David Beisel wrote last week about how he values hearing founders’ stories and that “the founding story also helps us as VCs evaluate and better understand entrepreneurial team.” CustomScoop isn’t looking for funding, but I haven’t written about how our company came to be, and I thought it might make for an interesting post.
Throughout most of the 1990’s, I worked in Washington, DC in a variety of policy and public affairs roles. In 1999, however, my wife and I decided to return to New England. Like many exiles from the nation’s capital, I decided to hang out a shingle and call myself a consultant. At first, it is essentially a codeword for “unemployed,” but as time went by I was able to use my network to gin up some contracts, primarily in the area of online communications for non-profits.
To keep in touch with my former colleagues, I started what would today be called a blog (I called it a newsletter at the time). Living in NH and connected to politics, it made sense to me to write about the 2000 NH Presidential Primary. Since both party’s nominations were up for grabs, it was a good cycle to do that. Though I had been involved in partisan politics in the past, I swore off taking sides in the 2000 cycle so that I could write fair posts. I believe I succeeded in that as I was able to build quite a list of mainstream media reporters and workers for candidates on both sides of the aisle who read my stuff daily.
Once the primary was over, however, I had this great list of several thousand readers — plus the countless others who visited PrimaryScoop.com (see here for the Wayback Machine’s look at a day in the life of PrimaryScoop). But I couldn’t keep spending a couple of hours a day writing a free newsletter — my consulting business was picking up and I needed to focus on making money so my wife didn’t kill me.
Having done some computer programming mostly as a hobby, I had just enough skill to be dangerous, not enough to be useful. So I wrote a little program that scraped political headlines from about a dozen major news sites and organized them into an automatically updating news feed at CampaignScoop.com (Wayback version here). I would then add occasional reporting and commentary, but not nearly on the scale that I had done before.
Around that same time, I had been talking with a colleague of mine in New Hampshire about some potential businesses to start. We both had an entrepreneurial itch we wanted to scratch and as we were both consultants, we had the dream of doing something not tied simply to billing for our time. Or as we liked to put it back then, we wanted to “make money while we sleep.”
We were talking on the phone one day about CampaignScoop, and we came to the realization that people might actually pay for a service that brought news links to them every day. In fact, in our consulting businesses and previous jobs, we had used traditional paper clipping services. Each week we’d get a fat envelope full of newspaper clips that someone had painstakingly cut out of the newsprint edition. The stories would typically be about 3 weeks old and not organized in any way. In addition, we paid the clipping service on a per-clip basis, so it was impossible to accurately budget for ourselves or clients since it was anyone’s guess how many stories the media would write about our topic in a given month.
We saw that the Internet was dramatically accelerating news cycles and knew that our own clients wanted more timely and accurate information. So I bought some programming books and went to work turning the CampaignScoop “spider” into a program that would scour a database of news sites for any story that matched criteria we specified. We put our heads together with a third consultant we knew, and we decided to call it CustomScoop to capitalize on whatever branding I had accomplished through PrimaryScoop and CampaignScoop. (You can see our first site design here.)
As I think back to those days, it was really a ridiculous undertaking. I was in way over my head, but I never really thought about it. For those readers with a technical background, you’ll appreciate this: I wrote the first version of the spider in ColdFusion because other than some Pascal I learned in high school, it was the only language I knew. It worked, but I was certainly relieved when we finally hired a real developer to convert it to a more sensible language.
Looking back to those days in the summer of 2000, the other remarkable thing to me in retrospect was that we sold a product we didn’t have yet — just as Michael Bloomberg famously sold his eponymous Terminal to Merrill Lynch before he had a working product. I still recall getting the phone call from my business partner saying he had sold the first account and then spending the rest of that day and night coding while my wife did data entry to get the sources ready for action the next day.
It wasn’t a great product in those days, but since our clients had never had anything like it, we still impressed them. As a result, we were fortunate enough to be profitable starting in that very first month — which means we were able to stay away from the vultures in the VC world (fortunately, my VC friends don’t get offended by that kind of talk; they even seem to revel in it a bit). In hindsight, that was actually a pretty good accomplishment as the bubble was deflating. Even today it would be noteworthy for a startup.
Obviously over the last 7 years, CustomScoop has grown considerably and today is what I half-jokingly refer to as a “real company.” I’ve learned a lot in that time and had an opportunity to work with a lot of great people along the way. I’m especially grateful to have been able to start the company with two great people who have been so easy to work with.
The success that CustomScoop has had has given me a lot of opportunities to try different things, including angel investing. But what gets me most excited today is knowing that the future of CustomScoop can be even brighter than its past. We have a great team in place working every day to innovate and expose new people to our solutions. It should continue to be a great ride.