“Naively optimistic” – this was my opening to a blog post I wrote for Errant Science five and a half years ago, when Overleaf was approaching its fifth anniversary. Five years later, Overleaf is now ten, and after leading the team there for close to a decade I’ve recently moved into a new role at Digital Science. So I figured it was time to write the follow-up to that blog post, and Matthew kindly agreed 😊

That original post was published on the last day of July 2017, only a fortnight after a pivotal moment in Overleaf’s growth: on the 17th July 2017 the Overleaf and ShareLaTeX teams joined forces to create a combined community of over two million users. It’s hard to believe that event was over five years ago, and I had to explicitly count it out when my co-founder recently pointed out that more than half (!) of Overleaf’s existence is post-merger.

Today, a decade after we first launched our online collaborative writing platform, the world stands on the cusp of a new revolution; the explosive rise of ChatGPT (and now GPT4), and before that, Dall-E and StableDiffusion for image generation has created a whole new field of content creation based on prompt engineering – being able to tailor your requests to these new large language model (LLM) based systems. The AI field itself is also seeing a rapid growth in new industry-led research (e.g. OpenAI, Microsoft Research, Meta, Google), conceptual observations (e.g. theory of mind) and new services (e.g. ScribbleDiffusion) all looking to further develop, understand and ultimately to exploit the potential seemingly on offer. 

This creates a huge opportunity for innovators who can use this new technology to solve a real-world problem – ideally solving a problem that they themselves encounter daily, as there’s no better early validation than finding yourself naturally using your prototype/MVP because it makes your life easier. Once you have an idea for how to solve a problem, and some evidence that this is a problem a lot of people have, the next simple step is to found a start-up company, right?

Yes and no. I’ll just come out and say it: running a business is hard work. I know that sounds like a “well, duh!” kind of statement, but it feels worth saying, because when we talk about start-ups we often focus on the exciting, glamourous opportunity it presents, rather than the hard parts that come with it. Perhaps I should expand it to say:

“Founding a start-up is exciting; running a business is hard work”

which, as Mark Hahnel pointed out to me (he read an early version of this post!), is a variation on the saying “ideas are cheap, execution is expensive”.

However you phrase it, this is where your naive optimism is required; if you don’t have a glass-half-full attitude, and the ability to focus on what needs doing right now rather than worrying too much about the future, it’s almost impossible to make a start-up a success, at least in my experience.

It’s one reason why investors focus so much on the founding team – they’re looking for the mix of domain expertise coupled with an optimistic enthusiasm that will translate into a determination to get things done and make things work. Of course that’s not all that’s required: luck—and the ability to take advantage of lucky breaks—is almost always a factor in a successful founder’s story.1

In the case of Overleaf—having founded it as a new SaaS start-up with John Lees-Miller in late 2012—the early days really were as fast-moving as you’d expect for a new company. We’d quit our previous jobs to work on it full time, and it quickly became all-consuming; when you’re just two people working on something, the more hours you put in really do translate into more direct output in a way that’s just not as first-hand once a business has scaled.

Our first setback was failing at the interview stage at Y Combinator, which I covered in part one of this blog – it’s where the optimism had to kick back in (and it did) as soon as we got back to London following that trip.

We went on to be accepted onto the relatively new Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV) start-up accelerator programme in London, which focused on “Tech for Good” – businesses aiming to have a transformative societal impact as well as a commercial opportunity.

A fresh-faced John and I at BGV posing for a start-up’s obligatory “headshot in front of a brick wall” 🙂

We were fortunate to be part of a really excellent cohort of founders in the Spring 2013 BGV intake. As well as having excellent mentors in Paul Miller and Laura Bunt, we were in the same cohort as the amazing Sue Black, founder of #techmums (who once had to skip Friday pitch-practice because she was…speaking at the UN 🤯) along with James, Andy and Alice, the founders of Piclo (then known as Open Utility) to name just a couple of the brilliant teams.2 

And, whilst we were in a strong position at the time – we had users! – we were still very green when it came to knowing what to do with that traction. Our time at BGV definitely helped, as I’ll come on to later in the post.

We were also incredibly lucky with our first hire – Tim Alby – who joined us early on at BGV. We were lucky that Tim took a chance on us at a time when we only had a small amount of funding from BGV and a trickle of B2C subscriptions providing revenue.

Thankfully Tim accepted our offer, and we hired one of the best all-round (full stack) developers I’ve ever worked with. His ability to get stuff done quickly, efficiently and in a way that smashed expectations out of the park helped us transform the early WriteLaTeX site much faster than we could have on our own. 

Tim also brought a fresh perspective just when we needed it, as my co-founder John Lees-Miller eloquently summed up in this short paragraph:

“One of Tim’s first jobs was to sort out our website, which John and I had “designed”. (If you ever want to embarrass us, you should find some screenshots of that old website!) Tim grabbed a bootstrap theme and did something a thousand times better.” 

John Lees-Miller, Co-founder and CTO, Overleaf

This was just the first of many important contributions Tim made over the following months and years, and it’s fair to say that Overleaf would not be where it is today if we’d not convinced Tim to join us as our first-ever hire.3

Hiring Tim also enabled John and I to focus on the many other things we needed to do as the user numbers continued to shoot upwards and time ticked forward on the BGV programme.

At the BGV demo day pitch, three months after the start of the programme—which I still look back on as one of my favourite pitches I ever did, in part thanks to the excellent crowd and great videography in capturing it—we got a great reception and had another piece of luck; we caught the eye of an angel investor in the audience who liked the pitch, and after a follow up meeting a few days later, he became our first committed angel investor. 

