Episode No:71

Maximizing Product, Market, Engagement, and Fundraising

Mike Molinet

Founder, Thena

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Ep#71: Business Synergies: Maximizing Product,
Market, Engagement, and Fundraising ft. Mike Molinet (Founder, Thena)
Ep#71: Business Synergies: Maximizing Product, Market, Engagement, and Fundraising ft. Mike Molinet (Founder, Thena)
  • Ep#71: Business Synergies: Maximizing Product, Market, Engagement, and Fundraising ft. Mike Molinet (Founder, Thena)

Episode Summary

In today’s episode, we chat with Mike Molinet, the founder of Thena. Mike discusses several interesting things like the challenges of finding product market fit, offers advice for starting a company, and highlights the significance of latching onto market or platform shifts. Customer engagement is crucial, and he suggests personalized documentation and leveraging AI. Community building on platforms like Slack is essential, as is establishing deep relationships with investors. Furthermore, he discusses the importance of cultivating deep and meaningful relationships throughout one’s entrepreneurial journey.
Key Takeaways Time
Different tools and products have varying community engagement levels, with developer-focused tools often leading, facilitated by platforms like Slack. 17:29
Vela secured recent seed funding, but today’s fundraising climate emphasizes traction and monetization plans, unlike the more risk-friendly atmosphere of 2014. 19:35
Fundraising tactics have evolved, with modern investors looking for strong unit economics and monetization plans, demanding a different approach from founders. 20:36
LinkedIn is an underutilized resource for networking, particularly in a remote work setting, enabling meaningful connections between individuals. 20:36
Building deep relationships is paramount, surpassing traditional sales tactics and automation tools in creating a supportive and collaborative community. 25:52
Mike expresses gratitude for the opportunity to share insights, and there’s anticipation that Vela will make substantial contributions in the industry. 27:10

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Mike Molinet 0:02 Find some bigger market trend platform shift whatever latch on to that. Pick a direction that you generally want to go. And you'll figure out product market fit if you iterate enough along the way. Taylor Kenerson 0:14 Welcome to the Hyperengage podcast, we are so happy to have you along our journey. Here we uncover bits of knowledge from some of the greatest minds in tech. We unearth the hows, whys and whats that drive the tech of today. Welcome to the movement. Adil Saleh 0:33 Hey, greetings, everybody, this is Adil. And with my co host, Taylor Kenerson, this special guest, Mike from, you know, Thena, he was also a part of a Branch team back in the year. So for about nine years, it's been there, we will definitely explore his journey at branch and then how he transitioned his his core corresponding skill set experiences, you know, practices and is also growing pretty fast. Thank you very much, Mike, for taking the time. Mike Molinet 1:04 Thanks for having me. Excited to chat. Taylor Kenerson 1:07 So I don't want to I don't want to take too much time on this. But you have to you have to tell us so you started kindred prints. And obviously it didn't aspire to maybe what the initial thinking that you had. So what kept you going? And what inspired you to continue the journey of building companies after you didn't have quote unquote, the most successful run with your first idea and like bringing that to market? Mike Molinet 1:35 Yeah, it's, it's hard. I'll give you the short version, which is I think we were lucky that while we're building Kindred, we suffered from enough problems that we tried to solve ourselves around the mobile linking space, the measurement space for our app. And for context forever. For the listeners. We built a mobile Apple's a photobook making app in 2013. We tried to grow it, we grew it to maybe 100,000 downloads, but couldn't really get past that. And in a way that was cost effective. Were CAC, you know, exceed, was lower than LTV. And so we built a bunch of stuff trying to solve that. And then when we kind of sat down one day, and we said, we don't think this is going to be the big business that we hoped it would be. We asked ourselves, what do we know about the mobile ecosystem that maybe we could work on, we didn't know if the next thing was going to be big, but we decided to work on that. So it kind of partly parlayed that into kind of the next thing, the next project that eventually became branch. If we didn't have that nugget of an idea, I think we would have given it another six months maybe of trying, but I'm not sure that we would have necessarily kept going as a founding team. I think if we had gone another six months, not found anything, we might have kind of parted ways. And I might have gone to get a job. So it's not easy. It's not easy to keep going when, when you have kind of you struggled with a couple failed startups. And I think what kept us going was we had an idea that we were interested in solving, because we tried to solve it for ourselves. Adil Saleh 3:06 Amazing, very interesting. And also Mike, I was, you know, more reading on your journey and branch. And at that point, and you know, the industry was more towards like moving from desktop to mobile. And there were players like snip li they were doing Kyle