Getting Technical

In early 2008, Karen Gillie, who teaches entrepreneurship in Fort Wayne Community Schools, said she had a high school student who wanted to job shadow me.  His name was Zach Zuber, and she felt I should meet him because he had a little extra something.

As Karen said, she purposely gives assignments at which many students will likely fail, to stretch them out of their comfort zones.  Earlier, she had asked Zach and his classmates to identify and contact a local CEO and arrange a meeting.  She didn’t expect that too many would actually have the guts to do it.  Zach not only arranged the meeting, but walked out of it with an internship!

We met.  He became a member of NIIC’s (where I worked at the time) first BizWiz student entrepreneur group, and started one of the two first ventures in NIIC’s Student Venture Lab.  In the Student Venture Lab, he was the “business guy” who focused on planning a business venture.  His business plan for Bee Mobile (a text message marketing service) won a local competition.

Business Plan Competition Award 2

Zach Zuber in his office in the NIIC Student Venture Lab
after winning a business plan competition (the real reward was some cash).

He was not, admittedly, the technical guy.  He was pretty clearly the opposite of a technical founder.  He couldn’t program or design – so he had to contract with and depend on others to create his online presence.  I’m pretty sure that he drove himself nuts trying to make that happen on the small budget he had available from Student Venture Lab and competition grants.  Shortly thereafter, he moved to Muncie, IN to attend Ball State University and got hooked up with an incubator there.

In Muncie, he launched the Bee Mobile beta, cold called like a boss, and signed up multiple beta customers.  Things were looking good.  But after a month of operation he found out that the customer validation failed.  Customers loved the service – they just didn’t like paying for it!  Ruh-Roh.

So Zach closed Bee Mobile and started looking for something new.  He stayed in touch with us at NIIC, stopping back to the BizWiz meetups and visiting the Fort Wayne startup folks.

Man Bites Funders Luncheon 2010 Road Trip to Hear Steve Blank in Ann Arbor

At BizWiz making a video blog post of doing cupcakes “manbites” with Ray Angel, Presenting at a Student Venture Lab Funders Luncheon,
With Scott BonAmi & Graham Bredemeyer of Sassi Systems and me to hear Steve Blank.

Along the way, he hooked up with a group of mainly NIIC student entrepreneurs who went down to Indianapolis and won the Spring 2011 Indy Startup Weekend with a venture called GrabaChat (chat roulette without the penises).


The GrabaChat team after winning the Indy Startup Weekend

Zach had the opportunity to meet Zack Klein when Zach came to speak at the TechFest event in 2011 (where Zuber was helping me out at the NIIC Student Venture Lab table).  Being the <sarcasm> shy, reserved sort of guy that he is </sarcasm>, Zuber took the opportunity to cold-pitch Klein about GrabaChat (and got some valuable feedback).

Pitching Zach Klein at Techfest

Zach Klein and Zach Zuber at TechFest

As with many Startup Weekend ventures, the group did not persist, but Zach took a pivot of the concept forward with brand new intellectual property (I saw the new concept – it was sweet), paired with a technical cofounder.  Zach eventually put GrabaChat aside when the technical cofounder decided to leave town and get a J.O.B.   He went off to Bloomington to intern with Sproutbox, spent some time around Indianapolis interning with BizProps, and then one day …

I heard something completely new from Zach.  He was going to become a developer!

He was going to Chicago to learn Ruby on Rails in the Starter League‘s 11-week web development crash course.  He would be living and breathing code for three months.

We’d had discussions about learning coding over the 4+ years since we met – practically every time that he needed to hire someone to develop something for him.  Zach had heard me say more than once that if you take 2 years to study and practice (on your own), you can become very proficient with a language.  In fact, he had been dabbling with customizing the PHP of some WordPress templates, had done some online PHP, HTML, and CSS tutorials, and had mocked up a few websites with HTML and CSS.

But, this was different.  This was all-in, invest lots of your time and money, don’t turn back, serious stuff.  The business guy was transforming into a technical guy.

Fast forward to today.  The Starter League is behind him.  Before the week is out Zach will be leaving for Chicago where he has accepted a position as the technical co-founder of BeNoticed, a startup that plans to “Make finding a job easier for people who aren’t ideal candidates on paper, but are indeed skilled at what they do.”  His partner is a business guy.  The tables have turned a full 180 degrees.

Getting Ready for Chicago

Zach Zuber at Founders studying Ruby before leaving for Chicago

This is a fun story to write – and (i hope) to read.  I’d like to get serious for a moment, and point out two admirable startup entrepreneur traits that we can learn from Zach.

First, through four-plus years, he has stuck to his guns, not given up, and persevered through two failed ventures (and plenty more killed ideas).  He kept looking for ventures and venture ideas.  He kept trying ventures and venture ideas.  He stayed active in the startup communities throughout Indiana – and then Chicago.  His willingness to tough it out, close out the ventures that didn’t work, and keep going is probably the same extra something that Karen Gillie saw in Zach when she first introduced me.

Second, if you ask him Zach will probably say it should have happened earlier, that it took him a long time to make the decision, but he made the scary decision to go all in and learn to code – to become the dev that his ventures always needed.  And then he did it!  The main roadblock that his earlier ventures faced is now gone.  Sure, he’s new as a dev, but can you imagine how he’ll grow with his persistent personality?  I can.

Congratulations, Zach, on getting technical!