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Bright & Early Podcast

Endcrawl's Unconventional Approach with Pliny




Episode Transcript

The following transcript has not yet been edited. I am slowly editing them, identifying speakers, and cleaning up issues; but I haven't gotten to this one yet. For now, it's helpful for some Ctrl+F action to find a pull quote.

Brian: Hey everyone and welcome to bright and early the podcast for people building early-stage startups.

I'm your host Brian Rhea.

I talk to entrepreneurs, product people, designers, and marketing pros to learn what works, what doesn't, and why; giving you at least one thing to apply to your business first thing tomorrow.

my guest today is John Arabic better known online as Pliny Pliny is the co-founder of end crawl in the crawl is a SAS that manages and renders end credits for movies and TV shows like moonlight Halloween and the big sick after bootstrapping the business for seven years they have recently raised a four hundred and fifty thousand dollar seed round with investments from earnest capital their own user base and other aligned investors Pliny welcome to the show thanks great to be here it's really good to have you I first came on like came across my radar when you wrote you had this medium post about the process behind raising that that round that I just found it was so it was so fascinating to me first of all you is it was really good writing so so kudos like you're clearly a good you're great storyteller there's also just super fascinating to read about about your business and can you just tell us a bit about in crawl and what exactly it is that you do for your customers sure so and crawl started it was me scratching my own itch I used to run production and post-production services company called n crawl I mean listen to me called off Hollywood I ran the post production side of things there we did final post production things like color grading we also had a digital lab making dailies for films that were shooting digitally which when we started was still a bit of a novelty but we kind of grew up during the time when film production and television production really shifted from analog to digital and so end credits for something that just came across my desk frequently and everyone always hated that process clients hated it vendors hated it because it's a complicated affair there are hundreds maybe thousands of names yeah it very political there are some contractual and legal ramifications and so it's kind of high stakes and it's also just it's gonna be revised 100 times there's always gonna be another typo another fix someone you forgot me special thanks and our customers will see them typically still making revisions to their end credits six to twelve months after they premiere interesting there are there are reasons like no they need to go back and revise the credits even after it's been out for a while well when I say the premier usually when a film premieres it's a festival premiere you know I think of movies we think of the things we see in the theatre but that's really the one percent and a lot of other films most films that get made are any films and they don't have distribution at the time they finish so they hate the festival circuit try to make a sale and what often happens is when you eventually sell your film to a distributor you might have to go back and put three more names in there to name check the CFO of the distribution company your films as an example that's one example but we see one of the busiest times a year for our render engine is the week after Sundance when everyone who's been working on the movie non-stop for months on end she sits down the theater in Park City Utah watches their film and sees three more typos on the screen so there's always always another revision another fix another something and it used to be that you would round-trip Excel documents over email with the designer who would take it a day to take all your notes incorporate them into some comp run it through After Effects chances are the scroll was sort of look look jittery and bad and we can talk about why that is and so the whole thing was just looked really slow and it wouldn't variably lead to overages so I would have friends who told me you know I went in with a $3,000 quote came out with an $8,000 bill and I understand why that is this is just for end credits you know bigger productions can pay upwards of 10 grand for end credits and I understand why that is but I looked at it said you know I think this is something that can be automated for most films you know handful of films you're gonna want something bespoke hand-drawn whatever yeah 95% of films out there need something like in crawl or Davydenko and so I said you know I think I can build this in my hubris I said I think we can do I'm a sort of middling front-end developer on a good day and working with a really talented full stack co-founder is taught me exactly what my limitations are but I met Allen who is not here today socially ten years ago yeah I ran the idea by him once mostly to pick his brain on how I should work my approach my tech stack and he gave me some ideas six months later he checked in with me he's like hey how's that thing going and I said well it's gone nowhere so we went to a holiday party at a sound mixing facility had a few drinks started drawing stuff on napkins classic story talked ourselves into doing it so yeah that's how I got started is it is it still just the two of you you and Alan we have a support team remote support team but other than that yeah it's just the two of us are building the product okay it's this this is what I just think is so fascinating about your business and knowing that there are like many many many thousands more opportunities like this one is that you just described the process of like passing the Excel document you know around email and that that's just like that's the classic you know classic use case for for where there might be a business but but you were masal this with software because like that the timing was right the the film industry was moving into to digital or had pretty much completely gone digital by