New Beginnings and Early Struggles
Ten years ago today was an important day for me. It was the day I became an entrepreneur. To give some context, let me give just a little backstory. At the time I was the Director of IT at Herbruck Alder, a Cleveland-based employee benefits firm which is now Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., Cleveland. Like every firm at the time, we struggled with getting small group medical applications filled for each carrier we wanted to quote. We had already been looking into technology solutions like Zywave, so we began looking to see if any digital solutions existed. We found nothing. In fact, those we asked couldn’t imagine who would want to take on such a broken process. It was too much work for too little return. Fortunately, I love a good challenge and decided I could build it myself, just as an internal proof of concept.
Enduring the Grind
So over a span of about 18 months, working largely evenings and weekends, I wrote, rewrote, and refined a workable prototype. We tested it, gathered feedback and improved again and now we needed to productize it; to let the professionals take it from there, as it were. After all, Herbruck Alder was a benefits firm, not a technology company. Looking back at the time this was fine with me. After all, I had a great job and set out what I had hoped to achieve, just to prove this was possible. Plus, I was about to get a whole lot of free time back. And as fate would have it, Herbruck Alder had just become the broker for a new startup in town. It was a second company by an already successful entrepreneur and he was looking for a new project to take on. After a few meetings, we agreed to give away the idea in return for use down the road and a share of the profits. For months, we went back and forth. I had this vision of a product, including a working prototype, and we just couldn’t seem to get it right. They wanted to utilize an existing platform, but it was like a square peg in a round hole. Finally, in March of 2005, they requested a meeting and asked if we would settle for a lesser solution. What we wanted was just too complicated and they couldn’t really see the value in it anyway (déjà vu). It was either that, or they’d walk away and let us keep our IP. My managers at Herbruck Alder and I left that meeting trying to decide what to do. What they were suggesting didn’t really get us to where we needed to be, but perhaps it would be good enough. But really, this didn’t sit well with me at all. I felt the urge to pick up the ball and run.
The Early Years of Formfire
And that brings us back to that day 10 years ago, March 18th, 2005. I’ll never forget it. It was the day after St. Patrick’s Day – a Friday – and, being a 25 year old single guy, I had been out with friends until the wee hours of the night, fortunately within walking distance of my apartment. That morning I woke up early, wide awake and staring at the ceiling. In fact, too early and too wide awake for someone with that little sleep, but I had perfect clarity. I brewed a pot of coffee and got to work, despite having preemptively taken the day off. Over the next three days I worked almost non-stop, rewriting the core framework of what would soon become FormFire. I brought my work to my managers the following Monday and convinced them to let me continue productizing this ourselves. My evening job of coding became my day and my evening job as we hired someone to take over my IT duties. And with that, my path was set. Later that year I would co-found FormFire with my partner, Colin Ingram, and break from Herbruck Alder as an employee entirely. It was scary and exhilarating all at the same time. And despite all of the ups and downs, I wouldn’t change a thing. And with that, I encourage any would-be entrepreneur who is staring at that chasm in front of them, who feels that urge to jump into the unknown world of controlling your own destiny to do it. Take the leap! Go with your gut and never look back. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll never be happier any other way.
-Mike Epp Co-founder and CEO FormFire