GUY RAZ, HOST:
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SUSAN TYNAN: There were days I thought, well, it is possible this thing doesn't scale. And it's possible we won't dig ourselves out. We can't keep up with the orders.
RAZ: So the issue was not that you were framing them badly, but that it just took too long?
TYNAN: Oh, yeah. We were framing them perfectly, it just took too long. We started to see really angry emails. People saying, like, this was the very special gift for my grandmother's 90th birthday and you ruined it. And it felt terrible.
RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.
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RAZ: I'm Guy Raz, and on today's show, how Susan Tynan accidentally spent $1,600 framing posters and then turned her sticker shock into a more affordable idea called Framebridge. So there are pieces of artwork hanging up in my house that cost a lot less than what it cost to actually frame them. You know, you drive to the store, you get the matting, you pick the frame, the glass and soon enough, you're down, like, $400 bucks. And so then if you're like me, you just stop framing stuff. You end up turning a closet in your house into, like, a photos and artwork storage center.
And this is exactly the opportunity Susan Tynan saw about five years ago when she started to think about how to make framing cheaper and easier. Now, at the time, Susan was already a veteran of a bunch of startups that mostly failed. But through those experiences, she figured out how to raise money to start Framebridge. And so far, she's managed to bring in more than $37 million. But unlike a lot of the companies we've had on the show, Framebridge is still in its building phase. It's still working to become a sustainable company. And Susan is still working like crazy, still starting early and still staying late.
And she says she got that work ethic from her dad, who used to run a small tugboat business on Lake Erie in Cleveland.
TYNAN: Tugboats meaning the little boats that help big boats and so a really operationally intensive business. And our family really revered his job and what went into providing for our family. And, you know, we ate dinner at 7:30 because that's when Dad got home from work.
RAZ: That's so cool. Like, I've never met anybody who's involved with the tugboat business.
TYNAN: Yeah. There's something just iconic and awesome about tugs. So, you know, I certainly have been on my share of tugs. And I think my one sort of party trick when I got to be a teenager was if we were at an event downtown and there was a tug out on the water, you know, my dad would have them honk their horn when they went by us.
RAZ: So your dad - were you involved in the business at all? Did you do anything?
TYNAN: Yeah, I mean, we pinch hit. I remember, you know, if the receptionist was out, we'd go in and answer phones for my dad and that sort of thing. There was certainly this, again, like, reverence for work and what it took, that it didn't come easy. You know, I can just imagine my dad on vacations on the phone or the phone ringing late at night. And if something goes wrong in a business that operationally intensive, it's really gone wrong. So I remember that drama.
RAZ: Did you grow up thinking entrepreneurially, like, I'm going to be an entrepreneur because, I mean, we're around the same age and I don't remember that being a big part of our culture as kids.
TYNAN: No, I think I looked at my dad and I thought I was going to be the boss. But I didn't - that wasn't, like, I'm going to be the boss and great things come with being the boss, it was, like, and all the responsibility that comes with that. And so I guess I had that vision of a business career.
RAZ: So you didn't think, I'm going to go to college and then become, like, a lawyer or something like that?
TYNAN: No, I didn't. And I certainly had a lot of ideas, none of which were great, like there should be a pancake delivery service. But, you know, I was always thinking along those lines, always solving consumer problems so.
RAZ: Susan went on to study at the University of Virginia and then she got a degree at Harvard Business School. She dipped her toes into the startup world for a little bit and then she went to work at the White House during President Obama's first term. But around 2011, Susan once again caught the startup bug.
TYNAN: So at the time, some guys I had worked with previously had started a startup in a hot, new space called daily deals. So the company was called LivingSocial. And I was watching them from afar and was just sort of jealous of...
RAZ: It was exploding.
TYNAN: It was exploding, yes.
RAZ: LivingSocial, Groupon, that was the daily deal thing. And they're still around.
RAZ: And you were seeing friends of yours who were...
RAZ: And you were thinking, I have to get into this.
TYNAN: I have to get on it. I am so jealous. Like, truly, I joke when one of them called and asked me if I wanted to join, I sort of had, like, my desk packed up. I was like, I'm ready.
RAZ: Wow. So you pack up and you are like, great, I'm going to do this. And what did you do at LivingSocial?
TYNAN: I'm going to do it.
TYNAN: So how it worked was they sent emails with deals to local merchants and shops. And so they decided they would do some specialty ones, hired a guy to run travel and hired me to sort of do anything else. So I did, you know, first family-friendly deals and then home services deals.
RAZ: So, like, what kind of deals?
TYNAN: Yeah, so deals for, you know, things like Gymboree and childcare services and things like that, things that a family might be interested in - apple picking. And then it was just sort of, like, what else could we sell and to what other groups?
RAZ: What was that time like 'cause, I mean, this was not that long ago. We're talking about, like, six, seven years ago. I mean, I remember LivingSocial here in Washington, D.C. It was huge. I mean, it just seemed like everyone was throwing money at it. What was it like working there at the time?
TYNAN: It was really, really exciting. You know, we were all really driven. We were all really bullish. We knew that speed mattered and in that case, in that industry, it really did. And so it was fun 'cause we had to unlearn - I had to unlearn some things. I was coming right out of the White House. I mean, you had to, like, this email doesn't have to be checked by 10 people, we just have to get it out the door. And it was exciting. It was like a gold rush.
RAZ: At its peak, do you remember what LivingSocial was valued at?
TYNAN: Yeah, it was a couple billion.
TYNAN: Yeah, it was a couple billion. And I remember even the business lines I was running, I got to launch them and they got to 80 million in sales, like, you know, in a year and a half.
RAZ: So was it just insane? Were you working all the time?
TYNAN: Yeah, I was working a lot. But again, I was coming from a job where I worked a lot, so it's clearly something I'm used to. And also it's funny 'cause I had, you know, a baby at home and it was certainly a startup party culture as well. And I sort of found for myself there - I laughed - I sort of became sort of like a mentor aunt to a lot of people. Like, I was aware I was a little bit older.
