Scott Weisman is the co-founder of LaunchPad Lab, a web development studio that has clients such as Chesapeake Energy, Hanson and Greater Than. In this interview he talks about his involvement in the tech community, balancing in-house products with client work, and about the web development end game.
Scott, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.
I started Launch Pad Lab, which is a web development company about a year ago.
Before that I was working full-time as a lawyer. I did that for seven years. I got out of law and made the shift, and now I’m doing web development full time.
What made you want to learn to program?
I had ideas for different software, especially in the legal world — Most of the software there is a mess. Starter League, then Code Academy in Chicago, seemed like a perfect fit. I wanted to teach myself to program, and it worked out well.
At The Starter League, before you started Launch Pad Lab, you built a product called War Room Law. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Right. WarRoomLaw.com was one of the early ideas I had for improving legal software. What it does is — when you are in litigation as a lawyer you have depositions that you take everyday, and those get transcribed into 300 page deposition transcripts. Like most of the things in the legal community, those depositions are all on paper. So what War Room does is allows you to read your depositions online, do all your annotations in the browser, and print off an annotated version of the transcript.
That is the project that myself and my co-founder Brendan built during The Starter League. It is still in production. We have customers today. And we run it under Launch Pad Lab.
Your other partners at Launch Pad Lab were part of The Starter League as well?
We all met through Starter League.
What happened was — We weren’t sitting down one day and just decided to start a web development company. We all have different sources. We all started getting requests for web development work, and it kind of grew naturally out of that. Me, Brendan Hennessey and Tom Cullen teamed up. We put all those projects together, under an official LLC.
We literally had a check some day, and we went to the bank to try and deposit it, and they said we needed to set up an LLC. That is how we became Launch Pad Lab.
You’re working full-time on Launch Pad Lab right now. What is an average work day like for you?
Primarily we do client work. Our company works with everyone from startups to large businesses. We’re working closely with clients all the time to do the best job we can.
We also do in-house projects. We do that to stay sharp, and to be entrepreneurs, and to get a feeling about what our clients are going through as well.
So we have in-house projects and client work — that’s how we split our days.
Can you share any examples of in-house projects with us?
War Room was kind of the first.
The newest one we’ve launched is The Brewers Barrel, which is a recipe site for home brewers. My partners Tom and Brendan are really into brewing as a hobby. They were looking for a place where they could find really good recopies to make certain types of beer. We’ve also teamed up with a local merchant. If you have a recipe and need a certain amount of grain, and a certain amount of whatever else goes into it — we’ll put together a package together for you.
Let’s go back to Launch Pad Lab. How do you find clients, or how do they find you?
I wish I knew how to make clients find you. It is really random.
Obviously Chicago has a great startup community. It’s growing, but it is still pretty young. There is a lot of activity, as you know, around 1871 and Built in Chicago. We stay really active in those communities. We’ve spoken at Built in Chicago for example. We also teach classes.
I mentioned our clients range from startups to huge businesses and everything in between. One of out latest projects was a redesign, and rebuild of a website for the band Hanson. They famously had that Mmm Bop song way back when. They released a new album, but had some issues with their site. We were able to come in and help them out. We also did the redesign and rebuild for Greater Than, which is a great local sports drink company in Chicago. We have a trading firm that we’ve worked for. We’ve built some software for Chesapeake Energy. That’s kind of the rang of things we’re doing.
Is Greater Than that company with the coconut water sports drink?
Exactly. Coconut water sports drinks.
What are some of the main challenges you’ve had do overcome opening a development studio?
I don’t know that there is a way to learn how to communicate well with clients without doing it over and over again. We’re constantly learning, constantly improving our process, trying not to make the same mistakes twice. We’re in constant communication with our clients, and try and release early and let clients give us feedback.
Some call it agile, or see it as a lean startup sort of thing. I think it is really important to get whatever you are working on out there. Get it out there. Let the client try it. Whatever your assumptions they are probably incorrect. You want to know what the clients are thinking, and what the users are thinking.
