Morgan Howell has founded and bootstrapped an eclectic landscape of five businesses after leaving Facebook as a Senior Software Engineer almost two years ago. From being the Co-Founder of Stock Alarm, an automated alerting tool for stock and crypto traders, the Director of Engineering at Learn to Win (L2W), an adaptive micro-learning platform that supports training for frontline works and the Department of Defense, to starting three family businesses, two brick and mortar (bar and barbershop), and an embeddable enterprise search engine called VeriFind to publicly verify employees — we’re not sure how Morgan finds the time, but we know he must be burning the midnight oil! At Facebook Morgan built out various full-stack payment products and supported payments infrastructure before joining Learn to Win and scaling the engineering team while solving complex problems like optimizing the learning process and building systems of security/compliance for deployments into classified cloud environments for the military. Often self-proclaiming the title ‘reformed redneck’, as a first-generation college student growing up in Cottonville, North Carolina, Morgan has used his businesses to employ and support his family back home after leaving for the Bay Area. Morgan has spent the majority of his time over the past year and a half scaling Learn to Win but plans to transition to Stock Alarm full-time as CTO starting in January, 2022. That is, as long as his wife who he married this year does not convince him to focus more on VeriFind, which he originally created to solve a problem for his wife’s business in Vietnam before generalizing it to a SaaS product. At Stock Alarm as Co-Founder and CTO starting in January, Morgan hopes to expand the product offering to give everyday stock and crypto traders even more power against Wall Street with smart real-time alerts, asset scanners, and a range of accessible technical indicators.
Where did the idea for Stock Alarm come from?
As a night owl moving out to the West Coast from North Carolina, I found it difficult to wake up at 5AM to do research on stock positions before market opening. After sleeping in a few times to find pre-market opportunities missed, I resorted to setting limit orders before going to bed and hoping for the best when waking. Limit orders and price targets alone were not cutting it, so I thought it would be cool to have a ‘smart alarm clock’ of sorts that woke me up whenever something interesting was happening in the market — thus, Stock Alarm was born.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My daily routine should change drastically as I transition to being CTO of Stock Alarm in January but currently most days consist of meetings and coding in the evening. I usually take partner calls first thing in the morning, then conduct daily standup with my engineering team, take 1:1s with those engineers and folks in support product roles (all before 5PM), then I usually transition to tackling high priority issues as an individual contributor. I recently started scheduling ‘deep work focus blocks’ to defend coding time during the day and use a blend of productivity tools, such as Jira and my favorite app (Apple Notes) to keep track of things.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I think the process can change depending on context and the maturity of the team/product, however in line with lean startup culture, it is important to build as agile and iteratively as possible — that means starting small, preferably in a niche around a specific use case, defending feature-creep at all costs, and making systems flexible enough to expand beyond the simpler initial use cases. Before product market fit is found, I have found success in boiling ideas down to a simple set of ‘people problems’ or real customer pain points that can be addressed with a small set of features in the MVP. Even within the MVP though, the power of data should never be underestimated; through logging or conducting customer interviews, it’s important to have high confidence that the MVP shows utility (i.e. real solutions to that people problem). This means always taking a hypothesis-driven approach (dropping all assumptions about the idea) so the minimal set of features that solve these problems can be shown to prove/disprove the hypothesis in the MVP. I prefer to build ‘unscalably’ in the beginning, not creating tech debt, but recognizing that scale is an issue to solve at a later stage so the time needed to prove or disprove a particular hypothesis is minimized. I also believe that the team is more important than the idea itself, so it’s important to find folks that are smarter than you and to create a culture of radical candor: embracing hard feedback constantly and balancing that with recognition where it is deserved. The biggest risk to a business can be the ‘unknown unknowns’ so if there is a topic that you are unfamiliar with, whether that’s with company formation, engineering, or even accounting — find an expert that can teach you and challenge your set of assumptions.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I find the democratization of financial markets and tools to be very exciting. History up until today, more specifically before Robinhood, shows that the wolves of Wall Streets (hedge funds, quants, and algo traders alike) take advantage of the masses who are not able to compete with their expensive toolset. I am excited to see low-code platforms even the playing field so that anyone can benefit from the stock market and crypto.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
