Matthew: We know that founders face unique challenges when they decide to start a company. What was the hardest part about starting Keen, and how did you overcome this obstacle?
Vitaly: Probably the biggest challenge is that it’s kind of a double edged sword. We’re in the industry that does not fall into any of the venture buckets per se today. So, it’s a difficult place to raise money for it. Even though it’s an incredible opportunity and it’s real money, it’s not virtual goods. It’s real goods that are being sold on a daily basis, and there’s a lot of value.
That remains a challenge until we really prove our model to where funding is hard to come by for these type of businesses. They’re going after these kind of none consumer focused, consumer obsessed type of models. And we’ve overcome it by bootstrapping and angel funding and creative financing and things like that that have gotten us to this point and getting the product out there.
Matthew: In the short time frame that you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your business and your users that you didn’t realize before you launched?
Vitaly: That’s a good question. It varies. So, the biggest challenge, for us knowing e-commerce, it’s kind of obvious, it’s a no brainer. You should go online, it’s easy, it’s going to make everything great. But to a traditional business where the average owner of a printing company is the older generation, to them this is not so natural of a transition. For them, the change of behavior, in some cases, is probably something that we didn’t anticipate would be as difficult. But we’re learning what makes them excited and what makes them motivated to change their behavior, and we’ve made sure to check off those things on the list. And hit those pain points first to where it motivates them to make the transition to e-commerce.
Matthew: And what skill or talent do you possess that comes easy for you? And what has been more difficult, and how have you managed that?
Vitaly: My background and somewhat foreground is user experience and user acquisition. So, those things come relatively easily to me as my expertise. So, the product has a certain chrome to it and looks a little more polished than such an early stage product would look typically especially at this complexity.
The other thing is that I’ve been on all three sides of this business. I’ve been on the software side, running a pretty large enterprise product. I’ve been on the actual print side, running a printing company for a number of years. And I’ve also been on the print client side as an owner of a design firm. So, it gives me a certain perspective that allows me to actually create a right balance in there, where some of these companies that are in the space it’s being designed by engineers for this idealistic printing company that doesn’t exist. So, those are the positives.
The learning came from, you know, this is a very large scale product, it’s a bigger product than, let’s say, a Word Press. It’s an order of magnitude bigger code based than like Drupal. So, it’s already a large product. And managing development of that scale is something relatively new to me because I had to serve as the CTO as well, building this out initially. Now, we’ve had somebody join us, but that’s been a learning experience of how to properly manage something of that scale.
Matthew: What kind of qualities were you looking for, and what talents were you trying to find in a business partner?
Vitaly: This project grew out of my design firm, so we had a little bit of infrastructure there to actually kick it off. I’ve surrounded the company with a number of advisors in different areas. In engineering, we have some very high end folks. In the industry itself, we have some high end folks. And kind of surround and create a moat around the company to look at different sides of this puzzle and be able to solve that. And I specifically went and thought out specific areas that I want to cover with advisory roles.
With my co-founder that came in a little bit later into the company, we’ve known each other a long time and the contribution there is really a specialty in this industry. As much experience as I have in the printing industry, my co-founder has been in it the entire career and very deep on the business development side. So, those relationships are going to become very key a little bit down the road as we start growing and scaling.
Matthew: Do you have any advice you’d like to share with our audience about launching a startup? What do you think are the key elements?
Vitaly: Key element, I would say to me is domain expertise. So, you can be the best programmer in the world, you can be a very good converting marketer or a good designer, but the point is if you don’t know your audience, you don’t know what they want and you don’t know what you want to give them. It’s really kind of a garage band syndrome. You’re not going to create any value by kind of playing around with things. You have to find a difficult problem to solve, and you have to do your best to find the solution for it.
And sometimes it’s non-intuitive or counterintuitive, but you have to dig deep and see what motivates people and really figure out the audience.
Matthew: And so, before I close, I’d like you to give our audience your vision of Keen and how you hope it’ll change the world.
Vitaly: We do have a very altruistic aspect here because, like I mentioned, a lot of these are family businesses. These are businesses that go generation to generation, and in today’s world a lot of them are having trouble keeping up and we’re hoping to give them the technology to kind of democratize the industry back to where the quality of product and the quality of service and those special relationships can again make them stand out and give them access. Without being online, they’re losing out to customers, and these businesses are suffering a lot. So we’re looking to help these businesses. Eighty percent of businesses is made up by these type of businesses.
Matthew: So, Vitaly, thank you for sharing your story. We’re rooting for your success. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more about KeenPrint, you can visit them at www.keenprint.com. Vitaly also has a blog called rethinkprint.biz, where he talks about issues in the print space. So again, Vitaly, thank you for being here. This is Matthew Wise with FounderLY.