and things of which you are actually serving the you guys were sharing the market addressable market at that point. So what kind of challenges you had initially what when it comes to finding the right product market fit? And making sure you position the product? And with the with the right messaging and all of that, of course, you've been wearing a lot of different hats at that point. What was that? Mike? Like at that point? Mike Molinet 3:43 Yeah, it just in terms of finding the right product market fit and the challenge, because there's a lot of challenges, existential challenges, really, in the early stages to start the first few years at least, but specifically within product market fit, I think, for us. And I think for a lot of people, it's a journey, I think it's easy to kind of look at startups that have traction or successful raise funding, get customers and look at them and say, Man, they knew what they were doing from the beginning. Nobody knows what they're doing. From the beginning, we didn't know we're doing from the beginning. And anyone that looks like they know what they're doing, they don't. And so usually what it is, is you have some nugget of an idea that that's enough to get you excited to say, Yeah, let's pursue this. Almost always, that is not the thing that is going to become the business, right. But what it does is it sets you on a trajectory or a path in the general direction that you can utilize to learn talk to customers, talk to prospects, etc. And what you do is you navigate from there. So what it is, is the way I think about it, sometimes I describe to people it's like, you know, the general mission, that general mission is to get to the top of a mountain that you see in the distance, right? There's some big thing that's happening, you're like I want to get there, and you start down a path but that path isn't going to be necessarily the path that ultimately gets you there. So what do you need to do? You need to take a different path you need to create your own path you need to kind of change direction need to cross To create whatever it is, that is, I think the biggest thing so there is no straight line, right? And you see, sometimes those graphics like success isn't the straight line. It's like this, right? That's true. And it's true with product market fit. It takes years to find product market fit. Even with Deena, we've been working on Dena for a year, we feel like we've really good signs of product market fit, you've got whatever, 100 b2b companies using us, etc. And we still don't say that we have product market fit because we don't, right, because until we can get to a certain scale, let's call it 10 million arr. We don't believe that we have product market fit, because you have to anyone can get to like a millionaire, I believe, like with enough effort, like you can get there. The question is, can you get to 10 million? Can you get beyond that? Do? Are you building something that has potential to build to, for example, at least in venture backed companies to 100 million arr. And beyond? The second thing that I'll say here, too, that we did that the advice that I have for people is even though you don't know what product market fit is gonna look like you don't know what that product is going to be, then the question is like, Well, why should I even start working on something? Or how do I know if something's worth working on? Or not? Because there's a lot of tarpit ideas, there's a lot of bad ideas, there's a lot of things that you could waste three years on, and never have any sort of traction. I've seen friends do that. I've even done it with some of my previous startups. I think for us what we what happened at branch, what happened with Athena is what we found was a massive market trend or platform shift that was happening. And we latched on to that because if you latch on to something like that, it doesn't matter what your initial idea is, what matters is that you're in something that's going to be so big, and growing, that you're going to figure it out, and you're gonna figure out something that has value along the way, one of my branch co founders, Alex, he said something that stuck with me in 2014. And I've said this probably like 1000 times, but he said, I want to be in an industry because we're in the photo book industry, right? Like mobile apps, decent photo book industry terrible. Like you don't want to be printing photo books in 2013. Or today because that is not a growing industry, right? Like that was a declining industry. And he said, I want to be in a market or an industry that is so big that even if we faceplant, we faceplant into a pile of cash. And that really stuck with me because it's like you want to be working on something or in an industry or in a market shift or platform shift that even if you eff up along the way, you're falling down into money, like and that's what happened with branch transparently like, well, we got into mobile. So actually before kindred it was it was Fitbit. For dogs. It was a hardware device, right? But we got into mobile apps because we're like, oh, mobile apps are growing. This is a massive platform shift. And that is a perfect example of we worked on it for a year, when we started kindred was a photo book Making app. But a year later, we were pivoting into branch. And that like who could no one could have predicted that. Same thing with Tina, right? Like our bet on the platform shift with thena is that messaging