nFlate was founded in January, 2014, although the seeds were planted about 6 months earlier. About 60 days ago, we released our beta product. nFlate is a recommendation science as a service self-serve data science platform for eCommerce companies. Here's how we survived and thrived for almost two years in a funding-challenged environment.
The Paper Napkin is Dead. Unless your name is Chad Hurley or Elon Musk, no one is getting funded today on a brilliant idea. In fact, no one is getting a cash-injection without a high-quality team, product & traction. This is the reality that set late in 2013. In spite of a string of reasonable successes with previous startups, the bar for raising capital had changed dramatically from pre-2010 days. And I was faced with the prospect of trying to find a way to make it happen (ASAP, BTW) with no external funding and limited cash resources. Picked a hell of time try to launch "my" 1st startup.
If you do not have friends and family cash, or reasonable personal wealth, you need to devise a plan to keep the lights on and "low-burn". My strategy was to try to put together a "part-time" team of hungry young engineers that were looking, like I was once-upon-a-time, to be part of something they helped create.
Turn Over Rocks, Find RockStars
I have to say that I am still amazed at the breadth of young & motivated talent that hovers around the Bay Area. Our initial team came from a Google Startup Weekend, where I met 3 rock stars that I believe crossed my path like some blood-moon eclipse alignment.
In one weekend, I somehow convinced a web, cloud and data architect to follow me blindly in an attempt to disrupt the eCommerce world with a SaaS data science platform similar to what Amazon has and probably spent $50M dollars to develop.
Each had a full-time "job". Each wanted something more - something theirs. Three complementary skillsets, minimal overlap. Each willing to put in 5-15 hours per week of their time to ultimately be an owner, not a worker. Finding the right people that are willing and able to commit to a dream and take partial, obsessive ownership of it (emotionally) proved to be the most critical and important thing that happened while starting nFlate.
So... great team, well received concept, huge markets (eCommerce - $1.5T growing at double digits + Data Science), Bay Area-based, serial founder with an IPO and an Intel M&A - should be a slam dunk, right? As Lee Corso would say,
"Not so fast my over-confident friend."
Solid Executive Summary - no takers. Compelling deck - nothing. Well thought out business model and financials - nope. Respected advisor introductions - still no buyers. Applications to incubators and accelerators - no takers. Large network outreach - sorry, Charlie. AngelList and Gust postings - nada. Prototype- pass, for now.
This is what stands in front of entrepreneurs today - it's basically an obstacle course of rejections. And for some reason, we still knew in our hearts that we had to keep going. During the process, I sold my house to keep things floating personally for awhile and I fortunately have a spouse whose income covers about 1/2 of our expenses and is very supportive of my apparent insanity.
What's That Light at the End of the Tunnel?
After 18+ months of effort, we launched our platform on Shopify. Full analytics stack, just like GA. Big AWS scalable backend. Complex data ETL pipeline. A dozen algorithms to deliver all the same types of product recommendations that Amazon delivers. A paradigm-shifting 60 second data science install. Perfect site-matching product recommendation carousels. With 1 full-time architect, 3 part-time magicians.
A work of art (ok, maybe a Picasso painting:).
And without any promotion (by us or Shopify), somehow, for some reason, someone downloaded it. And we discovered a few bugs. And we fixed them. And then 2 more customers downloaded it and immediately uninstalled it. And we tweaked the UX/CX and fixed a few more bugs. And then 3 more customers installed the app and only one uninstalled! And then, something amazing happened - we got our first 5-star review! Seemed this whole "site-matching" thing was not such a bad idea after all. We all had a Mimosa (w/o the champagne) and went back to work.
So What's Your Point, Dude?
So...to make a long story longer, we now have about 15 customers, a few more "Awesome!" comments and we're out of beta. Still bootstrapping, but now by design. We know we have a winning hand and we're waiting for the River card to show up.
And I think that's the secret to an ultimately successful "venture". Getting to the point (after a week, a month or 18 of them) where you know you're going to make it and it's going to be on your terms and not somebody else's.
If you don't love it, don't do it. If you love it, and you're (fairly) sure it's not a train at the end of the tunnel, keep doing it. If it was easy...well, u get the point. Be patient. Be committed. Lead by example and with compassion. Laugh at the insanity occasionally.