Daily Stand-up March 24, 2020

Whatifi - My Origin Story

Jon Cowley @jcowley

I've been reading posts lately about trust and ways to build trust in your product. One of the suggestions is to tell your story. This is mine.

When my twin boys were born five years ago, my wife and I started asking whatifis. What if my wife took a year off of work, or two, or three. What if she went back to her old job (that paid well but she had been there for 13 years and was no longer inspired) or she took a lower paying job but doing something that she enjoyed.

Our boys were born three months premature and we had a lot of early, stressful days as we navigated that part of our journey. What if I took extra time off? We had our mortgage and still owed money on a vacation property (back when we thought we weren't going to have kids).

Childcare is expensive. What if we hired a nanny or put the kids in daycare?

I am a level 12 Excel Wizard and I can do things in a spreadsheet that can make a mere mortal quiver in awe. But even then, I ran into issues. Too many variables. Time was tricky. Multiple events with multiple dates in the future are not easy to plan for. Then you get into taxes and tax credits and take home pay and it quickly became a dog's breakfast.

By day, I have worked in the feature film and TV visual effects industry. The software that we use to make all of those amazing images is designed for artists and is visual and intuitive to use. It can be very procedural and connect-the-dots like. Think of a mind mapping like interface but instead of just drawing lines between bubbles, this software runs pixel transformations and all sorts of step-by-step calculations to make movie magic. And because it is procedural, anyone can go back up the stack of steps and make changes.

Do you want the dinosaur to be pink instead of green? Go up to the color correct node and make that change.

Do you want the dinosaur to enter half-a-second later? Slide the time slider and offset his animation by 12 frames in the time remap node.

The aha moment was when I realized that this same sort of logic could be applied to finances and life scenarios. Connect a job node to an expense node. Pipe a house node into three different mortgage nodes and calculate what each of those look like long term.

It was a pet project. Cool concept with a lot of potential.

Three years ago things got a lot more stressful. It took almost nine months to diagnose, but my wife's health began to rapidly deteriorate and doctors were at a loss for the longest time. It got to the stage that she was mostly bed ridden, unable to lift our boys or change a diaper and would have random seizure type events and terrible falls. I took six months off of work. Our diagnosis was a very rare auto-immune disease called Stiff Person's Syndrome. She is only one of thirty people in all of Canada with this condition and it has been a very long, challenging road. There were moments there where I was preparing for the worst. Whatifi am a widowed father in my mid forties with two boys under two.

My side project took on a new urgency.

Part of it was that the film industry, while it pays well, is NOT a family friendly industry. The hours are long. The deadline are tight. The product we make is subjective and a team can suddenly be working the weekend because a big name Hollywood director has a whim. I needed to plant the seeds on a career that would allow me to be closer to home with more flexibility.

The other part was control. Sometimes, when so much is in chaos, we need something that we feel like we can influence. Whatifi became my outlet. An idea that I could nurture. Maybe something that could answer my own questions. Potentially a Plan B to offset our income or, in typical startup lore, sell for a gazillion dollars and change the future for my family.

Most of life is chasing and achieving your new normal. Thankfully we have found some stability for my wife. There are some very tough days and a lot of meds but she can dance with my boys now. She will never return to work and there are still plenty of long term challenges but that sense of urgency has abated to a degree.

There are some amazing things that can happen when pressure is applied.

While most people would have burned out on a side project years ago, I've managed to keep my focus. I have two co-founders now and team of four part-time and full-time developers and designers that are part of our bootstrap journey. We've built a full fledged product, interviewed tons of potential users, have had traction in a fintech startup competition (one of the five finalists for $100K - pitching end of April) and am very proud of what we have built. If all goes according to plan, we will launch an early release in the coming week as a planning tool for families trying to navigate their current new virus influenced financial realities.

The day job, for now, is still going strong. The film industry is a fickle one though and if our current health crisis plays out long term, then there will not be any content in the funnel for the visual effects artists to work on.

The pressure returns.

  1. 2

    ❤️❤️❤️"She can dance with my boys now." ❤️❤️❤️

    I love the story behind this, especially as a mother who is constantly asking herself that 'What if' question.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. 2

    Everyone thinks that their situation is difficult and that they're the only one - but that's never true! Let's catch-up sometime, when we can actually meet again...

    1. 1

      Thanks Blake - good to hear from you.

      We can catch up digitally as well. Lots of progress and developments since we last talked.

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