Tivan Amour, "Growth Rider," Ep. 17

Tivan Amour is reinventing how urban bikes are designed and sold. This is a tall order. The competition is ferocious. Wise counsel is justifiably skeptical of the possibility of success in this endeavor. Yet, Tivan is gaining traction with his approach. He may be defying the odds.

This young repeat founder bristles with energy but is also capable of contemplation. He is a growth hacker familiar with the Socratic Dialogue. He is hugely ambitious yet generous with the less fortunate.  It was great fun interviewing him and he taught me a bunch of things. Among these were the real value of Techstars to founders and some pointers on growing a customer base.

Click here to read the full episode transcript.

Here is a list of the topics covered:

  • Tivan Amour Bio
  • What Effect Did Working for AT&T While Still in College Have in Tivan’s Life?
  • Tivan as a Product Manager at Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Tivan Starts His First Company
  • Tivan Decides Boston Is Just Right for Him
  • What Tivan Learned from Volunteering at BUILD
  • How Tivan Structures His Day
  • Tivan’s First Company Pivots
  • Genesis of Fortified Bike – New Way to Market to Bike Shops – Cutting Out Distributors
  • Fortified Bike Goes into Techstars
  • The Real Value of Techstars to the Founder
  • Changing Co-founders
  • Fortifiedbike.com Has Won Plaudits from Experts for Its Efficacy – Tivan’s Advice on Building a Website

Transcript of Tivan Amour, "Growth Rider," Ep. 17

GUEST: Young Repeat Founder Tivan Amour

SAL DAHER:   Welcome Angel Invest Boston. Conversations with Boston's most interesting Angel investors and founders. I am Sal Daher and my goal for this podcast is to learn more about building successful new companies. The best way I can think of doing this is by talking to people who have done it; people such as repeat startup founder and growth hacker, Tivan Amour.

TIVAN AMOUR: Hello.

SAL DAHER:   Tivan, I'm excited you're joining us in our 17th episode. It's great you're here on a cold chilly day.

TIVAN AMOUR: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

Tivan Amour Bio

SAL DAHER:   Awesome, awesome. After attending the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, you've got to say that you're raising our…[eyebrows] Elite Phillips Exeter Academy. Tivan is not at all like that. Tivan Amour studied consumer psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. While at Penn, Tivan was on the advisory board of his academic department and a member of the Honor Society in his senior year. He also sing jazz acapella which means that he has a great set of pipes. We'll have you sing a little.

TIVAN AMOUR: No, no, no.

SAL DAHER:   Because these groups are really selective. I've had the experience of my daughters applying to them and they're highly, highly competitive. Yeah, so far, I've painted a picture of a good student headed to conventional success in the law, or in the corporate world; however there's a hint that he would follow a highly unconventional path. Tivan worked for AT&T as a retail associate during half of his college career. Not a normal thing. This experience foreshadows his founding of two startups later on. Tivan is presently CEO and co-founder of Fortified Bike, which is revolutionizing the way urban bikes are designed and distributed. Tivan, it's getting less common these days for undergrads to have a job while in school. You had one job for two years while still at Penn. What effect did that have in helping you decide the future course of your life?

TIVAN AMOUR: So, first off, Sal, I'm really impressed by how much research you did. You reminded me of things in my past that I forgot about, "Oh yeah, I did do that."

SAL DAHER:   As the Russians say it’s compromat, compromising material.

TIVAN AMOUR: So, sorry, what was the question? It was ...

SAL DAHER:   The question is really what role did working as a sales associate for AT&T, what role did it play in helping decide the future course of your life?

 

What Effect Did Working for AT&T While Still in College Have in Tivan’s Life

TIVAN AMOUR: So, I don't think I realized it at the time, the foundation that it was giving me. During school, it was more of a necessity. I needed to make sure that I was paying my rent, I needed to make sure I had money for books, and that I had money to participate with my friends. Go out to, go to dinner, go out to lunch, get drinks. So, I think I wasn't thinking about the relevance of it for my future career. But, in effect, what I was doing was going to a mall store every single day and seeing 20 to 50 customers who were looking to buy a cell phone. It was that 10,000 hours gained in getting just sales experience that I think made me comfortable with doing all sorts of ... Wearing all sorts of hats in entrepreneurship, because no matter what you're doing when you're starting a business you're selling to everyone, whether it's to customers, whether it's to suppliers if you have a hardware startup. Whether it's for potential partners, whether it's to investors. It's always sales and it's always understanding what other stakeholders needs are and changing the pitch to meet their needs. So, I think that what AT&T did a very good job of was providing me with a structured approach to how to set up a sale.

 So, the one axiom that I think they provided was sell benefits, not features. So, the training that we went through early on was always around customer comes in, and they say, "I'm looking for a phone." And your immediate reaction, especially if you're like a data driven intellectual, you'll be like "Great. What features do you need in this phone? Do you need a phone that does X Y Z?" And I that was definitely my first instinct. But what they taught us through their training program was it's all about Socratic method. It's all about asking them questions about their daily lives and how they might be using their phone, how they might be interacting with their phone, to figure out what benefits a product could be providing. So, for example, I started selling cell phones in 2005 when it was all flip phones and they just come out with the first camera phone. And the questions we would be asking, if we wanted to figure out if somebody was qualified for a camera phone, wouldn't be, "Do you want to take pictures with your phone?" Because most people weren't even ready for that. They weren't necessarily looking for a phone to do that. But it would be more around their habits around taking pictures in general.

