Can we bring content & communication together in one place? That was the question we tried to answer with Cascade. The idea came about as a result of our frustrations collaborating on projects in the past. We found that there were great software products for file sharing/storage & other products available for messaging, however there was an inherent disconnect from using separate tools for each. We realized that if we could bridge this gap under one platform then we could allow for true file collaboration. Our solution was to change something that has been largely ignored for years...the file browser. Check out the promo video for the Beta version of Cascade.
I wholeheartedly believe that the success of Cascade was a direct result of a strong team. I want to briefly highlight each of the members of the team so that you can learn more about them as well.
Josh Cherek: One of the strongest technical & creative minds I've met at UW-Madison. Josh triple majored in Computer Science, Physics and Mathematics. Check out his LinkedIn and also his current venture ZipMill (zipmill.com).
Jake Dexheimer: On top of being a top-shelf software developer/engineer, Jake has a talent for design that brings products to life. Be sure to check out his personal website, which details his work including their new design and development studio 'Dawn'. Jake also has a more in-depth summary of Cascade on his website: http://www.jakedex.com/cascade
Brian Dennis: Full stack engineers are extremely difficult to find, but Brian definitely fits the bill. With a strong passion for web app engineering Brian would be an asset to any team. Aside from building awesome things over at Ionic, Brian is also a member of 'Dawn'.
It is extremely difficult to summarize the amazing roller coaster that was Cascade in a few paragraphs, but here is my best attempt. Cascade was different than most of the projects on here in that we actually attempted to build a company; however it didn't start out that way. Cascade started in a room at Madworks CoWorking, after the 4 of us were venting about how difficult it was to collaborate on projects. We were looking for an excuse to build a solution and UW-Madison's CS Nest competition gave us one. After 3 near all-nighters we had built out a largely visual model for Cascade, a model that earned us 3rd place at the competition. At that point we still weren't very far along, but we set our sights on the Qualcomm Innovation competition as a benchmark for Cascade. We were less motivated by winning, as we were by having a reason to create a MVP in a short time-span. After submersing ourselves in Cascade for a few weeks we emerged not only with an MVP but also 1st place and $12,000 at the Qualcomm Innovation competition. Cascade was legit.
Soon after the competition reality hit, and we began making mistakes. There were only a few weeks left in the semester and we were all forced to return to our duties as students & make up ground in classes. When the dust had settled from finals we had to start making decisions, the first of which was whether or not Cascade would be a project or a company. The passion we had for Cascade motivated us to take the leap and in late May, Josh & I filed the papers to create Cascade Technologies LLC. While we had made a commitment on paper, the reality was that all four of us had already signed on months prior to intern for companies in three different states. The idea was that since Josh and I were interning together in Austin,TX we could head operations outside internship hours and work remotely with Jake and Brian. We didn't realize it at the time; or maybe we did and just didn't want to admit it, but we were setting ourselves up for failure. For about a month we worked crazy hours outside our jobs and had a functioning (but buggy) Beta version of Cascade up and running.
In July the wheels started to come off the tracks. Our team had become too disconnected from working remotely, we were burnt out from essentially working two jobs and we were having difficulties convincing companies to join the platform. For a young startup, passionate daily users are the lifeblood of your company and we simply did not have any consistent users. At a certain point there is not enough coffee or dubstep playlists to sustain yourself on 4 hours of sleep a night & the effects were beginning to show both at our internships and with Cascade. So one night in July at around 3 am I asked Josh to accompany me to Whataburger and to grab some fresh air. When we arrived back at the apartment I told him that I had enrolled in classes for Fall semester. I stated that I could no longer continue working on Cascade since I needed to focus on my internship and finishing my degrees. Josh conceded that he too was losing interest in Cascade and that a recent customer interview had pushed him towards a different idea. Together we made the agreement that it was time to move on. Just like that Cascade was dead.
There is is an excellent article by Paul Graham (co-founder of Y-Combinator) called 'How Not To Die'. In the article he makes two strong points. The first is that if you want to have a successful company and get rich all you have to do is make sure the company doesn't die. The second and more loaded point is that in order for a startup not to die, you have to fully commit to it by making sure you don't have any distractions or more specifically that you don't have an out. At the beginning of Summer we had a choice to make, we could have dropped everything and fully committed to Cascade or we could leave ourselves an out and all but guarantee that Cascade would die. Had we all decided to decline our internships, drop out of college and committed 100% of our time and energy to Cascade I believe there is a strong chance we would have succeeded to at least some degree. However, that is not the route we took and it left us destined for failure. We were left saying the phrase "but we're going to keep working on the startup," which Paul Graham points out is another way of saying "we're giving up on the startup, but we're not willing to admit that to ourselves."
When I returned to school for my final semester I was at an extremely low point. I couldn't help but feel that Cascade had turned out to be a complete failure and I realized I had no good answer when people would ask "how is Cascade going?" But as the semester progressed I had more time to reflect on my experiences with Cascade and I was able to put things in perspective. The first thing I realized was that I was not ready to start a company at this point in my life. There were simply too many other things I felt that I needed to do first. I wanted to walk across the stage and graduate from UW-Madison, I desired to travel around the world alone, and I needed to expand my horizons beyond the state that I had called home for essentially my entire 22 years of life. If I had committed to Cascade, I might not have been able to accomplish any of those things. In some ways I wish I had came to this realization before summer so that I could have saved myself and my teammates from enduring the hardships that we experienced. Yet, if I could do it all over again I still wouldn't change a thing. The experiences that we gained, both the good and the bad, will help us all in whatever endeavors we choose to pursue. I know for me personally, when the time comes that I am ready to actually start my own company I will be glad that I learned the lessons from Cascade when I did.
In some cases it may be enough to just end things by saying we tried but things didn't work out and we will learn from it. However, I realize that in the case of Cascade it's not that simple. A lot of people outside of our team became invested in Cascade, most notably Qualcomm who awarded us $12,000 to put towards the venture. So I think it's important to highlight what happened after our decision to stop Cascade.
All four of us returned to school in Fall, and in December Josh and I graduated from UW-Madison. Josh completed degrees in Computer Science, Physics and Mathematics (in 3.5 years) & I graduated with degrees in Computer Science and Economics. The largest split of the money went to Josh to put towards ZipMill, a venture that he can finally put 100% of his time and energy into. At the time of this writing Josh has already landed his first paying customers.
Jake and Brian are continuing their degrees and started up a design & development studio in Madison that builds web products for companies. Lastly, I was able to briefly continue another project called 'Campus Exchange,' the first project I was on that actually had revenues. I put part of my share of the money towards an LLC, app store and marketing costs for the app. While it was only $7.47, I can honestly say it brought in more revenue than some companies that have received millions in funding and never saw revenue.
So in conclusion, while Cascade didn't work out we are all working hard on our next pursuits. It's only a matter of time before we each experience success.