RAZ: 'Cause you were near 30s?
TYNAN: Exactly, exactly.
RAZ: When did you start to see, I don't know, things at LivingSocial kind of turn a little bit? When did you start to notice that maybe this isn't going to work out the way everyone thinks it will?
TYNAN: Well, I think, obviously, in the metrics, you see growth slow and that makes you start to question certain things. And then obviously, you see talent leave. And so when, you know, some people I admired started to leave, just even the composition of the whole experience began to change.
RAZ: But, I mean, what happened to LivingSocial? I mean, I know it still exists in some capacity. But what actually went wrong?
TYNAN: You know, I think it's a multi-part answer, some of which was, you know, that the exchange was really that local merchants would get loyal customers. And so that had to be the case. And I think in some cases, that tradeoff didn't exist. And so some of the best merchants said, not interested anymore and so then the emails weren't as exciting and they didn't have the best restaurants and stores. And so then customers became less interested in the idea.
And so it was - when that cycle was reinforcing, it was unstoppable. But when it, you know, started to unwind, it got hurt.
RAZ: Did that, I mean, did that kind of give you insight into just the hyping of new things, new technology, new products, new apps? Like, I don't know, not to pick on LivingSocial or Groupon, but just, I mean, there are tons of these examples where, you know, one day a company's valued at, you know, $5 billion and then it seems like a year later - it's sort of like "The Emperor's New Clothes." Everyone's like, well, what is actually - what's the value here?
TYNAN: Well, I think no doubt, it led me to a business that I could touch and feel. So, I think, yeah, I just learned, you know, some of those businesses are hard to know whether they're going to be transformational or fleeting.
RAZ: So at what point did you decide to leave?
TYNAN: So growth was slowing and, I think, more importantly, I felt my personal development was slowing. And I thought, you know, I really - I want to run something, I just do. And I was sort of just feeling that urge.
RAZ: Were you anxious about your future?
TYNAN: I was. I don't think I was anxious about my future at that company. I was anxious about my future in general. I just wanted to get on it. And at that time, I had started to think about building my own business. And my head was going there when I got a job offer that sounded interesting.
RAZ: What was it?
TYNAN: So it was working for a taxi app, it was called Taxi Magic, that actually had an iPhone app to hail taxis, pre-Uber. And so I thought, well, that'll sort of scratch this itch. That'll be close enough to doing my own thing.
RAZ: Was it a well-funded startup?
TYNAN: So at the time it was but certainly nowhere near LivingSocial. And...
RAZ: LivingSocial was, like, free snacks and like...
TYNAN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, the foosball, the whole thing. You know, the company sales retreats to...
RAZ: Beautiful graffiti on the walls.
TYNAN: (Laughter) Yes, yes.
RAZ: So you were trying to convince taxi companies to adopt Taxi Magic's app or whatever and then you would click on the app and then you could order a taxi that was aligned with Taxi Magic, that worked...
RAZ: And how long did you stay there?
TYNAN: I wasn't there long. I was there only about seven months because as soon as I got there, I realized that I really wanted to do my own thing, that I just - that that feeling could not be stated in another way.
RAZ: Yeah. And so what did you start to do? Did you start to kind of brainstorm possible ideas? Did you...
TYNAN: No, I had my idea.
RAZ: You had your idea.
TYNAN: I did. I did. I had had this idea for a long time that someone should make custom picture framing better.
RAZ: How did you get the idea?
TYNAN: The idea originates truly back probably eight or nine years. I had national parks posters that I had bought on these annual hiking trips I went on with my sister. And I took them to a local frame store to be framed. It was just a terrible experience. It was really intimidating and really expensive.
RAZ: Like, more expensive than the posters - much more expensive than the posters.
TYNAN: Yeah, the posters were $40 each. And the framing was $400 each. So I spent $1,600 on frames.
RAZ: And so you're thinking - what? - this has to - somebody has to change this?
TYNAN: Yeah, I just thought - no, I first thought, well, I will never do this again. And so I just always had - like, I had a mixed reaction even toward the posters when I finally picked them up three weeks later. I just thought, like, how did that happen to me? I just started going about my life and I kept noticing things that I would like and I thought, well, you can't have that. You can't frame it.
RAZ: So just pause for a sec because it - this is - I'm having flashbacks to my conversation with the Warby Parker founders, which was similar because glasses are so expensive. And they were asking, why? I mean, it's just plastic and, you know, some hinges, right? So why is framing so much money?
TYNAN: Yeah, so for a local store, they don't store any inventory. They don't store any of their materials in their store. And so in order - when you go in and you select from the thousand frame styles on the wall, the frame store is actually buying those materials for your piece when you place your order. So it takes weeks, and it's really heavily marked up. They're buying from a distributor. So our innovation, which now doesn't seem like much of one, was really, like, well, why don't we choose frame styles we believe are beautiful, invest in them and make it centrally?
RAZ: So you can't - so basically, you have some options but not infinite options?
TYNAN: Right. You have 40 styles rotate, driven by trends. But we don't, you know, we don't overwhelm you with a thousand frames you didn't want anyway.
RAZ: And you have the inventory.
TYNAN: And we have the inventory.
RAZ: And the concept was that, that you would roll up your artwork, mail it in and then it would come back framed?
TYNAN: Yes. That was the concept. The concept was for less than half the price of a retail store, with very clear upfront pricing, you'd choose from a beautiful selection, we'd mail you packaging, you'd mail us your art, we'd send it back to you in a couple days ready to hang.
RAZ: So this idea was in your head. You're working at Taxi Magic. But if you had this idea for a long time, what was the spark that actually got you to do this, to actually leave and make a go for it?
TYNAN: So it's sort of multi steps. At LivingSocial, I sold a lot of framing deals. And so people - I knew customers are looking for a deal on this category. But they didn't - they still didn't like their experience in the store. And so that sort of validated it. And then when I got to Taxi Magic, I thought, gosh, you know, so many smart people are competing in this category.