 Do you take pictures on the go? Do you have a digital camera that you use on a regular basis? Do you travel a lot? How do you document your travels? That would parlay into, "Well we actually have this new thing. It has a camera on it and it's actually way smaller than your digital camera and you don't have to carry two devices." That's the benefit not the feature.

SAL DAHER:   Excellent.

TIVAN AMOUR: So, yeah. So, fast forwarding to starting my first companies I think, definitely, when we had to set up sales organizations from the get go, it was those kinds of lessons that ... those frameworks that I had when writing the first Google doc I could say, "Okay, how are we going to sell the benefits? What are the benefits?"

SAL DAHER:   Not the feature, yeah.

TIVAN AMOUR: So, yeah.

SAL DAHER:   Yeah, but this ties in with Episode 9 of the podcast. I interviewed a woman by the name of Katheryn Roy who is an absolute whiz in marketing and messaging, and she makes exactly the same point with regards to marketing and technology. She says that there's a tendency for people to have all those features and all these things that the technology can do instead of thinking what problem am I solving for the client? And that requires knowledge. The Socratic process you're going through, talking to your customer, and eliciting responses. Asking questions and eliciting responses from your customer. You can do that in marketing to enterprise large companies. And so in that situation, you can then figure out what aspect of your product adds value to the company and then you can promote that in your messaging very succinctly, very briefly and nothing else. It's amazing it's all one seamless garment. It's all listening and tailoring your message exactly to the needs of your customer. That's great. So, after graduating from Penn you went to work at the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch as a product manager.

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah.

SAL DAHER:   And did the AT&T job help you get that?

TIVAN AMOUR: It's hard to remember now. It was eight years ago or something like that.

SAL DAHER:   Oh gees, such an eternity.

TIVAN AMOUR: Back then I was definitely looking at it as a completely new adventure and I don't know that I was ... I think having had so much work experience, at that point I'd been working for five years, almost full time. So, having work experience probably helped me get the job but I don't know that ...

SAL DAHER:   Let me answer the question for you. It tremendously helped to get the job. I I were interviewing you and I saw that you had five years of working experience. I looked at a resume of somebody like that and somebody who's been going to kegger's for five years, and this is their first job. It's a no brainer.

 

Tivan as a Product Manager at Abercrombie & Fitch

TIVAN AMOUR: That's probably true. On the flip side though, the job that I took in Abercrombie & Fitch was a product manager role and it was managing a bunch ... Like a cross-functional team across design, production, and working with factories overseas, and inventory allocation, and then like store management teams. So, the experience that I had in sales was vastly different. I was like a lone shark selling and this was really more of a managerial role. I imagine that probably came off as wet behind the ears and I didn't have any management experience really. So, I'm glad that they took a risk on me.

SAL DAHER:   That's tremendous. What did you get out of the two years working in a prominent retail chain?

TIVAN AMOUR: Well, Abercrombie at the time, I can't speak for anything now because I think they've undergone some changes since I've left. But at the time, they were very, very entrepreneurial and the mantra that they had internally was all around being your own CEO of your own department. Being your own boss. And really making you feel like you ran a $10 million business or $50 million business because you really were the center of this wheel when you're interfacing with all these different departments. I think that, more than I probably have given it credit, that was really a foundational moment for me as giving me the confidence that I could run my own company. And that's why I started my own company out of there, I think.

 

Tivan Starts His First Company

SAL DAHER:   That's tremendous. So, tell me about the company. You started it in ground while you were still Abercrombie.

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah.

SAL DAHER:   So, tell me about that.

TIVAN AMOUR: So, my roommate at the time in Columbus, where I wear Abercrombie was, also started as a product manager at Abercrombie & Fitch and I think he decided it wasn't right for him after the first six months. And then he had another six months playing around with different startup ideas. And I would get home after a long day, like a 12 hour day at Abercrombie, and I'd hear him ranting about all these different tech startups that he saw popping up and things he thought he could do and I honestly didn't pay him any mind for several months. But he came to me with an idea that seemed a little far-fetched but then he got some initial traction with it by applying to a small accelerator program at Ohio State's business school there. So, that was actually when I started listening to him when he got some interest.

SAL DAHER:   Somebody else listened to this nut.

TIVAN AMOUR: I was pretty risk averse. I was on a nice trajectory at Abercombie. So, he asked me to join and help him on nights and weekends. So, every single night after a 12, 13 hour day at Abercrombie we would go to a local coffee shop and just keep working. And I was helping him with marketing, and sales, and figuring out how we are going to sell, and in retrospect I had no idea what I was doing. Absolutely no idea, but it was the ... I think what kept us both in it was the camaraderie combined with a little bit of validation. Somebody thinks that we're smart and there are two of us that are both really dedicated to making it work. So, yeah that's how it got started.

SAL DAHER:   Right, and so how did it develop?

TIVAN AMOUR: So then the next phase for us was ... So, we want a $20,000 grant through this accelerator program from the state of Ohio. They were trying to encourage entrepreneurship and it was similar to some other better known accelerator programs like TechStars and Y Combinator and it's a mentorship model so they connect you with local entrepreneurs and they help you develop your strategy. The problem was there was not much of a startup ecosystem in Columbus. So, we met with the ten entrepreneurs in Columbus and they were certainly not really any angel investors. There was one VC that controlled the market. And so we learned pretty quickly that it wasn't ... This was an ad tech startup by the way. So, the underlying principle was can we create a frequent flyer program for websites? Can we be the frequent flier layer for websites? We were focusing on content based Web sites like Huffington Post, The Washington Post, anywhere where there were a bunch of readers, and we basically created a gamification system that incentivized people to read articles, share articles, engage with articles, comment.

