History of RushHQ (part I)

July 24, 2009

This is the first of what will be a multi-part series of posts about RushHQ, the fraternity web-software project and company I’ve been working on building for the last year and a half. I plan to make these pretty detailed accounts to the best of my recollection. I’m also planning to write a series of posts detailing the current changes to the software that I’m making. Those posts will likely be painfully boring to most people so I’ll try to keep this series at a more interesting non-software level.

The Beginning

In Late January of 2008 David Kahn and Rick Fox, two friends of mine from Penn, approached me about starting a small software company. The three of us were members of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity at Penn, where Both Rick and David were recruitment chairs in consecutive years, and I had served as treasurer. They wanted to develop an online software product that would help fraternity chapters manage the recruitment of new members each year. We had a pretty good idea of where the pain-points and bottlenecks in the recruitment process existed, so we felt that it was really just a matter of executing and building out a product with the features we would have wanted. Rick and David both had marketing degrees from Wharton, so once we had the product built it would be simple to sell (see upcoming part IX on how this turned out).

At the time David was working with a small software startup called Eduvo that had developed a web-based product targeted at International Baccalaureate high schools. Eduvo’s product already had a lot of the kinds of features we wanted to include in our recruitment software, so David was hoping to use the code they had developed to spin-off this fraternity idea. The initial plan was to license the existing source-code from Eduvo, and hire Eduvo’s programmer to re-mold it slightly for our purposes. This would have likely cost a few thousand dollars, which is where I came in handy, since I had a bunch of money saved up from playing poker.

So during this very early stage there were a lot of discussions about how to proceed. We discussed trying to license the Eduvo code for equity in our (still non-existent) company rather than paying cash. We discussed how we might offer equity to the programmer we would hire. We discussed how we would split equity ourselves. But none of us really knew anything about how to structure a startup so a lot of that talk looks very silly in retrospect.

In the midst of all these discussions some actual work did get done. In early February we started to put together a list of fraternity chapters and contact info. Rick and David worked for a bit on a market research survey involving something called “the four C’s” of consumer research. It was decided that the official company song would be “Fly by Night.” We checked out some other online products that seemed to be offering similar features, and of course decided that ours was different and would be better. We tried to come up with a name for the product and the company based on available .com domains. And we started negotiating with Theodore, Eduvo’s founder, about how to license the source code.

It became clear that he wanted cash (naturally), but we wanted to wait until we had some interest from fraternities before throwing a bunch of money into this project. At least I did, and I was the one with the money. My doubts at the time mostly had to do with ignorance. That is, I didn’t know enough about web-based software (or software in general) to adequately judge the quality of what we would be getting, and therefore I couldn’t determine a fair price. I had taught myself HTML back in 1998 and had taken some algorithms and data-structures classes in C++ and Java as a high school student and a college freshman, but I hadn’t thought about programming or software since 2003. Nor had I ever tried to sell anything, and I wasn’t sure this particular product would sell.

I remember beginning to think that we should write the software ourselves. It couldn’t be that hard could it? And then we would know exactly what we were getting and we wouldn’t have to wait for some programmer we hired (possibly working only for equity) to make changes or add features. Luckily we saw a way forward that didn’t preclude that possibility. We would start to mock up screen-shots of the site based on Eduvo and pitch the idea to Sigma Alpha Mu’s national office. We could even put it up on the web and give people non-functional demonstrations to generate interest. In the best case SAM’s national office would pay us to develop the product in exchange for a lifetime license, and we could then license the code from Eduvo and hire a programmer to tweak it.

By late February David had already put together a set of screen-shots that mocked up what the product might eventually look like. We had decided on the name RushHQ after rejecting SeekGreek and RushPlus so I went about putting up the screen shots at rushhq.com. I even spent a bunch of time writing a simple MySQL database-backed authentication system in php so that we could set up demo accounts and control access. Rick was working his contacts at the SAM national office and was making progress generating interest. And by March 10th we had a full demo up on the web. Nothing worked of course, but it was a big step.

And then things kind of died. David, Rick and I stopped communicating as frequently. Conversations with the SAM national office were ongoing, but not getting anywhere fast. Finally on April 15th Andy Houston at SAM national confirmed that they were not interested.

Thus the stage was set for us to build the software ourselves. I pitched the idea pretty hard to David and Rick who eventually agreed that it was probably the best way forward. Rick had a full-time marketing job and wasn’t interested in programming anyway, David still had a full-time job with Theodore at Eduvo, and I was still a full-time economics PhD student trying to finish my coursework, write my second-year paper and pass two general qualifying exams. So we had a little bit of a problem: nobody actually had any time to write the software.

» Continue to part II

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