What I learned from running an unfunded startup for six months

It was six months ago that I posted about my first day as a startup founder. A lot has changed since then: the idea we picked has evolved, the original team has changed and the city I call home is now Santa Monica.

The good news is we have a beta version of a product, we have addicted users, a team and a plan. I’d like to share with you the journey that my company — Xpertly — and I have been on, and where we are headed next.

Quick Recap of the Last Six Months

Startups are a series of ruthless experiments. When someone asked me what we were working on, I hesitated. I knew that whatever came out of my mouth would be different from what we would eventually be. That’s the reality of being a startup.

We went through so many ideas starting with (1) automated marketing segmentation using machine learning (direct competitor: Blueshift) (2) recruiting platform for underrepresented minorities (competitor: YC company Jopwell) (3) career mentoring product (competitor: Muse and many more) (4) general career networking service (Competitor: Weave, Shapr) (5) closed-group career networking (competitor: Spark collaboration). We ran many small experiments and had almost 500 conversations with our users, mentors, partners and company executives that led us to where are now. We undoubtedly have a few more iterations to go, but now we’re focused on refinement, not wholesale shifts. The reason our current iteration makes sense (so far) is that we finally have a small group of addicted users who are excited about what have to offer.

Nitya & Calvin working hard at our makeshift office

The Journey

We started off with a heavy business team (two and a half MBAs and my broken tech skills). We launched our first landing page on day four to start collecting emails and getting people signed up. However, as a team, we had serious skills gaps. All three of us had run strategy & operations at later-stage companies. This was a bad idea because when we hustled, we often hustled in the wrong direction for a startup. We could quickly build prototypes but had no idea how to bring users to it.

We even figured out how to scrape websites that were generally difficult and send mass email, but couldn’t write compelling messages in those emails.

Every time an experiment failed, we went into analysis paralysis. We would end up trying to change our whole strategy.

We moved fast when it came to changing strategy, but moved slow when it came to execution. Since then, two of my co-founders have left to join amazing teams at Google. Today, I switch between my business and technical hats often, and spend my time working across a virtual team of marketers, strategists and data analysts who add their expertise to our efforts. Work is managed by assigning tasks and each team member is held accountable for impact.

One of the most difficult decisions was for our startup to leave the Bay Area and move to Santa Monica. This was a personal decision but it had a lot of unintended consequences. By moving, we stepped away from the constant distraction of other startups in the Bay Area, enabling us to intensely focus on our vision and execution. It has also increased the runway for the company by at least 30%. This is mainly because rents are lower, and it’s cheaper to hire.

Two cool hacks

Two of the most fun hacks from our early days were (1) discovering a business center that we used for almost four months as an office (2) getting free food from a food delivery startup. When you have a team, it is an amazing thing to have an office with a whiteboard, snacks, and a room where we could work heads down all day long.

Getting lunch was getting expensive until one day my co-founder sent us a referral to a food delivery startup. There was a gap in their logic, which allowed us to get food credits for referring each other — without having to enter a credit card to show that it was a new, unique referral. After that, we got several good, free meals and swore that we would never overlook something like this in our own platform.

Food hack

Discovering competition

Any startup, no matter how novel, that tells you they have no competitors is mistaken. There are always competitors. Every time we iterated we found new ones. It was always a mixed feeling because we were super excited that the space we had thought of had some validation. The disheartening part was that someone else had the idea before us and had a head start (and typically funded and/or product in market). For each of our iterations, we found direct competitors, incumbent competitors and/or potential competitors. Our biggest direct competitor for the longest time had been Weave Networking. The largest potential competitor is and will remain LinkedIn. Very interestingly both those companies went through some serious transitions that my team did not expect. Weave, one day, randomly announced that it was shutting down after a couple of years in business. A few months into our startup LinkedIn was acquired/merged with Microsoft. Lesson learned: know your competitors but don’t obsess over it.

Launching Product

We launched several times with two major email campaigns. Over time we have gotten our conversion rates up. The honest truth is that we never figured out a silver bullet to increasing our conversion rate. It has been a hard grind of many different small improvements. For example, some of our best conversions came from content marketing through guest authors. We promoted their posts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn which in turn generated conversions. We were also able to hack together high-volume marketing campaigns for new user growth twice so far as you can see in the graph below.

New user signups

The Good Days

Startup days are a whirlwind of good days and some really down days. The best days are when one or more of these happen:

  • Member comments such as “I love what you guys are doing and have referred a few friends.”
  • Customer meetings where they agree to do run a pilot.
  • Insightful conversations with leaders in the industry who encourage us and share our passion.
  • Shipping product!

The tough days

The toughest days had the following characteristics

  • A meeting with a trusted friend/advisor where they give you honest feedback and tell you that your idea, team and company suck.
  • When you run an awesome marketing campaign, only to see hear crickets and low engagement.
  • When a member has a bad experience and you only wish you could have fixed the issues before they experienced it.

Side hustle or jump in with both feet?

In hindsight , I can say with certainty that there is only one way to do a real startup — full-time. Building a scalable tech startup requires two very important factors that you only achieve when you dedicate a very large chunk of your life towards it. Those two things are myopic focus and relentless intensity toward problem-solving.

When I look at other founders, I have yet to meet a single one who has got to venture-backed stage without doing their startup full-time. I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but that’s exactly what they are.

If you are considering leaving your job to start a company ask yourself, what are you preparing for and what are you optimizing for? Wealth, learning, impact, prestige, fame, or a combination? While working at a large company, I constantly optimized for learning because failures there didn’t personally cost me too much. As a startup, I mainly optimize for impact and scale.

About the Startup

Lastly, let me share about what we do and how you can help. My company is called Xpertly. Yes, you should try it.

Why: A large part of your value and career trajectory is dependent on your network both inside and outside your current company, but professional networking is painful (finding people, attending events, etc). Working professionals should always be connecting, especially when you’re not looking for a job. Dig your well before you are thirsty!

What we do: We make meeting other interesting professionals easy for you. Sign up, tell us the kind of professionals you like meeting and how often. Let us do the hard work of finding people and sending you warm introductions. Our algorithms make sure you continue to meet high-caliber professionals.

We also have other products (a) Alumni Networking (b) Intra-company networking (c ) Recruiting (d) and Diversity measurement. I will share more on this in future posts.

How you can help

You can help in multiple ways (even if you are not a big fan of serendipitous networking)

  • If this is something you are interested in, please visit the relevant link and sign up: (a) Startup/Business Networking, (b) UCLA Anderson Alumni Networking, (c ) California Attorney Networking, or (d) All others.
  • Not ready to sign up, not a problem. Just take a look at the main site (http://xpertly.co) and provide feedback on (1) idea (2) design (3) suggestion on how we can improve and reach more people. (only ask is that you are direct and honest, my team and I have really thick skin). You can email me at emad [a-t] xpertly.co or leave a comment below.
  • Help share our startup with your friends by re-sharing this post.

What’s Next?

These last six months have been grueling and harder than any other career move. I am glad that we have users, a product and likely a business here. What’s next is the grind of B2B sales and marketing, while running operations for existing users. Ok, time to get focused and get back to hacking Xpertly.