Sramana Mitra: What was the evolution of your career as a software programmer in this travel services company?
Christian Vanek: I worked on building the system for that conference company. Then the parent company asked me if I’d like to join them as an actual official developer. I was given more of a traditional developer title. I was very young and I was in a team of about eight people. They decided that it would be useful if they gave me to their marketing team. I was the developer sacrificed to marketing!
I began working with marketers learning how to build content management systems for them. We built a beautiful system which we refer to as Brochure Builder. That helped automate the entire process of collaborating on content and building agenda. Throughout my entire career, these two stories have created a pattern that will continue to repeat. I very rarely come up with the idea that will be successful. I’d, very often, just listen to someone that has a problem that wants to be solved. Then I’d focus on solving that problem with their input and building software around it.
Sramana Mitra: What happens next? Lead us up to the story of your entrepreneurship. What is the next interesting step in this journey?
Christian Vanek: I was quite young. I’m a fairly ambitious individual. I asked my boss who had just been hired. I told him that I needed a raise. Fortunately, they said yes. They gave me a pretty significant raise at that point. I quit four weeks later.
My ego completely bloated. I said, “I can actually build a company and run a company. I wouldn’t have to deal with any of the bureaucracy of a larger organization. I can just focus on building great products.” That’s what kicked me off. I started my first business at that point. My previous employers were kind enough to contract with me giving me a source of revenue at that point.
What I really wanted to do was build a marketing automation system. I set my eyes on that and I began coding night and day working furiously. I had all of the joys of pre-2000 tech startups. It was a very interesting time in my life.
Sramana Mitra: What year were you starting this marketing automation software company?
Christian Vanek: It was 1999.
Sramana Mitra: There were other marketing automation players in the market. What was the landscape that you were going into?
Christian Vanek: The Internet was catching on for business. Software-as-a-Service was not what we see today. Being as young as I was, I didn’t know competitive analysis whatsoever.
Sramana Mitra: You just built something that you thought would be useful?
Christian Vanek: Yes. I was just going at it. I did forget one key point of entrepreneurship, which I would learn from this catastrophic failure. You don’t really have a business if you don’t have customers. I managed to rack up a fantastic amount of debt without ever selling my platform or getting customers to buy onto it. While I’d like to say that it went out of business, the truth of the matter is it was dead well before that.
I started a business without an understanding of what business really was. I had broken that key model that had made me successful in my career up to this point of observing other people and helping to solve their problems. I really built this product for myself. This is my first and most catastrophic failure.