My small garage startup company — Astrography has lived to see A.D. 2021

Who would have thought that I would love large format printers one day. First real office — August 2019.

We live in times where everything has to be big, flashy, and colorful. What if we were to ask ourselves if there’s any other way? There are so many books that try to answer this question, but at the same time, our surrounding environment displays so few practical examples.

That’s why I’ve set this goal for myself some time ago — to try and “do it” in a different way. To build a company with foundations of diamond quality. With no hustling, no forced media appearances (especially if I have nothing to say), without any of that glitzy lifestyle. A company that is completely independent of external capital and the need to continuously lend it in exchange for invaluable shares (I prefer this word to “fundraising”). But what if slower didn’t necessarily mean worse? Wouldn’t that be a discovery?! — something like a “circle”, because that is how all typical companies around the world have been established since the dawn of time.

If you have children, you’ve certainly at least once heard the term “stress-free upbringing”. It’s probably one of the most misunderstood and underestimated phrases about upbringing. After all, a stress-free upbringing is a wise and conscious approach to the subjectivity of children, teaching them about rules, barriers, limitations, but also about self-determination, confidence and responsibility for themselves and the environment. Cortisol is a stress hormone and any excess of it disables that, which evolutionarily defines us as homo sapiens — our cognitive abilities. I think the same can be said about the business, that is after all a one big battlefield, where problems are solved in real-time. Stressed and busy CEO, who’s burdened with debts, thousands of obligations to partners and creditors, won’t be able to create a great living space for himself, his employees or his business partners. Especially in the case of the first stages of business incubation, when everything is on his mind and on his hands. Statistically, this has to end badly and it’s time to start measuring more than just business metrics. The mental health and hygiene of the founders (advice for VC) also have to be measured. I’m sorry to inform you that at this point that such metrics haven’t even become popular yet, or at least I don’t know anything about it.

IoT Rock Star from Intel, Cisco, T-Mobile. London 2015. With Intel Vice President: Christian Morales and my friend & mentor Bartek Pucek (Global Strategy and Operations Manager @ IKEA).

Slow-food, slow-life, slow-sex, slow-business

I’ve spent the last few years building a very ambitious company, which at some point was perceived as a textbook example of a super-startup. A well-funded company with great visibility in the international media and a unique product with considerable social potential. Innovation is great and very important, but at some point it may turn out that:

  1. you’re living in the wrong place in the world (the rate of local diffusion of innovation may not be sufficient),
  2. the time needed to commercialize an innovative technology, for which there’s no market yet, is much longer and more expensive than you originally thought,
  3. getting another round of financing if you haven’t built rock-solid traction, and preferably profitability is really difficult in this part of the world. Regardless of the social values of the project, there aren’t many entities that’d be able to finance a risky 10-year vision.
  4. you’re not an authoritarian shark eating divergent decisions for breakfast. I’m convinced that only the people who love the dictatorship style of management may have a chance to overcome the impossible. For young startups, there’s no time for second-guessing or collegial decision-making. At the very early stages of building a company you’re surrounded by a lot of people and each of them has something wise to say, then your business will start to look like a one-person raft that 20 other drowning people are trying to climb. Listening to all wiser than you advisers is overrated (in the beginning). Vision, focus, goals and consistency are more important than 20 great tips or new concepts. It’s much easier to make decisions on your own.
  5. Finally, it may turn out that nobody will need your hyper-innovative product for anything (I don’t wish you to be put in this worst-case scenario).
Recognition for the best technology startup from PricewaterhouseCoopers, Newsweek, Ministry of Economy (Deputy Polish Prime Minister Janusz Piechociński). Be careful — awards and catching the attention of politicians gives cool pictures for your wall, but is too much of a distraction for young company. Case closed.

I made a very profound examination of my conscience after I subconsciously felt that this type of paradigm, which I observed in the industry, is not my cup of tea. Thanks to the process of externalization (putting everything on paper) and hours of discussions with my friends, I was able not only to identify what works and what doesn’t but above all to find myself. I am aware that it sounds like trivial coaching. Nevertheless, it’s worth to rationally determine your expectations towards life and to try and set them accordingly to your own varying needs. This requires three things: analysis > plan > action (I sincerely recommend The Bullet Journal Method and don’t be discouraged by the fact that the keyword has been taken over by teens drawing flowers in their notebooks). A little remark: you might have noticed an inaccuracy here: 2 paragraphs above I wrote that you shouldn’t listen to wise people — that’s not entirely true. During the planning stage, the so-called extensive wisdom is important, but later when you pursue a specific stage/goal, strict decisions, focus and consistency of action are absolutely crucial.

