“That’s really cool!”
I was sitting across the table from Jason*. He was a young, articulate Ivy League school graduate with a dashing English accent. To be truthful, to me he looked only a little older than my 16 year old, but it was obvious that he was no ordinary 26 year old.
You see, Jason was a venture capitalist. He’s founded his first startup and gotten out, and now spends his days assessing the next big idea.
He’d said, upfront, that their firm doesn’t really invest beyond US borders. It didn’t really concern me. After all, I was nowhere near ready for investment at that level, but he invited us to pitch him anyway.
How did I get here?
8 months ago I was a busy, homeschooling mum, running a side-gig consultancy and trying to make ends meet. Fast forward to today and I’m now on a plane to Boston, about to meet with yet another bunch of SAAS investors and startup founders. It feels kind of crazy.
So, let’s recap
In February this year, I won the Suncorp #SmallBusinessChallenges competition, along with 3 other startups.
I had taken an idea I wanted to turn into a tech solution and recreated it as a productised service. But I didn’t have the tech expertise to build it as software and had no idea who to seek help from. What I didn’t realise was that getting started in this way helped validate my idea.
I nervously got up to pitch at that event and after everyone had their turn, they announced the winners. When I heard my name called out I thought for sure they’d got it wrong. I was in shock! It was the beginning of a completely new journey.
Not only was I going to get to build my tech solution, but I was going to have some investment to help me do it, plus the full support of a team via my startup accelerator, BlueChilli. It was all so surreal.
Planning A Trip to Startup Mecca
A few months in, my Bluechilli business advisor, Brett, said, “oh, by the way, we’re thinking of planning a founders trip to San Francisco. Would you want to come along?”
I had just sold my house, so it was an instant “yes!” but then I thought … “what about the kids? How is this going to work?” I considered taking them with me, but we sat down and discussed it and they decided they’d prefer to go to the US next March instead. They’ve been involved with every major decision since that competition, so getting their input was important to me. They agreed to go to their dad’s for the two weeks. So, that was it, the trip was on!
Before I knew it, we were on a plane heading for SFO.
Hello San Francisco
Our hotel was in SOMA, a flattish area of downtown San Francisco, South of Market Street. What struck me most was the number of homeless people I saw just outside. I pretty much stuck with my group for the first half of the week because I was so freaked out by what I saw…. mentally ill people yelling and throwing stuff at passers by, homeless people huddled together in the crannies of buildings at night. It was very confronting.
After a few days, though, I ventured out on my own more and just took in the new sights, smells and flavours of SF.
It had been 22 years since I last set foot in the US. Given that was pre-internet, smart phones and wifi, a lot had changed.
On the Monday we hung out at a co-working space where the San Francisco Chronicle used to be. There are hundreds of co-working spaces in San Francisco. In Australia we have a few but in San Francisco, co-working spaces take up whole buildings with multiple floors. In Australia, our co-working scene is so new and exciting and people make a real effort to get to know newcomers, but I didn’t get that same vibe in San Francisco.
Our First VC Meeting
On the Tuesday, our first meeting was with a venture capitalist from a big San Francisco firm. He reminded me of a Hollywood producer…. you know… dark sunnies, vest and a dark tan… too dark for that time of year. He sat and patiently listened to our pitches and shared some honest feedback. It was pretty obvious to me that he wasn’t really into our ideas, but he had some useful advice and insights on where investment dollars would be focusing on in the coming years.
Afterwards, Brett said that my pitch was a little too low key on the tech side of my idea, that I sounded like I was describing a consulting service. I made a mental note to emphasise the tech, and algorithm we are developing in future meetings. We’ll chalk that one up to experience.
Drinks with an Aussie Legend
That night we had drinks with Karen Orford. Karen is a successful entrepreneur-turned-mentor for San Francisco-based organisation advance.org. She listened to each of our pitches and gave us her feedback! The night before was Halloween, so the whole bar was decked out in cobwebs and hanging pumpkin lanterns. Karen shared her startup story with us and offered to connect me with a game company to talk about how Writally could help them with their blogging. Throughout the week I was to hear many different opinions. By the end of it my head was spinning, but it was great to hear ideas I hadn’t yet thought of and weigh them up. I realised that, at the end of the day, it was up to me to figure out what resonated and what didn’t. It would either work or it wouldn’t.
The following day we caught a train to Palo Alto and visited Facebook. Facebook was like Disneyland crossed with a college campus. Beautifully clean, it was full of enticing restaurants and distractions, all designed to keep employees happy and loyal! The campus was so big that employees would ride company bikes between buildings. We got to walk through Building 20 where the head office is and saw Mark Zuckerberg (I think… I didn’t want to stare) and Sheryl Sandberg in a meeting with a whole bunch of people! The board rooms were in big glass boxes. We couldn’t take any photos while inside and were cautioned not to take photos of The Boss unless we wanted to be shown the door by his massive, but seemingly invisible, security team.
