"Why can't I do what I want to do?" Laura Vaughn wondered, after being told from someone other than her husband, Ryan Vaughn, that between her and Ryan, "somebody has to have a steady job." The reference was to be in a full-time corporate position. The alternative that Laura wanted was to start her own business, which would mean Laura and Ryan would both be founders. Shortly after Ryan started Varsity News Network (VNN), a platform for high school sports, Laura wanted to start Sitting in a Tree to provide custom-made, beautifully-designed wedding website templates to communicate wedding details to guests. Laura not only did not follow the advice, she has since added Blackbird RSVP, which combines amazing event invitation designs with the mobile web.
Laura and Ryan were interviewed by John Mueller at the April 21st Startup Grind Kalamazoo Fireside Chat. Between Laura and Ryan, not only do their businesses look different, they have different strengths, which complement each other. Ryan says it is similar to "yin and yang," and he considers Laura his rock. Laura stated that "Board games are really scary" when playing with Ryan, in reference to Ryan's competitiveness. They both agreed that if they were more similar, that maybe they would veer one way or another and not benefit from the differences. They have a whiteboard to be able to think out and help solve each other's problems, and they work to keep a balance in their life. The advantage of them both running startups is that they have been able to go on trips together, such as for the school trade shows, then take an extra day or two just for them.
Laura was inspired while working on her wedding plans when she could not find "women" designs. Originally, Laura was going to be a pharmacy representative and go to graduate school. She became fascinated with stories of the people she met, and has since realized that working at a big company would not have fit her very well. Since weddings usually mean the customer would only use the site once, and Laura wanted customers to have a reason to return, she started Blackbird RSVP. Revenue from Sitting in a Tree was used to begin Blackbird RSVP. Many corporate events are created at Blackbird RSVP, which Laura has tagged "Square space meets Eventbrite."
Ryan, on the other hand, was sucked into the startup world after being accepted into Momentum, an accelerator which has since become Start Garden. Ryan, a creative writing graduate from Western Michigan University, was blogging about high school sports and ended up in what he pitched as "a once in a lifetime holy shit opportunity." VNN is now the largest sports network around for K-12 kids.
It wasn't always easy.The hardest part for both Ryan and Laura was when Ryan was going through the "Trough of Sorrow." The term was created by Paul Graham while he was running Y Combinator. Graham describes it in an Inc. magazine article: "Everyone has a problem with your product, and people are constantly calling to complain about things you cannot possibly fix. Then there is the fact that you are doing everything for the first time, which creates a crippling sense of uncertainty, as well as a persistent fear that a single bad decision could doom the whole enterprise. There are squabbles with co-founders and combative negotiations with investors and that gut-wrenching period when you realize that success isn't going to come quickly or easily."
In Ryan's case, part of being in Momentum was a demo day at the end. Until the demo day, there was a lot of attention on him and VNN. The highlight of a traditional demo day is that it is supposed to include investors. On Ryan's demo day, no investors appeared as part of the audience. This turned out to be typical of West Michigan. According to Rick Devos in an Inc Magazine article: "It's a more conservative mindset around early-stage investing. There's this engrained belief that everything at that level should be bootstrapped. Even when those checks are being written, it's done in an underground way, so no one is aware it's happening." After the crash into the "trough," Ryan chose to pursue a Master's in Communication at Grand Valley State University and work on campus. While in graduate school, about a year after the demo day, Ryan applied and was awarded funding through Start Garden, the first of several investments offered to VNN. Unlike Laura's companies, Ryan was looking for fast growth, which is why raising funds was more important than earning them. Based on the amount of growth for VNN, Ryan stated that he passed the "trough" in 2012.
Laura said that her family still thinks she is unemployed. On top of that, what she does as a founder is acknowledged differently for her compared to Ryan. Where someone will ask Ryan about his business, she will get asked about her cat. Laura said that the culture is the reason there are not a lot of women running businesses in Southwest Michigan and she would like to see more women in that role in Michigan. Ryan added that there is work to do to help women be acknowledged. To support the idea, Startup Grind celebrates women founders during the month of May. Startup Grind Kalamazoo will be hosting Erika Block of Local Orbit on May 28th, as part of women founders' month.
When viewing the areas of the United States known for startups to see what West Michigan is missing, no other place is going to resemble a New York City or a Silicon Valley. In West Michigan, according to Ryan, we get to help create an entire society around startups. The startup ecosystem in West Michigan has evolved similar to his own experience. Ryan said that Start Garden has helped with the evolution of change. The bigger issue, Ryan stated, is that West Michigan is very modest, and that harms us. He says that no one hears the stories of the big exits because they are shrugged off as "We worked hard." Sharing those stories, however, boosts the confidence and assertiveness because, as Ryan mentioned, "holy crap, someone did it!" What's your story?
Other topics covered included:
- How business is "very human"
- The financial differences between their companies
- More details about each business
- How Laura found a tech co-founder
- Who they use for advisors
View more information from the event here.
(Photos contributed by Stacy Burdette)