On December 7, 2018, Trufan celebrated its one-year anniversary. For those of you that aren’t familiar with what we do, we are a tech company that has developed several sophisticated algorithms to help some of the world’s biggest brands and influencers identify and reward their top fans. We’ve raised over $1M to date from several NBA players, media executives and venture firms. We’re a different type of startup though. In the glamorized world of entrepreneurship where it’s easy to project an image that everything is good, we believe in quite the opposite: scars and wounds aren’t meant to be hidden. They’re meant to be shown. This year in review is our way of doing that.
I initially planned to write this year in review before the end of 2018 but so much came up in December that I couldn’t find the time to (at least that’s what I would like to think). The truth is a mix between that and the fact that I couldn’t come up with a way to take everything I learnt from Trufan’s first year and put it into an article. That being said, I’m now a flight to Hawaii writing this, hoping that I can provide some value to those of you that are reading this regardless of whether you’re a startup founder, investor or just a career oriented professional.
Trufan began as an idea on December 11, 2017. I came up with the idea during my time building Dunk, a media company started by my New York roommate and best friend Eliot Robinson. Our media network had over 11M followers on social across all channels but we had a hard time pinpointing who were the people that absolutely loved our content and who were the influential people that followed us (we’d see some who commented on our posts but didn’t understand the full spectrum). That wasn’t the tipping point for me to say “hey let’s build this new platform.” The tipping point came when Mark Zablow (CEO, Cogent Marketing and a current advisor in Trufan) messaged Eliot asking him if he had a tool that could help NBA All Star guard Chris Paul find his most engaged fans in Houston. I started to see the potential for a platform that could analyze any social account and show the user their most engaged and influential fans that could be segmented across several parameters. That was the first iteration of Trufan.
I was 20 years old, not in college (looking for a big win), and within two weeks of having the idea, I had developed a core team of four. I first called Tim Will Hyde (our CMO) in an Uber to the airport. He was and is someone I regard as a social ninja, understanding how to utilize performance marketing to effectively bring attention to cool products and services.
A few days later, I was messaged by a guy named Scott Berty (our Head of Sales) who was telling me that he would make Trufan his life’s work. I loved that spirit. I didn’t really know Scott when I decided to call him while walking in downtown Toronto but after the call, my heart was set on bringing him on board (bringing him on board has been one of the best decisions I made in the last few years).
I finally called Aanikh (our COO and co-founder). I had first met Aanikh when I was 17 and he was 16. We both won Canada’s Top 20 under 20 award and were roommates at the week long event. Aanikh, at the age of 15, had built an app that reached #2 on the Canadian App Store and from my eyes was one of the most brilliant yet humble entrepreneurs I had met. We had joked about starting a company together several times and I knew that for Trufan I needed someone that could understand the technical side of building the platform and most importantly, have my back no matter what. None of the calls I made were traditional or formal but was the basis for what would become a family.
Our family is now 9 people and includes our CFO Trevor, our CTO Colin, our social media manager Zach and our sales interns Luca and Rahim. I love them all and they all bring something really special to the company.
The first team call we had (January 3, 2018) was one for the memory books. We all got onto a Google Hangouts call and introduced ourselves like it was the first day of school (so awkward). That being said, I could feel some amazing energy on that call. We all respected each other’s talents and we all understood what we were building and the tangible impact it could have on mad/loving/passionate fans worldwide. I still stand by the thought that everyone on our initial team of five could be CEO. They’re all insanely passionate about this company and are incredibly mature.
The journey of growing Trufan though was nowhere close to being smooth or perfect. To put it very simply, we goofed up on multiple occasions and had to overcome some big obstacles in the first few months. These hurdles though have taught me and our team so much. I literally tell people last year I went to Trufan University because of everything I’ve learnt within product, legal, finance, sales, and marketing. Here are some of the obstacles we faced and what we learnt from getting over them.
