A profitable, growing, useful, legal, well-loved... failure
Since before graduating from university and up until taking my current job (which is its own story I'll tell some other time), I've initiated several things that could be called startups. That is, we incorporated companies, we had a small number of people that got paid wages, we collected Canada SR&ED tax credits. Every one of these startups turned a profit. More than one had outside financing. One of them we sold to IBM.
I'm telling you this not to show off, but as a setup for the rest of this story. What I want to explain is that I fail strangely. Or at least, it feels like I do. Maybe it's not so strange; maybe you should just go read Paul Graham's How Not to Die article, where he advises us that "Startups rarely die in mid keystroke. So keep typing!"
Because that's really the moral of this story; or maybe it isn't. Maybe this story is about how that advice hasn't actually worked for me, because inside each of those successes is a story of failure. It's interesting, because for any of the companies I've started, by leaving out some details I can honestly make them sound like resounding successes or resounding messes. If I include all the details, then, well they're just confusing. So you'll usually hear just one side or the other, depending what point I'm trying to make.
Today I'll tell you both sides though, for just one of those companies. I'm not going to name the company here but it's still alive, it's still making money, my co-founder is still working his butt off to keep it from falling over. Given the details I'm about to share, it's trivially easy to find the company name with a little Googling, and I encourage you to do so. I just don't want to name it here because I really don't want this article to be the first one that comes up when you Google it. (This diary has way more Google Juice than the company does... though the company has a much more profitable sales funnel.)
So anyway, here's what happened. We started the company back in 2008. We wanted to do something in the world of databases, because we figured databases were ripe for disruption, what with SQL being SO VERY SUCKY in so many ways. We wanted to create a new variant of SQL based on the analogy that (our new thing) is to SQL as C is to assembly language. That is, C is little more than a portable assembly language. So we need a portable version of SQL. (If you've used more than one SQL variant, you know the analogy is apt.) Oh, and maybe we'll throw in functions and variable assignment and loop control structures while we're there. Yeah, I know, crazy. But if you've written stored procedures in MS SQL, those are the things you know you need.
Why did we want the C of database query languages, instead of something modern, like the python of database query languages? We thought this was the clever part of the analogy: it's because people already tried the high-level query languages. They're called ORMs (object relational mappings), and sure enough, they're just like high-level languages were in 1975: slow, bloated, wasteful, unreliable, non-portable, and nobody can agree which one is best. C changed all that. Sure, there were non-portable features in C (there still are), but dammit, + was just always +, and for loops were for loops, and the world made one big step forward. People still use C today. High level languages are much better now, but they're almost all still built on top of C. How much better could the world be if we could do that for SQL?
Anyway, that seemed really hard, and we were just two guys who wanted to get a minimal product launched in, say, 4 months. So we decided to trim down the idea. What's the minimal idea that will get us in that direction, but with a product in 4 months? Well, first of all, to invent C you don't need multiple assembly language variants; you just need one to start with. Let's pick one. Why not the simplest one we can find? A bit of searching around revealed the obvious candidate: Microsoft Access. It's even dumber than MySQL.
Okay then, what will we build on top of Access? Well, we want to make a portable, slightly-higher-level query language. What will be its initial use case? Forgetting about other databases for now, what do Access developers need most? ... Ah, to publish their data on the web, of course. Access totally sucks for web development. (Even now it does. They keep claiming to have finally added web support; Access 2002 had web support. But it's nearly useless every single time. Still is.)
So we would write code to let you easily query Access tables using web tools, like AJAX or json or whatever. Excellent, that justifies writing our query parser, but it doesn't have to be feature-complete on day 1. We can add more database engine plugins later. We can get a few customers, launch, and iterate. Perfect!
Just one little problem. You have to actually get that data to the web server. The reason Access sucks for web apps is Access databases are a single .mdb file on your desktop machine. Multi-user access means multiple clients accessing the .mdb file using a samba file share. (People do this with dozens of users at a time. It works.) But how do you get the data onto the web?
Well, the .mdb file format is undocumented. Reverse-engineering it will take forever. So we'll write a plugin for Access, that reads through your data, exports it to text, and uploads it to our server. That turned out to be a fair bit of work, of course, but whatever, I do love replicating data, and we figured the ability to replicate SQL databases could be a big deal, so it's certainly not a waste of time. (Trivia: Access has also supposedly had database replication features since, I think, Access 2000. Too bad it doesn't work ON THE INTERNET.)
