I met Josh Wright co-founder of Marmot Labs which just launched Decision.io on a hazy Tuesday morning at the Communitech Hub. Yes - it does seem that the Communitech Hub at the Tannery Building is the ‘place to be’ to hang out with, build and start companies. It’s the cool space in town - a mix of industrial and modern interiors with red bricks, exposed ceilings with massive ducts snaking throughout. The walls are adorned by contemporary art - map of the world made from Apple Circuit Boards, Christie Digital MicroTiles, an installation made exclusively with BlackBerry PlayBooks (they are not THAT bad), and paintings by local artists.
Josh, full of energy and enthusiasm was happy to spare some time to chat with me about Marmot Labs, their first product Decision.io, and of course about everything in between.
So how did it all start?
Jesse (Guild) and Duncan (McDowell) - my two co-founders and I have known each other since we were about eight years old. We grew up together and we’ve always been sort of coming up with business ideas. We’ve known we want to start something up for a while now, but this is our first real go at it.
We were the sort of guys that spent our time making business plans crazy ideas like wind farms as early as 15 or 16 years old. We soon realized we didn’t have the money or the expertise to undertake that one.
Later, after we finished school, we decided to take the MBET program together which was a great experience. It really gave us a chance to really work with each other and learn to start and build companies focused on solving real customer needs and problems.
So what sparked Marmot Labs and Decision.io?
During our MBET degree, we did a lot of work with Professor Paul Guild and we started thinking how we can help companies innovate better. How can we help business allocate scarce resources more efficiently? Where is the best place for money to be spent on innovation or how do we decide which are product to develop next?
We worked on the idea for a little while and we came up with massive development plan that would take a long time and a great deal of money! So we decided to break it up into smaller pieces which is where Decision.io was born. It was a great starting point from our perspective. I had been working at the Accelerator Centre near the university and there I had experienced some grant administration work. Jesse & Duncan were working with Venture Services Group at Communitech and dealing with all kinds of application and review processes. We saw a pretty clear need to have a system for group or collective decision-making when it comes to application review.
There’s lots of other areas and use cases that Decision.io, but we decided to validate granting, startup support and university applications first. In essence it is a an online platform for collective decision making where (our) customers can capture their decision making processes. It’s very easily configured and you can set it up however you like, in a very short amount of time. You can aggregate data from various sources and set up a funnel with multiple stages of review. The idea is that streamlining this process online and making this very accessible to a team of reviewers can help you make higher quality decisions and really enrich the conversation around this type of review. Each of the reviewers get a log in, they can come in rate, rank, review and make comments for different items at various stages of the funnel.
The items can be lots of different things but we’re starting with online submissions. So our early target market is grant agencies, startup support programs like incubators and accelerators, as well as educational institutions.
Why start so young? What drove you personally to start a venture and not take a job?
Essentially, this is a really interesting way to build experience, keep challenged, and do something different. I love the risk and the pressure.
I get bored really easily so having the ability to do a lot of different all at the same time and trying to figure out a lot of new things that you have no idea about. I never thought I would be writing employment contracts or SR&ED claims, but I like the idea of figuring out how to execute on whatever is needed. You are on the fly figuring all that stuff out as you go, and it’s pretty fun.
When I graduated undergrad, I wanted to be an investment banker because I wanted to be a millionaire by the time I was 30. I am 29 so it’s getting pretty close, but either way, I really enjoy the path my career has taken and I’m excited to see what happens next. Getting rich was one motivation at the very beginning but since I’ve gotten into it and started learning about entire ecosystem, support, organizations the community here in Waterloo, I really realized that I am in it to solve problems for customers and build a sustainable business.
The other guys, I’d say the same for them - we wanted to build something that has an impact something that fills a void. We have followed a certain simple methodology as best we can – Identify a need that a potential group of customers have, get them to test out our solution and give us feedback and make sure they will pay for it. Rinse and repeat.
Being a Non-Technical Founding Team - Has it been challenging?
Its hard for sure. It was something that we battled with a lot at the very beginning.
We had a ton of different ideas and we have a product that always is improving - its about finding the right people to join your team who are technical.
We’re lucky to have Duncan who is UX / Web Developer / Front End Designer but finding the right people to join us that can actually code is always going to be a challenge. We have found some great guys to join full time and we work with a consultant to help with the planning and mentorship of more junior developers. It’s working really well, but we wouldn’t have gotten where we are today without these great and motivated dudes.
