Kate Barrett (00:06):
This is Founder Forward, the podcast from NEA where we explore the company building journey with candid commentary from founders and investors, some legendary, some just getting started, all moving forward, I'm Kate Barrett.
On this episode of Founder Forward. I spoke to Daniel Kang, CEO and co-founder of Flowbo, a financing platform for creators and influencers. We discussed Daniel's path to entrepreneurship, the problems Flowbo is solving in this fast-growing market and what it's like to scale a business as a first time founder.
Daniel Kang (00:46):
My name is Daniel, the CEO and co-founder of Flowbo. Prior to this, I was an investment professional at SoftBank Vision Fund and then started Flowbo just last year.
Kate Barrett (00:55):
And on every episode of Founder Forward, we like to fast-forward to get some insights from a founder and investor who've walked this road together before today we'll hear from Jack Conte, CEO and co-founder of Patreon, a membership platform providing business tools for content creators and NEA partner Jonathan Golden. Jack and Jonathan talked about Patreon's journey so far inspiring and supporting a new generation of content creators.
Jack Conte (01:21):
My name is Jack Conte. I am co-founder and CEO of Patreon and also a co-creator of the bands Scary Pockets and Pomplamoose.
Jonathan Golden (01:30):
My name is Jonathan Golden and I'm a partner here at NEA. My relationship with Jack and Patreon is we are a co-lead investor in the series E round of Patreon, which happened in 2020.
Kate Barrett (01:44):
As you consider how your business meets the needs of the people and communities it serves, think about how these founders are solving some really important problems for their target audiences. Let's dive in.
We are going to start with just maybe give me a quick overview of what you're building.
Daniel Kang (02:07):
In my previous life, I worked as an investment professional at SoftBank Vision Fund, and there I focused on FinTech and marketplaces. A lot of what I looked at was successful models that reduced friction when it comes to providing access to capital. Let's say I'm a supplier and you are a retailer like a Walmart and I supply you with things and you say, "Hey Daniel, I will pay you $60 or $100 three months from now." So for me, even though revenue is technically generated, I have to wait three months to get paid. Here this is where discounting or commenting noise factoring is involved and it helps both parties. So this basically means, "Hey, instead of waiting the three months, why don't I pay you today? But instead of the $100 that you're owed, I might pay you 95 cents on the dollar."
And for me as a supplier, I get my money paid faster so I can invest in more inventory and more marketing. And then from you as a buyer's perspective or retailer perspective, you have a immediate improvement in your financials. So these things are called trade finance, and this industry is a $40 trillion industry. So after I had left SoftBank and gone to grad school, I caught up with a few of my musician buddies and my creator buddies and I noticed that they had the exact same problem. They say, "Hey, like Daniel, I did some brand deal for this company, but they're saying I don't get paid today. I'm getting paid 30 days from now, or 60 days from now, or 90 days from now." I said, "Well, that's a problem that I've seen before and I've a problem that I've been solved before and seen it very intimately."
So I said, "Okay, well that seems like a problem that I want to tackle." So that that's more of the business side. To give you a little bit more of a personal side, I personally grew up in a low income immigrant family. I grew up in Canada in rural parts, so getting access to capital has always been challenging for me. And the one lucky break that I got was when I applied to college, I applied to 120 different scholarships of which a few of them were able to fund not only my education at the time, but also my family. So I was kind of the breadwinner for my family even throughout college. And without that support it would've taken me a lot longer for me to graduate college. So that was a big lucky break that I had gotten and I said, "Well, this is something I want to work on and how do I get money to people who need it? How do I give credit to people who don't have it? And let's look at different ways to do that."
Kate Barrett (04:27):
Do you think that sort of your experiences growing up are what shaped the way that you think about not just access to capital, but entrepreneurship and opportunity?
Daniel Kang (04:35):
I think that's a great question. That's something I'm actually working on right now. So there are certain habits and tactics that I've taken that have helped me get to where I am today, and that was kind of flooring the downside. Not everyone comes from a background that is conducive to starting a company. It's not one of those try and fail, and try and fail and then you succeed. It's you try and fail and then your family's out on the street. And the way I've tried to build my career and do what I want is, I was flooring my downside while building a career and preparing for entrepreneurship that'll help me have a running start, taking limited amount of risks with asymmetric upside. So higher upside, has been very helpful in getting where I am today. However, I think that's an old habit and I'm now at a place, I'm now in a funded company where we have capital, we have things to do where I should be focused on untapping the upside, how do I get this to be a rocket ship and have unlimited potential?
