Danny Livermore photo in Madison

100stories: They said, “Stay in your box, and you’ll be successful.” I said no.

By Danny Livermore, as told to Violet Jinqi Wang

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the following response when I tell people I’m working on a startup.

“That’s so cool! Awesome! Good Luck?”

There is always this nuanced hesitation in their tone.

It’s as if they are saying, “We’re all rooting for you, but you’re probably going to fail.”

Their skepticism is understandable — 90 percent of new businesses fail within five years.

I’m in year one.

I came from a couple pretty prestigious corporate jobs. As a former engineer in the energy industry and a management consultant, I was in a position to achieve what many people would call success. But, I knew that would leave me yearning for more.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve looked for ways to create products that solve problems. When I was about four years old, I made a gadget that allowed me to smuggle coins to play video games during my sibling’s hockey practice without my parents seeing.

When I was working full-time, I kept a running list of 50 to 60 product or service ideas. In my time outside of work I tested some of the ideas out, and at one point I even had a physical product ready for the hunting industry. Unfortunately, the patent never went through. At my job, I had several opportunities to turn ideas into real products, which was the part I liked most.

Those opportunities gave me some personal validation but didn’t satisfy my itch for entrepreneurship. The energy industry is very by-the-book. It’s like, “Here is your box, now stay in it.” You can maybe stick your toe out, but not venture too far. I was inspired by coming up with new things, but most of my time was spent on the stewardship aspect of development — do this project, go to this mechanical engineer for approval, sit down and have meetings, more meetings, and endless paperwork. They’re all things that should exist in the industry, but not things that inspire me.

One of my most satisfying moments at my engineering job was a Thanksgiving break when everyone else went home and I stayed to work on some projects by myself. I had three days of quiet, with all this data. When my coworkers came back, I was so excited to show them what I had created, a new model that would really improve the way we developed products.  

That told me something. I would only ever be truly passionate about creating my own product, where success or failure would be all on me.

I worked a bit longer in engineering and gained some valuable experience in consulting, but eventually told myself that now is the time to give this a go. I was just about to turn 30. The longer I wait, the harder it will be to take a year with little to no pay. I knew if I didn’t go after this now, I’d regret it.

As an entrepreneur, I am not interested in a quick win or instant money-maker. I am not trying to create the craziest technology that everybody is flooding into. I don’t want to be the next blockchain guru. I want to solve problems that impact a large number of people, with technology and solutions that will create a lasting impact and improve people’s lives.  

I’m interested in helping improve relationships between people. That’s why I created Gift Guru, a service (website and future mobile app) that helps people plan, discover and give gifts to loved ones on holidays and important occasions. There are a lot of companies that focus on the receiving-end of gift giving — such as wedding registries and shareable wishlists. These services help users make sure they get the gifts they want, but they don’t do much to improve relationships. They also take away the surprise of receiving a thoughtful gift.

Maintaining relationships and making sure my family and friends know I’m thinking about them is important to me, but I haven’t been great at reflecting that in my gift-giving. Life is busy, there are many distractions, and it takes effort to maintain and grow relationships.  Gift Guru aims to take the stress out of this process.

With the beta version of Gift Guru up and running, I’m excited to test it out on myself. My mom’s 60th birthday is just under a month away, so Gift Guru reminded me to start searching for something unique and special. I’ve saved a handful of ideas on the app and am hoping they’ll make a great impression. I am excited to see how this service can improve my relationship as well as others’ with people they love.

It’s great to finally be able to test the product. Entrepreneurship is tough sledding, and has lots of highs and lows. Last fall was probably the toughest part so far.

Even though I’m a chemical engineer, I have limited direct software development expereince, so I’d classify as a non-technical founder. I hired a remote developer to build the minimum viable product.

Trying to get the product launched so I could actually show people the service was tough. Development kept hitting delays. Not being able to dictate timelines drove me insane. My biggest anxiety was my lack of control of my own business. There was this extreme helpless feeling when I wanted to meet certain demands, but there was little I could do, short of spending money I didn’t have, about it.

What I’ve learned through this process is that as an entrepreneur you have to have a lot of conviction behind what you’re trying to build. When you tell someone your idea, the feedback varies. Some people love it. Some don’t, but don’t want to hurt your feelings. And others may think it’s not a good idea and give you their two cents’ on why they think that. “Why don’t you do this?” Some of them highlight potential opportunities or identify key challenges with the business model, but many of them doubt the viability of the idea. And frankly, they might be right. But I try not to let these opinions influence my determination. The product’s success or failure will be determined when I have real data and real users.

For me, failure is not going after things I believe in, and not learning from situations where I am wrong. Yes, 90 percent of new businesses fail, but I wouldn’t say 90 percent of those entrepreneurs are failures. At the end of the day, whether Gift Guru is a successful business or not, I am sure that every day I am becoming a more productive and creative person throughout the process.

Having the courage to leave a place where success — in the traditional sense — was tangible and almost guaranteed, to enter a realm where most business don’t survive: That’s what I call success.

And that’s something I’m proud of going after.

Read next: 100stories: I am a Damn Bumblebee

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