KyndooKelly McDonald | 2020-06-08
Could you give us a quick introduction to Kyndoo?
I started Kyndoo two years ago. We are a data company that provides customer insights for brands that are looking to connect with social media influencers. Specifically, we have a bunch of influencers and we have vetted their audiences. We determine the age of these audiences, their demographics, where they live, etc. So that instead of people just looking at an influencer’s profile, and trying to determine whether this person is a good fit for their brand or not, we start with the audience in mind, and work our way back to the influencers that this audience is following.
The company was bootstrapped until last year, when we joined 500 Startups. That’s the only investment we have taken on so far. Currently, we are seven people. But up until April, I was a solo founder working with our intern.
What was your career journey prior to starting Kyndoo?
The majority of my career has been spent in the real estate technology space. Fresh out of college, I joined Quicken Loans. At the time I joined, I think there were around 170 bankers on the sales floor, and when I left, we had around 1500. I was with them through a lot of growth, through the refi boom, and then, of course, the economic downturn of 2008 as well. Then, I went to another mortgage company that was looking to move from being a mom and pop shop to being more of a technology platform. They’re now the largest wholesale lender in the country. I worked in a couple of other startups, prior to starting this one, first in the insurance technology space and then most recently, Movoto real estate and then RealtyShares, which deals with crowdfunding for real estate.
How did you come across the idea?
The first thing to note is that we came to San Francisco six years ago with the idea that I was eventually going to start a company. I wanted to come here and found something that was going to be really, really big. This is the place to do it if you want to be in that environment. Not necessarily because the VCs are here. It’s more like: everyone who’s living in the Bay Area is very in tune with what you’re doing, what you’re going through, how they can help you or who they can introduce you to. The entire community around you is constantly thinking and working on something similar, or have been through something similar. So, you’re kind of immersed in the culture of startup life. I think that’s really important to success; surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals.
The second thing to note is that I did a lot of research on how to come up with good ideas. There’s a lot that’s been written by Paul Graham from YC (PG’s Best Essays for Would-be Founders), for example, about ideas. I did my research on that and started following some of those best practices – making lists and testing ideas out. Kyndoo was certainly not the first idea that I tested.
What were the other ideas that you were considering when you were starting out?
I went through one which would be a marketplace for Drones. I went and bought some really expensive drones, tried to learn about them, and realised this is probably not what I wanted to spend my time on. The idea was dead as quickly as it started. I thought about doing some voiceover marketplace stuff. There were a lot of different ideas. I keep a list on my phone of great ideas for companies, and I’ll tell you what, Kyndoo might not be my last company. I still am running a list. You have to be on the lookout for different approaches to problems that folks might have and more importantly, you need to ask yourself: is this something you want to spend the next ten years of your life on? Is it a big enough problem or is it a feature that someone creating another solution should add on? One of the things I try to steer away from is making features, versus creating companies. Are there ways that you can evolve this idea into something greater than what you start off with?
I understand marketplaces deeply because I’ve been working in them for so long. A lot of my ideas were around marketplaces and market networks in that sense.
You mentioned that you moved to San Francisco 6 years ago with the idea of one day starting a company. What else did you do to prepare other than generating ideas?
I think one of the other things too is that I’m a woman. And while its cool and sexy now, to fund female founders, at the time I knew that wasn’t necessarily the easiest path. And it’s still not. Women are still only 2% of who gets funded. One of the things I was trying to do was set myself up financially, so I could afford to not work for 2-3 years, to bootstrap and get through the basic times.
I’m not a technologist, so I was also researching ways of building things out. One route is that you find a co-founder, who is a technologist, and you talk them into building it and joining your company. I didn’t know anybody who I felt strongly that I wanted to work with for 10 years, at the time. So, I said what are the alternative routes? I could learn how to code. I did take some basic courses. Not so I could go and code it myself, but so I could be a better product manager, to whoever I would find that would work on the team.
Ultimately, I ended up finding a great dev house in India that did the majority of the technology, prior to my co-founder and the internal team coming on board. The dev house was with us for a year on the project. We still have them on board, because they do a great job and understand the feature set. I think a lot of it was figuring out how I could go operational, once I had the idea I wanted to work on. The other thing was making connections, which would help me to get funding or help me to get introductions to investors. One of the main reasons I joined RealtyShares is they were a 500 Startups company, and I knew that would be a great opportunity for me to potentially get our company into 500 Startups. Even as early as that, I was thinking about how I could set myself up for success later.
How did your previous experience prepare you for your current venture? In what ways were you unprepared?
Through my previous experiences, I was already an executive in several other startups. And so, I knew the challenges that we would face. The other thing about working in a startup is that you don’t wear one hat, ever. You have to wear all of the hats. When you’re a solo founder, there’s nobody else, so you really wear all the hats. You juggle your time. In my previous role at RealtyShares, at one time I was the head of operations, I was the head of people, I was the head of revenue. My day would consist of walking in and thinking I would be working on sales issues, and instead, we would have an HR issue that I would have to address immediately. You have to figure out how to get everything done and learn to stack priorities. What is important and what can wait?
The other thing about startups that my very good friend and mentor, Mark, had said to me when I worked for him at Movoto was: “Startups are a long game. People think it’s all about hyper-growth, but realistically it’s about doing these tiny increments, of just a little bit better, every day. That’s really what will lead to long term success”. So, when I’m prioritising, I always try to keep that in my head. Yeah, I would love to get that thing done, but if I don’t do that today, will the company fall apart? Probably not. So let’s put that on the back-burner for two days and let’s work on – whether its revenue generation or a product issue or hiring somebody- what’s the most important thing today?
