Mike McCabe and Alan VanToai didn’t know each other a year ago, but both shared some common interests: Both were twenty-something males fresh out of college, and both had equally burning desires to start a business. Sure, they lived 3,000 miles apart, but in just eight short months, McCabe and VanToai have managed to start a company, submit themselves to TechStars (twice), and today, SimpleCrew, their newly-minted mobile photo app for businesses, is officially up-and-running on iOS and Android.
“We're a mobile communications app for teams, mostly field teams, so businesses that are doing work in the field can capture and collect photos easily,” VanToai explained. “It’s for anybody from real estate investors, property managers, grassroots marketing teams -- anywhere where people use photos for documentation of work or progress updates for clients, or if they need to validate their work's being done or documented for future purposes. Right now they use point and shoot cameras; now they can use our app.”
Less than a year ago, McCabe and VanToai met for the very first time at TechStars Seattle in November 2011, thanks to a mutual friend - Mark Shesser, an associate for TechStars. Both McCabe and VanToai came with very different experiences and skill sets – McCabe studied electrical engineering, applied physics and Web development out in San Diego, while VanToai studied marketing in Maryland before lending his expertise to Yelp and Red Bull, among other companies. By the time the two met each other, little did these relative strangers know they would be launching a product together within a year.
“This was my way to immerse myself in the start-up community,” McCabe said.
While talking to McCabe and VanToai about their exciting new mobile communications platform launched last month, the SimpleCrew co-founders shared valuable insight about their experience in starting a company and also debunked a few myths about start-ups, explaining that you don’t need VC backing or constant infighting to launch a successful business together.
Get To Know Each Other
Despite sharing a mutual friend, McCabe and VanToai barely knew each other. In the eight months since starting their business together, however, the SimpleCrew co-founders have routinely made time to talk to each other, and even visit each other.
“We've had a couple of SimpleCrew retreats if you will where I lived in Alan's house in New York for almost a month, and he came out here and lived in my place in San Diego,” McCabe said. “So we've had these really intensive experiences, not just working together, but living together. I think that really helped because we didn't know each other previously before saying, ‘Yeah, let's build a business together.’ These weeks of spending time together have really accelerated our friendship and business relationship.”
“I don't know if it helps or hurts, but we are literally 3,000 miles apart,” VanToai added. “Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder?”
Establish Well-Defined, Complementary Roles
Even though VanToai and McCabe didn’t know each other very well at first, they knew they’d be successful given how well their skillsets integrated with each other.
“We complement each other very well,” McCabe said. “I handle pretty much all things tech, and Alan is the business master. Sales, marketing. His experience at Yelp and some of these other jobs beforehand are just really coming into play, and he's also a designer as well so he designed our whole front-end site and our logo, which I really like. So between the two of us, we've really been able to cover everything so far.”
“The amount of ways in which we realized over the course of time that our working style and values align, it's freakish almost,” VanToai said. “It felt like we skipped dating and went straight to, ‘Yeah, let's get married and start a business.’ We decided that ridiculously quickly. I think we both consider ourselves really lucky because the horror stories that you hear, the amount of different ways that founders can disagree and end up falling apart, but -- knock on wood -- we haven't experienced that.”
VanToai said the two have become very accustomed to each other, but splitting up responsibilities was the easy part of forming their business relationship: Executing the tasks they needed to do was what made their partnership functional.
“We have clearly defined roles, we both get along, but we also do the work and trust that we can hold ourselves accountable,” VanToai said.
Both co-founders were able to split up duties while SimpleCrew was still under wraps, but now that the service has officially launched to the public, this becomes the critical time for each individual to step up and do his job.
"Now we have our public face on, we have some amount of marketing and sales and customer support on our side, but it's a different kind of challenge," VanToai said.
Motivate Each Other
“If we don't [build this], somebody else will,” VanToai said about the SimpleCrew concept. “And that would be the worst. We didn't want to be the guys in three years sitting there when this exact product hits the market in two years; we would've been kicking ourselves. Whether or not it was us doing it, it was going to happen. Those two factors led us to start doing the early work, and that includes interviewing all the people, seeing if the pain and the problem is actually real and something people would pay for.”
Of course, it's always a case of "easier said than done." When the SimpleCrew team applied twice to TechStars -- one in Boulder, and one in Seattle -- and got rejected twice after a few promising introductory rounds, McCabe and VanToai didn't get down. Instead, they used the rejection as fuel.
"We thought we had great traction, we had a great network," VanToai said. "And we went to Las Vegas for the interviews, and I guess we were too confident. We didn't make the final 10 or 12 cut. At that point, it was a bummer, but we were far enough along that TechStars would be icing on the cake.
"It was definitely a little extra motivation to push and succeed," McCabe added.
Ask For Help
Sometimes, you just can’t do it alone. Even when it came to meeting each other, the two SimpleCrew co-founders needed help to establish a connection.
“A friend I went to high school with [Mark Shesser] went to go work at TechStars in Seattle as an associate, and Mike was a HackStar for that two-month program,” VanToai said, recalling TechStars Seattle 2011. “[Mark] was the guy that was bouncing around helping the different teams, he had a great experience there and made a lot of great connections. Mark connected us and introduced us.”
Once McCabe and VanToai found some chemistry and hatched their idea for SimpleCrew a couple of months later, the two young entrepreneurs reached out to friends and mentors for guidance.
“We had a couple of great mentors and helpers early on, people that put us in the right direction. A friend who went to TechStars, Nick Soman from LikeBright, and Nate Parcells from InternMatch, a 500 Startups company. They said, ‘Don't do a line of code until you've really validated that this is something.’ They showed us how they did it and how they reached out to people, what kinds of questions to ask to really root out the problem -- because most startups that fail aren't trying to solve an actual problem.”
That leads to the next issue...
Focus On Problem-Solving
“With every problem there also has to be a new opportunity to solve it,” Van Toai said.
To illustrate his point, VanToai described how SimpleCrew relieves “the pain and the headache and the time wasted associated with the current ways of collecting photos from the field.”
“Right now, if it's point-and-click, desktop folders, photo uploads and downloads, email attachments, it's really messy,” he said. “Imagine sending 10 pictures to one person, it's actually too big for an email attachment. That means you'd have to zip it up and put it on some download service or something.
“When I worked at Red Bull, I was working with 20 girls in DC and 20 girls in Baltimore -- I mean, I'm collecting 10-15 photos each from 20-35 girls, and that's just my small job. We're talking to people that have 1,000 street teamers across the United States. These are agencies that have to report this work to clients, so photos end up being more important to clients than the actual work. For some people that are outsourcing, it's validation and accountability. They can see that the work's actually being done. For jobs like a construction project manager, they don't necessarily need it for the accountability as they need all the stakeholders in the project be able to see what's going on. This puts it all together, and it's in real-time.”
“It used to be that you used to wait until the end of the day or end of the week for the photos to be uploaded; now, they just do it live from the field.”