When Rory Adams reflects on his first startup, he remembers sleepless nights hunched over his computer or on the phone with manufacturers.
The screenwriter-turned-entrepreneur had hoped to balance his new watch-selling company, Nobody Knows, with his work in the entertainment industry. But order delays, quality control, and App Store setbacks forced him to give up entrepreneurship altogether – for a time.
After his disastrous experience with Nobody Knows, why did Rory decide to leap back into entrepreneurship with Sound Off, an audio journaling tool?
This time, he leaned on fellow solopreneurs to teach him how to automate Sound Off so he could finally balance a successful startup with the TV writing job he loves.
When Childhood Dreams Become Reality
Eighteen-year-old Rory pursued a television gig in the UK during his gap year before university. He snagged a job on the creative team for Dynamo, a British magician, and abandoned his design degree at Bournemouth University to work in TV full-time.
“I was the kid who would watch the behind-the-scenes footage after everyone went to bed. I was fascinated by how they made films. As I grew older, I found TV to be more exciting,” Rory says.
Rory loved storytelling and dreamed of publishing his own work someday. But as he spent more time in writer’s rooms and on sets, he grew to love the collaborative and high-energy environment.
“It helps to be talented, but if you work hard and make friends, you’ll quickly become successful in television,” Rory says. “I was doing incredible things in incredible places, even as young as twenty-one, because I got along with people and was prepared to work hard.”
The entertainment industry taught Rory how to network and get his foot in the door for new opportunities. He developed a “scrappy, get-it-done” attitude that helped him build mental resilience for future challenges with his startups.
But as a freelance writer, Rory worried about putting food on the table. Finding a three-month gig for one show didn’t mean another would follow.
In October 2016, for example, Rory was visiting LA and preparing to return to the UK to work on a show when the lead dropped out one week before production started. How did he fill in this sudden free time?
“I self-published a book. I thought, What can I do in these three months? How do I pay my rent? So I wrote a very niche little book about writing magic for television called Only Ideas,” Rory says. “That was a real turning point because it was the first time I’d made money. I thought, ‘Oh, this is cool. I don’t have to rely on other people to be financially stable.’”
Watch and Learn
At the time, Rory was dating someone in LA and wanted to stay in the city for at least three months of the year. He connected with a screenwriting friend who also lived in LA and planned to start a watch-selling business. The friend asked Rory to join him in building Nobody Knows, and the two friends became cofounders.
Nobody Knows sold hybrid watches that looked analog but could connect to a smartphone app. These watches could track your steps, measure your heart rate, and complete other smartwatch functions – but with a classic exterior.
From the get-go, Rory and his cofounder experienced issues. They debated delivery deadlines and quality control with manufacturers, struggled to build a website, and worried they couldn’t fulfill initial preorders post-launch.
At 4 a.m. on launch day, Rory remembers flagging down a random person on the street in Pasadena to look over their website at a 24/7 co-working space. They gave the person coffee and snacks as a thank you for providing notes on the website’s design three hours before launch.
“It was that very sweet story of young people putting in too much effort,” Rory says. “We launched that whole thing from preorders, and then we spent four or five months feeling incredibly stressed. We worried that we couldn’t fulfill the preorders on time or they wouldn’t live up to expectations. I look back and think, ‘It’s crazy that we did that. I wouldn’t do that now.’ It was exciting but also very stressful.”
By January 2020, Rory felt burnt out and exhausted. Thousands of dollars and hours of work led to a sizable revenue stream – more money than he’d ever thought he’d make – but he didn’t want to work on Nobody Knows anymore.
He valued his mental health over his income and missed collaborating in the writer’s room and traveling the world. The startup took up all of his free time, shattering his freelance lifestyle and stopping him from working on multiple projects at once.
To clear his head, Rory packed up and left for a short trip to Devon, UK, right before the pandemic hit.
Build a Product That You Would Use
Rory didn’t anticipate getting stuck in Devon during the global lockdown. He’d packed for a short trip, not long-term isolation, and was now alone with few supplies. The TV industry ground to a halt as sets became dangerous with the threat of Covid, so Rory was also out of work. He thought journaling about his problems might help him cope with them.
“I found this impulse interesting because nothing was happening. I went for a walk every day. I didn’t have much to do. But I realized, ‘Oh, people don’t just journal so they can write down what they did. There’s a lot more to it, like processing your thoughts and feelings,” Rory says.
With a deadly virus rampaging everywhere, Rory had a lot to process, so he reached for a pen and paper to record his thoughts. Except he hadn’t packed any, and most of the local stores that sold those supplies were locked down.
Instead, he recorded his thoughts using Apple’s Voice Memos app. In his first recording, Rory remembers saying that he was “sounding off” about his pandemic experience.
