Augur | Bytez

Nawar Alsafar | 2020-04-08 Founder Picture

Could you give us a quick introduction to your previous business Augur? How did you come across the idea? 
Augur was a real-time prediction service; it still technically exists on the internet. It was basically an API as a service, back when that was pretty much a new thing (building businesses that were pure APIs). I founded it around 2013. 
 
When I first built that company, it was based on the notion that everything was going to become personalised on the internet, and I was really passionate about learning about that subject matter. That’s a common theme with me, I’m usually passionate about learning, and that helps drive me to a place that I want to then explore, dive deep and innovate around. With Augur, I looked at content personalisation, and thought- that’s the future (this was 2013). I wanted to make it easy for any kind of application to do that. Along the way, I realised I didn’t know how to build a company. I found out I had no idea how to do online sales, I could code but I sucked at coding back then, so I had to teach myself. I didn’t know anything so I had to learn from the ground up. 
 
Most people in the community I was in, the Colorado community, thought that the company would be a failure. But after three years I was able to grow the business into the 7th fastest growing company in Denver, Colorado, have 40m end users, billions of transactions per day and ended up selling that off for 8 figures within three years. I definitely went through trial by fire and learned a lot along the way. 

What was your career journey prior to starting Augur? You mentioned how you were unprepared, but were there certain things that your previous roles prepared you for?
When doing new things, you’re never qualified.  If you’re just going to build another mobile app that can send text messages between two phones, the technology for that already exists and the amount of qualification you have, to do a known thing, is pretty clear. This is what you need to do, here are the skills- does it match up? 
 
But when you are creating things that haven’t existed before, no one is qualified. It’s completely learning from the ground up. In that respect, you can’t really be ready. You just have to start doing it and learning on your feet. 
 
Prior to Augur, I freelanced as a coder/conversion rate optimisation dude. One person who hired me back then was a company funded by Mark Cuban. They gamified contests to try and get more engagement. I would go and look at the contest and design the interface to maximise conversion rates. I started teaching myself behavioural psychology, design, all these different things. Most of my coding work was coding front ends. For example, I helped my buddy that started a crowdfunding site. Another thing I did back then was I helped another buddy start a company that turned DNA into art. I wrote the whole algorithm that turned people’s genetics into art. I would still say that even though I could code, I still sucked at coding back then. 

My version of coding was looking at a website, going to the HTML, changing around the text and trying to make it look right. I had no idea what I was doing, CSS was a nightmare!
 
I was just trying to teach myself back then. I was trying to read every book that Steve Blank ever suggested, at the very least his must-reads. Because I figured I was so behind, compared to some elite people out there – those that had graduated from top universities, running the most successful, profitable companies. What does that guy know? I thought that if I can read enough to know what he knows, and I can out-code and out-execute him, maybe you can beat someone if you know what they know and you move faster than them. That became my school of thought. I started reading/listening to one book a week. I started coding and teaching myself machine learning in 2013. But it still didn’t necessarily prepare me for building Augur, that was learning on the fly.

What did you learn from starting Augur? How did your journey after Augur lead to the idea behind Bytez?
Bytez is a whole different experience. At Augur I was thinking of myself as an underdog, I liked that position. People don’t necessarily know who you are and don’t necessarily believe in you. After seeing success with Augur and selling my company, I moved to Manhattan to work at the fastest growing software company at the time (who I had sold my business to - a company called BounceX). 
 
There, I was the chief software architect, I had a huge budget and launched multiple products. When you go from having no money, being super scrappy and trying to do everything for free, to suddenly this situation where you have unlimited cash, you have the power to be scrappy, but with a huge budget. You can be even more powerful than people who don’t know how to be scrappy with a huge budget. There’s a power to be able to scale things really cheaply, but have unlimited cash. 
 
