In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Einar Vollset talk about their alternative form of startup funding, Tiny Seed. They talk about why they started an accelerator, and some of the key differentiators that separates them from typical accelerators.
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Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it, I’m Rob.
Einar: And I’m Einar.
Rob: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. Nice job catching that man. I didn’t brief you in advance that you had to say your name, huh?
Einar: […] is Mike supposed to say something on or not?
Rob: Mike’s not on. For listeners out there, who don’t know you. Your name is E-Y-N-A-R. I call you A-Y-N-A-R.
Einar: It’s close as my wife gets. I think that’s fair.
Rob: Good. You and I have started–we’ve co-founded Tiny Seed together. That’s at tinyseed.com. But folks may not have heard of you. I know that you are a multi-time founder. You went through YCombinator in 2009. You’re a developer as well. You’re a CS professor at Cornell. You’ve done quite a bit of stuff and you, these days, you kind of work in private equity, right? You’re like a private equity scout?
Einar: Yeah, kind of. I sort of got into that space after my last exit and actually have what I jokingly call a service startup investment banker. Most of the stuff I do is help fund their exits when they’ve got a SaaS business or a tech-enabled service business between […], $2 million, and $15 million as ARR, something like that.
Rob: Right. That’s where you and I have connected on Tiny Seed. Folks listening to the podcast kind of already know a little bit of Tiny Seed, it’s the first startup accelerator designed for bootstrappers. We try to give founders a year of runway, it’s a remote accelerator. It’s an idea that has been floating around for years and I never wanted to do a lot of the investor side and didn’t really have the expertise to raise a funding round and that kind of stuff. And then you and I connected back in April at MicroConf in Vegas and this was something that intrigued you to start what became Tiny Seed.
I think folks who listened know why I’m doing it. This is just a continuation of everything I’ve done for the past 15 years or whatever, it’s me putting more money where my mouth has been. But for you, what’s your interest in being part of something like Tiny Seeds?
Einar: I think there’s just a gap in the market there for those kinds of companies. I think in terms of funding structure and in terms of support. The way that I think about this base is it’s very similar to where companies like Y Combinator or First Round were in 2005, 2006. It’s becoming more and more clear to me that there are incredible businesses to be built which can be super profitable and sort of take care of their investors, and their founders, and their employees and everything that sort of fall outside the traditional VC sort of funding structure with a series of pre-seeds, and seed, and A, and B, and C.
I really think that given what you’ve built on MicroConf and your community and the fact that the institutional capital is coming in or interested in buying those kinds of companies potentially, I think that’s an exciting opportunity, and honestly, yeah, I just want to help people be able to take their business from just a sidebar project to something they can dedicate their time, full-time toward.
Rob: Yeah. You came up with a really good example early on. You said, “How many founders do meet at MicroConf or at other conferences who are basically trying to do it on the side?” A lot of folks have a spouse, they have house, they might have a kid, they have a full-time job, they have responsibilities…
Rob: …and they have mortgage, yup. They just can’t—I say, can’t—but it’s really, really hard to offset that and either move to the Bay area with some other tech center for three months to do an accelerator or to try to raise a round of funding in the side or they’re tooling away on an idea and three months later, it’s no better off when they started.
Einar: I think the standard pro-typical YC startup founder—at least that’s the way it used to be, maybe it’s a little bit different now—but it’s like, you’ve got to be 23, willing to work 80-, 90-hour weeks and just give up everything else. Of course, I don’t think that’s the only way to build a profitable business and I’d really like to support that.
Rob: That makes sense. I kind of jokingly have called what we’re starting with Tiny Seed, I’ve been calling it Startup Funding For The Rest of Us because it kind of fits in the model. Startups For The Rest of Us, the whole point of the name of this podcast is that folks who listen to it want to build startups but we aren’t in that mainstream, “Let’s raise venture funding.” Like you said, 90-hour weeks, series A, series B, $100 million or $100 billion valuation, some of us don’t want to do that, and it’s that alternative.
