Revel GatheringsLisa Marrone | 2020-08-09
Could you give us a quick introduction to Revel?
We are Revel. We are a community of women above the age of 50, and pre-COVID we were an online to offline experience. Our members were coming to the site, meeting other women and we have created a platform whereby any member can host any event. That was the main vehicle through which members were making friendships. In the COVID world, Revel’s gone fully virtual. So now we, like everyone else, are hosting Zoom events for our members. And as California has emerged from Shelter in Place, we’re also now seeing members want to get out there and do socially distanced gatherings with other members.
We were very blessed to raise $2.5 million from Kirsten Green at Forerunner, about this time last year, as we were coming out of Y Combinator. We are loaded with that amount of money and building out the platform as we envision it, so we can scale Revel beyond the Bay, which is where we’re primarily based today.
What was your career journey prior to starting Revel?
I think I always had the entrepreneurial bug. When I was a girl, my favourite magazine was American Girl magazine, and there was this little column at the start of the Magazine that was “How She built it”. Usually, they were profiling other young women and girls who had an idea and had started a volunteer drive, or somehow raised some money, or figured out a way to bootstrap a teeny business. I was always so curious about that, and wondering how I could do that myself. I had all these ideas, not as much follow-through. And I just think that was something in my nature.
By the time I got to college, I was thinking about business but I didn’t really know anyone who had started a business (I was raised by my Mum – she was a teacher). To me, graduating from Yale, the place where people who seemed to be interested in business went was to Consulting. So I went to Bain and Company in New York, and I hated it, to be perfectly blunt. It was big and hierarchical but the people at Bain were incredible. All of the people in my Bain cohort were very entrepreneurially minded folks, but the actual work of being a consultant is the opposite of, it’s really detail-oriented and really microscopic, and that was not me. That was a little bit of a disconcerting moment – I didn’t know what that meant, as a 22-year-old. So I started asking myself: well if not this, then what?
I took an experimental mindset to figure that out, like trial and error, so just tried as many different experiences as I could get my hands on. One early experience was that I did an externship at a magazine called the New Republic, which had been around for a long time, but it had just gotten bought by a guy named Chris Hughes and he had added a fledgling business team. Though it wasn’t a startup experience, it felt like one and I loved it. There were six of us on the business team, no resources, figuring out how to usher a magazine into the digital era. It was right around this time that I was applying to graduate school. I ended up getting accepted to Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School for a joint degree and embarked on that path.
Having had the taste of the New Republic, I knew pretty clearly that I wasn’t going to emerge from the backend of graduate school and become a corporate lawyer or an investment banker. I was pretty firmly on the entrepreneurial path from that point. Everything I did from school was arming me with what I thought I would need to grow up and be an entrepreneur. I was fortunate to have a whole bunch of interesting experiences throughout that time. One of the most formative was meeting David Hornik, who was an investor at August Capital, and who at the time was recruiting for someone to join his firm. As a person who had been entirely East coast based, this was an amazing opportunity for me to come out to San Francisco and meet everyone who would be so helpful to Alexa and I when starting Revel. So I accepted his offer and became a VC, a principal, at August Capital and did that for two years before I felt like I had the confidence to go out and do what I wanted to do.
How did you come across the idea?
As A VC one’s job, in addition to befriending entrepreneurs, is to write thought pieces and become a thought leader. So I was putting a lot of thought into why is it that, pretty much to a tee, everyone who’s coming in to pitch me a consumer business is themselves a millennial and building for millennials? I was thinking about my mother, who is 69, and still lives in Virginia where I grew up. No one was pitching me any businesses that would be at all relevant to her.
Separately, I was thinking about the fact that as a VC, I’m investing in technology and by and large, technology has wreaked havoc on social connection. We’re sitting behind screens but we are not actually hanging out with each other anymore, and that is wreaking havoc on our mental health. I kind of realised that there is some synergy between these two ideas. Alexa, having worked in healthcare, was thinking about the same trends, especially the loneliness piece and how technology was driving us apart. We posed the provocative question of: could we build a technology company that increased social bonds? And made people feel more connected and healthier? We realised there was a huge opportunity to do that and to start with women of a certain age, who, because of a variety of transitions that happen in life, tend to be at risk of being isolated. Transitions could be: kids leaving the house, retirement and losing one’s career network, later in life people tend to move around, maybe to downsize, and this can also destroy social bonds. Divorce, separation or death of one’s spouse can happen at this time too. Given that it’s a time of transition, it’s all the more important to have a place to turn to for friendship and camaraderie, with other women who are going through the same things.
After you had the idea what were the next steps?
We quickly wrote up a YC (Y Combinator) application, we googled and found that the deadline was three weeks away. That was the catalyst for us getting the idea down on paper for the first time. And then YC ended up working out, which was amazing and accelerative. But we felt it was really important for us to come to the decision that we were going to proceed, whether or not YC decided to accept us. We made that decision to jump off the metaphorical cliff.
How did you deal with catering to a group of people you aren’t necessarily a part of?
