WakeMate (YC S09) on building their business and their YCombinator experience

I recently had the chance to do an interview with the founders of the YCombinator backed startup, WakeMate. WakeMake wants to help you sleep better by tracking your sleep. In this interview we talk about how they came up with the idea, how they gained traction, and their experience with YCombinator. I’ve also included a summary below the video.

What is WakeMake

WakeMate is a cellphone accessory that tracks your sleep cycle, and helps you improve your quality of sleep.

Where did the idea come from?

• Idea came from an experience 6 years ago when they realized they didn’t always feel refreshed in the morning when they woke up.
• They’ve done a ton thinking and research.

What helped to set you apart?

• Dedication.
• Research.
• We had already built a prototype.
• Proved that we were determined (both had dropped out of school at this point to work on WakeMate).

Biggest plus to being in YCombinator:

• The YCombinator Brand. This opened a lot of doors.
• Direct Access to Paul Graham. You have a lot of people giving you advice and it helps to have just one voice to focus on.
• Incredible almuni network.

Getting in to YCombinator:

• Don’t let not getting into YCombinator hurt you. There are many successful startups that have nothing to do with YC.
• Focus on building a business. Statistically you’re not going to get into YC, but that shouldn’t stop you from building an awesome startup.
• Advance your startup, and don’t worry about getting into YCombinator. Focus on building a business.

How did WakeMate gain traction?

• WakeMate solves a problem that is easily communicable. The best salesman you have is a customer who loves your product.

How do you move from early adopters into the mainstream?

• Target specific market segments where sleep is a major pain point (traveling businessman, medical students, etc.)

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs and founder that are just starting out

• Talk to everybody. You need to gather research.
• You need to be an expert in your field so keep learning.
• Focus on your elevator pitch. Figure out how to comunicate your business in 30 seconds.

For more startup news, follow us on Twitter @startupfoundry.

How FeeFighters saved startups $50 million a year in credit card fees


I had the chance to chat with Sheel Mohnot (from FeeFighters) to talk about how one startup helped other founders and small business owners save $50 million in the course of one year. Be sure to checkout the end of the article for a gift (worth $49) that FeeFighters is generously giving away to TSF readers!

What is FeeFighters?

Sheel Mohnot: FeeFighters helps small businesses shop for credit card processing, making it as easy as shopping for a plane ticket on Kayak.com. In minutes, business owners can choose the best deal on credit card processing with a reverse auction marketplace that saves the average business owner 40 percent on credit card processing.

Who is your target market?

Sheel: Our target market is anyone that takes credit cards. About 2/3rds of our customers take payments online (mix of startups and established companies, we have lots of e-retailers and SaaS businesses). The other 1/3rd are offline customers, like pizza shops, restaurant chains, and retailers.

We find that a lot of startups often go with PayPal or use their bank for payment processing early on, and then once they get to a certain size, they realize that they can save a significant amount of money by switching to a new provider. We help them make the process as easy as possible.

What is FeeFighter’s backstory?

Sheel: Sean (FeeFighter’s CEO) ran a company called TSS radio. In his first year of operations, he was really frustrated because he overpaid his credit card processing fees by $40,000, which was more than the total profits he took in. He wanted to do something about it- so he started a blog called the Informed Merchant. informed-merchant.com was getting a lot of love from small businesses, so he decided that he could do more to help them actually save money. The idea was born that if processors compete down for merchant’s business, prices would come down significantly. We wrote the contracts to eliminate the opportunity for processors to deceive our customers – we’ve instituted interchange plus pricing, which was previously only available to large merchants like Best Buy and Wal-Mart. All of our customers combined add up to a lot of market power and processors love getting their business.

 

I’ve noticed that your blogging style is very similar to how Mint communicated in the early days. Can you tell us why blogging is important to FeeFighters?

Sheel: Blogging is really important to us, and we figured we could learn from the best. Mint is really good at getting useful content out via their blog, which gets syndicated out throughout the web. We want our blog to accomplish 2 main things

1) Inform merchants about the intricacies of payment processing (obviously hoping to convert them as customers)

2) Generate buzz. We do this via infographics, fun articles completely unrelated to payments (including a workout video that got several thousand hits), and general business articles

For pagerank purposes, it’s important that these be linked to from outside sources, so there is certainly some link-bait in the mix as well.

