Fretless

Introducing Mike Hurley: Student, Client, and Employee
By Davey Strus /

Fretless recently added our fourth team member: Mike Hurley. I chatted with Mike via phone and Google Hangouts.
Hi, Mike!

Hi, Davey!

Thanks for letting me subject you to this—just when you thought the interview process was finally over.

It’s never over at Fretless.

The fun never ends.
Mike Hurley
So, Mike, you've accomplished a lot in your young life. You've done a lot of work with nonprofits, you're an entrepreneur with a couple of startups of your own—your first one even got a mention in Entrepreneur magazine. You partnered up with Fretless to help build the next one.
And in the mean time, you've established a heck of a track record for client success in your own businesses and in others.
In spite of all that, I see that you recently went to an outdoor screening of Jaws at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

I forgot how scary Jaws is. The movie still terrifies me.

I haven't seen it in probably a good six months. I'm glad to hear it hasn't changed.

There were a lot of families there—a lot of young children with their parents at the IMA. They’re going to have trouble swimming in the ocean.

That's what was PG back then. A bunch of Pixar's movies are PG [The Incredibles, Up, Brave, and Inside Out]—same rating as Jaws and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!
So, you've studied philosophy, economics, and entrepreneurship. You also studied nonprofit management. Can you tell me more about your interest in nonprofits?

I love the duality of trying to accomplish a social mission and trying to run a business at the same time—because nonprofits are very much businesses. They care about making money, just like for-profits.

When I was a philosophy major I focused on trying to understand what gives people a meaningful life. What are the different ways that people can change the world? I’ve always been fascinated by nonprofits and the role they play in doing that.

I decided to go back to school to try to get what is the equivalent of an MBA for nonprofits. I still have to finish that degree, but I learned a lot about fundraising and how to run a business when you’re a nonprofit. Instead of maximizing profit, they’re trying to manage a liquidity target for their cash, so that when something like 2008 happens and the donations drop off, they can still stick around. So they have very interesting business challenges.

The missions they’re trying to achieve are very complicated. Trying to help a homeless person is incredibly complicated, because people are very complicated. It was all very intellectually satisfying. I really enjoy talking and working with nonprofits. It’s fun.

Do you have any favorite causes?

I’m fascinated by causes where they kind of overlap with social entrepreneurship. For me, social entrepreneurship is trying to use some of these new, for-profit social enterprise forms, like the L3C [Low-Profit Limited Liability Company] and the Benefit Corporation, to achieve a social mission of some kind.

It would be really neat if nonprofits could tap into all the money that’s in the private capital markets to try to achieve their mission, but nonprofits can’t do that. Nonprofits can’t take investments.

I like missions where if they only had more money and they could scale, they could solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. Causes that can be supported by a traditionally for-profit business model are the ones that I’m most interested in.

Locally, I’ve volunteered for and worked with a lot of youth organizations. I really like working with kids and youth, especially when it involves sports.

On the professional front, you've been in the business of keeping clients happy for a while. One phrase I see a couple of times on your LinkedIn profile is "100% client retention," which sounds tricky. How do you do it?

By constantly asking questions around why. Why something is important to a client, why they would like to have something done a certain way. If their budget’s important to them or a deadline’s important to them, or a certain set of items in scope are important to them, why is it important to them? What is really driving the business or driving the project?

Asking a lot of questions, I think, is what helps retain customers—and really, truly listening to them, not just hearing them and waiting for your turn to talk. So I try to be a really good listener in project management. You also have to do that in sales.

Besides that, I’ve just had a great team of people to support me and back me up. You and Miles and Dave Jones are really good at what you do, and the same could be said of the people who were at Perceivant and Developer Town. I like to think that I’m good at what I do—listening and asking questions and being very detail oriented for clients—but I also have to give credit to the people I worked with. They were awesome. So that’s probably the biggest reason why I can tout that on my profile.

You're in an unusual position at Fretless—the "Hair Club for Men" position, let's call it. You've joined us full time, and you're also a client. And you came really, really close to taking my Ruby course at Eleven Fifty last year, so you narrowly missed being a student, a client, and an employee in that order.