And I have a category I am just so eager to make better and nobody's thinking about it, so I should.
RAZ: So you started to tell people about this idea?
TYNAN: Yeah, I did.
RAZ: Because a lot of people are secretive at the beginning, right? They think, I don't want to tell people my idea. They'll steal it. But you told people about this idea you had?
TYNAN: I did. And it was essential I did because, you know, I needed to know would people actually use this? Did people think it was a good idea? And so I started talking to everybody about it. I can think about, you know, truly an image of me at a cocktail party or at, you know, a friend's baseball game and just thinking about, you know, telling people the concept. And then I kept hearing these same stories about either me or my partner, you know, and the story was always involving $600 worth of framing and I bet I wouldn't believe it. And I'm like, I do believe it. That's why I'm going to fix it.
RAZ: But everybody, presumably, was, like, saying to you, what an awesome idea, Susan.
RAZ: But, like, let's just be honest here. A million conversations like that happen every day.
TYNAN: So to this day, at least twice a month, someone says, you know, me and my friends, we were talking and we were coming up with that same idea. We had an idea for a framing company, a disruptive framing company.
RAZ: People say that to you?
TYNAN: Well, yeah, all the time. I'm like, oh, great, OK.
RAZ: Well, here's, I guess, sort of a meta question here, which is is an idea enough? 'Cause a lot of - there are a lot of really awesome ideas out there.
TYNAN: No, an idea's really not worth much at all. I mean, so at least in our story, it's worth almost nothing. It's all the hustle.
RAZ: I mean, and so were you, like, financially secure enough to take this leap to actually, you know, leave your job and try this?
TYNAN: No. So we were living a life that required, you know, we had two hard-working parents and required two salaries for our mortgage and our two kids. They were 1 and 4 at the time, two little girls and obviously childcare for them. So, yeah, it was kind of a crazy time to decide to start a business. And I think a lot of people sort of wanted to tell me all the reasons this couldn't work.
RAZ: So what was the first thing? I mean, so the first thing you did is you start talking to people and telling them about the idea. And what was the first, like, concrete thing you did? Did you know anything about framing?
TYNAN: No, I knew nothing about framing. So sort of most notably, I signed up for a framing course that I took at a Hampton Inn. And so they actually take, you know, bring small framing equipment into a conference room in the motel.
RAZ: This is not sponsored by Hampton Inn. This is just, like, somebody rented out a Hampton Inn.
TYNAN: (Laughter) No.
RAZ: OK, I got you.
TYNAN: It's like a tour of America...
TYNAN: ...And you can learn to picture frame. And really, the advertisement is, like, look, it's the highest-margin business. Come learn how to frame.
RAZ: Wow, that was - so the class was learn how to frame, then you can open a shop because the margins are so high.
TYNAN: Yes. And so it was really important for me to make sure I knew what I was getting into on the production side but also, yeah, to make sure it was viable.
RAZ: OK, so you leave your job to learn how to frame.
TYNAN: I leave my job to learn how to frame, and I go to a trade show in Las Vegas.
RAZ: Just to check it out?
TYNAN: Just to check it out.
RAZ: What did you see?
TYNAN: That was actually a little bit of a low point because I thought, you know, what have I gotten myself into? I just was sort of wandering around looking at frame styles. I actually, you know, certainly had opinions on what styles I liked and had some design learnings. But really, I just thought, like, what am I getting myself into? I remember standing alone on the Vegas Strip just sort of having paid my way there out of my own pocket thinking, like, what am I doing? Like, am I ever going to pull this thing together?
RAZ: When was that trade show, in 2013?
TYNAN: That trade show was in 2013, yeah.
RAZ: So 2013 and you were there to, like, take notes and to just...
RAZ: And what did you want to do with that information?
TYNAN: Yeah, a lot was - I was still in the let me make sure I'm not missing something phase. And then also, like, well, gosh, I'm going to have to get started, so I'll have to call these people up and tell them I want to buy equipment and want to buy, you know, wood moldings.
RAZ: So you were trying to develop contacts in the industry by going to that trade show.
TYNAN: Yeah. And I have to tell you, there are a few folks I met there who are still vendors to this day. And I really give them credit for listening to me because I do think most people just ignored me.
RAZ: Or didn't like it.
TYNAN: Oh, well, absolutely didn't like it. And there's something - to this day, I think I'm still trying to explain to people, it was really because of reverence for the end product that I started this business. So I actually think getting something custom framed is really, really special. And so I believe that. I just believed more people needed to access it.
RAZ: But presumably, some of these frame folks were like, we don't want this kind of disruption. We don't want your Harvard Business School degree to come in and make this thing cheaper for consumers.
TYNAN: Yeah, no doubt, no doubt.
RAZ: Which you can understand.
TYNAN: Of course, of course. And so going on and building this business, I have run into that a number of times. But I think it required someone out of the industry to be able to sort of plot it from the consumer's viewpoint from the beginning. And I think by this time, it felt, like, too late to back out. And so at that point, I started trying to pitch investors.
RAZ: Why did you decide to go to investors from the get-go rather than just pull together money from family and anywhere you could get, a little bit here and there, and do it on your own?
TYNAN: Yeah, I joke a little bit that we were somewhat unlean (ph) in the beginning in that we believed - I believed that in order to actually do this business well, it had to be done at such a high quality. And that was that the site had to look beautiful, the packaging had to be branded. You had to trust us enough to roll up a diploma and send it to us. And I really thought, like, there is no really minimally viable product version of this business. This business has to be done.
RAZ: It has to be great out of the gate.
TYNAN: Yes. Like, that anything to just test whether the concept worked wouldn't work. We had to do it great. And we had to do it ourselves.
RAZ: So how did you get the money to do this, because I have to assume you needed a lot of money to build an app, to get the materials, to hire a team. Like, you had to - how much money were you looking to raise?
TYNAN: Yeah so hilariously, I remember saying I was looking to raise $50,000. And initial investors saying, you realize that's not going to be enough money? But, no, once I really got into it, we decided - we raised $1.5 million. So we were going to raise a real round, you know, a real seed round out of the gates.