One of the biggest challenges that we faced as a team early on was geography. I was flying between New York and Toronto, Scott was in Ottawa, Tim in Manchester, Aanikh wrapping up his second year at Stanford University in Palo Alto and Trevor was in Salt Lake, Utah. From the very beginning, many people (some whom I’m still close with), told us that without a central team our startup would be doomed to a life of communication issues. I won’t lie, our team has had communication issues but from the very beginning, every single person on our team put in the extra mile for each other (being very accommodating to each other’s schedule) that trust and love was built despite being across countries and oceans. What we learnt from this experience was the importance of instilling a company culture where any team member feels confident in dealing with problems head-on and having an open dialogue around it, instead letting it fester in their mind. It helped that every single member of our team had a heart. If you can make your team up of people that have an internal drive to succeed but also focus on being empathetic and considerate in moments of adversity, you will have a much easier time getting over challenges (especially internal issues).
It’s incredible to think but I had never met Tim or Trevor until eight months after we started working together. We had a company retreat in Vancouver after we raised our second pre-seed, and it was amazing to see our remote team come together into one place. We’re now trying to centralize the team — Scott has moved to be in the same city as Aanikh and I and Tim/Trevor are planning to travel to where we are more frequently.
Think about it. I decided to start a social media analytics platform in December 2017. Literally three months later, Cambridge Analytica happens and outrage over data sharing and privacy ensues. Facebook (and by virtue, Instagram) scales back their API instantaneously. All social media platforms go into a privacy frenzy. You literally could not have made a worse start for us (I laugh about it now). At Trufan though, we were confident we could get through any problems associated to Cambridge Analytica. We knew our platform was clean — we didn’t store any data and our algorithm requested data that was 70% less than the limit most platforms set (because we were only analyzing a subset of your following).
Cambridge Analytica taught us two core things though: one, focus on things you can control. As much as it was frustrating the situation happened, there was really nothing we at Trufan could do about it. Instead of sweating about something we couldn’t control, we focused all our energy into things we could control (i.e. platforms that weren’t scaling their API back, customers that wanted the data we were displaying). Second, don’t be reliant on third party APIs. We got this advice in November 2018 from Alex Taub, CEO of SocialRank. It’s possible to build a really great company off the back of another platform (see Buffer, Hootsuite, etc). That being said, situations like Cambridge Analytica can happen anytime, and in the same way that you want to create a big enough castle to keep competitors away, you also want to fortify it well so random world events don’t cause it to crumble. Cambridge Analytica was a blessing in disguise for us because it taught us this lesson and caused us to think bigger (not to mention it also wiped out pretty much any competitor we had). We’re excited to be diversifying where we get our data from in 2019. It won’t just be from social media outlets like YouTube and Twitter. We are going to get data from website traffic (ex. HotJar, MixPanel) and CRMs (ex. Salesforce, HubSpot).
Our initial launch for the platform was going to be May 15, 2018. We weren’t able to hit that so we moved that date to June 15, 2018 (printing several shirts in Drake’s “Scorpion” theme).
We couldn’t hit that date so we moved the launch date to September 1, 2018. We couldn’t hit that either and finally moved to November 2018. On October 23, I got a first look at the product with Twitter integrated. I honestly felt like crying. It was a long time coming (imagine having a dream for eight months again and again and again and not seeing it come to fruition for so long). On October 24, Twitter approved our developer account and gave us the highest level of permission to their API (we were thrilled to say the least). On November 1, we started sending out new data lists to our top shortlisted clients (around 70 of them). We wanted to get them excited again for the beta that would come out in a few weeks. Yet on November 8, seven days before our beta launch, a key feature within our platform (ability for users to send messages to their top fans) stopped working. On November 15, after several sleepless nights, our beta launched.
Our initial product delay happened due to a development mishap. The developer we had been working with for several months had been working on making Trufan a mobile application. We were one of the first 100 companies accepted to Apple’s pre-download program and were moving full speed towards getting an app out by May 2018.
At the start of April, a month before our intended launch date, the developer we were working with decided he couldn’t build what we had outlined. We were scrambling all over the place to find a new developer. We did and thought everything would be fine but it wasn’t. We could have got something out for May 15 but it would have been crappy. All the API integrations wouldn’t have been made and the platform’s look would feel incomplete. We decided against launching then for that reason, and also against launching in June and September.