A few things really inspired me about Facebook:
- The fact that they invited artists to come into the space to create art in exchange for equity! I loved that idea. Some of those artists are very wealthy now.
- The fact that it was a completely open space.
- The fact that they are so waaaaaaaay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation. Talk of football-field size drones over Africa and Australia as well as the coming introduction of 5G (something that would make the NBN obsolete) was mind-boggling. There is a brave new world coming and Facebook is leading the charge.
There is a lot more to that visit that I want to say but that’s a conversation to be had over a fine glass of Scotch. Suffice it to say that visiting Facebook HQ inspired me to see what was possible for my own company.
At lunch we went to the famous Coupa Cafe in Palo Alto where I met up with friends from Tropical Think Tank: Theresa and Nicole! I love that I have friends all over the world. The Coupa Cafe is famous for being a startup and venture capitalist hangout. There’s even a startup named in its honour!
That day we also visited a VC firm in Palo Alto. The guy we met up with was interested in our ideas and shared some potential contacts to connect with. Overall, another positive meeting, but also another lesson in what it takes to be ready and break into the US market. It was at that meeting that I realised if I wanted Writally to scale globally, I’d have to consider relocating to the US for a spell. It was a sobering thought given that I have 3 kids, an ex who wants to see them, and a life and family back home.
After thinking about it for a bit, I realised that I’m the girl who makes things possible, so there would be a way to make that happen. I guess we’ll see how things progress after the MVP release. Being a founder is nerve-wracking but exciting. You have to be all-in if you want any chance of success! That’s another lesson I have learned over the past few months.
500 Startups, Startups in Black Tie and Meeting Guy
The next day we visited Tristan at 500 Startups in the afternoon, and then dressed up for a black tie event for AngelHack’s Global Demo Day that night. The leadership team from Bluechilli had flown in for the event, so it was like a family reunion! Watching the presentations was eye-opening, especially when a 16 year old boy got up to pitch his team’s idea. Wow! My favourite was the Aussie contingent of course, Lustr.
That night I also had the privilege of meeting Guy Kawasaki for the first time! I have long followed Guy’s work and have even interviewed him on a podcast previously. To meet him face to face was a dream come true! Later that night there was an afterparty… let’s just say I had a really good time and leave it at that! 😉
On our last official day, we visited yet another venture firm and spoke to Jason*, which leads me back to the beginning! That conversation excited me more than any of them because his company had invested in another Aussie Startup that ended up being a huge Aussie success story. He seemed genuinely excited by my idea and asked to keep in contact. I will definitely be doing that!
Observations and Growth Points
To be honest, I was expecting to have a more challenging week. I was expecting people to tell me I was dreaming or show me how unprepared I was for breaking into the US market. Instead, I walked away full of hope and completely in awe of what was possible. I realise that when it comes time to seeking further investment, those conversations will be a whole lot harder, but also, maybe a little easier now that we’ve broken the ice a little.
There were some stark differences between being a startup in Australia and one in SF. For one, investment opportunities are quite sparse in Australia but in SF, people invest millions in companies at the seed stage. In Australia, they might talk $500K at seed. I also realised that building traction at home and showing global potential quickly and early is a must to attract US venture interest.
Later that day we visited Atlassian, a very successful Australian Software company. Once again, we saw a vision of what could be for our startups!
That night we had a final dinner with the BlueChilli crew and said our goodbyes, but later that night Brett, Dave (from Folktale) and I went up to the View platform at the Marriot! You can see the whole city from up there! The Bay Bridge was putting on a light show just for us. A fitting end to a week of inspiration!
Time for Reflection and Gratitude
The following day I visited my friend Lane and we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d been longing to see it all week. What struck me was that it was not in the heart of San Francisco, but about half an hour North of the city. I actually thought the Bay Bridge was more stunning!
Lane has lived in SF her whole life, and although she was renovating a house and getting it ready to move into, she still took time out to spend an afternoon with me. We talked about Tropical Think Tank (yes, another TTT friend) and how much life had changed for the both of us! How much it has yet to change still. Lane is one of those people who I completely admire. She’s a no-BS kind of gal but also really compassionate. It was cathartic to reflect on how far we’d both come since we first met two years before.
On my last full day in San Francisco I caught the ferry from Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito and went for a wander! I still couldn’t quite believe that I was here, and that I was living my dream to build something amazing! The day ended with a visit from my dear college-friend Mark, who I hadn’t seen in 22 years. We sat in the View bar at the Marriot drinking cocktails and swapping parenting war stories. Wow! How much life has changed since my care-free college and backpacker days 22 years before.
As a mum and a startup founder, I’ve learned so much! I’ve realised that you’re never too old or too anything to turn a dream into reality! This is just the start of an amazing journey to come!
If you’re sitting on an idea that you think could be turned into a startup, I encourage you to pitch it and get it out there! You never know, it could be you in San Francisco next time!
*name changed for privacy.
Postscript: I wrote this on the plane to Boston, where I attended Hubspot’s Inbound 2016 Conference with 19K marketers. More on that in another post 🙂