🏰 Everyday Empires: Aaron Via's The Online Tooling Company
Discover how Aaron Via turned his Retool expertise into a productized service catering to early-stage startups
In just a few months, Aaron transformed his passion for Retool development into a full-fledged productized service business focused on early-stage startups. Follow him @viaaaaron on X.
Editor’s Note: Everyday Empires is looking for more relatable founders to interview. If you know a founder (or are one) whose journey could inspire others to launch a venture, please email me at email@example.com or reply to this email!
Start us off with a brief description of your business: what is The Online Tooling Company, who is it for, and what sparked the idea?
The Online Tooling Company (OTC) is dedicated to empowering early-stage startups and small businesses through our innovative monthly subscription service, designed to streamline and expedite Retool app development.
My journey with OTC began after a year of freelancing in Product Operations and extensive Retool development. I was actively seeking opportunities within early-stage startups, particularly in roles that allowed me to delve deeper into the realm of Retool. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a role that perfectly aligned with my aspirations.
That's when inspiration struck. A conversation with you shed light on the Productized service model, notably popularized by Designjoy. It suddenly became clear to me that I could scale my Retool expertise using this model while simultaneously creating the job I had been seeking.
Before The Online Tooling Company, what was your mindset like? Were there other ventures or ideas you were contemplating?
In the year leading up to the inception of The Online Tooling Company (OTC), I found myself in a highly exploratory phase of both my career and personal life. My journey began with joining a startup right out of school, which experienced rapid growth, expanding from a mere 10 employees to nearly 100. This provided me with an invaluable opportunity to be a part of an incredible journey and acquire a wealth of knowledge along the way.
However, when circumstances took an unexpected and unfavorable turn, resulting in significant layoffs, including my own, it was a pivotal moment for me. While it was undeniably challenging to witness a venture I had been deeply involved with falter, it also presented a unique chance for me to reevaluate my aspirations and explore new avenues.
During this period of self-discovery, I embarked on various creative projects. One notable endeavor involved using DALL•E to generate images of famous individuals named "Bill" and then strategically pasting printed copies of these faces on "Post No Bills" signs throughout New York City, adding an element of artistic expression to the urban landscape.
I also embarked on a creative stunt, sending a receipt printer to Tom Sachs, programmed to print an "About Me" pitch for an open role he had at his studio. While this particular effort didn't result in the intended job offer, it did lead to meeting Sachs.
Additionally, I had the opportunity to contribute as a Production Assistant on several music videos with a record label in the city during this time. These diverse experiences further fueled my exploration of what excited and interested me, both from a career and personal perspective.
Throughout this exploration phase, I sustained myself by taking on freelance Product Operations work to ensure the bills were paid. Simultaneously, I engaged in interviews for full-time positions, primarily within the startup realm. However, I adopted a discerning approach in selecting my next major commitment.
I had learned from my previous role that, in order to perform at my best, I needed not only a strong alignment with the industry but also a significant level of responsibility and engagement. If the industry or my role didn't genuinely captivate my interest, I recognized that I risked becoming disengaged and less effective in my work.
This transformative period ultimately paved the way for the birth of OTC, as I harnessed my passion for Retool and seized the opportunity to create a venture that aligned perfectly with my interests and expertise, while also catering to the needs of early-stage startups and small businesses.
At what point did you feel confident that The Online Tooling Company was a promising idea worth pursuing? Was there a specific “aha” moment or sign that you were onto something?
The “aha” came twice I’d say. First, when I got my first Retool-only freelance client in early 2023 (before OTC was a thing) and again when I found the Productized Service model.
The budget and scope for the first project made it clear to me that I could provide direct value quickly and be compensated well. Discovering the Productized Service model made it clear how I could scale this and even simplify my offering to make it easy for prospective clients to understand.
Can you delineate the pivotal steps in creating The Online Tooling Company and perhaps share a rough timeline from ideation to securing your first client?
Here is a rough timeline in creating The Online Tooling Company (OTC):
I was already providing Retool development services to several clients on a freelance basis.
My services were well-received, but I hadn't yet established a formal brand identity for this work beyond using my own name.
This marked a significant turning point for OTC:
I created a dedicated website for The Online Tooling Company, giving it a distinct online presence.
To provide a formal legal structure, I established an LLC for OTC.
I began actively promoting my services, particularly on social media platforms like Twitter/X.
By making my services publicly accessible through a dedicated website and social media promotion, I expanded my reach beyond word-of-mouth referrals.
This increased visibility and professional branding efforts led to new customer leads and inquiries, eventually resulting in securing my first client for OTC's Retool development services.
Describe a regular day for you. How do you strike a balance between work and personal time?
A typical day for me as a solo operator at The Online Tooling Company (OTC) is a dynamic blend of client work, administrative tasks, and growth-oriented activities. Balancing these responsibilities is key to my daily routine:
Morning (8:30 AM - Noon):
I kick off my day with a Matcha around 9 AM, which is my version of Popeye Spinach.