platforms, especially b2b messaging platforms, like Slack teams, even discord now what, like these types of ways of communicating are becoming more and more dominant, right. And we believe that email is becoming less and less important. Now, some companies still exist entirely on email, email will still be there for a very long time, maybe forever. But there's such a big shift happening in terms of messaging platforms, Slack teams, etc, that we believe that there's something that's going to be there. And even if today's product of thena is not the thing that it is five years from now, we're latching on to that big platform shift that we believe is irreversible, we don't think slack and teams and messaging platforms are gonna go away, we just think they're gonna become more dominant. So that's the kind of like the the bigger thing, which is, find some bigger market trend, platform, shift, whatever latch onto that, pick a direction that you genuinely want to go. And you'll figure out product market fit if you iterate enough along the way. Adil Saleh 8:43 Yes. And you're basically living with your customers, you're trying to understand your customer the whole time. And you're trying to shape your product in the in the same way and evolving with their goals. And that's delivering value time to time to the customer. So now talking about customer engagement, talking about in you know, integration integration first companies like with Slack, Salesforce, you know, there's so many in the industry. So how do you see planning out when it comes to generative AI? Like of course, when it comes to you know, language models onto the texts, and messaging and all of that so how do you guys are planning of incorporating if you are trying to incorporate the language models of January they Mike Molinet 9:29 speak more kind of like generally are broadly about general AI customer engaged and all that sort of rather than specifically Theano? Because like we're already using AI we're gonna continue doing more. Here's all say about I think where we're currently at May 2023. With AI it is amazing it is a dust storm though it is like so much chaos right now that you just know a lots happening but you don't know where things are going to settle and you don't know where what direction things are gonna go and you just like it's we just need to kind of let things settle down over the next couple quarters next couple years, I think what's interesting broadly, or at least my hypothesis of where I think AI generative ai a16z has this great like article about since AI, which is like, you know, we don't need more content. And it's actually interesting thought, right. And I think it ties to customer engagement, we don't necessarily need more content, or even if you have more content with generative AI, which is like, Hey, we're gonna create a bunch of stuff, what you actually need is, and what I think will add more value and needs to add value today is synth AI, which is like, you don't need more, I don't need 1000 more blog posts, what I need is a condensed and condensed mint, condensing of all the content out there to tell me the one nugget of information that I need. Right. And I think that's really interesting, because when I think about customer engagement, a lot of times like customers will have questions. Okay, cool. You can tap into a knowledge base that you have, or maybe you create knowledgebase articles over time based on the questions that customers ask, whether it be in Slack, or email, or wherever. And you can create a bunch of content. But really, what you need then is customers ask a question, and you need to be able to bring that down, be able to give them exactly the solution that they need, right. And you think about docs, right? Like a branch, or, I don't know, 1000 pages long. And like, frankly, you could search but that's hard. And like, there's going to read all that. And so it's no wonder we have 1000s of support tickets every month that were basically just questions that existed in the docs that somebody didn't find a read. And what you really want is just being able to ask, Hey, I have a, you know, this type of app, I need to integrate this SDK, I'm trying to achieve this, what do I need to do? And then there's your answer, right. And it's kind of like custom documentation, which we tried to do at branch, which I always had this idea around. Because it comes to other customer engagement even with like fina, right, like, we have a lot of our customers, customers ask questions in Slack, right? Eventually, we'll be able to automate responses to a lot of that stuff, and eliminate the need for CSM solutions engineers or architects support to even have to respond or engage. And then you can have an escalation path, etc. But what it's going to do is it's going to enable those employees to be doing higher value work, because at branch I remember our CSM, spending so much time answering questions and helping customers onboard those CSM is are solutions engineers, that if they could have spent more time understanding the objectives of the customer, the the KPIs, what they were trying to achieve, how they were, you know, getting there, et cetera, and then providing guidance, more strategic guidance, if they had more time, that would have been amazing, right. And it is amazing, and it's getting better. So yeah, I think it's like this interesting space where it's like, yeah, generally I create a bunch of content cool. But really, what