Every day I wake up to an inbox filled with pristine press releases, proclaiming the world-class launch of this or the funding of revolutionary startup that. It’s bread and butter, food and fodder for a tech reporter. But I find myself wondering about those startups that can’t afford the shiny PR teams. How are they doing? What are they up to? Have they written a brochure of jargon to describe their passion project yet? Are they eating? Living out of their parents’ basements? What’s life like at the other end of the startup food chain?
The early days stories are the ones that excite me the most. Inexperienced entrepreneurs put things on the line and life to the side to bring their dream products to reality, but they don’t get much coverage till they’ve proved themselves, either by grabbing VC funding or a shiny accelerator grad badge. It makes sense. There’s plenty of bad startups out there, so we press just like to hang out and wait till something’s got staying power.
But I like to see what’s happening with companies whose narrative is not yet defined by a PR agency. They aren’t as clean or shiny — their road is not paved with VC funding yet and they’ll hit roadblocks that may very well kill them off. But aren’t those stories just as valid in the lens of Silicon Valley?
This is the story of one such scrappy, struggling startup: Alternav.
Alternav is a labor of love for Brian Tippy, the founder. He quit his job at a digital advertising agency with the sole purpose of starting his own company. It wasn’t a kick-the-door-in and storm out quitting scene, more like an amicable departure to pursue his dreams. Still, with or without the storm-out drama, leaving a reliable gig to pursue a wild, intangible dream is a moment. “If I could sum it up in one word: scary,” Tippy says. “You sit there on the first day wondering what to do next.”
Tippy had the general idea for Alternav when he quit his job — he wanted to help artists in a technologically focused way. At his first job out of college, he worked at a record label where he helped musicians get exposure. “It’s hard for artists. They aren’t coders or programmers so it’s difficult for them to convey their message on the web,” Tippy says. Six months before quitting his job he chatted up creative people, took surveys, and talked to other entrepreneurs.
He eventually decided to create a platform that would allow artists who lack coding skills to create branding pages. It would differ from something like WordPress because there wouldn’t be preset themes.
Instead, the artists’ site looks like a blank canvas, and they can drag and drop any elements they want — social media links, videos, images, soundcloud accounts, and text –anywhere on the page. They can also set their own background color or image.
“I didn’t want it to replace a website. We want it to act like a splash page, quick capturing of user’s interest,” Tippy says. See the image below as an Alternav example:
One problem: Tippy himself didn’t code. “I came in assuming I could just relay this brilliant idea and any engineer would latch on immediately,” Tippy says, chagrined. He burned through a few cofounders who lasted six months tops.
The financial difficulties of bootstrapping Alternav weren’t pretty, and his co-founders eventually left because they needed a paycheck. “One of the things I learned was that you shouldn’t be too eager to jump into relationships,” Tippy says. “It’s like dating: you’ve got to trust your cofounders, the people in the team.” At 26, he lives in his parents’ extra room and is using up the savings he collected at the ad agency to launch his company.
To buy time, he hired people to develop specific aspects of the site, while he started courting potential founders. People expressed interest but when they actually had to make a decision they got skittish. Meanwhile, Tippy couldn’t work on the product development side himself since he didn’t code. With unexpected, uncomfortable bouts of free time he decided to hedge his bets, make some money, and pad his rolodex by getting involved with other companies.
Tippy started with one project and ended with three. Now, he’s helping part time with marketing and business development of mobile company Gabagool Games based in Redwood City, and with Game Mix out of the Idea Lab incubator in Pasadena. He flies up north a few times a month, works in Pasadena a few times a week, and spends whatever time is left hunkered at his parent’s house, trying to take Alternav to the next stage. It’s the life of a bootstrapper — and a multi-tasker — but Tippy says he’s not giving up. “I’m going to keep plugging away as long as I have other gigs that pay me,” Tippy says.
When I tested out the site, I could see both its promise and its problems pretty quickly. It didn’t open in Google Chrome, only Safari. When I tried to log in, even after signing up and confirming, it took me to a thank you page instead of my site builder.
However, I could access the site builder by going through the email confirmation sent to me, and once I got inside it was clear what works for Alternav. It’s easy as hell, and fun to customize. The interface isn’t the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s got the basic uses a person would need to create a splash page. No clutter. No confusion. I could make a pretty, customized branding page in under five minutes.
Unlike the splash pages it facilitates, Alternav doesn’t wrap up nice and tidily. It’s an ongoing project. It’s out there — sort of — and Tippy’s searching for customers — sort of — while also hedging his bets with other startups in case they take off.
It’s an uncomfortable place to end an article in Silicon Valley. We’re used to the rapidly developing news bites or the tie-a-ribbon on it company product launch. Ambiguity and unfinished endings aren’t our thing, but those sorts of tales make up plenty of the tech innovation out there. They’re just the untold stories. Do you think they matter?
[Image courtesy: Wikimedia]