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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Shutting Down a VC-Backed Startup to Build an $11k/mo Bootstrapped Business

Will Goto
Will Goto
November 16, 2021
Category of startup
Productivity
Country of startup
United States
Revenue of startups
$10k-$25k/mo
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Shutting Down a VC-Backed Startup to Build an $11k/mo Bootstrapped Business

Will Goto
Will Goto
November 16, 2021
Category of startup
Productivity
Country of startup
United States
Cause of failure of the startup

Will co-founded Rize, a productivity tool that tracks your time to help you build better work habits. In May, they hit the #1 position on Product Hunt. In October, 6 months after launching, they made +$11k in sales, while still being a two-person bootstrapped team.

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

My name is Will Goto, and I'm the co-founder and CEO of Rize.

Rize is a productivity tool that tracks your time to help you understand how you spend your time, improve your focus, and build better work habits. We provide a monthly subscription to use the service for $15 a month.

Rize Landing Page

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

Our story starts with Humble Dot, a company that I started with my co-founder in 2017. We raised over $3.1 million in funding over two rounds: the first was a $535k pre-seed round led by Afore Capital, and the second was a $2.6 million seed round led by Susa Ventures (Robinhood). We were on top of the world, our name was starting to get out in VC circles, we had an incredible team of 8, and people were beginning to recognize us.

But we failed.

Even with funding, we were unable to find product-market fit over three years. We tried every growth tactic and marketing strategy we could come up with, but nothing allowed us to hit the parabolic growth that VCs demanded. We ultimately shut down the company in the middle of 2020 and returned just over a third of our investment money to our investors.

My co-founder and I were pretty devastated, but it gave us time to reflect on why Humble Dot was such a complex product to market. One of the main reasons was that we built a product without ever choosing an initial niche or "wedge". We directly left our jobs at Twitter and began building an asynchronous communication tool meant for anyone to use. Eventually, we ended up with a tool that did many things well but never really was amazing at one thing for a specific group of people. In the end, we built something and tried to market it instead of doing the market research upfront and making the best product that a market needs.

Humble Dot Office
Moving out and closing down our office workspace in San Francisco

After shutting down Humble Dot, we started with software engineers as our target market. After hundreds of interviews, we found that "not feeling productive or efficient enough with time at work" was one of the biggest problems our target market had. We then tested value propositions that would help people with this productivity-focused goal in mind—that is when our path to Rize started.

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How did you go from idea to product?

Our idea was mainly to create a productivity tracker that represented time in a way where users could derive actionable insights to improve their productivity—a trait that most time management tools lacked. Based on our interviews and feedback from our waitlist, we needed something to help people know how they spend their time, improve their ability to focus, and build better habits for taking breaks.

Rize MVP Landing Page
Early version of Rize’s first website with the waitlist call-to-action.

With those three value propositions in mind, we got to work and kept iterating on our product with users from our waitlist. It was a relatively simple process of interviewing users, analyzing feedback, tweaking the product, and repeating. Because we knew who our target market was, we knew which feature requests to prioritize and which to discard. We didn't have that guidance when we were building Humble Dot.

In terms of resources, we didn't need any outside help, so our iterations were quick. I think this is a requirement for startups—the need to execute quickly allows startups to compete with incumbents. Without speed, a startup has no competitive edge, in my opinion.


Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

Our marketing strategy started before we built anything. We looked at competitors in the space and picked a position that would make the most sense for what we wanted to build and what our target market would resonate with. Any marketing effort we did later greatly benefited from this initial work.

Overall, I think there were three primary tactics that we used to grow the business:

Referral program - we give both the person giving and receiving the referral a free month of Rize. I think this system has worked exceptionally well with Rize due to its aesthetic and brand. People love sharing cool stuff with their friends and colleagues, and providing a monetary incentive behind it helped.

Content creators - leveraging creators is essentially the same tactic, in principle, as the referral program but on a one-to-many relationship. We either give the creator a lifetime subscription or a sponsorship in exchange for YouTube videos, tweets, and other pieces of content that have the potential to reach our target audience.

Lifetime & annual sales - revenue is much more helpful for growing your business when you get it upfront. When you're starting, earning $80 in one month is probably 100x more valuable to you than getting $100 over a year. Our cash flow is more than double that of our MRR, and because of that, we can use the money to reinvest in growth initiatives right away.

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

I couldn't be happier with our progress. We hit over $11,000 in sales for October—just 6 months after hitting the #1 product of the day on Product Hunt. We are proud of this milestone, mainly because we're still a two-person team without any outside funding sources.

Rize Desktop App
Screenshot of the Rize desktop app as-is today

Our purpose with Rize is to help anyone achieve their productivity goals with actionable insights and data. Those goals can be anything from working fewer hours to improving their ability to focus. At the moment, the product can track and show your data back to you so that you may draw your conclusions, but we want to include our own suggestions and methodologies as well. Our vision for Rize is to tell new users how to achieve their goals with minimal effort.


Since starting Rize, what have been your main lessons?

Every startup is different. Tactics and strategies that work for one may not work for another, even if the businesses are incredibly similar. We initially thought SEO would be our best tactic for growth since it's an "obvious" choice for the type of tool we're selling. It turned out to be the hardest for us to break into and gain traction. We also didn't expect using influencers would be something that worked as well.

I think for startups, you simply have to try many different approaches and tactics yourself, learn from them, then refine or change your approach. There's only so much that other people can do to help you grow.


What tools & resources do you recommend?

Find friends who are also building businesses. The journey can be lonely and isolating, but it doesn't have to be that way, especially if you aren't doing well. Being around others who are going through the same thing helps you stay inspired and motivated to continue.


Where can we go to learn more?

For Rize, simply check out our site. For startup talk, I'm very active and accessible on Twitter @wrgoto, and I love helping out my peers.

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