you need is that, that can condensing of that content, for the very specific need of that person at that given, Adil Saleh 12:50 you just need a data that drives action, that drives action for you. And you don't have to waste time, as you're already doing it. So there's no point you want to incorporate in club, you know, gentleman via chat with you, and all of that. A lot of these, you know, characters like HubSpot, Salesforce, they have their for the existing customers, you know, they can, you know, talk to the CRM and do, you know, intersecting some of the chat DBT models as well. And that is, as far as for the customers, it's, it's working pretty fine. But when it comes to customer engagement, in a nutshell, as you mentioned, it's still like, Central. So, you know, we need to make sure where it settles, and we need to wait and see. So now, on the end customer this Taylor Kenerson 13:35 before, awesome before you before diving into this, too, it's also really important to highlight that, yeah, AI is really, it's a great tool. And it allows the human to actually do the work that often computers can't, which is being the creative aspect of that relationship and actually hearing what the customer is, and being that bridge, and using it as a method to drive better action and more quality tasks and a word, a better workflow. But at the end of the day, it's not something that's going to completely at this point, you know, take over certain things that in a role that, you know, you need that human touch point and that human creativity to come in and make that valuable action. And that's really big. Mike Molinet 14:21 Yeah, and even expand beyond this, which is like I was chatting about this with somebody else recently, which is as AI becomes more dominant within all of our roles and all of our lives, including, you know, customer engagement, customer success, etc. What's going to become increasingly important at the same time is the personal relationships, right? And when I think about sales, like you can automate just about everything in sales, you could automate everything. But at the end of the day, when I look at actually what gets deals done, it is not the lead routing, the calendar scheduling, the automated like personalization of emails, it is the relationships and I think that's going to be increasingly important because when i i look at some of the Less deals and even, you know, companies that I've sold to where it's, you know, you do all the automated stuff, you do the high volume stuff, you do the outbound stuff, you do everything, right, nothing works, then you invite somebody to dinner, you build a personal relationship, you text them afterwards. And then a week later, you're doing a demo that it took five years to try to get in all the other methods. And so the point there is, I think just personal relationships are gonna become increasingly important, which is great, because like aI cannot replace that. And I would argue, actually, that the more AI there is doing a lot of the kinds of the day to day stuff, the more important that the relationship building aspect of customer engagement is going to be, which is like, it's kind of an inverse way of thinking where I think some people are like, Oh, AI is going to take over and then we're not going to be needed, like, No, I think it's gonna be the opposite. It's just that the activities are going to look look a little bit different. I'm a big fan of engaging people in mixers, meetups, dinners, coffee, whatever it is just building that personal relationships. I've seen how far Adil Saleh 15:56 that goes. Absolutely love that. And we're also running a meetup in New York City, early next month, and we're trying to apply the same approach, because it's all about the, you know, connection on values and intuitions. And that's not possible. You know, there was one blog, I was reading, Sam Altman, he wrote about the remote culture that they build. And it was some sort of mistake. And he mentioned that it's certainly really hard to develop trust between people, with your customers with your team members. It's so hard remotely using technology. So you got to make sure that you show up and you make them feel heard. And that's human connection. Mike Molinet 16:39 Yeah. And think about where we met. Right. We met at a meet up. Taylor and I met at a meet up and like, you could have emailed me and I just, you know, I wouldn't have seen it wouldn't have paid attention. But we meet at a meet up. One minute conversation. Taylor says, I've got a podcast interested, like, yes, cool. Let's do it. And we schedule it, right? Like, those types of connections are irreplaceable, I would say. Adil Saleh 17:01 Love that. So we spoke about customer and consumer engagement. What about community movements, there are so many communities out on, on Slack, like there are some open source products as well, they have their entire customer base, you know, interacting inside Slack. We have, you know, products like heat, they have community inside Slack, their entire customer base inside Slack. So, how the guys are making efforts towards, you know, incorporating communities? Mike Molinet 17:29 Yeah, I just joined the linear community last night, it had something like 8000 people, and I'm just like, Oh, my God, because we just started using linear this this week and got connected with their team. Yeah, I think it varies depending on the type of tool and technology, right, because I think