 

Tivan Decides Boston Is Just Right for Him

So, yes, so we realized we couldn't build that in Columbus because it was really developer heavy and there were no developers that worked in really any open frameworks in Columbus. It was all like .net people at big companies.  So, we started looking at a bunch of different cities. A few of our friends from the program had moved to San Francisco. They had reported back to us that it was impossible to find a good developer for less than $150,000. And even then it was really, really hard to convince them. New York was another option but the cost of living there was insane and I think neither of us were that excited about living in a place as crazy as New York. I think that there was a reason we ended up in Columbus. I think that was a little bit too far on the other side of the spectrum, and then Boston presented itself as a nice middle ground because cost of living was nice, there were plenty of developers there because there's a good ecosystem, and good schools here and we each had a little bit of family there too. So, we honestly just jumped on LinkedIn and started messaging every entrepreneurial looking person we could find and asking questions, and we got a few leads and ended up finding people that we wanted to connect with there.

SAL DAHER:   So, ultimately what was denouement for Incrwd? So, how did you exit the company?

TIVAN AMOUR: So, it was definitely a quick, fail fast experience. I like to think of it as like the beginning of my startup MBA. Maybe year one of my startup MBA, which I'm still getting. The problem with it was that we had this idea and we did not test it as a sellable product for our customers. So we never really asked customers what they wanted and then iterated. We said, "Wouldn't this be cool?" And then spent a lot of time and money building it. And then when we finally tried to sell it, nobody really wanted it, or nobody wanted to pay any prices that would support a business.

SAL DAHER:   So, you had validation but not from the ultimate customer. That's where you're missing out on the validation.

TIVAN AMOUR: Right, and I actually think that that's the only validation that matters. So there are plenty of investors who will give you money for ideas that they also find interesting. There are plenty of programs that might think that you're smart and you can figure it out. But at the end of the day, the business isn't going to work unless you put something in front of customers and they beg you for it. Until you can iterate and find that product that people are begging you for and telling you that they will pay you anything to have it. You haven't really found a business.

 

What Tivan Learned from Volunteering at BUILD

SAL DAHER:   That's right. When you get product/market fit you know it. It's like you hit a vein. It's just like blood squirts out or something. Yeah, that is fantastic. So, tell us a little bit about your work with BUILD.

TIVAN AMOUR: So, BUILD is an organization that helps at risk youth get from high school to college. They have a very high four-year college attendance rate. Much higher than the national average. I won't quote numbers because it's been a long time since I've heard the latest. But essentially their thesis on the best way to do that is to introduce college students to entrepreneurial mentors ... Or, excuse me, high school students to entrepreneurial mentors, and through a program of helping them create their first product that they then sell. It's supposed to engage them in all other aspects of their academic career. So, by understanding why it's important to do accounting when you're creating a product, or understanding the importance of calculating your margins on a product that's supposed to engage the student in math. Get them excited about doing math and give them an actual practical example of why you need good math skills. Why you need good verbal skills when you're selling. So, I worked with them ... I haven't worked with them for the past year.

Things picked up at Fortified and my cohort of students got through the program. But I think that their hypothesis on how this should work is very, very good. I think it's a very, very long game. It's a very long game. It's like cycles of students. I think they're chipping away at the problem for sure, and I think the biggest inspiration that I drew from it was meeting with all these students who many of them have D's, have F's all across the board. Watching them do math and watching them do things that, at their age, I'm like, "Man this kid is so much more talented than I am." And I tell them that. I'm like, "You are so much better at this than I am. You were so much better at this." And I want them to see that, "Look I'm I'm doing great in life and all you have to do is focus this energy."

SAL DAHER:  Yeah, nose to the grindstone will get you somewhere.

TIVAN AMOUR:That's the part that inspired me is that talent is everywhere and it's all about convincing people that they just have to focus their efforts. The downside to it, and the part that is a challenge that I would like to continue trying to solve in my life, is me presenting myself as a role model, is out of context for a lot of kids.

There's so many nuances to who kids decide to make their role models. So one anecdote that has stayed with me since my first year. This is actually at Charlestown High. So, it's like a block away.

SAL DAHER:   Our studio's in Charlestown.

TIVAN AMOUR: So there was a kid who was named the CEO of our little group. We were making a little cell phone case. That was the product that the group decided on and the CEO was, in many ways, he fit the mold of the average CEO. It's like really gregarious, the most outspoken, in some ways a bully too. Part of that was because of his age and he talked back a lot, and there was a moment where he was really restless and he kept interrupting and I said, "Hey if you really want this team to be successful and if you want to be successful all we need you to do is focus for 45 minutes and I promise it will be worth your while." And then I think I asked him something to the effect of, "Do you want to have a good career? do you want to have a good job? Because I look at you and I see tremendous potential. Do you want to have a good job?" And he said, "Yeah." And I said, "Okay, great. Well all you got to do is focus right here and you're the type of kid who can get A's without even trying. Do 15 minutes of homework a night.

I can help you and you can get in any school you want and you can have a good career." And he said, "I don't need to finish school to have a good career." And I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, how do you know that?" He said, "Because my brother has a good job and he didn't finish school." And I said, "Okay cool. Well, what does your brother do?" He said, My brother installs cable and it's a great job." And my first instinct was, "Okay well I don't think that's a good job." In my head, right? And then when I really started ... the rest of the day I started thinking about it and peeling back the layers ...

SAL DAHER:   Maybe it's the job for his brother but it's not the job for him.