With all of this in mind, I’ve found that I needed to completely reorganize my life. Turns out that 90% of the things I do and surround myself with are completely unnecessary to me, and most definitely totally incompatible with my mindset and needs. It’s very unpleasant to realize how much time in your life you’ve spent doing things that you wouldn’t like to do and that don’t bring any value to anyone. This is unfortunately quite common. We all fall into this canon of the modern “correct” life. I am afraid that it’s quite often that the influence of external factors is greater than our inner common sense.

If it was an option, I’d prefer not to run a business or earn money at all. It seems that I just simply don’t like it. Unfortunately, neither my environment nor my financial situation allows me to set up a foundation (like for example Bill Gates with his wife). So it remains to once more “get your hands dirty”, albeit this time crucially different. With this decision, in September 2019, I started implementing the plan.

Bashful pre-incubation

The plan was absurdly simple: among the projects I had, identify the one that had automation and scaling potential, but most importantly the one that will allow me to create a very simple product that wouldn’t require a 20-page presentation to explain to someone what it’s for and how it works. Additionally, of course, it had to make use of my 25-years worth of professional competences. There was one more key condition: it has to be able to sustain itself from its own operations. I’d prefer not to fall asleep anymore “because I owe someone something and I am not 100% sure whether I’ll earn enough for it” (the bank, VC or other FF&F). Generally, I noticed that an essential element of my happiness is minimizing obligations. By the way: this condition completely eliminated services that make us forever indebted to someone. I’d like to remind you that for most of my professional life I was involved in graphic design, advertising, etc. I love it and hate it at the same time.

That’s how Astrography was born.

Lately, there’s a trend to say that a project has been a result of a coincidence. However, in our case, this time, that’s not what happened. It was a well-thought-out and consulted turn of events. After all, this project has been in the making in many forms since 2003 — absolutely non-commercial, with no hint that it could ever be something to earn a living for my family and a few other people.

Today the company is “tyrannized” by me, I am responsible only to myself for all the decisions. I no longer have to wonder whether making a decision “A” will offend my partner, or whether I’ll become a dictator as a result, which, in many companies often leads to delayed decisions, or worse — no decision at all. This is my world and my mistakes — I take responsibility for them. To be clear, we discuss in the team, learn and advise each other. But I’ve to know that the final decision is mine (even if I have doubts that accompany any decision). Others also have to know it and not have the slightest problem with it. The condition of trust is based on the sine qua non.

My current partner and friend for over a decade — Artur Kurasińki @ Astrography. Feb 2020.

At the beginning of Astrography, Artur Kurasiński joined this family initiative (me & my wife). Imagine that he had no problem with this management model. I think he might even like it. For so many years he’s seen and heard so much that he probably already knows that there’s no other way. Entrepreneurs are a bit like racehorses. You can pamper them, caress them, feed them well, but when they start running, there isn’t much you can do. Any attempt to influence the jockey will end up terribly.

Astrography in the “garage”. July 2019. Yes, I lost my living room.

The Birth

The company started out in a pitifully modest setting — not even a garage, which nowadays sounds more profound. We knew that each next step in its development would be made only after meeting the previous goals. Well, if you want to buy something and you have no money — you’ve to earn it. It’s simple, isn’t it?

Our living-room, where we installed the first large-format printer, was completely degenerated over the next few months. One day our daughter asked: “Will it ever be normal in our house again?” It so happened that shortly after this incident the number of orders skyrocketed, so we had to urgently move to our first official headquarters. Still very modest (the cost of ~60m2 was good enough for Excel). The Jesionkiewicz Family housing-crisis has been resolved.

New Astrography studio. 2020.

We strategically assumed that only both of us (me & Dorota) would work full-time in the company. This allowed us to achieve several important goals:

  • meet the realistic needs of our clients,
  • fine-tune the product (“good enough” to sell globally, but for now not one bit better — we didn’t want to overdo it at this stage)
  • learn the specifics of this business and realistically adjust the strategy and the Excel sheet (logistics, packaging, the nuances of global logistics, duties, taxes, etc.),
  • be able to very quickly make a living out of it, which meant the ability to fully focus,
  • generate a lot of free cash, which would allow us to build a machinery park and maybe even establish a marketing budget,
  • detach from the sales paradigm, the so-called influencer marketing (personal branding in social media), that is, behaving like — pardon my french — a shit salesman going door to door. In this way, I’ve built (and even sold) one of my ex-companies, but it’s definitely not something I’d like to do in my life. Having your sales dependent on the face of the founder in social media is the worst thing you can do to yourself (and your family).
  • VERY IMPORTANT! sleep well, especially since the times to come were supposedly restless. No debts, no financial obligations and no employees give a great feeling of freedom and independence. Even if the sales were to significantly decrease, it would in no way be financially difficult for us.

