The journey from software developer to founder

Creating your personal sales funnel

The startup culture is deeply ingrained in the technology landscape. Many members of the Andela community have either started their own companies or worked for startups. But making the transition from a software developer to a founder isn’t always easy. James Whelton has walked an interesting path, from starting a non-profit coding program in Ireland to CTO roles in the Middle East and beyond, before founding multiple startups. We spoke to him about his career journey and how he’s avoided getting stuck in a rut and kept moving forward in pursuit of his personal goals.

“I’ve walked what might be considered a strange path,” he says “I didn’t go to college and, almost by accident, started a nonprofit when I was 18. As I was finishing high school, people started approaching me to help them to learn how to code, and this snowballed into CoderDojo, which today has some 2,000 clubs in 115 countries. But trying to run a rapidly growing organization was extremely stressful and ultimately, I was depressed and burnt out. So, we hired a new CEO and I took a break to figure out what to do in life.”

Creating a personal success funnel

He explains that this led him to consider what gaps he had in his knowledge. “To do this I had to build a definition for myself of what success looks like. What I came out with was a variation on the typical e-commerce funnel.

“If you’re trying to sell a product online you need to build awareness, finding people who’d be interested in your product. Then once they’re on your site you need to get them to evaluate your offering, making sure you use language that resonates with them. If they see something they like they’ll put it in their cart and then move to checkout. At each step, the funnel gets smaller as people drop out, but you have to bear in mind that even if they don’t buy now, they may come back later.”

He explains that the same principle applies to building your career. Networking and speaking to people so they understand your capabilities and you understand their needs is the equivalent of advertising and product development. A small percentage of these conversations turn into opportunities, and a much smaller number end up in a job or collaboration.

“I learned that when it comes to opportunities, you have to plant many seeds. And you do that by meeting people and telling them your story and what you can do or what you hope to do. But you have to remember that opportunities can take like three to 24 months to appear.”

Don’t be afraid to fail

“Through this process, I realized that I needed to work in a more structured environment, and this led me to a CTO role at a daily deals site in Dubai, Cobone. Coming into this environment I suffered from a major bout of imposter syndrome. I was in my early 20s and had team members who were in their 30s and 40s reporting to me.”

He comments that what enabled him to succeed in this position was the willingness to look stupid and potentially fail. “By spending a lot of time getting advice and feedback, reading, experimenting, and getting coaching, I was able to make changes that ensured that the company got the results they were looking for.”

After Cobone was acquired, he started a number of other companies but none of them got traction, but he says that he and his business partner had built themselves a reputation as ‘the e-commerce guys’ and this led to them being asked to help one of the largest supermarkets in Saudi Arabia, who brought them onboard to spearhead their move into online retail.

This was followed by some time working as a “mercenary CTO” for a private equity company that owned several Software-as-a-Service companies, helping them build their technical capabilities. “This gave me a lot of insight into the spectrum of capabilities that you need to run a company from legal to marketing to technology.”

Moving into the founder space

Today, he divides his time between the two startups he’s founded: TokyoMate – which offers digital mail services and competent bilingual assistants in Tokyo, making it easier for people to work, live and do business in Japan and Conjure.so – a platform to manage habits, time, achievements, and behaviours, through data and automation – which is currently in early access and which he’s bootstrapping on his own.

He comments that there are essentially two ways to approach creating a service:

The Scientist approach:

  • Identify issues that people/organizations face
  • Interview potential users 
  • Build a minimum viable product 
  • Get feedback and iterate

The Artist approach:

  • Have a vision of what you want to create
  • This is often something that provides value to you
  • If other people don’t use it that’s OK
  • Optimized for creation not revenue
  • Time is not a constraint

“Many times, companies will create services that meet their own demands, and these will later turn into companies in their own right, but if you’re if you’re following the scientific approach (as we are with TokyoMate) you need to be ready to fail and iterate, changing course until you find something that meets the need of a sustainable audience,” he says.

“My definition of success has changed four or five times over the last 15 years. My advice is: ‘Define your version of success and find opportunities to achieve that.’ Do that for a while, then check to see if you still feel successful. If you do, keep going. If not, go back to step one.”

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