Missoula startup Submittable goes to Silicon Valley boot camp 

Right now, Michael FitzGerald, John Brownell and Bruce Tribbensee, the trio behind the Missoula startup Submittable, are together in Mountain View, Calif., in the Silicon Valley, in a cramped, nondescript apartment with a whiteboard on the wall, pounding out code on their computers. They're doing this all day, every day, until the third week of August—"and it's awesome," FitzGerald says.

Awesome because, despite being away from their families for three months, they're working with some of the country's most successful and connected tech innovators as part of Y Combinator, a business incubator that Wired magazine described last year as "the tech world's most prestigious program for budding digital entrepreneurs."

FitzGerald, 42, Brownell, 39, and Tribbensee, 51, find themselves refining their business plan under the tutelage of Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, who, among other things, co-founded in 1995 Viaweb, essentially the first online shopping cart, which Yahoo! acquired in 1998 for some $50 million in stock; Paul Buchheit, who created Gmail; Geoff Ralston, who created RocketMail, the predecessor of Yahoo! Mail; and other tech luminaries. "They set the bar so high that you're just working at an entirely different velocity and a different level of intensity," says FitzGerald, Submittable's president.

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  • Photo courtesy of Submittable
  • Left to right, John Brownell, Michael FitzGerald and Bruce Tribbensee of Submittable

Submittable is online submission management software that FitzGerald, Brownell and Tribbensee began developing in 2009. Before leaving for Mountain View in late May, FitzGerald, in a one-room office in downtown Missoula with "Submittable" scrawled on a sheet of paper pinned to the door, explained how the system works.

The core idea is to give publishers a simple way to accept and curate content. Take the Independent, he said. The paper is always receiving story pitches and submissions. Instead of forwarding the submissions to various editors via email, Submittable gives editors a centralized place where they all can communicate around the submissions—review, edit and label them, comment and vote on them, live chat and create work flows around them, assign the content to other users, and so on.

FitzGerald, who's also a novelist, originally set about solving a problem for literature publishers inundated with submissions. "Then we started seeing it being used all over the place, in ways we hadn't imagined," he said. A high-end French restaurant in New York City began using Submittable for accepting job applications. Others use it for music and video submissions. Playboy uses it for reviewing fiction. MIT is using it for a business plan competition. In two years, the company's amassed more than 3,500 clients. "Every day, people sign up," FitzGerald said. "It's a no-brainer. It's awesome."

Total transactions topped $1 million last year. The company's on pace to double that this year.

Submittable, the company and the service, was called "Submishmash" until a few months ago. It changed its name to be more descriptive, appealing and professional. "I guess we're selling out, but we're really not," FitzGerald said. "We're just trying to sell it, period. We want to make it universal."

Y Combinator will help. Every week the group—about 80 people from 40 startups—meets for dinner while tech veterans lecture about how to grow a company. The founders of the travel site Airbnb spoke a couple of weeks ago. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has in the past.

"It's inspiring to hear about people going through the first couple of years, which are usually pretty miserable," FitzGerald says.

Y Combinator's dozen or so partners also hold what they call "office hours," allowing the entrepreneurs to seek advice and guidance. That, FitzGerald says, is much more valuable than the money Y Combinator invests in the startups; each gets $20,000 on average, and other angel investors provide more. The program also brings in lawyers to offer the entrepreneurs free legal advice.

"We're definitely sort of an oddity in the group," Fitzgerald says. "We're basically middle-aged, frumpy dudes from Montana" among young MIT and Stanford grads who are doing things like building robots. "But in many ways it drives us even more."

He says they're writing code 20 hours a day.

"In the very beginning, when we first started our company, that's how we worked. ... Because we had no customers, we had no one to tell us what we were doing was wrong and we were just pounding out code. ... It was so exciting to get two or three customers. But once you get thousands of customers, suddenly you have to support them and talk to them, and then suddenly if you have thousands of customers, you have competition. So at every stage there's a different problem—and as somebody who was a novelist before, I had no idea how to [solve] any of them."

Nor did Brownell, a musician who plays in the band Secret Powers, or Tribbensee, a filmmaker. But FitzGerald says he's glad the company is navigating the challenges in the tech backwaters of Montana, not in Silicon Valley or New York.

"Developing in Montana really kept us out of the spotlight, gave us room to screw up, and it wasn't mind-blowingly expensive, so we could live on ramen for a year," he says. "I now think that Montana's a great place to start something insane."

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