Five Questions with Christopher Ashworth
Here's the second of guest blogger Mike Subelsky's posts interviewing local technologists.
I interviewed a few of Maryland's most interesting technologists to find out more about their successes, failures, and lessons learned; the interviews are lightly edited and condensed by me for the blogging format. The second interview is with Christopher Ashworth (at right), creator of QLab show control software. Chris' mention of "lots of small risks" brings to mind a Tim Ferris post about Bill Gates and Dave Troy's Idea Garden.
Q: Tell us a bit about your product.
A: QLab is a tool for designing the sound and video elements of live performances. When you go to CENTERSTAGE and you hear the sound of thunder rolling down from the back of the room and around the stage, followed by a soft melody and a telephone ringing? That's QLab. There is a computer somewhere in the room that is controlling how each sound is sent to each speaker, and how each video clip fades in and out and moves across the screen. It gives a designer very precise control over how a show sounds and looks every night.
Q: How did you get started as an entrepreneur?
A: You know, I think I got started as an entrepreneur the moment people started sending me money for my software. Usually it's supposed to happen the other way around. You're supposed to have a vision for a product, build it, and then sell it, and you think of yourself as an entrepreneur right from the beginning: you're making something to sell! But I made QLab because I was unhappy in graduate school and I wanted to work on something I loved. I only figured out later that the world wanted to pay me for it.
Q: What's been your biggest mistake so far, or which mistake have you learned the most from?
A: I'm trying hard to think of what my biggest mistake might be. I've certainly made plenty of mistakes, but it's hard to pick the biggest one. After thinking about it for fifteen minutes, I'm realizing that I don't have any single biggest mistake because I split them all up into small mistakes. In other words, I'll take a lot of risks, but none of them are very big. I'm always looking for the next baby step forward, instead of the next leap. I can still get where I want to go, and any one misstep doesn't kill me.
Q: What's been your biggest or most unexpected success so far?
A: In a way, the most unexpected success so far is that I have a company at all! The entire history of my product has been a story of me underestimating how much people want to use it. This turned out to be extremely beneficial. I started out by giving a basic version away, because I didn't know if anyone would want it at all, much less pay for it.
The product was good enough that this triggered a viral spread. As I began to realize it was taking off, I added a few "pro" features, and priced them very low. Again the thinking was, "well, okay, I'll sell a few of these, but it's not going to be a real job". Meanwhile the product became more and more popular, and along with requests for new professional-level features I started getting regular requests for new professional-level pricing. In other words, I was getting complaints that my price was too low.
At first I couldn't believe I was hearing this, but then I understood that my market was telling me they understood the value I was creating for them, and they understood themselves as a market, and they wanted to make sure I had a healthy company so we could keep improving this tool they needed. It was an unexpected and wonderful feeling to realize the company had entered a real, long-term relationship with an industry of professionals. It's cool when both sides recognize symbiosis at work.
Q: What is good about Maryland's climate for starting companies like yours? What's been helpful and what's been a hindrance?
A: The tech culture here was absolutely critical, but not in the ways I think are typically associated with fostering new companies. For example, I don't need, nor am I interested in, venture capital. What I needed was a place to learn how a small tech company runs, and how smart developers work together to ship products. As I began to build my own company, I was working my day job in just such a place. I got to sit in the room with the CEOs and watch them do their thing. I, a lowly programmer, got a crash course in business and management.
That's what's so cool about the Baltimore area. We have a lot of savvy, successful little tech companies like my former employer. We've got a lot of brains around here, and a lot of access to those brains. It means that people are learning by watching others, and that's the kind of catalyst I think will lead to new companies. It's about having enough education, not about having enough money.
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