The Other Side Of The Story – Founding Your Own Startup
Hi there, this is Cristian, the founder of Nexi.me. I’m a tech entrepreneur, full stack developer, founded two startups and worked for several Romanian companies. Nexi.me is an online platform for small and medium businesses that helps them recruit top talents through referrals from their own employees.
We all enjoy reading about the success of lots of entrepreneurs and the companies which they manage. The media seems to perfectly catch all the great moments that happened during the lifetime of a startup. I already wrote about some of the great steps that we took since our journey started. We’ve been fortunate enough to be one of the first 10 teams that went through Rockstart Accelerator. In Amsterdam and San Francisco, we met Steve Blank, an entrepreneur whom I constantly follow since I’ve started my first venture.
Pretty cool! Well, this post is NOT about the great things that happened, but rather about the struggles that we faced in Nexi and things that didn’t work as expected. It’s about those moments when odds are against you and quitting actually starts sounding like a reasonable next step. We’ve all been there, but we rarely talk about it.
The false feeling of progress
Since we started Nexi, I knew that one of the biggest challenges was going to be the business aspect of the company, not the product. I took my lessons from my previous venture and decided that I’m not going to spend 99% of the time shipping product for a market that we either don’t see or just doesn’t exist. Since we had a first prototype, I would schedule meetings in Bucharest with HR managers, trying to sell it. Leveraging our university network, we managed to have about 3-4 meetings per week. It felt like we were making real progress. After 4 months, we didn’t close any customers and in fact, we barely had the chance to schedule a 2nd meeting. It was quick a shock. Not to mention that one of the cofounders, Alex, decided to pursue another dream and left the company.
“Let’s pivot!” we said, moving from a public job board where people could refer their friends to a private referral system for corporates. The change affected the product a lot and having a new strategy felt like a new breath of air. We were strong again, me and Ciprian.
Fast forward. We got accepted into Rockstart and during the first month, the program prepares a combo between meeting mentors and meeting potential customers. We asked for introductions from every single person we met during the program. I think we got around 40-50 HR managers in a pipeline in just a couple of weeks. We did our best to get meetings and when we did, it felt like an energy drink just kicked in. There were times when we biked 16-20 km to get to a meeting or woke up at 4:30am after spending long hours the day before, just to meet a customer in another city. Little did we know that the great meetings we thought we had were actually pretty lame. It took us 4-6 weeks to schedule a meeting with a corporate and we rarely got back from them. And the ones that did, just played around with us for months, always raising new questions about our product strategy and delaying the deals because the tech department didn’t had time to watch do our thing.
It felt like we were hitting the wall too much to actually have time to recover from it.
The month pre-demo day was one of the hardest. You knew the clock was ticking. We had high hopes of closing an investment after Demo Day. It looked like we had everything planned, but in fact, we weren’t ready to meet investors. We hadn’t closed a single deal and had no idea why customers weren’t giving us their checkbook.
At the event, we managed to get about 20 business cards by bumping into people and forcing an unnatural conversation about our pitch. We thought the pitch was wrong, we thought HR was boring, we even thought our nationality was a problem, as we belong to one of the few countries not allowed to work in Netherlands without a work permit. The few meetings that we had following Demo Day quickly cleared out any doubts: we needed revenue before investment. Period.
At the same time, cash was running out quickly and we just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I ignored the obvious…
Guys with a similar product were closing deals and growing their team, while we were playing in the back yard. I ignored the obvious… the fact that I’m a coder. I’ve been coding for the last 10 years. I had no actual sales experience and barely heard of a CRM. I chose to ignore the fact that we needed a sales person on the team and pretended I could do the job. That was quite a mistake. Of course, it’s easier to teach a coder how to sell than a salesperson how to code, but that’s not going to happen while you’re busy shipping product, pitching like crazy to investors and changing decks every 2 weeks. Not in a market where customers get 10-20 phone calls per day from competition, selling online products or offline services, solving the same problem.
Eventually, at the beginning of this year, I got better at it. The accelerator was over, raising another round was out of the question, so I managed to spend my entire time on finding customers. I picked up the phone and managed to get around 10 meetings per week from just cold calls. Managed to close the first deal. You would assume that I felt empowered by the feeling “wow, I can do this shit”, but instead, a flashback hit me. I could’ve saved lots of time and money if only I would’ve got someone with sales experience and HR contacts on the team.
Time is running out
Time is the most precious resource you can have as an entrepreneur. The paradox here is that you need cash to survive in order to properly use that time.
After the accelerator, I decided to stay in Amsterdam, mostly because Rockstart is here and I felt the investment opportunities in the future were more interesting. But Amsterdam is not the cheapest place to be in. Rent is 2-3 times more expensive than Bucharest, you need to pay health insurance, water and garbage tax, etc. As we weren’t able to pay rent from Nexi, I started looking for other ways to secure my monthly income. I managed to get a part-time job for a couple of months at one of the other startups just graduated from Rockstart. Splitting time and energy between 2 products is quite an experience. I was always the guy that loved to focus on one thing at a time and was pretty good at it. Not being able to spend 100% of my time on Nexi was definitely a lesson: time is extremely important, use it wisely.
The little time that I have now made me realise I have to make smarter decisions in the future. I have to make the best out of my talents and skills and find the best people who can do what I cannot. That’s a promise! For more information you can also find out more about Nexi.me, or reach me via Twitter.