Couch surfing and pots of chili led to success for D.C.’s NotionTheory

Business partners Kristian Bouw and Mike Keung didn’t really mind that they were sharing a cramped one-bedroom apartment. But the fact that they were using the bunk bed that Bouw had slept in as a child—that stung a little.

“Needless to say, we never invited people over,” Bouw says, laughing.

When they were hungry, they shared a foot-long sub or made huge pots of chili that they could stretch over several meals.

Couch Surfing and Pots of Chili Led to Success for D.C.’s NotionTheory2

But the college friends had their eyes on the prize: they were spending 12 to 14 hours teaching themselves how to code. Their first startup—an app for personal trainers called Thryv—had folded after only three years, and they were determined not to let that happen again.

“We learned a lot from it,” says Keung. “I don’t think we executed as well as we could have. And we didn’t know the tech side of the business, so we were completely reliant on people telling us how to do it.”

Couch Surfing and Pots of Chili Led to Success for D.C.’s NotionTheory3

So after 10 months of nonstop studying, they decided that they would use the skills they had learned to set up a company that would help other young entrepreneurs launch their app or website.

“The idea didn’t come to us gradually,” says Bouw. “One day, we looked around and realized, ‘We need money.’”

At the time, they were living in Raleigh, North Carolina, but they decided that the startup community there wasn’t big enough. So they started looking elsewhere for their home base.

“We were looking at New York, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C.,” says Bouw. “The first two were oversaturated with the type of business that we do. We decided that D.C. was the place where we could establish ourselves and find our niche.”

Heading to D.C. was a big gamble for the pair, especially because they didn’t have the cash for expenses like hotel rooms. So with just a duffle bag of clothes, Bouw hit the road. For the first two weeks, he slept in his car or stayed on a friend’s couch.

It paid off. After lining up meeting after meeting, Bouw was able to secure deals for more than $20,000. Their company, NotionTheory, was now a reality. And it’s been profitable for the last 18 months.

Couch Surfing and Pots of Chili Led to Success for D.C.’s NotionTheory4

After working remotely for six months, Keung joined Bouw in D.C. They have found their niche by offering their services on a per-job basis, rather than charging by the hour. It’s a good deal for companies who need to know exactly how much they are going to spend.

The agency, which has grown to six staffers, is now operating out of WeWork Dupont Circle. Their office looks like a “mini MythBusters lab,” complete with a confetti canon, 3D printer, and virtual reality headset.

“We really enjoy being here,” says Keung. “And our clients like coming to our office and hanging out.”

Couch Surfing and Pots of Chili Led to Success for D.C.’s NotionTheory5

Word about the company has spread, and they’ve worked with customers in 15 different states. They were recently named one of the top web developers in the Washington area.

“When we get a new potential client, we always ask if they want to talk with customers who we’ve already worked with,” Bouw says. “We can bombard them with five, six, seven clients so they can ask all the questions they want to. That’s what really sells the company for us.”

Photos: Adrian Elliott

Interested in workspace? Get in touch.