Toronto startup helps the busy decorate with “room in a box”
For folks who are not familiar with it, the Everest program is a series of advanced advisory sessions to help startups reduce the risk of failure and save both time and money. We focus on filling the gaps in a startup’s business plan via intensive customer discovery, business model testing and validation, beachhead segmentation, rapid product iteration, brand development, team building and innovation accounting (that is, identifying metrics that matter).
We call the program Everest because being in a startup is comparable to climbing a mountain: you need to know how to best use your limited resources in order to succeed. After the initial enthusiasm for their new ventures, reality sets in and experimenting and pivoting begin as startup founders search for the perfect product-market fit.
From time-to-time, we’ll be interviewing a few of the Everest program’s exceptional founders who are struggling through the trough of sorrow, striving valiantly and daring greatly to make their startups work. It’s a real honour to present Toronto-based startup Four Walls in this month’s Everest showcase.
Everest Showcase: Four Walls
- Startup name: Four Walls
- Co-founders: Mike Van, CEO, and Karen Lau, CTO
- Year founded: 2015
- Sector: E-commerce
- Team size: 3 (hacker, hustler and designer) + 3 interns
Elevator pitch: Four Walls is an end-to-end solution for furnishing rooms in urban spaces. Customers can select one of the company’s trendy pre-designed room options and Four Walls manages the rest, including delivery, setup and cleanup.
Q&A session with Mike Van, CEO of Four Walls
Nathan: Why did you start Four Walls and what was most difficult about the process?
Mike: We were moving out of my parents’ place and downtown Toronto. We didn’t have a lot of time to go looking for furniture and couldn’t bear to do the Ikea thing: long lineups and the aggravation of the setup. I needed stuff fast. I also suck at design, so I needed to have something stylish that wouldn’t make a dog run away and cry. As they say, time is money.
Getting initial traction has been very difficult. Figuring out how to engage the market to define our beachhead was hard, from starting with a minimum viable product (MVP) and reaching out via Kijiji and Craigslist on the business-to-consumer (B2C) side to eventually discovering that large condo developers were our beachhead market. It’s still early and we have a lot to learn, but we are much clearer now on our beachhead and are growing fast in the business-to-business (B2B) space without a lot of competition.
We’re going after B2B rather then B2C due to time and resource constraints, but also because the pain seems to be the greatest on the B2B side. Besides the challenge of the pivot, we also made the mistake of spending too much time trying to raise capital while developing a product, which is very challenging. If we had spent more time building the MVP and focusing on traction, things may be different today. Having focus early on in your startup’s life is critical.
Nathan: How important has the lean methodology been to your startup?
Mike: Talking to customers was super important. It was the one thing that helped us shape the direction of the company. It helped us to build something that people actually want. The scariest question to answer as a founder is: “Am I building something that people want?” Customer discovery helps you fail fast and figure out who will be the diehard fans of the product.
As for the lean methodology, I don’t consciously think about lean—it’s just part of how I’m wired. Meaning that building, testing and measuring are built into me. It’s something that makes building the company more efficient. We’re not struggling with large waterfall-type projects that waste time and capital.
Nathan: How do you hold your team accountable to building?
Mike: Everyone has his or her strengths and weaknesses. We focus on the team members’ strengths and we have them commit to tasks and hold them accountable to their word. We have weekly meetings, which act as accountability meetings. We use project management software like Trello to help us stay organized, answer questions and keep the startup aligned to our rapid iteration.
Nathan: How are you funding Four Walls?
Mike: Through self-funding, personal investment and whatever we gain from sales. The process of finding capital has been difficult. If we had more funds we could grow the team and scale faster, investing in marketing, design and development. As much as we can move fast and break things, it’s very difficult to do without capital. This is where we need to focus in the startup community and in feedback to MaRS: we need more access to capital events.
Nathan: What has been your experience at MaRS?
Mike: MaRS has helped us connect with key advisors who have helped us a lot. I don’t know whether it’s because you guys like us a lot or are just very helpful. The Everest program got us directly connected to the Techstars Startup Next program, which was hugely important. We were able to build our connections there, which got us interviewing in front of the world’s top accelerators.
Nathan: Where do you see Four Walls in two years?
Mike: I see Four Walls in the big cities: Toronto, Montreal, New York City and San Francisco. I see the team a lot bigger and I hope to have a second round of financing landed. The idea is to bring Four Walls to the world and expand into the key urban markets as quickly as possible. We’ve been fortunate enough to build a network of connections in each of these cities to focus on rapid growth.
Nathan: What three words define your company and its people?
Mike: Camaraderie. Humble. Fun.