I think the key thing is, a lot of us have noticed, you noticed, I’ve noticed, we have other folks that are launching similar things that are similar to Tiny Seeds. It’s like we’re all noticing this tectonic shift in both bootstrapping in that bootstrapping is getting harder especially SaaS because it’s getting more competitive. It’s not impossible but it’s harder than it was two, three, four, five years ago, so it’s getting harder. Funding sources are becoming more prevalent. There’s more money being thrown at things and in fact, so much money being thrown into venture capital and private equity that it’s spilling over and looking for either places to go, where is the opportunity for that money to go. I’ll speak for myself here, I believe this is a great opportunity, a great place for it to go that is virtually untapped today.
Einar: Yeah, I think so. I think I get super hard if you have a SaaS business that’s doing $2000-$3000, $4000-$5000 a month, it’s not enough to live on in most places. Certainly not where I live, in the Bay area. But going out and raising funding for those kinds of businesses is also impossible if you’re not giving it the time of the day from a traditional VC because they’ll look at the business and say, “Oh, it’s a nice lifestyle business you have there.” Your other sources of funding tend to be, “Okay, friends and family.” If you have wealthy friends and family that’s great but on the other end you often end up with kind of a ad hoc set of angels and it’s hard to do. That’s actually aligned incentives for founders and investors that are trying to operate in the space.
Rob: Yeah, that’s right. What’s interesting is that something I don’t think, if you’re not in the space, then you don’t realize how quickly things have changed and that they are constantly changing. I grew up in the Bay area until—I’m trying to think—it was the mid-90s and then I went to college in Sacramento and I still have ties to the place, I never did a startup there, but I very much know how the Bay area works.
I remember, in the 90s, when I was, let’s say, late teens, early 20s, and just thirsting to do a startup it was like, you could have friends and family contribute money and I had no friends and family with any money so that was off the plate for me. You could try to find angels and of course, there was no angel list back then, so it was literally going to meetings. There was meetings and such and there were angel groups and then there was venture capital obviously, because a lot of cheques were written in the late ‘90s. But as far as I know that was kind of it.
If you wanted to start a software startup at the time, there were no accelerators until 2005, that’s only 13 years ago, and we were just talking, there was no debt financing for SaaS until maybe two years ago. There was Lidar Capital, Bigfoot Capital and a few others, but you couldn’t get freaking debt financing from a bank.
Einar: No, you couldn’t go to a bank and say, “Hey, I have this SaaS business. It’s maybe making freaking $20,000, $30,000 a year. Can you lend me enough money to do anything?” that was never going to work. I did YC in 2008 and even then, people were still like, at the time, the original terms were like $5000 + $5000 x the number of founders for 6% or 7%, something like that.
The people who were in the angel and VC investing world, they laughed at that. They were like, “What are you talking about? Of course, that’s nowhere near enough money to do anything with. What are you even bothering about?” But I think YC really proved that that model that, “You know what, yeah, with a little bit of money and some grit you can go after this.” I sort of think the opportunity is similar but in a different place where what we’re going after is not the next Facebook or Instagram or whatever, it is the next $20-$50 million SaaS business that you probably haven’t heard of unless you work in the industry where it’s prevalent or is being used.
Rob: Even in our financial models, having SaaS apps grow into a $3-, $4-, $5-million business is still a pretty nice win. It’s a nice win from an investor perspective but it’s also really good win for the founder or founders themselves because they can either, they’re given the profit margin. You’re experienced with quite a few SaaS apps, the next profit on these things is substantial, and so whether a founder decides to exit and sell the business or whether they decide to just pull distributions off of it, there’s a lot of—I think there’s rewards to be had that would almost be laughed at or at least chuckled at in the Bay area because it’s like, “Oh, lifestyle business right? $5 million a year?” But man, if you’re pulling $2 million off that, that’s life-changing for a lot of us.
