SaaS Founder Interview with Mike Shanley, CEO & Founder of AidKonekt Data

Tony Zayas 0:06
Hey, everybody, welcome to the SaaS Founder Show. Yesterday, we had our tech issue Tuesday. So we’re back here today with our other show or SaaS Founders Show. So Tony Zayas is joined as always, or almost always Andy Halko. Andy, how are you doing today?

Andy Halko 0:25
I’m good, don’t worry. I laid out 1000 foot cable directly from the the line right into my computer. So hopefully I’ll be good today.

Tony Zayas 0:35
Awesome. We basically are doing well. Doing well. It’s busy here and and Insivia land and I’m getting ready for an upcoming vacation. So it’s, you’ll be, you’ll be flying solo next week. So that’s what that means. So for today, yeah. So I think this week will be interesting because we have Mike Shanley, he’s the founder and CEO of AidKonekt. And AidKonekt is a software that automates a complex and resource intensive process of monitoring, humanitarian aid funding opportunities. Mike has an extensive background in this space. sounds super interesting. It’s very different, I think, than any other founder we’ve had on so with that, Mike. Hey, Mike, how you doing?

Mike Shanley 1:21
Great. Hey, Tony. And Andy, thanks for inviting me. It’s great to be here.

Tony Zayas 1:25
Yeah, thank you for spending your time here. We really appreciate it. So I gave the real high level just based on some notes I have here. A bit more about AidKonekt. And what I really like to hear is kind of the origin of where did this? Where did the idea for the business start? And where can kind of go from there?

Mike Shanley 1:46
Yeah, so quickly, top-level, what we got too is humanitarian aid organizations, we’re spending way too many resources trying to win funding. And what that does is it takes resources, funding, and staff time away from delivering impact on the ground through women’s empowerment projects, through entrepreneurship projects through agricultural supply chain projects through HIV AIDS, AIDS projects. So what we wanted to do was make that process more efficient, so that more funding can go to the impact on the ground. But that’s really where we’re at today. For me, as we chatted about briefly before this, I am not a technical founder, I am much more the founder market fit, and had to learn, not just the product-market fit, but what is a product. So I can get into that in a bit. But my background really started in 2004 in Peace Corps, and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in eastern Ukraine. My town was in the Far East, if you’re taking the Trans Siberian railroad into Russia was the last stop before you got there. I was an English teacher there worked with a lot of the teachers at my school to get small grant funding for a variety of youth development projects of education projects, English teaching projects, and really learned a lot about how local organizations operate, and maybe how disconnected they can be from the decision-makers and the capitals around the world that are allocating the funding. So from there, I then went to get my Master’s in international studies and humanitarian assistance, and then spent time working in Washington DC, at what is USA IDs, the largest contracting firm. And the market for that is the US government puts out about $21 billion a year in grants and contracts that can go to humanitarian aid organizations around the world to deliver their work. And so I worked at the largest firm that received that funding. So think like one of those big consulting firms, you know, I don’t know if Deloitte or McKenzie or something like that, but staffed by former Peace Corps Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. So it’s an interesting dynamic of the consulting firm approach with people that very much come with that mission focus story. So I work there for a while. And one of my roles there was meeting with organizations that many were not in Washington DC that wanted to access funding from USA ID and hearing their stories and the great work they’re doing and for almost all these as they should their focus was on how can we deliver? How can we better deliver impact around the world? Not how can we more efficiently access the funding from this foundation or target how to how to bid on this contract? Um, so I learned a lot about the market and you know, one piece of advice is just for me, it was having learned about the market now I have that founder market fit. Um, so now I understand what are those needs? What are the things that are nice to have, which you can’t found a company around that and then what are the nice to haves and so that was crucial years later on when I did start building the software platform The Yes. So how my journey continued from there is in 2013, I left DC to start my own company, I did a consulting firm, first of all, because as I said, I’m not a technical background. So that was the business model I knew was how to do consulting firms. So they started a small consulting firm, and we work with clients around the world to help them win more funding more efficiently. So again, they could put more time and resources to impact on the ground, and over the that was 2013. So over the eight years of running that firm, we built a lot of internal tools, the suite of internal tools and resources that just help us more efficiently deliver the service to our clients. And then I had about a year, but two years ago, I realized that we had quite a bit to offer, and it would be even more cost-effective to our clients that they could just subscribe to it, rather than still having to do a consulting contract. But so I had the idea to start building something then. But we travel a lot, we used to travel a lot. We had other priorities. And really, with the pandemic that ended travel, that there is no excuse of, okay, I’m gonna go to this conference next week, I can get to this the week after that. It’s you’re sitting here every day for months, straight the over a year. And that really forced me to just focus on okay, this is what we’re going to do it. We’re going to build this platform. So yeah, that’s, that’s really how we got to, to where we’re at.

Tony Zayas 6:36
That’s pretty that’s a really interesting story. Before we before we dive in and unpack a little bit of that, what I would like to ask you is, when you were in the Peace Corp, would you have believed that someone told you that you can fast forward and be the founder and CEO of a software company?

Mike Shanley 6:58
No. And if you had said a SaaS company, I wanted to have known what you were talking about what? Yeah, and the cool thing has been so many of us Ukraine is known as an IT glow hub of it. activity. So it’s been really cool. When I did start the company, I went back to some of my former students who are now working in, in the IT sector in Ukraine to get advice from them on how-to on how to build a company, what are the I mean, I, I didn’t know the difference between UX and API two years ago. And so what I spent a lot of time going out to my network and trying to learn from people that I know, how do you do this? And I think one of the big challenges for me was I got a lot of good information on what to do. I found it struggle to prioritize what order to do it. And so I think that was the big challenge that that that I had because we fully bootstrapped it. So with the consulting firm, I built this, we have taken no outside external investment. So the consulting firm, we just use those resources to then internally build and then spin off the software platform. So to do it that way, you have to be very, very efficient with the budget.

