Following on from our conversation with Vend, here is the second piece in our case study series, sharing what New Zealand entrepreneurs in the US market are up to. Recently we caught up with Mike Neumegen a young, talented engineer from Dunedin, who co-founded CloudCannon with best friend George Phillips while still attending Otago University.
Mike and George, founders of CloudCannon, have had almost the perfect on-ramp for their startup journey if there ever was one. Starting out as two friends completing their computer science degrees at Otago University. During this time, they created websites for companies in Dunedin (which allowed them to study simultaneously, pay off students loans and have living money). They spotted a gap in the market where they were making these websites for their clients, but the functionality and ease of editing them were missing.
Next came the inception of CloudCannon, a web-based platform that makes it easier to create websites. They have targeted a niche that helps web designers, turn any static website into a live version that anyone can update in under 2 minutes.
The Lightning Lab Experience
After being accepted into the 2014 Lightning Lab cohort, Mike and George moved to Wellington to work on the business for the next three months. Lightning Lab is a New Zealand accelerator program that supplies a small amount of seed ($18,000) for founders to work on their companies full time. The companies meet with and are coached by with hundreds of mentors and investors from the NZ technology scene. The three months conclude with a demo day where companies demo their product/service to a room full of investors, hoping to get an additional round of seed funding to continue growing.
Mike decided to take a different path, halfway through the Lightning Lab program he came over to San Francisco with the Kiwi Landing Pads KLP8 program, which based him here for one month. “San Francisco as a young 24-year-old is crazy. It’s a cosmopolitan cocktail of opportunity, poverty, power, personal freedoms and federal regulation, all to greater extremes than we experience at home”. Taking on board some advice from his mentors, Mike came over to San Francisco to work and understand technology. If he wanted to have a tech business, he needed to come to the mecca of all technology; spend time here, observe, learn, partner and make an infinitely better company and product as a result.
San Francisco and the Kiwi Landing Pad
After Lightning Lab, CloudCannon raised a seed round of $500,000 and came straight to San Francisco. They took as many meetings as they could fit into a day and meet lots of people to get immersed in the scene. Mike jokes about all the things that he learned not to do during this time, “it’s the kind of mistakes that you don’t think about which are really obvious in retrospect”. For example, sort out your accommodation out before you arrive. Have a good idea of what you’re offering, so you are prepared and have something to talk about when you have meetings: “It’s thinking about how you can do things faster.”
When you speak with Mike, he’ll tell you that being in San Francisco is “equally amazing and draining”. He found a home at the Kiwi Landing Pad. In his words “Kiwi Landing Pad is a place where I can feel at home and feel removed from the intensity of a city like San Francisco. It’s just like having a good sleep. Don’t underestimate the mental clarity that comes from having hundreds of tiny problems or questions (Where do I find internet/printing/air conditioning/healthy food/cheap food/things to do/public transport?) solved by someone else. Surrounded by people who have been there and done that.
To CloudCannon, the Kiwi Landing Pad is a place where they can feel at home in a foreign country. There’s a real sense of community here that comes from a shared experience. Mike loves having a place where he feels safe to talk freely with familiar people who share the Kiwi sense of humour, and where he can get a healthy dose of down to earth Kiwi common sense. It’s great having a close group who you can celebrate daily successes or lick some wounds with: which naturally happens when you are succeeding and failing fast.
The residents and community have made a huge impact on how CloudCannon grow and plan for the future. The older, more established companies (Vend) hire awesome talent in the market, providing access to Americans, in senior roles that come with a powerhouse of knowledge. For Mike, having access to Austin Gunter, Vend’s senior marketing manager in the US has been really valuable. He has worked for WP Engine and holds a Writing and Rhetoric degree. His opinion is sort after as he has a clear way of articulating complex concepts, a great person to collaborate and throw darts at any problem with.
Resolve Digital, Founder & Technical Director David Jones is a consistent sanity check, being in a similar industry. He gives constructive feedback on what features he would and wouldn’t use and provides reasons for the features he wouldn’t find relevant.
Mike suggests that the Landing Pad is perfect for small teams of one to five, anything beyond that companies should look at getting their own space to start building out their company culture. It’s also great for lone rangers as it’s like having a team around, “you’re able to hang out, help each other.”
Building Relationships in San Francisco
Members of our community have been impressed by CloudCannon, agreeing that there is certainly more to them than meets the eye. “It’s their ability to build strong and lasting relationships with anyone they want, in a very humble way,” says Kiwi entrepreneur Vaughan Rowsell.
Mike feels like he hit the jackpot with his mentors, who helped him connect with the Silicon Valley scene. Before starting Lightning Lab, he didn’t know anyone, through immersing himself in Lightning Lab and the NZ tech scene he automatically gained a network of great people. When heading to San Francisco for the first time, Mike was able to use his connections from NZ and the Landing Pad to connect with the tech scene in the Valley.
