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Unfocused and Unabashed

A side project threatens to get totally out of control and I think, "How fun!"
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I have about 236 stupid ideas a week, and luckily, I don't usually act on them. A couple of summers ago, however, I did. Here's what happened.

I was sitting there watching Donald Trump's "reality" TV show The Apprentice and thinking, jeez, that's not business. Maybe it's how TV producers imagine business, but these dumb projects, with the good-looking contestants trying to get passersby to come into a theme restaurant--what the heck kind of management challenge is that? That's a minimum-wage job! Usually, the women with the longest legs were the winners. Well, at least one thing is realistic.

I had four interns that summer creating a new product. That's a real business challenge. So here was my stupid idea: Why not make a documentary film about it?

By way of introduction, I should mention that my company, Fog Creek Software, is, indeed, a software company. We make project-management software for other software developers, not documentary films, so this idea was precisely the kind of monumental distraction that every venture capitalist warns you to avoid like the plague.

There was another problem: Our interns were chosen for coding skill, not telegenic appeal. Not only that, computer geeks are extremely unlikely to suffer one of those spectacular emotional meltdowns that make for good television. But who knows? Maybe there was somebody who would want to learn about what software development is really like. (Hint: Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap. Tap. Click!)

I found a documentary filmmaker, who filmed the interns from all angles. The keyboard tapping got a bit boring, so he added some goofy stuff. With cockroaches. And canceled dorm parties.

At the end of the summer, he rushed to edit the movie--which we decided to name Aardvark'd: 12 Weeks With Geeks--so that we could sell it in time for the holiday rush. Our idea was that some parents might buy it for kids who were about to graduate from college and begin pursuing a job in software. We burned 1,000 copies of the DVD and started taking orders (at $20 a pop) over the Internet. Within a couple of days, we realized that we had better order another 1,000. And then another 1,000. Then another 3,000. In all, we ended up with about 5,000 orders.

Of course, everyone wanted delivery by December 24. And unexpectedly, the orders came in from all over the world. Our office manager started buying padded envelopes in bulk and printing postage stickers on the Pitney Bowes machine. I started running huge mail merges to print out shipping labels.

It's amazing how small problems turn into huge nightmares when you're shipping thousands of orders to buyers in 60 different countries. The customs declarations were what caused the biggest problem. There was this page on the USPS website where you could fill them out online, but it could only handle one at a time, and we had 2,000 international orders. So I became a software entrepreneur again. I wrote a little computer program that filled out the webpage automatically and pushed all the right buttons to print the customs form. Unfortunately, what you got was still a sheet of paper that had to be signed. And collated. And then inserted into a plastic sleeve.

I didn't relish the carpal tunnel syndrome that would result from signing all these forms. We tried to "sign" them by running the forms through the laser printer again to print the signature in the right place. But, as I learned, something traumatic happens to paper on its way through a printer. Once a sheet of paper has been through a laser printer, the next time you try to print on it, it's going to fight back, jamming the printer and resulting in the deaths of three other pages, and you're going to spend five minutes with a putty knife cleaning up the bloodshed.

There was one printer in our office that had the ability to print twice on the same sheet, so we used that one for the signature overprint. Murphy's Law kicked in, and it ran out of toner. It was a Dell. Dell doesn't let office products stores sell its toner. The only way to get toner was to order it from Dell and pay a lot of money for overnight delivery. Meanwhile, it was taking three minutes of work just to ship one DVD. This wasn't going to work.

So I holed up in my office for two days and built a shipping station. I ordered a laser printer that could print directly on those green customs forms. I searched the Web to learn what the high-volume shippers used for labels. I ended up getting a top-of-the-line Zebra printer. It spews forth labels at unbelievable speed, and even peels off the wax paper backing for you.

For postage, I signed up for an Endicia account, which lets you print specially formatted bar codes instead of stamps. For software, I wrote my own. The big parts of the project were laying out packing slips and customs declarations. Microsoft Access had a built-in report feature that worked perfectly for both: It's designed to put things from a database onto paper at the exact locations you need them. In all, we cut the time to pack a movie from three minutes down to 30 seconds.

Yes, I am that unfocused. Here I was, the CEO of a bootstrapped software start-up, and instead of making software, I was futzing around creating a custom shipping system.

There are plenty of companies that will do this for you at a reasonable price. And they're a heck of a lot better at it than I am.

I should be writing software. Or selling software. Or designing software. Software that our customers need, not software that we need for an in-house, peripheral, inconsequential function like selling a bunch of movies that were already a distraction from our actual product line (although they did get a lot of attention for Copilot.com, the remote tech-support system the interns were working on).

Making the movie was somewhat distracting. Sometimes when the filmmaker missed something really interesting, he would drag the interns away from their work to stage a reenactment. To their credit, the interns still managed to get their work done. But I'm more understanding now about why reality TV is so morbidly bad.

I'm still happy we made the movie. We ended up paying the filmmaker about $30,000. But DVD sales reached about $100,000, so we made a nice little profit. And the movie showed how much fun it is to work at Fog Creek, which helps us recruit great computer science students.

And I'm happy I took the time to build our shipping station because this is what it means to be a bootstrapped company: You grow slowly and carefully and you take the time to figure everything out. You build your own tools--not only to save money, but also so that you can make them exactly the way you want.

Many companies don't have time for this nonsense. They've got investment capital that they use to trade money for time. They might only get 95 percent quality instead of 100 percent, and it might cost 200 percent more, but who cares: They're growing at 963 percent a year!

The good news is, we have no outside investors, so I don't have to justify crazy projects to anyone. And here's the thing: Building the shipping station was probably the most fun I had all year. Isn't that a good enough reason to do it?

Frankly, the main reason I had to start this company was to have fun at work. Working at Fog Creek is intentionally designed to be pleasant. We started the business because we wanted a great place to work, to spend our daylight hours. And we have a disturbing tendency to try to do a lot of things ourselves, especially if it's going to be fun or if we think we can do a better job. It takes us a little longer that way, but I figure the journey is the reward.

Joel Spolsky is the founder and CEO of Fog Creek Software in New York City and the host of the blog Joel on Software. This is his first column for Inc.

To watch a trailer of the movie Aardvark'd, go to www.projectaardvark.com/movie.




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