Tony Zayas 8:18
No, that’s a great point. And I was actually going to ask about that. So the consulting firm, you had mentioned earlier kind of alluded to that point that you guys built some tools internally for you guys to use is that, basically the foundation that Aid, you know, turned into AidKonekt?

Mike Shanley 8:36
Yes. And the consulting firms still exist, that that’s exactly what it is, are we so they’re still with the consulting firm, there are still very unique processes that 100 People don’t need. So there’s this still makes sense to have a consultant do that. But we realized there were a lot of things that we were just getting, hey, can you check these five sites and then go call this person once a week and send me this report? And then once we get a certain number of those who realized, well, let’s just automate this, and we can provide it more cost-effectively? And if it’s a quality algorithm and quality data with higher value to the clients. So yeah, it was developed internally there with those resources. And that really helped us because it wasn’t supposed to be a software platform from the start. It was really, what do you need? Here are the USA $21 billion markets, what support do you need, you need this and this. So we really were building everything from scratch. And then it’s when we saw the areas with the inner with the repetition. Then of course you think right away, well, there’s automate an automation opportunity. So we listed out what are all those things that we can automate, and then really built the first version of it around that.

Andy Halko 9:49
We talked to a number of founders and I’m always really intrigued by this is trying to spin a software company out of a consulting firm are we Hear it out of services or agency? You know, what, besides the challenge of not being a technical founder? What’s the biggest challenge you had run into trying to build a software product out of an existing consulting firm?

Mike Shanley 10:18
Yeah, um, well, a couple of things, Andy, one is, so it’s okay, well, you automated This is there still the need for the consulting services. And as I said, I think it’s a rational concern to have before you would do something like that, I think once you do it, you realize no, there’s still plenty of need. For like consulting services, you can just deliver a higher value, a higher value. So you’re not paying someone an hourly rate to refresh a government website and download a report and send it to you, that part’s automated. So you can pay them to analyze it, pay them to help get introductions to discuss your partnering strategy to look at your to build out your strategy for the next three to five years for funding opportunities. So yeah, I think maybe that perception, and then once you get into the software space, there’s, there’s either competition, or there’s always you know, I hear all the time there’s, we have no competitors, we’re doing something unique. Okay, maybe that’s true, but there’s still gonna be perceived competitors, oh, I’ve heard of this. How are you like this? So that was it. An important thing before we started is if we’re just going to be reinventing the wheel, or providing a cheaper version of what’s already out there, this isn’t worth it. So we really wanted to make sure that we had something better. So I think a great way to do that is what you build with the consulting firm, our relationships with the clients, and for us to eight associations around the world. So we really spend a lot of time talking to them about what platforms are you using? Do you love them? No, you don’t? Why don’t Why don’t you? What are you still doing in your weekly activities? That doesn’t that you don’t like it? So what we focus we’ve, we haven’t yet heard from anyone, oh, you automated that. But I really love going to that government website. So you know, I wish I could keep clicking on that. It’s really focusing on just helping, helping employee retention, because now you’re doing more of the fun stuff. I’m not just doing more of the administrative pieces of it.

Tony Zayas 12:11
So to circle back, Mike, I was gonna ask about that challenge of coming into this without having a technical background, we hear we talked to both, you know, technical founders, nontechnical founders. And, you know, there’s something we’ve seen is that for the nontechnical founders, this can be intimidating, challenging. How did you? How did you get past that hurdle?

Mike Shanley 12:38
What helped me was, honestly, podcasts and events like this and I think what was intimidating to me was hearing, oh, I have to go raise $100 million from some fancy Silicon Valley VC firm, otherwise, we’re not legitimate, or that’s just the path to do it. And it wasn’t till into the process that even heard of founder market fit, rather than product-market fit. It’s like, I know, this market, I know what the, you know, not in an arrogant way. But I know the I know, the market, I know the people that are going to tell me what they need for it. And having that confidence. And I think starting to see some examples, and just hearing that you can bootstrap, you can build a successful hearing about large firms with, um, with very high ARR that are entirely bootstrapped. So I think I think seeing that that is a feasible path. And one thing from the start is I’ve just been hyper-focused on making the consulting firm, and now the software successful, and not. I mean, I was gonna say, not listening, when people say that it can’t be done, you know, you do it, because no one told me it wouldn’t work. But, you know, if you had an idea that’s not working, then you know, you do want to have some level of self-awareness there. But you also have that to have that focus and confidence. So, yeah, so just a few thoughts on that, Tony.

Andy Halko 13:58
I haven’t heard that term before actually founder market fit, but I absolutely okay. No, but I absolutely love it. And I think it’s one to bring out because we talk about product market fit. You know, and and even though I haven’t used that term, we’ve talked about that founders that know their market really well. And I love you know, creating it into its own little title like that. So it’s great.

Mike Shanley 14:22
Yeah, thanks, Andy. And really, so what I knew from the start talking to like that the engineering team is here. We needed to do this, can that happen? This is what the output needs to be. And one encouraging thing once I found that a good team of engineers is enlightened me, okay, like nothing you’re asking us to do is rocket science. Everything has been done before. So that was encouraging. Automating these processes hadn’t been done before. But the back end of what we’re doing has been done millions of times. So it’s just a matter of, figuring out that model of how that had been done. So that was I think that that was encouraging piece once you talk to people say yeah, what you’re asking for, it’s not a very complex AI predictive algorithm or anything as Yeah, we can do that.

