Matthew: We know that founders face unique challenges when they decide to start a company. What was the hardest part about starting WePay and how did you overcome this obstacle?
Rich: As I mentioned before, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned, is that nothing really matters besides building product and getting customers. So, if you’re not actively working on those two things, you’re wasting your time.
So, the big lessons for me, early on, were that there’s a lot of things you can do that will keep you very busy, but won’t get you any closer to your ultimate goal, going to countless networking events, reading every piece of entrepreneurial literature out there and watching every video that you can watch about founders. But, in reality, what really matters is that you’re passionate about building product that ultimately solve a problem, then finding ways to get that product in front of people.
Rich: I don’t know if that was your question.
Matthew: No. That was great advice. You answered it perfectly. Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make starting companies look easy. We know it can be very hard. We want to dispel some myths and share with our audience a glimpse into the challenges and triumphs that founders face. So, my question is, what do you make look easy? What talent or skill comes naturally or easy for you and what has been difficult, and how have you managed that?
Rich: That’s a good question. It’s funny, I suffered from the same misconception that it’s easy to start a company. As it turns out, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. No matter how many times you tell that to people, people are always going to say, “Yes. I know it’s hard. I’m ready for it.” There’s this great quote in “Frost Versus Nixon.” I don’t know if you’ve seen that. I don’t remember the exact line, but basically it’s, “You trained to fight the champ, you’re ready for it and you know how hard he punches. You know everything about him, until you get in the ring and you feel the first punch. Then it, kind of, all comes crashing down on you.”
I have a similar quote that I use all the time, which is, basically, “The best founders in the world are incredibly naive and arrogant, because if they weren’t, they would never get into the ring.” I think you need to be arrogant enough to get into the ring in the first place, and naive enough to think you can still win after you feel that first punch.
Again, I don’t know if I veered off the question.
Matthew: No. You answered it perfectly. It was great.
Rich: What do I make easy, that’s not easy? I think that’s part of it. As founders, it’s, kind of, your job to present a united, confident front to the outside world. I think you have this whole slew of young, fledgling startups that look at founders and say, “Man. Those guys are so confident. They’re so put together,” but, in reality, everyone is scared. Everyone is struggling to get their name out there. Everybody has wild ups and wild downs. It’s an emotional roller coaster. But, I think as a founder, it’s your responsibility to stay calm and persist through that.
So, the one thing I would say to fledgling startups is, “Look, what’s going to happen is, you’re going to be successful. You’re going to look back on it and it’s going to all be roses, once you’ve made it to the next level, but when you’re in the trenches and you’re fighting in the weeds, it’s tough, and it’s tough for everybody, and everyone’s gone through it.”
Matthew: Excellent. So, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching WePay?
Rich: There’s a lot. I could go back to build product to customers. I think listening to your customers is super important, and keeping it simple. So, I think there are a lot of things you can do as a founder and as an early-stage startup that can really complicate your message, but, at the end of the day, all that matters is that you’re building a product that people want and your finding a way to get it in front of them.
Matthew: Excellent. So, what bit of advice or piece of information do you wish you would’ve known before you started WePay?
Rich: Don’t try to raise money too early. I think the single most important thing in the world, when you’re raising money, is getting traction, and it’s very hard to get traction without some kind of product, and some kind of customer validation. When you start your company, incorporating doesn’t matter, filing patents doesn’t matter, raising money doesn’t matter, telling people about your idea first doesn’t matter. All that really matters is that you’re capable of sitting down and building something.
That advice is limited to consumer web startups, which, obviously, like capital-intensive businesses out there. But, I imagine that people watching these videos will be people building web products. If that’s the case, then you kind of have to sit down and do it.
The second thing, one of the most frequent questions I get from my social circles, is, “How do you start a company, if you’re not technical?” or, “How do you find a technical cofounder?” It’s almost gotten to the point where that’s a bad joke in Silicon Valley because it’s such a ubiquitous question and, usually, the people that are asking that question are not people who are deeply experienced, but I still think it’s a very, very important question to ask, and I think there are a lot of people out there currently asking it.
So, I do offer every advice to non-technical founders, but the most potent advice I can give is, If you’re not building a product, and getting customers, you, as a founder, need to find a way to add value besides building products, and that value not only needs to be something that’s obvious to you, but obvious to whatever technical founder you’re going to find.
The second piece of advice is that you can’t be helpless. So, one of the things I’ve seen a lot in, kind of, the early-stage technology startups is that non-technical people will assume things like installing a printer, installing a router, fixing the fax machine, are the job of your technical founder. Those are the jobs of the non-technical founders, everything other than literally writing code that will get the product off the ground.
Matthew: Excellent. That’s great advice. So, what mentor has had an impact on your professional development, and has there been an individual who has mentored you in launching WePay?
Rich: There’s been a lot. I almost feel bad trying to name one or two. I can name a few, John Gallaugher, from Boston College, runs an entrepreneurship class at BC and has this thing called Tech Trek West, where he brings a whole bunch of Boston College undergrads, and they do it for the MBA program too. He brings them out to Silicon Valley and introduces them to a ton of startups, both early-stage and late stage.
My cofounder was on that and that’s probably what brought . . . kind of dipped his toe into the entrepreneurial waters. Since launch, John has been an unbelievable resource for us, both in terms of putting us in touch with the right people and, also, in terms of just being the guy who’s always supportive, always positive.
The second person that I think of is Peter Bell, who was a partner at Highland, who now sits on our Board of Directors and was the lead investor in our B-run financing. We’ve known Peter since our undergrad days. He actually gave Bill his first undergraduate internship at one of his portfolio companies. He was inviting us to the entrepreneurial and big BC events, that we should not have been invited to a couple of years ago, and really did a great job keeping us confident and introducing us to the right people.
We also have a host of angel investors that have been unbelievable, with the advice they’ve given. Bill Johnson and Ray Thompson are two independent angel investors, were early investors, who have been there from the beginning and helped us fight out of the trenches and have given us absolutely phenomenal advice, over the past couple of years.
Matthew: Excellent. So, before we close, I’d like to ask you two more questions. The first question is, what advice would you like to share with our audience about launching a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?
Rich: I think, you need to make as much noise as possible. One of the most bothersome things that I hear is, “Once we launch . . . Once we launch . . . Once we launch . . . ” I think what you realize is that launching is not this great thing that you do, that kind of opens the doors to traction. Launching is almost an obstacle that you need to overcome so that you can get the real work done.
I think what a lot of entrepreneurs realize is they’re kind of building up this launch as, “Once we do this, good things will happen.” What they realize, is that 99.9% of startups launch into a vacuum, where no one cares about it. You can kind of hear a pin drop in the background. So, your goal should be to get the launch out of the way so that you can start really acquiring customers.
The way that you do that, is you get your name out there. You talk to anyone who will listen to you. You treat your first dozen, hundred, thousand, ten-thousand customers, as if they were your best friends. You take every media opportunity that you can. You develop relationships with journalists, real, genuine, relationships with journalists. You start acquiring users, one at a time, if you have to.
One of the most frustrating things for startups that have huge ambitions is not being scalable. What I think that you realize is, when you first launch a product, your only option is to be unscalable. So, you do things that you hope you won’t have to be doing two or three years down the road. You’re talking to every customer, one-on-one. You’re listening to their feedback. Your building features that they ask for.
So, I think, get launch out of the way. Listen to your customers. Do things that are unscalable, to get early traction. Then, continue to make as much noise to get your name out there as much as you can.
Matthew: Before we close, I would love for you to give our audience your vision of WePay, and how you hope it will change the world.
Rich: I give PayPal a tremendous amount of credit. I think it really did change the world, when they made it easy for anyone to collect money, any business to accept payments online. I think that was 10 years ago, at this point. So, I think there’s another wave of payment companies that are coming, that are going to make commerce and transactions a lot easier for normal people.
Square is an obvious example of a company that’s doing it for the point-of-sale purchase, and I think what you’re going to see with WePay is that we’re going to make payments fun, social and easy, for normal people, normal consumers.
Matthew: Excellent. Well, Rich, it’s been a pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your success at WePay. For those in our audience who would like to learn more and register and become a WePay user, and join their community, you can visit them at www.WePay.com. This is Matthew Wise at FounderLY. Thanks so much Rich.
Rich: Thank you.