Jim’s a fascinating guy. In this interview, we discuss…
- Finding fame by building bridges with pancakes;
- The origins of ShortStack;
- The unique management structure of ShortStack;
- Why he bootstraps instead of taking money from investors;
- The future of ShortStack;
…and plenty more.
As you probably know, I’m a raving fan of ShortStack (read my review here), but there was plenty I didn’t know about Jim and the company that was revealed here.
Don’t forget to enter my Facebook contest for a chance to win one year of the ShortStack Full Stack plan ($750)!
Jim: Hahaha! That is a fun side project. When my daughter was about two, I decided to make her some “Mickey Mouse” pancakes. Well, she wasn’t very impressed… she wanted a Princess instead. How the heck do you make a princess out of pancakes? I’m not one to turn down a challenge, so after some trial and error I got the hang of it. After that, she and I made pancakes each Saturday and the projects got more and more complex (Golden Gate Bridge!).
I started a blog to document our creations, and soon after it started getting a lot of attention. Next thing I know I’m on the front of AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and then the Rachael Ray show. Pretty fun experience for just making some pancakes :)
Jon: That’s crazy! One of my responsibilities is making pancakes for the kids every weekend. I make everything from scratch — and they’re damn good, but the Golden Gate Bridge?? You’re putting the rest of us to shame.
So, the answer to this next question is suddenly obvious. Tell me about the origins of the ShortStack name. I’m going to assume it has something to do with a healthy pancake obsession…Jim: Yep, all of the jimspancakes attention made me a “celebrity” in the office. Soon I was nicknamed “Shortstack.” When it came time to name our product, it seemed like a good fit. It made sense since the app designer worked by placing widgets in a “stack” too.
The name also helped us build a personality around the platform. Our subscription options (Full Stack, All You Can Eat), Jack our mascot and other items were all driven by the name. I have no idea what the personality would be if it was named something more made-up or “web 2.0″ —- “voberlyerbistro.com” or something. Eeek.
Jon: So your love for pancakes led to the branding of your product. But how did the ShortStack company come about?
Jim: We used to develop custom Facebook Pages for clients one at a time, in a very labor/code intensive manner. Pretty soon we were doing the same things over and over again, and our developers don’t like repetition.
We built ShortStack at first as an internal tool to speed up our dev process. Pretty soon we realized that with some more polish, it could stand on its own as a self service tool, allowing us to focus on the product and let the users dictate the features they wanted to add.
Jon: Well, it’s a great product. But let’s talk a bit more about the beginning. I love hearing about how far companies have come since their humble beginnings. What were the early days like? How have things changed for ShortStack?
Jim: Well, things haven’t changed much, we still try and be as humble as possible. Our first office was in a basement, and we’re in a basement now… but this one has a few windows! :)
The biggest change is that in the beginning, there was a lot more risk involved. Both Doug (my co-founder) and I went without any “real” pay for about 6 months while we built ShortStack. Our wives got pretty nervous (I actually ended up losing my house, but I knew that it was worth the risk — wouldn’t change it for a thing). Now we have the luxury of being able to develop new products and features while maintaining profitability since we have a stable platform. The risk is still there, but it’s now longer tied to the roof over our head.
We still make things that fail, but we can absorb the failures since we have a stable foundation to build upon. We still have an air hockey table as our main conference table and all the potato chips and Red Bull that you can consume. I’m the CEO, but I still sit at the receptionist desk. I want to make sure that I’m as accessible as possible, we’re a team and we focus on doing what you’re best at, not your title or position.
Jon: You sit at the receptionist desk? Okay, now you’ve got to tell me about the unique management structure of ShortStack.
Jim: It’s flat! We basically say that we’re all equal, since we all contribute something unique to the company. I’m CEO, but that sure as heck doesn’t mean that I know everything. If I suggest a stupid idea, someone better speak up and tell me (they do, often). Good companies go bad when there are too many “yes men” around.
I don’t believe in managers. I believe in hiring people who want to do their best. People who try hard to improve the company or process don’t need to be managed. Sometimes we’ll take a new employee from a corporate background and they have trouble making the switch. I feel like if you are a professional, you can look at the big picture, see how you fit in and contribute as best you can. If you need micromanagement, this isn’t the place for you.
Jon: Air hockey, potato chips, a flat management structure… Sounds like an awesome place to work. What’s a typical day like in the ShortStack offices?
Jim: Everyone is on salary, so we don’t set office hours. Some people roll in early, some a bit later or they work from home. Most of us wake up and work a little from home, primarily on customer support. ALL employees answer support tickets; it’s the best way to know how people use the platform and what the issues are.
