The story of this company (Slidebean) is about fundraising. It’s the origin, it was our biggest struggle and ironically, what ended up helping other companies do.
Early ideas for this presentation-design-assistance tool first came to me in 2012. Back then I was working on my first startup, an iOS gaming called Pota-Toss. The experience of sharing an office with other founders (and seeing them struggle with their pitch decks) was the first spark of the idea to build this product.
When that company went under, I immediately started working on assembling a new team. My now-co-founders Vini and Jose had lived through similar experiences in their fields: people struggling to make good presentations.
Together we brainstormed what this new product would be, and how would it look like. We bootstrapped for about 18 (rough) months until we finally secured some venture capital in early 2015.
Today Slidebean is a multi-million dollar company, it employs 33 people and helps other businesses with that exact process, fundraising; but even today, raising capital is an endeavor I take with much caution.
Here’s a brief story of my experience fundraising from Latin America.
Pota-Toss was a little project that Phillipe, a friend from high school and I took on as co-founders. It didn’t begin as a ‘startup company’ for us, it was this little game idea that we had and that we put on Kickstarter; first, because we wanted some validation and second, because we needed the money to buy a Mac to develop it. By a weird coincidence, Josh Constine, a reporter from Techcrunch picked it, up and gave us the headline, ‘The Next Angry Birds’. I’m pretty ashamed to say that the tech startup ecosystem was unbeknownst to me, that I had no idea what Techcrunch was, and that I had no clue back then of the significance that piece of press would have for this ‘project’, and for the rest of my life.
In the hours following the publication of the article, the Kickstarter campaign reached its goal. We also received a rain of emails from various angel investors asking us ‘how much we were raising’ and if they could ‘join our round’. All phrases that I couldn’t begin to comprehend.
After the dust settled, we stopped calling our idea a ‘project’ and we started calling it a ‘startup’ (I actually hate when people these days refer to any of my companies as a ‘project’).
‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries was an incredible tool back then. It not only guided our product development roadmap, but it taught us about all these other companies, brands that were semi-familiar to me, that were startups like us at some point.
A company named PocketGems flew us to San Francisco for what I understand now was an acquihire (they wanted to buy the ‘company’ outright in order to acquire the talent, more than the idea). They offered us $10,000 in exchange for for cancelling the Kickstarter campaign, and to begin working for them.
It was a shitty deal, but we were had absolutely no idea how this world operated so we considered it, and struggled to turn it down. This was my first time in the Bay Area, and my first time in a startup office. I was in awe. Rovio, the actual developers of Angry Birds also reached out to offer us to join their team instead. They were interested in my character design and digital animation skillset, but were unconvinced by the fact that Phillipe, my co-founder had little experience coding on iOS, so the deal fell through.
Over the course of some rollercoaster months, we became familiar with the concept of startup accelerators and applied to a few, including Techstars, Wayra Mexico and DreamIt Ventures in New York. We reached the interview phase of all three of them, and it was finally Dreamt who accepted us.
New York was another life-changing experience for me. We moved to the city to attend the program over the summer, so this was my first time living outside of Costa Rica as an adult. We had been riding the hype of that Techcrunch article for months, it even got us a live interview on CNN. The story leading up to DreamIt had us feeling like rockstars, but cities like New York make you realize how big the world is, and how small you are. DreamIt’s focus back then was mostly on fundraising. The focus of the program was around pitching investors and securing seed funding by Demo Day- with little time reserved for advise on improving or growing the product (it’s a mistake they’ve since corrected).
We spent many sleepless nights building our promised game, while the daylight hours were spent preparing pitch decks for the investors we would meet. I had a chance to pitch to Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, and to Josh Koppleman of First Round Ventures, just to name-drop a few. I had little idea who these men were, so as a silver lining, I wasn’t really nervous pitching them. They, on the other side, realized how we were just insanely early to be sitting in that room.
A pattern emerged. They all were blown away by our pitch deck (which even drew Pixar comparisons), but they were not convinced by our traction, or our ability to deliver. We had a fantastic underdog story behind us, but it wasn’t enough to convince anyone to put money in the company. They all wanted to wait and see some real traction.
We had some hope of raising money from a couple of angel investors who were more excited about this potential, but this ended up being a terrible distraction. With the follow up meetings and the assumption that we would raise some money before the end of the summer, we delayed the release of the game.
After DreamIt ended with Demo Day, the team returned to Costa Rica, and I stayed in New York for an extra month, hoping to follow up on the warm investor leads. This was August, which is probably the worst month of the year to reach to investors. Money started running short, and I even secretly crashed the office couch for a couple of weeks (this is the first time the DreamIt folks will hear about it).
We finally released Pota-Toss on October 18th, 2012 (which happened to be my birthday). By that time the small DreamIt check was gone and we were living, and covering company expenses with our personal credit cards. A terrible mistake I’ll never make again.
