Shutting Down Terralien*

Posted by Nathaniel on May 17th, 2011

When I first started Terralien, back in 2004, it’s goal was simple: provide a corporate entity within which to do my personal contracting. In early 2005 I ended up taking on a full-time job, and so Terralien got mothballed for a while, but when I got back to contracting (I am just not cut out for cube life) I of course began my paid work under the auspices of Terralien once again.

In 2006, when I made that jump back in to the contracting game, the availability of Ruby and Rails work was a lot different than it is today. For a skilled Ruby/Rails dev these days, they can’t hardly go online without stumbling over opportunities, but in ’06 it was a lot harder to find Ruby work – contract or full-time. I quickly had a bit more work than I could handle, and I knew a lot of top-notch developers that were dying to make the jump from Java (eek!) to Ruby.

So mid-2006 I really put out Terralien’s shingle, and started to solicit work not just for myself but also for a sub-contracting team. Before long there was enough work that it made sense for me to stop billing and focus on the business, so that’s what I did. Work rolled in, and while I’d never say it was coming out my ears, we were reasonably busy on an ongoing basis.

You know how they say having a baby changes your perspective on everything? Well, it’s true for babies (I should know, Katie and I have five and one on the way) and it’s also true for starting new businesses. In 2007 I came up with an idea – it actually grew out of Terralien client work – to better handle subscription payments, and Spreedly was born. I intentionally started Spreedly outside of Terralien, both because I didn’t want to entangle my Spreedly co-founders in Terralien, and also because I’d seen services businesses kill product businesses with alarming regularity.

I’m still super happy with that decision, but I didn’t take it far enough and realize: Spreedly was going to kill Terralien. To put it succinctly: shower time matters. There’s a part of one’s brain dedicated to learning about a market and growing a business, and it has a single point of focus. Cross your eyes for a second… that’s what happens when you try to split the focus of your “founder brain”.

My only real regret is that both businesses got hurt for about a year (most of 2010 and the first few months of 2011) before this realization made it through my thick skull. Lots of things could’ve made “running” two businesses work: if I’d had a more consistent pipeline of Terralien work, if I’d had a partner in Terralien who could’ve taken point on it, if Spreedly hadn’t progressed or if it had taken off faster. But none of those things were true, and I ended up spending way too long trying to run both businesses and doing a poor job in each case.

So how to resolve the dilemma? Well, first of all I’ve handed all but one of the Terralien clients to sub-contractors who are carrying on working with them. The more ad-hoc nature of Terralien made the transition much easier, and I’m confident the clients we’ve worked with over the past years are all in good hands.

Second, Spreedly is now getting my full-time founder focus. Famous last words, but I’m not going to try to start and/or run two businesses at the same time again. I’m already slinging a bunch of Spreedly code, having more conversations with clients, collaborating with my cofounders more, and I couldn’t be happier about the change. A big weight has been lifted off – knowing that there’s another business that needs my attention but isn’t getting it – and I feel free to lose myself in the job of making Spreedly a bit better every day.

So here’s the asterisk: I’m still contracting. “But wait, Nathaniel, you just said…” I just said I was giving Spreedly my full-time founder focus, and I am. On the other hand, as long as I’m not the point guy I have some available hours to solve specific problems for other folks, and I’m loving getting back to coding more regularly. My family is really funny about the whole “eating” thing, and Spreedly isn’t making quite enough yet to cover all our expenses. So if you have any work that needs doing that you think my expertise might be a good match for, drop me a line. I’m particuarly interested in billing related work, be it ActiveMerchant, Spreedly integration, Spree Commerce, etc.

Terralien has been one of the best things that ever happened to me: Spreedly came out of it, I learned bucketloads from my subcontractors and clients, it let me spend tons of time with entrepreneurs, and it did a great job of feeding my family for quite a while. But the time has come for it to stop trying to be a development shop and go back to just supporting my personal side endeavors, and now that that change has been made I’m very content with the decision. And I’m really excited to dig in to Spreedly in a new way and take it to the next level.

Drop me an email if you have any questions, and thanks for reading!

You can still contact Nathaniel at