The Startup
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The Startup

Our app launched today. An honest take on the two-years to get here.

730 days ago I had an idea. Today, it’s in the app store. I just lived through the montage; the period in the movie that looks almost glamorous. For 30 seconds you see the founder, typing away in a garage, taking meetings, looking frustrated. Almost magically, their invention is ready to be launched into the world.

In this crazy time, hours before launching Vishion, I wanted to note exactly what it took to get here. We’re at the point in our companies life that people say “it’s just the beginning” and “nothing really mattered before this”. Like the last two years of extreme pain and happiness never happened.

My story isn’t unique, but, most likely in an effort for self-preservation, the challenges and obstacles founders face are rarely shared. It’s understandable why a CEO wouldn’t tell others the challenges they’ve endured. What’s lost in the silence is the joint relief that comes when you know you’re not alone in your struggle. My sanity is often restored just by swapping war stories with other founders. I’m not dropping the ball; I’m going through the normal ebbs and flows of starting a company.

But you wouldn’t know that — because on social media you only see the good. You see the successes. The failures seem to just disappear. People pretend to love the lessons of failure and glaze over the torment they faced on route to acceptance.

Today, we’ve succeeded. I’m in the ultimate high. A euphoric moment experienced by few. The accumulation of all of our efforts presented in the form of a color search engine. Tomorrow (or most likely, an hour from now) I’ll be smacked by reality.

What did it really take to get here? I feel compelled to tell you for three reasons:

  1. My story isn’t unique, but it’s rarely shared in the moment
  2. There are things new founders should know before taking the leap
  3. Other founders who currently feel isolated in your struggle, know you’re not alone.

Some experiences are uniquely mine, but overarchingly normal.

I am a female founder in the South without a trust fund.

It seems like a strange thing to state, but founders know what each part of that sentence really means. The joint stories we share over a beer always touches one of those issues. Do you like how a declarative sentence, seemingly without mentioning a struggle, already contains issues?

Let’s break it down.

Female founder:

You deal with sexism (whether blatant or subtle), but honestly, it’s not that bad. At least you can easily pick out the would-be crappy investors/partners. It’s dealing with an extreme number of investors that don’t understand your female-focused product that sucks.

It’s not a “no” because of a valid reason, but because of a lack of understanding. When dealing with investors, they don’t usually admit or recognize their lack of knowledge. So you’ll hear, “this doesn’t make sense” or “you need to be clearer on X”.

Some of this advice is valid. But over time, it’s easy to recognize within the first two questions after a pitch if an investor doesn’t understand your value proposition. For me, the first question usually revolves around defensibility. Sometimes, they make me restate “how it works” because they still don’t comprehend why someone would use it.

The worst are the dumb comments made during pitch competitions or large group pitches that really set the tone. My favorites:

  • I had one group pitch where a man asked me three times in a row to “slow down” and clarify how the app worked (by the final question, I asked if he had ever used Google).
  • One judge said, “my wife is already indecisive about color. You made an app that’s just going to make it worse?”
  • Pitch judge in San Fran, “I asked my wife about this and she said she wouldn’t use it.”

Fun fact: If a sentence starts with, “I asked my wife…” you know they won’t invest.

In the South:

Behind closed doors, founders joke about the articles we see saying how lucky we are to be in Charlotte. How great it is to start a company here! That's not to say there aren’t some benefits. The cost of living is low. For my company, it’s advantageous that many high-end furniture companies have a presence in the Carolinas.

Founding a startup is difficult no matter the city, but it’s a bit easier to rub shoulders with angels and VCs in Silicon Valley and New York. Even if you’re not looking for an investor now, that network is essential when you’re ready to scale.

I’ve had trusted investors tell me that Charlotte’s problems are by no means unique compared to similar cities. You will most likely have to leave the area to find investors (unless your company is already generating steady revenue). Finding a local female or non-white investor is like finding a four-leaf clover.

The real challenge lies in the fact that the investors you do need, that may understand the problem you’re trying to solve, most-likely require an introduction to even take a 30-second glance at your deck. Because you live in the South, getting to that person is like six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Fundraising (in my opinion) is hands-down the hardest part of starting your company here, but it’s closely followed by the challenges of finding quality talent.

Finding skilled, resilient partners and employees to help you do the back-breaking, tear-invoking tasks to start a company feels impossible at times. When you’re hiring in a startup-focused city like San Francisco, employees understand what it means to work for a startup. They have friends and family that have explained how it’s not a typical 9-to-5 or have already experienced how unbelievably daunting the day-to-day is themselves.

I’ve had equity-earners leave my team (on good terms)because of burnout. I’ve had people that didn’t work out simply because they couldn’t meet expectations. Mix that with a small talent pool to choose from.

The Vishion team at lauch

All of my team is working for sweat-equity, but I am the only full-time employee. How long can you expect someone to side-hustle? Working a full-time job, then coming home to work for 5 more hours is exhausting. It’s up to me to find ways to get those extremely important people onto the payroll full-time.

If you’re planning on raising money, investors will expect you to be working full-time on your startup. No matter how excited you are to do this, financial constraints (especially if you’re not yet incurring revenue) make it challenging. It’s the most challenging thing about not having a rich family or friend to lean on or being personally wealthy already.

Without a trust fund:

My husband and I have put almost all of our savings into this company, in addition to living only on his salary for over a year. After all of this, and the struggle that comes with it for your family, you’ll still have investors ask: “Why didn’t you invest more of your own money into the company?”

Shout out to my greatest advisor who gifted me this license plate (my husband)

Although I didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars tucked away to start Vishion, I still recognize my privilege. I have a husband who took extreme lifestyle cuts and lives in constant financial strain so I can live my dream. At least I’ve had the ability to work without a salary for this long. Many single founders don’t have the luxury.

I could write a whole post about the challenges presented in your personal life when starting a company. Wanting to convey confidence to your partner even when you’re having a bad day. Taking a shower after receiving another rejection so they don’t see the tears that come with the devastation. You didn’t get the grant. The investors moved the finish line at the last minute. You get to the final rounds of an accelerator four times, just to be rejected three.

Fundraising makes you feel like you’re living two different lives. On one side, you have constant rejection. On the other side, your company is thriving.

You’re building major partnerships. You speak with users who love your app and are sharing with friends. You’re signing contracts with retailers every week. Your team is obsessed with the potential and frustrated they can’t work on the dream all day, every day.

After a few punches to the face during this journey, what once felt like a TKO starts to feel more like a sting. You’ll recognize the almost bipolar feelings of excitement and disappointment that happen on an hourly basis. You’ll learn that pain and pleasure are temporary.

Rejection slides right off of me now. Unfortunately, so does success. You become numb to the ebbs and flows.

Everyone you pitch is human. They don’t understand your company (and usually the industry) like you do. If they don’t say yes, it’s not a reflection of your company’s value. Investors are juggling hundreds of great pitches. Finding someone who understands you and your startup, then trusts you to 10X their $1 million, is harder than finding a spouse. Find comfort in knowing for every yes, you’ll hear 50 “let me get on your email list and see what happens”.

Day 1.

Vishion features both Pantone and Sherwin-Williams on the app.

Today we begin building the data that supports our claims. I can’t wait to prove the naysayers wrong. I can’t wait to subtlety say, “I told you so” with our success. I can’t wait to hear them say “I wasn’t smart enough to see the potential.” (Okay … they may never say that out loud. They’ll definitely think it.)

Download Vishion. Let me know your thoughts. If you’re an investor who “gets it” or a founder that needs a drinking buddy — connect with me on Linkedin.

-Sam Smith, Founder & CEO of Vishion

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Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith

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Founder and CEO of Vishion (vishion.co), writing about the startup life outside of Silicon Valley