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Serial Entrepreneur from Alberta, Canada: Michael Sikorsky, CEO of Robots and Pencils (Part 3)

Posted on Wednesday, Dec 2nd 2015

Sramana Mitra: What specifically did you do as you started this company?

Michael Sikorsky: I got the best term for it from Michael Gerber. I actually had an entrepreneurial fever and had no clue what I had to do next. I just decided to do it. It’s not something I would recommend. I had only been working for about five and a half months. Through that lens, it wasn’t like I was used to working or anyone who’s dependent on me. If I reflect back, I started running experiments to try to figure out what people would buy. If I had known that I was running experiments and had thought about that more wisely, you could have been smarter and faster on how you ran the experiments. Some of the experiments weren’t conducted wisely and maybe ran longer than they needed to as you’re trying to hunt around.

Sramana Mitra: In those experiments, what did you learn?

Michael Sikorsky: For me, the biggest thing was that it takes a lot for the business to understand how technology can transform it, and there’s a lot of hesitation. Against the backdrop of the upcoming trend of the Internet, I was trying to build software to try to do different things in different ways in businesses and I was essentially a walking version of Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. I was trying to innovate and hurt aspects of your business – not in the long haul, but in the short haul. That’s basically how it always looks.

Clay’s work on Innovator’s Dilemma is a book I would recommend to every person in business but especially in technology. You’re basically walking around and changing the structure. For me, that was just mind-blowing. As I’ve gotten older, I got a lot more empathy for how hard it is to get everything done. That was a big thing that I learned – how much hesitation there was everywhere. Then I learned that you need to be a lot more specific around what you’re testing and why you’re testing that, instead of almost just throwing stuff everywhere. Today, we actually have conceptual framework. This is the experiment. This is the hypothesis. These are the four major goals of each of the hypothesis. This is how we’ll know if the hypothesis works or doesn’t work.

It’s totally different today than it was when I first started. After being in business for five years, it was shocking to see how much I’d grown. I viewed it more like rather than waiting to play the piano, I’m just going to play the piano. All these things that you probably would have done if you just imagine building a business out. For example, you’ve got a great curriculum. You probably should not start with scratch. Here I was trying to learn the piano and brute force my way into it. You can just imagine anyone doing that and hearing the music. Over five years, you realize there’s maybe some pain in there. Maybe all these other things could have been better. The thing that I was surprised by probably from that first era was that people who have been working in businesses in a specific function may be important in that function. When you’re the entrepreneur, the whole thing has to work. Then there are people who have 10 to 15 years in a function and they still haven’t tied the pieces together.

Sramana Mitra: Can we get back to a little bit more of the specifics of your business-building experience? I know we’re talking a lot in general terms of what you learned and so forth. What I try to capture is specifics of how you put one foot before the other and then you can weave in general stuff in between. Let’s go back to when you were first starting the company. Take me back to how you got the product out and how you got your first customer.

Michael Sikorsky: The very first thing that I built was a framework. No one wanted a framework. As a programmer, I built a framework. It was actually called Jayboh. It was really specific. It was a Java framework and helped people build more web applications. Because I had spent so much time experimenting and trying to build web applications, as a programmer, I could see the issues inside the programming lens. They’re swimming in that ecosystem. I started to build software for programmers. That was a mistake. Most programmers want to build their own software. If you’re going to come and build frameworks or platforms, you really should be coming at it through, “I’ve got $100 million in capital.” If you think about it strategically, I was off-site. I’m not that big. No one’s going to want to use the platform. We’re not big enough. That was the very first thing that we did.

We even launched it at a conference, at the very first JavaOne. We go to the booth and you could just feel how everyone was interested but no one knew how to buy it from us because it didn’t solve any person’s business problems. Just to be really specific, it felt like spending all the money we had to stand in a booth and to realize that people find us interesting – never patronizing but more like, “That’s awesome what you guys are trying to do.”

This segment is part 3 in the series : Serial Entrepreneur from Alberta, Canada: Michael Sikorsky, CEO of Robots and Pencils
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