TIVAN AMOUR: Right.

SAL DAHER:   Every job has its dignity. If you do a job well it doesn't matter if it's sweeping floors. If you're fulfilling your talents with that and that's the best you can do, you should do the best you can. But maybe this kid really had potential for being something a lot more.

TIVAN AMOUR: Right, and that's what I was what I was getting at when I'm saying context. So, at that moment, it was really hard for me to say, "No. A good job is this and this is what you want to be." It's this subtle marketing campaign that kids are exposed to from day one that determines who they look up to and why. So, for me to come in and start talking to somebody when they're 17 and say, "Trust me, this is what a good job looks like." It's like I'm telling them that their religion is wrong, it's like I'm telling them ...

SAL DAHER:   Everything you heard up till now is wrong.

TIVAN AMOUR: Their political affiliation is wrong. It's something that takes years to change. So that's that's a problem that I've wrestled with since then. It's like, "Okay, well not to say that installing cable is bad but keeping an open mind about what your potential is, is very very important."

SAL DAHER:   I bet you his brother wants a promotion from installing ... He wants to be the supervisor of the [inaudible 00:19:53]. I bet you he does because the brother's probably pretty clever too. But he doesn't see it. He sees his brother getting a big salary, having a car, being able to do things, good enough. Funny thing, thinking about this. I was listening to something the other day, a podcast from Stanford, talking about how the secret of happiness is being happy with what you have. Contentment. That's really the secret. There's also a factor in life that in order for us to get somewhere in life we have to have ambition, which means not being content with what we have. We want more. But I guess, at some point, we have to switch over from wanting more to being content with what we have because that's when you start thinking about giving back to other people and so forth. So, I guess that there are periods in life where you have to be really ambitious and a go getter, and there are other periods in life where you have to start working more on contentment. Perhaps this kid was ahead of his time and he shouldn't be. He should be at the accumulation or discontent phase.

 

How Tivan Structures His Day

TIVAN AMOUR: I've been thinking a lot about that recently actually, and my most recent feeling on it has been it's all about increments throughout the day actually. So, there are moments, when I get up in the morning I am not content with the state of things. I get up in the morning and I say, "All right. Well, we've got sales to make. We've got growth on the product side. We've got to make these things happen. And I've got a list of five things that need to get done." 6, 7 p.m. rolls around and my mind completely shifts too, "All right. I got to be happy. I got to relax and I got to be happy with what I've accomplished, regardless of whether it was two things on that list or five things on the list. And I have to give thanks." So, I think it's a daily ...

SAL DAHER:   There's a daily cycle, and there's a cycle in your life, which one mirror the other. That's recursive and in that way. So, yeah. Science supports that. I have to remember where but there's a lot of cognitive science that says it in the morning you should do the checking list things. The satisfaction of going down the list and in-the-box kind of stuff and then writing. Doing more contemplative stuff is good work in the afternoon.

TIVAN AMOUR: Really?

SAL DAHER:   Yeah.

TIVAN AMOUR: I am going to try that.

SAL DAHER:   Yeah.

TIVAN AMOUR: Because every time I write a blog post now I do it in the morning and ...

SAL DAHER:   No, leave it for the afternoon. In the morning get stuff off your list because that's the time when you're most productive, your attention span is longest and you can really get stuff off. The afternoon you're more tired and that's the time when you should give your mind free rein and go with the flow a little bit. And at that point, that's when inspiration comes in. I learned this like two months ago. I didn't know this before. But I sort of do it.

TIVAN AMOUR: I'll give it a try and I'll report back to you.

SAL DAHER:   Awesome, awesome. So, Tivan, you started Fortified Bikes six months after you wrapped up your involvement with Incrwd. What did you do during that time?

TIVAN AMOUR: In the six months?

SAL DAHER:   Yeah.

TIVAN AMOUR: I think you're getting this maybe from my ...

SAL DAHER:   LinkedIn profile.

 

Tivan’s First Company Pivots

TIVAN AMOUR: Piecemeal stories and LinkedIn profile. So, Incrwd actually morphed and we pivoted it. We had some friends and family money for Incrwd after 10 months we realized that we weren't going to generate the traction that we wanted. But we learned a lot about all things building an early stage business. We saw a bunch of companies around us making a lot of money and having a lot of success in eCommerce so we pivoted it to an eCommerce concept. But the twist was it was an emerging market. So, we actually focused on Mexico. So, we built the first online shoe company in Mexico, and we had learned a bunch about ...

SAL DAHER:   Oh, how come this isn't in your profile?

TIVAN AMOUR: I don't put in my profile. I like to keep that for podcasts otherwise I have nothing to talk about.

SAL DAHER:   Awesome, awesome. This is a great discovery. So, yeah. So, what was it called?

TIVAN AMOUR: So, it went through different names. It was called, at first Zapatos Express, which is Shoes Express.

SAL DAHER:   Is that where you picked up your Spanish?

TIVAN AMOUR: No, I've been speaking Spanish ... I went to school for Spanish in elementary school. I traveled a bit through Mexico before college. But it was called Zapatos Express and we realized only after registering the domain and putting the site up that, to the average American, is for somebody who doesn't speak Spanish it looked like zapato sex press because you don't know what zapatos is there's zapatos and you don't realize it's a plural. So, we had a change it. I think it ended up being called Pluma, a little bit nicer branded, which means feather. So, we ran that for about five months and the way that we put it together was, at the time, we thought it was really clever, and what we did was there were a bunch of catalog businesses in Mexico that were selling shoes like Tupperware model. And that's actually how Zappos.com got started. It was catalog shoe businesses that they put online and targeted those consumers were buying through catalog. So, we did the same thing but we didn't have any inventory, we didn't have any money for inventory. We were out of our friends and family money. So this was our own cash that we had saved up over the past three years of working. So, it wasn't much.

