Jessica Alter | July 27th, 2012
Ken Pawlak and Wayne Liu are entrepreneurs, FounderDating members, and now co-founders of VIA 121 (Seattle). Ken is CEO and Wayne is CTO. VIA 121 provides local retail businesses an end-to-end mobile marketing system.
WHEN DID YOU GET INTO STARTUPS?
Ken: I’ve done a lot of startups. Varolii is what I started in ‘99. We got funded by DFJon the first round during the spring of 2000 and scaled to a couple hundred people. I recruited a CEO who had run a public company and then after our 2nd round of funding, things were going great and the CEO started bringing in his old team and before I knew it, I was out of my own company. So, in 2002 I went and helped 5 other startups. Then went somewhere safe for a few years. I ended up in Microsoft – for 8 years. I thought I was going to do another startup and every year I would stay ‘another year.’ From my experience, so much of this is about finding the right person, with the right skills and commitment to build something you can share a vision and work style around.
Wayne: I left Microsoft in 2008 after 9 years in various engineering roles. I quit my job there because I wanted to try and do something on my own. I felt like I had something more that I could achieve. I started working on a Facebook application. Then I created a stand-alone website that helped non profits raise money from their supporters online and I got dozens of nonprofits using it. Sometime in 2010 I came up with an idea of managing local merchants’ loyalty programs on mobile devices.
WHY DID YOU APPLY TO FOUNDERDATING?
Ken: I wanted something where people are vetted and high quality – that’s FounderDating. I was really impressed with the people that I connected with. Ironically, I met the guy that was currently CTO of the last company I founded. So it felt good that there were people in the network with awesome experience.
Wayne: I really felt like I had to have a cofounder. The initial idea felt like a larger project and I knew that I would need a cofounder. It would take more work than one person can handle. I also knew I could use some help in marketing and business development – areas I’m not great at.
WHAT WAS HELPFUL FOR YOU?
Ken: What struck me about FD is that everyone I connected with had interesting stories and impressive experience.
Wayne: I was able to meet a lot of quality people and to get meaningful feedback from other entrepreneurs. That was helpful.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR “DATING” PROCESS.
Ken: I met with several people. There was this guy from Blue Origin who wanted to do an electric, high performance motorcycle. I love motorcycles and I met with them a couple of times. I reached out to Wayne because his background was intriguing to me. He put together a site called Causemunity. He did it himself and there was a good amount of technology there. Here’s a guy who can build anything he wants and he built a site that helps nonprofits. I had been using low end phones for apps that help society. So we had similar ideas around a for profit company with a social mission. Then he said, he was thinking about doing mobile loyalty program. I thought there should be a simpler experience for the mass market and we brainstormed right there. We seemed to have some common interests and common ideas. We talked several times on the phone and then we had a couple of long meetings (many hours) at both our homes. That was the end of February and then we met for long meetings a few times in March.
But I knew that when I started a company again I wasn’t going to turn it over to someone else. That was arequirement. I wasn’t going to start something unless we had equal ownership and clear role (I’d be the CEO and he’d be the CTO). At one point I sent Wayne an email saying if this equal relationship wasn’t what he wanted, then we shouldn’t continue. He came back with great feedback and we established a founders agreement in April. By May and we were incorporated and sped’d out what we thought would be the product. I left Microsoft a short time later and we landed our first customer in September. So, we took from March through May to figure things out.
Wayne: I briefly talked about my idea to Ken and he seemed really interested in the idea. Right off the bat he was suggesting something that I wasn’t thinking about and he told me about his experiences and I remember thinking – “he knows his stuff, especially mobile.” He seemed trustworthy and sincere and that, for me, was very important. He had experience that I didn’t have. The rest was figuring out if we could work together.
HOW DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO TAKE THE PLUNGE TOGETHER?
Ken: We put in several long weekends of brainstorming and mapping out several ideas. I kept leaving those meetings thinking, “I can work with this person – we’re compatible and they have complementary skills.” You have to really flesh out how you will work together. We talked about out our plan, what the roles would be and that it would truly be a partnership. Big company decisions will be made together and for me the trust was earned over a period of long meetings. You can’t trust someone unless you do a little hard work together. We trusted each other.
Wayne: We figured out that we had complimentary skill sets. That was one really important piece of it: do you have complimentary skills to each other? On the other hand, there were a lot of similarities between us. We had a common vision, a background working at Microsoft for 8 or 9 years so we know technology. We are both willing to compromise on issues. Many entrepreneurs have strong minds but the willingness to compromise is crucial, especially for startups. Many times you are dealing with ambiguity and you need to be able to make balanced decisions. In order to do that, each party has to be willing to compromise.
Ken: VIA 121 provides local retail businesses an end-to-end mobile marketing system. We say, “better marketing is 1-to-1”, thus the name and the core features. It starts with a mobile loyalty card program, but it works on any phone and does very powerful social media and targeted promotions. What we have solved is the problem of doing effective, data-driven marketing for small businesses. Typically these business have very limited data and the marketing investments have low ROI; not any more with VIA 121.
Our mission is to create the best program to help local businesses grow through improving loyalty and drivingcustomer referrals. “More customers, more often.”
DO YOU HAVE SIGNS IT’S WORKING?
Ken: Customers! Almost 7,000 using the service now. We’ve had less than 1% opt out and it’s delivering a great ROI for our business clients. We thought we knew what we were building and then we iterated. The product we built was done by spending a massive amount of hours working directly with real customers. We have changed our pricing model and the feature set many times. It’s very solid now and our clients and their customers love it.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ENTREPRENEURS REGARDING COFOUNDERS?
Ken: Ask yourself: “Is the person flexible and trustworthy, on top of having a complimentary skill set?” It’s not enough to have great skills. You have to be willing to change your mind and be fully committed. A lot of people with great experience that I’ve worked with would never cut it in a startup. Find a partner that is committed and comfortable dealing with uncertainty. There’s always periods where you don’t’ know what’s going to happen, so you have to be able to deal with that.
Wayne: Each person may have different needs. You want to look for someone who has similarities to you in vision and is complementary in skills. I can’t stress enough the importance about the willingness to compromise.