RAZ: And what was your pitch to investors, by the way? Were you like, $1.5 million valued at $10 million? Like, what did you say to them? Did you even know what to say?
TYNAN: No, I didn't. I didn't know any of those things and quickly learned. And you learn because all the meetings start to sort of meld together. And you learn those things along the way. But the pitch was really clear. And in a way, I'm really proud of we built the business we pitched, which was, you know, I went in and said, look, you know, custom framing...
RAZ: It was just you at the time.
TYNAN: It was just me.
TYNAN: I say we because there were some people on the PowerPoint pitch check who now have joined. But they were just, like, aspirational team members at the time. So, yeah, it was just - you know, I said, like, hey, custom framing is too expensive and it's a pretty big market. It could be way bigger if someone made it less expensive and less of a hassle. And here's how I'm going to do it.
RAZ: How did you find people to even pitch to?
TYNAN: Yeah, so an investor at LivingSocial and I met up for breakfast. He was actually wondering why I had left LivingSocial. And it was just sort of a social call. And I had no business pitching him at that time 'cause it was really not a strongly enough developed idea. But I told him, you know, I pointed to frames on the wall and said, you know, those should only cost $100, you know that. And he sort of leaned in and said, you know, you should do this. And he's a really intense guy. And so I thought, well, gosh, that was the reaction I wanted.
RAZ: You're, like, validated right there.
TYNAN: Yeah. And so I...
RAZ: Can you tell me his name?
TYNAN: Yeah, Tige Savage of Revolution Ventures.
RAZ: So he's, in the Mid-Atlantic, a pretty well-known investor.
TYNAN: He is a well-known investor. And...
RAZ: Even nationally, I guess.
TYNAN: Yes. And he also calls it like he sees it. So I knew, like, this is not someone who would be just blowing smoke.
RAZ: So you're having a breakfast or lunch with this guy and he's like, go for it. You've got to do this, Susan.
TYNAN: He said, this is a good idea.
RAZ: Oh, cool.
TYNAN: This is a good idea. And so great. We left. And about a week later, he sent me a one-line email - how far along are you? And I thought, yes, OK. And certainly, it was not a promise of anything. But it was enough to make me think, like...
RAZ: He's in. This guy's in.
TYNAN: This is an - we got it. I'm going to build this thing.
TYNAN: So he said, pull a few pieces together, come up with, you know, what are you doing next and how you get this thing off the ground and come - we'll talk about it. We'll pitch this thing for real. So I had a pretty good presentation, I thought, of how I would pull everything together and exactly what I'd do next.
RAZ: And he was going to be the first guy to give you the seed money.
RAZ: And you were looking for a million bucks.
TYNAN: Yes. And I went in, and I went through everything in the deck. And he said, this isn't enough. I just don't think there's enough here that we can make an investment at this time.
RAZ: What - like, how did he go from saying, go do this to saying, yeah, I don't - I'm not feeling this? Like, what was it that he did not like about your pitch?
TYNAN: I think he didn't like the certainty - uncertainty - part of it. We had - you know, I had ideas of how I would pull everything together. But, you know, it didn't have anything yet. And so I think he felt like, I can't come back and say, I found this great early-stage company, but they haven't done anything yet. And I remember walking home. It was the distance I needed a cab, but I walked home that night, thinking, like, oh, my gosh. I was crestfallen.
RAZ: So that's done. Now you've got to move on to the next investor?
TYNAN: Yeah. And by this time, I'm - you know, I'm spending money at a trade show, at a framing course.
RAZ: Out of your own pocket.
TYNAN: Out of my own pocket (laughter).
RAZ: You are not independently wealthy.
TYNAN: I am not independently wealthy, and I am no longer salaried.
RAZ: Were you looking at your bank account and thinking, OK, there's a certain point where I'm going to hit a limit - like $10,000 $20,000 $30,000 - and I'm going to be in big trouble?
TYNAN: Yeah. I remember actually having a serious conversation with my sister in January of '14. I was staying with her in New York because so many investors are in New York. And so I was staying on her couch. And she was sort of like, I'm your big sister. I'm the one who asked to tell you - like, eventually, you're going to have to give up.
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RAZ: In a moment, how Susan Tynan got off her sister's couch and into her own framing factory. I'm Guy Raz. You're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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RAZ: Hey. Welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So when Susan Tynan's first investment pitches went nowhere, a lot of people told her to give up. But, of course, she didn't. She convinced some engineers to help with the website Framebridge. And she promised that, eventually, she would pay them.
TYNAN: I really convinced the engineers - like, oh, this is all happening. We're going to get money, so start building. So they did start coding. We started building Framebridge. But, I mean, you know, even at that point, I think we're still refining what the name for Framebridge would be. And yeah. So I started building as though it would be funded. Obviously, anything that required a big check I couldn't obtain. But, otherwise, certainly, I could get, you know, samples of materials and things like that. And so I just started proceeding as though it would happen and meeting anyone who might be able to write a check, as well.
RAZ: And just using your own money for bits and pieces here and there.
TYNAN: Using my money for bits and pieces. But at that point, things started to pick up more. And I think, again, a lesson in just - if you're moving as though the business is going to work, the rest is going to happen for you. So at that point, I had gotten connected to another investor I knew, as well.
RAZ: In the D.C. area?
TYNAN: In the D.C. area - national investor, a female partner at a venture capital firm who - we had lunch, and I told her the idea. And she said, you won't believe this. I was searching last week for this solution online. And I know it doesn't exist. I looked for it. She said, I love this. I get it. I know this need exists.
RAZ: And she gave you money?
TYNAN: It wasn't that easy.
TYNAN: It was definitely a series of meetings - and sort of show me how you're putting this together. And I think in the same way it was a lot of, like, well, show me more, and then next time show me more. And so she was the first to actually sign up.
RAZ: And how long did the process of when you started to raise money to when you actually raised the million or a million and a half that you needed, how long did that take?
TYNAN: Meetings-wise, it was, you know, 10 months. But really intensely probably about four months, which felt really grueling, but I think is, you know, as these things go, sort of an easy run.
RAZ: That's fast.
RAZ: Four months to get the money. So you have, like, a little over a million bucks in your hand, in your bank account. You're looking at those zeros. What do you do with that money?
TYNAN: Yeah. First thing I did was hire my first employee, a woman named Tessa, who had worked for me previously. And so truly the day the wires hit, she quit her job and joined me.
RAZ: And what'd she do?
TYNAN: Everything. Everything.
RAZ: She was, like, your...
TYNAN: Yeah. She runs merchandising and creative, but, I mean, we did everything. We began actually doing a lot of product sampling. So we were sitting in this co-working space, and we were getting these boxes of, you know, wood chips, wood moldings being sent to us, which doesn't really go in a co-working space. So they kept saying every night, you know, you have to leave with your boxes. And so we would Uber home at night with boxes of sample materials. But we just started, again, doing everything on all fronts. Like, meeting with packaging vendors, meeting with UPS. Like, it was just - I mean, in hindsight, I don't even know what that workplan looked like, but we were just sort of doing every single thing at one time.
RAZ: And what was the plan? Like, with that seed money, the plan was to build an app, a website and launch?
TYNAN: Yeah. So the plan was to build an app and a website and to find some framer friends to do the initial production. And I remember we said for the first 9,000 frames - I don't know why we said that - but, the first 9,000 frames, we will just find someone who will do it for us.
RAZ: You mean, like, an outside frame company?
TYNAN: And I think that was a way to get our initial investors comfortable with the fact that we had no experience on the manufacturing side.
RAZ: You had to find a framing company that would do this, but they were expensive.
TYNAN: Right. So we...
RAZ: So you were...
TYNAN: So we didn't. So we started talking to, you know, framers to see if we can get them interested in what we're doing. And we realized just a lot of - like, we couldn't control quality, we wouldn't be certain about anything. And both of us are sort of sticklers for quality, for precision, and we just did not feel comfortable with it. So we realized in order to even buy materials, we would need a warehouse. And so if we needed a warehouse, we might as well get framing equipment and we might as well make the very first frame. And so I had to tell our investors, like, congratulations, you're going to own a frame factory. And we drove around the D.C. metropolitan area, which is not really an area known for industrial spaces, but we found a space and started building.
RAZ: So you ordered, like, equipment to make frames, which I guess is like, what? Like, bandsaws, and what did you get?
TYNAN: So we actually met a guy. Through our travels, we'd met a vendor who said you should talk to this guy who sells used equipment. And he was a great guy, owned a frame store, and said, like, why don't I moonlight for you guys and help you get this thing set up?
RAZ: And how did you - how long did it take, like, from the time you got your investment to the time you actually launched the website and the app? How long did that take?
TYNAN: Yeah. So we got money end of February. By April, we signed a lease on the facility, on a production facility. And July, we did a soft launch.
RAZ: That's pretty quick.
TYNAN: Yeah, it was. But I mean, we felt under pressure. I mean, we had, again, a lease for a warehouse and not a functioning website.
RAZ: A lease for a warehouse which you were paying rent on.
RAZ: And were your investors like, OK, guys, come on, clock's ticking?
TYNAN: Yeah. They definitely were. I think every week prelaunch felt scary both from an investor perspective and from just an unknown. I mean, this was just a real "Field Of Dreams," right? This was a I bet customers really want this service. And until we launched, we wouldn't know.
RAZ: So you launch in July of 2014. And how do you get the word out?
TYNAN: Right. So hilariously, we started with - it was a password-protected site because we didn't want to be overrun, which was not to be a worry. So we launched with that little beta site in July, and then August we opened up and, you know, told everybody we knew on Facebook. Got a couple orders, but they were all sort of, you know, one degree of separation, two degree of separation and I went to college with that guy type thing. And so we started to send out frames to folks in the press, and first couple months we got two big hits, Architectural Digest and In Style.
RAZ: You just framed, like, random things and sent it to them?
TYNAN: Yeah, but not random. We were, like, what exactly would - what frame style would this editor at this magazine like? What is something about their life we can figure out so that the content of what we frame is interesting? You know, we were really thoughtful. And those were really validating.
RAZ: Wow. And so they wrote about you?
TYNAN: They wrote about us.
RAZ: And did that have a measurable impact?
TYNAN: So it had - I mean at that point, we were selling so few, anything was measurable. So it was measurable, but everything sort of manageable. And at the time, we had said, like, we'll really be something if we're selling a thousand frames a month. And we had told our head of production, be prepared. And he was in the framing industry, and he was like, good luck, girls, like, you're not going to get to a thousand frames a month. And so that was true of the first month or two, and then late October, someone, a home decor blogger, wrote a blog post, and we had our first real sales spike of the day. And that was the first day we thought, OK, like, it's on.
RAZ: How many orders were you getting in a day?
TYNAN: So at that point we were probably - what felt overwhelming. We were probably getting in 50 or 60 orders a day. The four folks who worked in production were making the frames, but the team of us who were, you know, making the website and the marketing, everything, were the shipping team. So at 4 p.m. every night, we pushed aside our laptops and walked to the back of the factory and bubble-wrapped and packaged up the boxes.
RAZ: Including you, the CEO.
TYNAN: You better believe it.
RAZ: You were, like, wrapping up and...
TYNAN: You better believe it. I truly remember an early board meeting. It was on the phone, and I thought, oh, my gosh, they don't know that my hands are covered in paper cuts. Like, they don't get it. It was just at a level of all hands on deck. So that continued OK, but we were approaching our first holiday. And this guy, this part-time head of production, came in one night and said - and this was in early November, our first year - said, like, this is too much stress. You know, I sort of didn't sign up for this. I thought I'd get you guys started, but I don't need this. And I said, yeah, we're about to hit our first holiday and things are picking up. Like, I need you. And he said, I'm happy to help make frames, but I don't need all this responsibility.