Once we were well under way writing the replication system, we thought about it some more and realized that the minimal product for our 4-month launch target didn't have to include a query language at all; just replicating the databases was surely enough to please some user somewhere, as long as it would sync in two directions. Ta da, Internet-enabled Access replication! So we stopped after writing only the barest minimum query parser. (To this day you can still export your tables and search them using json queries; it's pretty cool, but we haven't done any more work on the query engine.)
We got the basic Access web replication engine working (which was a huge amount of work, don't get me wrong, and the code is singularly awesome, but I'm going to skip over it here). We gave it a convincing-sounding version number with the word BETA in it, put it up on a web site I designed with my super lame web design skills, and waited for the world to beat a path to our door.
Okay, you know how this goes, right? You can't just do that. Nobody will come.
Well, this time you're wrong. People came. We had stumbled into a huge unsolved problem and unaddressed market. There are lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of legacy Access databases in places you don't even want to think about. If you find our web site and go to Testimonials and scroll to the bottom, you'll see what I mean. The actual CIO of a huge pharmaceutical company called us out of the blue and asked us to solve their problem because they have thousands of Access databases they want to share across their tens of thousands of seats.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Not all those people called us on day 1. On day 1, our website sucked, because it was talking about Access Replication.
And what the bloody hell is replication? Most Access users with Access problems didn't have a clue. They certainly weren't searching for it.
That didn't stop some of them from finding us and calling anyway. See, we also had a couple of pages talking about our query engine, and they contained phrases like "Access on the Web." Turned out a lot of people were searching for that. They still are. Microsoft caught on with Access 2010 and marketed the heck out of that search phrase, so if you search for it now, you'll find them and not us. Which is funny, because Access 2010 is still basically useless for the web. But it shows what marketing dollars can do.
Now, I'm badmouthing Access 2010 a lot here, but here's how I know it's useless: because people keep on clicking, and searching, and I don't even know what keywords they search on anymore, and they find us. They use Access 2010. They're not dumb, they're real programmers, they know what features Access 2010 has. Even if they were dumb, God knows Microsoft has marketed them to death. And these people still want to pay us to put Access on the web.
Anyway, I've gotten ahead of myself again. The important part of the story is, we had a web site all about Access replication, and nobody had any clue what we were talking about, but they called and emailed and the message was clear: We want Access on the web. How much money can we pay you to provide it?
Um, well, look, the on-the-web part is kind of sucky and...
...and the customer is always right. So, back to the drawing board. One day, a customer called me and explained his very specific and immediate problem. He had just billed a customer many thousands of dollars over many months to build a custom Access application. Right at the end, the customer said they were happy. Now... he should just publish it on the web and they'll be done.
Oh. Crap. The guy was really in trouble. Serious trouble. They hadn't specified the requirement up front; he was an Access-only developer, so he couldn't rewrite it. Even if he knew how, it would be months more work. (People complain about Access, but it's still, in my opinion, the absolute fastest way in the universe to make powerful database-driven apps. Way faster than Ruby on Rails, and you don't even have to be able to code. I mean it. But... not on the web.)
So he had a serious problem, and let me tell you, our 5%-finished json query language was not going to solve it. Neither was "replication." But that day on the phone, we came up with an idea.
What if we could run Access on our servers and display it over VNC in a web browser? What if we ran Access under Wine on Linux so we could squeeze more instances onto a single box? What if changes to the database in these VNC sessions could be replicated back down to your desktop copy of Access using our plugin?
What if, indeed. Turns out there's a cool program called Flashlight-VNC that's an implementation of VNC in flash, which runs in virtually any web browser (this was before there was an iPad or Apple dropped Flash out of Safari). Turns out recent versions of Wine can actually run some versions of Access. Turns out... well, let's just say it worked. And that, my friends, is the product we have today, more or less. Sure, since then we've added performance optimizations, reliability improvements. We store the database contents in git and use a custom merge algorithm for resolving changes made while in disconnected mode. (It's neat; git can store the whole revision history in less space than the original .mdb.) But fundamentally, that's the product.
And people want it. No, I take that back; the product is a magnificent heap upon heaps of insane hackery. I mean, we are running Access in Wine in X11 on Linux in an isolated user account on our server slice that revision controls your Access database in git, and we're displaying it using VNC in your web browser in flash. People can't possibly want that. But they need it. Which is better.
That's the other neat thing. They need it, because nobody else has ever created something like this. I don't think anybody ever will. I mean, how many people know Linux, Flash, C++ (for the plugin), python (for the server), and Microsoft Access, of all things, and are willing to combine them all with a healthy knowledge of streaming network protocols and database replication? And even if you could find a whacko like that, would that person be willing to enter the market, starting from scratch, knowing someone else got there first?
Every month, we have more revenue. And our costs are tiny, so that means more profit.
