Product need drives Chris Carlson to entrepreneurship resulting in Gantto
Chris Carlson was not an entrepreneur in his comfortable corporate role. But necessity drove him to it. He needed something in his job at Hansen Medical that didn’t exist. And so he decided to build it himself. Well, not quite alone. Like many of our New Venturists, Chris has a partner, Federico Barbagli. Together, they created Gantto the company and Gantto the product to provide a tool that they know is needed in industry. Yes, it’s like a Gantt chart. And yes, they are up against Microsoft.
Why Gantto? The opportunity starts with premise that people don’t focus enough on communication. Nor do they have the right collaboration and communication tools that they need. Gantto is aimed at engineers and project managers. He believes that any industry or company with dependencies and with more than six people needs project management tools.
Chris describes the problem as, “At Hansen I had 50 reports and I needed a management tool to communicate to them and also to communicate to the executives on the other side.” Apparently to do this, Chris developed multiple Gantt charts, Excel schedules, PowerPoint Presentations, etc. And he wanted one overall tool but where he could vary the level of detail. He cites an example, “Individual engineers might be interested in 50 levels of subtasks but the execs want only the high level. I ended up spending a lot of time maintaining a bunch of different models, and I could have been more productive if I had a better tool.”
Chris talks about existing products that solve components of the problem that he experienced. Microsoft’s Project and Visio are the two most well-known products. Project is a $1B market for Microsoft but Chris found that, “Most people who use MS Project are not satisfied with it.”
Background. While Chris had no formal training in entrepreneurship or business, he had been thinking about entrepreneurship for a long time. When he was10, he figured out that you could charge more than you paid for something. His family lived in San Diego. He would buy stuff in Mexico for $.10 and then sell it to his classmates for $1. His mom shopped in Mexico once a month; he went with her on buying trips. Chris also had a paper route. He learned about money and who gets what. “The managers took advantage of the kids but they took no risk,” Chris recalls. “The managers all got paid first. Not the carrier.”
Thrifty since those days, Chris bought himself a car as soon as he could drive, and he put himself through college. Even today, over a year after starting his own company (and not being paid much), Chris has a four-year personal runway.
Chris went to UC Davis for undergrad. He loved college and still loves learning. He started out as a physics major, then mechanical engineering, and finally ended up a double major in CS and MechE. He spent some time building hybrid-electric cars, and then got into dynamic systems and controls. He went to Stanford to study electro-mechanical systems and got his PhD.
After grad school, Chris tried to make a company around his research. He was introduced to Hansen Medical, which was a startup with only 10 people at the time. Chris recalls, “They were going to revolutionize robotic surgery. That was pretty exciting. So I started there and created a lot of the architecture for the system.” Eventually, Chris became the VP of engineering and stayed there for six years. It was a great education, “I really got a chance to do different things, to learn from great mentors, to interact with investors, the board, and customers.”
But Chris wanted something more in life. His colleague at Hansen, Federico, and he had brainstormed about 20 entrepreneurial ideas over the years. They had committed to founding a company together, although it took a while to get there. The core idea they finally chose was one that met the criteria they had established – it had a clear business model, it was software, and it was something that they knew was needed.
Y Combinator baby. An avid reader, Chris had read everything that Paul Graham ever wrote. Born in 1975 before the dawn of the internet, Chris didn’t know that much about the modern internet software space. So, he decided to hang out and go to internet software school – Y Combinator. Chris lauds his mentor, “Paul makes it as painless as possible to be an entrepreneur so that you can focus on your product. And Paul’s main criteria is the founders had to have built a product together in the past. We were fortunate enough to get in.” They found the mentoring and networking invaluable, and closed an angel round of funding that gave them about 18 months of cash shortly after their demo day.
Chris and Federico were not the usual entrepreneurs in their YC class of 2010. “We were a bit different than the others. We had a lot of work experience, savings and we were in a good position to bootstrap ourselves.” And they didn’t subscribe to the idea that you had to raise a lot of money to be successful. Chris tells me a story of a company that he is modeling his own after, “They are six years old, profitable and growing. They took no financing. They focused on SEO (search engine optimization) for marketing and then looked at what people wanted and built that.”
Challenges today. While it’s going just fine, it’s definitely not exactly according to plan. Chris is worried that they may run out of time. They urgently want to achieve breakeven or get enough traction to raise an A round. The last year has been spent in product development and user testing. They recently launched and have a few paying customers. Resource constrained, Gantto is just the two of them (plus an intern). Chris focuses on the business; Fed focuses on the technical. But they could use some marketing help.
And Chris has two key fears that cause most entrepreneurs to lose sleep:
- Why has no one created something like this before? Chris voices his worst nightmare: “We think that it’s needed and we really wanted it in our jobs. But what if we are wrong?”
- What is our competitive advantage? Chris voices fear #2: “It doesn’t take forever to build and implement this. It’s about workflow, communication, and interacting. It’s not years of work or intellectual property for our barriers to entry.” Chris is really worried about differentiation.
In answer to the first challenge, Chris knows that he is building a useful product and that there are a lot of people out there who are like he was at Hansen – who need the product and who will pay. But, he has to figure out who they are and how to reach them. Not a small task.
His answer to the second is proving elusive. The product has recently launched; he is gaining users. From their feedback he is learning about desired features and functionality. Right now, the ease of use, the user interface, and the product itself are the differentiators. But Chris doesn’t know if those will be strong enough.
Success. Chris is intent on keeping operational overhead very low. He believes that the market for his product is very big. His strategy is to achieve a toe hold which will buy some time to work on further differentiators. Chris has two objectives for himself and his startup:
- He wants to build a great product with iconic design that people love to use. For Chris, that will be self-affirmation and personal success.
- He also hopes that Gantto will make enough money to build a great team any keep the investors happy. There is nothing else he would rather be doing
Take aways. Chris believes there is no right age to start a company; “it’s the right attitude that is important.” And what is the right attitude? “It’s the desire to create something new and the ability to persevere,” Chris states emphatically.
Chris admits that he is not an expert in entrepreneurism. But for him, perseverance is the most important so far.
He thinks that passion and perseverance are related: “Passion is one of the things that keeps you going when things get really difficult.” He urges young entrepreneurs to, “Study Texas hold ‘em A lot of entrepreneurship is playing the odds, like counting cards. Always be looking for bets with the best odds. You will lose some bets, but not necessarily because you did things wrong; over the long term you will come out ahead.”
I think Chris is not doing things wrong at all. Go Gantto!