I definitely learned lessons along the way after selling my company. I really doubled down on what I saw worked and didn’t work in creating high-performance teams. Just to go over one lesson learned: it really comes down to founders and CEOs being all about vision and creating alignment around the vision. Your number one goal as a founder/CEO is alignment. Align your team around your vision and be relentless in making that vision real. If you and your founding team are meticulous on constantly repeating the vision, other people joining will realise wow, those guys really believe in this. You begin to see, as a company, your teams are now beginning to repeat the behaviours and values of the founders. Once your team is doing this, you now have an aligned culture. An aligned culture far exceeds the performance of “Hey we’re a big rich startup and we’re not really passionate about this, it’s just another job for me”. I can’t emphasise enough how that makes the difference. 
 
I stayed at BounceX for about a year. I did a tremendous amount there and learned a lot. I was able to scale things from zero to 260m users in a single year and launched multiple products, did all this crazy stuff. From my days at Augur, and studying machine learning, I really liked data. Everything I worked with was data-centric. I wanted to build a company around data. It was fun for me. I knew I wanted to do that but had no idea which problem to solve next.
 
I took some time off to recuperate and then I had an idea that, hey, maybe I can help people clean data more efficiently.  I went to TechStars foundercon, an annual convention of founders from around the world. I just shared my idea (called Datum at the time), I presented it as a kind of GitHub for data. It turned a lot of heads. I got interest from GitHub, I got interest from Intel, NASA and a whole bunch of other big companies. Some of these companies said we’d like to buy your company and I’m thinking… jheeze I don’t even have a company yet. I spent a few months thinking could this even be done? How would I code something like this?
 
 I later applied to a program called 500 startups and I got into it. I think you have two options when figuring out how to build a company. You either build the first thing that comes to you (which, by chance, may be the right thing), or spend as much time as possible speaking to people with that problem and try to derive the best starting product for that group (historically called customer development/lean startup thinking). So that’s what I did. I joined 500 startups and for three/ four months, instead of building any product, I mapped out personas that existed within this space. I ended up pivoting along the way and honing in on a major problem that affects 75% of people in this market. Along that path, I discovered what is now known as Bytez.
 
There were things I learned along the way about how to hone in on a really strong value proposition that resonates with the majority of your market. At this point, I think one of the most important things is having a must-have value proposition.  I had this fear, I didn’t want to build software that nobody uses. I really focussed my efforts on this. 

It’s interesting that you went through 500 Startups purely focussed on customers. The perception of a lot of people is to get into an elite startup accelerator like that you usually go in with a product and recurring revenue.

500 Startups honestly, I got because I did TechStars Boulder, and I had a unique experience there. Like I said, I was the underdog, no one believed in me. With 500 startups, I honestly didn’t think I would get in because I thought I’m at the very beginning of the phase of developing something that is a must-have. Meanwhile, it turned out, they accepted one company that was making $100,000 a month in revenue. And on the other hand, here I am just trying to figure this thing out. 
 
Surprisingly, 500 Startups has the values of betting on founders, so they took a chance on me. I saw during the batch that they will accept companies at any stage and really they’re betting on founders. As an entrepreneur, that’s what you want. You want people who are betting on you. The reason I’m going to write you a $25,000 cheque as an angel investor, let’s just say, is not because I care necessarily about your particular value proposition right here right now. But I’m betting that you, if you tell me that you will persevere and turn this $25K into $250K, one way or another, and you are never going to quit, I would say “cool, take this 25K and never quit!” That is an amazing investment. The best founders are those who don’t quit. You often see a lot of founders who give up. It’s just like playing music. There are a lot of people who play beautiful music, but often they stop playing. So really who becomes a professional musician? Those who keep sticking to playing music. In the same sort of way, as a founder, it’s really easy to see a lot of founders quit. Paul Graham said, “it’s the cockroaches- be an ugly cockroach”. Stick to it, figure out, one way or another, how to make something valuable to peoples lives. If you’re changing some people’s lives for the better, that’s amazing in itself. I don’t care whether you’re making a million dollars doing it. 
 
