A lifetime of entrepreneurship has taught Brian Rahill one thing: It’s not brains, or money, or business degrees, or even mastery of a subject that sets successful entrepreneurs apart from the rest. It’s hustle.
“I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I know that I can out-hustle many people,” Brian said. “Effort is something I have control over, and I have found that hustle can get you pretty far.”
Rahill, who has a degree in molecular biology, is co-founder and CEO of CourseStorm, a software startup in Orono that provides education organizations with an online course-registration platform. The company, which started as a side project within Brian’s web development company, hit several milestones last year: it surpassed 100,000 students who have used its platform to book classes, it was accepted into the LearnLaunch accelerator in Boston, and the company last fall raised $760,000 in its first equity round of fundraising.
I spoke with Brian about his entrepreneurial background, the importance of hustle in building a company, why it’s important to find a co-founder you wouldn’t mind being deserted with on an island, and why entrepreneurship isn’t a sprint. Enjoy.
Maine Startups Insider: What was your very first entrepreneurial experience?
Brian Rahill: In my life, I’ve always looked for ways to profit based on my own knowledge and hard work. In fact, there has only been one time when I worked for someone else. I started my first small business in middle school and that funded my lunchtime snack habit (and also led to my first HR problem!) and in high school my brother and I started a successful landscaping business that paid for most of our college education. That experience taught me a lot about customer service and also the value of having a partner that is detail and process oriented.
CourseStorm isn’t your first company. You founded RainStorm Consulting in 1999. Tell me more about that company.
When we moved to Maine in 1999, I started RainStorm, a web development and search engine optimization business. The Internet has changed a lot since then, but RainStorm is still going strong with a great team that builds beautiful, advanced websites for educational institutions and nonprofits across the U.S. They also have their own scalable product that they are building inside RainStorm. I am excited to see how they continue to grow and evolve.
How did the experience of founding RainStorm prepare you for CourseStorm? How were the experiences different?
Starting RainStorm was a big leap because my undergraduate degree was in a completely different field (molecular biology). But I knew I wanted to start my own thing and the Internet was (and still is) a pretty exciting place to do that. So taking that leap into a new venture with no formal training was a difficult but formative experience for me.
Rainstorm gave me a solid foundation in business and operations. Keeping an Internet company moving forward for 17 years means you have to weather all sorts of changes. RainStorm taught me to stay scrappy and to plan for the future. If you don’t continue to evolve, you’ll eventually wither and die. Those were all great lessons for starting CourseStorm. In fact, I’m still continuing to learn and grow all the time—that’s part of the reason I love this work.
I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I know that I can out-hustle many people. Effort is something I have control over, and I have found that hustle can get you pretty far.
When you first founded RainStorm, did you feel prepared? How about when you founded CourseStorm?
Well if “prepared” means you know what’s going to happen and you’ve planned for all the eventualities, then, absolutely not. However, to me, “prepared” simply meant having a vision of what I wanted to achieve, the confidence in my abilities to overcome challenges and the commitment to see it through. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I know that I can out-hustle many people. Effort is something I have control over, and I have found that hustle can get you pretty far.
For me there has always been the sense of trying to cross a raging river. At some point you have to decide when to shift your weight from one slippery rock to the next. If you keep doing that, step after step, you eventually get across. It’s a succession of manageable risks. I’ve also been privileged to have a lot of great people supporting me. That’s a safety net that has enabled me to continue to take risks.
How did you find/meet your co-founder Matt James?
I was really fortunate to hire Matt at my first company, 10 years ago. We worked together for a long time at RainStorm, and as we grew in knowledge and experience together, we also grew to really respect each other. Matt has been a critical part of the success at both companies. He was responsible for most of the early ideas around the product, and he’s just as committed to the vision as I am. Having known Matt for so long and worked together on so many different projects, it has really made working on CourseStorm a smooth process. Matt also fills in many of my deficiencies, so it’s really a great working relationship. I have a lot of personal respect for what he has done for CourseStorm.
What’s been the largest challenge you and your team have faced in starting CourseStorm?
If I had to pick one challenge, it would be around making the decision to fully invest my time and energy into CourseStorm. It was a hard decision to leave a successful company and start a new venture. It felt like I had already crossed the raging river and then I decided to do it all over again.
How have you overcome that challenge?
I’ve had a lot of great mentors that have helped me see the potential of CourseStorm and gave me the motivation to keep pushing. We were also fortunate to be accepted into the ScratchPad accelerator, and during that time I did a concentrated three-month stint at CourseStorm. That proved to me that adding my full energies to CourseStorm could really have a tremendous impact, and also that I could set up RainStorm in a way that would ensure its long-term health.
What personal challenges have you faced in co-founding CourseStorm?
Well startup life can be all consuming. No matter how fast you move, how smart you are, or how little sleep you get, there’s alway more and more to do. For motivated people, that can be both exhilarating and also very challenging, because you never turn off. It can seem like your head is always in that space, always turning over a problem, always trying to come up with the next creative solution. While you may be physically present, it can also make you mentally unavailable to the people around you. That’s tough. Key for me has been finding the time to shut down completely and renew so I can maintain my relationships as well as my physical and emotional health through the long haul—I sometimes need help remembering that.
How did you fund the launch of CourseStorm?
CourseStorm started as a side project. It got a little bit of love anytime we had some spare moments. We slowly invested more and more into it as it began to get traction in the marketplace. I am a firm believer in Lean Startup and developing a Minimal Viable Product (MVP). So we launched CourseStorm with a very minimal feature set and as we generated revenue we reinvested that back into the product. This enabled us make progress with very little funding. We also had substantial help from MTI along the way that was critical in helping us to build out the product.
You raised a Series A last fall. Why did you decide to take VC money?
Well, Matt and I looked closely at the growth trajectory of CourseStorm. We knew we could build a good company (albeit slowly) by continuing to bootstrap CourseStorm. However, with the investment we could move much more quickly and build an amazing company.
Any advice for founders who may be weighing the pros and cons of selling equity? When is it a good idea to take VC money and when should they try to avoid it?
For us it was the practice of actually sitting down and doing our financial projections with and without the equity investment. Once we had the confidence that the equity investment would get us to a much different place than bootstrapping, that was when the light bulb went off and we decided to raise the investment round. Of course the money always comes with strings. All of a sudden you have lots of other people interested in your business decisions. Some people view that as a negative, but for us that has been a plus, because we have a lot more people rooting for our success. The experience of our advisors, board members and investors has helped us to get additional insights and move more quickly.
Have you benefited from mentors? If yes, what impact has mentorship meant to your career?
Yes, I’ve benefited tremendously from smart mentors. That has been a key part of our success. I realized early on that no matter what problem we faced at CourseStorm, there are lots of other people who have faced similar problems and overcome them. So connecting with the right people and getting their advice can be hugely beneficial. MTI connected us with key early mentors like Betsy Peters (who chairs our board today). We are also fortunate to have a great team at the UMaine Innovation Center. People like Jason Harkins and others who seem to be willing to drop everything to help when we need them.
What are your long-term goals for the business?
Our goal is to build an amazing tech company here in Maine and follow the lead of others that have done that in this space. Financially our goal is to double our revenue every year for the next few years. That’s obviously not a small task, but we’re moving quickly in that direction and are beating that for 2017.
A lot of people think entrepreneurship is a sprint, and while you certainly have to move fast, understanding that success doesn’t happen overnight is crucial.
If you could give two pieces of advice to someone thinking of starting their own business, what would they be?
Don’t go it alone: Find a smart, trustworthy co-founder that you wouldn’t mind being stranded on an island with (because that’s what it’s going to feel like sometimes). Build a great team and expand your team’s capabilities by connecting with a smart group of advisors, mentors and board members. Maine is a great community in that way. I have found all of the entrepreneurs and experienced business people in the state sincerely want to help.
Stay in it for the long haul: A lot of people think entrepreneurship is a sprint, and while you certainly have to move fast, understanding that success doesn’t happen overnight is crucial. We have all faced a host of problems and challenges along the way and have had to get back up off the mat many, many times. Our culture likes to repeat stories of “overnight” successes, but in my experience this is more like a marathon.