Zach Verdin and his co-founders have been living in a sublet apartment in San Francisco for ten weeks. They’ve paid their rent through the end of this month; there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to pay for another month.
At a spur-of-the-moment meeting with me, Verdin was speaking fast, talking with his hands, frantically pushing his fingers through his hair as he explained to me exactly what brought him to the city: why an entrepreneur, an artist, and a programmer needed to leave everything behind to be here.
This is the first in a series of startup profiles by Jolie O’Dell, who is interviewing aspiring entrepreneurs in San Francisco coffee shops. Follow Jolie’s Twitter feed to find out when her next interview is happening.
He’d been living in Seattle, where he met his co-founders, for several years. He went there after he dropped out of college; he picked Seattle not just for the tech scene but for the actual, geographical scene.
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“At that time, being close to nature, being able to take hikes, really fueled my creativity,” he told me under a foggy San Francisco sky and over two foam-art-encrusted cups of hipster coffee near the Golden Gate Park panhandle.
“Seattle’s magic in that sense. It’s just a very creative place.”
Eleven months of his time in the Pacific Northwest was actually spent with his co-founders on a small island in the middle of Puget Sound. In the quiet, forested acres of private property, 13 chickens were the nearest thing to society. The young founders ate a lot of quiche.
“Plus, it rains all the time, so there’s nothing to do but work on your startup.”
Verdin’s startup is The New Hive. It’s a WYSIWYG page creator for one-off, disposable sites — original content, curated media from around the web, anything, really. With minimal tech knowledge, users can maximize their online self-expression. It’s actually quite a cool idea, one that I imagined aloud musicians would be particularly keen on. Verdin confirmed that, yes, musicians love it.
It’s less templated than Tumblr or other content management systems. Instead of giving you a format and a text editor, it gives you an entirely blank canvas, a web page that can hold almost anything you can imagine, and in any format or layout. And you don’t have to futz with knobs and dials; instead, you just drag and drop, flinging pixels around like Jackson Pollock until the page looks like what you envisioned in your head.
“We believe everybody is an artist, and we’re passionate about bringing the inner artist out of everyone.”
Music, art, creativity, self-expression: These are all grand, romantic concepts, especially when contrasted with the dry bones and bytes that make up the technology community. How did Verdin, obviously so passionate about marrying these disparate disciplines, come to be in San Francisco?
Verdin started out in Ventura County, Calif. These days, the outer reaches of sprawling the Los Angeles metro area include vast expanses of tract mini-mansions. If you think of the Weeds version of suburbia, you’ve got an accurate mental image of the place. But when Verdin was there, the tract housing had yet to spring up; he remembers riding horses with his grandfather over rolling hills.
He left Ventura County for the Twin Cities of Minnesota to study urban revitalization and sociology. But as he dug into the dynamics of social life overlaid on physical spaces, the wider world was starting to bring sociology to vibrant life in online spaces. Around 2003 or 2004, Verdin packed up and caught a train to Seattle, home of grunge and Starbucks and Microsoft.
Microsoft, in fact, ended up giving Verdin one of his best assets for the startup game that lay ahead: a cofounder.
“Cara [Bucciferro], she studied fine arts; she’s the creative lead on the team. She was previously working at Microsoft in one of their labs.” For a guy deeply focused on creativity, the arts, and self-expression online, the pairing was a perfect one.
“And Abram [Clark] is our CTO. He had one failed startup before this. Prior to that, he was a developer at the University of Washington,” Verdin told me.
“He grew up in north Idaho, got his first computer when he was eight. He’s a self-taught programmer, very eccentric and creative.”
Each of them had his or her own interests and skill sets, but this form of online art became the glue that held them together. “We all had a passion for self-expression, and we all valued each other’s views on creativity,” Verdin said.
That band of three* ended up becoming The New Hive’s founding team, and in the three and a half years that followed, through all the struggle and discord and building and close quarters that startup life entails, they became as close as family.
“Don’t you have to be?” Verdin asks. “Don’t issues come up in a startup that only families experience? Don’t you have to deal with conflict in the same way a family does?”