Andy Halko 15:13
How did you do? You know, obviously, you had a consulting firm and so you’re getting some market validation. But for the product itself, what was your process of really validating? Like a SaaS product? For you know, growth?

Mike Shanley 15:30
Yeah, so right, we did not take for granted that, okay, everyone’s paying us for the consulting services, they want a software platform, and they’re gonna pay an annual fee for that. So the first thing we did is start a paid newsletter, that once a month was delivering this information, this annual analytics, that that the clients were looking for, and we got some subscribers to that. But it just, it was scalable, but it’s not a once a month isn’t fast enough for a business development team to get their data. They need it more regularly than that. So then we built, we did the design mock-up. So that was some good advice I got early on is to don’t start actually, from the engineers. Don’t start with the engineers. Don’t tell them what you want. Get a designer, show the engineer what you want it to look like, and then go and then have them work from that if they appreciate it, that the final products much better. So yeah, so that was a Yeah, the process we went through.

Andy Halko 16:33
That’s pretty great and so how did you go about that process of getting designed first? Because I again, you know, for our audience that are founders thinking about doing this, you’re nontechnical, I would assume you’re not a designer as well. So how did you take your ideas in your head? translate that to a designer that could help you know, build something?

Mike Shanley 16:55
Yeah. So um, sketched it out. So first of all, find a designer, you can, at the level we were doing, you can find someone in a grad school design program, or go on, you know, one of the websites and find a designer, I think, for your initial one, you just want someone to make something fancy to make something formal, based on your sketch, like sort of sketch things out online. And then what we did started finished the other answer, Andy, and we did a lot of user feedback. Also, we took that design. And then we scheduled with our current clients with who we’ve been working for many of them for years. And we said, hey, here’s this new product we’re going to offer. We want your feedback on it. And we went to the ones who know the market well and are also very good relationships with us. So they’re going to be very honest, here’s what we’re looking at. Does this help? What else? Are you subscribed to this already doing this? Does this look repetitive, this is another login is that an issue? So really getting a lot of feedback on that. And for us, because it’s a lot of public government data. But with government data, it’s like to say that it’s all public, but not accessible. So what we are one analogy is the weather channel, where Weather Channel takes public NOAA data, and then makes it accessible. We take public procurement data right now from five to 10 different sites, and then make it accessible to a single, nice portal. So learning, which are the data sources that are the most important, which piece of those data sources are most important. So doing a lot of user feedback, and then iterating, make sure, I think what helps us to have the users feel like they’re part of the journey. And then also to keeping them updated, and once you do have subscribers been very responsive to the subscribers, in our, like, update emails to our subscribers, will let them know, here are the new features. And these are the ones 75% of these were requested by you in the last month. And we’ve now added them. So making it very clear that we sincerely and highly value, that’s the most important thing is the feedback from the users. How can we make your life easier? How can we make your team happier? And so making sure even you know, maybe some organizations are doing that. But one, one challenge with anything is you have to do it and you have to let people know you’re doing it. So so to make sure for those early-stage founders is finding what is that unique thing that you’re doing, and not just do it, but also communicate it. So maybe that’s the piece that was helpful for me as I’m more in line with the marketing the business development piece of it. So that’s the part that was a natural fit for me is, is making sure that people are aware of this value that you’re offering. So that can be some, you know, advice to some of those early-stage founders starting.

Tony Zayas 19:45
Yeah, well, I do want to talk about the marketing side of it in a bit here. But I would love to just go back. You mentioned your engineering team. So how did you compile that team? I’d be curious how you found you know, the right people to be working with you. How did you communicate with what did that look like finding that core team?

Mike Shanley 20:06
Yeah. So I think every one of them came through my network. So what I did, I had, we weren’t a tech firm, I didn’t understand how tech firms operated or started up, but I knew people in them. So I knew other founders knew people that worked in tech. So I really went to all of them, and just talked about what, who is good. This is what I’m looking to do. I need some data, we need to make it look good on the front. And they’re like, Okay, well, you want two people for that? Alright, that’s a two-person job. Great. What are the names? What should the scope of work even be? I was going on? What was it? You know, Upwork. And just looking at, what’s a UI? What’s a UX? What’s an API? And that’s kind of where the prioritization came into. It’s what do you need? And then how do you find it? And I think because I was so new to it, I went more with the trusted relationships for the advice. So again, I went to people that I knew I’m including some of my former students, and said, Hey, this is what we’re looking to do. What do you call this in the software engineering world? Oh, this is what you call this what you need first? So yeah, I think it’s the relationships we’ve built, and trusting those to then direct me, to the right people is how we built the whole team.

Tony Zayas 21:22
And we just, you know what, did you have mentors along the way that helped you down that path as well? It sounds like you did have some connections with people in more technical roles and backgrounds. You know, what did that support network look like for you? Whether it be mentors or friends that you know, were doing something, you know, in line with what you were looking to do?

Mike Shanley 21:45
Yeah, that’s exactly it. Um, so my, yeah, I’ve worked with several different mentors. In this space. I had one friend, he had started up a pretty successful health tech company. And I sort of had been doing the consulting firm on the side. So again, more just in touch with him on the business growth side. But then when I got to this point, I was like, Hey, you build a tech platform? Take me back to the start. What did you do from the start, I know how to do the consulting side of it. I’m talking with people that had been working at large tech companies as well. And getting their advice. One thing that I found was difficult was connecting with early-stage SaaS founders. So a lot of the podcasts, that’s why this is a cool platform. You know, if you’re already at 100 million Arr, there’s plenty of resources and people that are going to help you out there. If you’re bootstrapping, and some of your founders are under a million ARR probably has zero, they’re probably at the ideation stage, that there are not as many resources out there for them. So I think one thing I focused on was then translating. Here’s how the tech companies run it, here’s what a product team there looks like, well, we have two people, we have three people, how do we replicate that at this stage?