As trite as it sounds, I think grit wins all battles in the end. Even with massive grit and determination however, we must always remember to work smart, not just hard. This means keeping track of milestones and conducting routine feedback sessions, reusing other projects/libraries when possible, and putting the strengths/weaknesses of a team together like puzzle-pieces. I view time as a sort of currency and I think it is important to schedule your days ahead of time; by putting time into certain things, you are essentially placing bets on the return of that time investment. By taking meetings for the sake of it or by going to meetings unprepared, you will always lose that bet. If a meeting feels unproductive, end the meeting early or drop it altogether. That being said, it’s important to foster relationships and develop others on your team, so consider how time spent with others may not ‘feel efficient’ in the short-term but it serves as a force-multiplier that extends impact beyond yourself. Also as someone who greatly values the power of compounding interest, when I am in the mode of being an individual contributor, I try to play to my strengths and work on things that I have grown expertise around and/or reuse past systems/learnings to get an edge of sorts on whatever I am working on — this means having past projects enable the current ones and getting key relationships and/or integrations in tight rhythms so you are not always building context. In terms of ensuring the productivity spent is there to stay whenever I build something, In terms of ensuring the time spent is there to stay and longevity of an initiative is defended, whenever I build something, I try to imagine how it could run on its own (i.e. automation) but I also try to consider how to leave direction/possibility to expand if someone wants to own or improve that thing in the future.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Learn by doing — it’s important to focus on the theoretical and explore topics purely for the intellectual challenge but set practical milestones in the real world that can help society.
Success is made by sacrifice — building a business is not about labels, politics, and/or being nice to everyone around you. Building a business is about staying candid, understanding tradeoffs, defending your time by cutting the extraneous, and delivering unequivocal value through a product or service. Resist temptations to center life around being with ‘cool kids in bubbles’ that are more interested in fame than creating value. Value creators will mostly be in the lab, not taking IG photos at parties. Although we all need the cool kids at times, stay close to family and the people you relate to — these people are a better representation of the society that you want to enable.
Don’t polish diamonds — it can be tempting to wait until something is perfect but follow the 80/20 rule and understand laws of diminishing returns; it is often better to deliver 80% of something, then get feedback and iterate, than take forever to finish the last mile.
Leverage good relationships — being self-dependent from an early age has a lot of benefits, but also a few key cons, including imposter syndrome and a resistance to receiving help. Have confidence in what you know but never hesitate to ask questions and call on others. Keep an open mind and value the diversity of relationships because exposure broadens our mental and cultural horizons.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I went all in on TSLA for 8 months before I let everyone convince me that I was a fool for being so cavalier with finances on a risky stock. Two weeks after I sold, giving in to everyone’s advice and the stagnant price, my stomach churned as it doubled, tripled, and then quadrupled in price… Trading horror stories aside though, I think one contrarian opinion I hold relates to hiring at companies. I often hear the advice “hire fast, fire faster” but I actually think hiring (especially early on) should be done slowly. I also think that firing should not be an immediate thing, rather a trajectory that is set at a future date (months ahead) that only happens if KPIs in a performance improvement plan (PIP) are not met. The risk/cost of a bad hire is extremely high, so take time interviewing and ensure the quality bar only pushes higher — let smart people bring in even smarter people. It takes a lot of time to flesh out an effective process for identifying candidates that will continue to push this bar higher. Thus in my contrarian opinion, instead of “hire fast, fire faster” it should be “fire slow, hire slower”.\
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I think doing one thing well is better than doing many things poorly. Keeping that in mind and staying lean/agile, it’s important to break projects down into digestible milestones. It’s important to set aggressive deadlines on these milestones but not be tempted to launch products that are half-baked, expect delays from initial testing/feedback and enforce tight rhythms of retro and post-mortems to understand how to avoid delays in the future. As iterations happen and milestones are met, maintain a flexible mind and think of your team as baseball cards (as Ray Dalio once put it) to reorganize focus, play to strengths of individuals, and constantly improve efficiency between celebrated milestones.