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My first exit

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 30 Nov 2009.

If you’re a similar age to me, you may remember the “My first Sony” cassette players/recorders from your childhood (see the photo, thanks to Andrew Scott on Flickr). I actually had a different brand of cassette recorder, but it carried the same meaning: with it, I recorded my favourite songs off the radio, experimented with electronic sound effects, played my mother’s “Queen’s Greatest Hits” cassette over and over, and produced a simple radio drama. It was an aspiration, a dream, a journey of discovery.

My First Sony by Andrew Scott on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Today we announced that we are selling our startup to Red Gate. Investors refer to this as an exit: at this point they typically sell their shares, so they get the money back which they invested some time before – or rather, they are supposed to get quite a bit more money back. I had one investor, Peter Cowley, and in total, he got more than 15 times his money back within 2.5 years: that’s a hell of a lot better than if he had stuck it in a savings account!

A few exits are huge (think Google buying YouTube), many are medium-sized, and many are small. This is one of the small ones: although I’m getting some money out of it, it’s certainly not making me rich. However, I am very happy with it: the hard work of the last few years is paying off.

For the founder (that’s me), it’s not really an exit: I have to and want to continue working hard on Go Test It for another year or so. As Simon from Red Gate put it, they need me to continue making the product better, and they need time to get everything out of my head and into someone else’s head. (Do they really want everything out of my head? Even those childhood memories of listening to the Queen cassette? Well, if they want them, they can have them.)

Anyway, the reason I started this post with a bout of nostalgia is that this is pretty much how I feel today. It’s like a 10-year-old proudly playing back his first attempt at making spooky ghost noises on a cassette recorder. He knows that it’s not perfect, and that his work will change the world only a tiny little bit, but he learnt a lot, and right now, it feels like the greatest success and the most important thing in the world.

The aspect of learning is probably the most important one for me. I learnt an incredible amount by starting a company and taking it to exit, and I expect to learn a lot more over the coming year: how to take a product from “it works pretty well” to “it is absolutely amazing”; how to work with more than the bare minimum resources I have been used to; how to scale the business, attracting and retaining lots of happy customers.

That name “My first Sony” is evocative: it is oriented towards the future. The “first” implies that there will be a “second” and a “third”; of course they want you to buy many more Sonies during the rest of your life. But not only that: the “first” of something signifies a turn of events. From now on you are sonified. Before its first Sony, the child could only store sounds in its head; from now on, it can record them on cassette. Before, it could only listen to music and audiobooks when the parents gave permission to use the hi-fi; from now on, all available cassettes can be listened to at any time. Even secretly under the blankets.

My first exit is a bit like that: it also is oriented towards the future. I can’t predict what the future will bring, but evidence suggests that entrepreneurs tend not to be satisfied with just one successful startup, but want to try it again and again. But even if I do start another company, and even if I do have another exit, there will always be something special about that first one. The one which proved that I can do it.

Of course, saying that I built this company is about as true as saying that Vespasian built the Colosseum. I bet he didn’t lift a single stone himself. Therefore, at this point – clichéd though it may seem, I mean this very genuinely and sincerely – all I want to say is a huge round of thanks to everyone who has helped me along this journey. None of this would have been possible without you. Thank you to:

  • Simon and Neil, joint CEOs of Red Gate: you have built a company with a fantastic culture and great people, and I respect you deeply.
  • Peter, my mentor, advisor, investor and friend;
  • Conrad, Sam, James and David, who helped build it;
  • Rahul, who helped evangelise it;
  • Patrick, who came up with the name;
  • all the open source projects which are the foundation of our work, particularly Selenium, Windmill, Ruby, Rails and Scala – we will show our gratitude by contributing as much as possible back to the community;
  • the Accidentals and the Springboarders, who form such a supportive startup community;
  • our clients, whose business funded much of the development of Go Test It to this point;
  • all the Go Test It trial and beta users, for your valuable feedback;
  • everyone who has supported, encouraged and inspired us;
  • my friends, for bearing with my obsessive-compulsive attitude to work;
  • my family, because no mountaineer can reach the top without a solid base camp;
  • Rita, for your endless supply of smiles.

Ok, well, that was nice and romantic. Anyway – let’s get back to changing the world!