We reached a couple of distribution deals which helped boost downloads, which were around 350,000 for the first few weeks. An exciting number after you look at the revenue, which was about $5,000 in revenue. That’s it. Evidently, all the investor conversations went cold. We finally dismantled Pota-Toss around March the year after. It was painful and but far too late. By that time my credit card statement was at -$16,500.
Being broke or needing a job is the absolute worst position to be in to start a company. At that time, however, it felt like my only choice. Any job I could find in Costa Rica would mean I’d spend the next 5-7 years of my life paying over that credit card bill. Moreover, all of my new earned credibility as a professional was tied to Pota-Toss as a startup.
We were one of the first ‘cool tech startups’ to receive massive press coverage in the country. A lot of people knew who we were, but with all the press we had received just months prior, I was not in a good position to try and find a job after ‘crashing’ this company in just a few months; perhaps we are not used to the failure rates of tech startups. So ‘converting’ the old company into something new seemed like a solid choice. This meant leaving Pota-Toss live on the App Store, pretending like it was still going, and leveraging that credibility to doing something else.
The first thing was consulting: I managed to put a large client on a retainer to help them with digital marketing, which we had done well at Pota-Toss. This wasn’t my expertise, by any means, but when you run a startup, somebody needs to do it. Bridging one company to the next was not easy at all, though I won’t bore you with the details. The point is I managed to assemble a new team, and define a new cap table that everyone could agree to. `
This bridge process was assisted (and funded) by Carao Ventures. Sort of.
Carao’s managing partners are Allan Boruchowicz and Adrián García. I had met them both in early Pota-Toss times, when Carao was also at an idea stage. When Phillipe and I moved to New York City, Allan joined in on sweat equity, no salary, but as a third team member and CFO. He saw this opportunity as a way to live inside a top US accelerator and bring the knowledge to their firm.
As Pota-Toss was bridging into Slidebean, Carao was also getting established and we were unofficially, the first alum. This story is just too complex to tell every single time, so we just summarize it as us being their first company, when in reality both were established at the same time, with a shared team member.
To Slidebean, this was our Friends and Family capital. It’s the money that we raised idea stage, with no traction. Allan had become a friend through our period in New York, and trusted my work and my leadership to build something new, even though it wasn’t that clear what it was going to be.
We agreed on building ‘Slidebean’ around May 2013 and bought the domain. Jose and Vini quit their jobs to join the company and we began this new struggle of finding some money to pay ourselves month over month. We agreed on $1,000/mo, which was much less than either of them made on their previous companies, and barely enough for me to make the minimum payment on my credit card bill.
We scratched to fund the operation with some consulting work and began looking for some grant options.
Being part of this new accelerator/incubator allowed us to access a grant funded by the IDB and the Costa Rican government. It was a ~$35,000 equity-free grant, followed by an optional ~$100,000 business loan, with friendly terms.
Convincing players in a small economy like Costa Rica to offer grants to risky tech companies was truly a remarkable feat, by the Minister of Commerce at the time. In total, around 20 companies received the grant and I believe most of them have gone out of business now. That’s just the reality when you invest in ideas.
Inevitably, when you deal with government grants you have to go through a lot of diligence, paperwork and bureaucracy. These grants are also often structured as reimbursements to approved expenses, rather than ‘flexible’ funds. Either way, you can’t say no to free money.
Around the same time we also applied and got accepted to Startup Chile.
The idea behind Startup Chile was artificially boosting a startup hub in Santiago. Back when we joined the accelerator program was funding 200-250 companies every year, mostly foreigners. The deal was a ~$35,000 check, equity-free, in exchange for moving the key team to Chile for 6 months and working to enhance the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the country. This involvement with the community was measured through a point system, which you earned by organizing meetups, hackathons and similar events.
While we earned both grants around September 2013, we only saw cash in our bank accounts until January 2014. For the first time, we had some runway and we could dedicate 100% of our time to building Slidebean (with a few hours a week dealing with the paperwork for both programs). All three co-founders moved to Santiago for the duration of the program, which I also believe was an absolutely key experience for us at founders.
While Vini and I were close friends since high school, Jose, our CTO was a new acquaintance. The time sharing a small apartment in Chile (and dealing together with the lack of good restaurants around us) got us to bond as friends. That friendship has been key to managing some of the roughest patches in our company history.
Back in 2014 there were few investors in Santiago, mainly family offices and a couple of actual venture firms. Most of the companies coming in to Startup Chile at the time were very early: idea stage, recruiting last key members of their teams. We had come into the program with a live beta and a few hundred users.
Beyond that we were good at pitching. While our product was not focused on pitch decks yet, we had a good presentation platform, two designers as co-founders and my (failed) experience pitching top-tier investors a couple of years back.