We didn’t hire our first full-time employee until June 2019. Another one in October. More equipment and orders have arrived. Yet again we’re dramatically overloaded and the question: “will it someday be normal?” may be asked only by our employees. At the moment, we are figuring out the decision of migrating. Should we choose industrial halls or typical office spaces? Should be already purchase (loan?) or lease… Or maybe open small local production studios (USA/Canada, EU, Asia/Australia)? Maybe we should do it differently than everyone else and not expand (franchise)? I don’t know yet, but I’ll have to make a decision in the forthcoming months.

The apogee — we need a new space. November 2020.

One thing is certain, I don’t want to create another small startup that makes only digital “intermediary” platforms and doesn’t create anything on its own (or possibly even creates problems, which are later spectacularly solved). I brutally call this phenomenon a “parasite” strategy, meaning “let’s hook up a small platform to someone else who actually produces these values”. After all, that’s how many successful startups actually work. Uber has neither cars nor drivers. Airbnb has no real estate… It sounds amazing, and it probably excites a lot of startup founders (innovative startups). How wonderful it’s to have nothing and yet have so much. The elderly people like me believe in the old economy, where in order to sell something you have to produce it first (digital goods are also subject to this principle). Perhaps I am also complaining because my generation doesn’t want to have every smart teenager with a laptop and free software on their lap as a competitor. Fair enough?

That’s why Astrography will always be, at its core, a “heavier” company. We want to utilize in-house production whenever we can — even packaging (the zero outsourcing principle, full control of all essential business resources). At this point, I am closer to the Chinese business culture than that of Silicon Valley (Chinese Uber has even workshops to service its cars). Maybe it’s a very “old-school” approach, but what you can do… That’s who I am. It’s more important to me that the company is compliant with me rather than that it grows faster.

New Year’s summary

A few days ago, one of my colleagues reminded me of my New Year’s message from 2017, which I somehow, by some strange coincidence, erased from my memory. That’s what happens when you overestimate your mind and you don’t use any augmentation. The entry was made before the BuJo era (The Bullet Journal Method — I recommend it once again). Fortunately, Facebook improved its archive search system, so I managed to find it and have a very interesting experience. It seems that much of what we read in the books (entitled “How to live”) can make some sense. Not only is it worth to make plans for the future it’s also important to write them down (see BuJo).

Okay, but what did I write at the end of 2017? You can find the post here (polish only): https://www.facebook.com/adam.jesionkiewicz/posts/1856386811056868

Let me highlight a few quotes from it and refer to them in retrospect.

  1. “This year was poor because I still had to work.” A lot of people tend to wish you for your birthdays or other occasions good luck at work, a lot of work, finding work, as if work was a crucial imperative of our lives. As I approach my 50s, I have deep concerns about whether we manage our lives appropriately. There’s no room for broad deliberations here, yet I encourage you to consider whether a widely promoted lifestyle (fashionable success) is the most appropriate path. In my case, a thought scratching cerebral cortex appeared: time is un-salable, unrecoverable asset. A kind of cliché — truism — right? Yeah… right. It’s incredible how much of it we lose completely senselessly (even while ‘making bank’). How much is a year of your life worth? What if it’s the last year? What kind of price will you propose then? In general, I refer here to the world of services, which after more than 20 years I truthfully don’t like. If I were a believer, then right now I’d probably be praying so that I’d never had to engage in any more services. Not that I think doing something for others is wrong. However, if I’m supposed to do something for someone, I’d definitely prefer to be in a servant position, not a commercially dependent one. Hopefully, you can see the subtlety here. Services are an eternal commitment and the constant fulfillment of someone else’s expectations equates to a great deal of stress and lack of happiness.
    Astrography is, in a way, an attempt to create a manifesto against typical work or business. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m able to say that the previous year was good because I finally didn’t have to work. How’s this possible — you may ask. The paragraphs above show that there was a lot of work — yes, but being busy doesn’t mean the same thing. The difference lies in the purpose of the actions and their compatibility with your DNA. There’s a big difference between doing something you want to do and doing it out of necessity.
  2. “ZERO OPPORTUNITIES”. I never thought this damn thing could be so dangerous. For some difficult to identify reason I have always believed that catching opportunities is the best way to build a business. As it suddenly turns out it’s the biggest obstacle that can stand in the way to achieving your goals. As of right now, on my risk list, the word “opportunity” is close to the very top. I’ve made a template for testing the lucky super-opportunities. I test with it every idea and if it fits (and by the way, the first quantifier concerns the context of the cosmos), then it goes on the list of topics for further analysis. If it doesn’t — red light — NO GO! This means, of course, being assertive with many wonderful people who come to you with these ideas, sometimes even friends. For the sake of clarity, these ideas can be really great, but for me and Astrography they can be deadly. For one thing, they most certainly will distract me in business. And for another, the most important phenomenon that I am looking for in every project, which is called compounding, may not occur. To put it simply, each action must somehow contribute to the value of Astrography and thus leverage in a multidimensional way. So simple, yet so difficult.
  3. “I wonder where the newly implemented habits will take me, but I feel particularly unique excitement for the new and upcoming slow-life.” And now everything is clear — it led me to the most beautiful and the happiest stage in my life. Slow-life requires one more sacrifice — giving up the phone (in the sense of calls). It’s very difficult, yet at the same time incredibly necessary to more-or-less get a grip over your life. Maybe the fact that people don’t call me that much anymore (and there were many such situations) makes me feel so great? Who knows… This might be a topic for another dissertation. Think if you can switch to other, asynchronous communication methods. I’d like to apologize in advance if I didn’t answer your call…
  4. “I’ll spend the time I’ve regained on reading books (this year there were probably 50 of them, up to 4 a week at the peak), meditation, developing a project-design workshop, astrophotography (I want to finally commercialize it since such options became available), and write the book of my dreams (!) “. Be careful with books. They’re great, but like any other habit, it’s best when kept under control. I still read a lot, but at the same time, I choose my items much more consciously. I know I have to feed a few of my inner monsters: knowledge, spirituality, romance and inspiration. However, I am sure about the trend of popularizing meditation. Looking here and there, I get the impression that this beautiful activity has become another social status symbol, cynically fueled by very effective (and spectacular) businesses from Silicon Valley (all kinds of apps, events, celebrities, influencers, etc.). I know that a wonderful yacht and the mountains of Bora Bora in the background may help in meditation, but regardless, in the case of spiritual peace, it’s about something completely different. Not that I’m stigmatizing. However, it’s important to be aware of what makes McDonald’s different from a quality food.

