Five Lessons I Learned Founding OnShift From My Cleveland Basement

More than a decade ago, I moved to Cleveland from San Francisco and started a brand new company called BAZMANsms. Today, the company I launched from my basement employs nearly 150 people, has thousands of customers across the U.S., has raised over $33 million in capital and is showing no signs of stopping.

What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of BAZMANsms? That’s probably because it isn’t called BAZMANsms anymore. You know it by a different name—OnShift. And while I could fill an entire book with stories about this amazing time in my life, I thought I’d start by focusing on five key points that might help some of you hard-chargers who are just getting started.

Everybody Pivots (But That Doesn’t Make It Any Less Painful):
BAZMANsms certainly didn’t start out as a “scheduling and labor management software for nursing homes”. In fact, we had a very different business model–a “free mobile test messaging service designed especially for the Jewish community.

Laugh if you want, but it was a unique idea at the time and we were headed for success, right up until a lucrative contract with a huge local organization fell through. That’s’ when things really got interesting.

Being a stubborn entrepreneur (is there any other kind?), I immediately started looking for other new ways to package our platform for other industries, but nothing seemed to work. For what seemed like ages, we crept slowly toward implosion. It’s hard to describe the feeling you have during this time until you’ve been there (and you will be). It’s more than uncertainty—it’s a unique mix of competition, desperation and pure unadulterated terror!

I fully expected to run out of time and find myself back at the starting line. Then one day, a friend at a dinner party who worked in healthcare was describing the problem of trying to alert his staff of nurses about shift openings. We realized my technology could help and after a blurry period of intensive research, I officially changed the name of my company to “StaffKnex – alerts and reminders for nursing homes.”

Investors Love Milestones (Customers Help Too):
I could tell right away that I was on the right track with StaffKnex because investors actually started taking me seriously. And as it often does, what it really came down to was networking. Someone connected me to someone, who connected me to someone else who directed me to a group of investors (including Charlie Stack) that were looking for their next company to back.

As we started the long, complicated investor dating dance, I quickly learned that what investors really care about are your milestones—specifically, whether or not you can set them and then meet them with anything approaching consistency.

I still remember the moment when I finally made my breakthrough with my earliest investors. It was the day I received a signed contract from Montefiore, one of the largest nursing facilities in Cleveland. The very next call I made was to my potential investors, asking them when I would get my $250k. I enjoyed that call very much.

Grow First, Then Get Paid:
Closing my first round of funding didn’t make me rich. Not even close. What it did was finally allow me to bring my engineering partner on full time. He had been hacking away at our code evenings and weekends for nearly a year while I hustled to grow the company.

Most people are not crazy enough to go without a paycheck for this long. But most people aren’t crazy enough be entrepreneurs either. Fortunately, I was. I was also fortunate enough to be able move my young team into a fantastic facility at Corporate College complete with working space, computers and supplies. The bill? $300 for the entire year of 2008. This is the way you grow, especially in a place like Northeast Ohio—lean and mean.

Know What You Don’t Know:
As I got to work on raising my next round, I came into contact with JumpStart, North Coast Angel Fund and others with whom I build lasting connections. I also made one of the smartest decision I’ve ever made as an entrepreneur—I hired a great CEO.

Mark Woodka was already part of my investor team at the time. He had also been the point man on fundraising for another successful startup—Flashline. It wasn’t easy for me to bring in someone else to lead the company I started, but if we were going to keep growing, I needed to focus on building the product and business.

Although Mark and I butted heads on regular basis, I kept to my commitments and he always pulled us through. He was a fantastic mentor and he is still with the company today—a company that just finished raising an $18 million round of funding.

Oh, I almost forgot. This is where we finally settled on the name OnShift. Turns out, customers thought StaffKnex sounded too much like a staffing company and it was hurting our sales. Did I enjoy getting this feedback? No, I didn’t. Was it fun changing our name, yet again, this far along in the game? No, it wasn’t. But if you’re smart, you’ll learn when to dig in and when to listen.

You Can Do It Here:
Keeping true to my entrepreneurial nature, in 2014 I partnered with one of our OnShift clients to launch another startup in the same industry. I also chose to use my experiences with OnShift to start mentoring other entrepreneurs trying to grow their ventures.

Today I work as an Entrepreneur-In-Residence for JumpStart and the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI), two fantastic organizations that do a great deal to support entrepreneurs like me in Northeast Ohio.

Like all entrepreneurs, I love to tell old war stories. But the real point of all this is to tell you that I truly believe Northeast Ohio is one of the best places in the country to start a technology business.

As a west coast transplant who has walked the talk, I think I’ve earned the right to make this statement. Like any region, we have our challenges, but there is a so much potential here for smart, fundable entrepreneurs, and no shortage of people and organizations eager to help.

Don’t believe me? Drop me a line and I’ll point you in the right direction.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn