Affable, a Singapore-based influencer marketing platform, co-founded by SUTD alumni Swayam Narain, successfully raised a seed funding of S$1 million.
We approached Swayam to share his startup journey. Read on to discover how he started Affable from scratch and learn from his experience what are the pitfalls to avoid and the skills you need to be an entrepreneur.
Affable is a platform that allows brands to discover, engage and measure social media influencers. I started Affable with my co-founder when we realised that while influencer marketing was a very effective way of getting the word out, the entire process was highly manual, time consuming and full of guesswork. By bringing intelligence and automation to this space, we allow them to discover and engage with the most authentic and relevant influencers for their brand. We do this by using cutting edge machine learning and computer vision technologies to profile an influencer and their audience.
We started the company in November, at Entrepreneur First (EF) which is an accelerator that helps individuals form companies. In two weeks we had a prototype of our product ready and a customer that was using our product. In another month, we grew that number to 8. This gave us confidence that we had enough traction to raise venture capital to grow our team. We started our raise in January, and within 3 months, we had a Venture Capital (VC) and strategic executives from companies like Microsoft and Google backing us!
How to build a startup from scratch
Building a startup from scratch is a challenging and uncertain journey. It requires a deep understanding of the domain that you are in, technical knowledge of the product that you are building, and the ability to reach out to people that will use your product. While there isn’t one way of building a startup, we did things in a way that worked out well for us. Here is what we think what founders should do:
Be prepared to learn
No matter how talented you are, in the beginning, you will not have all the skills necessary to build a successful startup. But that’s okay, rarely anyone does. There were many things that we didn’t know when we started Affable. What’s really important is to recognize what you lack and work towards addressing that. We did this by finding experts in their respective domains and asking them for advice.
Find a big, unsolved problem
Don’t start with an idea. Start with a problem. When you start with a problem, you can be sure that there will be people willing to listen to you and try out your solution. If you do start with an idea, make sure you validate that it is somebody’s problem. We did this by finding people who could be potential users of Affable and inviting them to talk about their problems over coffee. This is a great way of figuring out what you should build too.
Find the right co-founder
Most of the world’s biggest technology companies have more than one co-founder. And for good reason. When you build a startup, you have to take care of a million things, such as building the product, establishing a strong customer pipeline and finding investors. Each one of these activities is a full-time job, making it near impossible for one person to do it all by themselves. So, it is very important to find someone who can complement your skills and be your support system in the process.
Get Early Customers
Once you have found a problem to solve and a co-founder to solve it with, work towards getting early customers. If you work product for months and months on end in a vacuum, you run the risk of building something that nobody wants. Instead, build quick prototypes and get early customers. These customers will provide you with feedback that will prove invaluable in shaping the product. We built the first version of Affable in two weeks and found a customer to use it. That customer helped us figure out what features are important and what features are not, ensuring that what we spent time building was actually useful.
Now that you have some early customers and a prototype, you have to figure out the bigger vision for your company. This is important if you want to raise venture capital to fund your startup. A good benchmark for ‘big’ is the size of the market that you are in. Anything northwards of $1 Billion dollars is considered as sizeable. At Affable, our ultimate vision is to be the Google Adwords of influencer marketing. While we have started with solving one smaller problem, it is one step towards achieving our vision.
Avoid these 5 biggest startup mistakes
Working for months without validation
Just because something sounds good doesn’t automatically mean it is something that people will want. Ask yourself why hasn’t it been done before? Why are you the right team to build it? How is it different from your closest competitor? Only go all out on something (like a feature) once you have several data points that supports the decision.
Being secretive of your idea
Ideas are cheap. I guarantee you that someone has thought of your idea before. How many times in your life have you heard someone say ‘I thought of <successful startup> before <successful startup> was a thing’? It’s the execution that matters! Being open about what you are working on is the only way you can convince other people to join you in your journey and get feedback on what you are trying to achieve.
Moving too slow
The one advantage that you have as a startup is your ability to move much faster than established players. Use that to your advantage. Make quick decisions, build quick prototypes, build momentum around your company. The bigger you get, the more inertia you have. So, move fast while you still can.
Focussing on the wrong things
As a startup, time is the scarcest resource that you have. Don’t spend it perfecting your logo or finding investors when you haven’t had sufficient traction. Prioritize the tasks that will add the most value to your startup.
Neglecting your life outside of your startup
Running a startup is like running a marathon, not a sprint. If you work every day without ever taking a break, you will only burn yourself out. Yes, you will have to work hard and long to make your company successful, but it should not come at the cost of your wellbeing. Take the time out to catch up with friends, take short vacations and spend quality time with your loved ones. This will help you stay motivated throughout your journey.
Skills you need to be an Entrepreneur
Be open to stepping out of your comfort zone
Like I mentioned before, there are a lot of things you won’t know when you start your journey. So be prepared to learn them!
Be a team player
You can’t build a startup alone, no matter how talented you are. The ability to collaborate with people in your team from various domains is what defines a functional startup.
Be good at communicating
Being the founder of a startup means that you will have to talk to a lot of people. These could be your teammates, your customers or your investors. Articulate your viewpoint and understanding people’s viewpoints will make you a successful founder.
Have relevant technical skills or domain knowledge
Being technically capable is a huge advantage as you can build the early versions of your product by yourself. Pair that with a co-founder that has a good understanding of the domain and you have a formidable team.
The startup journey is full of ups and downs. I’ve experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows of my life in this journey. You will fail more often than you succeed. But what’s important is the ability to learn from your mistakes, to get up when you are down and keep fighting.
The great thing about SUTD is that its learning environment helps build a lot of these skills. For example, nearly every class that I took had a group project component to it. These projects helped improve my technical skills, my ability to communicate and work well in teams and, since a lot of these projects were cross disciplinary, they also taught me how to step outside the things I was comfortable with working on.
The focus on finding meaningful internships contributed significantly towards this journey. I interned at Pivotal Labs, a software consultancy that helped build some of the most innovative technology companies such as twitter and Viki. From my mentors there, I learned how to build the technology and the teams that power great startups.
I also took the lessons I learned from my capstone project to Affable. My capstone was with Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) where we built software that identified and classified vehicles from traffic cameras. This was before the days of TensorFlow and before deep learning was an industry buzz word! Some of the techniques we used now power our computer vision algorithms at Affable!
But perhaps the best above all, SUTD’s people are what makes it conducive towards building a startup. Unlike other universities, at SUTD, starting something of your own is almost the norm, not the exception. Everyone in this community, from the professors to the students welcome and support entrepreneurship. This means you will find people willing to make that leap with you and be your co-founder in your entrepreneurial journey.