San Francisco based Foundersuite brings order to startup chaos
Nathan Beckord is the founder of Foundersuite, a startup management software. He is also a Startup Consultant - often described as a ‘wingman to startup CEOs’ and as ‘Biz Dev / CFO to go,’ - having worked with companies like Kickstarter and Appbackr. Nathan has been an investor in 13 funded startups with five exits. His previous work experiences include stints with Access Ventures, JP Morgan and Piper Jaffrey.Nathan also authors the blog SeedStageCapital.com. An avid sailor and mountain climber, Nathan also enjoys riding 'boxer motor' BMW motorcycles.
Below are some excerpts from a recent that conversation that YourStory had with Nathan.
YS: You seem quite entrenched in the Bay Area’s eco-system. How did you get there?
Nathan: I was born in the mountains of Colorado and grew up there before moving to California to attend Santa Clara University. After graduating, I moved to San Francisco and worked in technology M&A valuation and investment banking during the dot com bubble. It was an exciting time, as companies were going public at an astonishing rate. Right as the bubble popped I took a year off and traveled through SE Asia and South America, then went to grad school at the University of Texas, Austin, to get an MBA.In Austin, I worked at a VC firm, and also attempted to launch a startup - a clinical trial software company - that ended up failing the week I graduated.
So I graduated without a job (I had missed all the on-campus recruiting). While all my classmates were starting jobs, I took about a week and went hiking and meditating on what I wanted to do with my life. I really love the energy and creativity of startups, so I married that love with my background in finance and venture capital, and started a consulting business (called VentureArchetypes) that has worked with hundreds of startups. Most of the work involved getting startups ready for funding (building the business plan, financial model, pitch deck, etc.) and advising on business development and acquisitions.
YS: How did Foundersuite come about?
Nathan: I ran the VentureArchetypes consulting business for 10 years, and a little over a year ago I decided to ‘productize’ the consulting into software. In other words, I wanted to take the advisory work and build a SaaS business that could benefit hundreds and thousands of startups, not just the half dozen that we could help by consulting. I wanted something that could scale. So I started Foundersuite.
With the idea starting to gel, I started sketching out some product wireframes in July 2012. Around that time, I hooked up with a partner, Gerry Hays, who is a professor of entrepreneurial finance at Indiana University. I also started scouting for developers which was particularly challenging since there is a real engineering shortage here in San Francisco. As a brand new startup, you are effectively competing against Twitter and Facebook and Square and 1000 other hot startups for talent. I ended up hiring some offshore developers to build the minimal viable product - the ‘MVP’ which we launched as a rough beta in January 2013. The team is growing and we have recently added a product development guy and a marketing person, with a few others helping out on a contract basis. We're intentionally keeping it small and lean, and growing the team very carefully.
YS: So what exactly does Foundersuite do? What problem is it solving?
Nathan: Foundersuite makes productivity tools for entrepreneurs. Simply put, launching and growing a new company is a messy, chaotic and confusing process. We are bringing ‘order to the chaos’ through a set of web apps and templates that make the job of startup CEOs easier. Think of it as an ‘incubator in a box.’
Drilling down further, each of the apps we have released solves a different problem. For example, our Investor CRM tool is made for entrepreneurs raising money. It's a tool that helps founders keep track of multiple investor discussions all at once - the tasks, to-dos, notes about each investor, etc. It helps founders run their fundraising more efficiently. It also has a social layer, in that you can invite your team, attorneys, advisors to be members of your account, then they can connect their LinkedIn network and see how each person is connected to your target investors. It's very powerful.
As another example, our Competitive Matrix app allows founders to quickly keep track of all their competitors in one simple dashboard. This helps them monitor their industry without spending much time on it - or as we like to say, "track your competitors without obsessing about them."
Media Stalker is for founders who want to run their own PR and media outreach (or do a better job of keeping track of journalists and articles written). Like with the CRM, it brings some structure and order to the process of pitching journalists.
Progress Tracker is a simple way to log your company milestones and to update your investors or team in a visual, chart-like way.
Idea Validation is for people at the very early, concept stage of their business. It guides the entrepreneur through the creation of a two-page executive summary - it asks tough questions and forces you to think about your idea. It then lets you pull from a database of questions, and run a survey from people in your network about your idea. In short, it's a structured way to explore and get feedback about new startup ideas.