that point by that point yeah I would say so okay did you did you try before beginning to build the software out with Alan were you like trying to automate this and do it yourself before you got to the point of being able to do it entirely with with a piece of like with it with a SAS service were you doing like IND crawl as a serve as a consulting service basically or did you did you see the need and goes straight to the software I saw the need and went straight to the software um you know I had a full-time job managing this post-production facility and gangrenous were warm hey hey listeners unfortunately we had a bit of a connectivity issue there fortunately we were able to get it sorted out and pick up our conversation right where we left off time running this the the production services business well yeah but the post production facility the post production facility so how did you how did you start finding your your first customers for what when you when you did have a bit of a software product that you could begin to test or begin to sell what was yeah I guess what was that very early the very early stages of that process like so I picked something that I was already in the industry where I work so just having been in the industry at that point you know over ten years I I just knew a lot of film producers and so I just went directly to them I was like hey what do you think of this I posted something on Facebook shared it to all my friends threw up an ugly landing page and you know we were on our way and was it was it a was it functional as a as a prototype at that point or were you saying hey here's the landing page here's where we're going so sign up to get notified we did it was that it was a sign up to to get notified and sign up to request a project what what we did at the time was I had written a really crappy Perl script that was about 400 lines of code or so that pretty much was the MVP for end crawl Perl because I was a old school 90s web developer and that's what I knew so though the very earliest iteration of end crawl was I would share a Google Doc to a customer say you know here's the format mm-hmm hate within the lines and then whenever you need a renderer which is a video output just email me and I'll get you one so I'd get an email I take the doc I plug it into my script make an output pop it on Dropbox and send them a link that whole process took about 15 minutes okay were used to it taking anywhere from you know four five six hours to a whole day and so that right there was something that was of value to the customer my immediate feedback was wow that was fast and I can get the same time I want and you don't charge me per output and okay so pretty quickly there was traction you know there was definitely really positive feedback we also charged from day one which i think is important and I would encourage everyone listening to a show to do um finding out that someone would happily use your thing for free is not really useful information yeah not a lot of not a lot of info there okay so that is is it is it standard in the the film industry to charge per like revision or per output of end credits for end credits usually what would happen is you'd go in with a flat quote but after the eightieth revision everyone's exasperated and then ya start talking about ranch's yes yeah yeah and so okay at the very beginning we said this thing always has 100 divisions so we just want to bake that in its unlimited renders do is make as many reduce as you want no penalties it's just flat okay and so and and because for you yeah I mean there's really not that much more or if it's entirely automated anyway there's no additional effort and a ton of value and and a reduction of risk for your your customers that they're not accustomed to correct um the only thing that really costs real money in this type of business is people and marketing everything else is kind of down on the noise so yeah having you know some hardware or some virtual virtual servers on AWS just kicking out video frames is not the problem yeah it's it's no no sorry go ahead any mediator I I want to also point out my co-founder Alan and I we really talked about this at the beginning and we realized one of the core problems is these constant revisions so if we had base based our business model on how many times you make an output then we are disincentivizing our customers from actually using the product and so we had a lot of conversations about this and one of the things that we hold we hold to is making sure that our pricing model is never at odds with the court user experience we're trying to deliver right yeah so like the the more the more revisions they make and the the more often they see that only took ten or fifteen minutes that used to take a day that's just reiterating your value proposition along the way so why would why in would you charge for that hundred percent okay that's that's pretty fascinating it's it's hilarious also like that the MVP was written in Perl it is yes yeah and that there's just something like like unconventional you know counter to the like the mainstream right now that just that just strikes me as it's as fascinating I don't recommend it but you know I'm gonna Alan you know when we were getting started he encouraged it because it was a form of lean thinking like am I gonna go teach myself Python first and then write it or am I just gonna get the job done in something I know to get something off the ground right yeah exactly like what is the what is the fastest way for you to get to something where where you would learn something new well write it in Perl not learn Python or Rails or something first and then pitch that okay that's interesting the other the other unconventional thing about in crawl is that you you're not like all right you're not like deep in LA or San Francisco right like are you guys are remote or what's your our lives in Salt Lake City okay um and I live in New Jersey I you know split my time between home office in New York City okay but yeah we don't live in LA okay so like as a as a tech company serving you know the film industry it would make sense that conventionally any way that you