Einar: I think the margins, once you get to a certain size and you decide to focus on cash flow instead of necessarily growing at all cost, again, the margins will be at 30%-50%. I think the fundamental shift that we’re seeing and trying to leave behind is you can align both investors and founders in a better way. Instead of saying, “Okay, the only way anyone gets paid is by exits.” In that case, the VC or whatever who’s private funding you will sort of try to push you to try to grow as quickly as possible and have a biggest exit as possible. But if you could have a bigger structure that’s supported by the fact that this SaaS app business often throw off this kind of cash then you could do a profit share as well as an equity piece. It sort of aligns the founders and the investors and I think in a good, nice way.
Rob: I think all that to say, while we are talking about Tiny Seed today, you and I both think we foresee that as the future moves forward that this is a shift and that there will obviously, there’ll still be venture capital and accelerators the way we know it today but it’s like this new market opens up and this alternative funding where we’ve traditionally had bootstrapping, and venture capital, and there was angel along the way, and you could self-fund. We did talk about how self-funding is different or the same as bootstrapping but there’s this new kind of third option that I believe has viability. Half of my angel investments are essentially in startups like this. They’re in these SaaS apps that I never thought or hoped would become unicorns but if they get to 5 million, 10 million ARR—annual run rate or annual recurring revenue, whichever you prefer—it’s a win for all of us.
Einar: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s are just a lot more business like that out there. I think, even just from United States but even worldwide, there are industries that has so many things left to automate and basically turn into a SaaS process that they could be an order of magnitude more of this kind of businesses than there are fees […] firms and business ideas.
Rob: Yeah, it’s like the long tail of startup funding, isn’t it?
Rob: Totally interesting.
Einar: It’s not like people aren’t raising money to go out and build these kinds of businesses, they are, it’s just that certainly, the way I think this can be done in the Valley now is you basically, towards the end of your decks, throw up, “Oh,” you know, and two slides that says, “And now when we go to the moon, we’d become $1 billion company.” Even if you don’t necessarily believe it. For the founder that can raise money that way, that’s great. But it doesn’t necessarily then align with the investor. Because the investor, in the traditional structure, if you put in $500,000 in the say, non-cap safe or something, then you’ll end up, even if the company gets to say, $10 million and they’re starting at $5 million in cash every year, and the founder just decide to hold on to it then as an investor you get nothing. Even in acquisition you might just get your $500,000 back with interest. It’s easy to look at it from the founder side and say, “These are founder family terms.” But in order to make this really a growth market, you need to align both the investors and the founders in a good way.
Rob: That’s a good point you bring up. I think we’re seeing different models. [12:56] VC has their model in the way they structure it. You see the debt financing, like I said, Lidar Capital and Bigfoot Capital, I think there’s a few others, and that’s different and those require a personal guarantee on the part of the founder.
Einar: In some cases, yeah. I don’t want to speak for every single debt financing deal but a lot of them do, yeah.
Rob: Alright. What you and I have arrived at through conversations with both investor side and the founder side is this model is really pioneered by Rand Fishkin with SparkToro. He essentially open sourced the terms. If you search SparkToro fundraising terms. I’m an angel investor in SparkToro, full disclosure, but we adopted those or something very close to it because it makes sense from an investor perspective. The return is there and you’re not going to have that safe situation you just talked about where you put in $500k and you get nothing back if they hold onto it. But at the same time, it’s almost by definition is founder-friendly because Rand came up with it. Maybe he and his cofounder but it’s like, he wouldn’t have accomplished something that wasn’t in his interest.
Einar: Exactly. I think the model that he came up with is pretty brilliant. It’s sort of what we were looking for and trying to structure and it’s been super helpful to talk to him and talk why he did it and get his thoughts on it. But I think fundamentally, what it does is, it essentially allows the founder to decide to reinvest upgrade operating cost into the company as it’s growing if that’s what they want to do. Then only when they decide, “Okay, I’m going to start taking cash distributions and taking more capital off the company, only at that point does the investor start to dissipate. I think that aligns investor and founder incentives really well.
Rob: That makes sense. One question I have for you, I know the answer but I’m going to ask it, so we can talk it through. You and I could’ve just started a seed fund which is, for the listeners, you raise some money and you write some cheques to some founders, to some companies and maybe you fund one this month and one in three months. You build a portfolio but that’s kind of how a fund works but we have opted to start an accelerator which is having a cohort or a group of companies that come together and they go through it. It’s similar to the YC or the Tech Stars or 500 Startups model and there’s a lot more mentorship and it’s like a program.