 There will be a lot of lessons learned along the way, especially in relation to investors. Investors don’t necessarily have an entrepreneur’s best interests at heart. They usually, from what I have seen, have their interests at heart. 

With both 500 Startups and TechStars, why do you think you were successful in applying to these accelerators? Any tips on making the most of the experience?
When I went through TechStars, I was also I think the earliest stage company in that program. In 500 Startups I’m going to dare say I was the earliest stage company in the cohort. 
 
TechStars was my first accelerator so I didn’t know what I was doing, the plan was to just show up and do what they tell you. With 500 startups I had a game plan – and this may have been what pushed me over the edge to get in. For 500 Startups I went through 5 or 6 interviews with their whole team, which is a lot of interviews. I guess that’s how much they didn’t believe in me?! After these, I went to a workshop that they run for finalists. This workshop was about things like conversion rate optimisation and how to make your landing page convert better. I thought to myself: I bet you this workshop is to test who here is a hustler. Some of those finalists didn’t care. I took every single lesson learned and iterated my landing page 6 times that same day and got mentors engaged. I showed them that I am coachable and able to hustle. 
 
Even then, the head of the program at the time, Marvin said: “to be honest we’re on the fence with you”. He asked me “If we accepted you, what would you want to get out of the program”?  I said if I come in as a founder who is in the idea/early software phase. And if, by the end of the program, I can have one channel that’s established, early revenue and I have a value proposition that’s considered must-have for my market, I would do that accelerator all day. That’s what I’d like to do. I also told him I would like to do that via lean startup and customer development methodology. I made it clear I would be spending most of my time talking to customers. Marvin told me he has a lot of respect for companies that do this and asked me to give him time to consider. I got feedback from someone else who said I was inauthentic and they didn’t understand what I do and I thought “okay I’m totally not getting in”. But, crazily enough they accepted me. 
 
Throughout that program, I hustled like hell and by the end of the program, I ended up with a must-have value proposition, pre-sales and one channel that was established. Somehow, I was able to do all the things I wanted, as a solo founder. I think that made the difference – knowing what the game plan was going in and executing like hell to make it happen. I don’t care about fundraising coming out of accelerators. It’s a little disappointing to think that fundraising is the purpose of an accelerator. It makes sense if your company is at a certain stage and is sufficiently positioned to fundraise. Some people say that a CEO should be full-time fundraisers. I think CEOs should be full-time revenue generators rather than fundraisers. I would say to anyone who wants to go through a program like that, choose what you want to accomplish and execute like hell. Tell them “if you accept me into this program, I will do this, this and that”. I think that makes the difference sometimes.

Any amusing or most memorable stories along the way?
Silicon Valley (the television show) totally mirrored my life. During Augur I ended up inventing this crazy tech that can outperform companies. I ended up hiring this older CEO (like they hired Jack Barker in the show). I wonder if that show will mirror the lives of those reading this too. Maybe that show is like The Twilight Zone for startup founders.

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Maybe 2.5 pieces of advice come up. One is the advice about perseverance that I mentioned earlier, about being the cockroach. Another is a quote is from an old school founder from around the 80s or something like that. I got it from this book called “Founders at Work”. One of the founders said, “you don’t get paid by focussing on competition, you get paid by focussing on customers.” The third thing, the other half of that advice is that it’s actually really easy to get revenue. All you have to do is serve others and make them be successful and you will get paid. 

What are your favourite books?
Business Related
Founders at Work – Jessica Livingston

Every single book that Steve Blank has recommended as a must-read (https://steveblank.com/books-for-startups/). Those books have given me a framework of thinking that has helped me help other entrepreneurs.

Fiction
Neuromancer - William Gibson 
 
The Witcher Series - Andrzej Sapkowsk 
 
Learn more about Bytez at:  https://bytez.io/

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