“If you build it, he will come.” So goes that famous line from the 1989 baseball film Field of Dreams. It's a line that's often co-opted, with a slight change in pronouns, by your typical over-confident Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
But, in the Bay Area -- hub of technology innovation, home to legendary high-tech giants and breeding ground for some of the most avant-garde, inventive minds in America -- innovative startups aren't just built. They also crash and burn, often as fast as they began.
For every Uber, Facebook and Snapchat, hundreds of startups simply disintegrate into the same Silicon Valley neighborhood from which they arose, leaving customers out of product, employees out of jobs and venture capitalists out of pocket. Why do such a large portion of startups fail? Were there a single answer to this question, entrepreneurs would give away the major chunk of their equity just to hear it.
Yet, while there is no such answer, and while it's evident that even a powerful product can prove insufficient for success; there is something concrete that works to help entrepreneurs attract a user base.
And, here, I'm talking about the reason behind the success of one of the newest, most widely talked-about tech startups, Alumnify, an alumni-engagement startup. That reason may well shed light on a potential savior for many startups.
“It’s all about relationships,” AJ Agrawal, CEO of Alumnify, told me. “When we first started out, we didn’t have a working product; all we had were mockups. We would meet with clients and the only thing we could show them were our mockups -- rough sketches of what we wanted our product to look like. Yet, in doing so . . . we secured them as clients. And we secured them over companies with products that had been on the market for years.”
Asked the secret behind his company’s success in forming those early partnerships, Agrawal continued: “It really isn’t about the mockup, or about the product. When you are dealing with a university, or any client for that matter, the most important variable in the conversation is your relationship with that client. If the client trusts and likes you, they will choose your company over another one; it’s as simple as that."
That philosophy was just the beginning. Once Alumnify established an initial client base, it rapidly grew in size, valuation and investment, while gaining the attention of media outlets, accelerator programs and schools nationwide.
As it expanded, Alumnify brought in a head of business development, Jake Newfield. Newfield has grown Alumnify’s client base by expanding upon the company’s methods of building relationships. To date, Alumnify has partnered with more than 130 schools, including Miami University, University of Missouri, and the entire Thurgood Marshall Fund.
Asked what Alumnify does differently, Newfield responded, “Most companies only care about the product, but the focus of the conversation [with the client] should really be on listening to each other, learning from each other and, in doing so, forming an understanding of each other’s goals.”
It wasn’t always easy for Alumnify. “We had our hiccups,” says Newfield. "Our product was late . . . and then it was late again. By the end, our development was delayed a few months past expectations. Yet, while other companies would have floundered, we saw it as an opportunity to learn more from our clients and improve ourselves as a company.
"We embraced the obstacle, and paid extra attention to our relationships with our clients."