would have realized that thought to maybe relocate to San Francisco or LA what was the thought process behind not doing that um well I like where I live I guess would be the first answer um so one of the nice things about having a remote company is ideally you can live anywhere you want la is important and I travel there frequently now but I don't need to live there yeah um so I think that's the the short answer as far as San Francisco well you know my my BC I'm sorry Tyler would not like being called to BC he was very adamant about that my lead investor currently lives in Rio and so it's a remote world and I don't think that I don't I don't think that either Allen or I would ever want to be in a position where we had to live in a certain part of the country or part of the world for business have have there been deals that you think you would have had a better shot at closing had you been located in one of those places or have there been some challenges about working remotely that you've had to overcome well I do live in in you know right outside New York so I do live in one of those places I live in this second largest production club in the country so you know it's not like I'm running this business out of you know Alaska yeah just yet anyways as far as challenges for remote company sure there hon there are a hundred challenges one of the reasons we really wanted to do this too and wanted to raise the money and keep going was to develop the superpower of being a remote company because when you are remote company there are all sorts of things that open up to you especially and you know how and whom you can hire there are all sorts of challenges that we talk about daily both in the end Carl slack in the the earnest capital slack about running remote businesses and how you stay in sync in how you manage communications I could talk about that for hours son don't know if you want to go down that rabbit hole but um it is a superpower I believe to be being able to work remotely is it is a superpower yes being able being able to function as a company as a remote company we preferred distributed because it really isn't anything to be remote from there's no headquarters that I'm currently working away from yeah we just all work where we live or we work in some Colo space or in a cafes or whatever okay yeah no that that makes sense I guess so I'm curious you've been you have been bootstrapping this for seven seven years seven years yep yeah why do you say that well I don't think a lot of companies raised for the first time seven years after they started okay that's what I'm kind of curious about like in the early when you had initially developed the MVP and it started to sort of shop it around at what point did you realize or did you begin to think we are really on to something here um good question I mean the initial feedback was great and then the the the growth was it was constant but we were on what's been described as the the long slow SAS ramp of death yes I don't know if you're familiar with that ya hear that you know that one really hit me where I live I've watched that whole presentation multiple times yeah um but we got to a point where we realized that to get to the next stage of growth we really had to focus on a full-time okay supposed to decide kicking it okay um yeah sorry your initial question was when do we realize we were onto something we always did and the fact that it didn't stop growing just bikes you know despite us giving you know five ten hours a week to it was yeah was a big clue so and how and how long ago was it that you said that you thought okay if we really focus on this then it can become our full-time thing however in order for us to be able to go for truly focus on it full-time we need to raise some capital how long ago was that that was last year okay the the medium article that you referenced I mentioned that the whole process took nine months that's from when we decided to do it to when we closed um so yeah what we did was we realized that even though we really still loved building this this product and we loved the small company and the culture that we built so far we were gonna burn out on one eventually and having divided attention and divided focus is very difficult Alan would be hacking on n crawl once a week on Fridays and I remember the conversation he had over and over again was okay today I gotta first unload my other job from my mental Ram yeah and then load in this and remember what I was working on a week ago and that might take a few hours so him back in the rhythm of things and there's certain features that we really wanted to build but we knew that they would require being heads down for weeks you know and doing that one one day a week just wasn't in a car so our velocity was really slow and that was just really frustrating to us um and there were certain things we probably just couldn't tackle attack they all this hacking one day a week so we looked at it we have had the company appraised we said okay what's the what's the opportunity cost here you know could we just sell it now and so we we looked at it we considered it we decided no we can we can grow this a lot more and that's what we started that's when we started trying to raise money it was our first rodeo so you know we had everything to learn at that point yeah did you did you ever consider or did you along the way outsource development since you since you're only able to give it split absolutely not no so a couple of reasons one is managing a developer still takes time and I mean you could have anyone you know hack together some code for you but really thinking through how you want your product to be engineered it's not something that's easily outsourced you know you can't be like oh yeah just go hack this for me and tell me when you're done that's number one number two if you're a software company which is what we are outsourcing you're the you're the core thing that you do is probably a really bad idea and I realize there are people out there who do this like I'm a founder and I just outsource development but I mean if software is what you make then that really should be a core competency within your