That would have been awesome! But yeah, I’m really proud about that. I’m really excited to continue to work with you guys. Selfishly, my favorite thing about being on the team is the fact that I can have the team work on something that’s really important to me. The product that I’m working on with you guys, WarmUp, is my baby, right? I don’t have any kids, I’m not married yet, and that thing is what I work on during nights and weekends. It’s really important to me; it’s a lot of fun; it allows me to be creative. Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs, who have an idea, but they don’t have any way to build it and iterate on it, I do.

So I have the best job in the world. I have the best setup of anyone I know of. I have a really high quality product to sell, which is Fretless and all the value that comes with it. And on top of that, I’m very motivated to make it work and to do a really great job for everyone, because I will continue to get development on my own product. And on top of that, I can tell everyone, “Hey look—they do awesome work, and I know that for a fact because they do it for me too.” So I eat my own cooking, or drink my own Kool-Aid.

Yep, that's the Hair Club for Men method! So what led you to Fretless originally?

Miles Sterrett posted a bulletin at the Speak Easy about a year and a half ago that if someone wanted to be tutored for an hour or two on a monthly basis, he’d be willing to do that. That was an act of philanthropy on his part. At the time, I thought that I would teach myself to code on the side. So I took advantage of that tutoring for a few months, and Miles and I became friends.

Then I decided that wanted to focus on getting really good at sales and project management. I decided that I would always pay someone to be really good at coding—to cover that blind side for me instead of trying to build out that scope myself. I decided that becoming good at sales and project management was hard enough without throwing coding on top of that.

So you were student first, then client, then employee.

That’s right.

Just a freeloading student.

Exactly. You got it.

So what made you go from "I want Fretless to help me build my business," to "I want to devote many of my waking hours bringing others to Fretless"?

I believe in the team. I decided that you guys are awesome and that you fit my personality, and I felt like I could add value for you guys. It really was a good fit all the way around—people-wise, skillset-wise. I want to be known around Indianapolis as a guy who helps people build their businesses, and I also want to be known as a successful entrepreneur. I felt like Fretless was a great opportunity to be able to do that, because you’ve been successful already—you’ve never had a business development person—and my perception is that there’s a big demand for what you guys accomplish. All that on top of what I said earlier about helping me get my own project off the ground, and obviously the opportunity to just kick butt financially with Fretless is a really nice thing too.

The people are awesome; the company is awesome; you can help me with my own projects; and I can make a lot of money with you guys!

I believe that we are the best Ruby and JavaScript shop in Indiana—we’re the best!—and I’m really proud to be a part of that team.

One of the things I ask my students at the very beginning of the first day of class is to tell me what their favorite dinosaur is. Inevitably someone says "pterodactyl," which is not a dinosaur, and I have to explain that.

[Laughter] That is awesome.

So I won't make you do that, but one thing we all have in common at Fretless is our love of science fiction. Tell me about one piece of science fiction that you particularly like, in any medium.

That is so hard. I talked to Dave Jones about this a little but, and I think he and I are similar in this respect. I like hard science fiction with a strong basis in reality—like it’s believable that that thing could happen. I love good writing and good storytelling, which for me means really well-defined character development.

I also love science fiction that has a strong philosophical element to it. I was a philosophy major, so I love big themes. I’ve also discovered that I like darker science fiction, like the latest version of Battlestar Galactica. The characters were in a lot of pain.

So that's more realistic, because life is pain.

It is pain, right?

[Laughter] Happy endings are inherently unrealistic.

I forget which philosopher it was, but he said something like, “people are hell.” [Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.”] And I don’t feel that way. That’s the funny thing. I see the good in everyone, and assume the best of everyone. I have this warm, fuzzy bunny kind of personality, and but then I like this horribly dark version of science fiction. [Laughter]

I don’t know if I answered your question, but that’s kind of how I feel about it.

That was a total cop-out of an answer, but that's OK.

[lengthy conversation about The Martian omitted for brevity]

Thanks for spending part of your Friday afternoon doing this.

Dude, this is awesome.

Welcome aboard!