What’s the eventual goal for Decision.io?
The eventual goal for Decision.io is to grow our presence in our early target market and then explore different decision-making workflows within small to medium sized businesses and enterprise.
Working with Prof. Paul Guild, we have a big source of cool and cutting edge ideas for next steps and new products.
Are you aiming for an exit for Marmot Labs?
If someone came to us and said we want to buy you guys - we would have to think about it.
Until then, we are going with the mentality and motivation to grow a sustainable business and build it like we’re going to IPO. If we get into the market and can’t get enough revenue then pivot. If we do get traction and people want to buy us we will talk about it and figure it out. At the same time if there is huge traction and growth and 10 years we do an IPO then great! Why not? There’s a lot of opportunity in decision making space itself.
As a company, what is your passion?
Our passion is innovation itself - innovation planning & product management. We really want to learn a lot and grow from there. There’s a lot of different use cases that Decision.io can be potentially applied to and we’re excited to explore these.
So what stage is Marmot Labs at right now?
We are currently in Open Beta and growing our revenue and improving our product.
We aren’t doing much marketing yet, but we are focused on streamlining our customer acquisition model. We were in a Closed Beta for 8 months. Our first customer was the first one to pay us.
And every customer since then has paid, which is lucky for us. It brings in some revenue and helps us bootstrap.
November 2012 we started working with the HYPERDRIVE Program where they used Decision.io for their Accelerator’s application review process - that was great for us in terms of learning but also proving and validating our idea
In our closed beta we acquired 12 paying customers. We went into open beta couple of months ago; now up to 17 and hoping to continue to grow quicker next month. For us right now it’s about improving the product and building a story so eventually we can look at raising a private round of funding so we can get on our feet.
So what are some of the challenges of being in a startup? And do you think it’s being romanticized?
I recently read really interesting article which was about turning Startups into Hollywood - people get into startups thinking they will get rich and what not. Doesn’t always work that way. There are definitely some success stories that fuel that fire, doing huige early investment rounds and getting great traction; but it is still a tonne of work no matter what. People need to realize it’s not all that easy, it’s a grind everyday. An emotional rollercoaster with ups and downs. Some days you might be on top of the world and some days you might get some very critical feedback and feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. But the important thing is to keep pushing through the bad times and focus on the wins.
Being broke is another thing. Being a bootstrapped business, we can’t afford to pay the founding team yet. We will eventually get to the stage where we can raise a private round but so far, we are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. We have tried to keep grounded and we want to prove it out and show traction and growth. We are really excited to keep things moving forward!
What is your take on Kitchener Waterloo’s ecosystem vs. what they have down at Silicon Valley?
There’s good things and bad things. It’s a small community and you get to know most people. It gets pretty busy with events and there is a lot of support. Everybody is willing to help and there are some great mentors and community leaders. We have been really lucky!
I don’t have much experience in Silicon Valley, but it does seem like there are a lot of companies and so much more investment money available. It seems really competitive as well, but it definitely has the track record.
That story is building here in the Waterloo Region, but it’s not there yet. It’s a great place to build a company though and we think it’s only going to get better.
The key is to keep looking towards building a scalable and global business and to prioritize your time as best you can!
As part of the on-going series to profile local startups, I met with Basil Al-Dajane Co-Founder and Product Lead at SoundBrush - an iPad app that lets users create music by drawing lines on the screen, in the VeloCity Garage at the Communitech Hub. We found a quiet room aptly named “Fortress of Solitude” and Basil was kind enough to give me some time out of his busy schedule to talk about his journey with SoundBrush, the experience with Y Combinator and everything else (related to startups and tech)
SoundBrush recently won the VeloCity Venture Fund(VVF) with Ted Livingston (CEO KiK Messenger) personally handing him the prize money. Post VVF, Basil and Jayson are busy developing new and exciting features for their iPad app. For those like me wondering if there will be an Android version - Sadly no.
Lets start with - What is SoundBrush and what’s the story behind it?
SoundBrush is an iPad app that allows you to convert lines you draw on the screen into musical notes. The whole value behind drawing music is that all of a sudden you don’t have to learn how to play an instrument to create music. Right now what’s the best way to create music? Play an instrument. So we have completely flattened out that curve.
"You can think of SoundBrush as the Instagram from music"
Originally Jayson and I were sitting in front of a whiteboard coming up with a bunch of ideas to learn iOS. That’s how it started - finger painting. In 3 months we developed the first version while we were doing Co-Ops, working 8 hours a day and then developing on iOS for another 7 hours after we got home. That was literally our days and weekends! We moved into the VeloCity Garage in December and for the next month we worked all day and night - just popping by the house for a shower and nap then back to work again.
So we launched it and the biggest thing we learned about why users are using it was that all of a sudden they didn’t need to learn an instrument anymore. They could just create music that they wanted. So this is what led us down the rabbit hole of asking ourselves what exactly are users looking for and is this actually solving the problem which is ‘anyone can make music’
We developed it further and we made a new version of SoundBrush and released it in June this year.
Version 1 had 130,000 downloads in a year
Version 2 130,000 just within a month
What got you the downloads? Any clever marketing tricks you can share with us?
Well the first reason was that we switched the first version from a paid app to a free app - that definitely spiked our downloads. And secondly, Apple featured us in their App Store in the UK and we also landed a feature on TechCrunch.
Apple featured you in the App Store? How did that happen?
After WWDC (Apple Developer Conference) I emailed Apple, I called up Apple, I found every single contact at Apple and sent out a whole bunch of emails.
Incidentally one of the many emails I sent ended up in the right person’s inbox at the right time. Even though the queue was massive (after WWDC), he liked us enough to get us on the front page.
Before that we had no downloads and it was really bleak but the Apple feature really got us going.
And how did TechCrunch happen for you?
I emailed John Biggs who I met at a conference. I have emailed him before but he ignored every single one (haha).
So I emailed him again with the subject “Apple featured App SoundBrush”. And I explained that Apple might feature us at 5pm today in the UK. Do you want to talk to us? He said Yes and that resulted in the feature on TechCrunch.
Did TechCrunch result in a server crash?
Surprisingly no. Techcrunch resulted in a 15% increase in downloads. But surprisingly it is not as crazy as people think like 80% or 90%. It was really the Apple feature that really pushed everything and set things in motion.
All this with zero dollars spent on Marketing?
We regularly check in on public metrics and see how we stack up against other startups from VeloCity and other startups in the space. If someone else has better numbers than we do at something then I talk to them about what they are doing and look at what we can do better. Metrics are crucial to our business and they keep us in check. We set benchmarks for ourselves to know how we are doing.
Our primary marketing strategy is social media. Two instruments can be unlocked in the SoundBrush app if the user tweets about us or likes us on Facebook creating a viral loop on social networks.
Sharing and integrating with YouTube is another area we are looking at. Say a user has a couple of thousand views on YouTube but not as much on Discover (SoundBrush’s social sharing platform), we can pull those views from YouTube into Discover. Our target demographic is teenagers as they spend a lot of time on social networks so essentially we’re trying to penetrate more deeply into social networks. Another tactical item we’re looking into at the moment is talking to various YouTubers and inviting them to make a song with SoundBrush and share it with their audience.
Going back a little bit, back when you were starting out, did you know you were going to be targeting teenagers and how has that evolved with SoundBrush?
Back then, I didn’t even know what a target market was! I thought oh yeah everyone’s going to download it and what not. That didn’t happen. Even for a while with the second version we were stuck and we didn’t know who the customers were. Are we going for the educational aspect? Children aspect? But we soon found out that the children aspect is a bad idea - Simply put kids will play with it for 5 min and never again.
When we looked at teenagers we also thought about how we can fix the
‘This is a cool idea, I am going to play with it for 5 min and never again’.
Discover - the SoundBrush music discovery network played a huge role in that, which is something kids can’t participate in it.
What about people who say ‘There are just too many apps out there?”
There are too many websites, doesn’t mean you stop making websites. We always envisioned it as an iPad app because we feel that the iPad is still generally neglected.
As a CS Guy - how was the transition from coding to focusing on marketing/business for you personally?
That’s a change that I had to go through the tough way. You focus on the product so much that you forget about the signup page. How are they going to go in if there is no signup page! Most people focus on the product and never the signup page. And it’s not just about building a signup but focusing on the right areas. That’s something a lot of people including ourselves have struggled with.