certain certain types of tools, technologies, products, companies, really, I think favor having a community and some don't, we tried to, we actually had a pretty good developer community and a meetup community at branch because we were very developer focused. And I don't know if this is true, but my experience has been that I think developers tend to lean into communities a little bit more. So if you have a developer tool, technical product, there, I tend to see a higher volume and a higher engagement from those types of communities than maybe if you have something that, frankly, is maybe a little bit less technical or even just kind of set it and forget it, right? Like there's certain products that are like it never need to touch it again, like, you don't really need a community around that. So linear mix panel, Heap loft, like all these companies, they have communities and they're big. I think it's great. And I don't I don't know, I haven't formed like an extensive opinion on this. But I would say that it is super important. I think that they're they've always been there, I think what's happening is now there's a shift to the way in which we're engaged in community. So in the early days of branch 2014, before you could really do communities on Slack. And there's a few different reasons around that. But part of it was connecting workspaces. Part of it was, the links would expire, like, so you can like easily invite people so. But before you do that, like we were on Stack Overflow, we built like a decent community on Stack Overflow, we built our decent median meetup community. And we're just like trying to build our own community, but without any of these community platforms or without Slack. So I think it's always been there. I think some of the tools, whether it's slack or some of the actual community based tools, they're building more and more that I think, add value to communities. And so it makes it easier to engage. So yeah, big fan of a lot of opportunity there for sure. Cool, Adil Saleh 19:35 cool. So in the last six or seven minutes that we have, so where is now Vela heading, congratulations, you just recently received funding, which is good with some of the you know, very good, very big VC firms. So where is now pillar heading in terms of go to market in terms of some of the product integrations that you're trying to do in the next, I would say a couple months. You can share a bit on that. Mike Molinet 20:07 Yeah. So for context for the listeners, we just announced our seed funding from first round and Lightspeed and really excited to kind of get things going. It's interesting time, right? Like this is raising funds now versus 2014. When we raised our seed for branches, totally different. Taylor Kenerson 20:25 Mike, sorry to interrupt, but go into that a little bit like differences in this funding and like how the tactics used and are things the same? Obviously not. But yeah, dive into that a bit. Mike Molinet 20:36 Yeah, so 2014, there was so much money floating around, there's still a lot of money floating around, frankly. But in 2014, it seemed a lot easier just because people were taking bets, like we're a couple years out of the recession, from 2008. And people were like really starting to bet. And it just felt a little bit easier. People were willing to place a $3 million bet on on something that was unproven. And this time around, like, definitely looking for a little bit more traction. thinking a little bit more about unit economics, like in the beginning branch was basically like, our approach was, hey, we're gonna go after its developer community, we're not even gonna try to charge any revenue for the first two years, we're gonna get adoption with developers and then move up market. And in today's environment, it's like, Okay, what's your monetization plan? Right, like, which is good. It's like, that's how you run a real business. But I think it's, it requires a little bit of different tactics. Like, for example, one of the things was ACV, like, What's your average? ACV? That's a question that we never really gotten the fundraising, at least in the early days of branch. But what firms are looking at is like, Hey, I've seen enough of these companies come in, and yeah, they can get 1000 customers, but at a 5k 2k, ACV, average ACV. And that's just not going to get you where you need to go. And so they I think investors are rightly kind of being a little bit more thoughtful. Now, if I was a seed investor, right now, I'd be placing as many bets as I could, because it's so it's much cheaper now, to make investments than it was two years ago, where everything you were being outbid, there was just crazy valuations. Now, frankly, founders are like a little bit scared. And so they're like, please, may I have some and so like, if I was a seed investor, I'd be like, I'd be all over it. Some are a little bit timid, and they get it, right, especially if you've made some bad investments over the last week, I'm not an investor, by the way. So like, I'm talking about my ass. But if you've made some, I'd imagine if you've made some bad investments over the last two years, way, overpriced, etc. Like, if I was, if I had my own fund, I'm sure my LPS would be like, Dude, what are you doing? And I'd be a little bit timid, I'd be a little bit scared. But I am trying to even just as an angel, I'm trying to place as many bets as I can, right now, like, am trying to deploy as much of my free capital as I