Late last month I presented at the Future of Web Apps in Miami. While there I agreed to be interviewed by a PhD student working on his dissertation. The research revolved around the genesis of companies and he was trying to answer the question, “where does product innovation come from?” Over the course of an hour I was asked probably 50 questions, all of them about the earliest days of building our company. The researcher was fixated with the exact moment we got our idea and decided to commercialize it.
I’d be lying to you if I told you that FreshBooks was born out of highly strategic beginnings. There are entrepreneurs that actively seek out a problem to solve, make sure the market is large enough, construct a story and a team, raise some money and go after it.
That wasn’t me. I built FreshBooks to bill my own customers, and my co-founder Joe took an interest in the product. It was literally months before we realized that businesses other than our own would be interested in an online invoicing service.
I learned a great deal about myself, FreshBooks and the web app market by participating in this interview. First and foremost, I learned that Joe and I were true pioneers. We started in January 2003. Back then, about the only successful web app going was Hotmail, though I think Salesforce had gotten it’s ball rolling. Popular frameworks for web development like Ruby on Rails, Django, Zend were not widely used, so we built our own. We also had no idea how to approach marketing, product management, or how to measure the success of our business.
Today there are countless resources to help answer these questions – specifically when building web apps. One of the best examples I can think of is Getting Real. That eBook by 37Signals contains countless lessons we had to learn on our own, and I credit the guys at 37Signals for taking the time to write the book and for writing it so well. If you are building a web app, it’s a must read.
In thinking about all this, I’ve learned something else…that there’s never been a better time than right now to build a web app business. Why? You can do it so much faster and more easily than ever before thanks to things like frameworks, Getting Real, and the countless blog posts that are instructive and inspirational.
We started FreshBooks just after the original web bubble burst in 2001 – it was a downturn in the technology market more than anything. Downturns are a great time to start because you’ve got to learn how to bootstrap since raising capital is as hard as hell. So what’s stopping you? Get out there and build a web app; there has never been a better time than now.