In May, we were thrilled to announce that Bowtie, an NVP portfolio company and an alumni of the very first every NVP Labs cohort, was acquired by MINDBODY. Check out the below Q&A with Co-Founder Ron Fisher to learn a bit about their start, their exit and everything in between.
NVP: For those that aren't familiar - give us the Bowtie basics: What is it and what was the impetus for founding it?
RF: Bowtie is an AI receptionist for appointment based businesses. It ensures business owner’s never miss a customer by automatically texting back any customer who calls when they don’t answer and booking them as if they were texting with a human. We started the company while at Cornell Tech and our initial vision centered around how we can bring Artificial Intelligence to small businesses. We felt there were many companies going after AI for enterprise (think customer service for Target) and we wanted to do something different, that could also make a real impact.
NVP: Tell us about the founding team vs the team at exit. Did you grow significantly, and what hires helped you make big leaps?
RF: Our founding team was 3 founders with very complimentary skill sets. We definitely fell into the hacker, hustler and hipster dynamic. I was sales/biz dev (hustler), Mike was our CTO/built the AI (hacker), and Vivek built our front end and did all our design (hipster). We got to 7 people by the time of the acquisition but were lean for a long time. We decided early on that we would only hire when absolutely necessary. To borrow from Paul Graham, hiring is a function of growth aka you should not hire until your user base has grown to the point where you must.
NVP: How did the product change over the course of the business?
RF: Initially we were optimizing the product for ourselves and then quickly learned we need to optimize for the people paying for it a.k.a the business owners. Once we made that decision, we actually started in the food space doing chatbots for restaurants. We scaled to about 20 businesses in New York before realizing that we were not solving a big enough problem to create a meaningful business. We pivoted our first week of NVP and had we been married to our first idea we would never have seen the success we have today.
NVP: Are there any moments that stick out as particularly positive or negative?
RF: During our time at NVP, before we figured out the missed call text and had just pivoted into Beauty, we saw zero engagement for months. This was an excruciating time for me as I was the CEO and felt I was steering a ship into a dark abyss of nothingness. We knew what we had was not working but we didn’t have the solution yet. We tried many different techniques until Vivek figured out how to text customers who call the business. The very foundational ideas that our company was based on had yet to be proven so it was very depressing. I can only say that it takes a strong team to get through those moments but as soon as we had that AHA moment the path became clear.
NVP: What’s the best advice you received while building the business?
RF: The best advice I received while building the business is that people will buy your product because you say they will. As in if you have the confidence to sell it, then they will sign up and pay without a free trial. In the early days we had a free trial for our first few customers and would chase down those same users to get them to put in their credit cards. Our CRO, Ethan Pope, instilled in us the belief that if you believe in your product you don’t need a free trial – and that is when our revenue took off.
NVP: How did you connect with MINDBODY? and what was the exit process like for your team?
RF: We initially started working with MINDBODY because they had an open API. We didn’t need to ask anyone permission to get started. Once we had self service we decided to “launch” the product at their annual conference, BOLD. We started to get to know the leadership team then and made a name for ourselves that year due to being a unique product in the start up showcase area. The following year we decided to send just Mike and me to go back solely because we knew how important it would be to continue the face to face relationship development we had started a year earlier. It was actually during lunch that Mike was on his own at lunch and sat at a random table. That table happened to have MINDBODY employees, one of which was an acquired founder at MINDBODY. They hit it off discussing our similar histories and that same person went to the leadership at MINDBODY and said if you want to buy Bowtie, this is the time. He then reached out to me a few weeks later to kickstart the process. That first conversation was in September and the deal closed in May. Only the last two months were incredibly stressful as we went through the due diligence process and were spending tens of thousands of dollars on a deal that we could not know for certain was going to go through.
NVP: How do you foresee MINDBODY integrating Bowtie?
RF: Bowtie is an incredible differentiator for MINDBODY in the beauty, wellness and health space. The details have not been solidified yet but the idea is that our cutting edge AI will give them the edge they need to continue to dominate the market.
NVP: Anything else about your journey as a founder that you want to share?
RF: The OKR system was essential in getting us on the right path. The book, Radical Focus, was recommended to me by our advisor John Belizaire and this one little book changed everything. It’s a story told in the form of a fable which restructured the way we ran our business and made each week both productive and exciting no matter the results!