Allison started Scroobious at the beginning of 2020 because she’d been through the startup gauntlet, raising $10 million for her previous company and was frustrated by the challenges she faced as a woman in this process. Early in 2020, before the pandemic hit she decided to start a company that would help underrepresented founders improve their pitch deck and frame their messaging. She envisioned a community with in-person coaching sessions and educational content. She put together the business plan, incorporated Scroobious, and secured a meeting space in Boston. A month later, the global pandemic forced her to radically rethink the product strategy and pivot from a regional approach to a virtual one, which had the benefit of enabling her to help founders from all over the world.
Today, Scroobious has two components. The first is founder focused. It is a pitch coaching business that helps underrepresented founders improve their pitch deck and presentation skills. Founders also get access to a community of other founders so they can ask questions and get support. The second component is for investors. Scroobious offers investors the ability to meet with lots of founders in a short period of time so that they can broaden their sourcing funnel and find investment opportunities that may have been overlooked by other investors.
I spoke with Allison roughly a year and a half after she started her business. In our conversation, Allison talks about:
My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you give me a quick overview of how Scroobious started?
Allison Byers: Yes, absolutely. I founded Scroobious in January of 2020, right before COVID hit. Prior to Scroobious, I was running a startup medical device company where I was a founding member and first employee. At this company I was the one primarily responsible for fundraising. We raised nearly $10 million, going from a friends and family round through a series A prime and everything in the middle. But for me, I was really floored by how stressful and inefficient the process of fundraising was. This was all pre-COVID. I was in Boston and having to fly to California all the time, doing the same pitch over and over again. Anyone who's done fundraising can instantly relate to what I'm talking about.
I was also really caught off guard by the challenges I faced as a woman in the fundraising process. I've spent a lot of my career being the only woman in the room, but it really shook me. I started doing research into this and uncovered all of the unbelievable statistics about how little women and minorities get in VC dollars or any type of funding. Having just gone through that experience and seeing all of the systemic challenges, I got really, really passionate about changing it. I wanted to do something that makes a real impact in this area.
I looked at my particular strengths and saw two big places of need where I could help. First, was founder education. Right now, if you're an overlooked or underestimated founder who doesn't come from a business background, you don't have a network around you of people to guide you and tell you what to do when it comes to fundraising and starting a company. You can only really ask Google, and you’ll be met by an overwhelming amount of results, that are in general pretty poor quality. This results in a lot of founders trying to copy Airbnb's pitch deck, which doesn’t translate. Your other option is to hire a pitch coach, but they cost thousands of dollars and it can be unaffordable for most overlooked founders. I saw this huge need for founder education that was affordable, approachable, and tangible to help them get their pitch ready for investors so they’re taken seriously.
The other big area of need I saw was helping with the discovery and connection of these early stage founders. For pre-seed/seed stage founders and early stage investors there is no discovery engine or platform that allows for the efficient connection of an appropriate source of capital. When angel investors connect with founders they want that personal connection.
So we are working on how to utilize data coming out of our platform to enable those efficient connections, because my background is in data science and market research.
The vision for Scroobious is to create a platform that educates founders in how to create investor ready pitch material that is compelling for investors and on the other side will efficiently and in a fun way allow investors to discover those founders. That's what I’ve set out to build.
I love that vision. Can you tell me about the name? It's very unique and memorable.
AB: Thank you. It's memorable, although no one can spell it.
So today, when you're naming a company, the first thing most people do is see if a domain is available. I went through that whole process thinking of combinations of “capital”, “network”, and “tech”. But nothing was available so I got a little more creative. There is a 19th century poet, named Edward Lear, that I like, who wrote children's poetry. He wrote a poem called The Scroobious Pip. It’s about a creature that shows up in the animal kingdom that's a little bit of every kind of animal. All the animals come together and try to classify it, continuously asking it, “which one of us are you like?” At the end of the poem, all the animals celebrate it, and are happy that a unique creature showed up. That poem really resonated with me because for founders who don't pattern match and fit in a bucket, we shouldn't be penalized for that. Our differences should be celebrated as a unique opportunity.