 

How are you gaining traction? How did you get your foot in the door in this industry? Can you share a few tips for other startups that are still in the hustle phase?

Sheel: We’re gaining traction the old fashioned way. We provide a needed service that our customers love. They spread the word about us. The problem is, it isn’t happening fast enough… So we spend money on some paid search, we do a lot of buzz/PR stuff, and we are trying to build out our partnerships. We want to be anywhere that small businesses are, and we offer something compelling to our partners – the opportunity to save your customers a lot of money.

 

We got our foot in the door in the industry by learning more than anyone else about it. Sean read a lot. He became an expert on payment processing, so much so that he’s one of the experts in this field. He’s written about it, spoken at conferences, and ultimately started a company in the industry. It’s always a hustle – raising money, getting early customers, getting processors to agree to our crazy merchant-friendly contracts, etc. The hustle phase is really important… I don’t think we’ll be out for that phase for a long time. Tips: NEVER STOP HUSTLING. If things are getting comfortable, you aren’t hustling enough and someone that out-hustles you will eat your lunch. In our business, it is important to be everywhere at once. We work hard to do that.

 

What’s next for FeeFighters?

Sheel: Lots of exciting things! We’re launching an awesome UI change to the site in the next week or so, which will give our customers Kayak-style ability to do instant searches. Also, we’re launching in Canada! Our neighbors to the north can save a lot of money on payment processing too, and we decided that we should try to reach them.

We already have fantastic customers like StackExchange and OkCupid, but we’re always looking to grow our user base.

 

Is there anything else TSF readers should know about FeeFighters?

Sheel: We decided to run a special for TSF readers – We’re going to give a free statement analysis $49 value.  Send an email to sheel@feefighters.com with TSF in the subject line and your statement attached.

For more startup news, follow us on Twitter @startupfoundry

“I pitched 200 VCs in 10 months before I closed the round”

I had the pleasure of meeting Sanjay Parekh a month or so ago, and I knew I had to share his story on The Startup Foundry. In this interview, Sanjay talks about how he pitched 200 Venture Capitalists in 10 months to secure funding for his startup. This 7 minute video is chalked full of great advice for startups raising money. Sanjay talks about the “highs” and the “lows” of entrepreneurship and lessons he has learned along the way. If you’re unable to view the video, I’ve included text highlights below.

1. Slides changed dramatically after 10-15 pitches. The first several pitches helped Sanjay truly understand what he was pitching.

2. Pay attention to the questions VCs are asking to learn what you need to improve on. If the same questions are brought up over and over again, you must improve that part of your pitch.

3. Raising money can take a while. If you’re going to commit, be in it for the long haul.

4. Understand why they said “no”, and learn from it.

5. A VC had to pull out because they didn’t have the cash. Sometimes crappy things happen to you that are out of your control. Keep pushing forward.

6. Raising money is hard work. Raising $41 million before you have any customers is the exception, not the rule.

7. There is really bad times, and really high times. Entrepreneurship is a bipolar existence.

8. You have a responsibility to your employees to keep pushing (even when you’re discouraged).

For more startup news, follow us on Twitter @startupfoundry.

Marketing Reddit: Have an Awesome Product and Tie it to a Fantastic Brand

Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit, sat down with me to talk about how Reddit handled it’s marketing when it was still a startup. Alexis also give several marketing tips for entrepreneurs who are just getting started.

[Editors Note: This is part 2 of my interview with Alexis. To watch the first part, checkout The first 6 months of Reddit (YC 05): “Entrepreneurship is a bipolar existence”]

7 takeaways from the video

1. The Reddit alien came from a doodle in marketing class. Always be looking for inspiration.

2. If you have a great product and great service, tie it to an awesome brand. This will help you become memorable.

3. When people tattoo your logo on themselves, you’re doing something right

4. Great branding can’t save something that’s not good enough, so making sure you’re product rocks is the first priority.

5. Decent branding without a lot of cash: If you don’t have a network of designers, checkout a site like 99designs (but “shake the friend tree” for artists before you go this route).

6. You can’t succeed if you don’t actually start. Don’t be afraid to fail.

7. If something fails, no one will know about it because no one used it. Stopped letting fear paralyze you and built cool stuff.

