Interviews · November 1, 2019
Are you really friends with someone if you’ve never imagined building a business together? Finding a co-founder is hard. You have to share the same vision and display an uncommon synergy. A friend is an obvious choice, but reality often gets in the way...
Are you really friends with someone if you’ve never imagined building a business together? Finding a co-founder is hard. You have to share the same vision and display an uncommon synergy. A friend is an obvious choice, but reality often gets in the way. Your interests might not be the same. Your work ethics might differ. Your skills might diverge. Co-founder breakups are among the most common reasons for a startup’s death. It’s always easier to focus on our differences and let them win over. As long as you reach a cultural alignment, it doesn’t have to be this way. This is the story of three friends who ended up working together against all odds, driven by the same entrepreneurial spirit.
Kyle McDonald spent his childhood in Missouri. During middle-school, Kyle received a copy of Photoshop from his parents. He started hacking around. His interest in design increased. After publishing Youtube tutorials to teach others, he decided he wanted to develop a website to share his creations with the world. The feeling of getting instant gratification from art was addictive. The idea of creating from nothing but a computer, transcending.
Leon Hitchens was born and raised in Texas. As early-adopters, Leon’s parents changed computers every two years. He had access to hardware from an early age. Like every child, he loved playing video games. But each game is expensive and he quickly grew tired of playing with the same ones over and over. That's when he turned to the Internet and the prospect of an infinity of flash games within hands reach. One problem: his school’s firewall wouldn’t let him access those websites. There was only one solution: he had to build his own website to bypass the institution’s domain name filters.
Sunny Singh was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine. His family moved to New York City when he was 7. Sunny’s dad built him a custom desktop when he was 12 years old. He started coding at 13. Making websites was fascinating, so he started using no-code tools to build some by himself. He then would work upon existing features and hack scripts for fun. It was all about the intellectual pleasure of learning and adapting pet projects to suit his curiosity. Programming was borderless.
There was no reason to think they would meet one day, but curiosity is humankind’s great unifier: the three stumbled upon Freewebs, a website builder with community features. Each one had his reason to start making things, and the web was their common tool.
That’s how the three friends met in 2008, in an online chat room. Sunny was 15. Kyle and Leon were 13. Making things online was never about anyone's age.
Freewebs was the starting point of their maker career. The no-code tool was the gateway to a world of digital products. For Kyle and Sunny, no-code gave birth to a passion for programming: the two agreed to make Hylus, a social network for designers and developers. It was their first product experiment. They quickly learned it takes more than technical skills to grow a website.
In high school, the three worked on their first project together: a new theme for Leon’s blog. Leon was more interested in the act of blogging and growing a product than coding. It was not easy to share tasks at first. They found their strengths over time, naturally. The more they worked, the more they learned about themselves.
Finding your place within a group is not trivial. It takes time, patience, and understanding. The bag of ideas and social behaviors we call a culture cannot be forced, it is stumbled upon. Kyle, Sunny, and Leon simply followed their curiosity and accommodated their natural interests.
Kyle's love for design pushed him to learn front-end development. Sunny always had a knack for programming and naturally drifted toward back-end development. Leon specialized in marketing.
Kyle and Leon graduated from high-school in 2013. Sunny did as well a year earlier. In 2017, Kyle obtains a Computer Sciences degree. Sunny envisioned to study business, then shifted to Computer Sciences: “I didn’t learn much, but it gave me access to a whole new network,'' he says.
Leon dropped out of college and worked at a grocery store for a year. In parallel, he taught himself the basics of digital marketing. It all started with blogging, he wanted to figure out how to increase his audience with SEO and online ads: "Sunny and Kyle are the reasons I walked down this path. I wanted to be useful to them, and I found marketing to be a great tool for that. It’s only later I developed a passion for it. Then I got a job in marketing after learning by myself and building side-projects".
Sunny is now 26. Kyle and Leon are 24. Leon still lives in Texas, where he is happily married and the proud father of a little girl. Kyle lives in Chicago. Sunny moved to North Carolina at 18, where he remained till today.
You can imagine how their parents reacted at first. They were highly skeptical about their virtual friendship, but after hearing so many times about their common projects, they got used to it. A virtual friendship can be more real than a physical one, because the love for knowledge knows no border. The three friends only met physically three years ago, at Las Vegas’ Customer Electronic Show.
Kyle, Leon, and Sunny stayed in touch on a daily basis using instant chat applications. They would also play Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six or Rocket League on Xbox during the weekend while chatting. They then created a Slack workspace to remain in touch and keep each other accountable. It was only a question of time before the friends grew together to become a fully cross-functional team.
Their previous projects weren’t monetized. Hylus obtained some traction, but they stopped releasing features at some point to focus on attracting more users. Life got in the way and the project eventually lost momentum. There is no startup without growth, and there is no business without money involved. Ensuring the sustainability of a project is incredibly hard, they were aware of it.
While Kyle and Sunny were still attending college, Leon proposed to combine their strengths and build a company to generate money by making digital products. They had grown up together, and they understood what it took to launch an application. The three of them would have the necessary skills to create something viable: SLK Media LLC was born.
