The Venture for America Accelerator is a three-month program open to VFA alumni and Fellows at the conclusion of their two-year Fellowship. On August 1st, seven teams descended on Detroit to begin working full time on their companies. Thanks to generous support from the William Davidson Foundation and Quicken Loans and with help from the Venture for America team and a wide range of industry leaders, Accelerator teams have the time, space, and funding to focus solely on building their fledgling companies.
Meet Chris Kontes, a 2015 Fellow and Co-Founder of Balto Software. Balto understands phone conversations and, in real time, cues reps with the best things to say at high-impact points in the call. Here, Chris shares how they found their earliest customers, the non-glamourous side of entrepreneurship, which of his fellow VFA alum inspires him and the surprising lessons he’s learned while building Balto.
What has surprised you the most since beginning to work on your company?
More things than I can count!
However, the first thing that jumps out at me is the incorrect assumption that founding a startup is “fun”. The romance goes away pretty quickly, a sentiment I have heard echoed privately by many founders.
I also have a personal belief that people who are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to give back to their community through entrepreneurship have a moral obligation to do so. I also think that the work we do at Balto is important and fulfilling.
But most days I wake up feeling reasonably anxious about the future. And if the evolution of our product is any indicator, we didn’t go into this with some incredible vision that nobody else could possibly conceive. We certainly don’t play ping pong all day while we celebrate all the new orders coming in.
We can all picture it: the image of a founder working late into the night chasing an incredible, earth shattering dream, motivated only by her own dizzying desire to change the world. When I work late, I’m just trying to figure it all out like anybody else.
How did you find your earliest customers?
We called everyone. Seriously, we googled every contact center in the United States and documented every company and phone number in a giant Excel sheet until we were so deep into Google that the results weren’t making linguistic sense. Then we repeated this process on Linkedin and the like.
Our only mandatory criteria was that the the company had to be (or have) a call center located somewhere in North America (since Balto doesn’t understand other languages yet). Then we put them in a ten touch cadence until everyone had said yes, maybe, or no.
Then we repeated the process. Over time, we were able to identify the early adopters who were willing to take a chance on us. Once we had the early adopters, we were able to reach out to the “maybes” who wanted to see Balto implemented with other companies first. To this day, the group continues to expand as we establish market legitimacy and hone in on our ideal customer profile.
What popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
That you should “just do it.” This advice rests in the assumption that startups are unpredictable and you won’t be ready until you actually experience it, so you might as well just start.
Though true to a degree, I believe it sends the wrong message about how to approach the many challenges founders face. In Balto’s case, we put together extensive sales process and “company culture” documents before we even started the company. Admittedly, we only use a small portion of those documents today. However, it set a precedent that Balto culture prioritizes methodical thinking over split-second decision making. Plus, it’s much harder to tighten things up in a “just do it” company then loosen things up in an overly methodical one.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you would have received before you started?
I wish I had received advice on how to separate my emotions from my decision making. We all know that emotions cloud our decisions but I’m still learning about the practical tools required to separate the two.
Indeed, we falsely believe that our thoughts influence our emotions, when in reality it’s the other way around. And since our emotions sneak up so quickly and subtly before our thoughts do, it can wrongly appear that our thinking is free of emotional bias. Learning the tools to catch emotion in their tracks has been instrumental in my decision making, both inside and outside the office. My co-workers also like me more now.
Did you take any inspiration from past Fellows when starting your company? If so, which ones?
Max Nussenbaum (Co-Founder & CEO at Castle, another Fellow founded company). Which is a little strange to admit, because we barely know each other. But he has written many incredible articles that have influenced how I think about entrepreneurship.
He also gave a talk at a Venture for America event asserting (correctly!) that 24-year-old founders being asked to give advice is a largely backwards, egotistical concept. Founders have a tendency to look back on their company with a much rosier mental filter than whatever the reality was at the time. We are learning just like everyone else and often aren’t always in a position to actually give meaningful guidance.
Funny side story: After Max gave his talk, I caught him in the buffet line to thank him for the great advice which was literally the antithesis of his message. It was one of those moments where you can hear the foolishness coming out of your mouth as you say it.
What readers can do to help you get to your next step or milestone?
We aren’t raising money yet, but if you have an interest in investing (or know somebody who might), feel free to come chat afterwards. We are planning on raising money next year and are beginning to explore options.
Finally, we are sales guys at heart. If you think Balto might be a good fit for your organization, please let us know!
Whether you’re toying with a fledgling idea, developing a side project, or preparing to launch a company, we have the resources, programming, and network to help you succeed once you’ve completed your two-year Fellowship. Our alumni have launched 41 companies that employ more than 195 people. Click here to find out how VFA can help you succeed.