3 NYC entrepreneurs reveal how they went from side project to startup

by Taylor Majewski
March 21, 2017

Often, the most eminent companies have the most humble beginnings. In fact, it’s a common theme that thread’s today’s tech giants together as companies such as Airbnb, Trello and Product Hunt all got their start as side projects. Today, a new wave of companies born out of passion projects is coming to fruition and finding success in New York City.


In 2009, Dylan Thuras and Joshua Foer founded Atlas Obscura as a passion project, aiming to create a collaborative, online form of a travel book. Since then, the project has morphed into a company that provides users with a digital atlas of the world’s most wondrous and unusual places, standing by its mission to change how people view the world. We caught up with founder Dylan Thuras to find out more about how Atlas Obscura got its start.

What were you working on when you first started this as a project?

I was working as a freelance video editor when we first began Atlas Obscura, which was nice because it afforded me the flexibility to do side projects. This all started because I was finishing a long job working on a documentary when I came across my co-founder Josh Foer (whose blog I was a fan of) asking for help putting on an 'evening of wonders' called the First Annual Meeting of the Athanasius Kircher Society. We got together and found we had very similar sensibilities. We put on the evening of wonder, which went wonderfully and even got written up in a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece. I was headed to live in Budapest and Josh and I began discussing the lack of great travel resources for a certain kind of adventurous, unusual traveler. Hence the idea for the Atlas was born! I spent the year in Hungary traveling around, finding amazing Atlas type places and writing up the seed content.

At what point did you decide to pursue the project full-time?

After the launch in 2009 it became clear that there was plenty of work to do to occupy me full-time, but the question was one of money. So I was basically working full time starting in 2009, and working on freelance projects on nights and weekends to pay my rent. It wasn't until 2010 that Atlas started to figure out how to pay our bills, through advertising and sponsorships. I remained working as a part-time video teacher until 2013. Despite at that point having five other folks on staff, I continued to work nights and weekends so that when times got tight for payroll, I had enough money coming in that I could temporarily take the hit and pay other folks. In 2013 it finally felt stable enough to feel confident that everyone, including myself, could get paid in full every month.

What major lessons did you learn at your previous job/company that carried over and helped you build your company?

Being a freelancer definitely helped me learn how to hustle! Freelancers are all entrepreneurs. The skills of figuring out where your next gig will come from, how to manage your own time and learning to trust your own instincts are essential. Also, it helped me build a certain tolerance for risk, of not knowing if the next paycheck will come. That comfort with risk is really important. Trusting yourself is important because if it all truly falls apart, you can pick back up and begin anew. 

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs pursuing passion projects?

Make sure they truly are passion projects, and that they help fulfill you even if they aren't bringing in money. It can be a long ride to get from idea to paying the bills, and in the process, you have to be fulfilled by some other element. One of the best ways, for me at least, is a sense of community. That there were other people out there as excited about Atlas Obscura as I was. That sense of community and mutual excitement can carry you a long way. Secondly, as your passion project grows, you will have to do more and more of the boring stuff like the finances and marketing. Remember to set aside time to do the work that inspired you in the first place. It may not feel like you have time to do the 'creative stuff' but your relationship to the project is important. If you lose the passion, it makes it much harder to weather future storms.


Back in 2016, AOL launched an internal incubator program dubbed ‘Area 51’ to allow its employees to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors. In February, the incubator’s first project, Avery.ai, officially launched. Avery.ai is a chatbot that integrates with Slack so marketers can use natural language to analyze complex data analytics without needing a data scientist to decipher the insights. We spoke with Avery.ai founder Davood Shamsi to find out more about the legwork leading up to the launch.

What inspired you to pursue your idea for Avery.ai?

Before Starting Avery.ai, I was working as a research scientist at AOL. In that role, I developed many of the advanced algorithms that derives AOL's programmatic advertising technology. Adtech becomes more advanced and data-driven every year, while advertisers lose the control of their campaign to algorithms. This phenomenon is creating a gap between ad tech and advertisers. Many big advertisers and agencies, feeling lost in the big data, have started hiring their own data science to address the problem.

Because of my background in optimization and machine learning, I wanted to empower people with no technical skill with the capacity of big data and machine learning. I was convinced that I can use the power of AI to enable non-technical people to become 'citizen data scientists.' My vision is to build a virtual assistant that can help everyone to enjoy the magical power of mathematics.

What major lessons did you learn in your previous role at AOL that carried over and helped you build Avery.ai?

The work I was doing at AOL, designing and building machine learning algorithms, was incredibly valuable in enhancing my technical skills. Also in my previous role, I honed my teamwork, collaboration, management and leadership skills which are essential in executing an idea. The idea for Avery.ai developed after I saw the need for this type of tool in the work I was doing every day.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs pursuing passion projects?

If you have a brilliant idea for a product that makes people's lives better, keep your eyes on your vision and the better world that you can create. There will surely be many obstacles in your way — be ready for all the challenges, and make your vision a reality.

At the same time, try to read as much as you can about already developed methodologies in entrepreneurship. How do you evaluate an idea? How do you test the market? How do you go from idea to MVP? And so on.

Also, try not to make the mistakes that other people have made, but instead learn from them. I find that the experience of having a startup that failed can be more valuable than the experience of one that succeeded.


Friendthem is a location-based social platform that enables its users to connect with people around them. Friendthem CEO and Founder Charles Sankowich left his former post as a New York Mercantile Exchange trader to pursue Friendthem full-time in 2011.

What were you working on when you first started this as a side project?

Prior to founding Friendthem, I worked as a trader on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The burn out rate is relatively high with traders and I was no exception. I left my career as a trader with a desire to become an innovator, eventually leading me to the world of entrepreneurial ventures.

At what point did you decide to pursue the project full-time?

The “aha!' moment that prompted me to pursue Friendthem full-time was a missed connection at a bar. I met someone at a bar, who I struggled to find online. After that, I realized that others must be experiencing the same loss that I experienced. I then made it my mission to create a service that eliminates the search process when trying to connect with someone you meet in real life. We as humans have a desire to connect — it’s a shared, common interest that we’re all trying to achieve. 

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs pursuing side projects?

Pursue every venture with passion. I truly believe my passion is contagious — and when you surround yourself with driven, like-minded people in your life, then you’ve got an entire room full of good energy. It’s what gets me up every morning. An idea like Friendthem combined with my passion has helped me build my company.

It’s also important to understand what it takes to be entrepreneur. You have to be honest with yourself, realizing that entrepreneurship is a 24/7 lifestyle. It's not easy and this type of lifestyle is not for everyone. You need to have discipline, dedication and perseverance. You also need to get used to rejection. There’s a lot of rejection that comes with being an entrepreneur, but you can’t view rejection as failure —otherwise, you’re never going to make it as an entrepreneur.

Images via Facebook and Shutterstock. 

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Know of a company that deserves coverage? Let us know or tweet us @builtinnewyork.


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