Andy Halko 23:10
In the, you know, again, and I think I’m kind of honing in on this, like you developing the product, because you’re not a technical founder. And so I think your insight can help others that are similar. But, you know, if you went back, was there anything that you would have done differently in like, the product development, you know, process? And as you’ve gone over, you know, going through that the last couple of, you know, years? Is there anything that you would do differently than you did do?

Mike Shanley 23:43
I mean, I think I would have launched it earlier. Um, I mean, there was, I feel like we did it early, but there’s some line out there that if, if you’re not embarrassed by the product, you’ve launched too late. And so and that’s just so hard because you want it to be perfect. I, there are still things I want to perfect about an add-on. And like all I do is focus on the new features we’re going to add and how we’re going to make it worse and respond to the feedback. So I think having someone tell you that this is good enough, put it out there, get people using it that’s don’t develop anything in a room in a black box, and then just think that it’s going to be perfect. Get out there and iterate and fail, you know, well, there’s what fails fast. I think I you know, I think we want to fail strategically when you see what you kind of want know what the options aren’t learned quick quickly from them. But yeah, launch earlier. Um, yeah.

Andy Halko 24:45
Yeah, that’s great. I mean, I, I think Dodie and I could say it’s been a common theme, you know, that we’ve heard is that if you’re not embarrassed by what you put out first, you waited too long, and so I think that’s fantastic.

Tony Zayas 24:58
It’s been like the most popular quote on this show, which is great. I mean, it just proves that point because I think that’s challenging for everyone, when you’re creating something, you want it to be perfect or close to it. And it’s really challenging. To put it out there front of the world is bigger audience as you can get when it’s not. But it’s such a necessary step to take. So along those lines, what, what did the MVP look like, that you guys took to market?

Mike Shanley 25:32
Yes, so our MVP, there’s one key data point. That is this Excel sheet that the government has, it’s publicly available, it’s updated, can be updated any minute of any day by any one of the embassies around the world. So they will have some notes on when it’s updated. But that for a lot of organizations, they would check that sheet multiple times a day, and just scroll through 250 lines of Excel data and try it and see what’s changed. Um, so the first thing we did is create an automated ticker, that would track everything that’s changed on there and say, here are the five things that changed today. So in a few seconds, rather than sometimes a half-hour, an hour a day, you could get that information, launch that once people started using that, and they’re like, this is great, um, then, we started building the other features on there. So it started with is what we built up from there is, you know, common questions, what websites do you check every day when we do like a user feedback call? You know, the ones that would share the screen be like, actually, can you just tell me what your bookmarks are? Here are the six things that bookmark I click on this, this and this, and this? Alright, great. We’re, those are the next things we’ll add to the platform. Um, so yeah.

Andy Halko 26:44
You know, and it’s, we, Tony and I actually did a show a long while back, where we talked about spinning a product out of an existing company. And I just love this concept of you finding pains that were common, and that were easy to like, streamline and automate, and that becomes a product. And, you know, I guess what you’re saying just makes me think like, how many of those opportunities are sitting out there within companies to develop these products that can just, you know, change an industry?

Mike Shanley 27:18
Oh, and so no, I would say that’s another piece of advice, you know, you’ll read a Wired article or something like that, like AI algorithms, all business are adapting to this, that doesn’t mean every business has already adapted every one of their processes to automation, there is a lot of opportunities, especially again, if for those markets that you know, well, there is a lot of opportunity for that one of the best piece of advice I got was start in a market that’s so small people don’t know it exists. Because then you have you don’t have that big competition. Don’t go after like Google online ads, day one, you’re gonna have some competition in that space. Find that March my niche is and get it down to one word. So people remember you. My niche is USAID. That’s it. Anyone that says USAID, anyone that tags USAID, you need help with USAID you have a question about it, come to us. That’s it. To find that small market. So we do human accessing procurement data from this one, relatively small US government agency that gives out humanitarian aid grants and contracts. That’s it, and we’re the best at it. To find that small market become the best at it, find some type of revenue model that can at least so if you want to grow from there. Great. And then you can use that to fund the next piece of it if you do want to bootstrap it, which was, yeah, our experience.

Andy Halko 28:41
Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think what one of the other common themes in our shows is, the founders that are successful, find a niche, and they stay focused on it. And we talk to a lot of just generally founders, and I think the ones that struggle, trying, you know, boil the ocean too quickly, and just struggle with that. So how did you, you know, was it just natural because of your consulting firm? And were you focused? Or was there ever a time when you were doing this where you said, wow, you know, it could be so much bigger? I could do so much more. And you had the real yourself in?

