FounderDating Success Story: VIA 121 – Different But The Same

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.”

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.

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.

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What It’s Like To Be A Startup CEO – The Backstory

Jessica Alter   |   July 19th, 2012

This FounderDating Guest Post was written by Paul DeJoe as part of our FounderTalk Series. He’s a serial entrepreneur, hard at work on Ecquire - lead management software - and well known for his recent post on Quora: What Is It Like to Be a Startup CEO?  

Since a Quora post I made a couple months ago about what it’s like to be a startup CEO, I’ve received over one thousand emails from entrepreneurs across the World and have done about 50 Skype calls. They were motivated to connect because it felt like they met someone who understood them. So, when FounderDating reached out to me they asked if I could elaborate on some of the times that shaped my post and that I alluded to so that entrepreneurs could get a sense of my experiences, I said yes. Immediately, three immediate specific experiences came to mind that are etched in my brain forever.  I hope this helps you in some small way and let this post serve as evidence that things are never as bad as you think.  

Tough to Sleep

At the time it was happening, I was convinced that the lowest point I would ever feel with Ecquire was when I was sleeping in my truck. If you think sleeping in your car is bad enough, try having to balance worrying about being robbed, the angle which would shield the most glare from the lights, realizing the only place to park is in the parking lot of your new employer and getting sleep so I could actually do my job.

Ecquire had been at a stand still and I was living with my brother in Arizona to save on costs.  There was at least 6 months worth of development that had to be finished before I could sell anything.  I couldn’t justify enough work to be full time at Ecquire or justify giving myself any money from the little that we had.  An opportunity came up to be an interim CFO and VP of Product that I had to take in order to pay both myself and to put money back into Ecquire to keep it running. Unfortunately, it was on the East Coast and I didn’t have time, money or the luxury of getting out East and finding a place to stay before I could take the job.  I had to start as soon as possible.  I told people I was staying with friends but I was either rolling out a sleeping bag in my office if it was late enough and no one was around or I was sleeping in my car outside the office if people were working late.  I made sure to set my alarm for around 4:30 in case anyone was coming in early.  I’d go to the YMCA do a workout and get a shower then go eat breakfast with someone new every day.  I’d be in the office by 8AM every day.  I did it for a week until I found an apartment but I was never more productive and focused. Every minute of the day had to be calculated and it forced me to look for efficiencies and improvements all the time.  The times that suck are the closest thing we have to a time machine.  You never forget these times but normal days come and go.  

Normal for you is different than normal for other people. There’s people that will read this and find it completely ridiculous. Indeed, the people that I care about and love the most find it ridiculous. I certainly don’t claim to be a successful entrepreneur but it feels like the characteristics of those that are successful answer each challenge with hard work and doing whatever-it-takes – even if it means sleeping in your car.

Difficult to Talk to Friends

When I thought that the lowest point was behind me, I heard from my brother that a few close friends and relatives were talking about me when I wasn’t around and saying, “Why doesn’t he just man up and get a real job?”  That statement was on constant replay in my head and I said it to myself a few hundred times when I first heard it.  It was debilitating.  It wasn’t that they said it that bothered me, that was actually understandable. What bothered me was that it felt like they might be right.  And when you let that thought creep into your head it manifests in no time. The people that we love have powerful influences over us because we want them to be proud of us and don’t want to disappoint them. I put my headphones on and ran for 40 minutes and with each step I took that comment rang in my head.

I was never more motivated to finish what I started than after hearing that.  I still repeat it to myself every day.  I thank God that I heard it.  I realized that you can choose to get excited at the challenge when something overwhelming or impossible is staring at you or you can let it paralyze you. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and you’re on the path to conquering it.  That’s how the “adrenaline junky” side of me comes out and what other entrepreneurs I’ve talked to use as motivation.  This is what they live for: Doing what others won’t and say can’t be done.  Choose to let criticism motivate you.  

The most challenging thing is that the people you’d normally share your challenges or fears with don’t understand the concept of “I’m gonna create something huge with nothing and I don’t care if I die trying.”  If you share your challenges with them it feels partly like admitting they were right for telling you to “get a real job.”  I’m a stubborn entrepreneur, so that doesn’t sit well with me. There’s also a feeling of, “I can do it myself” and you always want to be a leader among your team.  be calm and collected so sharing that you’re scared shitless most nights of the week doesn’t do much for confidence. So, there are few people to really talk with. But this is part of the territory; we can’t really complain.  

What Have I Done?

And even though I can say these things and know they’re true, the real lowest point I had was when my parents came into the living room and sat down next to me during Christmas of last year.  I thought they were going to tell me that one of them was sick because I had to have that talk with them before and they had the same look.  Without any context, my Mom just started crying and said, “We’re so worried about you, Paul.  You don’t have any money or any stability.”  I FELT AWFUL.  This was undoubtedly the lowest point along this journey.  There’s not much worse than realizing you’re putting your parents through physical anguish and seeing the feeling of helplessness and worry on their faces. I sat there for a minute – utterly devastated.

But then I had to kind of laugh and my response was “You don’t have to worry about me.”  I said,  “I get more out of life than anyone else I’ve ever met. I’m having a great time, I’m not gonna die and I’m not gonna go to jail. This might scare you but I’m actually not afraid to die, I’m petrified of being bored and knowing what’s gonna happen tomorrow.  You’ve given me every opportunity in the World to chase my dreams and most of my motivation is to make you proud.”  

Equire did raised a round of financing not long after that and has paying customers giving us great testimonials.  The greatest feeling I’ve had since we started down this path happened last month when I saw my dad. I told him we created 5 jobs.  He didn’t have to say anything, he was proud.  

Staying the Course

So, stick with it. When things are really tough remember what matters: 

  • The people you love and that love you.  
  • Being true to yourself and passionate about something worth pursuing everyday. Your health.  
  • Leaving something better than when you found it.  Being grateful for what you have.  

And, of course, remember my low points and that I’m still standing.

Work hard and be nervous if people (even those that love you) don’t tell you you’re crazy.  Make your own luck and, as always, email me any time if I can ever help you with anything at paul [at] ecquire [dot] com.


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