can. Because I believe that companies that are being founded in this environment, first of all, there's less competition. Second of all, you have to have a good product in order to get funding, like and a good vision versus in 2021, you'd sneeze and you'd end up with around, right, like, and so I think you the companies that are getting founded now, they're going to be much more disciplined, and I think they're going to be higher quality. So 678, and whatever years from now, I think the biggest companies are going to be have been founded in 2022 and 2023. So um, yeah. But anyway, tactics for like, founders. Definitely build relationships early. That's like my biggest thing, which is like, you don't want to be going to investors, when you're ready to raise and be like, Hey, nice to meet you. I'm like, here's my product, can I have some money, please like, that is not the way VC is done, it can be done that way. But I don't think that's the way you want to do it, and it's not going to get you the best deal. So instead, building the relationships early, I think is key. And then that's like, the biggest thing. And then the other thing that I'll say, and I need to do a better job this but I've started is I think LinkedIn is by far the most underutilized resource for founders and leaders in general. Because no, it's like, it's like a very, like point 1% of people or something that are actually posting and creating content. And it is an amazing way to network, especially in a remote world where I'm just kind of sitting at home and you're not meeting people as much in person. And so I'm trying to do more of that. And I've, I've met over as just as I started engaging this year on LinkedIn for the first time really ever. I've met absolutely amazing people, including multiple people that I've invested in and the only are like, they've invested in me both ways, right? And the the way we met was simply by engaging on each other's posts and then like sending a DM sometime and be like, hey, like really like your content and like oh, yeah, totally. You want to connect sometime and that's it right? And I've made some friends this I'll name to this guy, Andy newborn who's building this company called distribute its stealth or private right now. That's gonna I think is gonna be amazing. That's that's in the AI b2b kind of sales kind of ABM kind of AI ABM type stuff. Huh automate just a really great company. I think it's gonna be awesome. And it's I think I, John figured arrow, who's building playdough, which is more consumer based, which is basically AI based tutoring. They've blown up like crazy. He's posted this, I think, but we went from zero to 500,000 installs first app for mobile app alone. In a month, like going crazy. I met him because I started liking his stuff, because he makes these videos on LinkedIn. And then one day, it was like, hey, like, love your stuff was like, Oh, I love your stuff, too. And then we just like, had a call on a Sunday. And then we've done repeated calls. And then we just kind of became friends through that. So anyway, LinkedIn biggest underutilized resource, especially for raising or planning to raise money at some point, I would get on there. And I'd be posting creating content, engaging with content, etc. and build relationships with investors early. Very interesting. Taylor Kenerson 25:52 And, and I think it goes back to the, the core thing that we continuously touched on throughout this conversation is relationships, whether it's a community, and that's how you're creating relationships, or you're leveraging social media platforms like LinkedIn to create relationships. Either way, the new, the new thing that will get you where you want to go is the relationships and not the salesy tactics and the automations those are all tools to help you and help enable you. But at the end of the day, it's about building these deep relationships and truly, you know, having the intention to help each other because at the end of the day, we're all here on this journey together. And we're, you know, we all have a May 25. The same never had this ever in our lives, you know, so just being with each other on that journey, and helping support and use your relationships to help each other is, you know, the way of the future for sure. Adil Saleh 26:44 Great. Awesome. Absolutely. So Mike, it was really nice chatting with you. It was super genuine and coming from within. And I absolutely loved it. And it was so much for all of us to learn. And I wish you good luck for the journey, Athena. And I'm so sure that you're going to be making some great pivots in the years to come and you closely analyzing the industry and addressable market. So thank you very much for sharing your time with us. Yeah, appreciate Mike Molinet 27:10 it. Thanks for the time, guys. Taylor Kenerson 27:12 Thanks, Mike. You rock. Adil Saleh 27:16 Thank you so very much for staying with us on the episode. Please hear your feedback at adil@hyperengage.io. We definitely need it. We will see you next time and another guest on the stage with some concrete tips on how to operate better as a Customer Success leader and how you can empower engagements with some building some meaningful relationships with qualified people for the episode just to make sure we bring the value to the listeners do reaches out if you want to refer any CS leader. Until next time, goodbye and have a good rest of your day.

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