Founding stories: how these entrepreneurs got their startups off the ground

April 12, 2017
Getting a startup from its genesis to the point where it's profitable requires sacrifices most of us aren't willing to offer. But when founders are able to look back at all of their hard work and feel a sense of accomplishment, most will say it was all worth it.
 
For these four founders, the journey was long, but the process — no matter how grueling — has been quite rewarding. Though their startups are at different stages of growth, their enthusiasm and passion for their ideas are very much the same.

 

SendGrid's startup trajectory wouldn't be something you would describe as "typical." Founded in Southern California, the team was accepted to Techstars Boulder and subsequently opened an office in Colorado while still maintaining a presence in Orange County. While the decision to join the SendGrid team was a no-brainer for Co-Founder Tim Jenkins, he soon realized he would need to quit his day job to help SendGrid get where it needed to be. Today, the company's cloud-based customer communication platform delivers more than 30 billion emails each month for some of the most noteworthy brands on the planet.

How did you meet your co-founder?

I met Isaac [Saldana] way back at UC Riverside. I was a systems administrator and he was a student. I was working in the lab one day, and he came up and started asking me a bunch of questions about Linux, and I thought, "Man, this kid is asking some great questions." So I offered him a job, and later he worked for me at another company I worked for. A couple of years later he pitched me about SendGrid. 

At what point did you realize you wanted to start-up with him?

The pitch was kind of interesting in that, he kept saying there was this really big problem, and my first reaction was, "It sounds like this is a really big problem for spammers, why would normal people have these problems?" Over the course of lunch, he was able to convince me that it was an interesting problem to have to solve. I was in the mood for something different, so it didn't really take that long to convince me. In those days, I wasn't at the point where I was going to quit my day job and do it, but after the first week of Techstars, I knew that it was a full-time thing and I had to commit it.

Did you have any concerns about starting-up for the first time?

To me, it seemed like it was going to be a very successful thing. There's certainly the apprehension about quitting a well-paying job and hope that I can build this, but it felt very natural, very low-risk. I've worked for other startups that wanted to do some great things and maybe generate some revenue, but our revenue plan for SendGrid was "We're going to sell it, people are going to pay us and we're going to make money."

How many hours were you guys working in the first few years?

It was a crazy amount. My wife — who was my girlfriend at the time — would come to the office and physically make me eat. I can't even quantify how many hours we worked. It was just the three of us, and I was responsible for practically the entire back end, so if I didn't get something done, it didn't get done. It was a lot.

Once we started to hire people, maybe like 2010, the pressure started to lessen, because, at that point, I didn't have to do everything by myself, it was more about becoming a manager. While I still did quite a bit, it definitely wasn't as crazy.

How has the company scaled since you founded it?

What we originally intended to do is not what we're doing today. The demo we did at the first week at Techstars was an app where you could send an email to us, we would convert it from English to Spanish, and then call a phone and play the message as voice instead of text. The idea was letting users build whatever type of system on top of email they wanted, like an app store model, but in order to do anything on top of email, you have to actually get email delivered, and there's a big market for getting email delivered. In the process of solving that problem, we ended up going down that road because it was where our customers wanted us to be.

I kind of wish we had gotten to where we wanted with the original concept, but the amount of work necessary for what we wanted to build versus focusing on our core product that customers were paying for stopped us from making it there. We got a lot of great mentoring advice, and they suggested we focus on this model first, we did, and things haven't worked out too bad for us.

 

Causecast's Ryan Scott, a pioneer in email marketing, took NetCreations public and sold it back in 2001. He spent the next few years focusing on personal philanthropy before he identified a hole in the market, and in 2007 he founded Causecast as a way to help businesses establish measurable philanthropic initiatives.

Can you describe your professional experience before founding Causecast?

Prior to launching Causecast, the professional experience I’m proudest of is co-founding NetCreations, a company that pioneered opt-in email marketing. NetCreations set most of the standards in use today and paved the way for laws banning unsolicited commercial email.

At what point did you decide to start the company?

After my partner and I took NetCreations public and sold it in 2001, I took some time off to just give back. But I soon realized that my personal philanthropy wasn’t scalable in the same way that corporate philanthropy could be to address the biggest challenges faced by the global community. So I launched Causecast to bring sophisticated technology to corporate volunteer and giving programs and help businesses become more powerful engines of social impact.   

How many hours a week would you say the founding team worked to get the company off the ground?

Startups are like babies — a bottomless pit of wants and needs! It would be easier to estimate the hours we didn’t work than the hours we did.

What sort of challenges did your team have to address as it was scaling?

I think the biggest challenge had to do with calibrating the pain points of CSR leaders and understanding how to build our platform to best address their daily realities. As we iterated on our platform, we made many pivots to meet our clients where they were, rather than where we thought they should be. With every startup I’ve been associated with — whether as a founder or board member — I’ve seen that you have to bridge the gap between the problems you’d like to solve and the problems you need to solve.