Kate Barrett (05:37):
So Daniel, you knew you wanted to be an entrepreneur, but also saw it as something of a gamble, something to safeguard against. Where I think an important distinction we'll hear in Jack's conversation with Jonathan is that his path to entrepreneurship was born of necessity. It was a means to solve a really big challenge he faced.
Jack Conte (06:02):
Patreon is a membership platform that helps creators build their businesses and turn their dreams into actual functional revenue streams that help them grow and expand and reach more fans and make their art a reality. And we're about nine years in, we've got over a quarter a million creators building businesses and making salaries on the platform and making their dreams come true.
At the end of 2012, I started working on a music video that ended up kind of taking over my life and I ended up spending about 10,000 bucks on it, drained my savings account, maxed out two credit cards, ended up building a replica from Millennium Falcon cockpit in my studio and working with these two kind of robotics hobbyists who made a 3D printed hexpod robot and animatronic head that was singing the lyrics to the song. And at the end of this process, I had this horrible realization.
I was like, I'm going to upload this video to YouTube, it's going to get a million views and I'm going to get 150 bucks for this video in ad revenue. And despite the fact that I've been doing that for eight years at that point, something about this video and the level of work and the sweat and literal tears that went into creating this thing from nothing that I dreamed up, something about this one just made me snap and I couldn't do it. I felt nauseated clicking that upload button and giving this one to Google for $150. I felt like I am more valuable than that. My creations are more valuable than that. I'm having more impact than I'm getting paid, and that sucks and it's not fair for me and it's not fair for creative people. And I sat down at my kitchen table one Sunday afternoon and I kind of sketched out this idea to basically help me build a business.
And at first it was my website, it would be jackconte.com. And then I quickly realized like, oh, this is something that a lot of creative people would probably want and use too. And so I called up my freshman year roommate in college and I pitched him this idea and I showed him the sketches. He got super excited about it. His name was Sam. We were randomly paired up as freshman year roommates in college. He started building it the night that I pitched it to him, he started building the site and we launched two and a half months later with Patreon. I was the first creator on Patreon. Within about two weeks of launching, I was making six figures as an artist, which was just freaking crazy and the coolest thing in the world, and I felt so relieved and happy that wasn't going to just give this music video away for free. And one thing led to the next, now thousands of creators started signing up for Patreon and here we are nine years later with we're sending a billion and a half dollars a year to creative people in over a hundred countries around the world from millions and millions of patrons now. So that's a fast version of how we got started, but that's where we came from.
Jonathan Golden (09:03):
There are founders who have ideas and they've been looking for those ideas for a long time and trying to start a business, but then they're also founders that you find who are deeply passionate about something and realize that to make that passion real in the world, they need to create something and really affect change in the world. There have been so many opportunities for many individuals to create economic value out of their dreams and ambitions, whether that be with platforms earlier on. Obviously Uber and Airbnb come to mind for me working at one of those companies when I thought, Hey, what's the next version of this in terms of being more, not in the physical world, but potentially the digital world. We started to look for opportunities there and you were there earlier obviously than everybody else, but that's what really gravitated us to Patreon and the opportunity with creators. So really curious how you're viewing this next wave and even what's transpired over the last year and how you see that playing out with the creators.
Jack Conte (10:07):
For me, it comes down to rather than the technology, which is important, and awesome, and exciting, and new, it comes down to the use case and the capabilities that the technology provides. And in my eyes, what I think is needed for creative people is leverage, and control, and power. We see power shifting away from institutions, and companies, and media companies, and toward individuals, toward people who have followings, and audiences, and trusts, and relationships with the people that they're serving. And largely, I think what's happening now is we're seeing a whole new wave of technologies that are really good at giving individuals power, and leverage, and control. I realize I'm a bit biased here as a co-founder of Patreon, but that was part of our mission from nine years ago, was how can we help creative people be the owners of their businesses? There was no platform on the internet, in the world that gave a creator their audience. You had to use the platform in order to reach the audience. So Patreon is the opposite philosophy. We say, "Look, these are not our users at Patreon." Patreon says like, "A patron is not our user, a patron is your customer. As a creator, it's your customer."
Kate Barrett (11:33):
Daniel, What do you make of this power shift that Jack's describing? I mean, is that something that you've observed as well? And how is that factored into the way that you're building Flowbo?
