September 22, 2019

Overcoming Technical Roadblocks to Build a Profitable Business

Robin Singh

Please introduce yourself (name, age, country, job before starting a company) and what you are working on

My name is Robin, and I am 39. I am from India and lived in the United States from when I was 23 to until a few years ago. Currently, I am the product lead for E-junkie, which is a copy-paste solution to sell downloads and more anywhere.

What’s your backstory and why did you decide to start a business?

When I was 17, I just wanted to read, hang out with dogs and go on walks. In 1997 I got access to the internet in India and the reality of how things work sank in when I started paying phone bills for my internet use. My first gig to pay phone bills was to collect download software demos, write them on waste partially burnt music CDs, and selling them in my college.

I saw tasks that I needed to do to make money as a means to an end something I had to do to buy time. The time that I can choose to spend on anything that I wanted to do. It was that freedom that gravitated me to working as a freelancer, instead of doing a regular job.

A misspelled email put me in touch with Danny, an ex punk-rocker and filmmaker in Tucson, and I ended up moving to the US in 2003. One of my side ventures was to sell a 4 dollar software utility online, which I then had to manually email to buyers. Tired of that, and unable to find a solution I then wrote a script to automate that task. Which led me to start another side venture of installing that script for musicians and ebook authors who wanted to sell their content on their website. Tired of that again, I decided to make a platform which will let them do that themselves, and that’s what became E-junkie in 2004.

I think that’s what I loved about the US the most; you get solutions for almost any problem you have, and when you can’t find a solution, you’ve most likely come upon a product idea for which there’s a market.

Describe the process of starting and launching the business.

I rented a few blades in a server farm called Opus1 across town and started coding. I didn’t need much money to start E-junkie and the code I wrote wasn’t complex. Having breadth helped me keep my momentum since I didn’t have to wait on someone to set up servers, fix the DNS, or create graphics.

I started my day job early in the day and then worked on E-junkie in the night. When it grew so large that I needed more hours, I hired the webshop I worked for using its Adsense income.

My approach has always been hackish – in any domain – from tech to now sustainable farming. I paid little attention to ‘good practises’. I’m an innovator – a problem solver – not a business person, and sales and marketing were foreign to me. So things were slow, but rapidly growing. It became clear then that my salvation would come from E-junkie itself, so I abandoned my content publishing website.

Around 2006, Google approached me asking if I was interested in being part of Google Checkout beta and implementing it in E-junkie. This was a game-changer. At that point, E-junkie was providing only PayPal Buy Now buttons for makers selling anything digital – files or codes. Most of the folks using E-junkie were artists, software developers, and authors.

To offer two different payment processors, E-junkie needed a shopping cart. At that point third-party carts were ugly, and as far as I remember they did not do digital delivery complete with files, and access codes, etc. So I started working on a cart that would work inside the merchant’s website in a lightbox. There was nothing like that at the time, and for good reason! There was no good tech to implement something like that. So I wrote my own, which I called JSOD (Javascript on demand). With some hacks, the JS code was generated on E-junkie servers and then embedded itself in the DOM of the page where our cart was being generated. I called it the “Fat-Free Cart”. This got widely popular, and we got on TechCrunch, and PayPal loved it so much that I was even on the banners of the PayPal Innovate Conference.

Our clients were still DIY artsy people who didn’t have the need for too many custom solutions. They liked us for the ease of use. We had dissolved the technological barrier to entry for enabling eCommerce on your website. Big companies like MTV or Google Kitchen even started using E-junkie.

I became a victim of my own success. From being a one man army, I now needed people for customer support, writing docs, and more developers – I needed to build a functioning business. Funny thing, although the whole idea of E-junkie had originated from not wanting to wake up in the middle of the night to manually deliver, I was now waking up in the middle of the night to reconcile any customer support email. My partner – Shivani – was helping me, but living and working together gives rise to a lot of personal tension too.

Hiring and team-building were again so alien to me (remember that I started coding to be away from people). For most of what I needed in life – buying things, selling things, help with moving – I went to Craigslist. I love the website, and I liked Craig. He actually responded when I sent him an email ?? So naturally, I posted a wanted ad on Craigslist, and I met Tyson – our first customer support person other than Shivani and me – and then later Thad, the second developer.

At this point, we had outgrown the server farm and we invested in buying a few boxes of our own – running CentOS, firewalls, switches, KVM, power strip with remote access the works and moved to Login, a highly secure co-lo facility. Not very long after moving we got DDoSed. Again, there were sleepless nights of manually finding and adding the offending IPs to the firewall. Luckily for us, there was a startup called RioRey which shipped us two of their boxes overnight. I was able to work with them to modify the firmware and add a feature that helped us tweak its filtering for the attack specific to us.

As you can see, a lot of the initial years were overcoming very tangible technical hurdles. Things which seem so simple and stupid now that we have AWS.

E-junkie did not start with a grand vision or a master plan. I and Thad just kept adding what our clients wanted. Most features we added helped us bring more clients.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Since the beginning we have focused on two things – one, getting artists up and running under 5 minutes, and two, making the solution available at just 5 dollars a month. So the ease of use for selling digital goods, and competitive pricing attracted clients.

The credit of retaining them goes to Tyson and Josh, who go above and beyond the customer support….