Launched last year, the first Fetchnotes apps helped over 80,000 people keep track of notes and to do lists by organizing them with hashtags (rather than the typical bloated and complex tools otherwise available). Over the course of 2013, we noticed some really interesting trends around productivity and communication (details in the links). We felt like no one in this space was building tools that worked for people individually as well as they worked for people together. Products tend to be either “anti-social” (as Evernote calls themselves) or start with social and work backwards (most collaboration products, or even worse email). A group of 6 19-22 year-olds who graduated from Techstars (Boston Fall ’12) rather than college, we decided to build it ourselves.
Mike: Alex, lets start by talking about the new product. How is the new Fetchnotes different than the previous version… or other note taking apps that are available today? What are these trends you’re addressing that others are not?
Alex: Sure thing. Fetchnotes was always about keeping track of what you need to do and want to remember, and doing it in a way that molded to the way your brain works. That’s where the hashtags came in — you organize while you type (no extra steps), and a system emerges naturally rather than us imposing one on you.
We started putting out light social features, adopting another common social network convention — the @-mention. We found that the people who became most active on Fetchnotes were sharing with other users, and that it was one of the single biggest predictors (10x increase in retention) of building the initial habit. It was uninintuitive, though, and it was always an after-thought in the product.
The biggest trend we noticed was in the communication space. There has been this huge boom of messaging apps (WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and even things like Snapchat) that have gotten 100’s of millions of users very quickly. They’ve completely revolutionized the way people communicate about, “What’s happening right now?” and it’s pretty rare that people use email for that anymore.
What does that leave? Communication with a sense of permanenece, or action, associated with it. “Hey, can you please do this for me?” “You’d like this article.” “Dude, you’ve got to check out this band.” Things that require more from you than, “Read and respond to this text.”
At the same time, we took a look at what’s out there and realized that there’s pretty much nothing that helps people stay organized individually as well as it does with other people. Most products attack that “others-first” (collaboration tools like Trello, or in the most common case email), but we believe the way to help people collaborate most effectively is by building around the individual use case but facilitating the social one seamlessly. Our first product did the former, but not the latter.
Mike: You left school early to join the Techstars Boston program last year, one of the most prestigious startup accelerators in the world. Was that a difficult decision to make?
Alex: We actually decided we were leaving school before we were accepted into Techstars. We launched our first apps right before finals week during my junior year, and within the first weekend we had something like 10,000 downloads. We had been having conversations with some investors, partners, etc. the preceding couple months, but when that launch happened everything just seemed to accelerate. We knew we had a huge opportunity because of that momentum, which was going to be hard to replicate. We tried to pretend that we could take advantage of it and stay in school, but it eventually took someone who was advising us at the time to say, “You guys first need to make the call to either stop out of school and go all-in, or else put this on ice until you are done at UM.” There was no way we were putting Fetchnotes on ice, and we took the leap not really knowing where the chips were going to fall.
Mike: How do you qualify for Techstars and what has that done for you and for Fetchnotes?
Alex: Techstars doesn’t really have an explicit set of criteria, but the two things that I believe helped us get in were 1) early traction with strong engagement and 2) validation from many people in the network. We had about 15,000 users, I believe, when we were accepted, but they were highly engaged. Additionally, I had made a lot of connections with people in the Techstars community before applying — I interviewed Brad Feld for my first startup job (Benzinga), I met Jason Mendelson at Michigan, and I had connected with a number of mentors/alums through randomly asking them for advice about one thing or another in the preceding year. They vouched for me and more importantly my hustle.
As far as what it’s done for me, quite frankly it changed the trajector of our business. We were a cool niche app entering Techstars, run by a handful of students who didn’t know what they were doing. We emerged a company with a team and a vision. The mentorship model challenged pretty much every assumption our business was built on and put every relationship on the team under duress. But, we are a stronger company because of it.
I have the utmost respect for the program, and particularly the people who run it in Boston (Katie Rae, Reed Sturtevant, Jay Batson, Bob Mason and Rohit Gupta).
Mike: Tell me about raising your first angel round. Can you describe the process as well as the results?
Alex: Well, we had started trying to raise money while we were students, so we had been making relationships with people for a few months before we decided to leave school. Once we decided to make the leap, we let those people know, and asked, “Who should we be talking to?”
Some of those people ended up becoming our investors, others long-term mentors, and others petered out. Our first commitment that ended up investing was Tim Howes, the co-founder of Rockmelt and Opsware. I met him many months prior when he gave a talk at Michigan, and occasionally asked his advice on a number of things. When I emailed him to ask who we should be talking to, he gave me some names and added, “- Me. :-) I like you guys and what you’ve done, and I’d be happy to put a little money to work with you.”
The first part of the round was generally a process of telling a lot of our existing mentors we were raising and asking for advice, and them offering to put in money. After we graduated Techstars and raised the rest of that round, it was a little different. Beta Fund came in because Dan Von Kohorn, one of the principal’s, had practically built Fetchnotes for himself — he had personally experienced the value of what we were building. Others came in with the validation of Techstars after Demo Day, but in almost every case it was a relationship that had been nurtured for awhile. The more I experience fundraising, the more I learn people fund you for only one of three reasons:
1) You have an already-established relationship that causes them to believe in you.
2) They have personal experience with the problem you’re solving.
3) You have absolutely massive traction that makes pre-conceived notions of you or the space irrelevant.
Mike: What are the next steps for Fetchnotes? What’s your ultimate future vision?
Alex: The big next steps are around making your data more actionable, not just better organized. We’re doing some of that right now with things like books, where if you write down the name of a book you want to read we show you where you can find it right now on Amazon. We want to be doing that across all categories. We aim to be proactive and predictive about how we can help you take the next step, whatever it is, rather than just being a repository for your ideas and reminders.
Mike: As a young entrepreneur, do you have any advice for others with passion and ideas?
Alex: For entrepreneurs in particular, almost all big ideas are small at the beginning. Find things that interest you and explore them, then iterate until you find something that solves someone’s problem. Don’t be afraid to spend your time on projects that aren’t “billion dollar ideas” — those opportunities are more likely to become apparent while working on something related than happening exogenously.
For young people, optimize for people. You can really only optimize for one thing when deciding between options, and I believe if that thing is the people you work with, every experience will be worthwhile even if the particular role isn’t. One of the benefits of starting a company is that it’s one of the only ways you get to choose who your co-workers are.
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