How a College Dropout Raised $1M in 2 minutes
About three years ago, I published a story about how I made $200,000 when I was 16, and three years prior, I published a story about the Twitter app I built in high school. All of those experiences led me to a moment in December of 2021 where I successfully raised over $1,000,000 in just 2 minutes. Here’s How:
The Journey: An abundance of opportunities and lessons
After spending nearly a decade of my life coding in Michigan, I decided to move to California in the summer of 2016. It felt like a big risk at the time, seeing that I didn’t know many people out there and I didn’t have a ton of money. But I felt like I needed to grow, and as much as I will always call Detroit home, for the industry I was in, a move was necessary. I settled in the Bay Area (Berkeley), where I had various freelance contract work here and there. My first full time position came as a software engineer for a company called NIMA — a startup that was developing a food sensor for gluten and peanuts (for those with celiac or peanut allergies). But after about a year and a half, I decided it was time to leave NIMA and to move to the Los Angeles area. It felt like a better fit for my lifestyle, and I continued with some contractual work until I landed my next gig with the mobility platform, Bird. I think a big reason as to why I was hired at Bird was because during my time at NIMA, I actually ended up engineering for both software and hardware, notably incorporating bluetooth (BLE) into its development for the sensor. In just two short years, I legitimately felt the growth that I had sought after in Detroit. I saw it in my work, my relationships, and my daily life. Little did I know it was really only the beginning.
My time working at Bird proved to be pivotal in the creation of Safe; everything that encompassed that experience, for better or worse, proved to be necessary for me to ‘see the light’ for lack of a better term. At Bird, I actually had a lot of roles within the company. I was only the second Android engineer they had hired to that point. I was developing their mobile platform for both Android and iOS, and worked directly with the CTO on smaller, non-coding projects. I even became kind of the de facto spokesperson for their culture and diversity hiring team as well since there weren’t many people of color working at Bird at the time. Similar to NIMA, I was challenged with tasks that, at the time felt overwhelming, and out of my job description, but again proved to be critical lessons that shaped elements of my career in the future.
I worked directly with the founders of Bird and other executives, on special projects absorbing all the lessons they learned from their mistakes and successes;. I knew they were doing something right (eventually Bird grew to a $2.5 billion valuation from a $60M valuation after my first six months working there).
Bird has raised a total of $540M in funding across 4 rounds. Bird last raised $275M at a $2.5B valuation.
Growth happens over many nights
Living in Southern California proved to be the best geographic location for me and my career. Toward the end of my tenure, while at Bird, in my spare time… I would watch YouTube interviews and discussions focused on startups, founders and investors, just as a way to keep learning. There was one video in particular by an investor named Mark Suster that really inspired me, and I felt inclined to reach out and connect. What I’ve learned over the years when actively growing myself is that sending cold emails can be daunting, but you have to make yourself vulnerable if you want to grow. Growth was the reason I moved out here to begin with. Over the years, I’ve sent out hundreds of confident, well-crafted emails to founders and investors that have gotten little to no response, however Mark responded very quickly that night. Was it fate? Possibly. “The right time and right place” only comes into fruition if you put yourself in the right place to begin with.
“Siri, play God’s Plan by Drake”
Mark then invited me to meet at a space called Upfront Ventures, a VC firm which happened to also be located in Santa Monica. Mark is a managing partner with Upfront, and after our initial meeting, he then invited me to a number of events hosted by Upfront throughout the year around the Los Angeles area. It felt like it was the beginning of yet another beginning.
At the very least, Birds can teach you how to fly
Although I had an overall net positive experience working with Bird, I left the company in April of 2019 for three main reasons: Money, Culture, and Time. I felt bogged down by having to constantly renegotiate my salary, and seeing there were no company metrics in place to deem progress based on my work, I didn’t feel at the time they weren’t receptive to my ideas I had with them. The culture proved to be the biggest reason, unfortunately. I felt that the company culture was not intentional enough from the beginning. They had great ideas and a lot of talent, but I felt the repercussions of a company that wasn’t well rooted and grew too big too fast.
And so it was time. It was time for me to do my own thing after being an employee with them for over a year. And I really mean that in an inspired way, not in a cocky or self-righteous way. Although, in retrospect I probably was a little more arrogant at that time in my life than I’d like to admit, in a lot of ways it was always a dream of mine to be able to match even a fraction of the amount of success that they had as a small business — so they’ll always have my respect. Bird is heralded as one of the fastest growing unicorn companies to exist in the last 10 years, and we made history within that year and a half. I felt proud to tell people I worked there. I was fortunate enough to see first hand how they grew their company, and learned from their successes. I felt like I was now ready to take my own projects to the next level. It might’ve been difficult at times, but you could say that this Bird taught me how to fly.
After leaving Bird in early 2019, my path took me back to Detroit in the fall of that year despite the success I was having in my career. In short, I just needed to get my mind right. There were personal things I had to take care of, and many of my closest friends and colleagues were still living back in Michigan at the time. ALTHOUGH I SPENT WAY LONGER THAN I EXPECTED DUE O covID.
I had a lot of ideas and projects on the docket, but I decided I needed to center my energy toward fewer things and not spread myself so thin. That’s when I decided Safe was going to be the main project at hand.
A Safe Bet: take a small step back, and a bigger leap forward
Now back in Detroit, throughout 2019 and 2020 I remained in touch with my California connections. My relationship with Mark grew to a point where I felt confident enough to ask for a residency with Upfront, and after they accepted me, the residency began in December of 2020, and would last for 6 months, albeit virtually because of the pandemic.
