Alex Schiff and Chase Lee have been running around the country, sleeping on floors and accumulating some serious laundry all in the name of promoting their simple, free note-taking app Fetchnotes. After some schedule shuffling, I managed to sit down with the youngsters to talk Fetchnote beginnings, hiring weird 21-year-olds and European rave music on this session of The Start-up Sit Down.
Hey Alex and Chase, thanks for taking the time to give us the Fetchnotes lowdown. Our KillerStartups fans are looking forward to being inspired! Let’s get started…
Alex Schiff: Hey Holly, I read you lived in Palm Harbor. I went to Palm Harbor University High School.
I did as well! Yet another “small world” moment. I was the class of ’04.
AS: I was ’09
Excellent, and yet another “super young” entrepreneur story. Man, you guys make me feel old. Anyway, tell us a little about where you’re both coming from.
AS: So, I guess I went to your high school in Florida, and then came back to the University of Michigan for college. We would be seniors but we’re taking a leave of absence to focus on the company full-time. So, we’re in Ann Arbor working on the company.
Prior to Fetchnotes, I was the VP of Benzinga, they are a financial media outlet. Most of my background is actually media.
Chase Lee: I grew up in Grand Rapids, MI where I became an entrepreneur shortly after turning 11. Started a landscaping business, learned to code around then and eventually started a tech consultancy. Went to U of M in Ann Arbor, worked at a health and fitness startup there as engineer #3. Worked as a research engineer for the University, and after that doing machine learning/recommendation systems/NLP. Then I moved over to do some larger web properties at the university, large-scale deployments. The whole time I was playing with some ideas of mine, tried 2 startups. Failed. Joined forces with Alex, and we’ve been plugging away since.
Our editor, Dawn, grew up in a suburb of Grand Rapids, MI! She’s super old though so you probably don’t know her. How did you come up with Fetchnotes?
AS: Chase and I teamed up March of last year we came from an entrepreneurial class taught by Nathan Stoll who is the co-founder of Aardvark. I found that a lot of people want to sell their ideas, but no one really wants to buy them. I became really interested in how people capture their ideas—I take a lot of notes on my Blackberry notepad, and then one day the Blackberry Gods decided to erase all my notes for some reason. I started texting myself notes, mostly ideas. But I found that most people had a hodge-podge way of managing their notes on random business ideas, emails you need to remember to send, and there was nothing out there that was really killing it.
You guys are young!
AS: Yeah, 21. I was at a drinks meet-up a few weeks ago in San Francisco, and everyone was amazed that I was just able to drink.
CL: I started learning to code when I was really young, and I started taking apart computers when I was about 5—so I was really into that stuff early on. I’ve been an entrepreneur for half my life; it’s just kind of what I do.
I know you guys did the Gumroad Karaoke fundraising, which was awesome. Do you guys plan on doing anything similar soon?
AS: On Monday we rickrolled 17,000 people.
You What? Wait, should I know what rickrolling means?
CL: Do you know Rick Astley’s song Never Gonna Give You Up?
AS: (singing) “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down…” Basically, it’s an Internet thing where you send someone a link that looks innocuous, and when they click on the link it’s this video. When we did the karaoke fundraiser we did this song and it was awful. We were so bad. Anyway, we sent out an email that said if you didn’t donate we made a special video for you, and basically rickrolled 17,000 people.
Awesome! So… what’s your office vibe?
AS: We actually have a really unique company culture, because it’s a bunch of 21-year-olds that like to have a lot of fun but still get stuff done. It’s very fun, unique a quirky.
We hire very much for culture fit rather than who has the most experience. We always ask questions in our interviews that throw people off, like “If you had to donate an appendage to the company for missing a deadline, what would it be and why?” You can always tell the weirdness of an individual by their answers and whether they’re going to fit in or not.
We don’t hire people that are like, “What’s wrong with you?”
Biggest startup surprise (good or bad) so far?
AS: It wasn’t so much a startup surprise as it was a reality check, but when we had to pay one of our employees. Are funding was late from the accelerator we were a part of, and it was time to pay for one of our guys and said, “Um, my rent’s due.” And I said, oh right you’re, like, relying on us to pay your bills. So, we put our own money it to make sure he was ok.
But that was definitely a real-world moment.
How big is your team now?
AS: We have 5 full-time, one is an intern.
All under the age of 22?
AS: Actually, they’re all under the age of 21. Some can’t drink yet.
And, how did you find them? Did you hand-pick them?
CL: Yes, there are these fields of programmers where we go and just pick them–Programmer Patch Kids?
Haha, very funny.
CL: Seriously though, we just post on different job boards and a lot of times we get really good referrals. Being students at Ann Arbor, we have the advantage of being at the school and it’s easy to recruit other students. There are also some really great entrepreneurial programs on campus like MPowered-I they have a career fair for startups and we got about 60 resumes–we threw away about 45 of them with our resume basketball which consists of us crumpling up the resumes we don’t like and throwing them in the trash can and see who can get the most in.
There’s a lot of talent in Ann Arbor.
Where do you guys find inspiration or how do you motivate yourself?
CL: I can’t think of the last time I was unmotivated. I think when I see the user cases where they have a problem we’re solving and being able to say, “Oh, check this out, this is what we’ve made.” And, they start using it and give us great feedback. This is what really makes me happy and motivates me me want to make this even better.
AS: That’s one of the best things about entrepreneurship, once you discover that there is a need you feel you are uniquely able to solve with the people that are on your team, it’s hard to say no to that. In terms of motivation, I never think not to. I don’t want to live a boring life.
My biggest fear is that I’m sitting around the dinner table and all you hear is the clinking of silverware because no one has something interesting to say.
What’s on your music-streaming site of choice and what’s currently spinning?
AS: Spotify- I use it an absurd amount. I actually paid for the subscription, and I very rarely spend money on subscription services. My playlists are all very particular to parts of my day—I have a work-out playlist that gets chronically under-utilized, I have a chill playlist, and I have a Get Stuff Done playlist which is basically European rave music. Whenever I have something I need to plow through like spreadsheets, I play this.
Got any great bootstrapping tips for the lean startups out there?
AS: You have to be really creative and be prepared to work out of bars and coffee shops and sleep on couches and floors.
CL: Some people are like “Yeah, startups, I’m gonna be the next Mark Zuckerburg and this is gonna be awesome!”, maybe eventually, but for a long time it’s definitely a huge reduction in lifestyle in some ways. In other ways, it’s like a ton of fun and you would never give it up.
Also, don’t be afraid to just push things out there. I know that people think their startup is their baby and they want to incubate it forever, but at some point you have to start telling people about it and see if it actually works before you go build this huge thing. We always try and build small things and throw it out there.
In terms of trying to get traction, don’t be afraid to do “janky” things; we do a lot of “ghetto marketing”. But basically, just don’t be afraid to get it out there.
It sounds like you guys are doing great. What are your next goals you want to hit?
AS: We really want to nail the viral aspect of the product. We released our sharing features a few weeks ago and we want to focus on making that a really critical part of the experience.
Awesome guys! Thanks for a very entertaining interview, and congrats on just being old enough to join in on drinking startup events. If you want to make life easier and manage your note-taking better, make sure to check out Fetchnotes.
For now, I’m going to go rickroll all my friends on Facebook. Boom.