By Helen Belogolova (Co-Founder & CEO, Venuetastic)
I know a lot of people liken the founder bond to a relationship and nothing could be closer to the truth.
It’s strange to think how little encounters and introductions can change your life so drastically, but our friendship and working relationship started almost on a whim.
Christine and I both moved to San Francisco around the same time — in the summer of 2009 — and met through the MIT community. We both had technical mindsets and worked in industries that were male-dominated (finance and technology) and as a result, gravitated towards each other. I think we felt a sort of unspoken bond and that proved to be a bigger deal than either of us imagined. I maintain a list of people that I have a good sense about and would like to get to know better. Christine was on that list and I decided to invite her to my birthday dinner. Though she was surprised to get an invite, she decided to attend.
That night, I brought up working together for the first time, but Christine didn’t take me seriously at the time. I didn’t push but as we began to both want a change at work more and more, Christine approached me about applying to Y Combinator, and we decided to take a chance on each other.
Applying to Y Combinator
Always having been a part of a large organization, such as Goldman Sachs, I was yearning to do something on my own where I would have control over the vision, outcome and everyday tasks. Christine began to feel the same way after Aardvark was acquired. Being connected to the MIT startup community also helped plant the seed. We were ready to take a chance and do something on our own.
The first step in taking that chance involved applying to Y Combinator. We’d heard from our friends what an incredible experience it had been for them and saw the fruits of their labor first-hand. We didn’t want to jinx ourselves by telling friends while we sent in our application, but planned to be aggressive about asking for help if we got an interview with the Y Combinator partners.
After we got the interview, Christine and I literally called everyone we knew that had gone through Y Combinator to setup mock interviews and brainstorming sessions. One friend, Jason Freedman of Flightcaster, was particularly helpful — while most of our preparation, and other mock interviews, focused on the product and market, questions during our session with him were focused on us as a founding team and why we were the right people for the task.
Not only did we review the importance of presenting a unified front, we were ready to explain exactly why we needed each other as co-founders.
(Sidenote: Jason does a fantastic Paul Graham impression — ask him about it sometime!)
Learning how to pivot at the right time: How Venuetastic was born
We were accepted to Y Combinator with, as Paul Graham calls it, one of the “canonical bad startup ideas” — local event recommendations. Even with early encouragement from the Y Combinator team to drop the idea, we decided to try it. We were stubborn and wanted to show that we were right or at least prove to ourselves that we were wrong. I’m glad we did because the research we did then proved invaluable to what is now Venuetastic.
For more than 2 months, we curated an event list for 30 or so friends and sent out newsletters with those events every other day. What we learned was that while people like events in theory, they have plenty of excuses to avoid extra events in practice. With Paul’s and the partners’ warnings ringing in our ears, we finally concluded that, in fact, people are lazy by nature and don’t actually want to get out on the town as much as they think they do!
As soon as we admitted it to ourselves, we quickly realized we’d been dancing around the right idea the whole time. Luckily, Christine and I had been taking notes at user interviews and learning from our first idea. While visiting venues to learn about their existing events, we heard multiple times that they wished they had a better way to market “that back room” for private events. At the same time, Christine and I were putting off organizing MIT alumni events because we didn’t want to go through the tedious process of calling/e-mailing places just to find out their maximum capacity and pricing.
A clear marketplace was born, with significant need on both sides -– venues and event organizers. We continued doing our research but the more questions we asked, the more it became clear that we were onto something.
Why are we the right people for the job?
Christine and I are both list and post-it people that have been organizing official and unofficial events since we can remember. We like bringing people together and we like making things efficient, and Venuetastic allows us to do both.
We are bringing a level of technology and online organization to the event planning industry and allowing professional and amateur event planners to focus on the fun parts of the event instead of endlessly searching for a venue.
“I think society has drilled it into women that you can’t have it all -– the career, the family, personal happiness, etc. I have to disagree -– it’s about going for what you want and managing your time to get it. At one point when I was still in New York, I had a full time job with long hours, took Julliard night school, played tennis, and volunteered.”
— Helen Belogolova,
Co-Founder & CEO,
I also never quite understood why it was a big deal that Christine and I were the first all-female founder team funded by Y Combinator, because it never seemed like something unusual to us. While we were both a bit giddy about taking dramatic turns in our careers, we never questioned each other or ourselves.
Strong mutual respect, ambition to spare, and incredibly successful personal connections opened our eyes to the opportunities that could be ours if we worked together to achieve it. We made this an option for ourselves.
I was busy but my time was so rigidly structured that I was a lot more efficient. Once you know that “you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of distance run” (Rudyard Kipling), it gives you confidence to go for everything you want. Jessica Livingston wrote a great post about the lack of female entrepreneurs that I completely agree with –- a lot of women simply don’t think of this as an option for themselves and Christine and I are living proof that it is.
Key Lessons Learned:
- Choose the right co-founder: Everyone says it but it warrants repeating. Finding that right person to work with is going to make or break the success of your company. Christine and I have very complementary skill sets and can trust each other entirely to be responsible for our halves of the company. Without the trust in each others’ abilities and characters, you’re in for a world of more trouble than necessary.
- Strong support network: Whether it is friends who have built startups, advisors and investors who are as excited about the product as you are, or family that stands by you when you’re having bad days, they are important to your sanity and ultimately to the success of your company. When you’re working on a startup, you’re fighting a war — so make sure you’ve got some other people in the
trenches with you!
- Listen to your customers: If we hadn’t listened to ourselves or the world around us, we would never have come up with Venuetastic in the first place –- we began building this because people said they needed it, and we’re making changes every day because they’re giving us feedback.
Venuetastic Customer Development and Growth
We’ve been working non-stop to develop an easy way to find, communicate with, and book venues online in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’ve added over 700 venues in the Bay Area alone — since launching, venues have been coming in daily all over the world to add themselves to our index, and we have plenty of requests to expand to other cities by event organizers, so stay tuned!
We’ve also continued customer development on both sides, talking to both venue owners and event organizers, and have learned a lot about the event industry in general. We know that this is an industry based on strong personal connections and are taking that into account as we further develop our product. We’re organizing and booking events through the site and have already brought in revenue, proving our model and reaffirming that this is something people need and want to ourselves as well as the world.
We also have the right people on board as advisors from the hospitality and event industry to guide us. We’re now in the process of hiring our first two employees, adding contract management and payments to the system, and, of course, getting more people to throw more events!
About the guest blogger: Helen Belogolova is the Co-Founder and CEO of Venuetastic, a venue marketplace that makes it easy to find and book event venues online. Prior to founding Venuetastic, Helen was a trader at Goldman Sachs in New York and a portfolio manager at Barclays Global Investors/Blackrock in San Francisco. Helen holds a B.S. in Mathematics and a B.S. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT. Follow her startup on Twitter at @venuetastic.