After you had the idea what were the next steps?
I really believe in testing the idea and asking: Do I want to work on this for ten years? I think that should be your baseline. My biggest fear with the influencer space was that I was not going to want to work with a bunch of 15-year- old girls making duck-faces. So I really needed to research the challenges influencers faced and asked: Is this a problem that I’ve just come up with or is this a real issue? I spent a lot of time talking to brands and influencers. I found that my idea kind of evolved very quickly, from, I think I can find and connect these people, to, we need to vet the audiences for brands. Influencers are also getting taken advantage of, actually. They’re very creative, super-awesome, amazing people, who all have really cool stories – the favourite part of my job is talking to influencers – but a lot of brands ask them to work for free. Or try to underpay them, when they’re getting something valuable out of it.
One of the first things I did when I started this company was decide to be influencer-first. In a marketplace, you have to decide. You’re building for both sides, but you have to choose one or the other, always. So, I said we will always choose to do what’s best for the influencer because if we do what’s best for the influencer, the brands will win in the long run. Because we’ll only have the best influencers on our platform. We are an invite-only platform, so we get to choose who is going to be there. If we take great care of them, they’ll take great care of us and our brands in return. We are the only marketplace, currently, that does not allow for any in-kind offers. 100% of the jobs that we offer on our platform are paid. That is partly because I don’t believe in making this a marketplace that is a race to the bottom. I don’t want to exacerbate the problem of gig-work being low income. I want the platform to be about empowerment. Especially, when you look at the number of people who are women, or people of colour, in this space. We are providing them with opportunities to provide for their families and for themselves, so it’s really important to me.
Did the idea evolve as things progressed?
I think a lot of times, founders start with a product in mind, and try to fit everyone in a box to use their product. What I wanted to do was start with the people. Understand how they operate their business, on a day to day basis, and then see if there was a way we could make it better or more efficient. So, I think it evolved by me just really trying to go deep and understand. For example, a lot of influencers have never had what you and I would consider to be a traditional office job. So, a lot of tools or software that could make their life more efficient, is just not being used, because the only tool they really use to manage their business is email. If you’re like me and you get 100 emails a day (and a lot of them do), how can you keep track of everything that you need to respond to? Some things will get lost. So, I thought that we could help this problem by creating a platform for influencers to engage and talk to each other.
The other thing I found out, and what makes Kyndoo unique, is that nobody else out there is trying to help the influencer. For the most part, our competition is a database full of contact information. Nobody has said to influencers that they want to make a tool to make their lives easier. This realisation helped the idea evolve from: I’m going to get information on their followers and sell that information. That is the service we provide to the brands, but it’s because we have these great relationships with influencers that we can give the brands better insights.
What were your experiences as a sole founder?
The advice I’d give myself is: work harder to find a co-founder earlier. I cannot tell you the difference that I already feel in the two and a half months that Jin has been fully on board. Being a solo founder is tough because you don’t have anyone to share your wins or your losses with. In order to be successful, you have to make sure you have an amazing support network, which I am lucky enough to have. I have a wife who has backed me from day one. I’ve never felt any pressure from my own home that I won’t be successful. She considers me a success for just trying. Same thing with friends and family members. I know that if I’m having a bad day, I can turn to them, call them, cry and say “I don’t even know why I’m crying”. That’s important.
With that being said, I was not willing to settle. I interviewed more than 50 people to find this person. I put them through an intense process which included a coding test. Jin and I get along really well. We both bring different skills to the table. His background fits in well with what we’re trying to accomplish in the long term.
Were there any low points that you can think of, along your journey so far? How did you get through them?
Leaning on my support network was the number one way I got through the low points. And just remembering that it’s okay to not end up winning. If this doesn’t work, then guess what, I have that list of other ideas to go and try.
The lowest point was prior to getting into 500, there was a gap from when we had gone to the workshop, to when we heard we had got in. The uncertainty at the time really led to pressure. I felt like I wasn’t going to get in. And 500 Startups was a big goal of mine from long before Kyndoo was even a thought. To have that part potentially not happen, was a low point, but then, in the end, it did happen, so it worked out.
Any funny or most memorable stories along the way?
My intern Zach and I have this running joke. There’s this guy we have on our platform, who does nothing but take pictures of pop tart boxes, and then give them funny names. I always say “Hey Zach, how many followers does that guy have”? And Zach says “too many “, and we laugh. In reality, the guy has like 60,000 followers. And they’re highly engaged and super into what he does. That’s the funny thing about influencer marketing. Not A day goes by, that I don’t see a profile where I think “What”?!
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
It would be, like I said, find a co-founder earlier. Advice that I did give myself and that I would love to share with others is: make sure that you are taking time for yourself. This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. You are not the guy who’s going to win the marathon. You are the guy who’s going to finish in six hours and just be proud that you did. You have to pace yourself to get to the finish line. So, if you need to stop and take a drink of water, do it.
What are your favourite books?
My favourite fiction book is called Waiting for Snow in Havana – Carlos Eire. It's based on a true story about a guy who came to the US from Cuba and spoke zero English, it’s one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read.
My favourite business book would have to be: