Interview: BizSpark Startup Submittable Exits Y-Combinator Seeking 1 Million Customers

This BizSpark company just finished a term with Y-Combinator and is actively working with large clients in the media space as they scale to 1 million customers. We asked their CEO, Michael Fitzgerald, a few questions about their experience as a team running a successful startup. 

First, a little bit about Submittable. I met these guys in San Francisco, as they were beginning their time at Y-Combinator, and they revealed to me that they were working on a light box-style publishing solution for document sharing. It's much more than that, but here are the basics. Everything on the web is a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate. If you are using document sharing services, nobody is looking at the same document. They are looking at copies of what everyone else is doing. And through some kind of mojo, when changes are made to the document, it all sometimes gets back together in the right way and no headaches. But not always. There's usually a snarl up. 

Submittable's Fitzgerald, seen standing in Missoula, Montana between members of his team, wanted to solve this by making sure that when a team looked at a document, they were only looking at a single document, the same document. Take away the submission management headaches, offer a huge scaling platform for publishers, and you are on your way to a nice business. 

What have you learned about managing a technological business that you would pass on to the next generation?

Product is not 100% technology. In the last few years design and tone of the company have become just as important. Don’t make software, make a product, something people enjoy. Coming from a developer background, I always assumed the tech part drove the company.

What was the most difficult challenge your business faced this year?

Working through each stage of growth: getting the first 100 customers, then scaling from 1K to 10K. We’re now trying to get to 1M, and there are new challenges.

Also, raising money in Missoula, Montana was an invigorating experience! 

How do you know when you are failing in product development and how do you make a correction – do you make the decision on your own, or do you consult your team?

User feedback and Signup vs. Adoption rate. We talk directly with potential and existing customers. You can hear it in their voices when something is less than impressive in the product.

What signals from your consumers do you look for to signify that you are winning?

Lots of interaction, good or bad, is usually good. Even if people are complaining about lack of features or bugs, this means they care. 

When you need to ask questions on your team, who do you go to? Who do you usually turn to outside of your organization to ask questions?

We have some amazing angel investors and advisors. Each seems to have a particular skill set. One is perfect at money problems. Two have built their own software companies from nothing. I check in with them constantly. We’ve had some disagreements, but even those, in retrospect, were helpful.

One thing entrepreneurs (and people in general) don’t always understand is that people enjoy helping people who are screwed. First time entrepreneurs are screwed from Day 1! If you’re demonstrating that you’re working hard, you’re not just trying to get rich or waste someone’s time, people will go out of their way to help you, often expecting little in return. One sign of an amateur angel investor is when they’re more concerned about valuation or their own piece of the pie rather than just doing everything humanly possible for the company to succeed.

Who would you like to be your mentor, and what would you ask him or her?

We’re very lucky to have the mentors we have.

Who is your mentor, and what was the last great thing he or she told you and your team?

We have a few great mentors: Glenn Kreisel & Steve Saroff (built and sold 2 companies), Corbin Day (a low-key, but hands-on and brilliant angel investor), and the seminal Paul Graham and his Y Combinator.

What has overjoyed you in the past month?

1) A customer (The editor from The Rumpus) I met yesterday said this: “This aspect of my job sucked until we started using Submittable. My inbox was a nightmare. Submittable saves me 30 minutes a day and from significant anxiety.”

 2) Another customer told me we were “Saving Publishing.” That felt great.

3) We moved to Mountain View recently as part of Y Combinator. As a result, our team is living and working together (in the same small apartment). It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve gelled in a way we hadn’t before. Seeing how much work is getting done, the level of intensity and quality, has me overjoyed. Also, our customer-base has recently expanded dramatically with our introduction of custom forms. This has been amazing.

Who inspired you the most this week, and why?

My partners John and Bruce have almost completed a feature (custom forms) in about three weeks that I thought would take 4 months.

When was the last time you fell in love with a product?

I have a pretty heavy crush on Freshbooks. I’m presently in a bad relationship with our own product: wild swings from loving it blindly to hating every screen. We break up every Friday night, then I propose again on Monday morning.

What does something in your business vertical need in order for the product to be successful?

People to procreate and create art and literature. People to put themselves out there.

What came first for your company – the product idea or your existence on the internet?

We conceived of and built a product for about a year called Submishmash. That product slowly morphed into what we are now, Submittable.

Is the lean startup process a type of marketing, or is marketing different from customer and product development? How does your company utilize next generation marketing techniques?

We talk directly with our users and potential users via social networks, email, and blogging. We try to be as transparent as possible. For us, this transparency and openness has become a huge part of our marketing. If someone has a technical issue, our CTO will get on the phone with them. It can get harried, but ultimately leads to great word of mouth. I would call this our marketing strategy: talk with our audience instead of at them. Lean marketing sort of blends into all aspect of your company: customer support, branding, newsletters, social networks, all the ways you communicate about and from your company.

Has starting your own company provided any answers about your life? Have you discovered something about yourself that you didn’t know before?

Definitely. It’s changed everything. I mean, this isn’t news: the harder something is, the more rewarding. Also, prior to starting  a company, I guess I thought business was wonky bullshit. I’ve found that starting a company has much more in common with art than I ever anticipated. Similar to starting a band or writing a novel, you’re driving without headlights. No one asked you to do it. No one cares if you succeed. It’s just you and your partners making something out of nothing. In this way, it’s a beautiful and gratifying process, even when it’s failing, but when it’s actually working: magic.   

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