RAZ: This is the guy who's running the production, and he's like, I'm out.
TYNAN: I'm out.
RAZ: And you said?
TYNAN: Well, I'm not sure I can say what I said. No, I think I tried to appeal with the, like, please don't let me down. But there was really sort of - he really was like, I just, you know, I took you this far. I'm out.
RAZ: Were you freaking out?
TYNAN: Oh, my goodness. Yeah. You know, he knew everything. And so that was one of the - you know, there were probably a dozen times where you say, like, is this the end? I hope it's not the end. You know?
TYNAN: And then you think about everyone and, like, your investors who believed in you, and then you believed in this guy who said I'll just work part time and that was fine, and, how did we get into this?
RAZ: So what'd you do?
TYNAN: So I immediately called a friend who had worked in operations for LivingSocial, and so he put me in touch with another colleague of ours. So, you know, this sort of mutual friend-colleague was in between gigs and said this will be funny, I can do this, I can learn. Sign me up. And so truly within two days, we had a new head of production who had no experience in a warehouse but was good with his hands.
RAZ: And how long did that take?
TYNAN: It was, like, two or three days.
RAZ: And he knew how to make frames?
TYNAN: No, but he was sufficiently handy and really thought it would be fun. He just said, like, I can do this. And we knew. I mean, he's, you know, super nice and super smart. And day three, he breaks his leg in the factory. So I was like, OK, well, we're out again. And so then we just sort of - the four of us, the regional corporate team, had to just stand in and figure it out at that point. He came back on crutches, and we got through our first holiday.
RAZ: So you guys make it through that Christmas, and then I guess a couple months later, you hit, like, another crisis, right?
TYNAN: Yeah. We did a really clever Father's Day promotion where we asked about the style of your dad and had, you know, unique craft paper designs if you had a preppy dad or a hipster dad. And it was really clever marketing but broke our factory, basically. (Laughter).
RAZ: What happened?
TYNAN: It just required that they match not only all the components of a custom frame but also the right craft paper, and we started to slip into a production backlog.
RAZ: How many orders did you get?
TYNAN: So we started - it was really the daily issue in that we were selling about a hundred frames a day and making about 70. And when we got into this Father's Day backlog and the first summer, there were days I thought, well, it is possible this thing doesn't scale and it is possible we won't dig ourselves out.
RAZ: It won't scale because you start to realize we cannot keep up with the orders?
TYNAN: We can't keep up with the orders.
RAZ: I mean, that seems like a good problem to have.
TYNAN: Yeah, it felt like a good problem to have except we were also oriented to customer delight. We started to see, you know, really angry emails, people saying, like, this was the very special gift for my grandmother's 90th birthday and you ruined it. And it felt terrible. And I remember having this really intense debate about, do we send the email to customers who think it's going to come in three to four days that says it's going to come in two to three weeks?
RAZ: So the issue was not that you were framing them badly but that it just took too long?
TYNAN: Yeah. We were framing them perfectly. It just took too long. And so that leads to the bigger question, can we get out of where we are today and can this thing even work?
RAZ: 'Cause you need, for it to work, it has to be as convenient and quick as going to, like, your local frame store.
TYNAN: It has to be quicker. Our customers are internet shoppers. They care about, you know, on Tuesday they're getting ready for something they're doing on Saturday, and we have to deliver.
RAZ: Tell me how you are sort of organizing your life because I'm imagining you've got to talk to your investors, your board. You've got a bazillion emails coming in. You're also, like, running the staff. Did you ever want to just, like, scream and tear your hair out?
TYNAN: Yeah. And I remember hosting a board meeting at our production facility, at, like, a rented conference room nearby 'cause I thought, maybe I should bring them in on this backlog issue and they should actually take a tour of the facility and see what's going on. You know, maybe in this case, honesty is the best policy. So I remember touring with them, and they saw these, like, numbers on the board, like, let me get this straight. You have that many yet to build, and you're building this many a day. Like, that math isn't going to add up. And so at that point I just sort of had to - you can't, you know, run two truths. You have to bring everybody in with what you're dealing with.
RAZ: How did you solve the problem?
TYNAN: We hired a lot more framers. We got a talented head of production operations who knew how to dig us out. And really it required all of us just give up weekends for a couple months to get out of it. I remember one conversation where I said, you know, we're not going down like this. And a woman who runs product for us said, we're not. And so it was like, OK, we sealed that. We're not going down like this. I really was thinking - I once read that, like, how fast you can jump up from a burpee is correlated with your life expectancy, and I think that's a lot like a startup. It's really how fast. Like, the production manager quit? We've got a new production manager. Like, it's, like, as fast as you can keep going.
RAZ: So when did you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel?
TYNAN: We had sort of a euphoric next Christmas. So holiday seasons are really big for us, for uploaded digital photos, too. I mean, and it's just a great, easy gift. So we have a big spike at the holidays. And so I think once we had, you know, a professional operations team and we lived through that crazy spike of a holiday season, we realized, like, we've got something here.
RAZ: So Framebridge is, like, three years in now. Is it, like, smoother sailing with the company, or do you still have crises?
TYNAN: No. There's always a crisis.
RAZ: What - has any happened recently?
TYNAN: No, there really is. And it's, like, always what you didn't see coming. So relatively recently, at the beginning of this year, we were raising more money and, you know, sort of at this stage in a venture, it's 'cause it's a job well done and we've got a real business here. And so I had spent months on the road talking to investors, including my own, and had stitched together a round of funding. And I had been told I was to receive a term sheet for the funding the next day. It was a Tuesday. So this is on Monday, and I knew Tuesday I was getting a term sheet, and so was starting to feel a little bit of relief. 'Cause in a certain - you know, my job is to think strategically, focus on the customer, but also to keep the business funded. And so was feeling good, I was doing my job. And we had a brand new CFO. He was three weeks in on the job, and we were talking that Monday night, and he said, you know, you're going to kill me. I said, oh, my gosh, are you taking a vacation? We've got to get this thing closed. And he said, no, I got another job.