Finally, our Corporate Docs is a vast collection of templates for solving boring-but-important tasks like dividing up equity, building a cap table, setting up metrics, and so forth.
Right now we’re keeping the pricing very simple - it's a SaaS model - we charge a monthly subscription for each module. Users can choose ‘a la carte’ which tools and apps they need. We will probably make a bundled package later this year.
YS: What’s your marketing strategy?
Nathan: As you can probably guess with a name like Foundersuite, we are targeting startup founders and other entrepreneurs. We are doing it on a global basis; just this week we did a promotional deal with a big startup community in Hungary, and we've done similar deals in Chile, Australia, Germany, etc.
In general, our go-to market strategy is to partner with startup incubators, co-working spaces, hackathons, and other places where entrepreneurs gather. We've done promos with Startup Weekend and with TechStars, for example. I think we have about 35 partners now and we are adding more pretty rapidly.
We are also testing some paid marketing (for example, I ran a few Facebook ads earlier this week) and we are starting to do some more traditional PR and content marketing. Finally, we really want to bake virality into the product, as by it's nature, working on a startup should be a social activity. Expect to see more of that in the product in 2014!
YS: Who else out there is building similar products?
Nathan: This is a tricky question, but I'll try to give a concise answer. We have six different web app products and 70+ templates. In many cases, our ‘competition’ is coming from legacy ways of doing things - for example, prior to our Investor CRM tool, entrepreneurs were using Excel or a Google Doc to track their investors. Or for our Competitive Matrix tool, competition would come from founders simply visiting a lot of different blogs, twitter streams, news readers, etc.
So most of our competition is really just old-school methods. But we do have some competitors, for example, with our Media Stalker PR tool, there are some firms like Vocus or PRServe which aim to accomplish the same goal. They've been around for many years, and they have a different feel and flavor.
For our Investor CRM, I suppose you could use a tool like Salesforce to track your competitors. But our USP is that we are purpose-built around the needs of entrepreneurs. For example, we are built on top of AngelList and Crunchbase, which are very specifically focused on early stage funding (and not something that Salesforce plugs into).
YS: Can you talk a little more about the company’s current state?Nathan: I would say we’re at an early growth stage. We launched four of the products in June 2013 and released two more in beta in November, so it's still very early days. We plan to scale by doing what we're doing - getting people aware of the productivity benefits of using Foundersuite, constantly improving the product, and making our users happy. We may boost our paid marketing a bit if we discover that these efforts work, but I'd rather rely more on word of mouth by happy users vs. buying a lot of users. We've been self funded and may raise some angel capital later this year to scale up the team, but we're not in any real hurry to do so.
We recently crossed 2,200 startups on the platform, and growth has been accelerating. Getting the first few customers was actually pretty easy, since they were often people in my network who wanted to try it out (thus I sort of had a captive audience to start with). But now we are ‘out in the wild’ and it's fun when we see a sudden spike in a geographic region (like this week in Hungary). It means people are using it and talking about it, and ultimately, sharing it.
But I want to build the ultimate set of tools for entrepreneurs. I want to make Foundersuite so powerful, so useful, that when entrepreneurs sign up, their productivity shoots to the moon. I want to make tools that in turn make entrepreneurs more successful.
YS: What are some roadblocks that you’ve had to overcome?
Nathan: Every day is a challenge - that's the definition of a startup! But in the very early days, it was a challenge to decide what to build. I knew I wanted to build productivity tools, but that can mean almost anything. It was a challenge to narrow it down to the first few tools. Going forward, we're doing much more customer interviews and surveys to figure out what to build.
Getting the initial team together also seemed like quite a task.
A surprising challenge was pulling the trigger and actually ‘launching’. You're never done with a product. There are always more things to add, fix, or build. It's hard to just say, "it's time, let's ship." But you need to do it. I've worked with startups that spend forever tinkering, and by the time they launch, the market has passed them by. You need to get out and start riding the wave even if you're not quite ready.
But that’s the thing about these challenges – you learn so much! Here’s what I’d say -
Make it fun: You will be working long, long hours against great odds, so if you're not having fun doing it, you'll quickly burn out.
Move fast: A startup's advantage is the speed at which it can move, innovate, test, take chances, fail, learn, and repeat.
Focus on customers: To succeed, you really need to be hyper-focused and tuned in to your users, listening constantly, and getting feedback. Making customers happy is always ‘Job #1’.