During that time, my whole perspective of fundraising changed after members of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) invited me to a virtual fundraising class held by a group called Adamant Ventures, a VC firm that teaches founders how to fundraise. The class was insightful in a number of ways, but essentially it taught me how to understand investor psychology. Really fundamental things like, the advantage of scheduling many shorter meetings and follow ups as opposed to ‘big days’ and long meetings; or how to create the sense of FOMO when you’re trying to create buzz and gain momentum on a project. This class made me realize my approach was off and truly helped me better see the world from the perspective of an investor. If you can try to walk in someone’s shoes, it’ll help you better speak their language, even if it seems completely foreign at first.
As my residency ended, the pieces were coming together. I was able to apply those lessons I learned from the class almost immediately, and by the June of 2021, Upfront put an official investment into Safe. That’s when I knew I had to be back in California. Moving back to Detroit at that time didn’t feel like a regression. It felt necessary. Sometimes you take one step back in order to leap forward.
It’s now June of 2021 and I’m back in California. A pivotal moment happened a couple months later in August where I attended an event at The Los Angeles Launch House. It was there I met a guy named Evan J. Zimmerman of Jovono who really believed in our vision.
(Launch House is a membership community where you apply to live in their live-in accelerator house for no equity. It’s highly sought after in the startup community with only less than 10% acceptance rate).
I invited Evan to meet at one of Upfront’s offices for lunch, and in no time he connected me to folks from Mercury Raise; pillars in the startup world for seed funding and capital. It felt really great to have support that wasn’t just verbal well-wishes and empty encouragement. People were putting their words into action, and actions that created results. These were moments of affirmation — that things were really taking off for real. It was leaps and bounds from where I was with Bird two years ago, and with NIMA two years prior to that.
After connecting with folks from Mercury, I had a lot of investors and organizations reach out to me individually. One of which was Stonks, an organization that helps streamline the investment process for founders, investors, and syndicates alike by featuring its own Demo Day for founders to pitch to investors. Since Stonks reached out to me, I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first. I could now see why all my cold emailing those years would sometimes never get responses. But I knew Mercury was a great connection resource, and they provided me with a lot of interesting emails and phone calls from places I had never heard of.
My hesitancy was immediately gone the moment I spoke with Jeremy from Stonks. They were beyond legitimate. I saw familiar VC firms that they had hosted in the past, and recognized some of the names of founders and investors from other events of theirs as well. In short, they asked for a $100k allocation to be invested with Safe.
The downside was low because at the very worst, Stonks was going to invest, and Jeremy and his syndicates wanted to invest at least $50,000 as well. I’ve pitched before, however I needed my pitch to fit their 2 minute template, which was not the easiest thing to do but it was well worth the work. I seriously had doubts that I had the time and ability to pull it off since it was so last second. What had solidified my decision to do so came during my next move.
It’s now December of 2021, and I’m a resident at The Los Angeles Launch House. The co-working and co-living was a nice change (and view) from what I was used to. It put me in the space to focus on this pitch and take Safe to the next level.
I was slated to go first and the host asked if I was nervous.
To be honest? I told him I wasn’t. I was cool, calm, and collected.
This wasn’t my first pitch, but it was my first time having to do it in such a short amount of time with such a large audience. Since I felt so confident in OUR product, I felt very at ease. I learned a while ago that nervousness really only kicks in when you’re very unprepared and unsure of yourself. I had to learn Bluetooth hardware as a software engineer (emphasis on the ‘soft’ in software). I was managing projects with Apple devices as an Android Developer. Who’s gonna tell me I can’t do this? Excited anxiety is a completely different feeling. I’ve spent tHE LAST SIX MONTHS FULL-TIME ON Safe, I was excited to see the fruits of my labor pay off.
There were over 200 investors and syndicates watching live virtually. I really didn’t know what to expect. As I was pitching, there’s a graphic that’s indicating how much money is being committed as it’s happening. My initial max allocation was at $250k, but less than 1 minute in, it had already surpassed the allocation. I was aware that smaller allocation can drive the perception, and I’d much rather reach the goal and create higher demand than fall short and appear less interesting or not secure enough of an investment.
When I finished, I was surprised when John (the host) told me that we were oversubscribed and there was over $2.5 Million in investment interest.
See the future, but live your life
So those 2 minutes may have changed my life forever, but the success from that moment doesn’t feel like a lottery was won. It felt earned. It was abundance, tangible abundance — overflowing but not overwhelming. It was a sigh of relief, and a breath of self affirmation; this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. Seeing that I had never raised $1 Million in any amount of time before, I truly feel humbled and grateful. All the mantras and clichés about networking and growth and vulnerability were true in this story. Going forward I plan to increase my level of networking to others and hopefully inspire others along the way, and my advice to anyone reading this is:
Don’t write the story. Envision the success and the plan, but don’t write the story. There is so much on your journey that may seem trivial at the time, which actually can prove to be a fundamental part to your success down the road. Don’t be discouraged by these challenges. For founders, I’d say always be prepared and have your pitch down. Get it ready. Give it space to adapt and evolve. They say, “when you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” I’ve been ready to manage this type of capital for my own business, and now that I’m here and working on a project of my own I really believe in, I can get to my next stage more comfortably. As far as my journey is concerned, taking the big risks ended up being the Safe bet.
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