Mike Shanley 29:20
Oh, absolutely. Andy, and it was really consulting firm from the start. We were going to be V global emerging markets, everything firm if you’re a fortune 500 Going into the Indonesian market if you need to recruit a sales rep in South America if you need to fund a project or do we were going to do everything emerging markets for everything. And I’m like, we got the network, we can do it. We’re going to be huge. Let’s just build the full thing right away and everything. And it was about it was probably like two or three years in so where you can get contracts that way you can make a business if you’re looking for a lifestyle business with no investors, you can make that work that way. But then That’s what I said, Okay, we’re just going to do USA ID that’s it. This one international aid, humanitarian aid, fonder, and we’re going to be the best at it. The funny thing was, it was within a month or two of that, then people would come and be, oh, it’s not the USA. But can you do this World Bank or the United Nations or this other donor or this other one? Because they have no way to remember you? If you are the everything, you got to have that? What’s that one keyword that they’re going to remember you for? Because people, and if you’re a nice person, they want to help you, they want you to be successful. But you got to make it easy for them to be it. You can’t say here’s my two-pager, memorize this in any person you talk to? No, it’s uh, here’s the one word. If you hear USAID, contact us. That’s all you need to know. We’ll take it from there. So fine, whatever, those early-stage founders, what would your one word, you know, can be a phrase, but something really easy for people to remember for people that want to help you out? on that? Thank you remember? Oh, yeah, no, this person they do this, let’s, uh, you know, you should talk to this founder, they have a cool new startup idea they’re working on.

Tony Zayas 31:00
So I’m gonna throw the question out there. Now, as you know, you’re you’re solidifying your yours, your place in the market with aid Connect? Is it focusing on USAID? What is do you have plans to scale out at some point in time into these other areas where there is opportunity that’s very similar?

Mike Shanley 31:23
Yeah, we’re looking for, I think any scaling opportunity, we would look to, even at this point, build off of what we have. So not something that recreates the wheel, but of what we’ve built, what other markets, what other areas would that be valuable for. But what we see is, there’s still a lot more value we can do within the USA ID market. So it’s one is we’ve automated, getting the data to your team, which saves for some people, 20 plus hours a week. But there’s further detailed research we can do on the effectiveness of projects. So what are the reports what’s the most effective methodology for delivering for a supply chain called vaccine supply chains in Kenya? What’s the best methodology for increasing the wages, of farmers in Bolivia? So we’re looking at those ways, ways that we can either directly increase impact, or improve impact by helping organizations to reallocate their time to other projects? So yeah, we’re right now we’re focused, we got a lot of exciting new features that we’re working on. So I’m very excited. I think one thing that I have learned now that I finally understand, you know, UX and API and some of these other things, and what is feasible, what’s not, is that now I can kind of like sitting back and rethink through Alright, the next six months, the next 12 months, what are we going to want to build for that? And with a, I have had to learn and now have a better understanding of what’s feasible, what takes a lot of work, and it might be worth it. And what’s something that that’s pretty easy. So, yeah, that’s, I’m excited that I now have that time and bandwidth, to more strategically think about it and understand at least enough about the software engineering side to, to be able to not put some, like, put a very doable plan in place for the team.

Tony Zayas 33:21
Mike, I was just gonna ask, you know, based on kind of all these ideas that you probably have an opportunity, right, and I’m sure you’re coming up with things all the time. How what is your process look like for prioritizing new features, improvements, anything like that, like how do you take that list of ideas, suggestions, input that you have, from your team from users, you know, things you come up with? How do you organize those and prioritize them?

Mike Shanley 33:51
Yeah, so the first thing I do, because I get excited, probably about a new idea or feature at least once a week. And so I write it down. And then I don’t do anything about it for at least a day, I want to let the excitement come down so I can more on an even keel evaluated against the other. For the other ideas, we use Trello. And basic, develop roadmaps like Google suites, Google Sheets, Google or Google Docs. And, yeah, so putting the ideas on there. And then whenever those ideas come up or in Slack, just making sure that we’re capturing them in one spot, and then once a month, once a quarter, revisit those, and it goes back to prioritization, prioritizing, which of these are the top priority? And so we’ll have another strategy meeting next month. And what we’ll start with is not the ideas we had, but the user feedback, what are the issues we need to solve? And then here’s this list of 20 really cool ideas that I’d love to build, but I’m not going to let myself build them unless I can point not just because I think this is cool and whatnot in there. We got to make sure that there’s a real user need for this So, so I think documenting them and then having some type of regular strategy meeting, that’d be a great time to bring in mentors to, to kind of like help think through that. And to make sure it matches against the user feedback. Or if it doesn’t, if it’s a new idea, you know, sometimes users just like, oh, and then we could automate this. So maybe in your user feedback calls can be talking through some of the new ideas. Hey, we’re thinking about this, how do you currently do this process? Um, but yeah

Andy Halko 35:32
That’s great. And I, you know, again, common themes, I think, I find that founders and anybody that’s working on software that develops a unbiased, logical approach to making these decisions, which it sounds like you you are trying to do that, you know, ends up being more successful. Because it’s easy to get excited by an idea and, you know, jump into it and say, Hey, developers start working on this. But if you haven’t evaluated, what’s the outcome for your users? How much effort is it going to take? You know, is it validated? You’re just wasting your time?

Mike Shanley 36:10
Yeah, you’re working in the dark, maybe you’ll randomly accidentally pick the right thing to do. But it makes it much less likely. Definitely Andy. Yeah

Andy Halko 36:20
Do you find and this is just something that came to my head, we talk a lot with, you know, software companies about, you know, 20% of the features are what 80% of the users really focus on in use? Have you found that in your space is that, you know, that that there are certain things that people use, and there’s stuff that’s kind of on the periphery that, you know, you find out people aren’t as interested in?

Mike Shanley 36:48
Yeah, or what you have is, there’s a very small, small group that’s highly interested in a certain one. So we have broken our clients into like three different segments, and are at the point of understanding, that’s exactly at Andy, we’re at work that which features are most valuable, too, to the different client segments. So some are the established organizations that have been doing this for years that we’re automating what they already know. And other ones are ones that, just say, that’s $21 billion is a lot of money. I’ve no clue how to start working on that. So here’s like, step one, step two, step three, for getting into that.