Mike is adamant that you just have to get out there and treat everyone you meet with respect and like they are a potential connection for you. It’s not about being transactional, it’s about never knowing who will be useful. You learn pretty fast in San Francisco that there is an open and inclusive culture here; you’ll meet people in a Uber which will turn into a meeting next week. There are lots of serendipitous connections, just because you’re in the right place at the right time and doing something interesting just like everyone else. Mike summarises, “A lot of it is just luck, you never know what connections are going to valuable, you have so many people who help you out, and people that we knew turned out to be really valuable.”
Working with some amazing strategic partners
For such a young company, CloudCannon has some amazing strategic partners – Dropbox and Github. They wanted to have partners where CloudCannon the offering would fit into the workflow. They identified LinkedIn as the best tool for getting in touch with the companies and people that are relevant to them. Mike suggests; “Do your homework, know who you want to work with and why it will be beneficial for you both. Then figure out how to reach them.” However, “keep in mind that if you have a good product and are relevant, a well written cold email with a how-to video will go a long way.” Mike initiated contact with Github this way; with a tailored email (and a huge amount of effort). He got an instant reply “sure let’s meet up”.
Putting on a 1,000 person conference for $50
In May 2015, CloudCannon held a free online conference for all things Jekyll related. Jekyll is an open source tool for developing websites. It creates sites that are fast, easy to build, secure and scalable. CloudCannon are building a product for the Jekyll community; it was a great way to get ingrained in the community.
Mike shared his learnings of putting on a conference of this size, not something that he had ever done before. It was a steep learning curve but one that was beneficial. He mentions humbly; “I’m so proud of the speaker list; it’s people I’ve met during my time here. I didn’t have a context to how I knew they were going to be useful, but when the time came and we were like okay, we are really doing this, I pulled them all out, asked them and they were like yeah sure we’d love to help.”
A good speaker line up is important. Mike suggests when you are organising a conference, get great speakers and leverage them with other speakers and the community: people will go where the knowledge is. What’s amazing about doing an online conference via hangouts, is it only cost $50, and the reach was enormous. From utilising the technology and tools available to them, CloudCannon was able to connect hundreds of people from the Jekyll community and create an engaging platform to learn and hear from the industry experts. They even had Dropbox and Github as sponsors.
One aspect of the conference was overlooked by the CloudCannon team. The speaker line up was mainly male; this wasn’t because they didn’t want women, they just couldn’t find any women speakers who wanted to talk about Jekyll. It was great to see them solve this issue. Mike suggests, “go out to your community and ask for their help, tell them that you’ve made a mistake, you’re completely new to this. The community will find the people that you need.” The diversity issue got lots of exposure; quite a daunting issue for a young Kiwi startup to face with it being one of the critical issues that are playing out on a global stage at the moment. The way they dealt with the issue in an open and transparent way helped them find more women in the Jekyll community. It also turned out to be the day that they had the most sign ups.
Dealing with the feedback loop as a founder
Speaking with Mike, he said one of his biggest lessons from 2014 was learning how to deal with feedback. Everybody has an opinion of what, when and how, as a founder leading a company you have to learn how to filter feedback so that you can sort it and make sense of it. Not all feedback is good, sometimes it’s just noise. Mike suggests putting everything in a funnel and taking a step back, look at who the people are and what they are saying. “You have to draw conclusions and see the patterns between them, build the bridges between what can be linked and become actionable, park what is not currently relevant or true to the business.”
Don’t be surprised as a young company or team if you get lost. Mike shares; “We didn’t have a strong enough understanding of where we were going and what we were doing this resulted in having a tonne of people saying you should do this and that.”
His advice is to know yourself as a founder and that you and your co-founders are the best filters. “As an entrepreneur it’s your company, you know it’s best. Somebody from the outside is going just to give you their opinion and their perspective, so it’s important to filter through your stuff, and take the bits that come out the bottom.”
In doing this, you can still run into some confusion as you don’t know what advice you should be taking. It was a great lesson that CloudCannon had to go through. So much so, that Mike had the team return to their roots in Dunedin at the end of last year to regroup and get firmer on their mission. They shut off all other stimuli and got clear on where they where to go, what they wanted to do with the company and essentially all got on the same page. The greatest part of doing this Mike suggests that now when he goes to meetings, he keeps this vision in mind so that he can take on advice and see if it lines up or not.
Last words of advice from Mike
“I’m always happy to take calls with startups and help them out,” says Mike. “Use a place like Kiwi landing pad, it’s good at getting you grounded here, and making those first initial connections. You get access to so much advice and get plugged into the community you can share your entrepreneurial journey with. Lastly, “Be open to collaboration, we (Kiwis) are terrible at asking for help. In reality there are many people willing and waiting, all we need to do is ask.”
Thank you, Mike, for your time and sharing your learnings with our community. CloudCannon is an awesome company and has had an epic journey so far. It’s inspiring to see a new wave of entrepreneurs come through our doors and also take the plunge of taking on Silicon Valley. Good luck making the company of your dreams. Another example of New Zealand technology taking on the world.
Written by Sian Simpson, Community Manager @ Kiwi Landing Pad