Daniel Kang (11:42):
One of the reasons Shopify was able to come out swinging against Amazon is giving people access to information and own their customer data, and own that customer relationship, and their assets. And yeah, I think this power dynamic will continue as people start to own more and more of what they generate and they produce. There's many different parallels that we can draw on here, but this ownership of information and ownership of customers, in this case, fans. Will be a major factor in this power shift. And who has more power between the platforms and the creators and the fans.
Kate Barrett (12:18):
I feel like it would be great to walk me through, I am a creator, I am writing a book, I need money. What happens? How does it work with Flowbo?
Daniel Kang (12:29):
Let's say you're a creator on YouTube. You're like a 19-year old who went to a bank and said, "Can I have a loan?" And the bank says, "Well, where's your salary? Where's your W2 form, and where's your credit score?" And you're like, "What is a W2 form? And then you say, well, I still need the money. Who can give it to me?" And then kind of Flowbo is there to help you, what we would do is, "Hey, can you please share your YouTube analytics and we will see the amount of revenue and social data you've generated since the history of time." So we've got data that the bank wouldn't use and then we'd also take traditional financial data and there's a lot of great services like Plaid and Open Banking for us to just be able to send you the money and receive the money and take the money and so on and so forth. So based on that, we would be able to give you an offer and say, "Hey, we'll give you $10,000 or $15,000 or some sort of multiple of how much you're earning. And in exchange we would share revenues for the next couple of months until we get paid back that $10,000 and like a fixed fee. So you get your money up front and we kind of share your revenues until we get paid back."
Kate Barrett (13:30):
So I think within this space, Flowbo is really able to look at risk in a very different and more sophisticated way than some of the more traditional institutions can. Figuring out that model, a way to monetize your business and meet customers' needs at the same time, that's exactly where Patreon was when Jack and Jonathan first got acquainted.
Jonathan Golden (13:53):
We've known each other for several years now. When I first re-entered venture back in 2017, 2018, we got acquainted and we talked a little bit about the business and you were really still in a couple more of the early innings of monetization and figuring out payments with the business. And I always found that fascinating because a lot of the challenges I faced at a business that I worked at, Airbnb, was in and around payments as well, which can always be a tough nut to crack. We stayed in touch over a couple years and in the early days of the pandemic things really started to inflect with Patreon and Jack, and Carlos, and team. We got together, we talked a little bit about the business, realized that there was just such a large opportunity here over the next 5 to 10 years for Patreon to really realize its potential. Jack, I don't know if you recall, but we brought the NEA team in kind of pretty early and something that you mentioned was that all this was again early in these of the pandemic, you could read the room with the Zoom squares and you felt the energy through Zoom squares.
Jack Conte (14:56):
I'm a first time founder, I'm a first time CEO. I am learning on the job and one of the challenges I think, opening up a little bit here is holding onto the enthusiasm. Now I think I'm a naturally positive, optimistic person, so it's probably a little easier for me than a lot of people, but still, that is a challenge, through company building. And getting some of that enthusiasm returned to me in a pitch, getting some energy from the team in a pitch that's actually materially meaningful to me. And then if you recall after the Zoom meeting, I got probably half a dozen emails from team members at NEA explaining why they personally were excited about Patreon and why they personally were excited about creators, and what Patreon could mean for creators. And that was another dose of energy and enthusiasm. And man, I would be lying if I said that I never needed that. As a founder and CEO, sometimes I need some energy and I felt like I was going to get that from team NEA.
And raising money was brand new for me when we got started. I had never done it before, and it was a little bit of a black box and I learned a lot along the way. You know you mentioned, we're up to our series E now, series F actually, and in terms of figuring out how much to raise and zooming out, it comes down to a few key things. One, the mission of the company and the purpose of the company. And everything starts from there, kind of on that first principle. And what it is that we're trying to do is build a company and a series of processes that views the world through the lens of a creator and is great at hunting and finding problems that creators are having, and then solving those problems, in a way that is tuned specifically for this emerging creative class. That's what we're trying to do and the most important part of that is bringing in people to that mission, whether they're executives or managers, or individual contributors, or investors, or board members, bringing in people who are aligned with that mission and passionate about that mission.
That's the most important thing about raising money for me, is working with a person who is probably going to be with you for 5 to 10 years through ups and downs and through hard times, and awesome times, and everything else, and trying to find people who are enthusiastic and passionate about what it is that we're trying to accomplish. So if that's not there, then nothing else I'm going to say about steps two through four makes sense. But that's the first thing.