Andy Halko 37:31
And I know, you know, Tony was gonna bring this up a little bit earlier, but marketing is always an interesting topic for us. I’m curious. So obviously, you had the consulting firms. So you were able to probably find a user base early. But how did you, you know, did you end up tapping that out? And then find new strategies to grow users for your software? And what was that? How did you transition from here my current relationships to you know, let me scale our user base?

Mike Shanley 38:06
Yes. So I’m the main thing is providing a free valuable resource. So honestly, what you are doing at this podcast series is, you know, here’s our name, here’s what we do, do a sales pitch, here’s a valuable resource, you’re going to watch this video just to learn something. That’s it. So what ours was how to access this is federal funding. I mean, the frustrating, interesting piece of it is that to bid on an aircraft carrier contract, or an HIV AIDS grant in Malawi is about the same process for the federal government. So helping people understand how does that process works? So we regularly do USA ID funding 101 intro events to USAID, USAID even invited us to their events to speak there. So I think that’s been a good branding thing is, when USAID invites us we’re on the agenda with them sharing our research to how it’s easier to access funding from them. Um, yeah. And then I guess the other things, so I guess it’s like that core content of also partnering with a lot of conferences leading up to this one thing that we built off a lot from the consulting firm is, all these eight conferences around the world that we’ve presented that, that we have the marketing of stayed in touch with people from it. So we built up quite a large mailing list, we have 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. And all this is done by putting out a lot of really valuable content. So I would say let the content meet things. One thing we’ve started doing is a webinar series. Again, similar to what you are doing we invite current and former USA senior USA Aid staff on just to share whatever they want, we have a platform for them to reach the partner’s audience, the partners that they work with around the world. So whatever message they want, whatever strategy they want to promote, just provide a nice friendly platform for them to share that experience. And then people come to that, you know, they see a connection if they want to learn more they can message us after it, but it’s putting those free resources out there that people are going to use and are going to share.

Tony Zayas 40:11
I’m curious, Mike, if you employed any just, especially early on just to get some traction, any just kind of growth hacks where you were just, you know, doing some guerilla style marketing efforts just to get in front of people, you know, the standard ones, SEO, paid advertising, all that stuff, takes takes budget takes time takes you know, all that kind of stuff. Anything that you could share that, you know, work for you that someone would just roll up their sleeves and kind of get some results?

Mike Shanley 40:42
Yeah, so for me, it was speaking at conferences, and it’s finding that niche, so no one else was talking about how to access USA ID funding. And so going to a conference and saying, Hey, I got all the content for you. I’m not charging anything, just put me on the agenda, I’ll go in the side room, we’ll do a USAID 101 event, do it the first year at the conference if people show up great. If they don’t, whatever, it’s my time, I’m paying to get there and everything. So find those conferences, find that platform, become a guest on there, figure out what you’re you know, for us, it’s a four-step approach to getting USAID funded before peace, what is your what’s your three-step, your five-step, whatever your program is, and then share that content widely to get your name out. And then you want to have you know, if you’re early stage start, I don’t use MailChimp or something and just start a free account to start collecting. People can subscribe, you want to learn more have at least like that your landing page up. So you can start collecting information. And people that are interested in following the journey might be potential clients. But yeah, find that core piece of value, that you have the insight, and maybe this goes back to that founder market fit, and then figure out the platforms to push it out on and you will get you to know, half the conference is going to respond and say great, we’d love to feature you for $30,000 sponsorship fee. But you’re gonna find some that don’t require that and see that value, see the audience you’re gonna attract. But by being there, so yeah, that’s I think that’s the thing that earned media to put in journalism terms is a helped out. And honestly, it’s still the core of what we’re doing now. Sure, we’re doing some of the paid stuff. But it’s, it’s really, it’s the earned media piece that I find is the most valuable,

Tony Zayas 42:26
And these conferences and things, is that something you are already participating in? And then you said, let me try to speak at them?

Mike Shanley 42:35
Yes, both, um, I would do both, I would try to contact the organizers beforehand. And for most, that isn’t gonna respond, anyone that’s not ready to write a sponsorship check. Show up at them. And while you’re there, find the person find them in person say, Hey, this is awesome. Excited about it. I want to support you know, the planning for next year, what’s your kind of gets your email? Let me stay in touch. So going there, and then seeing what’s on their agenda? What do they want to highlight? You know, I mean, conferences, understand whoever you’re talking with? What’s their business interest? What’s a personal interest, a conference, they want more people to pay to come to it, and they want more people to sponsor it? So how are you going to raise the awareness of that conference among a new market? So a couple of different European aid conferences work with us because they have the very little following in the North American aid market? So they’re like, Hey, Mike, can you come to speak at it also, can we, you know, but, you know, we’ll post some stuff on LinkedIn about, here’s this conference in Europe, if you’re interested in for the American side to get into that market. So understanding that business interest behind it too, and making sure you stay focused on that, hey, it’s not a sales pitch, we’re putting out really valuable information, it’s going to increase your registrations, and we’ll you know, promote it to our network to that we’re participating in this conference.

Andy Halko 43:52
And I kind of just want to pull out one point, because I’m such a, you know, I’m so focused on people niching down, is that I actually think that strategy is also what helps you with what you just mentioned, with getting speaking engagements at conferences, you know, if you’re going in and saying I can talk about funding, there’s 1000 people, you know, if you talk about grant funding, it’s this, but then if it’s, you know, something extremely narrow. I mean, those speakers are the people that get placement at conferences. So I just want to kind of pull out the fact that your whole concept of niching down being focused also helps you in that guerilla marketing, right.

