Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Raising $5.5M to Build the Community Platform for Creators

Andrew Guttormsen
Andrew Guttormsen
December 29, 2020
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
United States
Revenue of startups
No Data
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Raising $5.5M to Build the Community Platform for Creators

Andrew Guttormsen
Andrew Guttormsen
December 29, 2020
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
United States
Cause of failure of the startup

Andrew, Sid and Rudy were employees at Teachable. Working there, they came across many creators wanting to build communities around their audiences but lacking the tools to do it. Circle aimed to solve this. They built the first version in one month and soon began to get early customers. Since then, they have raised $5.5M and got thousands of customers.

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Hi Andrew! Who are you and what are you currently working on?

Hi! My name is Andy, I’m 32 and I’m based in New York. I’m one of the co-founders of Circle, a modern community platform, where I lead growth and marketing.

Circle allows you to easily create your own premium online community. The community is white labeled and it can be integrated directly into your website.

Inside of your Circle community, you can host content, resources, and live video events for members. Members, at the same time, can have discussions and send messages between them.

Circle's homepage

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

My co-founders and I worked at a company called Teachable for 4 or 5 years. While we were there, we noticed something interesting happening in the creator market. 

Creators are people making money from their passion, generally building an audience, connecting people, and teaching online. A lot of these people create content and, by the time we started Circle, there were already a lot of tools to host this content.

However, there weren’t many tools to host the creator’s audiences. Therefore, we decided to create a tool that allowed these creators to build a community really easily and integrate it within their tech stack and websites.

How did you go from idea to product?

While in Teachable, my co-founders and I were always looking and chatting about projects and stuff we could work on.

That’s when my co-founders Sid and Rudy started Circle, just as a side-hustle. They began by building a little version of the product which took them about a month. They kept adding new features over the following two months, and, soon, they got a few people willing to try it out.

At that time, it was a private version. We only invited some creators we already knew, mainly from our jobs at Teachable. Rudy also knew many course creators from his own web development and design business, so he invited them as well to try the tool.

From there, Sid and Rudy began to iterate really quickly based on the feedback of the initial customers. They spent a couple of months where they'd add one or two customers at a time, every few weeks.

That kept in that way until January 2020, when we said: “This is enough of a product for people to actually get value from. What if we actually go out and turn this into a company?”. That’s when Circle was born.

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

We launched Circle in August 2020. From January until August, all we did in terms of marketing was to create a landing page with an email waiting list. We were able to grow that list to thousands of people who expressed their interest in the tool. 

When users subscribed to the waiting list, they also had to fill a survey saying who they were, how they wanted to use Circle, what they were trying to accomplish, what their use case was, and what were they willing to pay for it. Based on their responses, we decided if it was a great fit or not. If it was, we invited the user to a free trial of the beta version. Once the trial ended, we told the user about Circle’s monthly price and hopefully, it would pay.

To better onboard the customers and get their feedback, we did hundreds of 1-on-1 demos. It was a really manual process - I had around 7-10 onboarding calls every day, each of them being 30-40 minutes. However, it was a great way to grow our revenue and improve retention.

During the 6 months prior to the launch, we worked really closely with our customers in order to improve the product. We had our own Circle community where customers could share ideas on how they were using Circle or thoughts on what was missing in the platform. Customers really felt connected to us and the brand, which also boosted word of mouth. I highly recommend creating a community of your customers.

Eventually, we decided to carry out a public launch (here’s a post we did on Medium about it). To do so, we created a more marketing homepage, which included the stories and testimonials from some of our customers.

We launched on Product Hunt and ended up as the #1 product of that day. Having a list of customers helped us achieve this position, as we announced to them that we were featured on PH that day.

We also got some press coverage for our launch. We managed to get featured on TechCrunch, for example.

How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?

We're growing really quickly right now. We're adding hundreds of customers per month. We're a venture-backed startup so we have really ambitious goals in terms of the vision that we want Circle to realize.

Circle's investors

The launch particularly brought a huge growth and boosted revenue - we did as much revenue in that month as we had done in the six months before it.

By December 2020, the team is formed by 12 people (but we’re hiring!), including the three co-founders, some engineers, and some customer support people. Basically, everybody is either under Product or Engineering except for myself and our Customer Support Head. We’re really focused on product engineering and customer success.

Since starting Circle, what have been your main lessons?

I've always been surprised by how patient our initial customers were with us. At the time many of them joined, Circle was missing a lot of the “table stakes'' features and things that any community tool should have. Despite that, our customers were incredibly supportive. Literally, Circle wouldn't exist without the support of the first 10-20 customers that took a big chance on us.

We’ve found that people are very open-minded and very patient if you're just upfront with them. That was one of the biggest lessons for me: to not try and make everything perfect before getting it out there into the world.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

We’re in a very competitive space. Therefore, one of the challenges we face is making our value proposition and differentiating from some of the more established tools that are out there, like Slack communities and Facebook groups.

Another of the challenges is helping our creators have engaged communities and have members to interact between them. A lot of times, online communities can lead to ghost towns. Therefore, we help our creators build active communities that are valuable for their members.

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

One of the biggest things I was worried about early on was doing 1-on-1 demos and showing a very early product.

When creators use our tool, they are showing off Circle to their entire community. They rely on it for their business. That's a big responsibility that a lot of times, we feel the weight of.

I lead marketing and growth so I’m often the one who’s talking about Circle and positioning it in the market. And I really do want to make sure that the right people end up using Circle and that we disqualify the people that’s not the right fit.

What I would've told myself early on would be to just get really clear about who our best customers are, and try being really upfront about whether or not Circle is the right fit for their specific use case.

What tools & resources do you recommend?

We absolutely love Loom. We use it all day, every day, for everything.

Regarding websites I check, I mostly read email newsletters and Twitter. I also participate in Circle communities.

As for books, I’ve particularly enjoyed Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight.

Where can we go to learn more?

Make sure to check Circle. You can go ahead and play around for free to see what it would be like to create a paid community within it.

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