Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Virtual First

Lessons from launching a startup in a pandemic

By

Published on July 07, 2021

Illustration by Justin Tran

Filed under

Many aspiring founders postponed their startup plans last year after COVID-19 safety precautions sent everyone home and banned most of the travel and meetings required to meet the three goals of any startup: funding, hiring, and growth. 

But a few relentless entrepreneurs—or maybe they just couldn’t stop themselves—forged ahead to do what they could do in a remote world. Tyler Davis, Tony Ramirez, and Jake Brereton took on the challenge and came away with a whole new perspective on how to operate without in-person contact. LaunchNotes, their year-old startup that touts “a dedicated home to announce product changes, and tools to segment and notify the users that need to know about them,” went from bright idea to funded company building its product in 2020. 

Along the way, they learned new approaches to funding, hiring, and growth that aren’t just pandemic workarounds, but potentially smarter ways of working that simply needed a push to fall into place.

Funding

Can you really ask investors for money on Zoom? Yes, says Brereton, LaunchNotes’ Chief Operating Officer. In fact, not needing time to schedule drive time to Sand Hill Road for in-person meetings sped up the process. “In two weeks’ time, we pitched over thirty VCs, all over Zoom,” he says. “It allowed us to meet and speak with a far greater number of potential investors than had we been driving from meeting to meeting on Sand Hill.” 

“In two weeks’ time, we pitched over thirty VCs, all over Zoom,” says Brereton, LaunchNotes’ Chief Operating Officer.

Having more meetings gave the LaunchNotes team more insight and confidence in choosing who would be the best partners to take on as investors. The three made their decisions more quickly without the fear they were missing something, or missing out.

“We had like 500 things to sign and all of them had to be turned around ASAP,” Brereton says. LaunchNotes, a solid Dropbox customer, used the mobile Dropbox app to handle digital signature requests immediately and quickly.

Two weeks of meetings, two weeks to decide amongst themselves, and two more to finalize the term sheets and close their seed funding—six weeks from start to finish is the founder’s equivalent of running a four-minute mile. Brereton says, “I’m not sure this would have been possible in a pre-pandemic world.”

Hiring

There’s no doubt that hiring people remotely is much more of a challenge. Tony Ramirez, who came from remote team-friendly Atlassian to become LaunchNotes’ Chief Product Officer, sees it as a group effort. “Everyone is a people officer,” he demurs, but it’s true: With no ability to bring candidates into an office for an immediate test of personal chemistry, every employee needs to take ownership of remote evaluation of their potential teammates, lest they be handed a coworker with whom they simply don’t click.

LaunchNotes implemented a few tactics seen at a growing number of all-remote or mostly remote companies: Schedule more interviews with each candidate. Ask more questions up front. Do more backchannel checks, both with provided references and others who may have worked with the candidate or heard about them. 

LaunchNotes gained an extra year of runway on its seed funding by not having to lease office space.

In some cases, it seemed right to offer potential employees a three-month contract rather than bring them onboard for the long term immediately. That won’t fly with candidates who have stronger options, but it could give an iffy hire a chance to prove themselves.

There are two upsides to all this extra hiring work: First, Brereton says LaunchNotes gained an extra year of runway on its seed funding by not having to lease office space. Second, companies that master the remote hiring process gain a much larger pool of potential hires who don’t live in the right city. As many of us realized in 2020, shelter-in-place restrictions pushed many established companies to finally switch from the old “everyone at the office, except for a few telecommuters” model to “hire the best people, wherever they are.” For tech startups and other new knowledge-work companies, distributed teams are now the norm and the default.

Growth 

Anyone in sales can tell you what COVID-19 did to their numbers. Spending everywhere was put on hold. Of the 50 potential customers that LaunchNotes talked to in 2020, none of them placed an order. Zero. 

CEO Davis says it’s a challenge to keep the company positive when months go by without that first sale. “Everyone wants to start closing deals right away,” he says, not just for revenue, or to appease investors, but for company-wide validation that they’re building something anyone wants.

But he also saw the benefit of not having the company’s plans and schedules dictated by a few early-adopting customers who’d paid for a product not yet built. Fifty customer talks and months of time to plan let LaunchNotes revise its product plan and ship dates based on broader feedback and more time to think.

As a result, LaunchNotes designed a new feature, Secure Pages, which lets teams share announcements, roadmaps, and feedback among selected internal or external people, separate from a company’s public font of information. Larger customers deemed the ability essential, but also something for which they were willing to wait a few months.

“We were able to develop a better product,” Davis says, one that would meet the needs of a broader and larger customer base rather than the two or three who’d paid ahead of time. 

That may be the hardest lesson to follow for future startups: Take your time. In 2020, I personally had the experience of working with an app maker who went from start to ship in less than 90 days to meet a real-world deadline. In hindsight, we’d have been so very much wiser to spend our three months figuring out how to live without the app we got. 

Silicon Valley thrives on a vibe of go-go-go, being not only better but faster than everyone else. Often that’s how you change the world—by beating weaker old ways to market. But as LaunchNotes emerges from pandemic restraints, hopefully their success will serve as proof that at least in hiring and product decisions, faster isn’t always better.