Repeating the Successes of the Past in a New Mission

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Jeff Atwood, Founder / Stack Overflow / Discourse.org
Co-founder / Stack Exchange

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When you finally reach your goal of a successful product launch, where do you go from there? Do you stick with it or sell it and move on and start the process all over again? Founder of Stack Overflow and co-founder of Stack Exchange, Jeff Atwood, experienced this dilemma after his product “accomplished its goal.” Between blogging and focusing on a new open-source project, Atwood’s experience is a path other developer-turned-founders may follow.

In college, Jeff minored in Computer Science and graduated in 1992. He then moved to Colorado, took a few developer jobs “sort of pre-internet” (wha?), and later entered GlaxoSmithKline. While there, he had an epiphany— he knew he wanted to be somewhere where the software is the product. That led him to his next job at Vertigo Software. And while it was a great job and he was committed to the vision, he realized that he wanted to be part of the power structure of the company. And when a partner told him “I can’t go back in time and make you an owner of the company,” that was when Jeff knew he needed to become a founder.

“It’s what I wanted to do. So I reached out to Joel Spolsky because I wanted to do something with the blog.”

Up to this point, the only place for developers to talk about code was a website called Experts Exchange, a site that in his opinion “sucked.” His vision was a community where you could tell these little stories. Originally, it was “a way to get people to blog. When you tell the story, you understand it so much better.”

The business model of Stack Overflow was divided into two entities, Career and Q&A. Jeff, who was still actively developing the product, led the Q&A side of the business, while his partner ran the “job board” side. “It started making money and we started hiring people. Then a VC came along and then the company really started growing.”

Close to four years in, he’d been “getting cranky and burnt out at Stack.” In his family life, he had three kids, and life was changing. It appeared that they had solved their original problem that Stack Overflow set out to solve, because “no one remembers the old thing anymore [“Experts Exchange”]. We succeeded. The first part of the mission was complete.”

Jeff decided this was the perfect time to leave. However, during his time off, he began getting a little stir crazy and realized, “I needed a thing to do. I had to be on a Mission.”

While at Stack Overflow, he realized there was an unmet need. People would try to have a conversation or post something funny, and the system just wasn’t meant for that. Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange were built for asking and answering questions. So Jeff created discourse.org, a system for having discussions. “It teaches you how to interact with people in a sustainable way and not hurt each other. The only action is a heart—it’s a system of empathy.”

One major difference in his new company is the fact that Jeff doesn’t code anymore. He wanted a software stack that was amenable
to open source, so he made the decision that Discourse would be built in Ruby and JavaScript. That means that with Discourse, Jeff is doing more of the business-side tasks and getting more hands on with the sales. He admitted that learning to take money from people had been one of his biggest challenges, as his partner handled much of that in his previous company.

“Engineers are bad at taking money from people. Programmers aren’t that comfortable with the people. There is a gap to cross to try to be good at selling stuff.” He’s learned that “overcoming your own internal hurdles” is often the hardest part.

To overcome this in his new company, he has taken a different approach to sales. “My enthusiasm comes through, so it’s not about the selling.”

His advice to other developers looking to build a product company is to “get started on step zero. Try to launch the minimum
viable thing. That experience of sucking at the first one makes you not suck at the next one. The sooner you start that feedback loop, the better.”

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