So we decided that we were going to set up a drop ship model and become resellers of the catalog businesses. So, we actually just registered ourselves as these catalog sales people. But then we put the products online. So, we took pictures of the shoes that were available online, put them on our site, and said, "Okay, we're selling these shoes now." Any time we got an order we would actually have ... Actually a cousin of my co-founder, go and pick up the shoes from the central distributor in the middle of Mexico, in Guadalajara, and then ship it out via DHL. So, that was like the leanest way to get started. We did tremendous sales immediately. We hit like a $600,000 run rate in the first three weeks.

SAL DAHER:   Wow. How did you get found?     

TIVAN AMOUR: So, I learned how to do PPC marketing through Google and it was really, really cheap clicks at the time. So, it gave me a lot of leeway for messing up. Kind of learning it. I tried later to replicate that with Fortified and with other businesses. In the US it's way harder. But the short story is that we ended up ... There was a huge fraud problem in Mexico online. There was just no way of preventing people from using stolen credit cards. And it was really hard to follow up with customers and figure out if they were real people. So, a lot of our sales ended up being fraudulent and bank merchant accounts learned that there was a lot of fraud and they didn't want to support us. So, I spent some time forming partnerships with local banks there to prevent fraud but we didn't have very much money to ...

SAL DAHER:   You have to build so much infrastructure that it's easy to start a startup here where so much is already set up and you don't have those problems. That's the tragedy. I spent a lot of time in emerging markets as well and that's the tragedy of these places. You see there are projects with very high potential returns. But the reason those returns are so high is that it's so difficult to get the project to succeed in a normal way at all because of the obstacles you're talking about.

TIVAN AMOUR: Small side note on that. I helped mentor at an accelerator program in Kenya in Nairobi about a year ago, February of last year, and that the company is called Village Capital. They run really awesome accelerator programs all over the world and their hypothesis is that the best entrepreneurs aren't necessarily the ones that you're finding in the mainstream VC ecosystems. They're in random places all over the world, solving real big problems. Not like, "Hey, wouldn't it be nice if this app did this." But, "Hey, these people don't have clean water." Taking things from 50% to 80% as opposed to 95% to 99%, which is what we do in this country.

SAL DAHER:   Their entrepreneurship enormously consequential. But for us it's like, "They spend all their time doing that?" I advise someone who's starting a retail business in Saudi Arabia and the periphery, and the things that she struggles with is just delivery. Delivery networks don't work as well as they do here. There are all kinds of restrictions and so forth. It's huge opportunities but also it's frustrating, the things that hold them back, which is incredible. So, let's jump forward to Fortified Bikes. So, how did you start that?

 

Genesis of Fortified Bike – New Way to Market to Bike Shops – Cutting Out Distributors

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah, so to fill in the gap there. So, we closed down the business after about five months. I was living in Mexico for a while like running operations. So, when I came back home, I spent all my money, my own personal money sending shoes to fraudulent people. And so, I came back broke and I lived with my co-founder for a little while, and I remember being happier than I'd ever been up to that point in my life. I was just so happy and I spent a lot of time, because I didn't have a job, I spent a lot of time reflecting on why am I so happy? I don't have a job. I'm just passively applying to jobs and having conversations. Because we'd been in the entrepreneurship ecosystem for over a year at that point, in Boston, we knew people. We'd worked out of a co-working space. So, everyday I was having meetings with people who wanted me to help them with advertising, or sales, or just talk. And the realization that I came to was, "Okay, I just lost all my money in Mexico. This is my rock bottom." And what does my rock bottom look like? I'm living with a friend and he's one of maybe five friends that I could live with for a little while right now.

SAL DAHER:   You're not going to starve.

TIVAN AMOUR: No, I'm not going to starve. I have constantly ... People are asking me to help them with their businesses, and consult, and to pay me for it. And I have this unlimited freedom to incubate a new idea. It was in that stage of self-reflection and time to figure out my next move that I started helping out Fortified, at the time it was called Gotham Bicycle, they were one of like five companies I was helping. And the challenge that Slava, the original CEO and founder, gave me ...

SAL DAHER:   Slava Menn

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah, now a very good friend of mine, and still our chairman at Fortified, He said, "Hey I've got this bike light. I launched it on Kickstarter." I had helped them with the Kickstarter video, and he said, "Now I want to figure out how to sell as many as possible and online is really difficult for us right now." And I said, "Well why don't we sell it to bike shops?" And so I went around to bike shops and started pitching it and we got some really early traction on that, and scaled it up to hundreds of bike shops in several months. So, that was the initial traction that got me excited to join full time, and become a co-founder, and help out with all other aspects of the business.

SAL DAHER:   Great. Really great. So, how did you decide to get into Techstars? How was that experience? Because that's where I first saw Fortified Bike was you guys pitching at Techstars.