*After this post was published, we learned the “band of three” was originally a band of four. The New Hive co-founder Andrew Sorkin met Clark through the Seattle music community and introduced Clark to Verdin. Sorkin, a UX designer, did not go with the other co-founders to the Whidbey Island retreat, but remained connected to the project until the other co-founders moved to San Francisco. Currently, he is working at a mobile startup in Seattle.
For the first two years of their partnership the three co-founders, fueled by a small friends-and-family round of funding, spent their days and nights designing what Verdin called a “philosophically perfect” platform for online self-expression.
Then reality set in. “We ran out of money,” Verdin told me. “We could either go back to normal jobs, or continue on this journey.”
Bucciferro, Clark, and Verdin decided to continue working on their project full-time, taking odd jobs and freelance clients along the way. “We were doing everything we could to stay afloat,” he said. “It’s one of the things we’re most proud of: sustaining ourselves, moving forward, and focusing all our attention on this project.”
Ultimately, the lean, hungry, philosophically pure years the team put into talking about building ended up being the glue that held them together. “That common ground is what’s kept us in it this long. Knowing why we’re in it allows us to overcome those conflicts.”
Finally, in the early fall of 2011, they had a working version of the site, TheNewHive.com. After so much time in incubation mode, the founders approached an actual launch with some understandable trepidation. “At that point, we had no idea how people were going to respond,” Verdin said. “We just started sharing it with folks, and people had a really great response.”
Hearing that the outside world was having fun with their app gave the founders encouragement, validation, and a new burst of energy. After a late August launch, the team moved back to Seattle from their island, and Verdin started coming to San Francisco in September.
As we watch the startup world evolve, we try to keep one eye on the Bay Area and the other on the many startup communities beyond it. They are vibrant, creative, interesting, and they spawn inspiring teams with astounding visions.
But for a litany of reasons — the money, the talent pool, the networks — the Bay Area keeps drawing these others in, its mass and gravity seemingly impossible to avoid for some entrepreneurs.
Verdin, who is from California originally, also felt that gravitational pull toward San Francisco.
“Initially, it was overwhelming,” he said. “When it first dawned on me that we were going to have to move the company, all the logistical details — giving up leases, folding up the office space, saying goodbye to our friends, girlfriends — we didn’t know how it was going to unfold.
“But we knew that San Francisco was the best possible place to succeed.”
I asked Verdin if he wasn’t a bit resentful about having to leave so much behind when he’d invested a lot of time building a life and a product in Seattle. “It was the same experience I had when I first left school,” he told me. “Dropping everything I had and getting on a train to Seattle — but it was exponential because I had a team of people who were going to have to go through it as well.”
But in spite of that, when I asked him if he made the right choice, he responded without a beat: “Without a doubt.
“There’s a pace, there’s a cadence to what goes on in San Francisco that’s hard to replicate. Today, we’re heads down, in the grind, cooped up in our apartment. All of a sudden, a tweet comes in, and we have this serendipitous encounter [with me, the journalist who wanted to meet an entrepreneur — any entrepreneur, for an on-the-spot interview]. It’s easier to manufacture serendipity in San Francisco.”
I ask Verdin if he has any regrets about his move. He pauses for a long, still moment; one person, perhaps two people are vividly and obviously in his mind as he begins to answer.
“No regrets. A lot of really wonderful memories, people that have provided a lot of support and inspiration. But one of the great things about the web, it allows us to create connections that go beyond time and space. I can still connect with the people in Seattle even though I’m not there anymore.”
Even with those bittersweet memories and half-severed connections, even with two weeks between today and his last day of rent, Verdin has a powerful belief in his team and the three and a half years they’ve spent together.
“Failure isn’t really an option,” he tells me. “We’re going to iterate until we get there.”
What advice does he have for others on this bizarre, risk-filled path of starting new companies and building new products?
“Overcome the habit of hesitation,” he said. “Anytime you feel that resistance, you start to come up with a million reasons you shouldn’t do something. But in your heart, you know you should.
“Express yourself passionately and with intention, and people will hear you and your dreams will come true. That’s what it’s all about.”
The New Hive is currently in private beta. Verdin has graciously offered 500 invitations to VentureBeat readers. The startup is also looking for a few good, likeminded folks to join them as they continue their journey and work toward a public launch.
Artwork by Jolie O’Dell