The three of us had a really great experience at The Starter League. So we wanted to give back a little bit, and just share whatever knowledge we had. It is open to anyone, but the majority of people come from Starter League.
We did one class a few weeks ago. We’re doing another one this Wednesday or Thursday. If this is released by then sign up and come out.
We’re doing them all for free right now.
So there is no reason not to go.
What is your favorite project to date?
It would probably be the relaunch of Hanson, hanson.net.
It is really interesting. They were one of the early Ruby on Rails websites. They were built around 2006, or so. They have a full-blown commerce, forums, everything you can built into a bands website. It was built with an early version of Ruby on Rails, and it has made it one of our most technical projects to date. And that is saying a lot.
Where do you see yourself five years down the road?
That is a good questions.
We want to keep growing Launch Pad Lab for sure. We like working with clients everyday, especially the startups. But we also have a passion to build our own products. Five years down the road we want to see big success on the product side — paid or not paid. We’re just building things because we want to use them.
It sounds silly, but there is nothing better than having people give you feedback, and having real users.
How do you think taking the dive into entrepreneurship has affected you as a person?
It has probably changed me a lot. It is hard to recognize it.
To be able to build your own ideas — especially now a days everyone has ideas. There is sort of an endless supply of ideas. That is great, but we like to see action. Going through Starter League, and starting Launch Pad Lab, and being able to have an idea that you can build in a few weeks changes you the most.
It becomes a question of where do I spend my time.
Well, how do you decide how you are going to spend your time?
We can go off into a lot of different directions if we aren’t careful. We want to work on things that matter, and make sure we are all on the same page.
We keep a pretty tight internal list of ideas, and try and kick them around once a week. We sort of think through how we spend our time as a group.
Looking back is there anything you would have done different, or anything you wish you had known before you started?
One thing that is surprising — when you get started in web development, myself included, assume that there is going to be a time when you’re a web developer, and you know everything, and you know everything, and can just crank out the work.
The field is changing so fast. You have to keep learning, and improving your skills, or else you’re going to be left behind. I try and make sure I learn something new everyday, whether it is picking up a book, or working on a challenging code exercise. There is never a level you just reach that ends the game. New developers coming in should really understand that.
Are there specific places new developers should look to expand their knowledge?
Yes. There is actually a post on our blog at launchpadlab.com.
If you are just getting started learn a little HTML and CSS. Shay Howe has a great tutorial on that at learn.shayhowe.com. When you start to make the transition from HTML and CSS front-end to Ruby on Rails back-end there is a great tutorial by Michael Hartl called The Ruby on Rail Tutorial. That is a great place to dive in.
There is a lot of great resources, and it certainly has become better in the last few years. Hopefully it has become a bit less mysterious, and a bit more accessible.
Are there any books entrepreneurs need to read?
Well, first you have to do it.
Paul Graham said that entrepreneurship was something best learned by doing. There is no substitute for doing it, and we’ve found that for sure.
As far as books and resources, The Lean Startup is a must read. I think all of Paul Graham’s essays are great. I’ve read all of them multiple times.
I think there is also a lean startup book called Running Lean by Ash Maurya.
All Paul Graham’s essays are fantastic. For those of you who don’t know Paul Graham runs Y-Combinator, which is the world’s most famous startup incubator. He is an incredibly smart guy and knows his stuff when it comes to startups.
Do you have any last comments? Are there any questions I need to ask you?
I’ll go back and mention one more resource. 37signals is a company here in Chicago that we admire. There first book Getting Real is probably less well known, but it is available for free on their site. Check out their blog as well.
Last thoughts. Go do it. There are a lot of little ways to get started. You don’t have to start with web development. Go out and talk to customers and see if your idea is worth pursuing. Question some of your assumptions. I think there are a lot of little things people can get started.
There is no time like the present right?
Where can people follow you? How can people give you money?
Thanks Sam. I’m on Twitter @scottweisman.