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah, I'll start by just maybe giving a quick little overview of what we did in the early days and what our product was. So, we are all entrepreneurs biking around Cambridge. None of us really used cars because we were on a shoestring budget and one of Slava's friends from business school actually was having this problem where his bike lights were frequently getting stolen. He stopped replacing them and then one night he got hit by a car because the car couldn't see him. So, Slava's initial idea was, well why don't I make a bike light that can't be stolen. And so that was what we launched on Kickstarter. And then that was what we eventually started selling to bike shops. So, we pioneered this very effective way of getting into bike shops quickly. So, it started out with me walking in cold to bike shops. Then I realized, okay, well to scale this I can't just be walking into a bike shop. So, I started cold calling them right. Then we figured out what the pitch was for that we said, well can we do this with email. And then that turned into a big process of finding email addresses, like having contractors find email addresses, sending big email blasts, and having a certain high percentage of them actually call us to place the order.

SAL DAHER:   What percentage?

TIVAN AMOUR: Oh, well, it changed over time but I think all time ... So, we ended up with 400 bike shops, which is about a third of the urban bike shops in the US. So, assuming that we targeted all of the urban bike shops, I'd say we ended up having about 30%, 33 % ...

SAL DAHER:   So you ultimately got 33% of that ...

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah but it wasn't off the initial email.

SAL DAHER:   No, no, no. I know but eventually ...I mean… a very high response rate.

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah, and it allowed us to circumvent the traditional distributor model, which ends up taking all of your margin as an upstart. And it allowed us to learn from our customers very quickly. So, we were interfacing with every single bike shop and bike shops could tell us, "This product is great but if you added this, this, and this feature ..." Or benefit, I should say, "It'll move 10 times faster." And that's exactly how we moved from our first light to, then, a rechargeable version of our lights with new features and benefits to now we have an entire arsenal of products that are tough, theft resistant geared for the city that also solves other problems like wear and tear, and weather, and just the general problems that you have when you're biking in a city on a daily basis. To answer your question about Techstars. That was the context in which we met the folks at Techstars. So, we had two built a big ...

 

Fortified Bike Goes into Techstars

SAL DAHER:   Techstars is one of the premier accelerators in the United States. They have a branch here in Boston. Give me a little bit of a 20 second explanation of what goes on at Techstars.

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah, well let me actually first explain how we got involved with them because it's probably relevant. So, we bootstrapped the business with our own money and just with our own sales for two years. So, from 2012 to 2014 it was just selling the bike shops and paying ourselves whatever we could off of that. And then word got around that things were growing well and we had some investor interests so we started having meetings with investors, and realized that we could probably raise a seed round for the product and that it would help us hire some engineers, hire some operations folks, hire some marketing folks and create more products faster. And so, one of the investors that we met with had recently taken a role leading Techstars here in Boston, as a managing director. And when we met with him and his team he said, "Look I can't invest in you guys as a private investor anymore. But I think you would be right for Techstars. It seems like you've got a good team and you've got the traction." And so what Techstars offered to us in that moment ... This was an interesting moment for us because typically what an accelerator offers a young startup is, first and foremost, mentorship to help them learn how to grow a business.

  Closely following that, it's learning how to capitalize that business because the number one problem that you have in an early stage business is ...

SAL DAHER:   No capital.

 

The Real Value of Techstars to the Founder

TIVAN AMOUR: No capital, and in most cases that's raising money. In some cases that is generating enough revenue to support yourself, and in some cases it's both right. In our case, what they were offering us was the opportunity to get things in order and figure out how to put gas on the flame. We had already basically raised our round at that point so we weren't exactly looking for capital. But it was a big decision for Slava and I. We went on a quick little vacation right as we were finishing our round, we went to North Carolina to be with his wife's family, and we were sitting out on their ... They have like a little dock on the lake and we're sitting out there fishing and we were like, "Well what do we do? Does it make sense? We just raise money so we don't need anyone, right? We got it. We got this and they're going to take some equity and is it worth it?" And I remember the decision that we ended up making, and the rationale for it was, this is a binary equation. It's either our business is successful, is wildly successful, or it's not.

We don't really want the middle ground. We don't want to be like decently successful. We don't want to make like a decently successful company. And if Techstars gives us a 50% better chance of accomplishing that, or even a 25% better chance of accomplishing the one in this binary equation, then we've got to do it. And that was it. Since then, I think what we've learned to be the real value of the network that we couldn't have really understood. I'm sure we heard it anecdotally but now we understand it. The relationships that we've gained from it, I think first and foremost, just our colleagues, other companies that are going through the same thing. Now, when I have a problem, I have five people that I can call at any moment who have recently had that exact same problem within a matter of weeks, maybe months.

SAL DAHER:   The founder and the CEO is no longer lonely. You have other founders and CEOs you can reach out to.

TIVAN AMOUR: Exactly. And ...

SAL DAHER:   That is so valuable.

TIVAN AMOUR: In other areas of my life, I don't think I've been trained to act that way, or to think that way like, "I have a problem who can solve it for me? Or who can help me solve it?" Usually it's like I have a problem but I'm a smart guy. I'm going to figure this out. That's how school trained me. But what Techstars taught us is there's always someone who knows exactly what you're going through and can help you. And if they don't know exactly the answer then you can get three data points, all of whom have an idea of an answer and you can formulate your own. So, that's number one. Number two is relationships with mentors in general. Number three is connections with investors. The last piece of value that we've gained most recently from Techstars is partnerships and press. Every few months we'll get like a press lead, "Hey CNBC is looking for a company that does this kind of thing." And then I can go pitch to CNBC. Or, "Hey, we've got a corporate client who's looking for a fleet of bikes." All of those things have happened in the last six months.

SAL DAHER:   That's tremendous. Briefly, was the idea of sort of reinventing the way bicycles are designed and distributed? Was that in your original roadmap, or was that something that you guys pivoted too?

