From Zero to Nasdaq: The unconventional journey of a startup founder

Born in a small village in northern Ethiopia, my journey to Canada in 1983 marked the beginning of a life filled with challenges and uncharted territories. Mistaking snow for wheat flour and falling prey to deceitful drug dealers were just a couple of the initial stumbling blocks I encountered. Nevertheless, armed with resilience and a penchant for innovative and unconventional strategies, I overcame these hurdles to carve out a path as a lifelong entrepreneur. This is a brief history of my first startup, exploring the mindset that propelled me forward and the lessons it holds for aspiring founders.

Fresh out of university, I faced a wall of rejection from job applications likely due to my lack of experience. With no prospects in sight, I sought counsel from trusted family and friends. While some suggested further education or a traditional job path, neither resonated with me. Despite my student loan burden and familial expectations, I resolved to chart my own course.

Launching a startup with no financial backing or practical experience was a daunting endeavor. Yet, I was fueled by a belief in the boundless potential of determination and began to brainstorm ideas. It was 1996, and the Internet was on the brink of revolutionizing the world. My challenge was to figure out how to harness this burgeoning technology to offer services or products that would resonate with consumers. My first venture was a software that streamlined the cumbersome process of dial-up Internet access, which quickly gained popularity. This success led to a partnership with two fellow university alumni who were already in the dial-up service business, and together we established NetNation, specializing in web hosting and domain name registration.

NetNation flourished, attracting sizeable investments to fuel our global expansion. From Silicon Valley to London, I immersed myself in the challenges of international business, gaining invaluable experience along the way.

As the internet bubble swelled to its peak in 1999, acquisition offers flooded in, tempting us with promises of wealth. Instead, we defied convention and pursued a Nasdaq listing, propelling our market cap north of $250M USD. This newfound prosperity was not solely for shareholders; it was also shared with our dedicated employees. We rewarded early hires with ample stock options and the rest of the 100+ employees were given an all-expenses-paid vacation to Mexico. But when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, our fortunes took a nosedive, threatening the very existence of our company.

As CEO, I faced the toughest decisions of my career. With survival on the line, I made the painful choice to downsize, cutting staff and restructuring our operations. Through grit and determination, we weathered the storm, emerging stronger and more resilient.

The most challenging segments of the NetNation journey were its inception and conclusion. The middle phase was relatively easy, benefitting from the Internet’s golden age when a name with .com was all that was required to secure funding. However, personal development and wisdom were gained from the trials and struggles at both the beginning and the end.

The start was hard because we had no startup fund and no one understood what we were doing, making it hard to raise financing. We had to use innovative ways (guerrilla tactics) to survive. From marketing to finance, everything we did required a lot of creativity and hard work including bartering, sending hand written coupons to businesses, and displaying banners at sporting events.

We also cultivated an image of being more substantial than our actual size, which helped us negotiate advertising discounts, attract skilled workers, and eventually secure investments. For instance, I reached out to Mark Cuban via email, claiming we were the largest hosting entity in Vancouver, Canada, with a growth rate of 200% annually, deliberately omitting our modest total revenue. Cuban’s willingness to consider a visit, which was only thwarted by his company’s acquisition by Yahoo for $5 billion shortly after, was an unexpected yet affirming response.

The latter stage of NetNation’s journey mirrored the initial hardships, partly due to a sense of complacency that crept in during the prosperous internet days. We hired high-salaried executives and consultants and entered into costly advertising deals, which were sustainable only while the capital influx was steady. Our focus also shifted to ancillary ventures, including a subsidiary aimed at rivaling Redhat with a novel Linux distribution. However, the dot-com bubble burst abruptly, leaving us teetering on the brink of insolvency. Salvation came only through drastic measures, such as shutting down the subsidiary that had drained $4 million USD, terminating consultant contracts, and reducing our workforce by half. NetNation survived the dot-com crash but was eventually acquired by Hostway Corporation, bringing my inaugural entrepreneurial adventure to a close.

Reflecting on my journey, one guiding principle shines bright: the willingness to embrace risk and forge own path. From humble beginnings to Nasdaq triumph, my story is a testament to the power of unconventional thinking and guerrilla tactics in the startup world.

In the end, it’s not just about navigating challenges—it’s about embracing them as opportunities for growth and innovation. And for every aspiring startup founder, the path less traveled may just lead to extraordinary success.”

1 thought on “From Zero to Nasdaq: The unconventional journey of a startup founder”

  1. Joe,
    Ah yes, your entrepreneurial odyssey is a captivating tale that deserves to be etched into the annals of startup lore. From your humble origins in a remote Ethiopian village to the dizzying heights of a Nasdaq listing, this narrative is a masterclass in resilience, ingenuity, and an unwavering commitment to forging one’s own path.

    What strikes me the most is your audacious defiance of convention from the very outset. While your peers sought refuge in the well-trodden paths of traditional employment or further education, you boldly embraced the untamed wilderness of entrepreneurship.

    I believe that your decision to pursue entrepreneurship paved the way for a remarkable journey that would push the boundaries of what was thought achievable.

    Your ascent is a testament to the power of guerrilla tactics and unconventional thinking. From leveraging the nascent Internet to streamline dial-up access to forging strategic partnerships that propelled NetNation’s meteoric rise, your story is a masterclass in disrupting the status quo.

    The anecdote of your audacious outreach to Mark Cuban, portraying NetNation as a behemoth in its infancy, is a prime example of the bold, imaginative strategies that paved your path to success.

    Yet, what truly elevates your narrative is your unwavering resilience in the face of adversity. The dot-com bubble’s burst, which decimated countless startups, could have been the death knell for NetNation. However, your steadfast leadership and willingness to make tough decisions, such as downsizing and restructuring, ensured the company’s survival and eventual acquisition.

    It seems that throughout your journey, your commitment to sharing success with your team shines through. From rewarding early employees with stock options to treating the entire workforce to an all-expenses-paid vacation, you exemplify the notion that true leadership is not just about personal triumph, but about uplifting those who contributed to the collective vision and success of your startup.

    In the end, your story is a resounding affirmation that the path less traveled can lead to extraordinary success. Your willingness to embrace risk, defy convention, and forge your own path has etched your name into the annals of startup legends.

    For aspiring entrepreneurs, your journey serves as a beacon of inspiration, a reminder that with unwavering determination and a touch of unconventional thinking, even the most improbable dreams can be realized.


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