Michael Riley
Published in

Michael Riley


grew to thousands of users and found product-market fit

My goal for 2020 was to launch a company. I had no idea what that meant until I joined my friend Kareem on his “project”.

I was always curious about why he called it a “project” and not a “startup”. Startups are cool — didn’t he want to be the Founder and CEO of this startup?

Nope. I quickly learned that starting a company did not start with a logo, a title, and a cute name. It started with a question, an obsession with a problem, and the willingness to run through walls to solve it.

We were solving for making friends. Loneliness is an ever growing problem for people — especially younger ones and we wanted to create a new way to make friends.

User Research:

It started with tons of user research. We surveyed around 500 people, had conversations with more than 50, and even surveyed strangers in a New York City subway.

We didn’t care what the solution looked like (we had 3 different solution spaces we believed could solve the problem). We cared about solving this problem. And it would start with knowing our users.


We did tons of no-code experiments to understand social norms, different approaches to making friends, and people’s ways of interacting with strangers.

One of our solutions was a hyperlocal tinder for meeting friends called Bold.

Ultimately we spent most of our time experimenting with a survey on campus that we advertised as “Meet the Columbian that’s most like you” and got hundreds of Columbia students to participate.


The mission was to help people make friends offline using tech as an enabler (making the match), but as COVID-19 made its way to New York the project became zoomwithstrangers.net — a product that introduces you to college students with similar interests over zoom.


We grew the campus wide survey experiment by:

  1. Telling our friends
  2. Pitching classes
  3. Posting flyers with QR code’s around campus
  4. Cold emailing thousands of students manually from the Columbia directory.

Once it became Zoomwithstrangers.net we grew by

  1. Posting repeatedly on Facebook meme pages
  2. Referrals (about 30% of users referred a friend).

We ultimately reached 2,500+ users.

Finding product market fit:

Feedback was core to our process. After every round of connections we’d send a survey and get a sense of how many matches were actually meeting and how the experience was going.

Initially only 20% of users were actually meeting their matches while 80% were not. After experimenting with different user experiences we managed to reverse those numbers and 80% were meeting and 20% were not. That was extremely exciting.

These refinements in the user experience and a mission that resonated with users (80% of users just wanted to meet friends — they did not want any weird dating stuff going on) resulted in finding product market fit according to a metric used by Rahul Vohra of Superhuman. More than 40% of users would have been “very disappointed” if Zoomwithstrangers did not exist anymore.


It was a very fun and successful project to start off with. Not because we became millionaires, but because I learned more than I ever have. I discovered that entrepreneurship meant more than fancy titles and cute logos. It is a lifestyle. It’s neither fancy nor cute, but it’s the most energizing thing I’ve ever done.

And we got mentioned in The Atlantic along the way.

My top three learnings

  1. Confidence — I learned a mental model for building products which gave me the confidence to go out and do it myself
  2. Empathy — learned to be problem centric and solution agnostic. To do this you must talk to users and empathize with them and get to the core of what their problems are and what they care about ← to an extent
  3. Execution — The “idea” is 1% of the process. Execution makes all the difference.

Other learnings

  1. How to talk to users — Read the Mom Test and applied my learnings
  2. Finding scrappy ways to grow — emailing thousands of students, posting on meme pages
  3. Wireframing and drawing a user journey — and then optimizing it
  4. Getting feedback from users — helps with (3)
  5. Experimenting with no-code solutions to learn quickly without investing too much into an experiment
  6. The experiment mindset — everything is an experiment
  7. Doing uncomfortable things — going up to students around campus to ask for feedback or getting them to sign up, surveying strangers on a subway

For additional documentation please reach out to me at m.riley@columbia.edu.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store