SLK is a combination of the first letter of each cofounder's name. There is no great company without a great team of founders. Their unusual friendship would be their North Star.
They needed an idea to test the waters. Sunny came up with IronMic. IronMic was solving a personal pain point: Sunny already ran his own podcast, so he wanted to develop a Software-as-a-Service product that would allow users to easily build a website for their podcasts without any programming knowledge. The two other co-founders agreed, and the project was released in August 2018.
Getting into the indie making community was the next logical step. Kyle had been part of Makerlog for more than 2 years, he brought Sunny and Leon along with him.
Bootstrapping products was nothing new to them. The indie approach always appealed to their way of doing things: no one to tell them what to do or what to think, the three were in charge. The leading figures of the Maker Movement advocated a culture of fast shipping, low burn rate, do-it-yourself-with-others, and transparency. The SLK trio and their deep hacker roots strongly resonated with this way of building profitable startups.
IronMic is a lot about experimenting and trying to navigate through the startup community. It's about acquiring an intuition for entrepreneurship. “It’s our fun thing to do on the side, to stay connected, but also to hone our skills. Trying new things, developing a new perspective. It’s about the learning and the growth too,” says Leon. The Chief Marketing Officer involves himself in entrepreneur communities, using IronMic to network, do talks, and create content.
The three makers share the same long-term goal: to work full-time at SLK Media together. Finding a sustainable business model that would allow them to do so is far from easy. Founders have to try a lot of different ideas before being able to reach Product/Market fit. They have to surround themselves with the right people, and constantly talk with users. More importantly, they have to keep learning.
While the three are serious about growing IronMic, they are also aware that luck plays its part. Leon explains: "We want to remain open to new opportunities. We’ll keep working on IronMic, but we’ll also keep learning and experimenting with new ideas because we don’t want to build the wrong thing and fixate on one project.”
Of course, making isn't without pitfalls. Right after graduating, everyone had to learn to juggle between a full-time job, personal obligations, and a co-founder position. Whenever a conflict arises, they settle it quickly by jumping on a phone call to figure things out together. The distance helps with independent thinking and personal space, it's part of their work/life balance. Communication remains the most important aspect of any healthy relationship.
Both Kyle and Sunny went through a burnout period: "just be consistent, do one small thing a day. During the weekend, have a long deep work session. Set yourself up for success, don’t work a second shift after work," urges Kyle. The love of the process is more important than setting your eyes on a goal. Entrepreneurship is a marathon.
As a father, Leon learned to be more flexible with his work: "my family is very understanding". He can either work later at night or during the weekend, always outside of family time.
Creation and curiosity have always been part of the trio's journey. If you had to describe the three friends in one expression, it would be "constant learners": "it's all about learning new tools, growing, and creating content, " says Leon, to which Kyle adds, "the hard part is not even making the product. It’s marketing, brand awareness, customer acquisition. Learning that is probably way more important. We are trying to automate everything to focus on marketing."
Making is not just shipping code, features, or products. It's a lot about learning with others and marketing. Creating content is a way to combine the two. Sharing something with the world is encouraging interactions, we learn by confronting our assumptions with reality. When we stop learning, we stop growing. Out of the three, Sunny has been the most consistent with his creation habit, which in turn inspired Leon and Kyle to up their game.
"I can't be consistent for more than a month," tells Leon. "Sunny inspires me to be more into it. I'm more comfortable with writing than vlogging or podcasting, however." Leon's passion for content always originated from a need to share what he likes with the world.
Kyle's passion for design also took its roots in content creation. He wanted to figure out how Photoshop worked, and his learnings would result in Youtube tutorials. Since his graduation, Kyle has been managing a personal blog where he talks about his journey as a maker and his experience as a web developer. In October 2019, Kyle launched git reset, his first podcast interviewing web developers and tech enthusiasts.
Creating content is more than a marketing effort, it's a way to solve problems: "we want to make things people enjoy and use, products that help real people. I design to solve a problem." Making a business is a way to solve problems too, first and foremost. It was a natural stepping stone for the three friends to help more people.
The role of friendship in entrepreneurship is a fundamental one. All human effort worth considering is the result of great camaraderie. Take good care of your friends. We all grow old: life happens, news friendships are made, and old ones are forgotten. Don't let the river of time separate you from people who once were the closest to you. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple "Hi" in a chat room. Who knows, maybe the childhood friend of yesterday will become the cofounder of your life project tomorrow.
For Sunny, Leon, and Kyle, it is merely the beginning of their story.
Kyle on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DesignByKyle
Kyle's website: https://kylemcd.com/
Kyle on burnout: https://kylemcd.com/posts/avoiding-burnout/
Sunny's website: https://sunnysingh.io/
Sunny on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sunnysinghio
Leon on Twitter: https://twitter.com/leonhitchens
Leon's personal website: https://leonhitchens.com/
IronMic's website: https://ironmic.fm/
Leon's perspective of the trio's origin story: https://leonhitchens.com/trip-to-chicago-how-kyle-sunny-i-met/
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