Founders know surviving a recession calls for patience and restraint. But that doesn’t mean they like it. Founders are like race car drivers. They want to drive as fast and as aggressively as possible to speed past their larger, older, more cautious competition. They specialize in pushing growth to its limits.
But the COVID-19 pandemic demands the opposite approach. Slow down. Ratchet back. Founders take pride in their ability to adapt without losing a beat. But asking them to “put off to tomorrow what you don’t have to do today” is a tough ask. It just isn’t in their DNA.
How are early-stage founders coping with this “new normal”? A few days ago, I reached out to several companies in the First Stage Investor portfolio to see how they were managing in these extraordinary times. Today, I’m sharing one of their stories with you. There will be more in the coming weeks.
I’m starting with one of the more positive stories I heard. It comes from WhereBy.Us. We recommended you invest in WhereBy.Us in mid-2017. Back then, it operated community-focused newsletters in Miami and Seattle – with plans to do more. To run as lean as possible, WhereBy.Us developed a number of helpful tools. One made building newsletters quicker and easier. Another made taking out ads completely self-serving. And another automatically moved what was written in an email into the newsletter without human help.
A few months ago, it made these publishing tools available to everybody. I call it a soft pivot. WhereBy.Us calls it an evolutionary path – something it said it had always intended to do.
And now that path has turned into a highway.
Last week alone, it signed customers that serve (in total) 850,000 subscribers. That’s the culmination of a terrific March.
WhereBy.Us is now serving 10 times more subscribers than it did in February. And that’s not all. The waitlist for WhereBy.Us’ services more than doubled last month. It’s now grappling with a long queue of publishers and creators (who have 3.5 million subscribers between them) waiting to be onboarded. WhereBy.Us isn’t complaining. It’ll take that problem any day. It has even more customers in the sales pipeline – people who have reached out to it. The companies in the pipeline serve an additional 5.5 million subscribers.
A big reason for the explosion in growth? The coronavirus pandemic. Publishers, influencers, small passion players and creators want to share information, stories and news with their communities – knowing how great the need is right now for people to connect with each other.
CEO and Founder Chris Sopher says that recent open rates reflect this new demand for local content. “Open rates are going up for all of our customers right now,” he says. “Readers are spending more time, clicking more and interacting more.”
Crises often create new opportunities. New problems must be solved, and new needs must be addressed. That’s exactly what’s happening right now. Chris told me that “creators and publishers are looking for more ways to drive revenue and value from their communities in this environment.”
“That’s exactly what our product does,” he says.
WhereBy.Us is responding with special measures. It’s ramping up its communication with creators and publishers to better understand their needs and how it can better help them. “This is helping us acquire more customers,” Chris says, “but it also makes us smarter about the tools and data they need for the long term.”
WhereBy.Us is also dealing with some of the negative byproducts brought on by a rapidly slowing economy. With the cancellation of public gatherings, its event advertising dollars have dried up completely. The startup is looking for new opportunities to replace this revenue source. It just launched a new “community job and message board” ad unit that enables creators to sell similar listings to their community.
Overall, though, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the underlying trends that were already driving its business growth. Chris expects many more people in the next couple of years to launch their own publishing projects, both because of job disruption brought on by the pandemic and because it sees new opportunities.
The future is arriving a little sooner than WhereBy.Us expected. And Chris is working hard to capitalize on it.