It was frustrating. We had over 250 brands and over 400 brands signed up for early beta. Over 700 people signed up on our website for early access. The biggest lesson from this: don’t promise a date to customers unless you’re 99.9999% sure your platform is in a good position to launch. We were lucky to have customers that were sympathetic to our situation and were still excited when we started beta in November. Just like Cambridge Analytica was a blessing in disguise for us, these product delays were as well. Being so delayed gave us an opportunity to get to know our customers really well — I mean what else were we going to do while we were waiting! We know exactly who our customers are, what they generally want, what they are willing to pay, and what their other options are. Our goal isn’t to convert every social media team or influencer to become Trufan users. Like Brian Chesky (CEO, Airbnb) says “all you need is 100 people to deeply love your product.” It sounds easy but it isn’t. There’s a big difference between getting someone to like your product and really love it (to the point of not being able to do their job properly without it). That’s what our goal in 2019 from a sales perspective is. Get 100 people to deeply love our product. We know once that happens, the network effect that can come from it is unmeasurable not only from a sales side but from a product side too (lots of great feedback).
December 2018 was a turning point for the company. We started developing an extreme focus on product. If you ask one of our team members right now what they think the most important thing for them is: they’ll say product. Even me, whose background is mainly in marketing and sales. I’m now in the middle of all development conversations. I’m nowhere close to learning how to code but I’ve made it a goal to learn how to converse properly with developers (speak their language). There’s really nothing more important than that and we’re aggressively hiring to make it the best it can be. Right now we’re a fan engagement platform. Our goal by the end of 2019 is to incorporate predictive analysis and machine learning into our algorithms so we become an AI powered fan engagement and discovery platform. What’s a “discovery platform”? Stay tuned :)
If you’ve followed our journey since the start, you would know that our initial company name was not Trufan. It was SuperFan. We kept that name for three months before getting a cease and desist letter. I actually didn’t see the letter in the mail until 21 days after (probably irresponsible on my part). That being said, we were told by another company (not going to name them for their privacy) that we were breaching their trademark SuperFan. We were shocked.
We thought we did our due diligence but turns out simply doing a trademark search in Delaware is not enough. There’s a lot more states in the United States than Delaware (sadly) and if your customer base is across the continent, you’re going to need to expand that search. We were also reached out to by another company called SuperFan that got hit with the same cease and desist letter a few months ago. We knew we couldn’t use the name (despite having already printed out stickers/shirts with that name) and that fighting the case was going to cost a lot of money (something we didn’t have a lot of at the time).
We immediately started coming up with other names. We considered other names like Spike, Komodo, Cerebro and Stan. Funny story: I brought Stan to the team (after reading a Wikipedia article on “fan culture). I was oblivious to the Eminem song “Stan” and the rather unfortunate events that were discussed in that track. Needless to say, that idea was shot down quickly by my team.
A few weeks into thinking of a name, my mother suggested the name Trufan. I was hesitant at first (which 20 year old kid listens to their mother) but when I told the team about it, they loved the ring of it. We were also nearing the deadline the other party gave us so we decided to give it a shot. Right now, I’m so happy with the name and the brand we created. It perfectly summarizes what we do.
The end of the trademark situation came a week after we chose Trufan as a name. We agreed to give up the name and we never heard from that party ever again. For all we know, they might be out of business. We sure aren’t going back to SuperFan though.
I remember talking to my friend Saad Siddiqui (CEO, Bonsai) a few months ago about hiring. He told me that his company Bonsai has probably seen anywhere between 85–95 people come and go. That sort of turnover I found was more common in tech startups than I thought. Failed hires are going to happen no matter who you are. We made a few and it wasn’t even that we hired bad people. We just hired people that did not fit the position we gave or the commitment we expected from them. I learnt a few things about hiring:
1. Be transparent about your expectations and when things go wrong bring it up ASAP.
2. Hire people who can disagree with you and will make the company their life’s work — in other words, hire more Scott’s.
