In April in 2016, I joined a start-up. It was my very first, I didn't know the first thing about it. What I found exciting was the idea of bootstrapping every thing from the ground up. One year later, we were standing on the podium, presenting our start-up in the Techcrunch Disrupt Battlefield.
It's a success, it's an experience, it is the source of great confusion. I would like to tell you how we got there and about the unexpected things that we learned along the way.
tl;dr: If you want to know about our experience, you gonna have to read. Sorry
What led to all this is the start-up that we are building. Renly, a market place that connects renters and sub-renters.
That one bolded line is so easy to write today, but it took a whole month of refining our message to condense it into this simple message. The development of Renly started soon after I joined. Before that, Chris, our CEO, had created a landing page on Squarespace to collect emails to prepare for launch.
Before I go any further, let me explain that Ewww in the title. Techcrunch got me closer to the start-up world. Before that, I had zero interest. In fact, I found it to be one of the most boring subjects you can talk about. Every time I speak with someone and they mentioned their start-up, I think about an exit strategy to that conversation. No, I don't think that people and their ideas are stupid. I just think that there is this filter that hides the truth behind problems most start-up are trying solved.
I keep up with tech by following the traditional outlets like HackerNews, /r/technology, anandtech, and news organizations like the New York times, or Washington Post and by working in the field. At least once a week, I read about a start-up I had once heard of that is now closing its doors. Being a spectator, I am mostly disappointed because the narrative is always upbeat until the sudden crash. And they somehow always learned from their mistakes and became better people.
Watching them from that perspective never gives you that actual story. So, Renly, my own start-up has been my way into this fairy land of unicorns.
Renly, is not my idea. Chris Sheng came up with it to solve a real problem for his wife. She has a salon in the heart of Beverly Hills with many stations available, and no hairstylist to make use of them. The process of getting one person to rent a chair is not scalable. Every single time, she had to use a different method to rent it. She would find renters from time to time, but they wouldn't have enough customers to make enough money to pay her the rent and make a living.
Salon Republic offers a solution, in theory. They sell the idea of having one month rent free to have stylists settle in, and their bigger sell is the brand. Their big name should be enough to guaranty a clientele for every stylist. That works well for the established stylist that already has recurring loyal customers, the extra foot traffic keeps them busy for additional income. But the up and coming folks are having a hard time keeping their schedule booked. I heard some cases of stylists disappearing before the end of the month to avoid being billed for the following month.
This is where Renly comes in. We help the salon owners fill those spaces because they love to get that monthly rent out of the way. And we help those Hairstylist by removing the long term commitment of a lease. If they have very few clients, they can book for a few hours a day, or few days a week. They can slowly build their clientele without breaking the bank and having to run away before the end of the month.
We are five co-founders, a little too crowded according to some. And we are all in the heart of Los Angeles, California.
Behind the solution that I have proposed above is the website renly.co. For the new comers, my usual tech stack is LAMP and from time to time python, perl, nodejs, nginx. In other words I work in a Linux environment.
Renly runs with .Net MVC hosted on Azure with SQL server. Choosing a stack I am not too familiar with was a hard decision, but I settled because I have Walter and Paulo, two great co-founder and highly competent .Net developers. I was not a full-timer on Renly so I couldn't force them to learn the ins and outs of Linux in a short time span just to feel better about myself.
This decision came back to bite me. It is still biting me, and we are rethinking our strategy. Microsoft is not so much for the bootstrappers.
Our initial delivery date was August 1st 2016. We did not deliver on that day. In fact, the product was not half ready. There were a lot of bugs, the logic we thought made sense did not when we saw it in a live product. We had to go back to the designing board and restructure things around. We had many launches in the months that followed but each came with it's own set of setbacks. Our official launch is November 2016, let's call it the one we were most comfortable with.
Along the way I have added a new layer to our application running on Linux because I don't want to spend time fighting a new environment. It is much easier for me to open a text editor and write a script that I can run in an instance without having to compile or fight obscure bugs. Throughout the years I have written many scrapers and at Renly we scrape data from all over the web. By scraping I mean Data Mining of course, for the fancy folks.
In April 14th 2017, we received an email saying we have been selected to participate in Techcrunch Disrupt 2017 in New York. I knew what techcrunch was, that's the place were I often read that X start-up is closing doors. Or that Y start-up has received $40 million in funding. I had also heard about battlefield. Just a year before, Walter was telling that a year from now he will have come up with a cool new project and he will present it to Techcrunch Disrupt. Well, that's exactly what had happened.
The other thing I read about Disrupt is that on that day you better have a powerful enough server architecture to handle the overwhelming traffic. In a Linux environment, I have no problem with this. I have worked on high traffic websites for most of my career. I have designed and managed systems that handle terabytes of data. But I have no clue how to do any of that in the Microsoft environment.
Azure is a cloud hosting entity, and they boast about one button vertical scalability. So that and my reliance on Paulo was my fall back plan.
Pitch in San Francisco
We spent most of the time polishing Renly, while Chris prepared the pitch to present on stage. That first time he stood in front of us and presented, I was left confused. I tried to be encouraging of course, because well, our goal was to have a good and convincing pitch. Plus, I don't have any experience in presentation.
We had to go all the way to San Francisco (6 hours ride) to present and hear their feedback. I drove on the way while Chris practiced. Walter and I would tell him to change a word here and there. The pitch improved. Technically. It was correct, it talked about our product.
TechCrunch San Francisco office.