RAZ: Three weeks in?
TYNAN: Three weeks in. So anyone who's ever worked for a business knows that people watch what the CFO does 'cause I mean, you're like, what's going on there, if your CFO leaves. So I immediately knew, like, this is going to spook the hell out of everybody.
RAZ: Everyone's going to think you're in trouble.
TYNAN: Yes. And, most importantly, it's going to spook these investors. And so my first thought was, shut up. Why did you tell me that? Because it's one thing to leave, but, like, if you leave me right now, I have this knowledge and I have to tell people. And so, you know, to his credit, he had been in the running for a public company CFO job, really big job. It was his dream job. Those things happen. But the timing just could not have been worse. So I left the building like a ghost. I remember a couple colleagues asked me about minor things and I, like, couldn't even answer them. And I went for a run. And it was sort of like, do I just get the term sheet, close the funding and then say, surprise, this guy's leaving?
RAZ: But you can't.
TYNAN: But you can't. And so I went on, like, just sort of frantically called all the members of my board to try and get out ahead of what I knew would be really sort of an explosion, which it was.
RAZ: They reacted by saying what?
TYNAN: A mix of things. This is really bad, you know that? Yes. (Laughter). But we'll get through it.
RAZ: How big was this round, by the way, that you were trying to raise?
TYNAN: It was 17 million.
RAZ: This is a lot of money.
TYNAN: It's a lot of money on the line, and so you can't - you know, people want to believe 17 million dollars is going to, you know, a good company. You can't blame them if this all-star - and he was really an all-star CFO. And I remember, I'll never forget, one of our board members, they said, he's on vacation but he'll try and call you. And he called me, and I could hear a steel drum band in the background. And he said, we're just going to have to do so well this guy feels sick. And I said, OK. You're right. That's what we're going to do. And so then everyone started to come around. But I had to do sort of, like, you know, sports psych with everybody to say, like, come on. You believed in this business. You believe in me. We got this. We're going to do this. This can't throw us off. I mean, I really had to, like, bring everybody together like it was the beginning of the company.
RAZ: And so you got the money.
TYNAN: We got the money, and we lived to fight another day.
RAZ: And this happened relatively recently.
TYNAN: It happened relatively recently. This is about six months ago.
RAZ: So I mean, the difference between your company and so many companies we've featured on the show is that you're still in the thick of it.
RAZ: You are not, like, able to just sit back and say, let me just...
TYNAN: No, we're in the throes.
TYNAN: Like, what's going to happen with our major competitors? Like, are they going to try and launch stuff we're doing? Probably. You know, will we get to be a sustainably, you know, healthy business? Yeah, it looks like it. But, you know, but it really requires sort of a commando crawl still.
RAZ: And still a crazy amount of work all the time?
TYNAN: Yeah, it's a crazy amount of work all the time. Like I said, there are just so many talented people now to share it, but I can't help myself. Like, I do always want to be skimming, you know, customer support tickets and things like that.
RAZ: How much to this point have you raised? How much money?
TYNAN: We've raised $37 million.
RAZ: I mean, at some point, all these investors...
TYNAN: Yeah. They want something back.
RAZ: They want something back, and so they're going to either...
TYNAN: Times 10.
RAZ: And there are two options. It's either you go public or you sell to somebody else, right? Are those the only options?
TYNAN: Those are probably the two most likely options, yeah. The good options. Do I think we can be a big enough company to go public? Absolutely. And I think we can be a fundamentally good enough company to, and an understandable and, often, a forecastable enough business to go public. Yeah, I believe that. I also believe all of those things that make us interesting would make us interesting as a partner of another business.
RAZ: Does it - I mean, obviously, you couldn't do what you've done without those investors and that money, but does any part of you kind of think, I wish I could've figured out how to do this without taking in money?
TYNAN: Yeah. I've given up a tremendous amount of ownership. I think people would be shocked by how much. So at some point I bet I'll reflect on that, but really I think a lot about the fact that I don't think it would have worked unless we had done it in this really full way, this really high-quality way. And the money allowed me to recruit truly the best people, these terrific people, and use very good materials. And, you know, have a very open, liberal return policy and everything that has to go into building a great company. And so I just don't think I could've done it another way.
RAZ: I think a lot of people hear $37 million and just assume that you have $37 million. But, I mean, of course that's not the case, right?
TYNAN: No. And I'm not the highest-paid member of the team by any stretch. So that is interesting. I think that's very confusing to people. There's a lot of, you know, this thing is real. We employ a lot of people. We are growing really rapidly. Those are, you know, real...
RAZ: But you are not, like, swimming in money and throwing it up in the air.
TYNAN: No. That is a funny thing. We still have, you know, cash-strapped conversations.
RAZ: Do friends of yours just assume that you're, like, rolling in cash?
TYNAN: Yeah. I laughed 'cause I started to get a lot of things from, like, all the schools I went to, a lot of, like, I bet you're a big donor. I'm like, not yet.
RAZ: Yeah. But the thing is is that there's, like, a very high possibility that you will, this will make you very rich. If this turns out the way your investors imagine, you imagine, it can make you into a very rich person. How important is that to you?
TYNAN: Right. It sounds cute, but it cannot be my focus. It truly - if I take my eye away from the ball at all on what we're delivering, it will crumble. I strongly believe that.
RAZ: And this just, like, has to be far and away the hardest thing you've ever done.
TYNAN: It is so hard. I laugh about, you know, saying, well, I worked at a lot of startups. Like, that has nothing to do with this. It has nothing - it's, like, barely even preparation for this. It is extremely hard. I mean, it's just, it's like, in some ways I almost think, like, come at me. Like, I'm emerging so much stronger. Like, you could throw anything at me.
RAZ: Susan, I know that you guys are still in the building mode and phase of the company, but this is a question that I ask, you know, pretty much everyone on the show, which is, do you think that so far, you know, your success and the success of Framebridge is because of your hard work and intelligence, or is a lot of it just luck?
