#SoFiStartups: From Failure to 1,000+ B2B Customers in 1 Year
Chiara McPhee and Jen Kessler are great friends and the owners of San Francisco-based Bizzy, a startup offering a state-of-the-art email marketing platform for ecommerce businesses in varied industries and stages. They each refinanced student loans with SoFi, and they’re members of our Entrepreneur Program, which not only allowed them to defer their student loan payments for up to 6 months, but also provides access to valuable mentors and investors. Read about how they grew their friendship into a business and made it past a near-crippling initial failure to success.
If you scan the headlines of the most popular business publications, you’ll often see the same names mentioned over and over again: the late Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Arianna Huffington, Elon Musk, Sophia Amoruso, and the list goes on.
Those business icons are most often referenced to highlight their successes and to pass on their words of wisdom and actionable advice to readers. But what about the people behind the household names? The lesser known players who work hard behind the scenes are too often overlooked.
SoFi members, Chiara McPhee and Jen Kessler, know firsthand the importance of building an incredible team to support the growth of their company. This is their story.
Chiara and Jen met at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in the fall of 2011, as they were earning their MBAs and working for different companies. Shortly after meeting, they forged a friendship that began with deep professional respect and a common work ethic, and grew into a business partnership.
Coming from drastically different industries, they seemed an unlikely pair to start a business together. Chiara’s experience was in marketing for Fortune 500 companies, and Jen was conducting quantitative analysis for portfolio management firms. But their differences are exactly what led them to finding their business opportunity.
In hindsight it was almost too perfect; the core of their business lives right at the intersection of what they each love most: data and marketing. Chiara explains, “In 2013, Jen called me over Memorial Day weekend, right before graduation, with this crazy idea: nobody had yet applied portfolio theory to marketing, so we should.”
The underlying principles of financial portfolio theory give investors a mathematical framework for developing a risk-averse portfolio of investment assets. Jen’s idea was to use those principles to bring business owners the tools they need to create the optimal mix of digital marketing spend with the highest amount of return and lowest amount of risk.
“From there,” Chiara says, “we saw this incredible opportunity to help businesses understand where to put their marketing dollars across a growing number of different channels.”
By pairing Jen’s analytical prowess with Chiara’s deep understanding of the marketing challenges companies face, and by discovering a clever niche in Shopify sellers, they’ve been able to create powerful marketing tools for 1,000+ customers in just over a year. This has dramatically fueled Bizzy’s growth.
“Our product suite does what growth teams do for large companies, and enables businesses of all sizes to make data-informed marketing decisions,” explains Jen. For example, instead of sending weekly sales emails to customers and prospects, eCommerce shops selling everything from pet ID products to pinball accessories to beachwear can use Bizzy to drive automated, customized marketing campaigns based on prospect and customer interactions and purchasing cycle stages. What really sets them apart from the competition is how they use customer data to constantly re-segment and update campaigns based on how customers interact with the marketing messaging. On top of that, their ease of setup, lack of need for regular maintenance, and direct integration with Shopify, one of the most popular eCommerce solutions on the web, makes them a formidable new force.
With their team now rapidly expanding, Chiara and Jen agree that their strongest assets are the people they’ve chosen to bring on. Their commitment to hiring for not just raw skill, but also cultural fit and innate drive is based on the atmosphere of empowerment and encouragement they’ve created, especially when it comes to challenging assumptions. The strong focus on support and optimism is clear the minute you walk into the bright and lively Bizzy offices in downtown San Francisco. When one teammate gives props to another, which happens frequently, they cheer and dish out high fives with hand-shaped fly swatters.
Chiara and Jen’s high standards for new team members is something they’ll never sacrifice, because they learned how to build an effective team the hard way. When they realized that their six internationally-based developers failed to understand core concepts and deliver an impactful product, they paused to restructure. They cut the team down to two in-house developers and gathered objective feedback from Y Combinator peers about what exactly they were building, and who it would be for.
That’s when the partners discovered they’d been barking up the wrong tree.
“While we were in Y Combinator’s startup accelerator program, our product was for brick and mortar stores. It totally failed. It didn’t work at all,” she says. Because most of the brick and mortar stores they’d worked with weren’t focused on driving online transactions, their marketing tools had a very limited amount of effectiveness in small, local markets.
The solution, as it turned out, was right in front of them.
“Our classmates from Stanford, and others going through Y Combinator with us, wanted us to do for their eCommerce businesses what we had been doing for brick and mortar stores,” Jen says. “This helped us see that every smart businessperson we knew had the same incredibly persistent problem around how to best allocate marketing spend.”
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From there, Jen and Chiara turned their initial failure around and got the company back on track. They pivoted away from creating tools for brick and mortar companies and into serving eCommerce businesses that primarily use Shopify to operate their online stores.After setting their sights on a new market and rebooting with a close-knit team of developers dedicated to both creating a functioning platform and to the broader mission and growth of the company, Bizzy really started to gain traction. Choosing to integrate with Shopify has proven to be one of the best decisions they’ve made, because of the vibrant community of sellers they’ve been able to tap into.
“We started with Shopify because we have easy access to data, we understand how the platform works, and the customers on Shopify are used to using apps and plugins,” Jen explains. “So it was a great place to prove that we have something worthwhile.”
Looking back at how impactful SoFi has been on the growth of Bizzy, Chiara is pleased. “We were one of the first companies admitted into the Entrepreneur Program, and it’s been great,” she says. “SoFi helped us navigate the creation of our original pitch deck and provided objective feedback before we put it out there for potential investors.”
Chiara gave SoFi’s co-founder Dan Macklin props, too. “Dan has played an amazing mentorship role for us, particularly when it comes to engaging with press.”
The future looks bright for Bizzy. Now that Chiara and Jen have validated their product and brought on a large batch of paying customers, the company is building momentum. They’re adding new team members, moving into larger office space in downtown San Francisco, and ramping up for a major new feature announcement. We’re excited to see all that Bizzy has accomplished, and look forward to supporting Chiara and Jen as their business continues to grow.
If you’re a founder or co-founder working on your own business full-time and you have student loan debt, visit SoFi’s student loan refinancing to learn more about how SoFi can help you.
Advice for Fellow Entrepreneurs
Chiara and Jen’s top five tips for those looking to start a business.
There’s no magic to starting a business, and there’s no right time. You have to be willing to follow your curiosity, embrace hard work, and never stop learning.
Never grow your team too quickly, especially at the cost of sacrificing your values. Only bring on people who will help further your mission and fill your knowledge gaps.
Outsourcing talent can save you money, but only if you do so in smart ways. Nobody is going to care more about your product than you and your in-house teams, so choose wisely.
Rigorously test your assumptions before unwittingly building a product that benefits no one, and be flexible in the face of new information.
Simplify your product as much as possible. If it’s too complex, most people won’t put in the time it takes to start experiencing benefits.