Typical accelerator, you move to a location and it’s three months long. We’re going to do a remote accelerator and it’s going to be 12 months long, assuming that you hit some milestones and such, but why did we do that? Why are you interested in doing that instead of just doing the traditional kind of seed fund approach?
Einar: I think the key difference is that having done YC, I know how powerful it is to have a cohort that can support you, that are basically going through the same stuff that you’re doing, and I think that it and of itself is super valuable. Of course, there’s always some bound to be some sort of an internal competition among the founders which that’s also helpful in some way. I think having a defined structure around it and saying, “Okay, we’re also going to come in and provide world-class mentorship.” that’s honestly, probably pretty opinionated about, “This is the best way how to do 80% of what you need to do with content. This is how you do 80% of what you need to do with paid advertising or SEO or whatever.” I think that sort of structure adds more value to the founders themselves and make them more likely to succeed which is ultimately what we’re looking for.
As you know, we’ve had inbound interest from founders which have probably companies that are too big to really make sense in the current structure and they just wanted mostly for the mentorship. I think that’s valuable in and of itself and just makes the companies more likely to succeed.
Rob: Yep, good answer. It’s like you’ve been asked that question before or something.
Einar: It’s almost like I’ve been on the phone and told that story a number of times already.
Rob: Yeah, it’s well-rehearsed at this point. Obviously, we’ve talked about how—I guess we haven’t said this explicitly—but I don’t think something like Tiny Seed would have worked or could have worked 10 years ago. I don’t think SaaS […] true enough and I think the community was there, I don’t think there are other places for the money to go. I think there’s a bunch of reasons, oftentimes we hear about three or four startups all going after the same thing at once, like when Fitbit and, what was the watch, Pebble was on Kickstarter, and the Apple watch—why is everyone coming up with watches? Because it was a confluence of factors. It was, finally, the stuff was cheap enough; the hardware, finally the screens were good enough. There’s stuff that comes together where suddenly it’s like, “You couldn’t have done this three years ago.” I don’t know if Tiny Seed would have been successful a few years back, but I feel like the reception and the response we’ve gotten so far both from investors and companies, it kind of indicates to me that hopefully, this is the right time for this.
Einar: Yeah, I think so. I mean, obviously […].
Rob: I know. That’s the thing I’ve been trying to be careful with is, I certainly want to blog or when I talk in the podcast, I don’t want to sound like, “Hey,” I’m just tooting my own horn and saying, “Yeah, this is a tectonic shift, so you should buy into this.” But the whole reason that you and I are basically going all in on this thing when we have a bunch of other things we could be doing, is that we believe, by definition, we believe it’s a tectonic shift, that this is what’s happening. That’s how we can justify going all in on it, right?
Einar: Yup, yup.
Rob: One question that I’ve been asked about Tiny Seed is how it’s different than a typical accelerator. Why would they go with Tiny Seed versus any of the others 500 Startups or YCombinator, any of the others you could find, and we have six here—I’m guessing over time there’d be more—but one I mentioned already is that we’re going to be remote by default. We’ve talked about doing probably three in-person gathering where we get everybody together. Imagine we do one early on because having that facetime with people kind of starts to solidify a cohort. It is remote.
The advantage that it has—obviously, it’s advantages and disadvantages. Because the disadvantage is you don’t have that face-to-face time all the time like you would with a typical accelerator, the advantage is much like starting your fully-remote company is our talent pull and our essentially, the companies we can back are much more far reaching. It’s folks that you and I run into at MicroConf that perhaps can’t…
Einar: I think in part is it’s a more scalable model. Not to disparage accelerators but to be honest with you, some accelerators are in part seem to be more geared towards being a booster for the city they’re in rather than trying to help the companies in an optimal fashion. Really, I think with a remote model, basically, you keep the social support network that you need for founders going through this anyway. They already have that in place with their family and friends. You also keep expenses low, that’s a big part of it as you go through it. If you have the years’ worth of runway, it’s better to not have to move somewhere, or not to have to uproot your family and friends and your expenses to have a journey […].
