I founded Valet.io almost two years ago, just after my sophomore year at Columbia. After two years of working with nonprofits to grow their fundraising events, I’ve decided to move on to something new. I’m shutting down Valet, effective immediately.
Knowing When to Quit
The first summer I spent working on Valet with two high school friends we were actually working on an entirely different product to help nonprofits manage silent auctions. That was fun, largely because it was new and unknown territory. I’d work all night on features for an event the next day. We were making something (small) out of nothing.
Last summer and fall I got to work with Jordan Cohen, my closest friend and a supremely talented salesman. We started acquiring new customers quickly and I was free to spend the majority of my time polishing the product. We were closing in on five-figure monthly revenue with a simple but novel product and a lot of hustle. But Jordan decided to move to Mountain View and work for Google so I ended up solo again.
As a solo founder, I never really found my footing. This spring I worked on setting short term sales goals and converting customers to annual subscriptions. After scaling these goals back a few times, I started to doubt whether I had the stamina to keep focused and motivated during the many months it would take to build up the momentum I’d need. I felt like I was running on fumes at the bottom of a steep hill. That meant it was time to quit.
I still believe that Valet.io had an awesome product and could be a sound business. But I also believe that it would take a year or more to fix some of my early mistakes. The timeline just doesn’t fit with the way my priorities have evolved. So it’s time to move on.
Building a business-to-business software company with real revenue challenged me to grow at a pace I’d never experienced before. I’m walking away with a set of enormously valuable skills, all of which I’ve built almost from scratch in the past two years.
I’ve written and shipped code almost every day for the last two years. Before Valet, I’d never actually created a proper application or built anything from scratch. Programming lights up my brain like nothing else I’ve ever done. Building Valet created just enough stress to coax out new creative problem solving skills, but also left me with enough freedom to develop a personal style and share it with the community in the form of open source software.
I also got a free crash course on sales, largely through the generous and prolific Steli Efti. The core lesson is that information is power. Success comes when you understand every step of the buying process and help guide the customer through from start to finish. And rejection, though briefly painful, frees you up to move on and offer value to someone else. The only truly toxic outcome is a “maybe,” which does nothing but waste everyone’s time. Systematizing my sales process was what brought me to the decision to shut down the company. The sales cycle was dragging on longer than I’d projected and so my growth numbers were not going to pan out. Sales knowledge is exceptionally rare among technically-minded people, and I expect the foundation I’ve built will be a huge asset in whatever I work on next.
I don’t want to dwell too much on frustrations I experienced working with nonprofits. If you’re thinking about building a product for nonprofits, please do reach out. I’d be happy to share my thoughts, good and bad. For now, I’d rather focus on things I’ll do differently when (not if) I start my next company.
First, I’d think very carefully about being a single founder again. That doesn’t mean I’ll pair up with someone the moment I have a new idea. It means that I’ll probably prototype a product on my own, find some initial paying customers, and then seek out a partner before taking the plunge and working full time on a company. It’s a lot easier to appreciate wins and recover from losses with a teammate.
I also wouldn’t bootstrap a company by consulting on the side. I found it destroyed my focus and eliminated the urgency to grow the business. In hindsight, if I and a cofounder had saved enough to work for six months without a salary, I think we’d have reached comfortable profitability instead of plateuing.
Valet.io by the Numbers
My favorite part of building Valet.io was sitting at my desk watching the donation totals at customer events climb. We processed a total of 1,607 donations, totalling $573,159, via Stripe. The average amount of over $350 speaks to the unrecognized and largely untapped potential of premium mobile commerce.
The 1,100+ closed-source commits on Valet.io apps are now open source. And that does not include thousands of commits logged to open source projects that I either created or helped maintain for Valet which, as always, are on GitHub.
I haven’t thought about it too much. If you’re interested in working with me, drop me a line. Right now, I’m really just looking forward to two weeks of travel with a clear head and an open mind. I’ll be speaking at ng-vegas this week and then heading on to Amsterdam after that to spend time with family. Then I’ll be ready to look for my next adventure.