, Heather Cochran found us and invited over to San Francisco for their opening of Digital Garage — a creative space and VC fund. I had no clue of the people behind (like Joy Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab), not money to cover the whole trip and our product was super basic, but I decided to take the opportunity. I combined the volunteering for Pioneers Festival 2013 (back again) with applying for a business visa at US Consulate in Vienna and it all worked out.
Few days after the Pioneers Festival, I found myself in San Francisco, only to discover that my Dutch Maestro card is not ok for paying in US and I misunderstood the invitation later as including the accommodation. As a result, I ended up spending the first night walking around the streets of San Francisco. At least the awesome guys at HI San Francisco Downtown Hostel were cool with me taking a shower in the morning.
What followed next was just crazy. On my second day in SF, the very few people I knew, including Bilal Galib, started to share emails with their network about a guy who just arrived in town with no place to stay. I ended up couchsurfing on a yacht (thx Michael), getting a private tour through Facebook (thx Rika), Mozilla and Google campuses (thx Pascal) and riding a red convertible mustang all over the silicon valley (thx Aurora). All these was made possible because of people I just met and zero cash. That was a great lesson of trust and community power.
2014, Europe — money, identity and back to USA
There is another 2013 story, the one where I get back to USA shortly after my first trip, to become an Uber driver. It happened while waiting for the accelerator program in Amsterdam. I even managed to get a California driving license and a gig to drive people to Yosemite Park, but I will leave that story for a separate post.
So, now is January 2014, we are accepted into Rockstart Accelerator — a 6-month intensive mentoring program for tech startups, adding plenty of perks and some cash investment. With this fresh blood (cash in the bank) we moved the software development in-house and brought Stefan and Teodor as co-founders. We worked remotely for a bit as the guys were based in Romania, but for one month before Demo Day we all worked out of Amsterdam, the 3 of us sleeping in a small living room. Heck, Teo left Romania for one entire month, while he was supposed to prepare for the wedding on 1 of June 2014. He is a dream partner.
Long story short, we failed we raise capital at the Demo Day, which threw us in the struggle zone once again, and no surprise. With the accelerator, Dreamups’ idea changed dramatically into the goal to build a Jarvis like experience for documenting hardware engineering and science work. One of the big mistakes during the accelerator was our focus on the big-big thing, we got all excited about the problem out there (fragmentation of knowledge in hardware engineering) and what we could build, while failing to break it down in small enough steps that were understandable by investors and users alike. Basically, we sounded like some aliens or dudes who smoked pot (remember this was Amsterdam) and went on stage to talk sci-fi.
But, you will be surprised, this story doesn’t end here, we hustled and in the end, we got an investment from Doen Foundation. It came only in December of 2014 while I went on to test our MVP from inside USA makerspaces, while Teo and Stefan were working on code from Romania. There are more stories to that 3 months USA trip, but as I said, there is time for other posts.
One important detail to that 2014 chain of events, Dreamups became Qodemo. This was a new chapter for us and as Ben Horowitz wrote “keep on the struggle”.
2015, World — iterations, user research and kaput
Following the 100k convertible note from Doen Foundation, I got back from US and we switched the full power mode on our engineering engines, including new hires. Shortly after we took the decision to create a “user research tour” — meaning we rented a car, bought some basic video gear and ventured to visit maker / hacker / fab spaces all over Europe. On one side, the guys in Romania would deliver software improvements and interactions every 2 weeks and I would go around testing it with users from a relatively similar persona profile — open source hardware engineers. It was lean development in the best possible fashion, but we failed to find our product a real fit in the market.
As I said, we were trying to document all the open hardware knowledge out there and eventually build the best personal assistant for hardware engineering — a go-to place for all things open hardware. First, we needed to find a way to log in massive amounts of hardware knowledge (circuits, drawings, videos, voice memos etc) then connect commercial applications. We failed to find a way to put Qodemo in the natural flow of how hardware engineers work, unlike GitHub did for software engineers. We burned 100k in 9 months, on 5 people working full time, one insightful but crazy road campaign and several product experiments. In September of 2015 we ran out of cash, plus a minus on the credit card. Three years in the making and I got back to square one, even worse — with the trust of Hansi and Doen Foundation shaking. It goes quite heavy on your psychology and I am grateful to my teammates and Dream Academia for encouraging a “no give up” attitude.
Luckily, I got the ticket to China way back in May of 2015, so I had no choice by joining this group of amazing people and trying to find something that will help us get Qodemo out of, technically, bankruptcy. China is huge on DIY hardware, it was worth exploring.
The trip to China was a life changing experience. There is so much to it, it requires a separate story. Some takeaways from that trip were — “Holy sh*t China is not only about copycats, they got some original ideas” and “The current education system is almost a legalized crime against humanity”.
*Alex and Torrey jamming from a random company brochure. 3NOD HQ, China
Stay with me, it’s funny how, sometimes, one can connect the dots only backwards: After the first hacker trip to China I got back. I returned to China to work with Prof. Ben Koon on some revolutionary education projects he is kickstarting in China. I became a hacker in Residence at Tsinghua University and it changed everything.
2016, Paris — Rebirth, new product and steps ahead.
It’s January 2016, after China and a small US trip with my amazing lady, I felt so much in love that I decided to flip the script and move to Paris. Whatever I was going to do next, with Qodemo our outside that startup, I wanted to build my next life chapter together with Ana.
On my arrival, I knew nobody in Paris, except some pips I met previously at conferences - Christian from MakeSense, Ben from OuiShare and the gang at Electrolab. Then, one week into my parisian life, Ben Koo (the Professor from Tsinghua University I worked with in 2015) visited Paris and I offered to walk him around and visit some education centers. That’s how I discovered CRI - a place with amazing minds playing the “future of learning” game. Few months in, I started an experimental Master in Education Technology and we got the inspiration for a new Qodemo reboot.
Now, we think of Qodemo as a digital ID for logging all learning experiences over a human lifetime - part diploma alternative, part a complementary solution to university education. The project is pending 1000000 Euros as a research grant from the European Union and we feel solid about making it work.
- Get a life and fix a budget hole of 40k on my account. I never really got a good financial education, so from the little salary I had (to keep more cash on the company account) I ended up paying from private resources for tools and services used by Qodemo. I did not save any money, the company well-being was our priority #1, so whenever we got hit during these 4 years, it was a miserable place to be in.
- I will be stepping down from the CEO position, leaving space for smarter business heads to run the show while I am focusing on education research and family time.
- The company will be shifting towards a fully distributed team, with most of engineering capacity in Romania (due to European grant conditions).
- On the side, I commit to becoming 100% transparent and document all my work on tudornotes.com for these reasons.
So, what are the key lessons from this 4-year story?
It’s all about people. A company is nothing but a support structure for great people who are solving a set of problems. Hire on time and wisely.
Financial discipline is a matter of life and death. One can be profitable on paper but if money runs late, you get out of business. Cashflow is a company’s bloodstream. Same is valid for your employee's private financial discipline.
Play the long game but stick with details. Good things come with hard work and many, many, many iterations. Sometimes the work is not sexy or super rewarding, but you get over that and deliver your best.
Read and run. Although it’s very contextual, most of the challenges you face today were already experienced by other people. So, get out there and read, find a mentor and ask Google as many questions as needed to get shit done. In between your “knowledge-sucking” habits go for and exercise, let that mind rest and stay sharp.
And much more. There is not enough space here to share all the lessons from 4 years of experiments and startup adventures. Search @tudornotes on Instagram, twitter or SnapChat for more stories.