How has the company grown over the years?

It’s been so exciting to see how the corporate community has not only embraced our platform, but recognized the imperative of corporate philanthropy as a critical component of every business mission. Especially as the millennial generation assumes a majority of our workforce, company leaders realize that they can’t just offer lip service to giving back, but instead must build a dynamic program that makes social impact a priority and involves employees in a powerful social experience as a part of this effort. Causecast has been leading the way in offering companies best of breed technology solutions that give one-person CSR departments a battalion of support, and we’ve seen measurable impact in how companies are improving their communities and engaging their employees. Everything I hoped to achieve in terms of scalable social impact through more effective corporate philanthropy is coming truer every day with Causecast, and that helps me sleep quite well at night.

 

Stop, Breathe & Think co-founders Julie Campistron and Jamie Price come from very different professional backgrounds, but the duo connected to create a product that they both feel will strongly influence society. Originally started as an extension of Price’s nonprofit, Tools For Peace, Stop, Breathe & Think’s popularity dictated Price’s decision to focus on the app and find the right partner to help it grow. Earlier this year, the company was named as one of Built In LA’s 50 startups to watch in 2017.

What was your professional background like before starting Stop, Breathe & Think?

Price: I started my career as an investment banker in NYC, but 17 years ago decided to leave the ranks of Fortune 500 America with the intention of creating positive change in our world. That's how I became one of the founders of Tools For Peace™, a non-profit dedicated to teaching mindfulness and meditation to inner city teens. After 15 years working in the field, I created the initial Stop, Breathe & Think app. Inspired by its amazing grassroots success, I chose to partner with Julie to further develop the mission of helping the world find peace of mind anywhere.

Campistron: I started my career at L’Oreal, and after a few years shifted to the internet world, first at Yahoo! and then at Demand Media. I’ve held executive roles in both companies, initially in marketing and later in general management. My last role at Demand Media (now Leaf Group), was to lead the web properties and content studio divisions of over 120 people, 100 million monthly unique visitors and $70M in revenue.  Partnering with Jamie as the CEO of Stop, Breathe & Think was a unique opportunity to apply my experience to a world changing mission I am incredibly passionate about.

At what point did you decide to start the business?

Price: "Given the app’s organic traction, and it’s obvious potential, I realized that I couldn’t sustain its growth within the non-profit. I needed more investment and a bigger team to fulfill the vision I had for what Stop, Breathe & Think could become, and that’s when I initially reached out to Julie’s husband for advice. He told me right away Julie was the one I should be talking to, and one lunch later, we were partners!

Campistron: There were so many signs pointing towards this adventure, it was crazy. Just many serendipitous events. But to me, the turning point was that when I met with Jamie that first time for lunch, I was interviewing for a big role right up my alley, working with a team I really liked, in a high growth company, yet all I could think about after that lunch was Stop, Breathe & Think. It felt so right despite the risk, the absence of pay, the fact that I had never been a startup CEO before. I remember going for a run, and thinking, 'you really just have to do this.' So glad I did.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered since starting the company?

Price: It took some adjustment to transition from nonprofit to for-profit, but overall it went more smoothly than I thought it would.

Campistron: Fundraising was definitely a learning curve! And with funding comes prioritization. We have a big vision, to become the number one emotional wellness brand for younger generations, and strong convictions about how to get there, and sometimes it’s challenging to not be able to do everything we need and want to do at the same time!

What was your recent fundraising process like?

Campistron: It’s been hard but it’s also been a series of making the right connections at the right time. It’s made us trust the process more, even though it can be a nail-biter, because we ended up getting funding from people who were right for us. We were really fortunate to meet Amplify LA back in April 2016. We had been fundraising through Q1 2016, and if you remember, that was a pretty sobering time for raising money. When we met Paul and the team, it clicked immediately and we joined them less than 3 weeks after our initial pitch. They have since been instrumental in quarterbacking us through the fundraising process. It was also great earning the trust of a firm like Aspect Ventures early on, and after that our round was really built on angels who are as passionate as we are about our mission. And it’s been great to benefit from their enthusiasm and advice. For example, Sue Smalley, who founded the Mindfulness Research Center at UCLA, has been leading our scientific advisory board and connecting us with the best minds in our field. Finally, our seed round was closed, and lead, by Launchpad Digital Health, with Fred Toney joining our board. And that has also been fantastic because it has opened up many healthcare opportunities we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise...

How has the company grown since you first started up?

Price: We have more than doubled our library of content and activities, launched a subscription service, integrated with Alexa and Slack, and we have many more new product features coming up, including a brand new app (shhh…..). We have also been nominated for another Webby award in the Health category!

Campistron: Our downloads and DAUs are up double digit quarter over quarter and our subscription service is getting great traction. We are now a team of 12 people working hard to bring peace of mind to everyone, anywhere. So while we’ve accomplished a ton in not a ton of time, we feel like there is so much more growth ahead of us!

 

Images via participating companies.

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