Aaron Houghton

From a Hobby to a Real Business

Aaron Houghton
From a Hobby to a Real Business

From a Hobby to a Real Business is the second post in a five-part series about my roots as an entrepreneur. The other parts are:

I learned to write HTML at age 16 in a computer lab at Western Carolina University.

My dad was a professor there and the lab had the fastest Internet speeds around. It was, at the time, a culmination of years of building things, from Lincoln Logs to Legos to small engineering projects using erector sets.

My parents always encouraged me to be creative as I built, never setting parameters or expectations. But my mind went naturally to business applications. My first website was for a fictional mall I called Georgetown Mall, and the second was for our hometown Radio Shack—the store managers just didn’t know about it.

The first site I actually sold was to my basketball coach, whose family owned a bed and breakfast nearby. They wanted to market to tourists visiting the mountains as the leaves change colors, and websites were considered a cutting edge way to reach a broader audience than the typical printed brochure.

After some market research assistance from my dad, I decided to charge $90 to build the site and $10 a month to host it. Despite running a multi-million dollar property, my coach didn’t laugh at me when I gave him the quote.

Word spread quick and I had a strong list of tourism clients paying me to build and host informational websites by the time I entered Carolina as a freshman. I eventually named the business Preation and started taking on Chapel Hill clients. I also realized I could charge more for my time and work—that year marked the first time I signed contracts north of $2,000 and had real deliverables to meet. I had to be disciplined to finish a project in eight weeks and manage a full class load.

But the most important project of my time in college was an exercise in speed, creativity and strategy. Tarheel Takeout (now Takeout Central) was desperate for someone to take over a software project that another team had failed to complete on time or budget. It was mission-critical software for the online ordering and delivery company—not a brochure or informational website. This software would run the entire operation of about a million-dollar business. It was a make-or-break opportunity for Preation, and me.

I had no idea how I would get such a big project done so quickly. But I hired a team of classmates to help. I bought O’Reilly’s Intro to MySQL at Barnes & Noble and learned how to build and design a database in a day. We built a physical server from scratch and an entire technology stack on top of the database. We didn’t sleep for two weeks.

But Preation delivered the project on time, and the business ran on that system for more than a decade. The experience brought me back to my high school sports days—there was the thrill of competition and exceeding expectations as well as the importance of camaraderie and team. There was no way I could have met that two-week deadline without talented people around me offering their perspectives and rolling up their sleeves.

By age 21, I had fulfilled the dream I had at age 17—to build a software and hardware platform that would run an entire company. But that experience planted the seeds of a new dream—with much higher stakes, even more pressure, and the promise of greater reward.

The next story in this five-part series is Scaling the Business, and Me.