“You really went to North Korea?” asked Mike Colwell, Executive Director of Entrepreneurial Initiatives at Square One DSM. “Barely,” replied Brad Dwyer, Founder of Hatchlings and Colwell’s guest for the June edition of Startup Stories. It seems the building at Panmunjom where the ceasefire was signed still exists with a line down the center representing the border between North and South Korea. Dwyer successfully crossed that line, took a selfie, and returned to South Korea without an international incident.
On the face of it, this was an odd initial line of questioning for an event oft focused on the trials and tribulations associated with tech entrepreneurialism in Central Iowa. However, this exchange served to introduce Dyer’s second appearance, this time sharing insights gained from his seven months as a vagabond and remote principal of a company, for which he had previously served as the day to day manager.
The Q & A session led by Colwell and augmented by the audience, focused on the challenges of remote management, but expanded to pick the brain of its founder, now eight years out from the Facebook based game’s humble beginning.
Hatchlings is certainly one of the most successful startups to spring from the Central Iowa ecosystem, or more specifically from an Iowa State University dorm room. It was at the time of its inception, just the latest little project of the then college undergrad. Dwyer, who had a web development company in his high school years, began his trek towards entrepreneurial success early, creating projects and launching them to the internet.
While a student at Iowa State, one of those projects got traction. “One weekend I was kind of bored, and I came up with another one of those little projects which turned out to be Hatchlings. It just sort of took off and kept spiraling upward,” he recalled during his October 2012 visit with Colwell.
After years of sustained growth and millions of users worldwide, Dwyer, motivated by a number of reasons including recently adding husband to his resume, sought to spend some time traveling the globe. “I actually thought I would have to sell the company, and tried to do that for about a year,” he explained, noting that it was a hard sell as he was himself so integral to the business. Facing his own version of the Founders Dilemma, Dwyer, who not only managed the day-to-day operation of his small company, but also was the sole coder, had to find a way to partially extract himself.
“If I could find a way to not be the central cog of the company it would solve two problems. I could travel, and it would prove the company had value without me as a centerpiece,” he explained of what became his new mission.
The preparation and the trial run
“We actually took a trial run with me going part time last summer,” he shared. Part of the preparation involved an insightful listing of his roles and determining which could be shifted to whom as well as the creation of communication tools which had not been previously in place. While Hatchlings already utilized a number of contractors working remotely, the core business unit, fairly small in number, was accustomed to face to face interaction on a regular basis.
The impending sojourn of the founder also pushed a previously absent level of planning into the business, extending the business plan horizon beyond its historic few months into a year-long plan.
Dwyer and his wife were away for seven months. While they discovered the world abroad, they also discovered the successes and failures of their preparation. “I was super impressed with how awesome the team did. We had a road map of what we wanted to do while I was gone, but they added to that map taking the lead on new projects that proved to be very successful,” he declared. He offered that while he was never much for micro management, the staff had clearly seized the opportunity to lead in his absence. “As the founder of the company you think in terms of always being in the lead but stepping back and letting other people take the lead is really cool too.”
Explaining that Hatchings was content driven technology, and Dwyer, as the author of Hatchling code would be absent, the business plan called for a focus on content during his travels. This left him with a long list of projects when he returned and the occasional glitch while he was away. “We probably needed a better contingency plan for that,” he acknowledged as one of the few negative outcomes. “We needed a contingency plan for when the contingency plan didn’t work.”
The other outcome
Dwyer’s motivations for the trip were multilayered, and at the core there was a voyage of discovery for a still very young entrepreneur. “I’m trying to figure out what I want to do after Hatchlings,” he shared expounding that he was looking for problems to solve as well as formulating an investment hypothesis about where the world might be heading in the next 20 years. “I have some observations that I made that I can hopefully invest in some things that are going to be valuable in the future based on how I see the world changing.” Heady thinking from a young Central Iowa entrepreneur.