The Juggling Solo Founder – Techboard talks to Paul Towers

Techboard’s very own Alex Kohn, who also works for our partners the Polyglot Group, recently sat down with Paul Towers, founder of Startup Soda, a daily newsletter focused on Australian startup stories and best practices as well as distributing Techboard content (both company announcements and Blog posts). Paul also founded Task Pigeon, a software as a service business providing a simple, yet powerful, task management application for small to medium teams. Paul is also a member of Techboard’s Panel of Experts for New South Wales. Alex spoke to Paul about being a juggling entrepreneur and his refreshing approach to sharing the challenges of being a startup founder.

Alex: Can you tell us about how you decided to delve into the SaaS space and build your tool for task management?

Paul: So, I've had a couple of businesses in the past.  For example, I bought my first business (a retail store) when I was 16, and still in high school.

My next  business was service-based. During these experiences, I discovered that these businesses weren’t scalable, which ignited my interest in developing a business which had the potential to scale beyond just the physical hours I could put in personally.

So, that led me to think about software, and software as a service in particular. To start crafting ideas, I thought about the challenges in my life, and things that I wanted to change. However, I don't think many entrepreneurs have issues with coming up with ideas! The challenge lies in having the expertise or knowledge to facilitate those ideas.

I chose Task Pigeon, and the task management space, because I had tried numerous other task management tools, processes and applications myself and didn’t find anything that matched the way I wanted to work. Not only that, but I saw that there was a gap in the marketing because no existing application solves the underlying issue. And that is, that 40% of tasks that people add to their to do list are ever actually completed.

To test if my original assumption was correct, I reached out to a close network of people that I'd helped in some way (such as through Startup Soda, or mentoring).

Now, obviously, when you ask someone about an idea that already exists you don't expect feedback such as, "Wow, that's completely revolutionary!”. But, in asking for feedback, I sought indications about whether I was on the right path.

For example, some of those comments might've been, "Yeah, I've tried ten other tools and haven't found one that I like," or "I really like the tool’s unique approach." These kind of comments suggested that there was room for Task Pigeon, and that it had something unique to offer.

Then, I reached out to a wider network of people who I was connected to. I was seeing if there was a difference between the feedback in the first group, and the second group. There wasn't. It largely mirrored the same results, if not, the feedback improved slightly. This indicated that the project was worth pursuing.

The third stage was to have more designs done, and turn those mockups into a small demo. This was not something that was coded, but rather, a series of screenshots to create a walk-through and demonstrate the different features such as the group dashboard. I sent that out via Betalist, which is a service to beta-test new software. I also asked the receivers some simple questions: "Why did you choose to subscribe to this beta version? There's plenty of other tools out there. Why this one?"

And there was one response that was really strong; it was very positive. They liked the design, they liked how the tool was set-up, and the fact that the tasks were designed for 1 to 12 day period.

That really gave me the confidence to go out there, take the plunge and financially invest more heavily.

Alex: Let's talk briefly about being a juggling entrepreneur… you're still managing different projects at the same time, including Startup Soda as well. How do you manage to run both projects? And do you feel that there are synergies in the way you work on both projects, or are they completely different?

Paul: Yes, Startup Soda started as a side project.

The plan for Startup Soda wasn’t to become a company, but rather, act as a way for me to give back to the local startup community. I have always been passionate about sharing knowledge and information and don’t think enough is done to share the opinions and voices of successful founders, VC’s and Angel Investors in Australia. So I created Startup Soda to try and fill that gap.

In addition, I don’t think there is enough of a “deep dive” into the behind the scenes stories of Australian startups. Too many stories are about Startup ABC raising $x, or a new “Uber for x” launching. 

Alex: As you mentioned, it’s very challenging and ambitious to go for the “big fish” and I’d like to focus on your unique approach on transparency. Can you tell us a bit more about your desire to share those kind of “founder or marketing hacks” to the public, even with some of your competitors?

Paul: Yeah, definitely. There are a couple of companies that like this transparent approach. Some inspiration came from companies such as Buffer, Groove HQ, and Baremetrics. But they're all US startups. I haven't come across anyone in Australia who's already adopted this approach.

I have noticed that many of the startups who adopt this “transparent” approach only begin their reporting after the start-up stage, rather than reporting their expenditure and revenue from day one. So, it’s hard to examine what it was really like during those early days.

In addition, a lot of startup “stories” are written in retrospect, and varies from person to person. These factors make it very hard to know exactly what’s true. Plus, most startups don't want to share the failures and challenges of the early days.

By contrast, I wanted to carefully report on Task Pigeon since its inception. And I think that's important. I wanted to create an honest and trustworthy account of my startup experience, and help other people get a realistic picture of what it’s like to launch a company.

I believe this reality is an important way of pushing back against the media’s miscommunication surrounding the the startup journey. If you observe mainstream startup media, it's nearly all positive. You’re sure to encounter content such as "This company raised this much money”, or "This company has used their cool idea to attain a huge pool of customers".

