As the founder and CEO of RiteKit, if you are a customer or free user of our marketing automation solutions and/or commercial solutions by API, I thank you for making my dream come true.
I spent my youth, twenties and thirties completely lost as to what I should be doing in life. I always yearned to make a positive impact on people: either, like a medical doctor, a giant impact on a small number of people, or by saving people time by automating time-consumptive tasks, a tiny impact on millions of people. The latter is working out. I saw software saving people time, and hungered to go from being a SaaS product reviewer (my blog) to earning a place in the core strategy team of a SaaS (software as a service, or software that people/organizations pay for based on time, and always get the latest version of) company. Disposing of my blog was one of the most liberating things I've ever done. Move to the maker/provider side of software development, and you no longer have any inclination to master the minutiae of the latest smartphone let alone an app.
I was a power user of something that promised to get eyes on a blog, Triberr, but in seeing a team of two guys from New Jersey bootstrap and develop something from the void into something relied on and loved by tens of thousands of bloggers, I found what I wanted: a startup. With no background in web development, I spent three years trying to get a job in a startup, but when you have no track record or particular talent in programming or design, simply bringing the soft skills of business acumen and team-building to the table, I found this impossible.
For my foot in the door, I did my second unpaid internship from age 43, working on community development and user experience of Ideaswatch, and this made all the difference. I got to work with Michal Hudeček, learned that he could change the text on the "like" button to "watch this" in one function and it would be changed thoughout the site, and kept learning from there. He's the best teacher I've ever had. After months of coming up with what I could do for Ideaswatch and doing all I could myself, I suggested that we might revive a project that he or I had started and shelved, hopefully something that might prove to be financially sustainable. We picked up my heinously-buggy TagBag project and rebirthed it with Michal's design as RiteTag.
I had attempted to work remotely with a number of people, finding that most people spread themselves too thin, attempting to work on too many projects at once; Michal's one-day turn-around time on the initial wireframes for a better TagBag UI (to be renamed as RiteTag) told me that I was working with a fast-mover, and this was something to match:
I hate working for people, love working with them, and so, my take on inclusion is not about meeting quotas on how many women or people of color we prioritize hiring, but rather, including those who pull their weight in the big decisions, even the direction of our organization. I assumed that RiteTag would a site to visit for the right hashtags for a social media post. Michal said,I think the solution should ride within the social media manager's workflow. We spent the next year and a half getting to that: beyond the website, we built a browser extension that brought hashtag solutions directly to a social post in the social and content networks, as well as within tools like Hootsuite, Buffer, Sproutsocial - and everything else.
We started out looking like this, for those not logged in:
We thought people would mainly want our analytics pages, so we went to this (but still didn't rid of the girl, who was there for no apparent reason):
As RiteTag grew in features, people said they wanted some elements, but perhaps not the publighing element, and so we divided a bloated RiteTag product into four products, so people could pay less, and pay for just what they needed. It would be years before we would again give people a way to get it all, with the RiteKit Package. Also, from just three API soltutions released eight years ago, we now offer 23 in our public, openly-testable API.
Some behind-the-scenes stuff from our first ten years
Sit down, be humble (and then when it's safe, walk proud)
I called myself founder for our first 2.5 years; it was an intern who explained to me that while companies were gradually entering our customer base, buyers at companies do not trust that startups will be around for long, and they don't know what they can expect from a founder. They know what CEO means, and George Konstantakopoulos convinced me that I was already doing the job, so I went with it. As I grew into CEOing, the leadership and all, so did Michal, as our CTO. I know CTOs; I'm no CTO, he said. Well, we grow into our roles.
And then walk proud.
Early customers may remain incredibly demanding, especially of your time. When you arrive, you can stand up when you need to. Here's us taking on the competition, just with one API solution of our's.
Our team is now just the original three, with Pavel as the lead developer, the security guy, and lots more. Counting interns, the team has been as large as 34, but we move faster with less people.
We were in Angel.co but were not hiring. The guy who became our first intern approached us, wanting to contribute, unpaid, for something to do, as he was bored, and thinking that since I lived in Osaka, Japan, we were an Osaka-based project. We later created an actual internship program, to which thousands, maybe over ten thousand people have applied. Roughly one hundred people have contributed to our web and mobile development, marketing and PR efforts. We've hired several of them, and former interns have springboarded off an internship at RiteKit to jobs at Google, Facebook, AWS, Udacity, Coursera, Postman, Popsugar, or founded their own startups or used their experience with us to get into graduate programs. One is teaching data science at the Colorado School of Mines. Nine past interns share what they got by working with us stories here.
For one summer, we had our own live-in internship project in Urbana, IL, the RiteKit frat house. Shashank conceived and led a project to build a custom keyboard mobile app, both iOS and Android, coordinating with our people in Prague, but working face-to-face with four guys from his alma mater, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
We are 100% bootstrapped, self-funded, and started with next-to-nothing. Michal bought the domain ritetag.com with I have some credit in GoDaddy. After 18 months of full-time building and marketing, we put the RiteTag browser extension behind a paywall, and for the next five months brought in gross revenue that never hit $300/month. With product quality and feature enhancements, we grew from there. In fact, Michal paid all the little costs for the first three years, until in month 36, we paid him back, and in month 37, he and I began taking a small salary of $1,000/month for ourselves. We have always operated cashflow-positive, but there were several months that Michal and I went without salary so that we could meet obligations to staff and suppliers without fail.
I have taken about 30 days off in the last ten years. I still work on RiteKit seven days/week, and continue to do tons of menial things. I do nearly all the customer service, leaving no one waiting more than half a day for a response. All joy, it's an honor to earn my place with the guys I work with, honor those who have contributed to RiteKit over the last decade, and to get my big wish - to make a small impact on many people.
RiteTag remains our flagship product, while the RiteKit API is now our main profit center. Over 25 million people have had contact with a RiteKit product, a couple million software installations, and I've been recognized on the street a couple times, right here in Japan, where we have a tiny customer base. Google Analytics on pageviews on RiteTag alone does not include the other products, RiteKit, the API, our two blogs, or the many millions who have seen a Rite.ly Link Ad, but here are the numbers on pageviews of just the RiteTag site:
Not bad, for a guy whose last source of income was selling whatever he could get his hands on at fleamarkets? Sure, I did things prior to that, and growing up without a sense of home or family, I've always been the guy to build the team, beginning with getting the neighboorhood kids to help build clubhouses to film projects and more recently, a Discord community where thousands of people pop in and out, hang out, talk and drink.
Hey Founder, we've seen you doing cool things with RiteAid, want to talk about an investment...
Arrogant investors put their interns on spamming us with garbage like this weekly.
Beholden to none, I alone have rejected a couple hundred requests from equity capital partners as well as their underlings, who want to probe us for our numbers - but showed that they spent absolutely zero time in learning what we actually do.
To teach starting up or to do?
Because I'm fifty-five, startup heads expect me to have ascended to investor or mentor. RiteKit is my first baby, maybe I'll have more. I hope so, having enjoyed this wild ride. I'd rather do than teach, but do aim to inspire. The biggest successes of my life have come with no money tied to them, just leaving me knowing that I helped someone overcome their belief that they could not do what they yearned to do.
Something that helped me early on in my career and anyone could use, is to really nail humility. Weaponize humility by pushing yourself to not act or pride, or the impulse to take offense when someone tells you how wrong you are. If you listen for whatever learning they might grant you, it's amazing how far this can take you. I keep doing this, so, give it a try?
Thanks again for being with RiteKit.