TYNAN: Yeah. Of course a lot is luck. Truly, all my early team was plucked from different jobs, and so a lot was being able to really pull everything together. And like, it's really a windy road. A lot is luck. But a lot is hustle, and I think a lot about the intersection, I guess, luck and belief. I believed in this idea. I believed I could do it. I still believe it will be a big business, and I think that translates to luck. So a lot is, like, I just believed enough.
RAZ: You know, one thing we don't always talk about on the show is just the amount of personal sacrifice that it takes to build a company, right? Like, you know, time spent away from your partner or your kids or your family, and you probably haven't taken, you know, a whole lot of vacations over the past few years. Is it still worth it?
TYNAN: Absolutely. Absolutely, and it's really - it's the people understanding this dream part that's worth it. It really is walking through our facilities and seeing what people framed. Like, that is just amazing. It's, like, I believed you had this stuff, and you did. And so it truly - I'll see someone and they'll have, like, a scarf from the Running of the Bulls or passes from Disney World. And I'm, like, yes. Like, I believed you wanted to frame that stuff and you got it. You understood what we did, and you're doing it with us. And that is just a thrill.
RAZ: What the most unusual thing that you've been asked to frame?
TYNAN: Yeah. We've framed a lot of unusual things. We did frame a ponytail, which was fascinating, but, sure, you know, we're up for anything. My favorite, actually, one of my favorite things we framed was a cardboard piece of a kid's fort and it had the rules of the fort on it. And these kids had done it when they were young, and the mom had saved it and framed it for them when they were in their early 20s, you know, their framed rules of the fort. But they were really, really endearing, like, be kind. Like, the rules were really, you know, reflective of the way you should be. And then the mom wrote us a note saying, you know, these kids get iPhones, like, I give them everything, and this, like, was hands down the best of Christmas. And so, you know, that was, like, you get it.
RAZ: Susan Tynan, founder of Framebridge. By the way, remember that first investor she pitched, Tige Savage, the guy who encouraged her to start the company and then told her he wasn't ready to invest? Well, it turns out Susan managed to change his mind, and Tige's actually invested in Framebridge in every subsequent round. And today, he sits on her board.
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RAZ: And stick around because in just a moment we're going to hear from you about the things you're building. But first, a quick thanks to one of our sponsors, Vizio Sound Bars, powered by DTS technology to deliver an extraordinary sound experience and redefine your home theater. Savings on displays and sound bars are available at vizio.com.
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RAZ: Thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That, and this story begins with Alex Van Dewark of Chico, Calif., who has a question.
ALEX VAN DEWARK: Yeah, so it's - have you ever mixed concrete before?
RAZ: I personally have not mixed concrete before, but Alex has mixed a ton of it, especially when he was a teenager helping out with small jobs at his dad's construction company.
VAN DEWARK: And typically what you do is you grab a bag of concrete, you put it in the wheelbarrow, you break it open, you throw water in there and then use a shovel to mix it around, and then you, you know, wheel that wheelbarrow wherever you need and you pour it.
RAZ: And when you do this over and over, it can get to be a real pain.
VAN DEWARK: It takes too long. It's messy and then pouring it is just too challenging to do. So my dad and I would say, OK, we need a better way to mix this stuff.
RAZ: And so one day - kind of on the fly really - Alex and his dad ditch the wheelbarrow, and they decided to use a lightweight tarp instead. They poured the cement and the water onto the tarp and then held it up between them.
VAN DEWARK: And instead of using a shovel or any other tool, I would just use these four corners and I would kind of pick one side up at a time and effectively fold the pile of concrete and water over itself, and it would mix very quickly. And then you could just sort of pick up the tarp from one side and pour it in to where you needed it.
RAZ: OK, so it's a pretty basic hack. And Alex really didn't think much of it, but a few years later, when he was taking business classes in college, he said to his dad, you know, maybe we can make a thicker tarp to mix cement and then sell it.
VAN DEWARK: But for us it was like this really difficult leap and, you know, how do we create something that does what we want it to do without knowing how to create it (laughter)? We didn't really - we're not experts in the textile industry. We knew how to mix concrete, and that's - that's it.
RAZ: So in order to market a mixing mat that people would actually want to buy, Alex had to invent a tarp that would form kind of a bowl when you held it so the cement wouldn't spill out. And then the tarp had to be tough and waterproof. And even after he and his dad found just the right material...
VAN DEWARK: It's called a polyester denier blend, and it's coated with PVC.
RAZ: Even after they found that, they still had to find a way to make the actual mat.
VAN DEWARK: I was calling people in China and Mexico trying to just see, like, OK, who could make this? And I thought it would be easy, and that took years to do.
RAZ: But they finally got the mat manufactured a few years ago. But when they pitched it to their dream retailer, Home Depot, Home Depot said no.
VAN DEWARK: (Laughter) And the funny thing is I spent probably a year learning the same lesson over and over, which is you're not going to get into Home Depot if you're a nobody.
RAZ: So this is where a brand-new business has to pivot, and that's exactly what Alex did. He figured maybe he could get churches and charities to buy the MixMats and then donate them to places that really needed them.
VAN DEWARK: You know, a huge amount of people that are impoverished in rural areas of the world that have absolutely nothing, and they live on dirt floors.
RAZ: And Alex says several donors have already bought the mats to help rebuild after natural disasters in places like Haiti and Mexico.
VAN DEWARK: You know, it started off as this low-tech product we just wanted to sell to make some money. And it has transformed into an opportunity to help people.
RAZ: That's Alex Van Dewark, co-owner, along, with his dad of Up LLC, which makes the MixMat. For now, the business is not making a ton of money, so Alex is still working with his dad's construction company and keeping his day job as a firefighter. If you want to find out more about the MixMat, head to our Facebook page.
And of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. And thanks for listening to our show this week. If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts. You can also write us. It's email@example.com. You can tweet us. That's @HowIBuiltThis. Our show was produced this week by Rachel Faulkner with music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Claire Breen and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Dayana Mustak. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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