Michael Fitzgerald is the CEO of Submittable, a submission management tool with clients such as Playboy and CBS. He is the author of Radiant Days. In this interview he talks about publishing his first book, looking for startups in unsexy industries, and the importance of keeping your butt in the chair.

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Michael, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live in Missoula, Montana. Our company, Submittable, was founded and based here.

I’ve been here about 15 years. Prior to that I lived in eastern Europe and New York. I also lived in San Francisco in the late 90s during the dot com boom.

Your first novel was Radiant Days. Could you tell us a bit about that book, and why you decided to write it?

I grew up always wanting to be an author. I read constantly.

I think Radiant Days was a fairly typical first book. It was mildly autobiographical. There was a little bit more sex and drugs than in real life.

The book takes place in Budapest and Croatia during the early 90s—about the same time I lived there.

It was an amazing experience writing it, but it was a mildly horrific experience getting it published.

One of the things about any big project is that you are learning how to do it better the next time.

Why do you say that it was a horrific experience getting your book published?

There is something that most authors and artists don’t fully understand—You make this thing by yourself, but once you make it you have to promote and sell it.

Getting the book out there is a wildly different thing than writing it. It is a fairly undignified, awful process, but some people do it incredibly well.

I like people who cannot help but say the most truthful fucking things on earth.

How do you push through that process?

You’ve just done all this hard work—I worked on my first book on and off for five years.

During that time I was married. The book was sucking two or three hours of the day from my wife and kids.

Once you finish a book, and you feel like it is something a stranger might enjoy—maybe this is Catholicism, but I felt like I owed it to my family to make it a success.

The other thing is humiliation. You’ve gone around the last five years telling others that you are writing this book. That is, in an oddly sophomoric way, very motivating.

Motivated by fear of failure?

Just by humiliation.

You are at dinner parties, or at a bar with your friends—over the course of a year they all learn that you get up and write every morning. In the beginning they are all excited for you, but then you go into the valley of death where you are writing for three years. At that point they are just embarrassed for you, because they think it might not happen.

It is very much like starting a company.

What do you think makes a great writer?

Different people enjoy different types of writing.

I like people who cannot help but say the most truthful fucking things on earth. They can write prose that isn’t cluttered down by pretense. Writers can say things that are utterly direct, and utterly true.

Jason Fried always talks about how design starts with writing. Almost all of their writing is clear and concise. There is no legalese or journalese involved. They say what they mean, and they say it with an honesty.

Do you keep a journal?

Not so much a journal, but I’m always writing things down.

I would steal conversations, thoughts, anything I liked. I don’t do that so much anymore, but I do have about 5,000 Google Docs filled with that stuff.

Do you plan on doing anything with those Google Docs?

Yeah, so I have this book…

[Laughter]

It circles back, because now I’m going to tell you, and I’ll have to do it.

I’m working on a book called Start Down, which is sort of a non-fiction book about starting a technical company with thousands of customers in a fairly rural place.

It talks about how we stumbled through our first few years, and how we got to where we are today.

Can you give us a glimpse into some of those essays? How does someone start a technical company outside of Silicon Valley?

The main difference is that there is no noise. You don’t constantly feel like you are missing a meeting with an investor. In San Fransisco, you always feel like you need to be meeting somebody bigger and more powerful than you.

Here that equation is completely gone. The only people we care about are customers and employees. We’re focused on paying the bills and making something people want to use.

We’re so far outside of the echo chamber—focusing on how much money we’ve raised, and who is going to buy us. It just doesn’t take up an ounce of our energy. For me, it feels good.

When we were there, I felt like I wasn’t thinking about things that weren’t crucial. It felt like I was getting caught up in the voodoo of Silicon Valley. It feels right to be in Montana.

Radiant Days
Michael Fitzgerald’s first book, Radiant Days, takes place in Budapest and Croatia during the early 90s.

“On a December night in 2009 we decide to launch. We have no idea what that means. We have no customers, no connections to the media, and we’re in Montana.”

Also, Montana does have a hint of entrepreneurial spirit.

It is a frontier state. Because there are no massive corporations here, anybody with a mortgage is, whether they know it or not, fairly entrepreneurial. They live outside the cushion of the corporate world.

People here hustle. Some of them have five jobs and are involved in everything. People show up at city council meetings—they are in the thick of it constantly. The only difference is that they aren’t worried about building a billion dollar company.

Another thing about Montana is that people answer phone calls from 406.

When I cold call CEOs at major publishing companies, they always answer the phone. They want to know who could be calling them from Montana. It has really worked for us.

How do you meet other entrepreneurs in Montana?

The whole state of Montana is a small village. The whole state knows each other. I’m literally two calls away from the governor. It is amazing.

If I dove into Bozeman, another city in Montana, and my car broke down, I could ask a stranger to help me. Chances are we would know somebody in common.

Bozeman had an company, Right Now Technologies, which was bought by Oracle for more than a billion dollars. It was one of the first software as a services customer support systems. It was a huge success, and it made success for others seem possible.

I remember a story in the Bozeman Chronicle, where the headline put that Right now Technologies sold for more than a million dollars instead of a billion dollars. It just seemed inconceivable that something could sell for a billion dollars in Montana.

In Missoula there have been similar stories, although not quite that large.

All entrepreneurship comes and goes in cycles.

One of my mentors, Don Bora, said that Groupon was the company that spurred the tech scene in Chicago. I talk about this all the time, but David Cummings who sold his company, Pardot, and it started the Atlanta tech scene.

It takes one big sale, and the entrepreneurs go back to the community and start investing.

That is exactly right.

I feel like that is happening right now. Bozeman is a bit ahead of us.

I admit that I’m a little freaked out by the startup community. I feel like there is a lot of talking, and not a lot getting done. But it is exciting to see two 18-year-olds trying to build something.

You mentioned that you had a horrific experience trying to publish your book. You also mentioned that you are working on another book. Are you going to go back through the traditional publishing process, or are you going to self-publish it?

I found the self-promotion part of publishing uncomfortable. First you have to sell it to an agent, then you have to sell it to an editor—there is a lot in common with starting a company.

Once it is out there, you’ve got a book that is fairly autobiographical, and have to go around and read it to people. It sort of feels like you are walking around with your skin ripped off.

In my mind self-publishing is like that from day one. You are completely walking around naked, holding this book up in front of people that don’t give a shit.

Publishing obviously has problems right now. It is a legacy business model. It doesn’t truly work anymore.

On the other hand, I think that editorial is more valuable than ever. I love editors.

I don’t think I’ll self-publish it.

“We named the company after something we thought sucked. That is like naming shoes after the sound they make stepping into dog crap.”

There is one last thing I want to ask about writing before we move on to Submittable. For those out there writing right now, what one piece of advice would you give them?

The volume of my writing dramatically dropped when I stopped writing every day.

I used to write before work each day. From about 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. each morning. That is how it got done, and I used to easily kick out 100 pages a month. Get your but in the chair, stay there, and make sure you show up everyday.

Everybody thinks a book is about and idea, but it is actually about getting words on the page.

It is not about an idea, it is about execution.

Exactly, sound familiar?

You write a book, and then you run into younger people that haven’t done it—It is the exact same thing as startups—they all have an idea that they think is worth a billion dollars.

Just keep your butt in the chair.

Submittable actually started out as a social network. Today it is a submission management tool. How did that transformation happen?

When we started the company, we had no idea what we were doing.

My partner, Bruce Tribbensee, and I worked a day job together. During lunch we would go out and complain about our boss.

I was also doing consulting work for Microsoft, which started drying up in fall of 2008.

I told Bruce that we should start a company. We went out to lunch and made a list of things that sucked. One of the things that I thought sucked, as a writer, was sending out stories to magazines.

Our initial idea was to create a social network, where everybody was either a writer or a publisher. Writers could find organizations that were looking for particular pieces.

The plan was to move into art, then music. We would just be this creator, publisher social network. We called it SubmishMash.

We named the company after something we thought sucked. That is like naming shoes after the sound they make stepping into dog crap.

We just started writing code on nights and weekends. We worked for about nine months. We built this social network around the publishing process. We didn’t have any clients, but we did have fake publishers and users. It all worked and looked great.

