What did you do before Avenify?
I actually worked at Republic—I started in September 2018 and left in late January 2019. I came from Product Hunt, where I was managing their social media accounts and various marketing experiments. Before that, I was co-founder and CEO of a startup called Kite AI before starting business school in San Francisco.
When I started exploring this space, I realized there are a ton of different ways to finance a company, but very few ways to finance yourself as an individual. Companies have crowdfunding, equity raise, SAFE agreements, notes, warrants, etc. While all of these options are available for them, individuals (especially students) are limited to loans.
What steps did you take to launch the company?
We started by talking to customers. We wanted to validate whether or not we were on to something before we started building. At the team, we were focused on B2B, or B2College, so we decided to go on a three-month, 10,000-mile road trip from San Francisco around the U.S. literally knocking on doors of financial aid departments.
Our first day full-time, we rented an RV and travelled across the U.S. to visit campuses and talk with financial aid departments and students.
What we learned was that selling to universities is hard, and long. Longer than we might be comfortable with as an early stage startup with limited runway. But we spoke with plenty of students, and we knew we were onto something, so we changed our strategy and pivoted to a direct-to-consumer solution, where we could cut out the middleman and fund students ourselves.
When did you know it was the right moment to go full time?
I wanted to be full-time as soon as possible. I decided if we could get one check from an investor, I would leave my job and leave school to go full-time. We knew we had to have customer conversations for some of these investors to even listen to our pitch. So once we had some conversations in the pipeline, we started pitching VCs and some angels and ended up getting connected to John Smothers at Dimension Ventures. He and his team offered to put in a small check, and we went from there!
The investment made me realize this is actually happening. Even though we were still early on and there was so much that was going to happen, going full-time made us feel like we had gone much farther. We are so grateful to those early investors.
How did you meet your co—founder?
I was part of the Ronnie K. Irani Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth at the University of Oklahoma and participated in the consultant program. The program supported local startups and was an awesome opportunity to work with companies in a real world setting. Timo and I were in cohorts together; I was a part of the software business accelerator team and he was on the business consulting team. After we left, we stayed in touch and jammed on ideas for startups we could build some day. It’s hard to believe where we are now
There are a lot of things that worked out really well between us. When you look for a co-founder, you want to be great at business collaboration and have complementary skill sets. Timo and I are both technical and business focused, but I excel at the product side and design side, and he excels at the technology side and the architecture. We are both generalists, but it helps that we lean towards different directions.
I am a very optimistic and long term thinker. Today we were on a call and I said something like, “It would be super cool to do x, y and z”. Often Timo has to bring me back and remind me that we need to do a number of things first to accomplish that goal. It’s important to have drive and ambition, but it’s equally as important to be grounded and know what you need to do next.
You also want somebody that you know well or have worked with in the past. Having that friendship background really helped before starting a company together. I know there are people that warn against working with friends, but it can also work out really well. We found that having that layer of friendship helps resolve or prevent conflicts because we have an idea of our personalities and how we like to work. Getting to do things like living in an RV or going on road trips together have been great opportunities to get closer with each other and become better co-founders.
I’d encourage anyone starting a company to take some time and do things together that aren’t solely focused on the company.
At the end of the day, you’re going to have to work with this person for the next ten years, so you might as well find ways to enjoy it!
Has anything surprised you while launching the business?
It’s been surprising how thirsty students are for something better than the current options in the market. It doesn’t take much for a student to want to sign up for better financing. There is so much room for disrupters to come in and change things. That is definitely something we’re excited about.
Personally, I’ve been surprised by just how far we’ve come with how little we’ve had in terms of funding and a timeline. Since we’ve gone full time, we’ve raised our first two ISA funds from investors, grew Avenify to thousands of students and applications, issued our first ISAs, and launched our Republic campaign, all with less than $100,000 in VC funding,
You are taking on a big challenge—how do you handle that?
We think about it one step at a time. It helps that it’s such a huge problem and there is a lot of motivation to work towards solving it.
We like to break down what we need to do today to remain relevant tomorrow.
I think the number one killer of startups is not focusing on the task at hand.
What is the #1 skill you think founders need to succeed?
The main skill founders need to succeed is knowing how to talk to people. If you can’t have a conversation with the customers or know the right questions to ask, you are not going to get very far. If you’re a B2B platform, you’ll need to know how to get contracts, talk to investors, and communicate ideas well, and if you’re a B2C company, you need to be an expert in talking to your customer and crafting your message and product experience. And once you start growing the team, you have to tell a compelling story to your team and prospective employees.
Why did you decide to raise from the crowd?
The first day I joined Republic, I fell in love with the mission. Republic and Avenify share in the mission of democratizing access to capital and finance. We’re tackling similar problems with a similar end goal, and I think working with Republic is an awesome opportunity to advance that mission.
On a micro-level, Avenify is limited to accredited investors. We are working hard to open this up to everybody, and we saw Republic as an awesome way to get people to buy into the mission, support us, and hopefully become future customers down the line.
What’s one of the hardest decisions you’ve made as you’ve launched your business?
Staying focused and making sure we’re working on the right things. Knowing where to spend your time, like investor calls versus product development, is so important.
I think one of the biggest time-sucks for entrepreneurs is talking with investors when you don’t need to be. Spend that time focusing on your customers and your core business. If you can be capital efficient, you can focus on the product and save time.
What is your superpower?
Hustle. Everything I’ve accomplished I’ve had to work for. I landed an internship when I was 18 at Mozilla because I spent 2+ years contributing code to open-source projects. I put in the hours in high school to get that. Whether it’s getting a job, starting a company, or launching your side gig, you have to put in the work. And I don’t mean that to sound like you have to grind 24/7. More so that you need to remain committed and focused on doing what you set out to do. I believe every accomplishment is a result of the effort you put in.
What’s your kryptonite?
Balancing optimism and realism is the hardest thing for me. It’s really easy to create big ideas of where we want to go and who we want to be—it’s exciting to work towards—but you can’t build a company day-to-day by always thinking about what you are doing in 10-15 years. If you’re like me, it helps to have a teammate to keep you somewhat grounded and focused on the task at hand.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do? What do you geek out about?
I like rock climbing and try to go as often as I can. Hiking was also a really fun part of being on the RV trip and a great way to spend time away from the screen. We recently had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City and I got to go snowboarding for the first time! Was a ton of fun.
Are you a gadget person?
I am pretty minimal. I don’t like having a lot of things. As my friends can attest, I don’t have a great habit of staying in one place for a long time, so being able to pack everything up into a couple suitcases and go is key.
The items I do have are pretty functional. I drink from the same Philz coffee mug every day. It is less a matter of ritual and more a matter of having just one coffee mug. I got it on my last day of living in San Francisco before leaving for the RV trip, so it holds some sentimental value I suppose!
Who is someone that has changed your life?
My parents have done an incredible job of supporting me and giving me room to explore my passion. It takes a special kind of parent to be excited for their son when they say they are quitting their job and moving into a van to build a startup.
If you could give yourself one piece before the RV trip, what would it be?
Most advice isn’t worth listening to. There are a few fundamental rules of business that are true in every aspect. One of which being, you have to make money (or at least have a plan to).
Oftentimes founders get so caught up in wondering what the right thing to do is, that they end up paralyzed by indecision. My old drumline instructor would call this “paralysis by analysis.” In the early stages, you just have to go with your gut and know that you have to make the decision now and figure things out later. Don’t spend too long thinking about what other people would do. Just go with what you think is right.