That was a painful recognition, for me at least, I don’t want to put words into Alexa’s mouth. I certainly had some of the ego of being a founder. I thought we were building this great thing and that members would be super-appreciative. We got some feedback pretty quickly where people said “But why you guys? Why two 30-year olds building for us? Is this because you think we need it? Are you presuming that we’re lonely?” That was really hard to hear, because some of that was true. It caused some self-reflection, where we thought, “Okay, wait. What is our real purpose here? What are we going to do to accept the fact that we don’t fully know what it’s like to be one of our members?” And then the problem became how do we make sure we are actively avoiding our own stereotypes and biases as younger women? There are many steps that we took and continue to take today, but one was that we felt it was important to have someone of Revel age on our early team. We had been fortunate enough to meet Lauren, who became one of our community leads. She’s amazing. She’s a bundle of energy. So we brought her on, we have her perspective at every strategic conversation at Revel and we have now added many more women of Revel age to the team. And, as I mentioned earlier, really focussing on user research and prioritising that above all else.
At what point did you realise this idea had potential?
We, from the get-go, have been biased towards user research and positioning ourselves as close to our users as possible, so that we can learn, build what they want and iterate quickly. The first thing we did in YC was schedule as many focus groups with our members as possible. Anytime someone joined, we would invite her to coffee and drive to wherever she was, to sit down with her in person. In every one of those conversations, we would hear a variant of “I feel so invisible” or “Why is it that as I get older, people think that I don’t have experience that’s worth listening to?”. From the get-go, we realised that there is something real here. There’s something about her feeling unsupported and not recognized, and craving spaces where she felt the inverse.
And then once we started having actual events and started to build the site to have functionality so that people could be communicating without us being super involved, we started to hear all of this feedback like “how come this hasn’t existed till now?” and “thank you for building this”. It’s always felt that the need is real and we are trying to catch up with what our members are craving and wanting. If we fail, it will be because we haven’t moved fast enough or haven’t listened well enough, not because the need isn’t there. I think it’s a very unique position to be in as a startup because a lot of times, people have the opposite problem of having built out tonnes of amazing features but then realizing no one’s there to use them.
How did you meet your co-founders?
We met in business school and we were friends first, which everyone will tell you is a huge risk. And we felt that risk. We felt that the biggest risk was not Revel failing, but that somehow being co-founders would ruin our friendship. We had conversations upfront about what that would mean for us, and how we would check-in with each other both as founders and as friends. And so far, it has worked out very well!
How did your previous experience prepare you for your current venture? In what ways were you unprepared?
I think that entrepreneurship is, at least today, such a privileged sport. It seems like - looking out there at the world of founders - something that’s easy to do if you have nothing to lose and is also really easy to do if losing won’t impact you hugely. So I feel like VC and business school, from a network perspective, made it so that I had this incredible leg up and safety net. Which I felt acutely, because just two years prior, I would have been nobody and had no connections to Silicon Valley. I also would not have been in the financial position to feel comfy-cosy taking the risk. For me, that hammered home just how hard it must be otherwise.
I was unprepared for what happened after the raise. I knew up to that part because I’d been an investor. But as soon as the docs were signed, I had no idea what happened next. I think I had some naïve expectations about what investors do, despite having been an investor. I’ve had to learn how to have a productive relationship with an investor and make sure that we are asking for the help we need, rather than just expecting the help to come.
Did the idea evolve as things progressed?
The very earliest iteration was that we would build physical spaces where Revel members would congregate. We very quickly realised that that was a terrible idea because it’s a terrible business model, as WeWork has shown, but also because our members don’t want to drive to a physical location. That works for folks who are working, but for members who are transitioning their work, and for whom working is no longer part of their daily routine, they want to be out in the world having adventures and exploring.
How do you go about scaling a business focussed on personal relationships and meetings?
I will say that the in-person nature of it is really hard to scale, but if we are able to scale it, it’s a huge opportunity. Women above the age of 50 is 20% of the US population. Boomers are able to spend in a way that other generational categories aren’t. They have accumulated wealth and hit the jackpot of various recessionary timelines. And we know that Revel members are craving social connection. So the opportunity and the willingness to pay for it is out there. How we scale something dependent on women being able to meet is exactly the nut that we are working to crack from an operations perspective. We think about it as yes, it’s a really hard problem, but solving it is a competitive advantage and is, though hard, a repeatable playbook, that we could roll out to any location we expand to.
Were there any low points that you can think of, along your journey so far? How did you get through them?
We had put up a new member orientation on the site, here in Redwood City, back in December. It was crickets. Maybe two people signed up. Alexa and I are sitting in this restaurant, feeling sad that no one was interested in our event, and at that point, we were having a hard time getting the community going here in the peninsula. We’re at this restaurant, we have a sad platter of appetizers in front of us, we look across and there’s this vibrant birthday party of women going on. Probably of Revel age, we weren’t sure. We just felt so despondent. How did we get through it? It was motivating for us. Yes, this is really sad but we know we can do better. Let’s think about how we get to the level of that birthday party. How do we get it so that Revel events have that draw? I will say I can’t imagine how solo founders do it because every time I’ve felt despondent, having Alexa to riff off of has been what’s gotten me through.
Any funny or most memorable stories along the way?
When we pitched at YC our website crashed. At the time our developer was on vacation in France, going on a vineyard tour. So we’re desperately pinging Matt, and he’s saying “I’m picking grapes. I’ll get the website back up in a second”. It’s not a funny story, but it’s a very memorable one.
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
To be less afraid. Be okay with the risk, and trust yourself that you’ll figure it out.
What are your favourite books?
Right now, I’m on an Anne Lamott kick. She’s a Californian essayist, and she wrote a really lovely book about her son’s first year of life: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year.
Learn more about Revel at: https://www.hellorevel.com/
Learn more about Revel at: https://www.hellorevel.com/