company and that's something that you farm out to to other folks yeah that's so that's an interest it's an interesting take on that okay yeah I want to give that I want to give them a little bit of thought I've because I've looked at that in in several different ways where like the core the core thing that you're delivering is that that it sounds like anyway saving a ton of time and giving your giving your customers as many iterations as many variations that they want your customers don't really care who wrote the code or what the stack is right no they don't care at all and we can't do the normal thing that a lot of startups do like write blog content about their tech stack or write blog content about being a tech founder like my cousin's don't care about that stuff yeah or not there or don't live in that world yes um soso no they don't but but you know we do and we've you know we've been around long enough we built our products in the past and we know what it looks like to code yourself into a corner and we feel pretty strongly about you know making sure that this is something we own and that we're not beholden to some consultants yeah when it comes to our code base um what my customers do care about is that when they click render then they get you know a preview render in a couple of minutes and they get their fully uncompressed 4k in like 20 20 25 minutes um and I don't think we could have gotten that outsourcing it I mean Alan is a world-class full-stack dev so that's probably the main reason this is I can't get better bang for my buck um then then my co-founder then you're talking into my products so yeah if you're gonna start a company make sure that with a technical co-founder make sure they're really really good mm-hmm and so now you because now you're in a position where it is you and Alan if something happens to any piece of the code then one of the two of you is going to be able to get in there and sort it out because you have written you've written every bit of it along the way yep and a really nice thing about us is that there's a bit of a yin-yang thing I can keep up you know we spend a lot of our times in PR sometimes we junk that we talk more and github than we do in slack or on calls that's one of the primary ways we communicate and so we can have good conversations about you know about our text act about how we engineer things how we cycle features but then Alan's also great at selling and pitching and he's not the kind of developer you have to hide in the back room he's often better than I am in front of potential customers yeah I I want to ask a couple questions about raising the raising year round and so we've already talked about there been several things that have been unconventional about about in crawl writing it in Perl starters and and and not not you know relocating yourself to some like you know tech hub or I mean even though you mentioned you are kind of outside of New York but the other unconventional thing about how you raise the money is that you you did it through like led by earnest capital yeah and and one of the things that you mentioned in that medium post is you say you say this some things we didn't do we didn't build a data room we didn't reform as a Delaware C core we didn't offer any board seats but what we did we built a pretty deck we composed a tight one pager we built financial models we just kind of talked us through those those handful of things like what did you what why did you not do a few of those conventional things why did you do a few of the conventional things and what did you learn along the way um okay that that's the loaded set of questions there let's see um I'll just pull some things out of a hat so you need a deck so we made one of those the one pager is really the only thing people generally read I don't I don't think I actually walk through that deck with a whole lot of people at the end most of the people that wound up investing in and crawl did so because I had a I had a some kind of a conversation with them either they were sold on it from the start and they were like yes I want to be part of this and a third of that money by the way was our own customer base so I didn't have to pitch them at all on the product of value yeah they already knew in fact um one of my one of my top angels who was really the first one to come on board and then help me bring some others on board as well reached out to me about a year before we started the race and said hey I just used an car love it how can I invest and I just said hey that's that's great we're not raising money right now but thank you and then I'm remembered that and I dug it out of my email history cuz I had no idea who this guy is email him and he turned out to be deadly serious okay he said which was awesome um because you never know it's random killing you mean it even if they're your customers um you know how much they mean something that so uh yeah so we built the deck we got the one pager um sorry what else did I say that I did and didn't do you you said you did build financial models yeah so I think that's actually important and I was um I was struggling a bit because I had never built a full SAS financial model before and I was sort of not that it was in it of itself hard to do but I wasn't quite sure like what are the things that I need to focus on where am i over modeling it doesn't matter you know looking a placeholder number and I came across a service called flight path which we which we use today and so far we're super happy with it you know it's still early days but it's been great and they actually have sort of a financial modelling as a service and what we got was not just that tool but a lot of sort of collateral advice along the way like hey you're going overboard try to model this there isn't that much variance there just plug in a placeholder number you can always go back sumit on something and then get more granular later that kite type of advice or what I'm you know what percentage that put in here for you know like payroll taxes and benefits I don't know like okay this much okay the salary advice like that just just dumb stuff um and it's actually it resonated with me because a lot of our customers get the same thing where they're working with end crawl they're making end credits for their film but a lot of them might be first-time filmmakers or any producers are coming to us they're saying how do I approach this like what orders do the credits normally go in you know some of them might have never done it before although they'll be like what what should the output be you know what a digital cinema standards and we sort of help them with all that it's not a core part of our service as such but they get a lot of collateral workflow advice along the way and so I was feeling the same thing from flight path and so we were able to build different financial models based on you know different different adoption rates and and you know we wound up going with a leaner way will be decided not to hire up right away but just take the current team make sure everyone is you know taken care of as insurance and learn to be a company but now full-time working together everyday and then grow slowly so but boy with models I don't think my investors actually look this shuttle sir more than you know a few minutes but we were able to show that we had done that work and actually thought about it yeah yeah what did was it a was it a an an asset that you had been at it for that there was there were so many years of financial data to draw from or was it a little bit did you ever get any pushback of like hey man you've been at this for six years why why isn't sure why isn't aren't your annual numbers better was it a was that an asset or liability along the way um I both but I think in the end it just helped us to separate you know the people who are going to be our partners from the ones who are not if people had serious reservations about like well aren't you why don't you multi millionaires after six years and cool then there probably weren't and right in measure not a fit for us yeah exactly exactly um but um luckily we had pretty solid fundamentals and we were able to make the case which I think is the correct one that we you know we could grow a lot faster if we can actually focus on this full-time yeah what what is the we need to wrap up here but I'm just kind of curious like what's the what is is there a larger vision for what for all of the components of making films that end crawl could improve with software that you've got your that you've got your eye on or are you are alright alright and and is the are you dead set on growing and crawls specifically to do end credits or no there are many many different components that we're gonna end up writing software for and attacking those what's yours are you how are you thinking through that strategically someone observe and I don't know who I'm I'm plagiarizing here so forgive me but the tech companies that succeed aren't the ones that make the best tech the ones that build the best distribution pipelines and one of the really interesting thing about and crawls we interact with thousands of productions I don't know any other company in the world that interacts with film and television and new media productions at the scale that we do and so what we're building is our touch points to thousands of content creators and tens of thousands of productions and projects there are all sorts of other adjacent products that we could deliver through that distribution pipeline and that's what we're really building right now mm-hmm that's that's really fascinating planning work and working listeners find and follow you online they can reach me on Twitter at I am Pliny that's I am PLI and why my co-founder is Allen grow ala and gr o W and they should also follow Tyler tragus and Ernest capital we didn't get a lot of time to talk about them but I think Ernest is a fascinating company obviously the baby hugely supportive of us and if their founders out there who are looking for an alternative to how they might fund their company they should definitely check on their nest yeah no doubt and you if that resonates just scroll back a handful of episodes Tyler was on the show my my guest today has been funny funny thank you so much for coming on the show thanks for having me it's been fun all right let's take a few minutes do a couple of closing thoughts here first thing I want to say off the top is that there will not be a new and episode next week I'm gonna take a week or maybe even two off and just get caught up on some things and I'll promise I will be back with more guests and more episodes coming your way very soon it's gonna take a week or two off here so I let's see I really enjoyed really enjoyed that conversation I just think it's so fascinating they're there they're there they're business this you know successful little thing inside of this niche you know niche market that that I wouldn't even have even thought to exist despite the fact that I've seen end credits roll you know thousands of times over the course of my life the the idea that you know software company can come along and say hey that that thing that usually takes you four to six hours maybe even sometimes an entire day you know we can we can knock that down to about 15 minutes how's that how's that sound I thought that was thought that was fascinating and so funny was also sure to mention you know charging from day one is it's really important like the idea that I think it's a tight little quote you know to keep in mind finding out that people will use your service for free is not information and so that is it's just obviously like it's definitely not somewhere that that you want to start yeah so so charging charging from the get-go it's the really fascinating piece of their of their business and the value that they are offering is that now that the now that the service is automated offering unlimited revisions or virtually unlimited I can't remember actually now if he said they get a hundred revisions or if they literally get unlimited revisions regardless offering that to their clients just it positions them so well they are so differentiated against the current status quo you know it just eliminates the anxiety of of their potential customers who are you know they're stuck in their current situation