This is a continuation of Monday’s episode where we interview two more startup teams that just completed a two week program at NYU where their goal was to talk to as many people as possible to validate their business idea.
We asked the founders to leave their drinks a the bar, and join us outside in 30 degree weather to tell us what they learned in the program, and what they plan to do differently now that they’re more informed.
The first founders are Mir Hwang and Ryan Kim of GigFinesse. Mir discusses how his early execution helped him recruit Rich as a technical co-founder, who just quit his engineering job at Google to join the project as CTO. Even though they entered the program with hundreds of gigs booked, they approached every customer conversation with an open mind, and this ability to challenge their own assumptions is changing the way they plan to build their software.
Up next was Syreeta Gates and Airis Johnson of Yo Stay Hungry. They’ve been working on their event company for four years without making any money, and decided to use this two week sprint at NYU as a way to see if they can figure out a revenue model for their already popular event series.
They discuss how they were able to schedule over 35 interviews with advertising agencies over one weekend, and the large revenue opportunity they’ve identified through sponsors hungry to get in front of the hundreds of people that attend each of their events.
1:00 Vadim and I walk through Washington Square Park on the way to the happy hour at the Half Pint bar near NYU, where we will be interviewing teams who have just completed a 2 week Sprint to validate their business concepts.
3:30 We are here with the founders of Gigfinesse, Mir Hwang and Ryan Kim. We’re standing outside the bar where you just came up to the bartender to quickly pitch him on your business, still hustling. Tell us briefly about what Gigfinesse does.
4:05 I (Mir) have been a long time live musician and I realized how archaic and slow the booking process is between venues and artists. For artists, there are a lot of talented artists who can’t market themselves and they don’t want to go through promoters who take a big cut of their paycheck.
4:44 For venues, they don’t have a system that collects data and lets them book reliable, quality musicians. So I wanted to create a web platform to streamline the booking platform for these artists. We’ve been working on this the last 5 months.
5:11 Sergei: that’s right, Ryan just quit his lucrative engineering job at Google to join you full time. So you must be good at recruiting since you convinced him to do this.
5:30 Ryan, you quit your job to pursue this, what gives you the confidence that this will work?
5:40 Ryan: Mir and I are cousins and although we haven’t worked on a business together, I know Mir has worked on other businesses, and I know he’s a hard worker, and he’s a good salesperson. He took me to the venues and showed me that the problem really does exist and I think we can solve it.
6:17 Sergei: the confidence that these cofounders have in each other was only possible because they have observed how the other works and they trust each other.
6:45 Tell us what happened in the last 2 weeks because you guys were able to have 67 customer interviews in just the last 2 weeks with bar owners, DJs etc., tell us how you got so many interviews and what you learned from them.
7:10 Mir: Creatives are tight knit and want to help each other out. Because I’m also a musician I was approaching them as one of their own, not a guy trying to build software for them. I was also able to get introductions from people I was interviewing to others.
8:15 For bar venues we knew to be inquisitive about their processes but also not to approach them on busy nights.
9:00 Vadim: How did you guys get these meetings, through cold outreach or walk-ins?
9:07 Mir: It varies. With artists it was some cold calling and a lot of introductions from people. Once we proved our concept to a few venues they were open to introducing us to other venues.
9:30 I also haven’t been afraid to email people. I know that if I send 100 emails, at least 5-10 will reply. I sent at least 60 emails in the last few weeks alone across different types of venues like art galleries, bars, hotels etc.
10:00 Sergei: Before this you also had the experience of doing 250 manual bookings as well without software, so you could really relate to the issues bar owners and musicians were facing.
10:20 Mir: It definitely made it much easier to approach them but I didn’t want to go in there acting like I already know all of their problems. I needed to show that I cared about their individual/unique problems.
10:40 Vadim: It’s critical to show empathy to the prospect you’re trying to eventually sell to. It’s more important to understand their pain than to just start prescribing a solution.
11:05 Sergei: any parting words for a new entrepreneur who is interested in starting a multi-sided marketplace like what you are doing?
11:36 Mir: a big advantage is that Ryan and I are really passionate about this so it doesn’t feel like work all the time. Before you get into a business seriously I think you should care about the problem and the customer.
11:50 A lot of people are afraid of rejection, but if you don’t reach out and if you can’t start conversations, those are all doors that you are choosing to close yourself. I always at least try.
12:20 Vadim: If you had to choose one major value that you got from this experience in the last two weeks that is informing your strategy moving forward, what would it be?
12:33 Mir: the best takeaway we both got is to keep an open mind. We came in thinking we had a clear direction for the next few years, but we realized that continuous customer conversations are important, and helps us figure out the customer segment that needs our help the most right now. We need to find our core fans first who will then spread it to others.
13:50 Sergei: We’re back now with the founders of Yo Stay Hungry, Syreeta Gates and Airis Johnson. You started this event series about 4 years ago and now are ready to turn it into a real business. Tell us about what you’ve been doing the last 4 years and how you’ll turn it into a business now.
14:04 Syreeta: A few years ago I Googled “Hip Hop and food” and just a few articles came out, and I thought it would be cool to partner youth with coach chefs and cook based on food in hip hop lyrics.
14:30 We did 4 events just in 2018, Philly, DC, Newark, a middle school one and an annual Biggie Day. Now that we’re at the NYU Leslie eLab, we’re thinking about it more as a business. We’ve mapped out a business model canvas, and started to understand the financial side better.
15:00 Sergei: You have up to 300 people come to these events and you’re trying to learn why they come. Over the last two weeks you were able to schedule a lot of interviews with businesses, marketing agencies. 36 just over the last weekend. How did you get so many businesses to talk to you over a weekend?
15:30 Syreeta: This was all through referrals. I have 5-10 friends who work in ad agencies. Account Directors, Copy Writers, Creative Directors. And I just asked them for a big favor to introduce me to as many account managers as they could. I sent them a text – shout out to “staying ready so you don’t have to get ready.” Said I just need 10-15 minutes of your time over the phone.
16:15 I was ready so that if a friend was ready to make an intro I had the information ready for them to forward immediately. Made it really easy for them.
16:28 Sergei: So you’re now talking to ad agencies because you want to get sponsors for these events. Sponsors look for what you call “activations.” What did you learn in the last few weeks and how much money do you think you can make from the sponsors?
16:39 Syreeta: I think the sponsor dollars are limitless because brands have been doing this type of work for years. It’s about us being intentional about the value we can bring to them.
17:06 Sergei: How do you communicate the value to brands about what you’re doing?
17:10 Syreeta: First off the benefit of us doing this for the last 4 years is we have a ton of content and we can show you even better than we can tell you. Also, some other agency account managers and brand managers have already been to our events so they can vouch for us.
18:00 Vadim: are you getting help with this?
18:10 Airis: we have a whole video crew who we have to pay. It’s one of our highest ticket items. It can cost up to a few thousand dollars to host each event.
19:40 Sergei: This question is for Airis. You had a bunch of conversations with agencies and brand managers. Tell us how much you think brands will be willing to spend with you per event.
20:15 Airis: We came up with a deck where we made up the numbers to see what worked. Say for $125,000 you can sponsor up to 10 competitions, or $25,000 per competition and up to $50,000 depending on what they want in the sponsorship.
20:33 Now we realize that we could probably get even more money. Low hundreds per brand engagement.
20:50 Sergei: We always push people to ask for more than they think they can get. You can always dial back, but you don’t want to sell with your own wallet, so to speak.
21:05 Syreeta: We can go after many different companies. Service companies, music, food, even kitchen supply companies.
21:27 Sergei: You’ve even done events at schools so you have a baked in audience.
21:40 This type of business requires an ability attract a lot of talent, even volunteers. What’s your philosophy on attracting talent?
21:45 Syreeta: One of the things we value is #teamus. We have a team of 4. We get people to volunteer by first of all making the ask. “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” If we don’t ask, people won’t know how they can support us.
22:33 Airis: Another big component we thrive off of is gratitude. We have to say thank you.
22:49 Syreeta: Even knowing people’s love languages. I know it’s important to know how people want to feel appreciated in their way.
23:08 Vadim: But why do people say yes and give you their time for free? What’s the benefit they get?23:13 Syreeta: We do a good job of selling the vision. We make them feel like an important part of it and we always remind them that their contribution matters. Everybody is a VIP.