An entrepreneur’s journey

Letter to Bobby Zappala, Ken Hendrata (of Thrill Mill) and Babs Carryer (teaching at Thrill Mill)

I just wanted to send you a brief update about my progress in the Thrill Mill program.

Last fall I remember feeling frustrated that there was no website that was actually effective at connecting workers (contractors, handymen) with homeowners. I dreamed up a website that went above and beyond websites that simply provided “reviews” like Angie’s List, Yelp, YP, etc. It would magically be so compelling and helpful that obviously everybody would start to use it. With this new website, as fresh as AirBnB or Uber, we would end the frustrating and inefficient process of finding and hiring the right guy as we know it today. It would attract homeowners, contractors, handymen, and could eventually scope out beyond just home improvement and be a tool for finding all kinds of local labor and skills (for example car mechanics, music teachers in the local area) etc… 5 years down the road when this website would be up and running, I would finally be able to take a couple years off and accomplish my dreams of learning gypsy guitar with the Romani in France, and go spend a season shepherding in with the mountain folk in North India.

Will and Solomon I ran this idea by some friends of mine who had homes, and they all expressed that a website like this was indeed missing. Doug was a huge supporter. I didn’t quite know how to execute this idea. I am not a programmer nor a web-designer. I simply have lots of ideas, and know how to work well in a large engineering company. My idea of a better website lied dormant.

Last December Doug called and said that I had 2 days to write an idea proposal for this thing called Thrill Mill that he heard about in his classes at Pitt Law. It was an incubator that was starting its second year. I had nothing to lose! On top of this I have been frustrated with my job and have been dying to do something fresh and exciting. Together we applied and went through boot camp. This forced us to think more seriously about the idea and to shape up a make shift business proposal in a very small amount of time. Working through the Business Model Canvas was amazing because it identified many components that we had never thought about. We started looking at who the customers were, what our product and value proposition was and started thinking about revenue streams, etc… We quickly realized that much work was still needed and that if we made it into Thrill Mill it was less for the “advanced and promising” stage of our idea than for our personalities and basic business idea.

It was an awesome moment when we finally got the acceptance letter. It was the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. We knew that we were hardly more advanced than just a simple idea but we were willing to give it our best shot. If we can’t make it happen with Thrill Mill, then we surely can’t make it happen on our own.

As classes with Babs began, we quickly realized that we were perhaps the least developed team of the bunch. I’m amazed at how far CCChampions and Fitsburgh are already. Mixx is just down the road. A lot of teams were formed by current students from Pitt or CMU, and their ideas are already being followed by their own mentors. Some are like us and have already graduated and worked some years in the real world, as we like to say. For me I think this is a great mix of people to be surrounded in simply because of the variety of backgrounds, and I am not ashamed to be more or less old, more or less experienced in business, or more or less advanced in my business idea. If anything, it gives me more flexibility to steer in different directions.

What’s wonderful about the classes with Babs is that she gives us great lessons for about an hour, then lets us apply her new concepts to our own business idea, and finally to present in front of the class in the third hour. She is terrific at respecting her students while pushing them and forcing them to find their own weaknesses. In my case, it was during one of these sessions that she told me clearly that she didn’t buy into my proposal because the value proposition wasn’t strong enough, there was little incentive for the customers, I didn’t know my customers because I hadn’t interviewed them to see if indeed there really was a problem to justify my solution, and that perhaps I was trying to tackle too much at the same time. All this meant that first I had to spend time talking to my customers to see what was really going on in their heads, and only then start working on a new idea only once it could really be proved to be worthwhile.

I followed Babs’ advice and started interviewing handymen that I found in the Yellowpages. I was anxious at first, you know, making cold calls and all that, but it turned out to be fun and information rich. They were more than willing to talk and share everything about their jobs. What came out strongly was the idea that “word of mouth is at the heart and soul of finding jobs”.

Suddenly a new idea began to form. An idea that would revolve around the concept of “word of mouth”. Something that would go much deeper than just connecting a handyman to a young couple looking for an extra cheap hand to fix up their home.  What if we could create a new kind of “social network” that was both geographic and visual in nature? What if the home page was a map of Pittsburgh and on it I could see little homes depicting my neighbors and my friends in the city? What if I hovered my mouse over one of these homes and lines would suddenly shoot out and land on the addresses of the workers that had worked on the house? What if these lines were color coded to represent the overall satisfaction of that relationship much like a review on Angie’s list? What if you could click on a worker and the reverse would also happen: you could see where he had worked and what people thought of him? What if you took it a step further and allowed the reverse to also take place, letting the workers have their own map where they could rate the homeowners because many of the workers that I interviewed were concerned about who they dealt with, and more than one confessed to keep a black list of problematic homeowners? In this way you take the websites that provide reviews of thousands of workers within the same city to a whole new level because now you would be able to not depend on what “all the people” are saying but what “your people are saying”. This is the basic concept of word of mouth. What are you supposed to do when you look for plumbers on Yellow Pages and you have to sort through 300 of them? It’s simply too long to call all of them. You’re best off calling your mom, talking to your neighbor, or asking around. It’s all about word of mouth.

As you can imagine this system could be used for many other trades far beyond the scope of handymen and homeowners.

These are still just ideas, but we wouldn’t have had them if we hadn’t been part of Thrill Mill.

We still have a lot of work… we must do in-depth searches to see if anything like this exists or is in the works; we need to meditate on incentive, revenue streams, data scraping, resources and the list goes on.

But the Thrill Mill program has already proved to be a great environment to steer us in the right direction and it’s only the beginning.

Thanks again for running the show and putting all of these amazing resources and networks of amazing people at our disposition.


Will & Doug (from BricoMama…for now at least)

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