Customers need this so badly that they're willing to pay a lot for it. Like $35/user/month/database, for the basic plan. In case you're counting, in a year, that's much more than a copy of Access. And just to be safe, because we want to avoid lawyers, we tell customers to make sure all their users already have an Access license on their desktop (in addition to the legally required ones we have for our servers). This isn't so bad; turns out big companies - the kind with lots of Access databases - pretty much all buy Microsoft Office Professional for everybody anyway, so they all have Access. So no, in case you were wondering, our business model is not about cheating on Access licensing. If anything, people are buying more licenses than they strictly need, and I don't feel like getting on Microsoft's bad side, and neither do they, so everybody wins.
No, it's not about cheating. It's just about providing something people want and are willing to pay for. What do they want? They want to not rewrite legacy apps. Please, please, let us just keep running the app we spent the last 10 years building, but let us run it outside our office, because we all have laptops now.
How much money will people pay to keep their app going? About as much as the cost of rewriting it in a web language. More, even, since it lowers their risk. You do the math. As a bonus, it's a small monthly expense, not a big capital expenditure.
And yes, every month, our profit is more than the last one.
But all that was the good news.
I've already given you a hint about the bad news. Remember when I asked what whacko, with all those skills, would want to do this? I now know one of the answers, and it's OH GOD NOT ME. Eventually I realized that there is no windfall big enough to rationalize spending 3-5 years of my life, working full time, writing compatibility layers for Microsoft Access. Where, in the ideal world, if we were successful, my days would involve on-site visits to huge bureaucratic companies of the sort that... well, let's be honest. The sort that would run mission critical Access databases.
Really, on a rational level, I know that's unfair. I know these are good people. I think Access developers are great, actually. I love the fact that they know a good thing when they see it. Access is the easiest, most rapid of rapid development environments I've ever seen. I think almost all database developers have terrible taste, because they can use Access and compare it to, say, MS SQL, and not see what makes Access great and MS SQL suck, even while they know perfectly well the development in MS SQL + C# or Java will take something like 10x as many man-hours. For some apps, it's worth it for the higher quality; for a random internal business process app, it's not, but people spend it anyway because they "heard Access isn't industrial strength."
So don't get me wrong. I like Access users. Access developers, in particular, are the anti-IT department, the rebels, the people who aren't willing to wait for the sysadmins to provision them a server, and they don't have to, because they can just share an Access file on the fileserver. IT departments hate them, which is how I know they're on to something. These are the kind of people I want to help. This is the sort of thing that's the reason I do the work that I do. No kidding.
But, Lord, no, don't make me actually code Access plugins. Don't make me work with Windows anymore. Just don't.
God. It's so lame when I write it down. Actually, it's been lame for months, every time I even think it. I can't believe I have that kind of lack of follow-through. I don't want to think that about myself. It's a travesty. A terrible embarrassment. Something that makes me question my self-worth. If I can't take something that's so obviously working, and milk it for all it's worth, then what kind of human am I, anyway? I think I suck at capitalism. Maybe that's it.
You know the truth? I don't know. I just don't know. I am a completely irrational human being, and I hate it, but deep inside me there's a voice that just says, "No. Get the hell out. If you continue doing this, you will die."
So I got the hell out. I "stopped typing," as Paul Graham might say. Nowadays I have a pretty great "real job" where I can spend all night hacking the Linux kernel, programming embedded systems, and working on highly parallel build systems. And even though the potential upside is much less, I like it. For now, at least. I'm happy.
And that's my failure. Every day, my co-founder keeps working away, keeping the systems running with as little effort as he can spare. He's got a day job now, for various reasons; among them, he's an extravert, he needs co-workers. I still own half the shares, but I told him to keep the operating profits; the least I could offer, literally, I guess. That huge pharma deal is still in the pipeline and needs another callback, but there's nobody willing to do it. We don't optimize the web site for Google anymore; we haven't updated the news page since 2010; even I can't find our site in Google using any generic keywords. But I guess I'm not looking hard enough, because new customers still find it, sign up, and subscribe. Virtually nobody ever cancels once they've started. There is no competition. Nothing to switch to. There never will be. Where would they go if they stopped?
I know I've let my co-founder down. If the company would just die - if it would only be so simple, and nobody would want the product, or the users got angry at us and quit, or it were impossible to run it at a profit and we finally ran out of cash - then stopping would be easy. But no. They love it instead. They need it. There's an opportunity cost in continuing, but there's a sentimental cost in shutting it down - to say nothing of the users who have no other options.
In short, I learned that I don't have what it takes. Someone probably does, now that the actual insane part has already been invented, but I don't know who.
What would you do?