3. Hiring requires an eye for talent but more importantly, patience. Don’t rush the hiring process.
People often ask me, “Swish what are you looking for in your employees?” To that, I have a straightforward response: I’m looking for people who are aligned with our values. They realize that every opportunity is a moment to do something slightly better and beyond that, they share our goal: to help marketing managers do their job better.
Note: if you want to see great company culture, message Brian Scudamore and ask him to send you a video of O2E Brands’ morning ritual (everyday from 10:55 to 11:02). It’s amazing and taught me what company culture really looks like.
As the CEO of Trufan, I’ve learnt that my job really comes down to four things: set a clear vision, hire and manage great people, oversee product development, and fundraise. Out of these four tasks, I would argue that the hardest is fundraising.
I came into Trufan’s fundraising process feeling great. I had spent the last few years networking with some industry leaders, high net worth athletes and celebrities, and seasoned investors. I knew that I could start some conversations and get some good feedback. What I didn’t expect was two things: one, to get so many “this is interesting but it’s not really something I want to fund” and to have the fundraising period take so long. To the first, I really thought Trufan was a product that was easy to raise money for. We had a clear value proposition, we had a solid team, and we had a sizeable list of interested beta testers. We had also already got a great person (Karen O’Brien, former VP of Marketing for Western Union) to put in a small cheque in the company. In our mind, we were the perfect opportunity. In order to be a million-dollar company, we just need 170 customers to each pay at least $500 for the platform. What I realized is most investors, especially VCs, tend to invest in ideas they think will reach a billion-dollar valuation quickly. They invest in areas that are incredibly disruptive and rapidly changing (ex. Quantum computing, blockchain, AI, etc). My co-founder Aanikh always says, most VCs are more likely to invest in a company that has a 25% chance of becoming a unicorn than a company that has a 75% chance of being a $100M company. That was a hard bullet to swallow especially since we knew we were tackling a billion-dollar market but up until recently, we had no idea what our billion-dollar vision was. To the second realization, we thought it’d take us two weeks to raise $500,000. It took us over three months. Part of the reason why could be because we raised during the summer (it’s hard to get a hold of people during that time), but we also came into the fundraising process not well prepared from a materials standpoint. We didn’t have any financial projections done, and before the process started, we didn’t even have a deck done. I was relying solely on a one pager I had drafted and my good looks (note: opinion up for debate).
We’ve now done three pre-seed rounds ($25,000, $500,000 and $500,000). The process gets easier but raising that first big round is always tough. Here are some tips:
- Make money from day one: this was a belief one of our advisors Michael Hyatt (former Chairman, BlueCat Networks) gave to us early on. He once texted me “revenue is king. Nothing else matters”. While the product was being developed, we looked at as many ways to make money from day one. We did some consulting work for brands (ex. FirstMedia). We ran a merchandise service for influencers while also providing our own merchandise and sponsoring events like the NBA Summer League. What was the most effective for not only sales but business development, was our data reports. The algorithm we had constructed was active months before the beta came out. We could churn data and put a user’s most engaged and influential fans into a CSV file that they could then upload to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to run retargeting campaigns. One of our successful case studies here was Western Union. We signed a lucrative $25,000 deal with them to provide them advice on LinkedIn and data reports for three months. Our first paying client for Trufan’s platform (not data reports) only came around on December 4 (we love you VanillaSoft).
2. Find your lead investor early and note that they don’t have to be in tech. So much investing comes down to how a potential investor assesses risk. If you already have a lead investor on board, it can help other investors feel confident in your project.
3. Most decks suck (like they’re 2005 PowerPoint level bad). Spend some extra money and time and make yours good. If you need someone great, feel free to reach out to one of our investors Jake Ratner (@ratnercreative). He’s designed several decks including ours and is super easy to work with.
4. Set a deadline and stick by it. We didn’t do this and I really wish we did. When investors asked us “oh right now I’m busy, when is the round open till”, we rarely ever replied with a firm deadline. When you think of your fundraising process, create three goals: a number you need to hit to keep a healthy runway (how many months your company will stay alive for), a number you would like to hit, and a number that’s in your dreams. Make sure to provide deadlines to each — the closest deadline for the number you need to hit to stay afloat. Tell your investors that so they feel like they need to get a move on and pay attention to the deal.
