Name: Michael Krol
Current Place: Portland, OR
Hometown: Woodstock, Illinois (Chicago area) > Denver, Colorado > San Francisco, California > Portland, Oregon > Dorado, Puerto Rico > Portland, Oregon
What I wanted to be when I grew up: Graphic Designer
College degree: BA in Graphic Design from University of Northern Colorado, continuing education in programming from the Art Institute of Colorado
What do you love about what you do?
Most of all I love being able to have the skills and the knowledge to create a new app, product, or business from nothing more than an idea. I started in Graphic Design, and then became a programmer, and finally a business owner. This experience over 20+ years has given me the skills to design and build anything, and a healthy dose of past failures to put aside fear and just go for it.
The always changing, usually improving, non-stop progression in the technology industry is always bringing new challenges and fueling new ideas, and with it new tools to help us build faster with more efficiency. Sometimes this means abandoning a technology or product that you spent years mastering (there are more than I can count) for something with even more potential or capabilities than what you had before. Change is inevitable, and necessary.
What is the biggest challenge?
I’ve started 5 businesses in my career, and I’ve never had startup funding or investors. This means money has always been my biggest challenge. I learned early on how quickly everything can go south if you do not plan and save for the difficult times, and unless you plan on running a business for less than 6 months, you’re going to face some difficult times. I’ve been lucky that my businesses have always revolved around providing services (design, development, consulting, etc), so I haven’t had to invest in inventory or expensive build-outs for commercial space. But that also means the business can only grow as fast as it can sustain itself, which is frustrating and takes more time than I sometimes have the patience for.
My second biggest challenge has been letting go. I’m a perfectionist, so I want everything to be done at a level that I have to admit is sometimes unnecessary or unattainable. If I cannot trust others and let them do their best, the business cannot grow, period. For too many years I held on too tightly to try and control everything, and it always ended in burnout for me or others. Once I could finally shift my perspective to let others lead on their own, the business was finally able to cross this invisible barrier I had put on it and grow to what it is today.
What has made your career journey unique?
Oddly enough, my first job out of college was as a 401K administrator for Merrill Lynch. At that time (the late 90’s) there simply wasn’t much work for a designer with no work experience. At Merrill Lynch I actually learned a lot about the financial markets, which helped me stretch my abilities beyond just design. However, it also gave me a taste of working as a cog in the corporate world, which frustrated me enough to enroll in night classes in programming at the Art Institute. I had a feeling this new thing called the Internet was going to open up a lot of new opportunities. It just so happened that one of the instructors was a self-made entrepreneur, and it was through him I realized how easy it was to register with the state and start your own business. The following year I took a leap of faith and decided to launch my own business, marketing myself to the same advertising agencies and design studios I had previously been interviewing with to try and get a job. Only now I was offering programming services with a deep understanding of the design world, which was a winning combination.
The financial background helped me in unexpected ways with accounting, and I quickly picked up the ability to network and find new clients. But it was the subsequent failure of the business during the dot-com bust (and firing those new employees I had just hired) that held the most important lessons. There WILL be tough times. And you WILL get through it.
What motivates you?
What motivates me to keep going, above all, is the fact that I love what I do, and I get to work with a fantastic team of talented people that inspire me every day. A team that I got to build myself, and not a team that was handed to me by someone else who was more concerned about dollars per hour than raw skills and attitude. I’ve had a few stints of working for other agencies, but I feel like I learned more about what NOT to do than anything else in those opportunities.
37 Signals, now simply called Basecamp, was another of my early influencers, and still is today. They built a great product that people love to use slowly over time, and they didn’t go out and blow millions of dollars from investors to get there. 15+ years later, they are still a small, remote team and they don’t owe anything to anyone. I love the freedom in that, and the fact that no one is looking over my shoulder asking me where every dollar is going. I’m stingy enough on my own, thank you very much.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Through the failure of past businesses, I learned to grow the business carefully, and lean, and keep costs at an absolute minimum. Instead of investing in fancy office space, I invested in an amazing team and the technical resources to allow them to work remotely from anywhere. I also pivoted the business over the years to focus entirely on application design – custom software to increase efficiency and solve business problems. This has served us extremely well during the time of COVID: literally nothing has changed in our day-to-day operations, and we are landing new business to help companies work better virtually. This time, instead of laying off employees, I just hired another full-time developer and may be looking for more very soon.
Pay close attention to the market, technology, and where new business opportunities may exist – not just tomorrow, but 5-10 years from now. Every failure, and there have been many, is an opportunity to learn and grow. Be careful how you spend your time and money, and never, never, never give up.
Connect with Michael at germinateapps.com