they I mean they've at least got it you know that they they know what they're going to do you got a you know send an updated Excel document over to you know so-and-so and you know a day or two later you're gonna get the the new render that's painful it'd be great if we could get it back faster if we could do a whole lot of them but I mean I don't know is the new thing going to be is the new thing gonna be any better or any easier and so they're being pushed away they don't like their current situation because it takes so long but I don't know is this is this new thing worth it and for int crawl to be able to say yeah no come on over here come on over here this is definitely gonna gonna work out for you and hey just just so you know you get unlimited revisions you don't have to worry about it's not like you're gonna have to learn some new piece of software and you gotta get it right the first three times otherwise we're gonna ding you again for another you know xx dollars it's just it's like a built-in built-in you know piece of al you that that is is so so solid for them and it I mean reinforces it like I'm sure in Carl probably wants their customers to make one revision per day and for the for the customer then to get better and faster with the tool and just becomes like a habit becomes part of their their everyday integral workflow I'm sure integral is more than happy for for customers to take them up on on all of those revisions yeah come back as often as you would like please continue to see how much time this saves you and how wonderful this is that's that's really great i gosh I wanted to the the bit about remote work as a superpower I definitely wanted to go down that rabbit hole with with Pliny I just been thinking about remote work a whole whole lot recently talking about it if any of you are following me on Twitter then then you know that I've been thinking about this and talking about it and and I'm even you know working on you know developing and doing some discovery on a product for remote teams a remote tool for remote teams and so you know that I've you know that I'm thinking about that and definitely want to go down the rabbit hole that would need to be a specific topic for another episode and so just needed to stay on stay on topic there were some other things about in Karl's business that that I really wanted to talk about with Pliny one of those things being that the concept of you know that that it they did they did work on it for years as a side project and could they have gotten where they are a little bit faster by outsourcing pieces of it I really I don't necessarily agree but I like that that he was so opinionated about the approach to to outsourcing and absolutely not under no circumstances did they consider it this software is our core you know it's our core offering it needs to be our absolute core competency you know we need to be able to get in there and respond and make those changes so I I think that that is a I think that is a perfectly rational and defensible approach and I think if if there is any if there is a piece of it that I that I do disagree with it would be that there's you know there's like this that what's the right way to think about this knows guess maybe kind of a spectrum or I can't think of the exact right visual here so if it comes to mind for you hit me up and let me know but the the idea that you know along if your side hustling if your boot bootstrapping your thing then you know at some point you are going to be waiting on somebody you are you're either waiting on yourself because this is the position that I'm in your other waiting on yourself because you have a you know your make your full-time salary job or you are if you're self-employed then you're you know probably hopefully you know spending your full time on on client work and so who are you waiting on well you're waiting on yourself to to find the time to continue to invest in the product to improve it for the customers that you do have or get it and from anybody period so the trade-off there is all right I can I can outsource this what what is my core product my core offering I can outsource this to someone else so that now I'm no longer waiting on myself I'm waiting on them but you know what they're gonna get to it faster than me trade-off is at some point down the road I'm going to end up writing rewriting 90 something maybe even fully a hundred percent of everything that they that they have done I'm willing to make that trade-off because it gets me to what I need to know faster eventually though when it is your full-time thing when you murrs in it and somebody needs an urgent an urgent it has an urgent request or needs bug fixed or something is wrong well then if you are if you're not the full-time developer if you're not able to get in there and make the changes yourself and you're waiting for a contractor then even waiting for a day or two days it's way too long and so I feel like I feel like that that's I don't know that's that's just the important trade-off to think about and understand there I don't want to forever outsource my core competency no doubt but Who am I going to be waiting on longer right now and at the point at which you are waiting on a outsource developer or contractor when you're waiting on them longer then it would take for you to set the side time aside to do it yourself at that point outsourcing no longer no longer makes sense I think that that is how that's how I see it that's how I'm thinking through it it could definitely be wrong let me know what you think as always love love hearing from you all let me know what you're thinking about the show is there anybody is there anybody you would love for me to reach out to you and and have on the have on the show as a guest you can find me on Twitter I am bewray that is BR h EA you can also go to bright and early podcast.com subscribe there anywhere you listen to podcasts as always thank you so so much for listening I will not talk to you next next week you'll probably hear from me the next week or the week after regardless thanks for listening and 39:48 next time


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