August 21, 2017
Two years ago Will Mitchell, cofounder of NBT Solutions, a professional services firm offering custom mapping software applications to clients, and his cofounder, Sean Myers, hatched a plan. Instead of spreading themselves thin by saying yes to whatever client approached them about building a different custom mapping application for this industry or that industry, they decided to focus their efforts and drill down on one industry where they had noticed a gap in the currently available software and what type of problems that caused for industry players. Rather than a client-first model, they wanted to shift to a product-first model.
In 2015, NBT Solutions beta launched a new product for the telecommunications industry called VETRO FiberMap, a cloud-based broadband mapping and fiber management system for small- and mid-size internet service providers (ISPs). It’s more than just a map in the traditional sense, it offers interactive tools that allow ISP employees to do things such as quickly estimate how much it would cost to extend fiber to a single home in a neighborhood or figure out the most efficient way to re-route service in the event of a tree falling on a cable. These are tasks that were previously much more time consuming for smaller ISPs, according to Mitchell.
NBT Solutions recently raised more than $700,000 from Maine Venture Fund, CEI Ventures, Maine Angels, and the Bangor Angels to help ramp up the sales and marketing efforts.
I spoke with Mitchell about founding NBT Solutions, the challenges of starting a company and advice to other founders.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length
What was your first entrepreneurial experience?
I ran a food truck with my sister when I was 16. That would have been 1985 or 86. One of those summers. We were ahead of the food truck trend. It was kind of an established business, and somehow my dad bought it for us for the summer to give us something to do I guess. And we ran it in Augusta. We drove it around to events and little league games. It was called Libby’s Lunch Wagon. It was just a one-summer deal, but that would be my first entrepreneurial experience.
Talk about founding NBT Solutions
It was a major leap of faith. I had reached a point in that original consulting business I just knew it was somewhat of a dead-end path, or no-growth path, and I really had ambitions to do something bigger—and adapt with the times. But it was a major leap of faith. I didn’t have a track record of large revenue, I had just enough to get by and pay my salary and one employee and that was it. And this was like, ok we’re going to build a company. It’s a different mentality. We knew we had to hire developers, which is a big shift from hiring GIS analysts and we started kind of slow. We had to fight until we got a couple small jobs. Then slowly but surely we got some clients and projects going, we built some successful applications and it kind of fed on itself, largely through referral and reputation. We did a good job and year by year we kept getting one or two new clients and the jobs got bigger and the team slowly but surely got bigger.
What have been your biggest challenges?
One of them is coming to terms with running a business and delivering technical skills that I don’t possess—meaning I’m not a developer and I don’t write code. I was always on the frontlines, hands-on, doing the GIS work and doing the data analysis. Now our staff is building software and that’s been a challenge for me personally to learn the process around that, learn the personalities around that, learn the technologies around that, from a manager’s perspective. I’m not able to go in there and rip apart the code and critique it myself, which has been a challenge for me personally.
Another one has been trying to be too horizontal and trying to be all things to all people. We would take jobs where we could get them and end up building software that was really interesting, but it might be for a healthcare data presentation app or a citizen-science application or energy-efficiency data presentation application. So, long story short, it was a lack of focus in terms of industry and theme. It’s very limiting. We’re honing in on an industry and going really deep and learning all about it, and delivering a solution that’s very specific to the needs of a particular customer base and industry. That’s the transition we’ve been going through the last several years. We’ve also transitioned from a professional services company and the billable-hour approach to consulting and software development to a product-first company, and we’re in the middle of that swing now. That’s a big, big deal.
Talk about scaling with VETRO FiberMap
Yeah, we found this market opportunity somewhat organically dealing with custom clients in the space. It was kind of obvious that there was this need for better mapping tools for broadband networks. There are a lot of historical legacy tools out there, but they’re not very good and nobody is happy with them. So, we were like, ‘We know how to do that, we could do better.’ It was a methodical discovery process. We tried and tested and bootstrapped. It was an internal project, so we were stealing time from our own pockets. We had one developer who took time when he could to get the thing going. So, that’s how it started.
What are some lessons learned?
I’ve made all kinds of mistakes. One is dragging my feet when I should have taken decisive action or made a decision. And that’s true for a lot of things, but having the wrong person on the team can be detrimental. If you figure out that it’s not the right fit, you got to make a change. It’s been 17 years in business, in both companies, and there have been a few situations that have dragged on and taken a toll on everybody and on the business.
Can you talk about the personal challenges of founding a startup?
There’s certainly been an impact on time with the family. My family knows I never turn off. There’s no off switch. There’s work emails and phone calls and travel and client visits and partner visits. There’s stuff going on 24/7 all year long. That can be challenging in a lot of different ways. But they’re wicked supportive, so it hasn’t been much of a problem. My wife, Laurie, is my inspiration in all of this business stuff. She has taught me to believe in myself and my business goals, to stand tall in the face of adversity, and that I can truly be that ‘nice guy’ and still finish first. No way I’d be pursuing this without her and her constant support and encouragement.
There was a personal situation that I would share. We were going to start raising this money and try to scale this last year… and my dad passed away in September. That was a real blow, a crushing blow, and made me question whether to do this. It set us back a few months. I didn’t have it in me to lead the charge on raising money at that time. Last fall just kind of…it was tough. I got through it and took inspiration from my dad’s own entrepreneur story. He had his own private practice law firm in Augusta for my whole life, so he was an entrepreneur himself. He was always doing crazy things, making deals, bartering. After I got over the grief a little bit, I was inspired by him and wanted to really go for it. So that’s when we decided to hit the fundraising circuit in January of this year.
If you had to give two pieces of advice to someone starting their first company, what would they be?
One would be just do it. If you do a good job, you have a good business model, and you’re dedicated to it, passionate about it, go for it. I can’t imagine not working for myself after the last 17 years of experience. There were times it never should have worked, it should have failed. And invariably you get to the end of your rope and something good would happen. The other piece of advice is learn to live with the uncertainty and volatility and just keep after it.
Persistence and patience. You don’t hear that word patience a lot when talking about venture money and scale ups. So I have to balance those things. I’m having to evolve as an entrepreneur. Success a couple years ago was one thing, but where we’ve set our sights, success is totally different and much bigger in some ways. I personally need to be more aggressive and less patient at this stage. But early on, persistence and patience for sure.
Editor’s Note: Founder Forum, a weekly interview with a startup founder in Maine, is sponsored by the Maine Technology Institute.
Read more about startup advancements in Portland, Maine at TechCo
This article is courtesy of Maine Startups Insider, created by Whit Richardson, a journalist who’s covered Maine’s business community for the past decade. Visit Maine Startups Insider to read more about Maine’s startup community and subscribe to the weekly newsletter.
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