Jell Founder, Ade Olonoh, has had a nearly life-long passion for programming and entrepreneurship. He fell in love with programming in a QBasic class back in High School, and paid for his College degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics by writing Perl code. Shortly after graduating, he started not one, but two companies. And that’s just the early part of his bio. Recently we chatted with Ade about his many experiences as a founder, from bootstrapping early startups in Indianapolis, to raising capital in Silicon Valley, and his recent sale of daily standup software, Jell, to SureSwift.
An interview with Ade Olonoh, Founder of Jell
You’re a serial entrepreneur with experience bootstrapping your first startup Formstack, and going through VC funding rounds with its social spin-off, Formspring, and you’re an investor now yourself.
What should founders think about when deciding whether to raise money or stay independent by bootstrapping? You’ve succeeded in both, so it would be great to hear how you would think about those decisions.
I think most companies should default to bootstrapping rather than trying to raise capital at the outset. One of the first questions I’ve asked every founder I’ve invested in is, “Why are you raising money right now?” Almost always, the longer founders wait to raise money, the better things are for them. Even if they decide to raise money down the road, waiting means less dilution, and more traction under their belt to help convince the best investors to come aboard.
One of the first questions I’ve asked every founder I’ve invested in is, ‘Why are you raising money right now?’ Almost always, the longer founders wait to raise money, the better things are for them. Click to Tweet.
That said I’m a big fan of venture capital when applied to the right business, at the right time. It’s often necessary in winner-take-all, competitive markets with high upfront capital needs. And when applied to businesses that have already found some product/market fit, it can be a great way to help founders build a really big company.
Growing Jell must have looked much different than the journey for Formstack and your earlier startups. How do you approach business differently now than you did in those early days?
Every startup’s been pretty different so it’s hard to compare, but the world has changed a lot in the past decade. In a lot of ways building Jell was easier. Modern dev frameworks and platforms like AWS made it a lot easier to build and scale the app quickly. Stripe made it much easier to manage subscriptions and get paid. And so on. But in a lot of ways it’s harder to find customers now than it was 10 years ago. Most marketing channels have become saturated and expensive. And customers can be a bit fatigued by signing up for yet another SaaS product, so you have to work harder to get noticed.
Tell us more about starting Jell. You must have 100+ ideas for businesses at any given time, what inspired you to start this particular company when you did?
Jell actually started as an internal tool we built for ourselves at Formstack. We were a fast-growing remote team and needed a tool like this to help run asynchronous daily standups. So it was easy to jump on this idea since we were scratching our own itch. From there, it made sense to productize it and see if we could grow it as a separate company.
You launched Jell while still working on Formstack. And investing in a dozen other companies. And being a dad to 3 sons. Any secrets to juggling all of that (and do you ever sleep)?
Sleep’s actually pretty important to me. I try to get a solid 7-8 hours every night these days, else I won’t function at my peak.
I think a lot about how to optimize my time and be more productive. I’m pretty guarded of my schedule, and try my hardest to avoid unnecessary meetings.
One of the best productivity “hacks” I’ve used for 15 years now is to start each day creating a list of 2-5 things I want to accomplish each day. It helps me focus on what’s essential, and make progress on the things I care about most.
I’m also pretty fanatic about Inbox Zero, which helps a lot.
You did the whole Silicon Valley scene, successfully raising $16MM for Formspring, and then selling the business. You ultimately decided to move back to Indianapolis — what drove that move?
I loved the Bay Area, but after several years there we decided it wasn’t the best place for us to raise our family. I love Indianapolis — it’s a clean, friendly, affordable city with great food, things to do, and a growing tech scene.
Top 5 differences between life in the Valley and life in the Midwest?
- Everything is a lot less expensive
- I can drive anywhere in ~20 mins
- Lots more space for the kids to run around
- It unfortunately gets a lot colder in the winter
- And unfortunately I’m not visiting the ocean, mountains, or wine country nearly as much as I used to
Was the goal always to sell Jell, or was there just a point where you knew it was time?
It got to a point where we knew it was time. With other simultaneous ventures, I hadn’t been able to spend as much time on it as I would have liked over the last year or so. It made sense to explore finding a home with a team that could move it forward.
Tell us a bit about the process of selling Jell. What were you looking for in the selling process? How did you know who to trust? You’ve sold companies before — are there any lessons you took into this sale from those previous deals?
The most important thing to me was finding a team that believed in the vision, understood SaaS, and would take care of our customers. It was easier to build trust with SureSwift having seen their track record of acquiring similar companies over time.
From previous deals, I knew it was also important to find a partner who communicated clearly, and would move through the process quickly and efficiently. That helps avoid a lot of headaches on both sides.
Now that your business has been acquired by SureSwift, what are you hoping for with the future of Jell?
I hope to see Jell grow and thrive. I’m still a big believer in the vision and think there’s a lot of opportunity ahead for it. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
What’s next for you?
I’m taking a break from starting new companies, for now. I’m focusing on my work as an investor, and working with the companies in my portfolio. I’m also happy to have some time freed up to play more video games with my kids.