Incidentally, one of the reasons he was keen to catch us after the pitch was because his wife was a researcher in academia. He hadn’t directly shared our experiences of the frustrations in writing up a paper, but his wife had, which gave him added confidence that we weren’t just making everything up! This might seem like a throwaway comment, but it’s important: it helps illustrate why it’s good to be open-minded, and always polite/friendly when networking – you rarely know someone’s background / outside interests when meeting them for the first time, and are unlikely to know anything about their relations; in our case, it provided a natural connection and made the follow up meeting very simple. He also introduced us to further angel investors, and has been a good friend ever since.    

Through BGV we were also reintroduced to Digital Science, as Paul Miller knew Timo Hannay (founder and MD of Digital Science at the time). I say reintroduced because we’d already met—and been rejected by—Digital Science earlier that year… It’s funny how things work out!

How did we get rejected by Digital Science? Before we joined Bethnal Green Ventures, we had just launched an integration with another start-up, figshare. We were in touch with Mark Hahnel, figshare’s founder, and he pointed us in the direction of the Digital Science Catalyst Grant, which was open to applications

The Digital Science Catalyst Grant webpage as it was in March 2013 – thanks Wayback Machine!4 

This seemed like an excellent fit – it was offering both mentoring and funding of £15k for early-stage ideas in the scholarly communications space, and was definitely the hottest lead we had at that point. However, we were unsuccessful in that application for a couple of (related) reasons: 

(1) we hadn’t yet learnt how to properly frame what we were doing in a wider context – exactly what BGV helped us to do on that programme. Because of this, even though we had users (i.e. traction), what we were doing didn’t look as attractive as a competitor who (unbeknownst to us) was also applying for the same grant! 

(2) we were almost entirely focused on the end-user (i.e. the authors using our collaborative writing tool), and although we alluded to the benefits this could bring to the wider scientific / publishing industries, we weren’t convincing in how WriteLaTeX might improve those established workflows. Because the end-to-end workflow—all the way from researcher to publication (and beyond)—was a key focus for Digital Science, if we’d been able to articulate how we fit into that more clearly we would have made it easier for the team assessing us to be confident we could build on our end-user traction and turn it into something that naturally fit with the Digital Science vision.  

So the Catalyst Grant went to our competitor and we joined the BGV programme at around the same time in May 2013. At the time we thought we’d blown our chance with Digital Science, but thanks to Paul we reconnected with them and secured our crucial seed investment in the summer of 2014. Later on, I learned that, far from damaging our chances, our failed catalyst grant application was actually quite an important part of our subsequent successful fundraiser. Here’s why: 

Firstly, we hadn’t let failure put us off – despite not getting the grant, we’d continued on. That showed determination. 

Secondly, not only had we continued on but usage had grown rapidly; we were at about 8,000 users when we pitched the Catalyst Grant, and this had risen to over 25,000 by the BGV demo day. This showed significant traction, and importantly, significantly better traction than the competitor they’d given the grant to. 

Finally, when we re-pitched to Digital Science, we addressed a lot of the concerns they’d raised (either directly or that we’d picked up on) – we used a placeholder new name (as they hadn’t been taken by “WriteLaTeX”, a better colour scheme, and overall framed the product in the wider market context. This showed we weren’t just product people, but understood the importance of good communication and positioning (and that we’d listened to their feedback!).

I ran a draft of this article past Steve Scott, our main point of contact in the investment discussions (and now a good friend!), and he provided the following comment from his perspective. 

Despite our initial pass, the Overleaf team listened to, and acted upon, our feedback and were in constant contact to share progress on their growth. Investors should be allies, and the best way to make an alliance work is to show willingness to adapt on both sides.” 

Steve Scott, Director of Portfolio Development, Digital Science

He also shared an email note he wrote internally in early 2014 during the key parts of the discussions: 

“I agree that WriteLaTeX is the better option… It’s a strong, receptive founding team, a product with paying users and institutional pilots already underway.”

And so although it took approximately nine months in total to complete the deal (Oct 2013 – July 2014), when the investment went through it was a major milestone – we now had the credibility of being backed by Digital Science whilst still keeping the autonomy needed as a small team.

In part III of this series I’ll look at how we made use of that and subsequent investments, how it enabled us to grow both the product and the team, and how Overleaf and Digital Science have expanded and evolved together into the (relatively!) mature companies we are today 🙂 

Cheers,
John

PS: If you enjoyed reading the above and also like listening to podcasts, you’re in luck! I recorded one a couple of weeks ago: a conversation with John Hammersley. Or follow me on LinkedIn / Twitter for future stuff 🙂

Footnotes

1. I think this point is well captured in Taleb’s “The Black Swan”, which I highly recommend reading; the key point related to maximizing opportunities for luck is on p208-209 of the first hardback edition.

2. There’s an excellent three-part documentary of the 2013 BGV programme available on Vimeo: Part1, Part2, Part3. Watching it again now, the first thing that strikes me is that we all look so young! But there’s also a palpable sense of excitement (and nerves!) in the air; we really were all there to change the world.

3. Tim was also our first “digital nomad”, and a major reason why Overleaf became fully remote very early on, well before the pandemic forced it on much of the world. Tim would frequently make us jealous with a view looking out on a beach/lake/mountain/woodland when logging into calls 🙂 He shared some of his experiences on the Digital Science blog a few years ago.

4. The Catalyst Grant programme is relaunching with a new series of challenges later this year! Keep an eye on their current site for details.

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