From jaw-dropping venture capital rounds to IPOs, the covers of Fortune, Inc., and Fast Company show the Ubers, the Instagrams, and the Facebooks of the tech world. But what about the journey before the big-time cover?
As technology entrepreneur and investor Paul Judge referred to it during an A3C Festival & Conference panel on Oct. 11, these founders are still in the middle of building their million-dollar companies and it has taken five to six years to get to this point in their company growth.
Four CEOs — George Azih, LeaseQuery; Dave Salvant, Squire Technologies; Tope Awotona, Calendly; and Diishan Imira, Mayvenn — sat in conversation with Judge during the panel to talk more about how they got here.
“You have to be committed, it’s not an overnight thing,” said Awotona of his 10-year journey as an entrepreneur.
Below, the successful startup founders share more about what it takes to fuel your idea into a company and how to deal with the pain points associated with rapid growth.
Passion beyond money
“Through all of the different business I started, I realized that to be successful you can’t just want to make money,” says Calendly CEO Tope Awotona. “You have to have a passion for the problem that you’re solving. For me, I was passionate about scheduling.”
Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Nigerian-born Awotona founded scheduling startup Calendly in 2013 after working at IBM and building five failed businesses. At the time, he had a hard time finding investors that would fund the product at the time and remain lean during the first few years.
He now has a $30 million company and majority share since he remained largely bootstrapped.
Be your own customer
LeaseQuery CEO George Azih agrees. “I’m sure you go to work and you complain about something, you’re like ‘my work would be so much easier if someone blank’ — that blank is opportunity. And the challenge is finding that blank that you’re willing to dedicate the next five years of your life to solving.”
He explains that he personally did not set out to become an entrepreneur, but the self-proclaimed “slave to efficiency” saw a lot of issues with processes as an accountant at a mortgage company. “Something that was 20 percent my responsibility was taking 80 percent of my time,” he shared. “And for me, that was an opportunity.”
With 120-plus employees, the lease accounting platform is build by accountants, for accountants and it’s currently one of the fastest growing bootstrapped startups in Atlanta. “I didn’t set out to start a company, but because I was so passionate about it, our product works and other accountants realize that.”
Explore your customers’ needs
The entrepreneurial journey for Diishan Imira, CEO of Oakland-based hair extension company Mayvenn, was not a straight line. After college he ended up in China and started bringing off-brand sneakers back to Oakland to sell for profit. He says he saw his neighborhood barbershops and hair salons as “retail distribution points.”
A customer asked for hair extensions from China and the next thing he knew, he had hair extension bundles in his truck.
“That’s when I thought, if I can turn every hairstylist into a distributor for these — we could build a billion dollar company out of this,” Imira recalled during the panel. “That’s the fundamental underlying building block of the entrepreneur — knowing how to sell something.”
Have grit, but know your limits
While startup culture screams ‘hustle,’ Azih shares that entrepreneurs should be careful of taking that word literally. While working a full-time job and starting LeaseQuery, Azih got really sick. The autoimmune disease he acquired, and still has to this day, is triggered by stress.
“This was a pivotal moment in my life. I thought, Steve Jobs had all of this hustle and he was worth billions, but how much would he pay to live? That’s when I got my mind into perspective and quit my job,” said Azih.
Prepare to be seen as crazy
“Today, millions of people use Calendly around the world, but it wasn’t always that way. I started this company in 2013 and for five years, I was crazy. Now it seems like a very obvious idea, but back then people thought I was crazy,” says Awotona.
Imira agrees, “You’ll have people looking at you sideways while you’re doing your thing. I spent 100 percent of my brain thinking about ideas. I just knew I had something bigger that was inside of me that was going to come out and I stuck to it.”
Celebrate the small wins
“When things are low, I celebrate the small wins,” says Azih on how he stays motivated. “When I started selling the software, I would fly to every single prospective customers. It’s very difficult for people to say no in front of me. Whenever I complete a phone call and I get a big yes, I celebrate those because you’re going to hear no a million times, but all it takes is one.”
New ways of marketing
By using Instagram hashtags, Imira was able to reach hairstylists to onboard on his hair business. During the first year, Mayvenn went from zero to $4 million, and to $10 million in sales the second year. When sales started dropping, he remained agile and changed the UI of the website and added different tiers of products. “You have to give people what they want — be ethical and listen to your customers,” Imira says.
Product market fit
“You have to give people a strong reason to stop whatever they’re doing and move over to you,” says Awotona. For Calendly, Awotona had to offer his product for free to get the feedback he needed to grow Calendly’s product and customer acquisition. Everyone signed up to use the free product, and Calendly quickly reached 10,000 people.
“That’s when you can experiment with features and feedback to find out what I need to do to monetize the product.”