Rob: You touched on differentiator number two is that, unlike most accelerators that are three months long, we look to do it for a year basically, to have this cohort and this community built over the course of a year. You get 10 companies or 12 companies or whatever and they’re on 2-4 calls a month, there’s some office hour calls, it’s all Zoom video stuff, but they build that mastermind relationship, that friendly competition or even just that friendly, the you-have-my-back kind of relationship. It gives you runway to quit that day job because that’s what the funding is for, but it gives you that 12 months, we know how long SaaS takes.
I was just talking to someone, and I realized that venture capitalist gives you a lot of money and then they want your timetable to compress. They want you to do more in a shorter amount of time, but they can get fed up by saying, “Well you have a bunch of money. Go do that.” If you’re running Instagram or Twitter or whatever else, maybe that can happen but SaaS, traditionally doesn’t work like that. Slack, it works like that. There’s a couple of other SaaS apps. Most SaaS apps, we’ve seen it over and over, years and years and years. It takes 6 months, 12 months to get traction and then it takes years over time to compound and grow. Our view is that the longer we are able to allow people to build this, the better off the results will be.
Einar: I think it also ties into, “What is the nature of most accelerators? What is the goal that comes out of it?” The goal on […] YC is that you raise your next funding and that takes about three months and you have enough things to show that you can raise the next series of funding versus what we’re hoping to do is you don’t necessarily have to step on that venture track. You can basically build a profitable, sustainable business. We think 12 months is probably what it takes to go from something small to something that potentially can cover your expenses, so you don’t have to go back to your day job or start consulting.
Rob: Yup. The third differentiator really is this lack of series A pressure. Series A is the first venture round people raise. We’re giving multiple options. These founders, as we’ve said, can pull dividends out and they’ll get a percentage and the investors are going to get a percentage. Over time, I’m sure some will exit at some point, it’s not something that we’re going to force or push people into but sometimes getting […] event is really the right choice for the founder. Obviously, they and the investors would make out there.
Einar: I think it’s probably misunderstood by people who aren’t in sort of the Silicon Valley VC world. Like, how much a part of the founder’s job on the venture track is to raise money? There’s is series A, but now there’s a series pre-seed and then a series seed, and then a series A, and then series B, and the series whatever. Essentially, most of the time, you raise just enough money so that you run out of money in 18 months. Then once you’re done fundraising, you maybe have six months, and then you have to start fundraising again for the next round because you’re trying, like you said, to compress as much as possible and go as fast as possible in order to grow as fast as you probably can. Because that is the only model that works for that kind of venture investment.
Rob: Yep. As I was saying. Tiny Seed companies, they just have to pay dividends, they could exit, or some may decide that they could raise another round. This is not something that we would say, “No, don’t do that.” It’s going to be the right option for some companies. But it’s just having the optionality to do it or not do it. It’s like, “Make a good choice.”
Einar: Exactly. Probably maybe six months in you’re like, “Oh, holy crap. This is a much bigger opportunity than I thought.” in which case, okay, we’ll be supportive. We will say, “Okay. We’ll help you re-enter the VCs. We’re excited about being part of the next round.” That’s fine too but there’s no expectation about you wither do that or die trying.
Rob: Yup. I have six investments that I would essentially call this model, this more sustainable, sane, startup model and one of them has done exactly that. They have raised subsequent round because the opportunity got big really quick and it was unexpected at the start. Certainly, the right choice for them.
The fourth key differentiator is, this one’s interesting. I’m wondering if this going to be controversial, but I don’t have a bias against single founders and I know that a lot of accelerators do. I think the phrase I’ve heard is like, “The journey is hard. The journey is long to get to $1 billion. Most single founders aren’t able to do it.” In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of single founders be very successful at sustainably building these seven and low eight figure businesses.