We had no idea what to do next—how to launch it, how to make money, how to do anything. We thought that we could put the site up, and start counting money.

Obviously that didn’t happen.

The very first version that we built was kind of crap. We are both fairly cognizant developers. It worked, but didn’t look great.

We worked with this guy John Brownell who was a better developer than us, and asked him to take a look at it. He said that he would take it home and work on it over the weekend.

When John came back on Monday he had rewritten almost everything, and it looked amazing. It was still this crazy, dumb social network that didn’t work, but it looked awesome.

We asked John to work with us, and that is how the original team came together.

 


 

The problem with a social network is that it is really like a marketplace. Marketplaces have the chicken and the egg problem. What do you get first the writers or the publishers? It is incredibly hard to create marketplaces, because you have two different customers.

On a December night in 2009 we decide to launch. We have no idea what that means. We have no customers, no connections to the media, and we’re in Montana.

By this time I had become the CEO. Bruce is a filmmaker, and John is a musician. We had planned on entering those verticals, but the first one was writing. I was the CEO because I had connections to publishing.

I’m laying in bed at night, and realize that I have no idea what I’m going to do. I don’t have any money, I quit my job, and I have two kids.

By mistake we had raised $20,000. Basically, someone who knew what they were doing came up to us and felt bad. They saw that we had done nine months of work, and gave us just enough money to hang ourselves.

Looking back, I can’t explain it. It seemed perfectly sane at the time.

Get your but in the chair, stay there, and make sure you show up everyday.

I started calling publishers. I’d tell them that we’ve got this thing called SubmishMash and that we’re in Montana. The ones that would look at it, would tell us not to list their name on the site. They wanted nothing to do with it at all.

Some of them saw this voting mechanism that we built—It would allow people to vote and comment on someone work. It would also take a Microsoft Word document, create a PDF that could be viewed in the browser.

We had no idea how powerful that was. That was the one thing editors wanted. Previously they would get a document in email, and have to open it in Word. It was a huge pain.

It suddenly became utterly clear that our product should be a software as a service, and that we should just sell it to publishers. We would give publishers the ability to accept and curate and document.

We scrapped 90 percent of our code, focused on that one little piece, built a software as a service, and had our first customer one month later.

We got our first dollar around March.

How did you get your following customers?

I would just call and email publishers.

My book, Radiant Days, was published by an amazing publisher, Counterpoint Press, which was started by Jack Shoemaker. He is a luminary in the publishing world.

So I had street cred with publishers. They would take my call. And it was a problem, publishers really had a problem with dealing with manuscripts that came in.

Publishers are businesses. The startups that most of the tech media focuses on are consumer startups. What do you think are the specific challenges of starting a business to business company?

You need to understand that vertical.

This is why it is difficult for 20-year-olds to start business to business companies. They just don’t have business experience.

I had 15 years of writing and publishing under my belt before I did this. I knew the pain points. They were unsexy, which is why I knew nobody was working on them.

It is pretty obvious to me that there are huge, huge opportunities in unsexy industries.

One of the thing I see with young entrepreneurs in Missoula—they come up with these big, crazy social networks. The real opportunity for tech in Montana is in tourism, lumber, mining—these massive, ancient industries.

“Get your but in the chair, stay there, and make sure you show up everyday.”

I started calling publishers. I’d tell them that we’ve got this thing called SubmishMash and that we’re in Montana. The ones that would look at it, would tell us not to list their name on the site. They wanted nothing to do with it at all.

Some of them saw this voting mechanism that we built—It would allow people to vote and comment on someone work. It would also take a Microsoft Word document, create a PDF that could be viewed in the browser.

We had no idea how powerful that was. That was the one thing editors wanted. Previously they would get a document in email, and have to open it in Word. It was a huge pain.

It suddenly became utterly clear that our product should be a software as a service, and that we should just sell it to publishers. We would give publishers the ability to accept and curate and document.

We scrapped 90 percent of our code, focused on that one little piece, built a software as a service, and had our first customer one month later.

We got our first dollar around March.

How did you get your following customers?

I would just call and email publishers.

