Starting with a WHAM
Jeremy Welch, co-founder of WHAM Labs, jump started his entrepreneurial career in one bold move.
He called his dad and told him that he was dropping out of Duke University to pursue a venture. He was taking a major risk to join a fledgling media company. He knew that there was a small chance the company could go nowhere (it collapsed within a month of him joining), but was confident that he would figure out a path no matter what happened.
“You seem to have thought everything through and your gut seems to be there, so if that’s how you feel, make your decision,” his dad told him. “But understand that from now on you’re on your own.”
Jeremy was willing to take the risk. That’s not to say that he wasn’t scared, it just meant that he knew where his path needed to go. He had a clear vision, a drive to work hard, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Today, with WHAM Labs, Jeremy’s goal is to build companies and then sell them. To create products that fill market niches. He is an ideas man through and through, but just as importantly, he knows how to execute his vision. He can both dream it and build it. A big part of this is that Jeremy knows how create software. Together with his partner, Jeremy takes on software consulting gigs to funnel money into their product design projects.
“The real pleasure for me comes from building good products and building good companies themselves.”
Accidentally in Love
It all started when Jeremy co-founded Shoeboxed.com with a senior at Duke University. Jeremy was a sophomore at the time, and his cofounder was on the way out the door, on the cusp of graduation. Once Jeremy started, he got “bitten by the bug.”
Although Shoeboxed took off in a different direction, and Jeremy did not stay involved, Jeremy told me that, “it was very eye-opening” and also, “really bad for school.” After working on Shoeboxed, Jeremy knew that he couldn’t stay in school much longer. He needed to be on the ground, creating things.
As a philosophy major, Jeremy didn’t derive his technical skill set from his classes. Rather, he began teaching himself the technical and programming skills necessary to work in the technology world by taking on projects in high school. Later, whenever he identified something he didn’t know how to do, he would buy a book that explained how to do it, and banged his head against the wall until he figured it out.
The Right Place at the Right Time with the Right People
Looking for an apartment in Durham, North Carolina is much easier than in New York, or any other major city. But even in Durham, apartments can fall through. Sometimes, that’s the best thing that can happen to you.
For Jeremy, that one event catalyzed everything he has done to date. The girl had told him he could have the apartment. Done deal. But then she called, and told him she had given it to someone else. Out of guilt, she asked Jeremy about his story.
“Let me introduce you to my friend, Brian O’Kelley. He’s involved in the startup tech scene,” she volunteered.
Yes, the same Brian O’Kelley that started Right Media, which was an advertising marketplace acquired by Yahoo in 2007 for $680 million. The same Brian O’Kelley that has since created AppNexus and has grown his company from two employees to over two hundred in four years. Basically, “the god of ad-tech,” as Jeremy said.
It was a fortuitous turn of events. Jeremy began getting advice from Brian and, over the course of a year in Durham, identified the key things he wanted do to with a startup, along with the proper habits to cultivate.
“It took me a while to get it into my head that I had to be the one to create the proper habits. To be very careful about watching myself. You can set up a goal list. I try to do 3-4 things per day that are high priority tasks and I’ll have a list of all things that need to get done but no matter what, I’ll get those done. And at night I’ll figure out what’s there for the next day.”
After some soul-searching, Jeremy told Brian, “I really want to work for you. Or with somebody doing something like you.” Introductions were made. Jeremy hit it off with Invite Media, in New York City. Invite Media, according to their website, is “a high impact demand-side platform that enables advertisers, agencies and agency trading desks to use real-time bidding to buy and optimize online media.”
Jeremy moved to New York. The next chapter began.
Invite to Success
It was a whirlwind year. Jeremy worked 16 hours a day alongside his colleagues. They were trying to grow Invite Media as fast as possible.
It worked. Invite Media grew from 7 employees to 45 employees. And they caught Google’s attention.
“It was a lot of hard work, and being at the right place at the right time. You don’t build a company with the end goal of selling it. You say ‘I’m going to build this company to the point where we’re going to continue growing and make money.’ Then maybe Facebook or Google or whoever else will be scared to the point where the company will actually pose a risk if they don’t buy it.”
Being acquired by Google gave Jeremy a feel for how to start a company, build it to the success point, and then sell it. The rush of excitement he received from the sale though, was nothing compared to the satisfaction of building a great product. Jeremy considers a sale like a “check on a scorecard.” It means that what he built was valuable enough to be sold.
That’s why, if you’re looking to sell your company the best way to do it, according to Jeremy, is to not be for sale. That way, all of your energy is focused on making your company the best that it can be.
After spending a year working under Google, Jeremy left, again to do his own thing.
The Era of WHAM Labs
Jeremy and his cofounder, Jason Mitchell, have been working on and off together for almost four years. For example, they built a restaurant review application linked to Foursquare that prompts users to submit a review 30 minutes after they check into a restaurant.
But August of 2011 was when they started WHAM Labs. Officially, WHAM “solves problems for businesses large and small using software and information technology.” Part of this means that Jeremy and Jason take on consulting projects.
The other part means that they explore gaps in different markets, and create solutions to fill those gaps.
Take the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) market, for example. One thing WHAM considered was the small business niche market for CRM systems. These small businesses aren’t going to pay for a large CRM system, it just isn’t worth it for them. And even if the systems were low-cost, or free, they are too complicated and bulky for many small businesses. Many small businesses just end up using Excel.
Hence the ideation of “Spreadsheets Plus.” WHAM built a CRM system that looked more like a GoogleDocs spreadsheet than Salesforce (a common CRM system). This allows users to quickly input data, while also diving deep into individual customer records when necessary, using a separate non-spreadsheet view.
But the key constraint in creating new products is time and money. WHAM believes in the concept of Spreadsheets Plus, but for now they are investing their time and energy in other places. “We think someone might stumble upon [a concept like Spreadsheets Plus] and make it first. That’s okay.”
WHAM has decided not to raise funding at this point, because “once you raise money, you start a timer. If you don’t deliver certain things then you can’t raise any more money because investors don’t trust you. Raising money has to be a well-timed strategic decision.”
His team also has evaluated several other product ideas, including a mint.com type website to maintain and keep your assets healthy. For example, if you own a home, when is the last time you changed your air filters and when is the optimal time to change them? Wouldn’t it be great if you had an app that tracked all of this for you?
For Jeremy, the best part is combing the creative process with the creating process. “That’s what it’s about for me, creating my own path through life. Just coming up with an idea and executing on it, and then coming up with another and executing. It’s like lifting weights. The ideas get more complex and the markets get bigger with each one.”
So hit the mental gym, cultivate your ideas, and make them bigger and better each time.
Jeremy’s Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
- Find your non-work related outlet, because it will help your productivity. Mine is performing with my band, Liberty or Death.
- Some people are going to be entrepreneurs regardless, but it’s not an easy life. Don’t pretend it’s easy.
- If you think you’re interested in creating a startup, go hang out at a startup. Get a feel for it. Go start as an intern somewhere. Because there’s a lot of hype, and it’s not for everyone.
- You can’t be an ideas person without being an execution person. You can find people to do those things, but you also have to know quite a bit about what you’re trying to implement before you can judge what’s good and how you can execute it. Regardless of whether you want to or not, you have to be technical.
- Even if you recognize that there’s a product you can build to fit into the market you’re interested in, you still have to get the timing exactly right. Enough people have to be ready for your new product. So sometimes a big part of your job as an entrepreneur is educating people.
- The best way to learn is under extreme pressure and just throwing yourself into that. (Caveat: Be prepared that if you do that, you will probably screw something up, too.)
- You’re bound to make mistakes. Fix them as quickly as possible and move forward.