Ryan Notz is the founder of MyBuilder.com, a site which helps you find great builders and tradespeople and review feedback for work they’ve done. You can follow them on Twitter at @MyBuilder
I had a very challenging journey from founding MyBuilder.com to building a stable footing for the business. It was a long, hard slog in the early years and I really needed to hear other founder stories to help me realize that I wasn’t alone. Most of the startup stories you hear gloss over the difficult times and celebrate the success of the company. While these stories are useful to the business by attracting customers and investors, they can paint a misleading picture to those who are on the rocky road to building their dream. I hope my story finds its way to those entrepreneurs who need to hear it.
I was an unlikely tech entrepreneur. Living in Austin, TX in the 90’s, when many of my friends from University had web startups, I was as low tech as you could get: a professional artist, also cooking in restaurants part-time and being a pharmaceutical guinea pig to supplement the money I made from selling my paintings. Eventually, my love of food and art drew me to Southern France. In 1999, I met a guy who had bought a large farmhouse in the Cévennes mountains in Southern Ardéche and wanted to start an artist’s commune. I had been living in a commune in New York City, and really had a passion for communal living and working. It was ‘so me’, my friends said. They were right, and I took the plunge. With my life’s savings in my pocket, my bicycle in a box, my easel strapped to my back and only two changes of clothes, I boarded a plane to the unknown.
From Painter to Entrepreneur: the dream that changed it all.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was when I became an entrepreneur. As it happened, the commune didn’t work out. But I learned a new language and culture and crucially, got a job with a local mason. I loved working with stone and learning all sorts of building skills. I came away with the basics of stone masonry, roofing, plastering, bricklaying, and carpentry.
On a trip to London I met an English woman, who I married and started a family with. Construction and renovation became my new career. I painted when I could, but it was hard enough just to put food on the table. While living and working as a stonemason in Bristol, England, I had a Eureka moment in the middle of the night. I dreamed up an entirely new business in my sleep, and that’s how MyBuilder.com was born.
The first 3 years were incredibly difficult. From 2004 to 2007, I had received no significant funding, I had no employees and almost no revenue. My kids were eating rice and beans and I had sold my car, my bikes, my guitars… pretty much everything I owned. I had a frightening amount of consumer debt from bank loans and credit cards, plus I owed my Dad a lot of money. With a backdrop like that, you’d think my wife would push me to get a job. Quite the opposite. Every time I would despair and proclaim that the dream is over, my wife would kick my butt back into shape by saying “you haven’t come this far to give up now”. She was right. You can’t fail if you never give up… and all I had to do is hang in there until my luck turned.
Seedcamp: 15 minutes of fame
Eventually I had a break, and that came in the form of Seedcamp. Saul, who founded Seedcamp, told me about his idea in 2007. I only met him briefly, but he was asking every entrepreneur he met to apply and so I did. After extensive screening, I was selected by the panel to participate in the week-long event, which meant I had a 25% chance of winning a €50,000 investment – a lot of money for me at the time.
I thought the Seedcamp event was fantastic. It really felt like a big deal to me – and it was. There were famous entrepreneurs everywhere and camera crews and journalists. It was absolutely buzzing. At one point I was talking to Niklas Zennstrom and a camera crew came up. I stepped aside so that they could interview Nicklas, but then it turned out that it was me they were after. I was nervous but felt absolutely on top of the world. I couldn’t believe it.
I remember that the whole thing culminated in this 15 minute auditorium pitch that each team had to give to a big audience of investors, followed by some severe questioning. I ended up being second to last, so I had the whole day to be nervous. I eventually relaxed and just decided to do my pitch and leave it up to fate. When I walked into the auditorium at 5PM, it was an absolute furnace. It was a really hot day and the air conditioning was broken. The investors were sweating and not looking very friendly. Not a single one of them cracked a smile the whole time I was presenting.
As I was leaving, one of the investors I knew texted me and said “Well done, you blew them away!”. Sure that he was being sarcastic, I went home depressed. The next morning, I was the first winner they announced and what an unbelievable feeling it was. That was definitely the moment that changed my life.
It’s hard to overstate how much Seedcamp helped me. The idea of having €50,000 for the business was amazing at a time when I only had a pocketful of change. Then the next day there was a big picture of me in the FT, with a full-page article about Seedcamp, starting with my story. Then a few days later there was a big article about MyBuilder in the Sunday Times that drove an unbelievable amount of traffic to the website. The publicity and the interest from serious investors and subsequent funding was of enormous benefit and really enabled me to take the business to the next level very quickly.
While what I got from Seedcamp made it possible to develop the business, which has grown and become profitable, it hasn’t been easy at any point. People want to think that a good idea will always win out and that if it’s going to happen, it will happen quickly and easily. The reality is that every business, just like every person, has its own unique path to follow. Nobody can predict what a business will do next. It may fail quickly, grow slowly or become the next big thing. Ultimately, it will live and die in its own way, carefully nurtured, or even neglected by its founders and managers. Business is creative and full of the unexpected. That makes it a beautiful thing, and well worth the attention of an artist.
If you want to join the Seedcamp Family applications are currently open to Seedcamp Week London, be sure to apply before the 12th August: http://www.seedcamp.com/events/seedcamp-week-london-apply-now