My book, Radiant Days, was published by an amazing publisher, Counterpoint Press, which was started by Jack Shoemaker. He is a luminary in the publishing world.

So I had street cred with publishers. They would take my call. And it was a problem, publishers really had a problem with dealing with manuscripts that came in.

Publishers are businesses. The startups that most of the tech media focuses on are consumer startups. What do you think are the specific challenges of starting a business to business company?

You need to understand that vertical.

This is why it is difficult for 20-year-olds to start business to business companies. They just don’t have business experience.

I had 15 years of writing and publishing under my belt before I did this. I knew the pain points. They were unsexy, which is why I knew nobody was working on them.

It is pretty obvious to me that there are huge, huge opportunities in unsexy industries.

One of the thing I see with young entrepreneurs in Missoula—they come up with these big, crazy social networks. The real opportunity for tech in Montana is in tourism, lumber, mining—these massive, ancient industries.

Submittable Homepage
Submittable helps clients such as Playboy and CBS handle submissions.

If I start another company, I’ll look at the native industries in Montana, and figure out how to do the 2.0 version.

It is hard for Silicon Valley to understand. They focus on things like ride sharing, because driving sucks in most of California. That would never occurred to me in Montana. Driving is awesome here. We get in the car, and go straight for 200 miles surrounded by beautiful scenery. There was no speed limit until 2004. The speed limit signs literally said “Reasonable and Prudent.”

I’ve got to take a moment to segway. Speaking of unsexy industries, you guys have another tool called Talentd, which is a job application manager.

Talentd is an application management system for small to medium sized businesses. We have a boat-load of restaurants and other businesses using our platform.

We built it on the same code set as Submittable, which essentially provides the ability to review any digital object.

It is doing really well, because it is easier to charge for that. Businesses actually have money, when compared to publishers.

Could you talk a bit about your experience at Y-Combinator?

I say that Silicon Valley wasn’t for us, but Y-Combinator is one of the best things I’ve done in my life. It dramatically changed the company, and how I think.

At Y-Combinator, they would host office hours. You would walk into Gary Tan’s office with a problem. He’d say “OK, you need to talk to this person in New York.” He would immediately write an email, and they would help try and solve the problem. It seemed like there was always a knee-jerk reaction to get stuff done.

We’ve got nine employees now. If any of my employees come in with a problem. We get up and fix it immediately.

Y-Combinator showed us that we should solve problems with a certain velocity that we would never have done before.

Also, I love how smart, motivated and driven my other classmates were. We absolutely are going to be a $100 million company. We might get there in a very different way if we were in Silicon Valley. Being around people that ambitious makes it seem obvious.

I think I would be focusing on things that didn’t matter. I think I would have let myself get in the way, if I had not gone through Y-Combinator.

Do you consider yourself a goal oriented person?

No. I’m a show up and do shit person.

It is crucial to show up and do what you can do. I learned to write a book that way. The only reason that the book happened was because I showed up each morning exhausted, and typed for two hours. I wouldn’t get up until I had a page. Only then would I go to work.

A startup happens the same way. We ran out of money several times, we had no customers, we were total idiots, and had no idea what we were doing. I showed up everyday and got kicked in the teeth. I’d show up the day after that and get kicked in the teeth. Eventually people stop kicking, and start hugging you.

The key is to show up and do what you can. You’ve got to show up everyday and make mistakes.

Show up, keep your butt in the chair, and try to make stuff that people like.

I think that is a great way to end the interview. How can people give you money?

Everybody needs a submission management platform. You don’t know it yet, but it will change your life.

[Laughter]

No, but publishers or any organizations accepting anything that needs to be reviewed—resumes, film, audio— go sign up at Submittable.com. We’re ridiculously affordable. We’ll save you hundreds of hours.

Anybody can email me directly. I’m Michael(at)Submittable(dot)com. We’re pretty active on Twitter and Facebook.

We also hang out on Olark, which is that creepy little thing at the bottom of our site. I try and stay on there an hour each day to talk with customers.

I think that is really valuable. CEOs of companies under 20 people should talk to customers every day.

Michael Fitzgerald, thank you for doing the show today.

Sam, thank you.