Maddie Wang on Her Journey of Growing ‘Founders Cafe ‘ to $8K MRR in 13 Months with 170+ Customers

Maddie Wang is the founder of Founders Cafe - Community of founders from Stanford, YC, and more
 

Tell us about your product and what inspired you to start it?

I've always wanted to build my own startup! But when I dropped out of Stanford to do so, IT WAS HORRIBLE!
 
Every day, I sat in my parents basement in Minnesota coding on my startup. I’d push out feature after feature, but when metrics continued going down, I felt powerless. Maybe it was me, so I tried finding co-founders who could help save my startup.
 
After 1 year, I had gone thru 7 cofounders. And nothing changed.
 
I remember crying a lot, overloading my GF with startup pains, mourning over the loss of my co-founders. Building a startup was supposed to be fun, but why I was I so anxious all the time?
 
At some point, I met another founder Robert Nowell from Harvard. At the time, both our products were dying... Literally our retention curves drooped to 0
 
We were both feeling really isolated so we tried co-working together! Every day, we would share tasks, shoot the shit, and askereal questions like “Why are you coding? Why not instead find paying customers?” I woke up feeling more & more excited because now I had a founder friend I could work alongside every day :D
 
Now I'm breaking $5.4k MRR after 8 months, and I have more friends like Selena Secor Heidi Fung Charles Javelona Christina Pawlikowski Christopher Dang Maxim Zavadskiy Tom Hosiawa in my community that support me every day :) Robert Nowellis now funded $1 mill+ :O :O and has paying customers too!
 
I don’t want you to go through the pain I did! THIS SHIT IS HARD! If you can, I recommend joining a founders community so you don’t get consumed by the isolation! I run a community called Founders Cafe for early stage solo-ish founders to co-work together, and just DM me if you want an invite.
 
Ultimately I really want every founder to wake up screaming “holy shit I can’t believe I can do the for a living!!” and have friends to share the journey with :D
 
 

How long did it take you to acquire your first 50 customers, and what was your growth strategy?

2-3 months
 
1. I posted here https://www.reddit.com/r/ycombinator/comments/ns76zs/working_on_startup_alone_has_been_really_lonely/ and on various discord
 
2. Interviewed 40 founders in 2 weeks
 
3. Sent out an email to the top 12 founders from Stanford, Harvard, etc., asking them to pay to join my community
 
4. 10/12 converted, started from there! :D
 
5. For the next 40 customers, I posted the form on founder reddit/Slacks/Discords again, interviewed them, and if they were a good fit/good background, I'd invite them to join and pay on my stripe link. 
 
6. I didn't make a website until I had 40 paying customers. Once I published it in 2 hours (mmm.page), I posted around (same places, Discord, Slack, Reddit) and started getting more applications & customers.
 

Which technology stack are you using and what challenges and limitations does it pose?

Airtable -- CMS for members. People on the website can see whos in it so they know HOLY SHIT XYZ who got funded from a16z is there! OR XYZ from Stanfords here!! Challenges.... integrating into more things like I want it to include interview transcripts
 
Zapier -- automating putting people on the airtable after they pay, reminders, etc. Biggest challenge... spending a few hours making those automations, ugh.... But those automations are amazing, and it still is faster than coding it myself.
 
Phantom buster -- Getting members images from their linked in to fill in the airtable. Biggest challenge was integrating it to Zapier, but it's done now.
 
Stripe -- amazing. Biggest painpoint is not enough data
 
Discord -- community
 
Google Calendar- community
 
 

What have been some of the biggest insights you've gained since starting your entrepreneurial journey?

I've learned that fastest way to validate an idea is to get paying customers FIRST before building anything.
 
What happened for me was I was building a consumer product for a year… then after 1 year…. I had the courage to ask my audience (students) if they would pay for my product. The overwhelming answer was no. I had wasted a fucking year building a product no one would pay for. Then for founders cafe, I did it the other way around, and asked people to pay first before they could join. All I did was show them the other early stage founders from Stanford, YC, etc. I was inviting. Then asked them to pay to secure their slot. Turned out there was more than enough validation (40 paying customers in 1-2 months), and then I decided to actually build it :)
 
Getting paying customers is really the fastest way. Takes a few days/weeks to decide whether you can make money on your idea. Instead of building it out for months… then asking people.
 
I know founders who make $3 mil/yr + who’ve validated their niche by putting up landing pages, and seeing how many purchases they got, then refunded everyone saying it’s coming soon. Took a week.
 
I know YC solo founders who’ve shown their powerpoint product demo to a customer, and having 10, 20 enterprise customers paying hella money to buy it, even before it’s built. Took a month.
 
I know founders who went to customers and said they can covert React -> Figma, and had 10 paying customers in a day, then built it behind the scenes, then gave it back to them. TOOK 1 day to validate the idea. Now they are seed funded and have a ton of paying customer.s.These are all members in my community, who’ve made it pretty far!
 
You should be able to get purchases before it’s actually built. Whenever you buy something, it could actually be mocked— the Amazon hairbrush you bought (all the reviews, photos, could be fake), the Organic Soap you bought at Farmers market (could be some random soap from target), even my whole community (The YC members, the demo) could all be faked. 
 
Regardless of whether the Amazon/organic soap/my community is actually built or not, if we can’t get a single paying customer…. We’re fucked. 
 
So regardless of whether it’s built out or not, if no one’s willing to pay for the value you’re describing, then you’re fucked.
 
But if people do buy (oh you can turn react to Figma in a day, cool ill buy), you’re onto something. Now you know if you actually build it out, people will PAY MONEY!!!! :)