On building MVPs and hiring technical teams: a conversation with Hitlist founder Gillian MorrisFeatured

I spoke with @gillianim, founder of Hitlist (http://www.hitlistapp.com/), a travel tech platform helping users find cheap flight deals for last minute travel. Although the business and travel sector are facing macro headwinds from COVID-19, Gillian shared timeless insights on becoming a founder, bootstrapping, creating minimal viable products (MVPs), and building teams. On becoming a founder, Gillian proposes a fascinating and useful framework: think of the experience as business school. She was 26 and had not yet found her passion but felt that through starting a company on her own, she would learn incredibly valuable lessons including and beyond what she would have learned in business school. Using the standard business school tuition cost and timeline (~200K for two years) as a guide, Gillian picked a backstop to take a calculated risk: she would spend up to 2 years and/or 100K on her business. If everything failed after these inputs, she would pursue something outside of entrepreneurship. But if she succeeded (and this she defined as an outside stranger investing in her company), she would continue. On building an MVP as a non-technical founder, Gillian recommends not relying on other people. Become technical yourself, even if you are not technically inclined to start. There are numerous resources available such as Lambda School, Code Academy (which Gillian used), and other coding bootcamps to help you ramp up quickly. Try not to waste much money on outsourced development teams and instead build, to the extent that you can, on your own and with your team. On building technical teams, Gillian went to every technically oriented meetup in NYC (where she was based at the time), including Python meetups and talks at MongoDB. She eventually met someone who introduced her to someone he met online who then introduced her to someone he met at SXSW, and this final person later became her CTO and co-founder (showing just how valuable each seemingly irrelevant collection may end up being!). Through these events, Gillian also met people who would go on to be Hitlist investors and early users. On hiring team members for startups, Gillian recommends finding people who have built up enough economic slack and have sufficient disposable income and corresponding risk tolerance to be able to look for something more interesting (and sit on the other side of the money versus interest trade off). You ultimately want to hire people who will be financially okay even if your startup fails, so it is critical to consider the context of prospective hires and stand in their shoes to evaluate their fit. Beyond this, look for people who have shown leadership and started something themselves (not just companies but also clubs or local initiatives, for example). Look for people who have gotten their hands dirty. Sometimes people with big corporate brand names on their resume tend to have a “hiring” mentality that is not a fit for startups. Specifically, when tasked with solving particular problems, these big corporate hires may not be comfortable or able to dive into the weeds and may default instead to hiring someone else to solve each problem. Moreover, the best hires can come from the most unexpected places. For example, one of the best people Gillian ever hired had actually first come to Gillian for advice on her own company but ended up joining Hitlist for 2 years and played a crucial role in laying the groundwork for their commercial viability. On weathering the current COVID challenge, Hitlist has incorporated a subscription business, is sharing with loyal customers ways in which they can still support Hitlist, is monitoring key performance indicators to ensure they have sufficient margin, and is focusing on special projects that would not otherwise be possible. On advice for her younger self and early career women, Gillian recommends getting the job of the assistant to someone in a leading position you would like to have some day. Her first corporate job was as an assistant and in hindsight, provided an excellent window into what it was like to be that aspirational person. Through developing a close and trusted relationship with this person, you are also better positioned for career growth and acceleration.
rachelbell's profile thumbnail
Curious, did she take a 100K loan or investment in that first year or was that her own money at 26? Since the 100K for school would be through a school loan, I was hoping to get clarification on how she had 100K at 26. I love these stories and short advice nuggets with founders. I would LOVE to see more stories on founders who were super scrappy and bootstrapped without tons of money upfront. I think you had one a few weeks ago about the fully boostrapped team and it was inspiring.What is the equivalent of building technical teams in a non-physical event world? I wonder if others are having success finding technical members in the covid area on other places online.
gillianim's profile thumbnail
Hi there! The $100k was my own money. After college, I lived an obsessively frugal life (for a while, I didn't buy a fridge, ate mostly canned food and rice & beans). I got a consulting job that paid six figures and was able to pay off my college debt and save up a nest egg to invest in my next phase.
rachelbell's profile thumbnail
Awesome. Thank you for the clarification! That’s impressive.
jessicali's profile thumbnail
Thank you so much for the read and note, Rachel! Tagging @gillianim here re your question.And definitely agreed re bootstrapped founders :) A few more pieces like this in the pipeline, and I am looking forward to sharing. And re building technical teams, would love to get Gillian's thoughts too but anecdotally have heard stories of people finding technical team members in developer communities online (or wherever developers in their particular vertical are spending time virtually), hiring marketplaces including AL, referrals, outbound content marketing, fruitful cold outreach, vertical specific recruiters,
madhupunjabi's profile thumbnail
Thanks for sharing this story! Gillian, can you tell us which courses you took and why? Sometimes the hardest part is figuring out what coding experience you’ll need.
gillianim's profile thumbnail
I started with the basic course on codeacademy.com, which focused on JavaScript first. Once I had some basics I just googled what I was working on and found a lot of help on stack overflow.
sophiehebdidge's profile thumbnail
I love this story, I'm currently building a business trying to help people exactly like Gillian. https://techniclarity.coIt's inspiring how Gillian was able to overcome the tech hurdles that she was presented with by teaching herself, it's something I 100% agree with!
jessicali's profile thumbnail
Thank you so much for the read and the comment!