So you said that you founded the company in January 2020. What was your initial product and when did you launch that?
AB: I came up with the idea a while before January 2020. Because of my market research background, I had done a lot of validating research before I decided to take the plunge and actually incorporate the company. My launch strategy was to first really focus on the founder piece and make sure that I could create something scalable that would provide value to them that was actionable. I wanted the program to be tangible where they got an asset. They’d finish the program and have their investor pitch and be confident presenting it.
I started by building our presence and connecting with founders who needed our service. The first product was just a Google doc. I put content into a format that people could easily consume and I tested to see what resonated. I also focused on building my own voice in the space. I’m the one nurturing the community and I’m also an underestimated founder with the experience that can help others.
Wow, that’s such a simple product to start with. A true mvp. How did you connect with founders and grow interest in Scroobious?
AB: We haven't done any formal marketing efforts to date. We've worked with over 170 founders. I started with my own communities. I’m a part of some women in tech communities and Boston centered communities. I would share the content, ask if this content spoke to them or if they needed something else. Doing that core product development with your early supporters is so important. The organic inbound referrals from starting with that base of core supporters that we had authentic connections with has been fantastic for us.
How were you measuring whether your early product was impactful or not for those founders?
AB: Their direct feedback was a huge part of it, but also seeing what they were doing after they had used our program. We kept track of what was their goal for entering the program and did they achieve that goal after the program. We saw many success stories happening. A number of founders scored meetings after they had improved their pitch. They were hoping to close their funding rounds, get into prestigious accelerators, and a number of them have.
Can you walk me through the second part of what you are building, the marketplace that connects angel investors with overlooked founders?
AB: We have an element of a two sided marketplace and those are notoriously difficult to scale. It can be a tough product to build because you normally need both sides of that marketplace to be really big for either side to derive value from it. In our case, our go to market was really clear to start with the founders because they can get real value out of the program without a single investor on the platform.
We’ve built up an amazing community of early stage investors, particularly angel investors. Angel investing is a fragmented industry because it's an individual investing. It's a very different investment thesis and motivation than a fund or an institution that has limited partners they are required to report back to. One of the fastest growing segments of angel investors are women, minorities, people outside of regional tech hubs, millennials and Gen Xers. They are intentionally looking to support diversity, equity, and inclusion, and they are looking to connect with the founders they invest in because they feel they can contribute more than just their capital. They often have specialized expertise or operational experience that allows them to identify these non pattern matching opportunities that VC funds miss at the early stage. That's a really key difference.
That's the deal that we are building for them. We're currently building that portal side of our product where investors can discover founders and opportunities from our program. We're going to use a lot of the engagement data on the platform to also help them discover other angels that have similar viewing behavior or similar engagement behavior with types of deals out there for potential as SPVs or syndicates, or a way to pool that capital that is more meaningful and more efficient than regional groups.
Oh, interesting. So you see the investor side of your product evolving to also help investors make connections with other investors?
AB: Yes, it’s both. Help investors make connections with overlooked founders and also connections with each other. Investing is a fragmented industry and we are thinking about how to efficiently make those interconnections...it's critical in augmenting it and consolidating it.
I’d love to talk more about what those connections will look like in your product. Are you envisioning a community based product where everyone can connect in the community setting or more of a 1:1 matching type of interface?
AB: Right now we have a really great founder community on Slack. We’ve kept it small and only for founders in our program because when you let a community get too large or you expand it too much, you can dilute the value that is being provided. It's great that it's this tight knit community with 170 founders, it's so supportive. For now, I think it’s important that we keep separate spaces for the founders and investors because we want the founders to have a safe space where they can be vulnerable, ask questions and build the peer network that they’ll need on their entrepreneurial journey.
