This blog post is not for you, it’s for me. With time details tend to fade away and I just want to be able to return to this blogpost 10 years from now and remember my first year in Silicon Valley.
It’s only the first part of the Story, from May 2009 to December 2009. It’s the beginning of the vision for Storify but its implementation was limited to Twitter only. When I have more time I’ll do the second chapter: 2010.
It all started in May 2008. I was doing a startup project with Arnaud Coomans
and Olaf Witkowski
called Tweetag. The idea was to provide a discovery engine for the public tweets on Twitter [see slideshare presentation
]. We would automatically tag tweets to surface trending topics and related subtopics. It looked great and we had a lot of coverage in the press
but we couldn't find a way to monetize it.
Then I met with Philippe Laloux (@philaloux) from LeSoir
, top newspaper in Belgium. In that first meeting I coined the expression “publishing Social Media”. That was the pivot for the company and from that day we would focus on publishing the good content we can surface from Twitter on major news sites.
The first contract was signed with Belgacom Skynet, my previous employer. The second with LeSoir. It was based on mockups done with Keynote. I started coding after the contracts were signed (they didn’t know that). Quickly our tool was also used on EuropeanVoice.com and LeMonde.fr
Translation: “First in Belgium, politicians can share their thoughts with the visitors of Skynet.be”
The biggest problem we had was that Publishers don't have money. They weren't paying a lot and that wouldn't cover the bills. Worst, our model wasn't scalable. We tried to raise money in Paris but it was very difficult. The only money we could raise was €20k with angels in Belgium for a ridiculous 25% of the company. Proof if needed that there is no experienced Angel community in Belgium that cares enough about founders to make them successful, which ultimately benefits all.
So I decided to move to Silicon Valley. After all, previous generations of entrepreneurs used to leave the countryside to go to the capital city of their country to do any meaningful business. Today it’s the same, only the scale changed. The capital city for web entrepreneurs is undoubtedly San Francisco.
My girlfriend Caroline
came with me and she’s been very supportive. It definitely played its role and I’m very grateful to her.
We arrived in SF end of July 2009. We crashed into our Belgian friend Jeremy Levan
‘s house. His help has been amazing. We stayed at his place for two weeks, the time to find a good apartment in Lower Haight (Fell Street & Scott).
We gave ourselves 5 months to achieve something. We didn’t know exactly what but Caroline and I wanted to have a confirmation that we were on good track before coming back to Belgium for Xmas (and for Visa issues).
After a week or so we met Fabien Degaugue
, a French entrepreneur who founded PeerPong
. We immediately appreciate each other and he quickly became our first advisor and a friend.
At first my goal was to make our publishing tool for twitter scalable. I spent a fair amount of time developing that. We were working in cafes and at the Citizen Space on 2nd Street
I was coding and Caroline was doing the business side. Arnaud and Olaf didn’t want to continue the adventure. So I closed the Belgian company and I renamed Tweetag to Publitweet
(for Publishing Tweets). I gave all previous stakeholders shares in my new US venture to acknowledge the help and trust they gave me.
Publitweet wasn’t taking off. It was harder than I thought to do business in the Valley. I knew nobody. I was an unknown person coming from an unknown country. Why would I trust this guy?
I was a bit tired to develop Publitweet and decided to step aside for a few days. Twitter just introduced Twitter Lists and I wanted to do a quick yet useful hack for it. ListiMonkey (formerly Listiti) was born in 24h. Just one tweet to announce it and he quickly got retweeted by Robert Scoble. Then TheNextWeb, Mashable, …
Not bad for 24h of work, but most importantly people started to know me and I was building my reputation.
Yet Publitweet was still not taking off. I was making new slidedecks after new slidedecks with the precious help of Fabien.
The clock was ticking and if in one month I wouldn’t manage to have a clear sign that I was on the right track, I would have to go back to Belgium and find a job.
Fabien knew that and put me in touch with a few of his own Angel investors. One week before my flight back to Belgium, Mark decided to invest $10k as a convertible note in my company (let’s be honest, the only reason he invested was because Fabien was endorsing me).
The company wasn’t incorporated yet so I quickly did that on incorporation.com on December 10th 2009 (I chose a generic name: Kwenti inc – for which I had the .com). Opened a bank account at the Silicon Valley bank, put the check there and flew back to Belgium.
On my way back, I stepped over Washington for a few hours. Just the time to check my email. I found out with surprise that the San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com
) needed a service like ListiMonkey and wanted to schedule a conf call to see how we could work together.
In one week, I went from nothing to a first US Angel investor and a highly potential first US customer. That was the sign I was waiting for and it was now clear that I had to go back to SF after Xmas.
To be continued…
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