Yesterday, EverTrue, a Dashfire portfolio company, announced a $5.25 million financing led by Bain Capital Ventures. Though EverTrue, an education fundraising platform, is headquartered in Boston, the story has a very important Built in Chicago back story.
At EverTrue’s core is improving the relationship of Alumni and their schools, which is also a personal mission of EverTrue’s CEO, Brent Grinna. Brent credits his success – going from a farm in Iowa to Brown University to finance in Chicago to HBS to founding EverTrue – to alumni networking. In fact, I first met Brent while we worked together at Madison Dearborn Partners in Chicago, a position he was introduced to through the Brown Alumni Network. While in Chicago and raising capital on behalf of Brown University, Brent saw that the entire process was managed with spreadsheets.
Shortly thereafter, Brent conceptualized EverTrue and he and I began wireframing the initial version of EverTrue’s mobile application. Dashfire supported EverTrue’s V1 product development and worked closely with Brent on the business model. As the company grew, Brent benefited from introductions and investments from influential Chicago investors, many of whom have strategic ties to alumni organizations, including Paul Finnegan, Sam Mencoff, Tim Sullivan, and Jim Perry at Madison Dearborn, executives at William Blair & Company, Kevin Willer (via New World Ventures), Stuart Larkins, Brendan Carroll of Victory Park and Trunk Club CEO Brian Spaly.
This event is a reflection of Brent’s vision and leadership – having turned a series of wireframes into a venture backed business that solves real problems for educational institutions. It is also an important milestone for Dashfire and a testament to our approach to enabling startups. Launching EverTrue with Brent and watching the company grow over the last three year has offered incredible learning experiences, some of which I’d like to share in this post:
- Identify your customers. And their willingness to pay. Brent came to us in late 2009 and said he wanted to make an alumni app for Brown University. We designed a few screenshots and he pitched the alumni office on the concept and they agreed to pay for it. Customer – check. Revenue – check. We had no idea at the time that EverTrue would become a fundraising platform, but by making sale #1, Brent had access to an engaged customer who – by paying for the product – was invested in the success of the application. The best entrepreneurs don’t seek risk, they mitigate risk. Having a paying customer mitigates the risk associated with product solution fit.
- Product over powerpoints. Call it a proof of concept, call it an MVP, call it what you want. Having a product whether it’s online or offline that can generate feedback, create a sale, or demonstrate strength is essential to validate your business model. Pitch your product, not your powerpoint.
- Networking. This is at the core of Brent and EverTrue. It should not be confused with politicking, rather, networking requires establishing thoughtful relationships with colleagues, mentors, and bosses that exist before and beyond raising capital. Attract people who care and who will provide constructive feedback and introductions. Brent’s advisors include his former bosses, his professors, HBS/Brown alums, and his fellow entrepreneurs – many of which are investors in EverTrue.
- Ability to build a team. This is especially imperative for a non-technical entrepreneur. Locating technical products leaders is as difficult as raising capital. You have to start early. While we were in the middle of building the initial product, Brent was attending developer meetups and sharing office space with technology companies to get acquainted with the developer community. Brent met his eventual CTO (and eventual co-founder), Eric, over 3 months before Eric joined full time. For Eric, the opportunity was attractive (and substantially de-risked) as the company had a product, customers, and revenue. And having a team enabled EverTrue’s acceptance to TechStars.
- Have heart. Sounds cliché, but there is nothing harder than starting your own venture. We like to glamorize the ramen diet, couch surfing lifestyle, but do you really want to lose your salary, health benefits, free time, and sanity? You will run into brick walls every day. If you can’t find a way to run through, around, or over them – this is not the career for you. Brent destroys brick walls. Usually in a superhero costume.
Congrats to Brent, Eric, the entire EverTrue team, and all of the Chicago supporters! Looking forward to what’s next!