Our traction and our decks got us credibility among our peers, and won us a couple of internal pitch competitions, but neither was enough to get any traction with the venture firms in Chile.
The trauma of going out of business once made me extra careful (perhaps too careful) with our financials, so by March 2014 we were already looking for our next alternative, assuming that we weren’t ready for investors yet.
We started looking into US accelerators for a number of reasons,
We applied to a few programs and got a call from DreamIt. Again. Going through the same program one more time was not the obvious choice, but it had some advantages. We already knew the city. We could reactivate a dormant network of contacts. We understood the program and how to take advantage of it. So we took DreamIt again.
I remember my 2012 run at DreamIt as barely balancing my time building versus my time pitching, trying to achieve both at once. This time it was clear to me that I was only going to focus on fundraising, while allowing Vini and Jose to dedicate their time to product.
We sped up the launch of Slidebean and released 1.0 as soon as we entered the program. It was clear to me that my chances at securing investors required some real customer traction. I lined up as many meetings as I could. I sent out hundreds of investor intro requests to the partners and was diligent about every single one of the leads and the meetings. I had the experience of my previous fundraising round. I knew the jargon and the structure of a meeting.
And yet, once again, there were no hot leads. Our traction wasn’t enough, our product was competing in a crowded space and it wasn’t clear that we had an advantage.
By the end of the program my Rolodex was the biggest it’s ever been, but with no promise of funding we decided to go back to Costa Rica and into cockroach startup mode. I was not making the same mistakes again.
Slidebean was probably on $1,000/mo in MRR by August 2014, when we returned to San José. Cash was running out fast.
Carao Ventures operated as an angel group back then, so they were getting ready for the first session, where their first batch of companies would pitch. Still, the session was planned for November, and we didn’t have enough runway to make it there. Reluctantly, we decided to once again, apply to yet another accelerator.
This time we would aim higher and try our luck in the West Coast: we applied to YCombinator and to 500 Startups, both programs for growth-stage companies, and offering checks in the range of $100-$150K for their alumni.
500 Startups gave us an interview, and we used one of the last bits of cash we had to fly out to their office and take it. Skype (not Zoom) was an option, but we felt it was worth meeting in person. October came and looking at our financial model, I confirmed we didn’t have the cash to make the end of the month. We’d have to cut salaries or take a consulting project to be able to pay ourselves (and yes, I still had a massive bill on my credit card).
We were focusing on the product, on the users and the slowly growing revenue, so I didn’t want to distract my co-founders with money issues. I slept on it over the weekend and figured that it had to happen, so I prepared my speech for Monday.
On Monday morning, I received 500 Startups’ email accepting us into the program. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. We had been out of Costa Rica for the last 9 months, and here was another 4-month program taking us away from home (I forgot to mention, I had also become a father during this time).
It wasn’t a question of whether we felt another accelerator would bring more value: if we didn’t take it, we’d be out of money.
The time at 500 Startups was absolutely key for Slidebean. Not only did we (finally) have some cash runway to spend more aggressively in growth, being part of the program started generated FOMO for investors in our Rolladex.
I very much believe the key to fundraising is leveraging that fear of missing out with your investors. 500 Startups lasted from October 2014 through February 2015, and during this time we secured our first round of capital, led by Carao Ventures and their group of angels, and with DreamIt and Edge Harris Ventures following up.
We raised $250,000 on a convertible note with 7% interest and a $2.5M Cap. By Bay Area standards it’s a very low cap, but this was as far up as we could negotiate. Convertible note caps often respond to the amount of money you raise, and with such a low amount, we didn’t have a lot of leveraging power.
Beyond that, this was our third attempt at raising a round for Slidebean, I really wanted it to end and go back to product and growth.
It makes a tremendous difference when money stops being a distraction, not to mention the flexibility to invest in new marketing and growth experiments, and begin assembling a team. The round was signed in November and the capital calls scheduled for February 2015, as we were closing our time at 500 Startups.
As I said, $250,000 is not a lot of money so we still had to be very careful with our spend. We decided not to have anyone in the US until we could find some footing on traction, and we did. Between February 2015 and February 2016 we grew 5x and reached about $50,000 in MRR.
Based on this newfound traction, investors started approaching us in early 2016 for a next round of funding. We managed to close an additional $525K that year, and decided to name the full raise as a ‘Seed Round raised in two parts’. With the traction we had, it’s the easiest money I’ve raised.
If there’s one thing I learned through this process is that often, Latin American startups don’t play by the same rules. Closing takes longer, investors are fewer, valuations are lower, and more traction is needed. Also, Series A rounds mostly require you to go US investors (for which you need a US presence). With few exceptions in Mexico, Bogotá and Brazil, Series A rounds are not usually led by firms in the region.