Catching Up With Spencer Fry of Uncover

I interviewed Spencer Fry the first time a couple of years ago. Since then he’s moved on to a new company and has added a major new skill to his arsenal. Here’s my second interview with Spencer, now of Uncover.

Me: How did you know it was time to move on from Carbonmade?

Spencer FrySpencer Fry: If you’re having a great time at your job as I was, deciding to leave a company is a really difficult decision. It’s even more difficult having been the CEO and having been there for four years. For me, I was twenty-seven years old and I simply wanted to do something new. By the time I left, Carbonmade was a mature company. Meaning, we had employees, our own office space, healthcare, benefits, steady revenue, and so on. I wanted to get my hands dirty with starting something new and I wanted to learn to program. Programming was something I had always wanted to spend time to learn, but never had time to until I left Carbonmade.

Me: Why did you decide to transition from being a “business guy” to a developer? How has the transition gone?

SF: The main reason I wanted to learn to program was to be able to build the ideas I had in my head. As an entrepreneur, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of a new idea. Most of them are terrible, but every so often you think of something great that you can’t get out of your head. I wanted to be able to take these ideas I came up with, and also be able to build the first prototype. It hasn’t been a complete transition for me. It’s more that I added an additional skill to my resume. I still spend as much time on the product, product management, design, and business side of Uncover as I do on the programming side. I’m fortunate to work with three other talented folks, and two of them happen to code as well.

Me: Tell me about your new company, Uncover.

SF: Uncover has been ten years in the making. Co-Founding TypeFrag in December 2003 was the first time in my life that I began to see the operations side of a company. I knew from when we hired our first employee that I wanted to build a company around trust, communication, respect and openness. Uncover was founded to help companies address those areas of their businesses. Uncover is everything you need to start and run an employee recognition program for your company. What does that mean? With Uncover, you can customize a selection of perks for your employees from Music to Fitness. We have twelve different categories to choose from. It was released in April 2013 and what you see today is only the beginning. In the near future, we will help companies get insights into what areas of their company need improving and then help them address those issues. We’ve seen amazing uptake since our launch and are really excited about where we’re heading. 85% of employees in the companies signed up with Uncover are actively using it, which are numbers that have never before been seen by any other perks companies. Our customers are telling us how much they love it and how happy their employees are since they’ve signed up with Uncover.


Me: What’s your role at Uncover? Do you still work on the business side? 

SF: My formal title is CEO and at this stage of our company that means that I do everything that needs doing. During the first four to six months of Uncover, that meant mainly product building leading up to our public release. I had my hands in everything product: design, wire framing, frontend development, and backend development. Since our release in April, my main role has shifted more into sales and marketing. I’ve spent a lot of the past few months working on getting as many companies as I can to use our product. At the same time, though, we’re very concerned about not becoming stale, so along with my team, we’ve been working on the next iteration of our product. For me that’s a lot of product management, some wire framing and design, and some frontend development.

Me: How much development do you personally do?

SF: In total, I’d say I spend about 20% of my time on development during this phase of our company. That number may go up or may go down over the next six months. When I learned to program, I knew that I didn’t want to be an engineer all day every day, I wanted to be able to prototype ideas, help with code here and there, and understand what went into building things.

Me: You learned programming in 2012. How did you do it?

SF: Learning to program at the beginning required a lot of online tutorials and books to learn the syntax of the language. I started with learning Ruby on Rails as that’s what a lot of my friends code in, so I knew I could ask them for help if I ever got stuck. However, I didn’t truly start learning to program until I began building the prototype of what would eventually become Uncover in February 2012. I’ve gone on to preach this approach to many people who want to learn to program. You need to first have an idea that you want to see through. I’d stopped and started learning to code a dozen times before, and it wasn’t until I had a burning desire to see Uncover through to its completion that I was truly motivated to keep on learning. The process would go a little bit like this: (1) I’d come up with a feature that I wanted to add, (2) I’d learn how to implement that feature through Google, StackOverflow and other resources, (3) I’d try and implement it, (4) I’d fail once or twice, and (5) I’d finally get it working. I truly believe that you can only learn how to program by building something you care about or else you’ll lose your motivation halfway through.

Me: How has your newfound programming knowledge impacted how you build new companies?

SF: From here on out, I hope that any new company I found will begin with my programming the first prototype. I think you learn so much about the product that you’re trying to build if you’re the only one actually building it. I know I did when I built Uncover. I also have a much better understanding of what goes into building every aspect of a Web application. It’s a lot more complex than most people understand, and knowing how things work and potential ways to implement features can drastically increase your ability to manage your team. Product management is something I care deeply about, and I know that I’m a better product manager having learned to program.

Me: What have you learned about marketing while launching Uncover?

SF: I’ve learned a lot and I’m continuing to learn, as Uncover is the first enterprise company that I’ve started. All of the other companies have been consumer. With a consumer company, all you have to do is to convince one person to use it whereas with an enterprise company there is usually a minimum of two people that you have to convince. In our case that’s the human resources person and the CFO. Companies also care a lot about their bottom line, so if you can convince them that your product will help them increase their bottom line, they’re much more likely to sign up with you. We know that offering perks and rewarding your employees for their hard work goes a long way toward improving employee happiness, and that’s the outcome of our service that helps a company’s bottom line. We simply need to do a better job at getting that across to the companies we approach.

Do You Have Any Questions For Spencer?

If you have any questions for Spencer or me then leave a comment below or catch up with Spencer on Twitter.

Inspiring Interviews: Spencer Fry of Carbonmade

This is the first in an ongoing series of interviews that I plan to do with successful bootstrappers. I hope to bring a variety of viewpoints on the art of starting and running a business from a bootstrapping perspective.

Spencer Fry

I’m excited to have the first interview for my new series ready to go. My hope is to introduce you to some people that you may not necessarily be familiar with who have been successfully bootstrapping their companies. The first interview is with Spencer Fry. I first found Spencer through a Hacker News link and I’ve read just about everything on his blog since then. He’s the perfect guy to help me kick this thing off.

Without further delay, here is my interview with Spencer Fry of Carbonmade.

Jim Lastinger: Tell me a little bit about Carbonmade and what you do.
Spencer Fry: Happy to. Carbonmade is an online portfolio for creative people to show off their work. It’s for anyone who makes anything. Our team is mostly located in New York City with a few folks outside the city (Chicago, Las Vegas, and Canada). My role at Carbonmade is the “Everything Else” guy. I handle everything else that isn’t design or code. I wrote two pieces on my website that shed more light on what I do.

JL:  How has bootstrapping impacted Carbonmade and your prior companies?
SF: Bootstrapping has been a big part of my life. I’m well-known in New York City circles as the “bootstrapping guy.” CarbonmadeI never had access to capital or any interest in raising it to start a company. To me it always made sense to try and make revenue from the launch of your business rather than waiting for massive user growth before turning on the faucet. I’m not opposed to raising money, but to me it’s less interesting at the start of your business and more interesting when you’re looking to raise money to propel growth forward.

JL: Would you accept any venture capital now if you needed it?
SF: We’re thankfully in a positon where we don’t need to raise venture capital. It’s difficult to know what I’d do if we needed money to survive, which is actually a terrible position to be when raising money. You’re unlikely to get a good deal or a deal at all. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t start a company where I had to put myself in the position of having to raise money.

JL: What advice do you have for new entrepreneurs when it comes to choosing between bootstrapping and seeking outside funding?
SF: The lives of a bootstrapping entrepreneur and an entrepreneur who has raised money are far different. It’s great having access to a large bank account and being able to spend freely on hiring who you want, etc., but it can also lead to your downfall. I think you need to look at what type of company you’re trying to build. Some companies by definition need capital to be built: Twitter and Facebook are great examples. Companies such as Carbonmade, Harvest, and HypeMachine less so.

JL: Any financial advice for bootstrappers?
SF: Cash flow is the most important thing you can spend your time understanding. You need to make sure you stay on top of things. You can certainly put yourself in a terrible position by over spending.

That’s it! Thanks to Spencer for spending a little time with me. Please take a look at his sites if you haven’t already and follow him on Twitter.