Einar: I think that’s true. I think in part, it’s sort of a historical artifact because of what happened in ’05, ’06. Basically, it was YCombinator and Paul Graham really there, who sort of espoused this almost hard-plan rule that you had to be two at least. You are never going to make it without being two founders. That actually, I think, impacted every single subsequent accelerator and seed investment around. But I’m with you. The people I see that are successful in the space are usually, it’s one person, at least one lead person then maybe later a cofounder that comes on board.
Rob: Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. The fifth differentiator is release seven-figure ARR, so millions, multiple millions and low eight-figures, so let’s say, 10 million to 20 million. I think you and I have kind of talked about, “Hey, if we think SaaS company has a potential and even non-SaaS,” We’re not going to be 100% SaaS, I bet we’ll have others that are not, but that is definitely an area of our expertise, if they can get between $1 and $20 million, that’s a win for a lot of people. It can be a win for the founders, it can be a win for employees if they have equity and certainly, it can be a win from our perspective as well.
Einar: I think that makes sense, that’s the key differentiator. You have to have an investment structure which I don’t think really fundamentally exist. Currently, you have to have an investment structure that can support those kinds of success.
Rob: Yeah, that’s right. That’s where we’ve had to go, I’ll say, go back to first principle and say, “What is founder-friendly? What also works from a financial model perspective?” Because we won’t get investors. The fund will not exist if we can show that, “Hey, there’s a good likelihood that there will be a really good return for you.” and for us, we’re putting in time, we’re putting in money, we have to believe that ourselves or else it’s not worth doing.
Einar: It’s a risk-reward thing. It’s easy to look at from the founder side and say, “Oh, this is the percentage. I’m giving up too much, too little,” whatever. But fundamentally, for most investors, the question isn’t like, “Do I do this or nothing?” It is, “Do I do this, or do I put this in my buddy’s real estate investment trust where okay, the return isn’t this high, or the potential return isn’t this high but it’s much less risky than backing a basically a small SaaS business?”
Rob: The last differentiator we’ll talk about today as we’re coming close on time. I’ve been talking with my wife, Sherry, for quite some time. A lot of folks know her as Zen founder and she’s a psychologist and also now, essentially a consultant to startup founders and executives and entrepreneurs about staying sane while building a company.
We’ve been throwing around this idea of the sane startup. It’s a startup that values people over results. It has reasonable work hours expectations, so it’s not 90-hour weeks. It’s a startup that allows you to build something interesting and fun and profitable and lucrative, but you avoid burnout while doing that. You maintain your family relationships, your friend relationships, that you grow at a healthy clip instead on a […]. Some startups out there, they grow at an unhealthy clip to the point where they’re doing shady things, they’re doing unlicensed insurance sales or they’re sacrificing their employees. Something a sane startup, I think has ample vacation time, and it just cares about people on general.
We’ve seen these, there’s examples up in Baremetrics I would say, Buffer, that’s how we grew Drip, SparkToro I imagine is going to be that way, Basecamp, Balsamiq. I love this idea, whatever we call it, whether we call it Sane Startup or not, it’s a company that cares about its people over the results but can be a successful and profitable company.
Einar: On top of that, it can do it in sort of the non-traditional places. It can do it in a mid-sized town somewhere that isn’t coastal. I think that’s a big part of it too is, you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley in order to have this kind of success from a business.
Rob: Yup. That’s a big piece to it. I think that’s where we’ve talked about is the untapped potential of this. There is a lot about location and then there’s a lot about kind of quality of life that I think we can have the best of both worlds. That’s our hypothesis here is, we can have the best of these worlds and yet still build profitable businesses that are interesting, fund to work on, and all that stuff.
Thanks so much, Einar, for joining me today. If folks want to keep up with you online, aside from going to tinyseed.com where they can follow you and I, where would they hit you up online?
Einar: You should check out @einarvolsett on Twitter. It’s probably the easiest. I sort of went off that for a bit but I’m seemingly back on now. That’s my […].
Rob: Oh, goodie. You can do that, and I will not argue with people on Twitter. That’s kind of my status quo. Your name is Einar Vollset and we will link that up on the show notes as well.
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