“I would do that every day, and it was great. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s more free-flowing. It’s easier not to judge your writing. You’re not worried about your spelling, your handwriting, or turning over a page. You can’t see what’s coming out of your mouth, so you can’t linger on anything. You don’t have to finish your sentences but can go from one thing to another,” Rory says.
After recording his first few entries, Rory searched the App Store for a dedicated audio journaling app to hold all of his recordings. But he found nothing. So he searched on Google, but instead of finding an app, he discovered people on forums like Reddit and Quora searching for the same thing.
“If an idea makes you say, ‘I wish this existed because I would pay for it,’ there’s probably a lot of people who would also pay, even if it’s in a niche market.”
Rory saw an opportunity to build the audio journaling tool people sought.
“If you imagine something that you would buy or use, many people probably feel similarly. We’re not as unique as we think,” Rory says. “So if an idea makes you say, ‘I wish this existed because I would pay for it,’ there’s probably a lot of people who would also pay, even if it’s in a niche market.”
By the end of 2020, Rory sold his share of Nobody Knows to his cofounder and used some of the proceeds to bootstrap Sound Off.
A Community That Builds Together Succeeds Together
Rory used Figma to design Sound Off’s frontend while a new cofounder, Paavan Buddhdev, helped with the backend. Paavan wireframed the app and managed the team of developers who coded it. Later, he’d tweak the app based on customer feedback while Rory developed audio content and branding. Once the MVP was up and running, Paavan stepped back from the project and left Rory to run it solo.
During this building process, Rory struggled to conceptualize the first version of Sound Off. With Nobody Knows, he built a clearly-defined product from the start. Since no other apps existed in this market, he didn’t have much to compare it to besides Apple’s Voice Memos.
“I knew that audio journaling excited people, but I didn’t know what to build yet,” Rory says. “That unknown was terrifying, interesting, and strange. I’m not betting on a product so much as a space.
“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to build a product that does this.’ It was, ‘I’m going to build an app for people who voice journal. Okay. What the hell is that? What’s important to people who voice journal? What can we do that Voice Memos doesn’t already do?’ We had to figure all that out.”
Rather than stress over these issues, Rory decided to ask fellow entrepreneurs what they would do in his shoes.
“I’m not on Twitter, but I’ve tried my best to lean into the bootstrapper and solopreneur community,” Rory says. “I joined an amazing program called App Marketing Week, put together by Jordi Bruin on Slack, and every day we worked on a different thing. One day we’re working on app optimization, and the next day, we’re working on our screenshots, press releases, etcetera. I can’t tell you how great that was.”
Just like in a writer’s room, Rory could bounce ideas off people with five, ten, or twenty years of experience in entrepreneurship. Their advice helped to develop his skills and confidence.
By July 2021, Rory had iterated several versions of Sound Off and found one he was happy with. This early version offered one category of guided content (one-minute recordings from Rory and others that provided prompts and insights for users) and a simple recording function. Over time, Rory added a discovery section for more types of content and basic editing tools to cut and splice recordings together.
“The main thing I’ve learned from the solopreneur community is to test an idea in its simplest form. You make loads of small bets to see what succeeds and impresses your audience.”
But he never would’ve rebuilt and improved the app so many times if he hadn’t discovered the bootstrapping community.
“Most solo entrepreneurs are trying ten projects a year to see what works and takes off,” Rory says. “The main thing I’ve learned from that community is to test an idea in its simplest form. You make loads of small bets to see what succeeds and impresses your audience.”
Sounding Off on Goals for 2023
In the year and a half since launching, Rory’s been able to get back into screenwriting and personal writing whenever he’s not troubleshooting Sound Off. For the New Year, he wants to build awareness about the audio journaling field and plan which app features to launch next.
One feature he’s building is a mood tracker, which will scan recordings and offer insights based on what you journal. Rory hopes to monetize this tool and ones like it to add to Sound Off’s recurring revenue. At the moment, users pay a subscription to access certain content categories, but the basic recording functions are free.
Rory isn’t worried about Sound Off’s future. Not only does he see massive potential in the audio journaling industry, but he also uses the app to calm himself down when his fears become overwhelming.
“The most amazing thing to me is that I use the product regularly. Whenever I’ve lost confidence or been confused, I could sound off and instantly feel better. I can expel everything in my head and reach a point where I have nothing else to talk about. My head feels clear, and I’ve got nothing on my mind.” Rory says. “It genuinely calms me down and builds my confidence back up.”
Rory can now use that confidence, and his lessons from fellow entrepreneurs, to keep building and creating whatever he wants. He’s learned how to balance his television work and his entrepreneurial goals so that he never has to flag down a stranger at 4 a.m. again.
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