Pictured above: (from the left) Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, Hussein Ahmed, Steve Case, and Secretary of Technology Jim Duffey
CIT: Tell us about yourself
Hussein:I am originally from Egypt, I got my masters and PhD degree in Computer Science from Virginia Tech. I am working as a full-time software engineering manager for a company in Blacksburg, I spend all my nights hacking software and business ideas. Those nights did yield a number of ideas and fully functional products that went live and from the frustration of trying to find and create that “next big thing”, in April 2012 I posted a blog post with a pledge of creating a startup every 30 days. I did follow through and I learned a lot, most importantly that I was totally wrong and that focus is critical to success.
CIT: Tell us about your current venture.
Hussein:In June 2012, I found out that Evernote had a challenge soliciting developers to build on their platform using the Evernote API. Despite being an Evernote user I wouldn’t have considered myself as a power user so I had to read a lot. I read around four books about Evernote and a book that Phil Libin (their CEO) had mentioned in one of his talks saying that inspired the company, and it was called “Total Recall” (not related to the movie). Reading all those books I found a pattern; to be efficient with e-memory and going paperless there should be a way to quickly take different kinds of notes. It clicked and I decided to make it possible.
I bought the domain KustomNote and pulled all nighters working on an application that would enable users to create custom note-taking forms with integration to a number of services and when submitted, notes get styled and deposited into Evernote. I pulled it off and submitted KustomNote for the challenge, competing against more than 174 others some of which were large corporations and well funded startups. KustomNote made it to the list of the 6 finalists with a $10,000 prize and went on to compete after that in San Francisco winning again, getting the Silver Cup and $15,000 more in cash and that was not even the great part yet.
The awesome part that followed was traction, KustomNote user base kept growing, and still is, in thousands of users every single week and that is the real win. Traction and feedback are great and I am now setting up the company and forming the team with the help of remarkable advisors from our area.
CIT: What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur?
Hussein:I have got beaten down in several ways and for so many different reasons sometime its a not so smart idea, no enough traction, lots of traction with no money, and even worse, traction and money but with a not so scalable business model that couldn’t survive. The catch here is that all the things that I have built did not fail because of those reasons, those reasons and many more are just factors contributing to how hard it is anyway to build something from scratch and grow it into a business, the main reason that they have failed was simply because I just gave up.
The one thing that an entrepreneur should know, accept and embrace is that it’s not a smooth ride, by any means. There are no rainbows and unicorns, it is hard work all the way, frustrations, angry customers who might not even be paying and lots of other obstacles and problems. I am not saying that to scare aspiring entrepreneurs away but the opposite, I think if they know so, this will minimize failures significantly. The energetic dreamy entrepreneur will prepare better, much better, in all ways, most importantly mentally and psychologically. She will think of strategies and tactics to compete and survive without being caught by surprise. Why would you send someone into war with him or her unknowingly wearing a t-shirt and his only gear is an iPhone, that is brutal. My lesson so far is to work much harder, to be more resilient and fiercely tenacious, that is the only single way to succeed, there are no shortcuts or magic tricks. If you take it from entrepreneurs not reporters you will know that there is no such thing as an overnight success.
CIT: What events/meetup groups are essential for startups?
Hussein:Today is much better than just a year ago. There are a lot of wonderful startup communities organizing meetups and all sort of events that you should follow and make sure to attend. If not for the event, it’s definitely for networking. StartupWeekend is a great solid example and you can try to find more through websites like meetup.com and startupdigest.com.
CIT: How important is collaboration and knowledge sharing to you?
Hussein:I partially agree with the saying “it’s about who you know not what you know”. I don’t agree with the face value of it, I agree with the causal effect inherent in there. Depending on who you know and how many quality interactions you have this will inherently change you, your knowledge and decisions. Whatever you know would help for some time and for a little number of specific things, asking, collaborating and meeting remarkable people like yourself, the sky will be the limit. For others to help you though, you should think of how you can give back and help too.
CIT: What makes your city's startup scene unique?
Hussein:Despite the question is about the city, I just want to highlight the state level scene. Virginia, in just a few years has significantly changed. There are a number of great organizations, capital firms, law firms and great communities statewide who are rising and growing doing all they can to immensely help entrepreneurs in every single way. Regarding my city and local area, it’s as fantastic as it can get. In our Roanoke-Blacksburg area we have great entrepreneurial mentors who have-seen-this-done-that and who are so supportive and incredibly helpful. Organizations like the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and the Economic Development department of Montgomery County are lead by great leaders and run by great teams who keep thinking and working to enable entrepreneurs and to make the startup scene even better.
Given how small our local area is, our entrepreneurship and startup community is really more like a family and I’m so blessed and privileged to consider myself a member.
Hussein M. Ahmed, Ph.D.
Founder of KustomNote.com