Michael Underwood has an insanely strict work regimen. His day has typically lasts about 18-20 hours. According to the 32-year-old tech entrepreneur, things have slowed down recently. He’s cut back to about twelve to fourteen hours a day.
Although, it’s not a lifestyle he boasts. Rather, it’s one he says was necessary as the solo founder of Scenehound, the app that allows users to scope out their local nightlife scene in real-time.
Underwood conceived the idea after he went out to meet friends one night in 2008 in Baton Rouge. Eager to avoid an overcrowded scene, Underwood thought there should be a way to gauge how busy bars were before you committed to going out.
So, he built one.
He initially started working on Scenehound in January 2015, and launched in May 2016. After securing a seed round from Valmiki Capital in July 2016, it was no turning back for Underwood. He wanted to keep as much equity as possible, so he took the smallest amount he could to get Scenehound to profitability.
Some of the customers on his roster include famed Commander’s Palace, Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant, and The Rusty Nail. Now, the app has over fifty customers and over fifteen thousand users. This year, he expanded into Columbus, Ohio.
We spent some time with Underwood, who recently relocated to sunny San Diego, to find out more about his experience launching and growing Scenehound. He doesn’t shy away from being honest about the toll it has taken on his mental health, a topic often overlooked in the startup land.
In the past two and a half years since you started working on Scenehound, what has been the most difficult part of your experience?
Two things come to mind. User acquisition in New Orleans, and customer growth in Columbus. When I was here in New Orleans, it was user acquisition. User growth here has been steady, but slow. And I can only say that relative to Columbus now. But gaining customers was easier in New Orleans than Columbus.
I have two theories of why that is so. Here in New Orleans, I can walk into a bar and talk to the owner. In Columbus, there are not a lot of sole proprietors. Every bar is owned by a management group, so the people there can’t make the decision to sign up for Scenehound. There’s an extremely long sales cycle.
The other theory I have is that it was easier in New Orleans because I am local. In Columbus, I was an out of towner. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
How is Columbus going?
Does Columbus have an active night life?
Yes, but they also have a very progressive population. For one, it’s statistically the most diverse city in the country. And I think the tool itself is extremely useful to Columbus because I have access to a lot of Ohio state students. The campus sits right in the middle.
Why did you decide to go into Columbus?
Columbus is known as a testing ground for a lot of different business concepts, but I chose Columbus because of the diverse population. They also have a huge concentration of target market, and the student population was obviously very attractive.
How did you break into the Columbus market?
I got involved with the Ohio State University Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Really great folks there that wanted to help. Paul Reeder was a big factor in the catalyst for growth there.
How many people are on your team now?
I have four people on the team now, two in Columbus, two in New Orleans. I think everyone has value to add, it’s just where you put them in a position to succeed. Now the challenge is figuring out how to scale. I haven’t hit the perfect market yet. Maybe I need to find a place that has New Orleans type businesses and Columbus type users. The most important thing to me to measure, is did I bring that person value? Did I help them? And I think if you take care of that, the rest will take care of itself.
You’ve been working really intensely for the past two and a half years. What has that been like?
It takes a toll on you personally, when you are so specifically focused on one thing. I’m so isolated right now, and sometimes it’s hard for me to go out and socialize. It’s kind of like stretching before running. You have to stretch the socializing muscle. I think the isolation develops depression and all sorts of very real and potentially harmful effects.
You’ve talked to me about the impact that starting up has had on your mental health. Have you been through a depression through that time?
Definitely. People will ask you how you are, and you say “I’m good or fine”. I just say “good” because I don’t want to burden people with my own stuff.
I think a lot of people do that.
The community we are in, everyone has a startup or their own business, and that’s the default question. How are things going? They’re not asking about how you (as a person) are feeling. It’s not that they don’t care, but it’s because they have a shared interest with you.
Do you think that intense work regiment is a necessary part of the startup phase?
I think it was necessary for my circumstances. I don’t want to say this is the blueprint, but when you are a sole founder, what other option do you have? If you’re limited on budget, and you have unlimited time, what are you supposed to do? But I don’t want to be presumptive, nor do I want to send anyone down that path making them think that they have to do that. I hope it’s not necessary or a normal circumstance. Starting a business is a day to day process. Things don’t get better over night. You try to make incremental adjustments and get better.