Mike Shanley 44:33
That’s a great point yet it does keep you focused. You’re right, Andy. So if I had gone and said, we’re, I’m an emerging markets expert, I know something about every country in the world and how to enter them and like, who’s gonna push it that no, there’s no relevance there. But it’s here’s this small area that we’re the niche specialists. So yeah, if I’d said we’re grant writing specialists, here’s how you write a grant. That’s just very valuable but it’s very general Okay. Grant for who which foundation which association which donor So, so yeah, yeah. And I think that’s, I think going off, what you’re saying is, that also helps you keep focused on the market. Because the conference has 1000s of people at it, well, someone’s interested in something like they’re paying to be there. So now what is that their pain? I would go to some of the sessions and see what? Which ones have the most participation? Tony, one other idea, too. Yeah. When you do attend those conferences early on, when you’re not speaking, and just remember this, what I do I look on the agenda, I don’t go to learn much I go to network. So I look at what is on the agenda is interesting. And then I show up at them right before the q&a starts. And then I’ll find whoever has the microphone and make sure I’m sitting next to them. And you want to listen to it a little bit. So you have some context. But then, you know, you want to introduce yourself, Hi, Mike Shanley, a Connect will make it easier access to USAID funding. And so I had a question about one of the speakers or one of this and make sure it’s a relevant question. But that’s a good way that you can get 100 people in the room. And then I would ask a question like that, and just sit there till everyone’s left the room, and maybe one person comes up and talks to me. So that’s another way that you can kind of and then you do that two or three different times, and then spend the rest of the time working in the exhibitor booths and stuff. I find that’s an effective way to network and find clients, supporters at conferences.

Tony Zayas 46:21
Yeah, that’s great. Very cool. Um, Mike, I would just love to hear a little bit about the team that you have behind you, and how you something that I think founders, it’s important for founders to be successful is, how do you maintain first of all healthy culture? But then also, how do you really? How do you communicate your vision and what you were looking to accomplish, especially early on to this team of people? As you know, we bring people on and get them on board with that?

Mike Shanley 46:57
Yeah, so the first thing I start with if it’s a consultant if it’s an employee is a lifestyle. So we have been remote since 2013 when I started pre way pre-COVID. And what do you want? What’s your lifestyle? Like? Do you want to? Are you training for a marathon? Are you getting ready to go to grad school? Are you starting a family and you want more need more money? Or do you want to need more time? What is that? And then what are our business needs? And then where’s that match? Where can we have that where you can go sit you know, from the start, encourage people to go work on a beach in Mexico, go hang out in the mountains in Nepal, do whatever is make sure there’s a good Wi-Fi connection, I don’t care where you are. So really starting with that flexibility. And being very focused on the outputs, not the input. So not we need to work in X hours a week, no, it’s this has to get done. If you can do it in five hours, awesome, great, enjoy the ride, go for a hike after that and enjoy the rest of the time. So really focusing on that. And then in terms of communicating the mission. So it’s, I think it is easier to communicate if you are saying like our clients who it’s clear we are working directly with the Women’s Entrepreneurship Association of Columbia, and we have increased this many more students are going to school, we’ve increased the coffee farmers wages by this, like, that’s great, we’re kind of we’re enabling that type of activity. So it’s how to do it, we are helping organizations on overhead, more run that much more efficiently, that can sound boring, but that means 1000s, hundreds of 1000s, millions of more dollars are going to these projects on the ground. So I think also making sure everyone in the team is connected to the clients and can really feel that positive feedback, that reinforcement of wow, we have this extra money or we won this new funding without having to distract from this project work we’re implementing this is great. Here’s the impact we’re delivering on the ground. So for me, it’s not like a big annual conference we do where here’s a keynote, it’s really like, every week, every day, in our meetings, just thanking the team, and remind me that here’s what we’re doing. Here’s, here’s why we’re here. We are here to make use of this $21 billion to because of us, we will increase the impact that that has globally. Yeah, so really starting with that and, and being sincere and genuine about it. Um, we want people to work as efficiently as possible. If anyone says hey, here’s the new subscription, a new tool that’s cost 10s of dollars, a couple of 100 bucks a month, like great, this is gonna save you time make you happier. Alright, let’s subscribe to that I kind of I’m sure there’s 30 Plus, monthly SAS type of things that we were subscribed to. There might be more than that. But really making sure that that the team knows that we’re focused on retention. You know you’ll hear about some big firms or maybe smaller firms that just want to maximize burnout and get people to leave. And sure that’s a model. It’s not the model that we like to do we want people to stick with us for a while and to make sure that they feel part of the mission and that is well compensated and see their compensation tied to that.e future hold?

Andy Halko 50:18
What’s the what’s the next three to five years look like for yourself and the company?

Mike Shanley 50:25
Yeah. Um, honestly, Andy, that’s kind of like, what I’m starting to. That’s where I’m at now is asking myself that question. I think that’s the rest of this year is, um, you know, with the getting a Kinect launched, and we’re still doing on the growth track, too. But really, I now just getting the bandwidth from that launch and getting that user base. And now we have the funding and everything to start thinking about that. Okay, great. What is next? What what’s, how can we build off of this to make aid even more efficient, globally? What? So yeah, I think that that’s a that’s, that’s, that’s the point I’m at now, which, which I think is a good spot to be at. But I’m excited about that, about how to really solidify what we built, keep us on a path for growth, and always looking at, you know, what is that that next venture or project, I think the only thing I know is it’s going to be related. I’m not, you know, I won’t go recreate the wheel. And some other thing I’ve just seen, when you have that when you know that industry. And you when you try to start a company in a new industry, you just don’t realize everything that you just passively pick up by being inside at a firm in that industry, you know, sure, you can kind of learn some things from the outside, and maybe you’ll get it right. But I think just intuitively knowing those needs, how those firms operate, how your clients operate, is really invaluable in the time it saves you as you’re developing the products.