I still haven’t written the book, but I kept my word and commercialized my astrophotography. Quid pro quo… In fact, this entire entry from 2017 says a lot about what happened later in my life and what’s still happening. Surely with life experience, you can predict your fate much better, and perhaps thanks to the knowledge you can give your life a little direction.

Show me your tax statement and I’ll tell you all about your business

Finally, I’ll do something that’s rarely done in our business culture (with young startups). I’ll publish our Deck, which I use as a business card for potential partners that describes who we are, what we do, and where we currently are in the course of development. You’ll also find a slide with numbers and charts showing how we perform in business. On one hand, is very risky being transparent, but on the other hand, it might be good on many levels. All that glitters is not gold. Not every topic is successful and not every company that you see in the media is what you want to have. Besides, the expectations and interpretations of the numbers may be very different. That’s why I want everyone to know exactly who we are and what we represent (we are not a corporation, as some people abroad sometimes like to think when they see our advertising campaigns).

Click on the link below to open a PDF file with the Astrography Pitch Deck:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/xnrw9sshel8u8i6/Astrography2021-deck.pdf?dl=0

Slide from the presentation linked above.

These results provide us with a calm here and now; a chance to make more of our dreams comes true. Continuing to slow-paced growth (in startup nomenclature we are a slow-moving turtle who’s not taking advantage of the opportunity); constantly improving products and introducing the new ones; hiring more cosmos-loving “freaks”, that most importantly — love great fun (I know I don’t speak only for myself here). But of course, the company is still on the nano-micro level. We know where we are on the map and we humbly look upon the masters.

I feel like Astrography is starting to take off. We collect the fruit that lays on the ground and momentarily we’ll have to grab the low hanging ones. And then equip ourselves with a ladder and tools to reach higher.

I have real data now — collected from the customers voting with their money — I know what works and what does not. We have a business model that works and allows us not only to survive but also to invest. We have no loans (we also settled the private ones — I recommend it, it’s important!), we don’t have leases (Taycan will be the first;)), we have no external investors. We don’t owe anyone anything, we won’t disappoint anyone — even if it all goes to hell, and in life, we know that nothing is forever — there are a million holes in the universe that can absorb us at any moment. In contrast with this awareness, my optimism level for the upcoming future is very high. All the markers with which I measure this company are at a very saund level and in a positive trend.

As far as I know, Astrography is the only one in the world such a cosmos company. Whether we’ll make it the “Disney of the Cosmos” in 20 years, remains to be seen. For now, it’s time to leave the MVP stage. And this is what we’ll mainly deal with. Cross your fingers and save your dollars on the IPO ;).

New toy from EPSON — SC P9500, 12 colors. super wide color gamut.

P.S. I plan to watch my interview on The Mac Show soon. Not that I’d be in favor of looking at my face again, but rather that I’d like to recall my attitude to my once planned future (where I was right and where I was wrong). At that time, key decisions were being made (e.g. selling companies and projects). A little bit like “back to the future”. I think that this podcast could be a good addition to the above entry. Astrography.com

Links:

CEO @ Astrography.com & Ifinity (award-winning startup), Advisory Board @ Startup Foundation Poland, NewEurope100 Challenger (by Google, FT, RP).

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