What the media don't show is that these kind of achievements may have taken the founder a very long time to achieve, and that there were a lot of challenges along the way. The result is that many founders feel they are further behind or “failing” in comparison to these misconstrued stories of “startup success”. So, my goal has been to shine a light upon the reality and give other founders a honest representation of that journey.

I've had one or two people ask me, "Why would you share this information so freely? Your competitors are going to know everything you're doing." And I reply by stating “I'm so small. If the competitor even knew my name, I'd be happy!". It would bring awareness to Task Pigeon within the market.

Also, I believe this kind of information is relatively easy to deduce by researching public information like media mentions (which often refer to funding) as well as simple research on LinkedIn, where you can and see how many employees a company has. So, even a founder doesn’t publicly share these details, it can be deduced with reasonable accuracy.

Alex: You wrote an article about choosing to be a solo founder, whereas others have warned against it. So, can you just tell us a bit more about that decision, and the challenges you’ve encountered as a solo founder?

Paul: Yeah. Two points to start with. First of all, I fundamentally disagree with the idea that you need to have two or three people in order to start a company. There's plenty of examples where other startups have been created with one founder. That said, I completely understand where investors come from. After all, if I was an investor, I would I would prefer to invest in something with in-house technical experience.

It makes complete logical sense. For example, with Y Combinator, and the startups they invest in, they want to know that even if the startup is unable to raise more funding straight away they can keep hacking away at the product and improving it. If you have to pay developers you can’t do that. When you run out of money, your startup grinds to a halt.

That said, I think a counter-point is that the cost of launching a startup has reduced dramatically over the past 5 - 10 years. As a result, there are more early-stage startups than ever before. However, this makes the space more competitive. For example, angel investors (especially in the US) have the power to pick and choose. For example, I listen to Jason Calacanis a lot, and he's been stating that he doesn't see a need to invest in startups that are generating about 1 or 2K in revenue per month. Rather, he can wait until they hit 10K, because there's so much deal-flow.

With that all said and done, I don’t discount the potential of bringing on a co-founder at some point in the future. At the time of launching Task Pigeon I didn’t have the network required to source the right co-founder organically. I don’t believe in pitching people you don’t know to join as a co-founder in the early days. That initial relationship is so important, I think you really need to have known the person for a few years before you decide to co-found a company together.

Alex: So, you touched on the financial aspects. Could you tell us a little bit more about funding? You never engaged with VCs or angels in the early stage?

Paul: Yes, this is similar to my beliefs in regard to sourcing a co-founder. Again, I believe a founder must be confident and reasonably well-established before going ahead and pitching to someone else. Afterall, why should an investor put their money into a startup if the founder is not willing to invest in it themselves?

At the moment, I believe I can take Task Pigeon further myself before seeking investment. In saying that, I have received interest from a US-based investor, which is encouraging. For now, I plan to wait for Task Pigeon to reach the “right” stage before attempting to secure investment.

Alex: To reach that angel funding goal, have you considered an advisory board?

Paul: I am currently considering getting a board advisor.  However, I think, a lot of people fall into the trap of just getting an advisor without carefully contemplating if the value will be worth giving away the equity. So, when setting up an agreement with an advisor, I believe founders need to have very clear objectives, and foster a good understanding between two parties.

This understanding should include factors such as the amount of equity on offer, and what goals are to be achieved in exchange. It is crucial to clarify these expectations in order to make sure the agreement works for both parties.

Alex: Could you tell us about your motivation to be a startup mentor as well in general?

Paul: Yeah, it's certainly interesting. So, I am lucky enough to mentor for two organisations: Generation Entrepreneur, which is for high school students and the University of Sydney’s Genesis program.

The program for high school students functions like a hackathon in the sense that it encourages students to think about business. The purpose is to ignite this kind of thinking, without expectation that the students will continue to develop the idea beyond the three-day course.

The university program is another way for me to give back to the community by providing guidance when others need some help in progressing their startup idea. For example, I can often refer students to someone in my network who may be able to help them overcome that particular challenge.

The good thing about both of those programs is that most of the founders are at the “idea” stage. Last year, I was fortunate enough to mentor a company called Sponta, which is a marketplace for adventurous activity and people. They ended up winning a competition, which was very rewarding. I love hearing about the new ideas and seeing the students reach important milestones.

Alex: My final question is regarding the future. What are your long-term plans for Task Pigeon?  

Paul: My final comment circles back to the point I started with.

As you know, my original intention for Task Pigeon was to create a business that could scale. True to this, my goal is to grow the company and scale significantly. At the same time, it's hard to openly articulate where that vision could go, because I rely on feedback from the market, the consumer demands, and so on. However, I stay true to my original mission and plan to to generate growth for the business in transparent and practical ways.

Visit the Website for Startup Soda

Visit the Techboard Profile for Task Pigeon

Visit the website for Task Pigeon

Alex Kohn is NSW Community Manager for Techboard and Marketing Operations Coordinator at The Polyglot Group. He is passionate about tech, startup data analysis and connecting founders across borders.