After that, we come in and do whatever needs to be done. We try not to have many formal meetings — I think they are a waste of time. A group chat or email can be more efficient. If we do have a meeting, we usually stand up. It helps people stay focused and keep it short.
We have a stocked kitchen for lunch, or we can walk to 8-10 awesome restaurants. Fridays we always go to lunch as a group. If a break or distraction is needed, we have pinball, Pacman, foose ball, ping pong and air hockey… or beer.
Jon: You had me at beer… Unbelievable. So, I understand you didn’t involve any angel investors to get started, you made it strictly through bootstrapping. Why did you choose this path, and how the heck did you do it?
Jim: I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 12 (mowing neighborhood lawns and such), so I never knew any other way to run a business besides offering a product that people want to buy. I rented my first lawnmower from my dad until I saved up and bought my own. Then I bought a better one to cut down my lawn mowing times to increase capacity.
Same goes with ShortStack. I’m a firm believer in re-investing in the product, because the rewards will increase proportionally to the investment. We only had a few paying users at the beginning, but we reinvested that income to grow our team and product offerings.
We could’ve taken some angel money or VC and jump started our plan, but doing it “organically” or self-financed allowed us to scale what needed to be scaled at the right times. I see too often that companies announce that they’ve taken a big VC round and say “we’re hiring 100 people!” Why? Just to have a “bigger” company? Do you really NEED those people?
Being low on cash forces you to make the best of what you have, and focus on what it really needed. Our customers don’t care how many employees we have, or how fancy our office space is. Maybe we’ll get to 100 people, but we’ll do it one at a time as needed and as budget allows. It just feels better that way.
I drive a Jeep instead of a Lamborghini because I’d rather spend the money on a better/faster/more feature-rich product. I still want that Lambo though! Someday, if my wife would let me :)
Jon: For the record, I still drive a ’99 Corolla (when I’m not driving the minivan). I roll the windows down and drive slow…
Okay, so back to the product. What makes ShortStack different from other Facebook app creation products?
Jim: Flexibility. ShortStack can do many things all at once, so you’re not limited to one specific function per app. We’ve tried to build ShortStack so that you can really customize the functions and look of the app.
If you know what you are doing, sky’s the limit. We allow full customization of all CSS, you can add your own javasctript and jquery and you can use webhooks to push data to your databases. These are pretty robust features at a low price point.
Jon: Agreed, I’m amazed by the features you offer for a very affordable price. What does the future of ShortStack look like? How do you envision the product and company a year or five years from now?
Jim: We’re focused on being “platform-agnostic,” meaning we want your apps to be able to work anywhere and everywhere — not just on Facebook or your website. Other platform integrations (Twitter, Google+, Tumblr…) are a big part of that roadmap.
Mobile is also a huge focus. We’d like to improve our current mobile capabilities significantly.
Jon: Looking more short-term, what great features and enhancements do you have planned?
Jim: Our new tab designer is coming out soon, and it should be a big improvement. We’ve designed it to be more powerful yet more intuitive, with quicker response times.
Jon: I can’t wait! Now, I love these interviews because I know that even people who have found success have seen tough times, too. It’s these stories that keep the rest of us motivated.
Tell me about your early days as a business owner and any struggles you may have had. Did you ever have doubts? What kept you going?
Jim: What kept me going? Hunger! My motto at the beginning was that “the answer is always yes” when the customer asked for a service. When I was doing graphic design in 2001, my clients eventually asked, “Can you make websites too?” Ummm, sure, I’ll figure it out! After some books and some Googling, I was a web designer too. “Can you do motion graphics? Email marketing? Can you build me a tool to track my sales?” I always said yes since I like to problem solve, and because I needed the project to help put a roof over my head.
The biggest struggle I had was giving up control when I finally HAD to hire employees. Another person will do good work, they just might not do it EXACTLY as you would have. It’s still good, just different.
Letting go of that was what allowed me to focus on the big picture and not be bogged down with details. It was tough, but it really sets you free. Being able to be gone for a day or two and coming back to the office with everything running smoothly is my favorite thing. It proves that we have a great team.
Jon: You’ve come a long way! But what would you be doing if not for ShortStack and pancakes?
Jim: I always wanted to work with software and robotics, but my math skills aren’t that great so most college programs discouraged me. Knowing what I know now, I think you could be pretty successful in the robotics field without advanced math. I’d love to build hardware that helps solve problems… same with software. With ShortStack, we try to solve our user’s problems. I’d take the same approach and apply it to another market or field.
Thank you, Jim, for the great insight! Make sure to check out ShortStack if you haven’t already. Great product, great people and a unique story.