Then the next thing is what is it that Patreon is trying to do over the next couple years, and what are the resources that we need in order to accomplish that? And that's kind of the tactics of building an operating plan and kind of getting a sense of how much the company needs in order to build the products and services that it wants to build.
That's kind of one input. And then there's a second input, which is like what is the world like right now? Do we have tons of competitors? Are we going to have to weather a downturn? There's a whole lot of other questions that kind of go into how much money do we want to raise, but one I guess opinion that I have as a founder, and I know a lot of founders probably disagree with this, and I've talked to different founders who have different opinions on this, so I'll offer mine with the caveat that I know this is not everybody's opinion, it's just mine. I don't really care that much about dilution and I know a lot of founders do, and that makes sense and I totally understand that perspective, especially because it's not just dilution for you, it's dilution for the management team and all the shareholders and employees, and so you have to have a certain amount of care about that.
But I think optimizing for that, at least for me personally, that's not what I do. I optimize for the person and I optimize to make sure the company is capitalized. Those are the things that I care about. I want to make sure we have enough resources, and money, and time to do what it is that we need to do our way, with our values and not feel pressure to take shortcuts or do things the wrong way. And I want to make sure that I'm doing it with the right person who believes in us and cares about our mission, and cares about the company and what it is that we're trying to accomplish from a first principle standpoint.
So with those two things, if you get those, the rest is kind of details, and you can learn about term sheets, and get the right lawyers on board and get help doing everything else, but if you get those two things in, I think you can do good with a fundraise.
Kate Barrett (19:39):
Daniel, what have you learned about balancing money and mission when it comes to fundraising?
Daniel Kang (19:45):
I do think raising money needs to have a purpose. Not all businesses actually need to raise money. There needs to actually be a reason you're raising capital. A lot of questions I get is how much should I raise? And my immediate reaction is, then why are you raising, if you don't know how much to raise, why are you raising? It's working backwards towards a certain set of metrics or a certain set of goals that you want to hit. Very, very similar to what Jack said, you have to look at the macro environment. Are there competitors out there? How quickly do we need to move? And what do we need to build out, and what are the metrics we want to hit? You then have to make a buffer so your company doesn't die.
Kate Barrett (20:21):
Daniel Kang (20:21):
Yeah, exactly. You need to go and do that. And you then have exactly how much you need to raise or basically have a hypothesis on how much you actually need to raise for this company to be successful. And very similar things apply I think here. What Jack says I think is exactly on point. To be honest, this is an advice that I followed, but I took lightly at the time when many startup founders, I had to be told me this, and it says, "Daniel, try to find investors who are really aligned with your vision and who believe in you." And many, many investors, especially if you're going through a great fundraise, there are high leverage and low leverage fundraisers. I've been through both of them during my pre-seed and my seed. I had a really tough time during my pre-seed and then I had a surprisingly easy time during my seed.
Especially in a high leverage raise. A investor will always ask at the end of the call, "What sort of investors are you looking for?" And at the time I said, "I'm looking for investors who understand the zero to one journey. Ideally they would've founded a company themselves or multiple and they also understand that success is not linear. We're going to have ups and we're going to have downs." And I didn't understand the gravity of this advice when I was raising at the time. I would definitely agree that people, the investors and the team that you have on board is extraordinarily important.
Kate Barrett (21:40):
That advice that you received Daniel, is very much in line with what Jack has taken away so far from his experience building Patreon. For him, that alignment of values is really, really important in choosing an investor.
Jack Conte (21:59):
I would be hesitant to give anyone advice on do this, or do that, or look for this, or look for that. For me, what I wanted and what was right for me and what was right for Patreon was getting investors on board who deeply cared about our mission, who deeply cared about creative people, and who were awesome tactical operators with operating experience who could help me solve company problems as we were scaling at a crazy pace. Those things were really important to me, and they may or may not be important for you depending on who you are, and what your background is, and what your experience is. But that was important to me and I feel like we got that in our partners and especially in NEA, and that's been just of paramount importance to us.
Jonathan Golden (22:44):
We recently, even this week had a conversation around growth versus reinvestment in infrastructure and the balancing of that and however company really needs to make trade-offs.
