Where there’s muck there’s money

Dirty Money

For years I thought the old adage where there’s muck there’s money meant that shovelling s**t could be a well-paid job. With my co-founder at Documize, Harvey Kandola, I’ve tried shoveling s**t for years. Believe me, it doesn’t pay. So what does? What is the association between muck and money that has kept this saying alive thru the ages?

I recently came across an article from Paul Graham of Y Combinator, called schlep blindness, which gives an alternative view of that old adage, one that we at Documize have arrived at through hard work and experience (experience being the thing you get right after you needed it). To paraphrase Mr Graham – most startups fail because success requires that you do things that don’t come naturally, aren’t easy, and can therefore be classified as dirty work, or in his parlance, schlep.

In the tech startup world this is a tough point to get across to an ambitious group of smart, often young people, many of whom could coast through life just by leveraging their intelligence. Who needs the persistent headache, sore throat and red eyes that come from working deep into the night? Who wants to get blisters standing around exhibition halls while an uninterested public passes by? Who wants to show existing customers half-baked ideas and get slaughtered by their real-world view? Who wants to delete every line of a concept prototype and start again because VCs looked at it and laughed? Nobody.

Well, since some startups make it, that can’t be true, somebody must be mad enough to accept that this is all part of the process of doing the right things and getting them wrong. Painful though it is, some of us will do the dirty work. My view is that the secret is to look at schlep work in a different light, to see it as the least difficult aspect of achieving success. Once you do that then you create a whole new set of challenges simply by the change of mindset.

With Documize we started out to create a Wiki that would be better than the very best alternative in the world. It might seem that we set ourselves quite a challenge. Not only would it have to be better than Confluence et al, we’d have to get out there and drive traction and sales around it. Hmmm. That’s not simple product development, it’s not what we’re comfortable doing, it’s schlep. Once you accept that you’re going to have to the dirty work, go back to your original product idea. If you’re not a schlep shirker, you should see that what you planned to do wasn’t dirty enough, it wasn’t nearly as hard as it should be!

With the new mindset of ‘let’s do something so tough nobody else would do it, something so schlep we should question our sanity’, we decided we would create a Wiki from a Doc – any doc, no matter how crap the doc was. This meant that if the user already had a doc, a Wiki was only seconds away, and if the user wanted to start from scratch all that was needed was a doc template!

To Documize a doc all you have to do is drag it and drop it on a form where it is parsed and turned into HTML in the cloud, whether it is in DOC, DOCX or PDF format. The structure is inferred in case it has no Table of Contents or you’ve not used standard heading styles (just bigger fonts, underlines etc). What drops out the back are editable, hierarchical sections that you can reorganize, which provide continuous scrolling for a smooth reading experience, revisions tracked and of course the ability to rollback any section to a previous version. This process makes the doc available on mobile devices too.

Documize does everything that our experience told us that people have to do to shovel s**t with documents. There’s no more need to upload a big fat Word doc as an attachment, send it to someone, and pray that they remember to Track Changes. Just give them editor or viewer access to your account and you’re done; and you can have as many accounts as you need.

The trouble with accepting the challenge of doing something hard, no matter how deep and dirty you have to get, is that this behavior has no limits. We built Documize as SaaS, with all that entails, but we also built it in Go and Angular, so that it can run on Windows, Linux and Mac OS.


Well, here’s one for Mr. Graham and his fellow tech investors. What is schlep in our world is to refuse to acknowledge that there are things that cannot exist in a public cloud. For many organizations, documents are one such thing. Should we tell those organizations that they should suck it up and hop aboard our platform like the big SaaS VCs tell us to do? Or should we sigh, accept that there’ll be no sleep this weekend (or next), roll up our sleeves and come up with a solution that can be deployed as SaaS with an on-premise offering for those who simply cannot work any other way because documents are not web pages, they’re not simple apps with non-sensitive data, they are incredibly valuable and governed by laws and policies that pre-date tech and which will still be relevant and enforced when the lights go out on the last monitor.

Now that we’re almost there and we’re so dog tired we can barely work out which way is up, I really, really, really hope that it’s true that where there’s muck there’s… peace.

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