How we started Revelry, built a lot of products, failed at our own, learned, and made you a toolkit

The past couple weeks have been a whirlwind. We hired Brian Oberkirch as VP of Product, went to SXSW to throw the Downtown NOLA party with the DDD, moved offices, and made some strategic shifts. I figured this might be a good time to reflect back on how all this madness even started, how we’ve iterated, and where we’re going next.

Game over. Press Start to continue.

In August of 2012, Gerard Ramos and I were separately experiencing the downsides of being in the startup game. Gerard’s personal labor of love, unawkward, hadn’t closed funding in time to keep the company afloat. He was back in the freelance market, snapping up gigs with Spear Point, GNO Inc., and Shutterfly. Meanwhile the startup to which I had hitched my own wagon, VoteIt, had just given me generous notice that in two weeks I would be laid off. Follow-on investors hadn’t materialized, the burn was too high, and they would carry on with a skeleton crew before ultimately shutting down just months later.

So it was in that context that Gerard and I, having been vaguely acquainted with one another via the now-retired Launchpad Ignition accelerator, met up at a dingy poboy shop in the CBD. I don’t remember the name. It had low ceilings, jaundice-yellow lighting, and felt not unlike a school cafeteria that was built in the 60s to double as a fallout shelter.

The obvious topic of conversation was: What next? Neither of us wanted to take a 9-to-5 in New Orleans. Neither of us wanted to leave New Orleans. We also didn’t want to be back in the same position in a couple months. It was quickly pretty obvious we were on the same page. What if we could keep building cool things that we love? What if we didn’t have to chase promises of capital from coast to coast? What if we could just do what we’re good at, get paid for it, and be our own first investors? Gerard had a strong lead on a contract to create Shutterfly’s new mobile product builder. I had programming chops (and now plenty of free time) to help drive it home. We would revisit our dreams when there was money in the bank. Revelry was born.

I guess maybe we’re other people’s investors now? Sure, why not.

While Gerard’s time on the West Coast doing work for companies like Zappos and Williams Sonoma had gifted us a strong network from which to find large projects, we filled the gaps building MVPs for New Orleans startups. Joe and Brendan, our friends at ChapterSpot (who at the time worked in the slightly nicer shack behind our shack) introduced us to Eric Lavin. Eric came to us about Whetstone Education, a teacher training and evaluation tool. The concept was solid. It had the benefit of real customers who were providing real feedback about what they wanted. But the app was slow, and it was trashing his sales cycle, so we set out re-engineering it for speed. That started getting expensive. So we collectively set a valuation and swapped a discount on labor for a slice of the business. Eric found his CTO, Cody, who we embedded in our office and trained up for a few months and then set loose. Revelry’s first ever startup investment, Whetstone doubled its year-over-year revenue. We’re pumped and proud. (Keep killing it, y’all.)

Serious business.

Back on the California side of things, Nate Bolt of Ethnio hired us to prototype him a new feature/add-on/product (nobody was really sure yet). Big vision, really bleeding-edge web tech (everybody involved knew most web browsers wouldn’t support it for at least a year), and tons of room to just be creative with it.

In May 2012, Facebook had acquired his other company, Bolt | Peters, and by extension, Nate himself. Facebook’s UX researchers had tools they wanted built and no engineers on the team to do it. Nate gave us a rec, and soon enough we had an all-but-done deal with Facebook. I alternated between elation and terror. We desperately needed to hire someone to account for the new workload, but I kept pushing it off in case it wasn’t real. In case someone pulled the rug out at the last minute. (We’re now entering into our third year of building their UX research tools and having a lot of fun.)

We hired Adam Clarke back to New Orleans from his job in Denver to take over my current day-to-day engineering responsibilities. I flew out to Silicon Valley so they could run me through Facebook’s famed 6-week developer bootcamp. Gerard kept driving the rest of our company forward back home. We had some big name customers on board. We were hiring. This was a real company.

Revelry builds and scales itself as well as its new partners.

On the home front, with the local entrepreneurial movement gaining steam, we began taking meetings with new startups in addition to our bread-and-butter clientele. Being startups, their budgets were quite limited. We gave a lot of people free advice and homework and then sent them away. But some of them did the homework, came back, and convinced us to partner. We got a little less sheepish about mentioning our prior foray into discounts for equity, and we began investing in and building a portfolio of promising companies.

Thus far we’ve launched or re-launched twelve startup products and signed investment deals in five. Of the five, one… is almost definitely going under. Two are profitable businesses. One closed Series A last autumn and is in the process of upending a massive industry. One is just about to launch and open up a round.

Doing that has been a blast. Between assisting larger corporate clients and launching the next generation of businesses, Revelry has grown to a team of 15, we get to have some of the stable foundation of a consultancy, and we still get to live the rush of new ideas every day. Sounds pretty great, right? But what happened to self-funding our own ideas? We had an entire whiteboard filled with them, it had been neglected so long it could no longer be erased, and that was as far as the issue had gotten in a year.

Revelry builds its own mini-startup… and then utterly neglects it.

So last year we took our stable, traditional, boring, reliably revenue-generating business model, and we did something nuts. We chopped out 20% of our potential revenue and declared Hack Friday: The business equivalent of “me time.” The day of no clients. The day for Revelry. Twelve Fridays later, we launched a product. Everyone was amped up.

I wish I could say this was a resounding success. We did one thing extremely well. We built a slick, marketable product with less than two and a half weeks of labor. We did another thing extremely badly. It turns out that one Friday a week is a viable way to build a product, but not a business. Winning and serving customers, optimizing the app, tweaking the growth program: All of these things take focus and time. Part-time entrepreneurs take note: You have to go hustle that thing full time. A real business isn’t a mere after-hours thing.

Revelry had customers to serve, and no one had time to keep our little side venture growing. We did a brief search for a CEO to run it, found Jon Howes, and hired him as Revelry’s VP Sales instead. Can’t argue with the outcome.

Revelry focuses to build better and faster.

Continuing Hack Friday seemed like irrational escalation. Scuttling it seemed like giving up. It was clear that divorcing the team from our core business one day a week was a big investment that needed a better deliverable. That initial product suffered from neglect, and we were pretty sure that any products we built this way and then didn’t fully commit to would also get the same treatment, but we could build important things this way. The things we built just had to align with our daily focus in order to live and thrive. Late last year we gave Hack Friday a makeover. We would stop trying to launch our own mass-market breakout hit and double down on serving Revelry’s current and future enterprise, SMB, and startup partners.

Instead of building products, we would build tools to make our team faster and stronger. We began writing and packaging tools for solving tech startups’ common base problems, from the easy-but-annoying all the way up to the hard stuff. It is truly fascinating how often unrelated companies with wildly different products need the same mechanics. We wrote down all the common elements for a successful, rapid product launch and user acquisition campaign, and we started making cheat codes for them one by one. Coupled with a UI engine for constructing rich, interactive interfaces faster and with greater reliability.

The next step in our evolution, a toolkit.

As we’ve started solidifying these tools and discovering what they can provide to our services customers, the next step has become obvious. The toolkit already powers our business. It powers most of our partners’ businesses. Today, we rewrite Hack Friday once again. We’re making an ongoing commitment to bring our dev toolkit to the rest of the world. We know what we can build with it. We want to see what you can build with it.

Industry friends: We’d like to show you what we have cooking. Developers in particular: We’d like to show you what’s in the sauce. Holler at us.

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