Jack Conte (22:55):
Yeah, that is a trade that I have... Hard lessons learned for me over the first chapter of the company, not just, I wouldn't even say growth versus infrastructure, it's just as a non-engineer, non-product person, my understanding of the infrastructure required to scale a company successfully, I don't think that's something I nailed. Now I've gotten better at it over the second chapter of the business, and I think now I'm particularly a cheerleader for infrastructure investments because they're very painful lessons to have learned. And again, it's not even a trade-off between growth and infrastructure. It's like new features in infrastructure or qualitative user problems in infrastructure, or like you name it's the list of 50 things that need to be done, and where do we prioritize, and how, and what's our framework for that? And I think we've gotten a lot better at that over the last couple years in particular.
Jonathan Golden (23:55):
Well, you're building a global business and a global business requires a tremendous platform and you're really laying the groundwork for future growth. So it is always a trade-off and it's a timing trade off in real time versus future time. And so that's always where the tough conversations are and really excited for what's to come over the next couple years.
For me, thinking about how a company always evolves and recognizing that maybe what they were doing in the past is not going to work going forward is something that takes a little bit of muscle to get right, and recognizing that you needed to be where you were to get to where you are today. And it's a continual building and a learning. And so when I see companies change and evolve it wasn't that mistakes were made in the past, and so building the muscle to actually get better and stronger, and that they needed to be where they were yesterday to get to where they are today. I see that in Patreon every single day as it's constantly evolving, constantly building, constantly getting that muscle more refined, and it's really impressive to see.
Jack Conte (25:06):
One thing I guess that when I think about our relationship in the future and what I hope we get from it, you kind of just said it, Jonathan, what was right yesterday is more than likely going to be wrong today and tomorrow, and you've been really good at reminding us of that. And I think challenging us when we come with opinions that are kind of too founded in the history and the past, and I hope that continues.
Jonathan Golden (25:37):
I couldn't agree with that more, and I'm really encouraged to bring NEA and Patreon even closer together with the whole team here in all those different facets to really supercharge what you're up to.
Kate Barrett (25:53):
So Jack and Jonathan talked about evolution and how they adapted the goals of Patreon as the company was growing, but as they discussed, that process often requires sacrifices. So Daniel, I'd love to hear your thoughts on trade-offs and how do you prioritize?
Daniel Kang (26:11):
Founders always have to keep in mind and two kind of very almost contrasting things in mind all the time. We have to keep a macro view of how does this company become a 50, hundred billion dollar company? What is the vision, the macro view, and how do we get there? And then also literally the day-to-day. So the macro vision might be, we want to fund everybody and create a new financial asset class and be the New York Stock Exchange of this new financial asset class. Maybe that's like the vision, but the day-to-day is literally, okay, how do I schedule more of these customer interview, and how do I improve these questions, and how do I make sure that I bring the right features, and make sure we're optimizing our engineering power? And I have to balance this huge macro thing of like, are we going the right direction at the same time?
Kate Barrett (26:52):
I mean, I think you hit on the challenge for an early stage entrepreneur in a really interesting way there. You have to be able to see the forest and all the trees at the same time and be able to infer kind of in real time exactly what all that means. What an enormous challenge. Daniel, it's been such a pleasure talking to you about this and hearing about Flowbo. I'm excited to see where you go with this. Loved getting your perspective. Thank you.
Daniel Kang (27:16):
Kate Barrett (27:23):
It's always inspiring to hear a founder talk about their path to entrepreneurship and experience building a company. It's inspiring and instructive to hear a founder go from bold strokes to fine lines, giving us a really detailed and vivid perspective on specific challenges faced, make or break moments and support they saw it along the way. That level of depth comes with a lot of candor and I think a lot of takeaways for any founder to keep in mind on their own journey.
I'd like to thank Daniel, Jack and Jonathan for sharing their incredible stories with us. It's been a pleasure to learn about their journeys and learn from their experiences. I hope you learned a lot too.
Founder Forward is a production from NEA, made in partnership with Frequency Media. From NEA, I'm your host and executive producer, Kate Barrett with support from Ashley Mitchell, Erica Sunkin, and Shanna Hendriks. From Frequency Media, Michelle Khouri is our executive producer. Enna Garkusha is our supervising producer, Jordan Rizzieri is our producer, and Catherine Devine and Emily Krumberger are our associate producers. Our mixer and sound designer is Claire Bidigare-Curtis, with dialogue editing by Sidney Evans. For more on NEA, visit nea.com. You can subscribe to Founder Forward on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you get your favorite podcasts.