3 NYC founders share tips on how to turn a startup dream into a reality

November 17, 2016

Before a startup becomes a company it exists as an idea — an entrepreneur’s whim to solve a problem by filling a gap in a market. 

We caught up with three successful New York-based founders to find out how they took their ideas to realities. Here’s what we found:  

Matt Straz, CEO and co-founder of Namely

Built In: When did you first have the idea for Namely?

Matt Straz: I founded Namely in 2012 to solve a problem I’d personally experienced. I’d worked for large global companies and created two startups, but I never had good tools to manage my people and teams. It occurred to me that the employee database holds the company’s most valuable data, but legacy HR systems don’t make it accessible. I thought there should be an HR platform that’s friendly, intuitive, and used by everyone, every day. That was the original idea for Namely.
 

Built In: What was the first step in taking Namely from an idea to an actual company?

MS: I went door-to-door in New York City and pitched my vision to investors and customers. When I got enough of them to say yes, I knew I had something.

Built In: What was the hardest part of taking Namely from an idea to a company?

MS: The hardest part was finding the first handful of employees when the company was still mostly a vision. You have to find true believers who can help you do the impossible. Those people are rare, and I’m thankful to every one of them who joined me.

Built In: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs looking to turn their ideas into companies?

MS: Always be raising. As a founder, your first job is to make sure you don’t run out of money. It’s easiest to raise from investors you know based on relationships built when you didn’t need anything. I also find my conversations with investors help me test whether I have a clear vision and an attractive business.

 

Joel Montaniel, CEO and co-founder of SevenRooms

Built In: When did you first have the idea for SevenRooms? And what was the first step in taking SevenRooms from an idea to an actual company?

Joel Montaniel: SevenRooms actually started as a very different product from the one we’ve built today. At the time, my co-founder Allison Page and I were analysts at Credit Suisse, consistently working 100-plus hour weeks. On the occasional night we weren’t working late, we always had a list of hot restaurants and nightclubs we’d heard about and were eager to check out. Unfortunately, for nearly all of the places on this list, you either had to book months in advance or know someone to get a reservation.

Trying to solve this problem, Allison and I, along with our third co-founder Kinesh Patel, spent two years developing the first SevenRooms product aimed to help first-time customers get access and receive the same treatment a regular would get. We made every mistake that first-time founders make, and the product failed miserably. However, as much as it hurt, we were lucky to fail fast, taking a major learning away from the experience. We discovered that we weren’t solving a problem for hospitality operators, giving them little to no reason to adopt our product.

The second time around, we made it our mission to solve the major pain points of operators, not consumers. Our initial focus was exclusively on the nightclub industry, where customer service is the only differentiator from one club to the next — as the champagne and music are identical from club to club. Over the next two years, we spent countless nights working side-by-side with operators to learn the business. We discovered that at the core of hospitality is the feeling of recognition that brought guests back time and time again. With this in mind, we set out to make highly personalized service easier by helping operators better track guest data across their properties, capturing and tracking richer data than ever before. The guest profile is available seamlessly to the operator from reservation booking to seating management and marketing so they can make every guest feel special, even if it’s someone’s first day on the job.

Over time, more and more of our clients started asking us to bring our CRM-driven platform into the restaurant space and, after much deliberation, we launched our dining product in 2015. Today we have built one of the industry’s most comprehensive platforms, with nightlife and restaurant clients throughout the world that rely on us to run their businesses. We believe we have the best technology platform in the hospitality industry for both dining and nightlife operators.

Built In: What was the hardest part of taking SevenRooms from an idea to a company?

JM: The toughest part of taking SevenRooms from an idea to a company was accepting that we weren’t experts in the hospitality space. We didn’t realize that to create a product that operators would readily adopt, we had to learn about their real needs and pain points. There were no short cuts. For two straight years, Allie and I worked side-by-side with operators to learn the ins and outs of an industry that we otherwise had no experience in.

Here, we realized that the key to hospitality is personalization. It’s that feeling of being known and appreciated that brings guests back again and again.The new SevenRooms product results in better service for the consumer, but is entirely geared towards addressing each and every pain point of the operator, making better, more personalized service easier for those providing it. 

Today, SevenRooms offers dining, nightlife and hospitality operators the most powerful tools available to manage front-of-house seating and reservations, track and capture guest data, point-of-sale integration, predictive analytics and an open API platform.

Built In: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs looking to turn their ideas into companies?

JM: The best advice I would give is to talk to as many potential customers as possible before you begin building your product. When we were starting out, we made the classic first-time founders mistake, overbuilding the product with features that no one needed or wanted. We didn’t consider whether we were creating a product that solved a big enough pain point. We took a high-level consulting approach and assumed because we were 'smart' that we could build a product in an industry that was completely foreign to us. We didn’t talk to enough of our potential customers and really understand their world on a granular level. To succeed in the technology sector, you have to be solving a problem that exists, so make sure you immerse yourself and get first-hand knowledge about what your customers care about.
 
 
 

Aaron Sherman, CEO and co-founder at SevenFifty

Built In: When did you first have the idea for SevenFifty?

Aaron Sherman: Sometime around 2009, when I was still working as a sommelier and beverage director. At the same time, my co-founder Gianfranco Verga was working on the wholesale distributor and importer side of the industry. We’d both been heavily immersed in building our careers in the industry, and we were incredibly frustrated with the inefficiencies we had to deal with on a daily basis. We knew firsthand how time consuming, messy, and outdated the pen-and-paper method of buying and selling alcohol was, and saw that the same types of problems we were encountering existed everywhere along the supply chain. When we met our third co-founder Neal Parikh, who’s a tech veteran and major cocktail geek, together we saw and understood where and how technology could innovate this industry in a truly impactful way.

Built In: What was the first step in taking SevenFifty from an idea to an actual company?

AS: We had been spending time – nights and weekends, Neal finishing his PhD work at Stanford and Gianfranco and I full time in the industry, working on the MVP for SevenFifty, for about a year and half. At that point the whole thing still felt completely surreal, so it wasn’t until we made the call, quit our jobs, and begin working on the project full time that it felt like an actual company. We started out working from The Tippler, a bar in the basement of Chelsea Market, which we’ve always considered our version of the Silicon Valley 'garage' and completely fitting given the nature of what we do.

Built In: What was the hardest part of taking SevenFifty from an idea to a company?

AS: Bringing innovation to any 'old-fashioned' industry will be difficult, because you’re bound to be met with skepticism and resistance to change. A big part of overcoming this is educating your intended user base. In our case, industry professionals thought we might undo the three-tiered system and the business relationships they relied on. But SevenFifty’s intent was never to disrupt the industry in that manner. Instead, we’ve always aimed to streamline and add efficiency to an existing system. At its core, the platform we've built unites the three tiers and makes it easier for people to do their jobs.

Built In: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs looking to turn their ideas into companies?

AS: Although it’s a bit cliche with startups at this point, I believe that working on something that you’re passionate about is key. In our case, we’d spent an enormous part of our professional and social lives somehow connected to the alcohol industry, so to have an opportunity to make a legitimate, high level impact to the way the industry operated was gratifying. This has been helpful for two major reasons. For starters, being passionate about the industry has helped us remain engaged in the work that we’re doing because of a strong sense of personal connection to the user and the problems that you’re solving. Second, having a solid working knowledge of the alcohol industry has enabled us to build credibility with our customer and make meaningful product decisions. We’re motivated by the significance of what we’re doing in a very personal way, so I’d say that if that’s a missing component to what you’re working on, it’s probably worth taking a step back to consider another alternative.

How did you take your startup from an idea to a reality? Let us know or tweet us @builtinnewyork.

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