We met Neesha and Samantha, our Battlefield Coordinators, Chris presented while I controlled the slides on the screen. For the first time, we received real feedback. They asked to cut a few things here and there, told us what need clarification, overall It was good. I was surprised of how much attention they paid to the small details. Where I was spending time thinking about how the presentation sounded, they focused on the claims we were making. Of course some of it was exaggerated and they caught it.
This changed my perspective. When we came back, I spent time reading this pitch again. I realized the main issue was that I didn't understand Chris' vision for Renly. I had read the pitch before and had heard him read it many times, but I had never spent the time to assimilate it.
When I read it alone without the stress of presenting, it finally clicked. I could see the coarseness of the message, due to the fact that he believed one thing, and we were building something else. For the first time, I focused on the problem we were trying to solve for other human beings so that they can find a flexible place to work without breaking the bank.
Trip to New York
When we arrived to New York a few days before the event, Walter, Raisa, and Paulo jumped worked on optimizing the website, while Chris and I focused on the pitch. We might as well say that we revised the entire business in those three days.
TechCrunch Disrupt New York 2017
During the rehearsal, we went on stage, plugged in our machines, and then and their, they told us that their staff handle the switching of the screens between slide and demo. That was not going to work for us.
Our pitch consisted of 6 to 7 switches between slide and demo. For each switch, they said Chris would have to say "Switch to demo please", or "switch back to slide please". It was going to be a mess. We had to update our slides and pitch while on stage. The 12 minutes rehearsal was terrible.
And it was back to editing our pitch again. At some point, the coordinator came to see the team and ask about what went wrong. We had to go in the back and present it to her one more time to assure her that we could do it. We spent the night practicing and improving.
Reworking Pitch and Presentation
Currently, Renly offers Salon owners the possibility to sub rent their space. We offer sub-renters a space to rent. Our next goal is to complete the circle, by allowing consumers to book those services by sub-renters. We call it Renly Circle, (a work in progress). We only started the project a few days before we were contacted for Techcrunch, and decided to have a beta page to drive more sign ups.
I decided to build it as a stand alone application that we could present in the end of the pitch. The regular attendee, or online viewer from techcrunch is not necessarily our target audience. But as consumers that can book services, they would have a reason to use it. So this was our way to collect emails.
A presentable Renly circle was built between site optimization and pitch practice.
Azure: the last straw
One of the problems with Microsoft Azure is the interface. Everything is not where it is supposed to be. And when you finally figure out where it is, they decide to redesign and move things elsewhere. (Most tutorials have outdated UI, and they are not even old)
We optimized the code part of our application as much as we could. It ran fast enough locally, but the moment we deploy everything slows down. We tried everything. We rewrote entire queries and bench marked it. Nothing to do. Fast locally, crawling on production. We ran a stress test and it took five concurrent requests to slow the response time to 60 seconds per requests. Note we were paying over a hundred dollars a month for that.
Our goal was to maximize the application at the current hosting platform, so when we press that scale button, it will grow seamlessly. After hours of struggling, we found out that this was not a limitation in our code. It was simply that azure limits (throttle) your speed at this price. You have to pay for the next plan to get better speed. (DTUs baby)
This pissed me off because at the $15 plan, I can have more than 10,000 concurrent connections on a DigitalOcean Droplet. That's exactly what I did for Circle. So we upgraded to a very expensive plan and everything automagically worked.
The Start-up Alley
If you need a reason to go to Techcrunch Disrupt, this is it. On the alley, you have people. People who are interested in this sort of things. People who are willing to put their money in your business.
Also, you will find people who have a product that can help your start-up. Those are not only good for the service they provide, but they give you an opportunity to explain what you do to a total stranger. It is nearly impossible to explain something you do not understand fully to a stranger. Having people stop at the Renly booth every minute or so helped us polish our message.
We got enough investors contacts to line up a whole month of meetings.
We did not win the Battlefield, I made peace with that. But again, we made a killing in the Startup Alley and Investor meetings. No $50,000 for us in prize, but the potential of getting much more in investment.
The number of sign-ups we got from this event was astonishing. By astonishing, I mean nil. Before the event, we read on Cloudflare about the server killing traffic that usually comes from this event.
For the average company that doesn't make the finals, expect between 10,000 - 20,000 page views per day during TC Disrupt, about 20% of that traffic concentrated during the hour that you're on stage.
20,000 page views at least in 2011
We worked very hard to make our server handle this much traffic, but our numbers did not quite match. In fact, here are the numbers we got that week:
500 visitors during our presentation.
This seemed very odd to me. I mean it is Techcrunch Disrupt Battlefield right? So I went and checked the live stream of the battlefield on YouTube, and it showed that there were a whooping 85 people watching. I guess, it is not what it used to be.
The article that was written about Renly was very odd. Here is an extract:
Based in Manhattan Beach, Sheng was inspired for his business idea by his now ex-wife, who is a hair stylist. Unfortunately, he blamed his dedication to entrepreneurship for their relationship problems.
“She inspired the startup,” said Sheng, “but the time commitment and obsession for the business is what led to the divorce.”
Tabloid anyone? The other thing was, instead of adding our profile right next to the article, they added a competitor. As of writing this, it hasn't been updated yet despite us reaching out:
Like I said, it is not what it used to be. At least we got what we wanted: meetings with investors. (I'll write more about that in the near future)
We are a bootstrapped team who up to this point financed everything out of our own pocket. We worked only for a year and made it to Techcrunch. We made great contacts that helped us polish our message and improve our product.
Renly is only still in it's infancy. Renly solves a real problem, it may not be as obvious today, but before Airbnb was disrupting the hotel industry no one was seeing it as a major problem to solve.
My team and I see a great potential and are confident that we will be able to disrupt this industry.