Sramana Mitra: How long did you stay at this?
Christian Vanek: I stayed at it for two and a half years before I ran out of money.
Sramana Mitra: That brings us to 2001?
Christian Vanek: Yes.
Sramana Mitra: What did you do next?
Christian Vanek: I licked my wounds a little bit. I had a lot of money that I owed to people. I had no way of paying it back. An interesting thing at this point was, most of my friends probably would have been fine with my new reality. I was so embarrassed that I retreated from everyone. One of my friends helped me by giving me a place to stay and I just got a job.
I went to a temping agency. They put me in one of the business affairs offices at Boston University. I was hired to hand MBTA passes out to students every month. This was just as mind numbing as the first job I had in 1995. Naturally, I also started automating that. The great thing about this was it was a nice pause from running my own business. It didn’t last very long. About two years in, old co-workers from that company I used to work with began reaching out to me asking if I would do side work as a consultant with them. I started building up a new set of business contacts.
Sramana Mitra: What happened to your debt?
Christian Vanek: To give you an idea of the debt that I had, I had about $20,000 worth of credit card debt. At that point, without all the interest I would accrue over the next several years, I owed about $100,000 to the IRS. I should have gone to school. I would have ended up with a similar amount of debt with an actual degree. It was a little harsh.
I remember not having enough money to get my car back when it was towed from street cleaning one day. I just had to leave it for five months. It was almost auctioned off from the tow lot. This was a good lesson in failure. Eventually, I did dust myself off and started that consulting company. Money started coming in. I was able to pay off the credit card debt. I’ll be honest. I rotated the IRS debt, I was paying off one year and was not having enough to pay off in the next.
Sramana Mitra: What year does that bring us up to?
Christian Vanek: We are right around 2002. At this point, I’m living in Cambridge. Life is pretty good. I am running a consulting company full-time as opposed to working part-time and doing this on the side. I started building software again. This next software package that I built was a co-registration brokerage. It was pretty successful. People loved it.
I didn’t quite understand how to price it. That was probably one of my biggest lessons – how to price software so it matches the value that people are getting out of it. I undervalued my work a great deal. A few years later, I sold that product off. I also met my business partner who would end up becoming the co-founder of SurveyGizmo with me. One of my clients was a publishing company for marketers.
One day while in discussion with the founder over at MarketingSherpa, she commented that, “Really powerful survey software is either way too expensive or the stuff that I can afford is weak in terms of capabilities. You should build a survey software.” That sounded good to me. Now, we’re at 2005. That was the beginning of SurveyGizmo. I was still running my consulting company.
My friend at MarketingSherpa, Anne Holland, put me in touch with a whole bunch of marketers and market researchers that felt the same way. In a weird way, they are the mothers and fathers of SurveyGizmo. They told me what needed to be built and what features were important. They gave me a biased view of price. We were quite cheap back then.