So you’re the marketing/business guy then?
I am responsible for strategy and other business matters. Usually I go to Jayson and propose a crazy idea without any back-thought - one example is when we released V-2 for SoundBrush as a different app and not as an update. We did not have backwards compatibility. So instead of reworking the code, we decided to release the new update as a separate app.
The role I see for myself in the future is Product Lead and Jayson as the Technology Lead.
So how did you guys meet?
We met at residence on campus during first year and when I moved to a friend’s house afterwards, Jayson ended up taking one of the rooms there as well. It was after that I asked him for help on a project (LeafNotes); he was the only web developer I knew back then that we become close friends. After helping for 2-3 days, he offered to work with me on the project and it started snowball from there.
It’s the two of us right now and we’re hiring two Co-ops, including one for social media and community.
So what are some of the things you’re looking for when you’re hiring co-ops?
We’re looking for personality and then skills, in that order of importance. If you don’t have the personality or ability to bring new ideas to the table then you are no better than a hired developer from Elance in my opinion. That’s not something we’re looking for. I want this (SoundBrush) to be part of who you are.
Why do a startup? Why not go to Google, Facebook, Desire2Learn or you name it?
When you’re working on a startup everything you do can’t be marginal by definition. Everything has to have an impact. When you work at Google or Facebook or most other corporation, almost everything you do is marginal to the bottom line of the business. You messing up or succeeding isn’t going to make or break the business.
Jayson and I come from an audio/music and graphics background. Jayson is an instrumentalist and I know more about digital audio music techniques and graphics design. It was a good match for us to work on SoundBrush together.
Wait, you have a Graphics Design background? So you did the visual design for SoundBrush?
All the UI and images except for the brush I drew out and we have over 8,000 images in SoundBrush . We’re actually thinking of adding 25 more instruments so I’ll be working on those graphics as well.
So tell me about Y Combinator and infamous tweet by Paul Graham.
We interviewed for Y Combinator - what actually ended up happening was that we got two interviews at Y Combinator. They interviewed us once and they couldn’t decide. So they interviewed us again and decided no.
The story behind the tweet by Paul Graham is a very interesting one. He never actually interviewed us! He wasn’t even in the room when we got interviewed. During the second interview Paul Graham heard SoundBrush through the wall. He stuck his head through the door, comes in stands next to us and says
‘Oh Wow that’s Cool!’
And everyone ends up playing with SoundBrush. We’re sitting there going ‘hey guys, what about the questions?’
Anyway so while we continued our interview Paul Graham takes my iPad and disappears into the next room and that’s when the tweet happened. Before the interview we were warned by everyone that don’t let any of the partners or Paul Graham have your iPad because they will get distracted with it.
That was a very interesting experience to say the least.
Silicon Valley vs Kitchener/Waterloo: if you had gotten into YC would you have stayed back in Silicon Valley?
There’s a lot of opportunity here and there’s a lot of opportunity in Silicon Valley. I haven’t lived there so I can’t comment but Kitchener/Waterloo does have a lot of opportunities right now.
Speaking of which, what are some of the best things about being in Kitchener/Waterloo as a startup?
VeloCity Garage, Communitech easily said. Not to mention UW and the Co-Op system. With the Co-op processes not only can I hire quickly and end the contract quickly, I also get a lot of good feedback on the interview process.
What’s your take on the idea vs execution debate?
Execution is more important in my opinion but even a small idea can make a product great. It’s all about how you execute it.
Looking back on your journey so far, was their any pivotal moment that you look back on? As a company?
I don’t think we have had our pivotal moment. I see this as a long journey. We do celebrate our successes but we always try not to get caught up in it and move on to the next challenge.
This week’s Startup Edition question: How did you raise money for your startup? Here’s everything I wish I knew the first time around.
In September of 2012, Zapier closed our seed investment round of $1.2MM. In May of 2012, I had no idea where to start when it came to raising money for a company or if I even wanted to raise money.
Raising money one time certainly doesn’t make me an expert at raising money. But since I’m relatively fresh off of the experience I get asked by first-time founders how they should go about raising money for their startup.
Without further ado, here’s my ultimate guide to raising money as a first-time founder - leaning heavily on the experience and advice I’ve learned from other smart people who understand raising money much better than me.