Tony Zayas 51:57
Reminds me if you ever read or heard of Good to Great by Jim Collins, he talks about the hedgehog concept of just get really focused and great companies are the ones that double down on what they’re, you know, they can be the best of the world and, and they just stay focused on that. So I think that’s really smart of you to go down that path.

Mike Shanley 52:18
Especially when you’re early stage. So for the listeners who are early-stage SaaS, you don’t even if you get investors, they don’t want you working on 10 different products before you have any proof of concept they want, they’ll probably I would again, we didn’t do to go to the investment process. But understand, they’ll probably make you even more focused than you would on your own. Like we need money. So what’s our how are things looking? So yeah, yeah, I think that’s great. And once you make that work, you got to build a successful company by focusing on one niche, well, now you have maybe any this, we’ll get into what we’ll think about next, you know, now you have that flexibility to decide for what you want to do next. And, you know, hopefully, for a lot of listeners, you get to a point where you can now make a decision not based on Okay, well, what’s gonna make me the most money, but what’s gonna make me the most fulfilled? How can I really give back? How can I do? Do what I think is my role, my purpose? That’s what’s best in the world. So I think getting to that point is a really exciting place to get to when in a really fulfilling piece of, of the journey to

Tony Zayas 53:26
Awesome. So you’ve mentioned a couple times, you know, lifestyle business, you know, and that type of thing. So I’m curious, you know, we talk about being a founder and the demands of that. How do you maintain work life harmony?

Mike Shanley 53:49
Yeah, for me, so it’s a lot of trail running. Hiking, for me, was fitness. I think one good thing, the important thing for founders too, is it’s a journey to learn about yourself, and how you operate. Do you really work well at night? Are you a morning person? How, what’s your what’s most effective schedule for you? How many miles a week should you run to be to not burn out but to have that energy to be focused? Or if it’s what nature walks or lives, whatever it is that you’d like to do? Figuring out what is that routine? That’s for me, it’s a lot of activity of rock climbing, running, hiking, but but but learn what is that that keeps you mentally fit? I mean, I like to study or hear read about even like the chess grandmasters that chess seems like why would you do any physical activity for chess, they’re running, they’re lifting, they’re training their bodies for a chess tournament, where they’re going to sit down all day so that they can stay focus for 12 hours straight. So so for me that that’s what it’s finding that right balance of, endurance, which then can keep you focused for longer periods. But really finding what is that routine that works best for you? For me, too, I think maybe I would emphasize it just because I hear the opposite emphasizes, if I’m sleeping nine hours a night, that’s awesome. And I try to do that every night. I don’t do four hours asleep. I don’t I mean, I’ve had those nights, of course, but that’s not the goal is how can I do the most on three or four hours of sleep? I read about some athlete, that he’s like, I had a really bad year and I don’t know why I was up till 11 8 am pm every night I was wake woke up at 4 am I got five hours of sleep every night, I was at the gym every day I was doing this like, well, that’s why you had a bad season because you slept five hours a night. Sleep is important. Um, and sure, you can do a stretch without it, but in my opinion. Um, so. So yeah, that’d be what was important for my routine.

Andy Halko 55:54
Yeah, that was a weird trend for a while where the badge of honor was how little Do you sleep? And how much do you work? And I definitely think that’s at least kind of gone a little.

Mike Shanley 56:04
Okay, you’re not hearing that. Okay. And you all would be much more in tune with that. Because that’s when I hear that, Oh, I did this with five hours. Like, wow, what would you build? If you got eight hours of sleep a night you’d had a great company?

Andy Halko 56:15
I think your young founders, like love that concept. But once you get a little bit of, you know, experience and age, you realize that you know, it’s work smart, not hard.

Mike Shanley 56:26
Apps. Absolutely. Andy Yep.

Andy Halko 56:30
So before our last question, tell our audience a little bit about where they can find you and AidKonekt and

Mike Shanley 56:39
Yeah great thank you. Um, so LinkedIn is the best platform you I’m sure we could put it in the comments after this but it connect spellers. See my name AidKonekt, on follow us on LinkedIn, follow me on LinkedIn, Mike Shanley, that’d be the best place and Yeah, feel free to connect and message me. I’m always happy to talk to other founders and hear what else is going on.

Andy Halko 57:05
So the question I like to ask everybody at the end, if you were able to go back in time to before you start the business, and give your younger self some advice, what advice would you give,

Mike Shanley 57:21
focus those first three years where I was trying to do everything, focus. And I don’t still don’t know if I would have listened. Even if it was myself talking. It could, it could be a futile exercise. But that’s what I would try to convince myself is focus. The only way you get big is by starting in a super small niche area, and then grow from there. But you don’t get big in 10 areas at once you make one work, and then you expand to another one from there.

Tony Zayas 57:49
That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much, Mike. This has been fantastic. We really appreciate you taking the time here with us. And I’m sure. So with that, we’ll go ahead and wrap up here this week. Thanks, everyone for tuning in. Thanks again, Mike. And to our viewers, we will see you again in the office. You see Andy next week. Well,

Mike Shanley 58:12
Andy and Tony, thanks a lot. This was a pleasure talking with you all and thank you for putting out this great resource to the to the market in the community. So thank you all for the work.

Tony Zayas 58:23
Very welcome. Thanks again. Take care everybody. Bye

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