TIVAN AMOUR: I think as soon as we realized that nobody was solving problems like your bike gets stolen, the world was our oyster.

SAL DAHER:   So, you knew you were going to be doing something to deal with that and then doing something else after that.

TIVAN AMOUR: We knew that there were plenty of optimizations and reinventions that we could do around every single product because most bike products were designed with a top down mentality. Okay, we're going to make this thing that ... We're going to make, for example ... A good example this is a fender that protects your butt from getting wet when it's raining. If you look at how they're designed, there's really no difference between the fender that cross-country riders use versus the one that the city riders use. But the use case is very very different, right? It gets in the way when you're riding in the city. It makes it harder to lock up. It moves around a lot over time, especially if you're carrying things on a rack. So, there are countless examples of products that are not really designed, specifically, for city cyclists that I think we saw an opportunity for. So yes, from day one we learned that there was a lot of opportunity.

SAL DAHER:   Coming up next, I will ask seasoned founder Tivan Amour what it was like to change co-founder. First, I wish to thank listener, Luis Henrique Nogueira for this review:

Amazing content! Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge with us. Thanks. Luis Henrique. Fico muito grato pelo voto de confiança (translation from Portuguese: I am very grateful for your vote of confidence) I speak Portuguese, and Spanish, and a little French too. The Angel Invest Boston podcast has outstanding guests such as Tivan Amour, is professionally produced, has no commercials, and comes to you free. The only thing we ask in return is that you help get the word out. Please tell a potential angel, or founder, about us. Take a minute to review our podcast on iTunes. It's really important, the iTunes reviews. We also ask guests to review us on iTunes because that's a really powerful way to get the podcast found.

TIVAN AMOUR: All right well assuming I don't have a bad experience in the next 15 minutes I'll write a good review.

SAL DAHER:   I promise I won't throw water at you. And then sign up at AngelInvestBoston.com to be notified of new episodes and also of upcoming, in-person free events. So, yeah, pitch in and do your part.

TIVAN AMOUR: I certainly will.

 

Changing Co-founders

SAL DAHER:   Awesome, awesome. So tell us about changing co-founders. Slava Menn is a friend. He's actually the guy who started Fortified Bike. You joined him, and so explain what happened with your change of co-founder. Was it foreseen of the documents? How was that resolved? And so forth. That's an important thing.

TIVAN AMOUR: Yeah. So, the first thing that I learned about this whole scenario is that it happens all the time. It wasn't something that I was really attuned to until it was something that looked like the right move for us. And then I started asking questions around the Techstars network and learning that it's just a very common stage in a company's growth. So, my role at Fortified ended up being the operational and revenue generating co-founder. Often either the COO or CRO role. We didn't really use titles very much but Slava was starting a family about a year ago, and I think took an inventory all of the stresses in his life and all of the increasing obligations that he had. And he said, "You know what? I think that might be important for me to focus on my personal life and on my family." I think heavily tied to that, was the fact that because I was running operations and I was doing all of the hiring and I was generating all the sales, there was this sentiment that increasingly I was becoming the center of the business. And it wasn't anything political, it was just the reality of things.

So, I think Slava had been increasingly feeling like that for a while but there was a moment at which he saw me as the go to leader. He came to me one day and he said ... He actually told me on the phone while we were developing our Kickstarter. We were talking about her bike Kickstarter and then he said, "You know? Just want to run something by you." And he's like, "You're doing so much work on this bike Kickstarter and it really seems like this is your baby, and I've done a lot of the design for it but you're really pushing this forward. What do you think about taking over the CEO role?" And I was definitely humbled by that because I never really thought about myself as filling that role at Fortified. I thought maybe in the future down the line. But his confidence in me, I think, convinced me, in that moment at least, that it was worth considering. And then we had conversations with investors, and with a bunch of our mentors, and for a while we considered hiring in an outside CEO and everyone advised against that. They said, "No, you're the founders. At this early stage in the company you don't hire someone who hasn't put the blood sweat and tears in and who really doesn't have the vision for this company."

So, I'll admit I was scared but it seemed like the right thing to do. And so at the beginning of 2016 we made it official, and immediately after that my job was reorganizing the team, hiring the right people, and raising money for our next stage of growth. That was, I would say, the next stage in my startup MBA, which I was not expecting. It all came as a shock and I feel like I learned more in this last eight months than in eight years of school.

SAL DAHER:   Oh my goodness. Yeah, I can imagine. How does Fortified Bike compete in an incredibly crowded field?

TIVAN AMOUR: I was having a conversation with my lawyer about this recently. I feel like I had an epiphany over coffee with him a few months ago. So, our lawyers helped us raise a round [of funding], under a lot of uncertainty, in the last year because we were switching co-founders and we had already raised several times, and the market was doing weird things. Given the presidential elections and just because of its cyclical nature. So, our lawyers really help support us there and I was having coffee with him at the tail end of raising our last round, and I was thanking him for it and he was saying "We're all about service and I hope we provided you with the right service." So, we had this conversation about him providing service. And we had left our lawyers previously for this firm when I took over because I wanted to find lawyers that I felt we had a relationship of mutual respect with. And it turned out to work really well. And so I was telling him I think that we've had plenty of lawyers over the years and the lawyers are a commodity but you guys have really differentiated yourself because you've given me the kind of service that I was looking for. Even though there are plenty of lawyers that could draft up papers for me ...

SAL DAHER:   Commodity business. The ultimate crowed field, yeah.

