Earlier this month Ahmed sat down with Shauna Armitage to discuss building the right team, selling "the dream" during fund raising and the difference between building better and building different. Check out the episode below.
Thanks for having us Shauna!
Here are some snippets from this episode:
What did the first version [of Narrator] look like and how were you sharing your vision to get funded?
The product didn't work until about three years in. Let's talk about those wonderful first three years. How did I raise money?
So, I couldn't explain Narrator.
I was like "we're going to take all the data, we're going standardize it into a single thing we call a universal data model... so we need to invent a universal data model that can represent all of data for all industries....and it's going to be a single table. And then once I've standardized all of data, I am going to use this magical table to answer any question in the world". And I got laughed out of a few rooms.
The biggest thing I sold actually when I was trying to raise money was that I understood the problem really well and I had the skill set to figure out the solution. So I sold myself.
I went to friends who were investors and said "Hey I have this problem that I want to solve. You know me, you knew me from Wework, you've seen the impact I had on the company."
Luckily I had almost every executive at Wework willing to be my reference and preach my story. So I said "there's a lot of people who believe in my. I need you to believe in me while I solve this problem".
That's how I raised my first round.
I was actually consulting at the beginning.
I would say, "Don't worry about the product yet, what you're getting is me. I will be your data person for you for super cheap as I figure out this problem, as long as you let me answer questions using this unique way." So I had this idea of how this universal data model could work, and I would work on it and it would take me forever to answer a question. It was hard. I hired some people and we built a little UI around it. It was still really hard.
But people were excited by the idea, so we raised another round. Then it was year and a half of nothing, no customers, nobody would use it, our product sucked, we nearly ran out of money. It still didn't work and it was still very complicated... and I was selling simplicity.
That's when we went into Y Combinator.
I had four YC interviews because nobody understood Narrator. But they wanted to know how these people with 15 years of experience were joining me. My previous boss's boss, the VP of Engineering at Wework, joined us. I had such a really fancy team. Everyone was like "we don't know what you are doing, we don't get it, you should change it... but you have a good team so we'll do it."
The whole theme right now is that in the beginning your team is critical. You and your team and the story you tell about yourselves is going to be what makes your story stick out. Because your product and your idea are still being formed.
What were the strategies that you found to work for customer acquisition and to start to scale?
Initially, we sold consultants. We didn't try to change peoples minds. We sold to them that we can use our tool to answer questions faster for you.
That helped us get initial funding. Then we decided to go down to zero consultants and said let's go build our product.
When you are building a product it's really hard because you are competing against companies that have way better tools, while you're trying to change culture. We're a weird case because we are so different. We have to change the way you think about data and we go up against hundreds tools.
It's not like we are able to say "we're better than dbt". No, we're not like dbt, or airflow, or your data cataloging... etc.
We're saying "do this fundamentally different". And because it's different every customer that joins has to rethink and re learn the Narrator way, which is not a small hurdle. What we decided to do was honestly, sell the dream. Sell why we built this thing.
In the beginning, for people to buy a product, you have to be so much better than others. So we sold the dream. We found people who understood why we had to do it differently.
Slowly as you talk to customer after customer, I did so many talks, podcasts, I preached, I watched everyone reject me a million times. Then we found two ways to convince people that this will work. Be very controversial, and then show them something they can't understand and lean into the fact that they can't understand.
For me I used to do these "ask me anything" talks. I get on stage at conferences, I show people Narrator at a high level and I say "you're all data people. you've answered a lot of hard questions. I will give you the opportunity right now, live, in front of everybody to ask me the hardest question you had to answer. I will show you that I can answer that question in under 10 minutes with Narrator".
When you can show them that any question they've had, you can answer it within minutes when it took them months... people begin believing and becoming interested.
Were you doing any cold outreach?
It's hard to do cold outreach for "different". Cold outreach only works if you can really pinpoint "You are using Mixpanel. Mixpanel sucks because of these two things. We are another tool that does the exact thing except we've solved those two problems. Someone reads that cold email and says yes we'll have a call."
If you're trying to change their mind you need to be face to face. So we ended up spending a lot more time with our blogs, writing, sharing the story. We had this brilliant idea from one of our engineers - we took our fundamental difference, the activity schema, open sourced it, started talking about it.
It was a lot of talking honestly. If you are building better you can do a lot of growth hacking techniques. If you are building different you need to find leaders at companies who actually understand the problem. Understanding the nuances of what leaders care about and why they care about helps you talk to them.
That being said Narrator is still trying to get in front of people. A lot of times I do a lot of talking to people and only one or two people see it. And it's fine, the point is you have to keep doing it and trying to convince every person. In early stages it's fucking hard.
Another thing I would recommend is look at who your friends are. If you are a VP of Engineering or you are running a team and you want to one day be a founder. Buy tools from founders who are trying to do something different. You'll need that support from early believers.
What does being a start up renegade mean to you?
I thought about this thing a lot, because the word is very interesting.
It's somebody who's willing to put themselves second to see something in the world change. As long as you are willing to put yourself second or third or fourth or whatever it is because you're never going to be first - put your customers first, put your team first. If you are willing to put yourself second to see a change in the world, great.