For up to minute startup news, follow us on Twitter @startupfoundry.

The first 6 months of Reddit (YC 05): “Entrepreneurship is a bipolar existence”

A co-founder of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, sat down with me to talk about the first six months of Reddit. We talked about his experience in YCombinator, meetings with Google and Yahoo, and the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur. This is a great interview and you don’t want to miss it!

Highlights of this video:

1. Initially the Reddit team was rejected by YCombinator. Paul Graham then followed up with them via a phone call and said “as long as you ditch your original idea, you can come be a part of YCombinator”. This is a great reminder that investors often care more about the team then they do the product.

2. Alexis also talks about how Reddit was able to get new users by creating fake accounts to simulate an active community.

3. Alexis talks about a meeting they had with Yahoo, but he felt that the meeting sucked because Yahoo was more interested in the traffic they were generating then the actual mission of the site.

4. Met with Google, and things went really well. This was a huge boost of confidence for the Reddit team as “some very smart people at Google were interested in our product”.

5. Alexis also reminisces about doing “digital grunt work”. Alexis attributes a lot of Reddit’s success to doing things that aren’t glamorous. Great reminder that entrepreneurship is all about “the hustle”.

6. Entrepreneurship is a Bipolar existence. Sometimes you feel like you’re building an online empire, and other days you feel like a nobody. This is completely normal.

7. A tip that Alexis shared for other startups was to “celebrate quick and easy wins” (especially in the first 6 months). This helps to build momentum, and establishes comradery on your team.

Please follow us on Twitter for up to the minute startup news @startupfoundry.

The Music Venture Capital Business Model (Or a New Perspective)


This is a guest post written by Wesley Verhoeve. He is an entrepreneur and artist manager, and loves to write about where business and music intersect. For more articles by Wesley please visit his website at WesleyVerhoeve.com

As the music business evolves and moves beyond the antiquated copyright exploitation model, it makes increasing amounts of sense to further explore the thoughts I’ve shared on the parallels between the future of our business and the current ways of the venture capital/tech start-up world. Every artist (the creative)and their manager (the business person, and together with the artist the product developer) should consider themselves creative entrepreneurs, not much different from the small team of Dave (the graphic designer/artist), Jason (the product developer) and Spencer(the business guy) at online portfolio start-up Carbonmade.

How It Works In The Current Tech Start-Up Business

In a simplified version of the start-up world the scenario goes as follows: a small team of creatives and business people create a product (an app, a web service, site, etc.) and bring it to market in a Beta form, while continuously improving and providing updates. They might initially be self-funded and bootstrapping, or they could be funded with the help of one or more Angel Investors. If the product catches on with a small group of passionate early adopters, and there is potential for a much wider base of users, the team might seek out additional investors to be able to shoot for this larger market. These second level investors could be Venture Capitalists(VCs) , who differ from Angels mostly in the scale of finances they can provide (bigger), the additional knowledge they can share to help speed up growth, and the support network they can provide. The original start-up shares ownership in the company with both rounds of investors. The investors are either looking for an exit (a sale of the start-up to a large company like Google), or sustained profits over time.

How It Could Work In The Future Music Business

When we translate this to the music industry we can draw some parallels. An artist and their manager start developing products together. They record demos/singles/EPs, produce a stage show and play small concerts, create artwork for branding and marketing, build a website (each of which are products!), and release them to friends/family/early adopters. This could be self-funded, or in part funded with smaller amounts of money from wonderfully nice family members, friends or through a service like Kickstarter or Pledge Music. In exchange the investors become small stake-holders in the career of the start-up team of artist and manager. (Note the difference from typical Kickstarter campaigns which are more like fancy pre-sales for the future product.)

With each product release, like a single, we build our customer base (or we could say fan base, but that’s so 2001), and as we learn from their feedback we adjust. Please note that I am not suggesting to change the art to fit an audience, but rather that we adapt the business elements(how do we offer the products, at which price point, through which channels, etc.).

As the start-up team bootstraps their way to an increased customer base, we add more members to the team to facilitate more growth and increased revenue. A booking agent can help us improve distribution of our live show product, visual artists can help us create more effective branding and marketing materials, an attorney can help us secure better deals, etc. These are contractors for the most part, and won’t take ownership.

An indie label or marketing firm might come on board in a second round of investments, and those could be considered bigger Angels, or even VCs depending on the level of investment/commitment. In exchange for a share of the profit they add value through additional manpower/skills, an increased network of supporters, additional funding, and services (royalty accounting, legal, distribution, synch pitching).

If the music is of a certain popular mass-appeal nature, an artist/music start-up can engage in a third round of investments. This time it would involve major investors (major labels). In exchange for a more substantial amount of money than a previous investor they acquire an additional chunk of equity (a co-release with the indie), or they can buy the angel’s piece of equity (upstream deal, master ownership). They can also offer additional services as part of the deal including radio support, mainstream media pr, etc.

The original start-up team won’t be looking for an exit, but a continuous stream of profits based on the different revenues streams that are developed. Angels could look for an exit in subsequent investment rounds (uncle Bob wants his money back and has no ambition to permanently operate in the music business!), and our version of VCs will look for partial ownership and continuous profit streams through catalog.

The Benefits

The benefits of this model over the current ways of the industry are obvious and plentiful.

  • Artists maintain creative control and (partial) ownership of their creations.
  • Investors gain ownership in all profit streams, but only in exchange for quantifiable contributions to the process.
  • Early investors (including managers who put in sweat equity) who have stood the most risk and exhibited the most vision, stand to benefit at greater rates than those who jump on the bandwagon later. This will stimulate a new wave of artist development, rather than the current wave of lazy “wait-and-see” A&R behavior.
  • The financial aspects of an artists career would gain incredible amounts of transparency, and accounting would be simplified.
  • The quality of music would arguably benefit from the increased artistic influence of artists and their trusted advisors (producers, indies), the decreased artistic influence of suits, and greater diversity.
  • Roles would be delineated much more clearly and people would focus on their strengths. Stay in your lane.
  • Major Labels get to remake themselves and focus on their strengths
  • Indie labels and new style management/label hybrids are better positioned to take back their rightful place as quality gatekeepers and this benefits our customers by freeing them from the clutter that has is so rampant in the world of music discovery.
  • The increased sphere of societal influence will belong to the creators, and not the financiers.
  • Job creation would take place in the music business as entire Major Label departments would spin off into a cottage industry of providers for start-ups and investors.
  • Opportunities for music industry people to act shady are reduced, and the opportunity for artists to waste a ton of money is as well. A fairness doctrine.

A Few Things We’ll Need To Make This Happen

  • An uncluttered way for Angels to find artist start-ups seeking investments (a curated myspace meets kickstarter?).
  • A template legal and financial structure that protects investors and artists alike. And subsequently, music attorneys that can practice “real law”, and not just weird mystery theater entertainment law.
  • A set of proper and relevant business analytics and post-Soundscan metrics that matter, both for artists and Angels, and a dashboard in which we can clearly track them.
  • A new perspective, vision and a willingness to let go of the broken system we operate under at the moment. This will be easy for new artists, but hard and scary for those artists still making money right now under the old system.

 

Angry Bird’s “overnight success” only took 8 years.

On March 10 the creators of Angry Birds (Rovio studios) announced that they had taken $42 Million in funding. They currently hold the record for the best selling iOS game ever. There is talks of a movie being produced featuring Angry Birds. You can already buy stuffed animal versions of the birds.

As Wired Magazine eloquently put it: “Every day, users spend 200 million minutes — 16 years every hour — playing the mobile game. Three trillion pigs have been popped. It has filled billions of those interstitial moments spent riding the bus, on a plane or in important work meetings, and it is or has been the number-one paid app on iTunes in 68 countries, as well as the best-selling paid app of all time.”

I overheard someone dismissively talk about how Rovio had everything handed to them and that’s why they had “overnight success”. I almost went medieval on them.

There is no denying that Angry Birds is a culture phenomenon, but one thing it’s not is an “overnight success”.

Did you know that the guys at Rovio spent 8 YEARS working on other games before they finally caught a huge break? That takes dedication. For almost a decade they didn’t have any big wins. Sure they had some small to moderate success early on, but nothing massive. Heck when Angry Birds came out on the iOS app store sales were pretty slow for the first 3 months. The Rovio guys believed in their product and kept their nose to the grindstone. Through an iterative process they were able to grow Angry Birds into the massive success that it is today.

