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From Side Project To Full-Time Job

Posted 6 years ago by Murat Mutlu

It’s a story that has probably been told a million times now, a couple of friends work tirelessly for months in their bedrooms on creating a product whilst freelancing in the hope that one day it would turn into a full-time job.

I left my agency design role a few years ago because I wanted to have the freedom to explore more ideas like Marvel in my spare-time.

I saw side-projects as salvation, a way to have complete control and enjoy my work without the need to satisfy client demands.

When Threadless founder Jake Nickell says that “Making stuff is the most joyful occupation that we ever engage, it’s the closest we come to god” he’s not wrong.

However, trying to build a product in evenings and weekends when you’re freelancing is frustratingly slow. Every time we made a step forward, it would need to be repaid with more freelancing to fund our next push.

For me personally the ‘stop-start’ way of working was the worst part. The excitement of Marvel made my actual client work seem extremely dull and depressing. I couldn’t focus on the work that paid the bills and I kept missing deadlines and stressing out.

The build up to launching Marvel felt like this tension in my skull that I wanted to release. Whenever I felt like we were making progress, client work took over and the finish line just kept getting dragged further away. Things that would normally take a week to do, ended up taking a couple of months.

I started to get anxious, “what if we miss our chance?”, “what if someone does it first?”, “what if we should have built it in Node?”, “If only someone would just give us money to do this properly! Gahhrrghhhh.”

I tried to make up for lost time by designing once I got home from freelancing. But by the time my head was in the right place it was midnight and I was shattered. Rinse and repeat.

Letting go

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that you have to let go. It was the only way we were ever going to get into public beta.

You can try to sweat every detail but if it’s just you and a mate trying to ship a product, half of the stuff you think that matters, doesn’t at all.

It turns out that if people like your product and it does the basics right, they’ll forgive spelling mistakes, misaligned text, bugs, and all the other things I was paranoid about. Obsessing that the website didn’t look like my PSDs was a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

It didn’t help matters that on two occasions when we were a week away from going into public beta when I decided the designs had to be changed.

I had the best of intentions but ended up not only causing a delay to launching, but also added additional anxiety to the team as the finish line suddenly got further away again.

I’ve been on teams in the past where constant delays have caused it to implode. Now I was doing the same thing. I stopped being a dick and agreed to push out what we had.

Instantly it felt like a weight off our shoulders, as we started seeing sign-ups, relief turned into excitement.

Getting investment

Prior to our public beta, I had applied to dozens of incubators, even though we had a working prototype, it didn’t seem to matter. Not one program responded. I was baffled, wasn’t this meant to be a bubble?

Fundraising was hugely time-consuming, I had to stop freelancing and basically do it full-time for around a month. Writing pitch decks, business plans, meetings, pitches and networking meant that all design work on Marvel stopped and I focused on finding investors.

I wanted to shield Brendan and Jon from it as much as possible, I figured there was no point wasting development time as well as design.

Looking back I think this method worked out really well for us, I would highly recommend that one person takes the lead in raising money and doing all the grunt work.

Angellist and F6S where both useful, but I quickly found out that investment is all about real-world networking. You need to get as many intros and face-to-face meetings in as little time as possible.

I decided to email everyone I knew, friends, family, ex-bosses and colleagues asking if they had any connections with investors. I figured it was a numbers game, the more people you meet, the more intros you get and soon you will get in front of the right person.

I took every possible meeting, while many of them went nowhere, my storytelling quickly got better as I began to refine and concentrate on the important stuff.

I went back to the drawing board and completely rewrote our pitch deck based on several guides and videos I found online. But things really changed once we went into public beta, it was like a completely different reaction from investors. People seemed really keen to talk to us and we got several offers to pitch.

On the first couple of pitches, I bumbled on several questions by investors and definitely looked clueless. But by the 4th pitch, I pretty much had answers to any question thrown at me.

We began to get a couple of offers on the table, finally! It felt amazing! But there was one problem, the investors didn’t feel like the right fit for the business. Plus the terms of the investment were incredibly complicated.

After waiting for the opportunity to go full-time on our own product for so long, it felt like madness to turn down an offer that was on our lap.

So many different things were running through my head. What if we never get another offer? What if everything boils down to this moment and we regret turning it down forever?

I reached out to other founders and got some amazing advice. Many spoke from experience and told us that going into partnership with someone you weren’t sure about would be more detrimental than not taking the money.

Myself, Brendan and Jon had a long chat and decided that we would turn down the funding and go with our gut instinct. We would keep looking.

It turned out to be the best decision we’ve made as a couple of days later we were intro’d into the guys at Haatch. It took one meeting for us to decide that they were the right investors to help make Marvel into something amazing.

One month later here we are! Full-time on our own startup. We have a huge challenge ahead of us but It feels great to be able to completely focus on trying to build something amazing without having to worry about pitching, client work or paying the rent.

One thing I’d like to mention is how useful it was to read the information posted by Buffer about their fundraising. They even shared the pitch deck that helped them raise $500,000.

I used it as a template for Marvel’s deck and it worked wonders. We had lots of positive comments so I can’t thank the Buffer guys enough.

We’ll be taking their lead and posting more and more stuff about our figures, investment over the coming months. Hopefully it will be just as useful.

(A little trivia – The first line of code for Marvel was written in San Francisco last year after me and Brendan took a trip over to check out the city and get inspired. The photo above is from the Treasure Island Music festival in SF)

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Hi! I'm one of the co-founders at Marvel and a Product Designer by trade. You can often find me asking why Arsenal haven't signed anyone this season. Follow me on Twitter.

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