TIVAN AMOUR: So, in that moment when we were having the conversation I said, "That just gave me a little bit of insight into my own business that I didn't necessarily have." We are a commodity business. Bikes are everywhere and yes we differentiate on some benefits. We have features that amount to significant benefits to people who ride in the city on a daily basis but that only goes so far when we're marketing our product. It's not immediately evident necessarily unless you ride every single bicycle in the city for a week at a time, and no one can do that. So, how do we differentiate ourselves? Well, increasingly it's with service, and that's twofold. One, is the obvious service component that we have to our product offering, which is this new product, which I haven't even described yet. But this is a bike that we guarantee against theft. So, every single component on it is locked down with custom security bolts and the bike itself is guaranteed against theft if you get it with one of our tough u-locks. So, it's like an extended warranty. If the bike is ever stolen we ship you a new one within 24 hours. All you have to do is verify that it was that it was stolen, that you had it locked up to something tough, and you pay like an extended warranty on an annual basis if you want that service.

So, it's $99 for one year, $250 for three years. 75% of our customers actually buy that service because they've either experienced theft, or they really don't have to worry about it. So, that has been very,  very popular for us. So, that's the one obvious service component that we add that people talk about and that attracts them to the brand. But on the back end side, when we actually have a customer executing on that service, on that promise, and making sure that we're keeping people happy is more the lawyer model. It's like once ...

SAL DAHER:   That's where it really separates the ...

TIVAN AMOUR: Right, and so the best example I have of that is with this Fortified Theft Protection service that we provide, everyone who has gotten their bikes stolen they get an immediate call, they get a long conversation about how it happened. We're helping them fast track the police report to make sure that everything is in order, and we're even searching for the thief that stole the bike. So, right now 20% of all Fortified Bikes that are stolen, not many of them, but when they are still in 20% we actually catch the thief who did it.

SAL DAHER:   Oh geeze. That's a highly unprofitable operation.

TIVAN AMOUR: Well, no, it's not so bad.

SAL DAHER:   Unprofitable for the thieves.

TIVAN AMOUR: Oh yeah. Oh definitely for the thieves.

SAL DAHER:   One in five getting caught. That's ... Yeah.

TIVAN AMOUR: And that's really the whole point is we want to show thieves that it's really not a good bet for them and we want to, also, show customers that we've got their back 100%. So, in this last time it happened, it happened in Cambridge and we had a customer of ours get a bike stolen on a Sunday. She was at the movies. Monday she reported it next day, and then by Tuesday we had found the bike and the thief, and tricked him into meeting with us to sell it to us, and we set up a sting with the cops and got it on tape. So, that's the level of service that we're trying to provide to differentiate ourselves in a highly commodities market.

SAL DAHER:   I saw the video of that. You sent it out to everybody. It's very effective marketing. Very effective. So, we're getting a little tight on time. So, this is really the last question. The Fortified Bike website, fortifiedbike.com is, has won plaudits from experts that I know, as a really, really highly effective selling tool. What advice would you give to a founder in building their website?

 

Fortifiedbike.com Has Won Plaudits from Experts for Its Efficacy – Tivan’s Advice on Building a Website

TIVAN AMOUR: So, this is a conversation I've been having a lot recently, as well. I think that using the right content management platform, there are a bunch of platforms out there that are like a website in a box, using the right one for your business is really important. For the standard eCommerce site that makes a physical product and sells that product, you really can't go wrong with Shopify. It is the easiest thing to get started and I don't get paid by Shopify to say that but it's just been so great to us, and of all the companies that I've seen start physical products businesses over the last four years alongside us, Shopify has I think been the best ...

SAL DAHER:   So, Shopify ... It looks great. It doesn't look like it's packaged ... It really, very, very sophisticated site.

TIVAN AMOUR: It's pretty easy for us to customize. It's very cheap for us to customize because it has a very good developer ecosystem. There are many, many apps that plug into it that will solve problems free, inventory problems, pricing problems, anything that you really want to do. And there are other ones out there but most of them are more costly, or less powerful, or less easy to use for somebody who's not a developer. So, that's the first thing is, I would say, start with Shopify unless you have very specific needs. I've spoken to a few people who their first instinct is to pay someone to do things. And yeah, and my first my second piece of advice is do not pay anyone. Not until you are really making sales, don't pay anyone. It's easier than ever to start a business online and if you are motivated enough to start a business than you're definitely capable enough to put up a website that will start generating sales. It doesn't have to be the prettiest website in the world to generate many times more sales than Fortified. There are plenty of really ugly web sites that do lots of sales because their product is right.

SAL DAHER:   And it has been discovered by the consumer.

TIVAN AMOUR: And their marketing is right. So, that's the that's the next thing I'll say is once you set up the right website, finding an effective way to sell is definitely ... Should be top of mind, and I think that what I'm hearing from all of our constituent companies is that selling on social networks is the way to go. Instagram and Facebook, whether it's paid on Instagram or Facebook, or organic, or a combination of both. Posting organic and then promoting those things, that seems to be the place to start for most consumer products.

SAL DAHER:   Yeah, outstanding. Outstanding. Really, this has been a great interview. Tivan Amour, I'm tremendously grateful to you, participating and helping make this a really great podcast.

TIVAN AMOUR: Thank you. This has been fun.

SAL DAHER:   It's awesome. I'd like to invite our listeners who enjoyed this podcast to review it on iTunes. I'm Sal Daher. This is Angel Invest Boston; conversations with Boston's most interesting angels and founders.

I'm glad you were able to join us. Our engineer is Raul Rosa. Our theme was composed by John McCusick. Our graphic design is by Katharine Woodman-Maynard. Our host is coached by Grace Daher.