Our event last Thursday brought us back to our strictly-tech roots. We chatted with the founders of some of New York City’s most exciting tech companies to learn how they built their companies from the ground up. Hitting every phase from prototyping to user-testing our panelists all agreed that passion was the number one thing that drove their projects. At this event we heard from:
- Dennis Mortensen, CEO and Founder of x.ai. x.ai is an innovative AI company that delivers a virtual personal assistant that schedules meetings for you.
- Christina Sass, Co-Founder and COO of Andela. Andela is a global talent accelerator unlocking human capital at scale. They recruit and train top developer talent on the African continent and connect them with eager employers.
- Assaf Glazer, Founder and CEO of Nanit. Nanit is a human analytics company that looks at big data to build smarter baby monitors.
- Dan Reich, Co-Founder and CEO of Troops. Troops wants to bring software out of the dark ages and has built a better Salesforce integration for Slack.
We were interested in speaking with these founders to gain their perspective on the earliest stages of founding a tech company, especially without Silicon Valley resources. Wary of encouraging emotionally-driven startup strategies, much of their advice encouraged backing up passion with data. Here we share some of the night’s best one-liners.
“You can’t fake fire” – Christina Sass
This was probably the most echoed point of the night. All of our panelists insisted that having a passion and a willingness to “play the startup game” is what is going to make the biggest difference in your early stages. Christina insisted that you can’t fake fire in a board room because investors will see right through you.
Dennis once had to ask his wife, “Do you like the apartment? Because it’s not ours anymore.” And Assaf, though quickly reminding the audience that nothing in business is life or death, did assert that he devoted a large portion of his life to this passion project, adding it on top of a mortgage and his children’s expenses. To them, successful startups are rarely side projects, and much more often 6-midnight jobs. Between running to investor meetings and managing all-night coding sessions, the time and sacrifice has to be present. Dan closed out the event by telling our audience the story of how Troops was built. He said:
“I was working at another startup. I didn’t found it but I helped raised it and it grew to be worth $25 million. I then told my parents I was quitting and launching my own startup. I would get up at 6-7 in the morning, commute from Jersey City, where I was living, to the office, which was in Union Square, and sometimes spend the night there because there was no time to commute home. Going all in on this is either gonna work or it’s not. Worst case scenario it fails, but going all in on something you believe in is the best decision you can make.”
“Get your beta into as many hands as possible” – Dennis Mortensen
According to Dennis, your first 100, 200, or even 500 beta users are on you to find. He says that if you can’t even get your wife, kids, cousins, or uncles to test your product, no one else is going to want to either. Part of the data that will back up your idea in boardrooms is your proven user experience analysis. Knowing exactly who uses your product and how they use it is invaluable information for driving your company forward and expanding your user base.
Assaf told the audience that the first thing he did after deciding to bring his company to New York was meeting with dozens of parents.
“For the first few weeks I was in New York I would spend all day sitting in Starbucks and talking to parents about their kids. It’s amazing what people in New York will do for a $25 Starbucks gift card.”
To him it was important to meet potential future clientele before he even had a beta to show them. In this way, his earliest beta was the strength of his ideas alone and his ability to sell these to possible users.
“Build your product and value on data, not feeling” – Assaf Glazer
Assaf’s first iteration of Nanit was built the same year he had his first son. He went on to have two more kids and has a deeply personal relationship with his product, believing that being able to observe his children in this way made him a better parent. However, despite having first-hand experience with the product, he knew his idea could not survive on intuition and individual experience alone. Though having a passion and gut instinct about your idea is crucial, you must be able to back up everything you claim with a proven customer base by the time you get in front of investors or even try to sell your product to users.
You may start with an idea built on an incredible passion for solving your chosen problem, but every step after that should approach a holistic understanding of how far-reaching your problem really is, who it affects, and how your solution quantitatively improves upon existing systems. Christina said that Andela’s first board meetings were difficult because investors and employers alike were wary of hiring remotely and recruiting talent from such an untapped tech market. However, her data eventually got companies to take a chance on her.
“For our 2nd class, we had 2,500 applicants in Lagos. We were even told ‘you have 48 candidates that we believe to be top 2% of IQ in the world.’ We’re in a country of 168 million. Let’s find that brilliance and put it in companies around the world. Every portfolio of companies needs desperately needs talent. Lagos sounds crazy but we’ll give it a shot.
“Know your mission statement” – Dan Reich
Dan and his fellow panelists agreed that the first step of starting a tech company is knowing your value proposition by heart. You should be able to hone in on the exact problem you are solving and be able to clearly sell it to anyone, from investors to users. Your passion and your initial idea should drive this vision, which should not change no matter how much your company grows or fluctuates.
One of the clearest routes to having a strong mission statement is believing in it yourself, and serving as your own company’s most avid user. Dennis was confident in his assertion that x.ai was built out of his own frustration with meetings, and that the company has grown because he continues to have a close relationship to his product.
“You don’t have a fake relationship with the product. I had 1000 meetings in the year before I built Amy. When Amy works for me, I love her. When she doesn’t, I get frustrated. You need to be able to sympathize with your customer.”
The passion all our founders have for their companies was palpable at the event and we really got a sense of what drives great startups toward success. We would like to thank these busy founders for taking the time to be on our panel, and we can’t wait for our next event in one week, “Your First Venture Round: Fundraising Advice From the Experts.”