Poloney Shares His Entrepreneurial Experience

7/20/2016 3:57:00 PM By Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS

In less than a decade, Joel Poloney (attended 2004-2007) has experienced the highs and lows of creating successful software products and building two startup companies. Poloney, a 2012 CS @ ILLINOIS Distinguished Achievement Award, shared his entrepreneurial journey with students on October 22, 2015, as an Engineer in Residence in the CS Department.

Joel Poloney returned to Illinois to share his insights on startups with CS @ ILLINOIS  students.
Joel Poloney returned to Illinois to share his insights on startups with CS @ ILLINOIS students.

A gifted software developer, Poloney and three Illinois classmates—Sizhao "Zao" Yang, Amitt Mahajan, and Luke Rajlich—started MyMiniLife Inc. in 2006 in Champaign while Poloney was still a student. “Originally I wasn’t looking to start a company, but it sort of morphed into that,” Poloney said. “I just wanted to build stuff and see what we could do.”

The company’s product, also called MyMiniLife, was a virtual world and social networking application that allowed users to express themselves by generating characters, creating and customizing virtual spaces and goods, and visiting and interacting with other users’ creations.  The game’s popularity soared after a favorable review from TechCrunch.

In August 2007, Poloney took a leave of absence from school to move with the company to Palo Alto, where he and his co-founders spent six months raising $100,000 from two investors. However, this amount was not enough to sustain the company. “By early 2009 we were running out of money and our investors were running out of patience with us,” he recalled.

By June 2009, Poloney and his colleagues sold MyMiniLife to social networking game-maker Zynga, and they moved to San Francisco, where they quickly developed and released FarmVille, the wildly popular Facebook game. Within seven months of its release, FarmVille had 80 million users worldwide.

Poloney left Zynga in late 2011 and founded Red Hot Labs with Mahajan. “We wanted to do a technology refresh,” said Poloney. “We had a vague vision of building something for mobile, but we didn’t know exactly what space.”

At first, he and Mahajan developed various mobile games, but it was the internal analytics tools they created to help shed light on players’ usage patterns that seemed strongest.  Seeing the value of these tools, Red Hot Labs pivoted from games to mobile analytics. “As a company, this was huge because we were pivoting away from a consumer-based business to a B2B-service-based SaaS business,” Poloney said. “We had to reset the company, which was really, really difficult.”

They renamed the company after its leading product, Toro, which helped developers promote their mobile apps on Facebook by automatically creating and testing hundreds of variants for each ad campaign. In February 2015, Google purchased the company, and Poloney was on the move again—this time to Mountain View, where he became a tech lead on Google’s AdMob app monetization, analysis, and promotion platform.

Poloney gave an in-depth look at how startups develop and change over time.
Poloney gave an in-depth look at how startups develop and change over time.

Poloney described four important lessons he learned through his entrepreneurial journey. First, networking is key to fundraising. Even though they had an interesting, fun product, Poloney said, “with our first company, we had zero contacts. It took six months to raise just $100,000. It was a brutal process—a slog.”

With Red Hot Labs, Poloney noted, they had a vague vision, no product, but they had contacts and friends who could potentially be investors. Within two months, they raised $1.5 million. They could do this, Poloney said, because they had built creditability, they networked, they promoted their work, and they created products that provided value.

A second lesson for entrepreneurs is the importance of hiring. “It’s hard,” said Poloney, who recalled spending a lot of mornings during the time of Red Hot Labs interviewing prospective employees. “It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, and then people leave, especially in California.”

Poloney advised his CS student audience to be patient with the process, look for candidates within their circle of friends and acquaintances, definitely consider hiring fellow Illinois classmates, and sell prospective employees on their company vision rather than on a specific product.

The third lesson was that change is good, and it’s ok to shift a company’s product focus. “There’s a magical art to pivoting your company—there’s really no right or wrong way to do this,” he said. “Try not to get too emotionally invested in one particular product. Think about the greater vision.”

The fourth point Poloney made was that exiting or selling a company is not about the money. “It’s about taking your product and vision to the next level…moving on and doing something greater than you could have done by yourself,” he said.

Poloney also encouraged students to work on side projects while in school outside of coursework because developing a pattern of hard work is great preparation for success in the real world. “All that starts way early and carries with you for the rest of your career,” said Poloney, who wrote visualization software at NCSA, helped develop a campus navigation app, and developed Siebel Center’s first touch panel directory while he was a student.

CS @ ILLINOIS Engineer in Residence (EIR) Program

As an Engineer in Residence (EIR), alumni reside in the department for a day or more to help students develop their computer science education into valuable applications and successful careers. The time with the department typically includes a presentation, informal meetings with students and faculty, and holding office hours for students interested in more personalized advice. Our students benefit significantly from the real-world experiences that our alumni have to share. If you are interested in participating in the EIR Program, please email Michelle Wellens at mwellens [at] illinois [dot] edu.