On the investor side, we have not launched the investor portal yet, but we will similarly try and build up a community for emerging angels. There’s a lot for new angels to learn. Our community will help them learn and connect with others.
That's great and is a smart approach to making sure people find value out of the community. I like that you are keeping the founder group small to make sure there is a really high signal to noise ratio. I’m in a lot of different product manager slack communities and they’ve mostly devolved into only posts from people promoting their product.
AB: Yeah, right? I'm in like 8,000 slack groups, but I only pay attention to the four or five that are most meaningful to me. At Scroobious we want to leverage our data in identifying those clear opportunities, relevant connections or relevant sources of capital so that it’s meaningful for the founders.
That makes sense. Earlier you mentioned that as a founder, it can be isolating and it’s important to have a support network. How do you stay motivated and focused after the excitement of the public launch of a product?
AB: I'm taking a very different approach. This is where that authentic connection with who I'm looking to help is very important because it's relatable to the public hype cycles. Those hype cycles tend to be from people who get funding and the people who get funding are not women and minorities because we get 2% or less of it. There are not as many of us in those hype cycles and it can be really detrimental to our mental health to see all of that and not see people that look like us or come from backgrounds like us getting that attention.
I have burned out completely in my career a few times and when I started this company I told myself I would not do that again. I am a mom. I've got two young kids. I’ve got a lot of life and professional experience. I want to build a company in a way that is manageable so that I have a life too.
I'm being very intentional in staying true to why I started this and that's my motivation. That core passion that I have for increasing diversity in startups and helping those who are underestimated get a real chance at building their companies. I want to play a role in that. I can't do that if I'm constantly worried about the hype cycle. I haven't even thought about going on Product Hunt, it’s honestly a distraction to me at this point. I'm really focused on creating the best experience that I can for the founders who are coming to us, moving that organic word of mouth and organic promotion.
Looking back at the past year, is there anything that you learned that you wish you had learned sooner?
AB: It's interesting to ask that question in this COVID era, because I can tell you, when I first conceptualized Scroobious, I thought I was going to film everybody's pitch videos in person. I had a business plan that was based on a regional rollout. I had secured a physical space in Boston to hold the sessions. I thought being physically present with people was really important to coaching. But then, of course, two months after I incorporated, we were all staying home in quarantine and I realized we had to really rapidly rethink what that product strategy was going to be.
I was concerned that founders wouldn’t feel supported and empowered in the same way if our sessions were remote. But it turned out not to matter as much as I thought. Reflecting back, I wish I hadn't put so much energy into this in-person delivery model. A non-regional rollout is a much better strategy and much quicker.
Another thing I just started doing was a referral program for our founder community. I've had the most positive response. I wish I'd done that earlier.
Yeah, I’ve heard from a few other founders who also wish they had started a referral program earlier. My last question for you is from another founder who I recently interviewed. They said that there are days as a founder where it feels like the whole world is against you and it’s refreshing to hear the good, almost serendipitous, things that have happened to other founders. It gives them hope that good things will happen to them too. Have you had any of those positive or serendipitous moments in the past year?
AB: I try my best to amplify other founder voices as much as I can. It's really core to who I am and what I want to do with this company. It is something that I wish others had done more for me when I was younger and earlier in my career. By publicly supporting others I’ve created so much goodwill and so much mutual support which has created a lot of good forward momentum in a very pure and organic way. If you’re a founder you are creating something that didn’t exist in the world and what better feeling than to see other people promoting what you're doing without asking them to? For me, that's come from my genuine desire to do the same for them. So I would say that to any founder, whether they're underrepresented or overlooked, and especially if you're not overlooked, have that public support for others. It really does bring tangible benefits to your business.
That's great advice. Thanks for answering my questions.
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Allison and learned a few things. If you did, give it some love on Twitter with a RT or Like. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊 -Tyler