Aaron Marshall Drank The Lean Startup KoolAid And Is So Not Over It
Aaron Marshall has startup ADD. Real bad. Or should I say, real good? After drinking the lean startup KoolAid two years ago and trying to get a startup going by focusing on process instead of product, Aaron pivoted so many times I’m surprised he didn’t fall over from dizziness.
His first project led him to multiple non-starters until he finally settled on Over, his new app that lets you put text over images in a simple, beautiful way. All of that pivoting and spinning around led him right to a combination of two things he loves: photography and typography and I don’t think the man could be happier.
Working all by himself with only about $30,000 in seed money from a friend, Aaron is bursting with ideas and motivation. His hope is to see Over become the go-to app for text over photo creations, making further funding irrelevant.
Aaron sat down with me for a long chat about why ADD is an asset for internet entrepreneurs, what he’s done without a formal education, and “democratizing design.” Check it out.
Let’s start with some facts. When did you launch?
Two and a half weeks ago. July the something… I’m calendrically challenged. Let me check… July the 6th.
And how many users have you gained since that point?
I’m not putting that number out yet but it’s a lot.
So you’ve had some pretty fast growth?
Yeah, it’s been fantastic and very, very exciting.
Is it just you right now or do you have some employees?
It’s just me right now and I contract out the engineering to a company in Dallas called OvenBits. They’re good friends of mine; I’ve worked with them for years and I had them do the plumbing but I did all the design, all the user experience, all the marketing.
Well, I now have a PR company that’s helping me a bit that I just brought on in the past couple weeks but mostly it’s just me. Right now I’m the sole employee; hoping to change that in the next month.
Working from home I assume?
Working from coffee shops. My kid is too noisy and it’s too distracting so I work from a coffee shop here. Of course, it’s super swanky coffee too.
Is your background all in the computer world?
Always in the computer world, ever since I was in high school. I had an mp3 player taped to my arm with 8 megabites. (Laughs) So, yeah, I’ve been a geek since I was a little kid.
I was terrible in school, growing up. I was in that first wave of kids that was tagged with having ADHD, when they actually made that word up. Now I’m like, why would I take drugs to get rid of this? (Laughs)
It’s funny, because when you were talking about your process of getting to where you are now, that’s exactly what I was thinking: you have total startup ADD.
But I embrace it! And just because I have ADD doesn’t mean I’m not committed to the truth and committed to the bottom line.
That’s a good point. Maybe this disability…
People call it a disability and I call it an ability, especially in this environment…
So here’ s a key piece and there’s a fantastic TED talk on this, but I’ve reworked it and use it myself: we try to come up with simple solutions but we start by trying to be simple and the only way to find a simple solution is by embracing complexity.
The first thing is that you have to look at the big picture and you have to allow yourself to absorb massive amounts of data and it’s in that process that you become intuitive and you begin to see these simple threads that tie it all together. That’s the startup, right there. As you maneuver through learning and failures and all of that stuff.
It’s embracing the complexity and finding the simplicity within that. That takes somebody who is an ADD person. And an ADD person is also known as a Renaissance Man, someone who is able to do tons of things.
I mean, I’m one of those guys! I do yoga, the ukelele, I can juggle, I can play the harmonica, I play the didgeridoo, I play video games, I mean I do everything under the sun. That all plays into, I think, my ability to do startups, if that makes sense.
It makes a lot of sense.
So… I have no college education. Zero. However, in the last three years my two major clients have been Wake Forest University and the largest seminary in the world, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At both I taught classes to the major faculty. All of the faculty and all of the deans, presidents, vice presidents, all of them. I’ve taught them.
I don’t know if that hurts me to say I only have a high school diploma but in the tech scene… Bill Gates has this quote where he says the best education will be online in five years but I think it’s already here, for the tech scene. You can’t get a better education in a school.
I love schools like Stanford and MIT; they’re pushing out engineers and scientists that I love. I’m going move near them eventually so I can be in their wheelhouse. However, the startup does require a certain type of person that school just does not produce in terms of skills or whatnot. There’s not a context for it because you have to build it yourself.
One phrase I’m seeing a lot in relation to what you’re doing is “democratizing design,” as in creating more accessibility. What do you think of that?
Yes, yes, yes! That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m making it possible so that, you know, my grandmother can get my app and put text and captions on it and it will look pretty good. I mean, it may not look as good as the Apple UI designer who’s using my app and doing beautiful art forms out of it.
I plan to encourage that angle and then to always think with the other guy in mind. I want to lead with beauty and it will become this sort of thing, like some people are really great at guitar and some people are so-so at guitar but everyone enjoys playing the guitar. That’s sort of the strategy I’m taking with how this app will be. It will be able to play a really beautiful song but at the same time you’ll be able to do a few cords to and that will sound great and be good for grandma.
Any particularly notable or funny or interesting things you’ve seen come out of your app?
There’s always some hilarious captions… My guess is that a lot of the stuff that I send in between my friends and I—stuff that will never touch the internet—a lot of that makes up that percentage of pictures that I don’t know what they do with them. That’s where I spent a lot of my time, like finding a hilarious picture of my friend and just ripping on them.
Funny stuff is really big. Most of what I see is family, kitschy, fun, small stuff that people do all day. One word, two words here… Something that’s kind of goofy and gives the picture more context. It’s just like, life sort of stuff.
But definitely my favorite stuff is the artistic/creative and then the funny after that.
One thing I noticed when I did a quick Google search was that a I had a hard time finding it. With a name that simple, is that something that concerns you?
Yeah, it’s very much a concern for me. I lose sleep over it; it makes me very anxious, whether or not it was a good idea to name it “Over” because I can’t get Over the Twitter account, Over.com, I can’t get anything… Yeah, it’s a tough name, so what we’ve done is we’ve gone with the route of “Made With Over,” thinking that would be enough to keep people calling it “Over” but now people are calling it “Made With Over.”
It’s a bit of a risk to go with over but I think over time it will be “Over” and it won’t be a problem.
Have you considered just changing the name?
No… I have, but I really like “Over…” People like the product. If they call it “Made With Over” and they still pay me two bucks, I don’t care.
Any other advice you have for other lean startuppers out there?
I would say this: the word lean can mean two things. Lean is “I’m not a stupid startup” because I think a stupid startup is any startup that’s not thinking lean, that doesn’t have the humility to realize that you can’t possibly know what’s going to happen in six months. You just can’t…
I just say lean is wise. That’s really what the word means. It’s wisdom… Today the wise thing to do is be very humble about what you’re building. Be realistic. Ask the tough questions.
I would say that probably the most important thing I’ve done—and I’m not very good at it—is be committed to the truth. Commitment to the truth is key for startups. We have to ask ourselves the tough questions and we have to be willing to read and look at the hard answers.
As I was building this out I would spend my nights—to the dismay of my wife—in the iPhone App Store checking every single photo app to see what was out there and to see what was coming out to make sure I was still moving into a space that made sense, that there wasn’t going to be a juggernaut competitor to deal with.
That was really hard work because it meant feeling kicked in the face a couple times but being committed to truth and being willing to look at the hard facts is, I think, really the only way we’re going to succeed as startups. It’s the people that are delusional and just kind of fly without looking at that that I think are wasting their money.