“Over night success” is often idolized in the startup world, but sometimes the glamor is based in myth rather than reality. Show up and work hard each and every day and remember that you’re getting closer. You can’t have a breakout hit if you never show up.

For more startup news, please follow us on Twitter @startupfoundry.

Get Satisfaction tells TSF why their commitment is to “be a good citizen”

Thor Muller is one of the original co-founders of Get Satisfaction and is also the current CTO.  Get Satisfaction officially launched in September of 2007 and since then has grown to 50,000 communities, 6 million visitors a month and over 2,000 paying customers.

I had the chance to speak with Thor on the phone and we had a great conversation regarding how t hey started, challenges on the way, and their commitment to “Be a good citizen”.

What type of company would be suited to use your service?

Get Satisfaction is used by every size and category of company.  It ranges from small mom and pop retail shops to Global 500 customers such as Walmart, P&G, Microsoft & Motorola.  The appeal is broad.

Tell us about the first 6 months of Get Satisfaction, and how the idea originated.

My wife, Amy Muller, and I were founders of a consulting company we founded called Rubyred Labs.  We had grown to a team of seven, working together on developing new social networks and web apps.  Through a side-project called ValleySchwag we stumbled onto the intractable problem of customer service, which we thought could be reinvented using the social web.  Lane Becker, a friend who had co-founded Adaptive Path, told us: “If you two don’t start it, I will”.  We brought him on board as a co-founder and started Get Satisfaction.

During our initial pitches to investors we were told that most companies would never allow their “dirty laundry” to be aired in public. Customer service issues were “best kept hidden,” according to them. But our story was that companies don’t really have the choice:  through blogs, Get Satisfaction, Twitter, Facebook, etc, people are able to summon companies into public conversation.  This disruptive position was what ultimately attracted our initial investors, First Round Capital,  OATV, and SoftTech VC, to us.

To be clear: we never set out to be a complaint site. Our goal was to create open spaces for people to connect with each other around the products and services they cared about. Being a “good citizen” has been central to playing this role. Instead of just providing a SaaS community platform we allowed anyone to start a customer community–be they an employee or a customer.  This led to an initial launch of our service that was fundamentally consumer-driven.

Did this unconventional approach cause you any problems?

The good folks at 37signals had an issue with it, the result of a hasty update to our site design.  We responded quickly to the issue (and it was a valid issue), and fixed our mistakes. I am the first to admit that it was our mistake.  We received some feedback from outsiders to push back hard against the critique, but we felt that missed the point. This was our opportunity to live by our creed of conducting business with more humility, more humanity. Our original idea for a lightweight web app was inspired by 37signals’ work, and we genuinely respect the work that they have done.

Besides the 37 signals issue, were there any other public issues that you had to deal with? We’ve been fortunate to avoid many public mis-steps. One near miss: a year ago we pre-announced a change to our paid plans, including the removal of features from our free plan. However, we did not “grandfather” existing users. Not surprisingly, free users were upset. But since we were able to collect feedback before the actual change, we were able to add a grandfathering policy for our early users.  We avoided a black eye by being ultra-responsive.

Are you bootstrapped or funded?

In our early months were able to use our existing cash flow from the consulting business, along with funding from our friends and family who were eager–perhaps recklessly so–to support the venture.  Since we spun the business out of our development consultancy, we had a whole product team from day one.

How did you market your startup initially.  What advice do you have for other early stage startups?

First and foremost, you need a good story.  Early on, we had a provocative position: “Your company doesn’t own its customer service.”  That statement resonated with a lot of people and that’s how we were able to get press.  We also did a lot of speaking engagements, conferences, etc.

Another big thing that helped is that a few times we were featured as part of hot news stories or controversies. A prime example of this was last November, when DecorMyEyes was accused of cultivating complaints and bad reviews to gin up the SEO of their e-commerce site. The story got a lot of attention & press. We responded to the story, clarifying numerous mis-conceptions and providing technical guidance on how other sites could avoid being gamed by bad actors.  This was an example of how we look for opportunities to be a good citizen. This is the social capital that the reputations and businesses are built on today.

Check Get Satisfaction out at http://www.getsatisfaction.com, or follow them on twitter @getsatisfactio. Follow the author on twitter @robbieab, and for up to the minute startup news – follow us on twitter @startupfoundry

This is Your Brain on One Page: Workflowy [YC Summer 2010]

My girlfriend lovingly describes herself as the “geeks tech resistant girlfriend.”  That description is quite accurate.  She has an iPhone (which she got about three months ago) that has four non-Apple apps on it.  Some days I am surprised that she can even find the Internet.  As such, I thought it would be an interesting to see what she had to say about the dead simple list making startup Workflowy.  We’ll get to that in a moment in the form of a he said/she said discussion.  First a bit on Workflowy…

Workflowy is not exactly new to the startup arena.  They have been around since November 2010.  Mike Turtzin and Jesse Patel, the two cofounders, were accepted to Y Combinator in summer 2010, but what is interesting is that Workflowy was not the idea they were accepted for.  They were working on some sort of a platform for web gurus to give and get advice.  Which just goes to show that most angels or investors are looking at the person rather than the idea.

Workflowy was a product of Jesse needing a way to keep track of lists and ideas.  While working on their original YC idea he was using an older version of Workflowy to keep notes and lists.  Other YC members were using it as well and liked the product.  As a result, they realized that they may have been on to something and the notion of keeping your brain on a single sheet of paper developed into what we now know as Workflowy.

So how good is Workflowy?  Very very good.  I have been using it for what I thought was six months.  Turns out it has only been available publically since November 2010.  Apparently it is so good it has skewed my interpretation of the passage of time.  Nonetheless, my Workflowy account has been a godsend.  I use it for anything and everything.  It works great for this geek but what about his non-tech girlfriend?

She said: There is minimal set up—truly easy for anyone.  I am the ultimate test.

He said: She is right.  She is the ultimate test.  If it involves tech and she thinks it’s easy…it is.  She thought the activation process for “Find my iPhone” was difficult.

She said: Workflowy will eliminate the need for those annoying little scraps of paper holding your notes and lists. Unless you lose your computer, you won’t lose your list!

He said: When Workflowy gains traction 3M’s Post-it notes might be put out of business.  Those scraps of paper are annoying.  Digitalize them by shifting all your hot to-do items to Workflowy.  Worried that you won’t be able to access your notes on the go?  Or that you’ll lose your computer? They’ll have an app out soon.

She said: The intuitive nature of this program would make you think it is an Apple application.

He said: I love my Apple products but not in the hyper-rabid monomaniacal way that MG Seigler does.  She came up with that one on her own.  I will say that it is super simple, which is a large part of the appeal.

She said: For the “Type A’s” out there—you will love the fact that you can hide your completed items—rather that just deleting them. You can look back at all of your “honey do’s” and feel great about your productivity!

He said: For the deadbeat boyfriends or husbands out there, your significant others will be making “honey do” lists like starved beaver in a toothpick factory.  Which is an interesting part of list-making psychology.  I find that the easier it is to input notes, lists, or tasks, the more likely I am to actually to the inputting.  Which is usually the downfall of reminder notes:  the actual writing of them to remind yourself.  And it seems that most people that use Workflowy find the same thing.  The simple Workflowy interface lacks all the bells and whistles that your usual to-do apps include, which spurs the user to use it more.

She said: I am strangely bonded to my lists, so I thought an electronic surrogate would not fit the bill. Sorry paper. After 36 years, I am leaving you.

He said: Yikes!  Pretty strong words for someone that loves her lists and note taking materials.  I will keep you posted on whether she sticks to this very declarative statement.

She said: If you love detail, let it all hang out. If you don’t, a few clicks will condense your list into more general headings and subheadings.

He said: It’s true.  I just looked at my Workflowy account.  By my estimation I have about 10-15 pages when everything is expanded.  (Not counting completed items, which are hidden).  When it is minimized it consists of nine headings taking up about as much space as this paragraph.

So what advice does this startup have for other startups?  A couple of things:

1.) Have a vision for your company and product.  That vision needs to be the basis for which you measure all decisions about your product.  In the case of Workflowy, their vision is your brain organized onto one page.  This means that requests for more features or other add-ons are weighed against that vision.  If it doesn’t make the cut, it doesn’t find its way into the product.

2.) Don’t spend eternity in beta.  A startup won’t benefit from every detail being perfected.  The less time you spend in beta the better your efforts will be because as you move along with your idea, the startup and the company will change.  If you are in beta forever there is no way to experiment with the outside world and truly better your product.

3.) Do you know when to say goodbye to your baby?  This is the perennial problem of an entrepreneur:  when to let the idea go and begin anew.  In the case of Workflowy they moved into the list making area after they realized one thing:  Their users wanted it.  If you are forcing your product on them, it’s time to head in a new direction.

4.) Jesse wanted this to be the headline for this article:  “Mike is A Champion.”  My editor wouldn’t allow it but I think the message he was trying to convey was that a successful company depends on a solid relationship between the cofounders.  Pick your cofounders wisely and once you have, make sure you cultivate that relationship to its fullest.

If you are interested in Workflowy their main site can be found at http://workflowy.com.  Or follow them on Twitter @workflowy. To keep up with startup news, follow us on twitter @startupfoundry.

From 1 visitor a day to raising $4m for charity, Give Forward’s feel good story


I had the great opportunity to speak with Ethan Austin, co-founder of GiveForward (http://www.giveforward.org).  Give Forward is a Chicago based startup that helps people raise money for their medical expenses.  Ethan speaks about how they once had only 1 visitor on new years day, to being able to get funding a year later.  The excerpt of the interview is below:

In one or two sentences, explain what GiveForward does.
GiveForward is a crowdfunding platform for medical expenses.  In a nutshell, we make it incredibly easy for friends and family raise money for things like chemotherepy treatments or organ transplants when their loved one gets sick.

How long has Give Forward been around?
We launched in 2008.

Was Give Forward bootstrapped or funded?
We bootstrapped for the first two-and-a-half years but recently got funding.

Explain what the first 0-6 months were like for Give Forward.  How did you get it off the ground?
Wow! To say the first six months were rough would be a massive understatment.  We launched the site in August of 2008 and on January 1st, 2009 we had one visitor on GiveForward that day — literally ONE visitor!  For the most part, our attempts at gaining traction involved coercing our friends and family to start fundraising pages.  I enlisted about 25 of my college buddies and their girlfriends to run 5 miles through Central Park for the cause of their choice in in an event we dubbed “run for a reason” .   I think we helped raise about $13,000 from the event, which probably accounted for like half of the donations on the site the first six months.  It was kind of ridiculous back then.

We really didn’t start to see any traction on the site until about nine months in when two Chicago sisters from Depaul used GiveForward to raise $30,000 for a kidney transplant.  After that, we received some media coverage and things started to pick up a bit.

[Editors note:] Give Forward has already raised $3,527,462 for medical expenses and other important causes. Talk about a startup making an impact on the world![/Editors note:]

How did you acquire funding.  Was a prototype built before funding?
Last summer, we got accepted into a Chicago startup accelerator called Excelerate Labs, which turned out to be a game changer for us. Through Excelerate, we were able to demo at the House of Blues in front of 500 investors from around the county.  My partner, Desiree, gave a pretty awesome presentation which  really opened the doors for us.  From there, Tim Krauskopf, one of the mentors at Excelerate helped us round up some investors.  We also used Angel List, which I highly recommend, to secure the final part of our round.

How big is the team?
We have a team of seven right now plus a few really awesome interns.

Being a Chicago startup, do you find it harder to succeed then if you were in silicon valley as an example
Not at all.  I know it’s a cliche, but the Chicago startup community is really coming into its own right now. Groupon has obviously helped to bring a ton of attention to Chicago, but things like Excelerate Labs, MidVentures Tech Week, and Social Dev Camp are changing the landscape in Chicago and helping to build a strong community here.  Granted, funding is always going to be an issue and there is no Sand Hill Road in Chicago, but with tools like Angel List democratizing the VC industry, the need to be in Silicon Valley isn’t nearly as great as it used to be.

What is your biggest challenge now?
Educating people and getting the word out.  That’s always been the hardest part.  When a loved one is going through a serious health issue like cancer, their friends and family usually feel pretty helpless and don’t know what they can do to help.  Our goal is make sure they are aware of our service.  Once people find out about GiveForward, they always love it.  We just need to let more people know about it.

Thanks to Ethan for the interview. All the best to GiveForward. For more startup news, follow us on twitter @startupfoundry.

You can also follow the author on twitter @robbieab.