Mornings are dedicated primarily to client work. I prioritize and plan my tasks for the day during this time, aiming to stay ahead of client commitments.
My goal is to complete as many client tickets as possible during the morning, which provides flexibility for the rest of the day.
Noon (12 PM):
Around noon, I break for a smoothie and engage in some form of exercise, such as going to the gym or for a run.
Following my workout, I have lunch, re-zap with another matcha and spend an additional 2-3 hours on client work.
Afternoon (3 PM - 6 PM):
During this time, I shift my focus to social tasks, including coffee meetings, calls, administrative responsibilities, and outreach efforts.
If I have personal errands to run, I often schedule them within this window.
Evening (8 PM - 11 PM):
If my client workload is substantial, after dinner and some screen time, I may engage in another client work session in the evening, typically lasting a few hours between 8 PM and 11 PM.
However, if I'm on top of tickets, I have days where I can concentrate this time on growing the OTC brand.
Flexibility and Variety:
What's great about this setup is that my days can vary significantly depending on the state of my client work. When I'm not engrossed in client projects, I have the freedom to focus on OTC's growth and development.
This diversity in daily activities keeps things interesting and ensures that I'm constantly tackling different challenges and solving various problems, making the work enjoyable and dynamic.
It may sound odd, but one of my "cheat codes" is dedicating 2-3 hours on Saturday and Sunday to getting ahead or catching up on things. I find working on the weekend provides a no-pressure, uninterrupted flow and allows me to work on random tasks without feeling like I'm procrastinating or off-task from major projects.
How long has The Online Tooling Company been operational? How do you envision its success, and what milestones lie ahead?
OTC has been operational for just over four months now. While I do have specific goals in terms of the number of clients and gross income, the initial milestone was to create a job for myself that is both exciting and sustainable.
For me, success isn't solely measured by financial metrics. A significant part of the excitement and success I envision for OTC lies in the connections and collaborations it fosters. Already, it has allowed me to connect with a multitude of inspiring founders and companies, which I find immensely rewarding.
In the future, I aspire for OTC to become a dynamic engine that not only enables me to continue meeting remarkable individuals and builders but also provides opportunities for further engagement. One of these aspirations is to potentially invest in some of the clients I work with when they are fundraising.
As OTC continues to evolve and grow, these milestones will guide our path forward, contributing to both the business's success and its broader impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Is there anything keeping you up at night at The Online Tooling Company? Any big hurdles or concerns?
One of the constant thoughts that occupies my mind at OTC is the idea of scaling the business by hiring offshore developers. This would alleviate the load of building and coding, allowing me to expand the scope of the business. However, it's worth noting that a significant part of what led me to create this business is my genuine enjoyment of this technical work. Building in Retool is not just empowering; it's genuinely fun. It enables me to swiftly transform problems into scalable solutions in a matter of minutes.
While there may be a path to having 1-3 people working alongside me to build apps, I don't foresee this happening in the near future. I'm currently having a blast managing my workload and diving into the technical aspects of the work.
Moreover, I value being the face of the brand and the work I deliver. When I create Loom walk-throughs of tools I've built for clients, I want them to know that it's me personally handling their projects, rather than outsourcing to a random individual on a platform like Fiverr. I believe this personal touch and the human element play a significant role in how I provide value to my clients.
So, while the idea of scaling and outsourcing is a consideration, it's balanced by the genuine satisfaction I derive from the hands-on technical work and the personal connection I establish with clients, both of which are central to OTC's identity and value proposition.
Would you be open to sharing any key metrics or client testimonials that showcase the value The Online Tooling Company provides?
Certainly, at this early stage of OTC, the key metrics may not be flashy, but they are still significant milestones:
Sustainability: The fact that OTC has enabled me to fully support myself while living in a high-cost city like New York City is a testament to the business's viability and value.
Client Satisfaction: While specific metrics and testimonials may be limited at this point, the positive feedback and satisfaction from clients are invaluable indicators of the value OTC provides. Clients' trust and recurring business speak to the effectiveness of the services.
As OTC continues to grow and expand its client base, I anticipate accumulating a wealth of testimonials and metrics related to both money and time saved for clients. Comparing the cost-effectiveness of hiring OTC for tool development versus employing a full-time engineer to handle the same tasks will be a compelling story of value in the future. These metrics and testimonials will further underscore the benefits and impact of OTC's services on its clients.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Bet on yourself with the confidence to learn, not your ego.
With my early Retool projects before OTC, I said yes to clients while I had limited skills with the tool. I knew if I was given the opportunity, I could figure it out and solve the problem. I found ways to ask for help from people who had a deep understanding of the problems I was trying to solve and even asked for clarity and assistance sometimes from clients on technical questions. Because I had confidence in my ability to learn, it gave me some space to ask questions and be more vulnerable about what I didn’t know. If I tried to hide that because I felt insecure about my abilities, I would have been stuck for much longer and would have likely quit by now.
That’s a wrap
A massive shoutout to Aaron for sharing a glimpse into his journey! Before you leave, be sure to check out Aaron’s venture and follow him:
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