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Whenever I build a new product, I think about how a supporting feature could serve as a ‘flywheel’ or in other words, contain a feedback loop that would attract more users exponentially. For instance with Stock Alarm, once we confirmed the product delivered core utility to a small group, we allowed these users to refer others for gold membership credit, as well as share the alarms they built through a link. On our web app, we also show ‘trending alarms’ which reveal the most popular alarms with the price/value target. These features are all potential ‘flywheels’ that grew the business because they contain feedback loops, for instance each user referred creates their own sphere/tree of potential users they could refer. Similarly, as more users onboard, trending alarms become more valuable since it represents speculation from a larger sample size. Building inner-communities of customers that support, assist, and refer other customers through various features are all effective forms of flywheels that can unlock massive growth.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In the past I took on more than I could handle. I built businesses before the team and over-committed to my own deadlines and others. Unfortunately this resulted in failures throughout all businesses, to name a few: the pizza bar getting shut down temporarily due to an oven compliance issue, a deteriorated relationship with the Stock Alarm partners in 2020, and several projects/features being abandoned due to other commitments. In almost every scenario, I was able to overcome the issue by involving additional people that could own that particular focus area. Whether it was through giving equity away at Down Time (the pizza bar) to bring in a manager that knew what they were doing, redistributing equity at Stock Alarm to reflect work more fairly, or learning to push back and say no to avoid new projects that are not priority — I have had to learn how to not be greedy, ask for help, treat equity as ‘dry powder’ to build meritocracies without gaps, and push back against meetings/projects that aren’t priority for current bandwidth.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
One business idea that I have been entertaining involves a service that could ingest data from learning platforms to visualize and optimize learning efficacy across all industries. Most learning software for training and education, such as a learning management system (LMS), works with set data model protocols such as SCORM/AICC and interoperable paradigms (e.g. xAPI, cmi5, etc.) that track learner performance. If this service was truly interoperable with most learning platforms (e.g. Coursera, Udemy, Docebo, etc.) it could leverage a user’s demographic and industry to experiment and compare different learning modalities to optimize the type of learning that is most effective for that particular person and industry. If this platform also became interoperable with other management systems (like SalesForce and Workday) that roughly track performance/incidents, using machine learning, the platform could identify the course and/or learning style that correlates with the best outcomes in the real world.
I haven’t thought of a name but I am open to ideas!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently bought a subwoofer to add to my entertainment system — it thumps!
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Notion is incredibly helpful for general document keeping, spreadsheets, and high-level roadmapping/project management. I use Jira or Linear to organize tasks and manage projects more granularly on a weekly cycle. I find Linear to be more intuitive and convenient than Atlassian’s Jira but both work well with agile teams that have regular sprint cycles and use burn down charts and productivity metrics. I have also leveraged Code Climate’s Velocity for tracking general coding productivity; I put more emphasis however on the Github side of things for tracking the code I need to review and my current development work. As far as product design goes, I don’t think you can go wrong with Figma — it has a rich set of templates to start from and enables real-time collaboration.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Principles by Ray Dalio is an amazing read for anyone starting a company. In addition to building important context for markets through history and analysis, Dalio sets frameworks for building and evaluating teams, discovering the ‘unknown unknowns’, and methods to facilitate a culture of radical transparency. At its core however, as the title implies, the book teaches the importance of always staying on the side of truth, keeping strong principles that require balanced humility, never deviating from reality, and ‘believability-weighting’ the opinions of others.
What is your favorite quote?
Albert Einstein once described compound interest as the “eighth wonder of the world,” saying, “he who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays for it.”
- Take a hypothesis-driven approach to building products, minimize assumptions.
- Build iteratively, in small chunks, and break large projects into many smaller milestones, so that you constantly get feedback and expand direction based on customer empathy. Start small and ladder up!
- Build a culture of radical transparency, always give feedback and stay mentally flexible so that team can be rebalanced as needed between milestones.
- Learn to say no, don’t over-commit to things, be overly-ambitious, or try to boil the ocean. View your time as currency, when you schedule your days think of your time as placing bets in certain areas.
- As you build your company, identify potential flywheels in the product, empower others to own projects, and take your time hiring to ensure a rising bar of quality.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.