5. Put some money in yourself (if you can), it goes a long way. Putting money into your company shows investors that you have skin in the game. That’s what Aanikh and I did and beyond that our CFO Trevor is also an investor in the company.
6. Be tenacious and persistent. Follow up, provide value to people you want to get on board, and be resilient when you hear no’s. See every no as an opportunity to get feedback. If you want someone to give feedback, be shameless and ask them for help. I have found that most people don’t grow personally because they don’t ask for help. I do (sometimes too much) and it’s helped me learn things a lot faster.
7. Don’t think that you have to raise from one or two people. In our second pre-seed round, we brought on 14 angel investors. Some might say that’s too many and that it clutters your cap table but I beg to differ. When you’re doing an angel round, it doesn’t matter how many people you bring on as long as you think that each person can strategically help the business beyond money (ex. Advice, expertise, connections, partnerships, etc). Also, the benefit of having more people on your cap table is when you go to raise again, you’ll have more people and their network to tap into for additional funds.
8. Stay lean: on December 4, on a flight to Santiago, Chile, I read Reid Hoffman’s Blitzscaling, a book that Reid believed served as the blueprint for a billion-dollar company. The book was really insightful. It motivated me to commit fully to Trufan (giving more time to it than ever before) and to stay lean. Reid in the book noticed that many startups run out of money because after raising a round their founders and key employees take high salaries in a hope that they’ll be able to raise another round quickly. We didn’t want to operate that way especially when we weren’t generating as much in revenue. Our investors love us for that mentality.
Note: If you’re currently fundraising, search up Startup North’s “One Post to Rule Them All” on Google. It’s a great article online summarizing some major investors in Canada (both angel and institutional).
2019 & The Future
As we look into the future, there’s nothing but excitement on the horizon. Right now we are in Vancouver. For the last few months we’ve been working out of Hootsuite thanks to the League of Innovators program (national charity started by Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes). We’re super thankful for the space especially because it was innately inspiring to see how a small idea can turn into something so big in the social media space. In a few weeks we’ll be moving our entire team to Toronto. Our product team is out there, we raised more money from there (from Round 13 Capital) and our customer base is primarily in Toronto and New York.
Beyond that, from a product end, we closed off 2018 with a bang. We redesigned the platform, and added four new features: an integration with YouTube, sentiment analysis (customers can see which fans have had a positive, negative or neutral experience with them), filters and a new category of fans called trending fans. We’ve become the first platform to run YouTube audience analytics and one of the only platforms in the world to have a sentiment analysis engine that can effectively analyze emojis. We’re also ramping up our progress from a sales end. We’ve already locked in two key partnerships with Juice Labs (digital consulting agency based out of NYC) and Showroom (merchandise concierge for influencers). We’ll be pursuing more partnerships with companies that can help our customers build their brand and provide their customers a better experience.
We started this idea with an idea that influencers and brands could see who their top fans were and provide them with cool stuff. We’ve now seen the full scope for Trufan: an effective and affordable alternative to paid advertising and influencer marketing that can help any brand or influencer reward their top fans and identify new customers that have similar characteristics to their top fans. That’s the challenge we have set for ourselves this year.
From myself and the entire Trufan team, thank you, our community of supporters, for all the love you have shown as a team and Trufan as a product. I hope that this article can help you go right where we went wrong or at the very least, inspire you to think about entrepreneurship in a different way. Starting a company from scratch is not a pretty operation like the media portrays it to be. It’s raw, scrappy and really messy. As a founder or early employee, you’re going to feel an enormous amount of stress and anxiety early on. If you’re reading this and feeling that right now, take solace in the fact that you’re only feeling that way because you really believe in what you’re building and are invested in it.
At the end of the day, Reid Hoffman summarized entrepreneurship the best: “it’s jumping off a cliff and assembling the glider on the way down.”
If you can live with a constant feeling of chaos, entrepreneurship might be for you because entrepreneurs will always see beauty in chaos.