Last spring, Chris and Anita Nyenhuis made a business decision that took them 1,900 miles across the map. Their startup, Eyes on Freight, was ready to take off, so they decided to take off for a four-month stay at an accelerator in California’s Bay Area, where innovation rules the day.
They’d be moving from Columbia to San Francisco in July.
Eyes on Freight is a tech platform that matches people and companies globally with logistics and supply-chain providers that best fit their needs, preferences and budget. It’s a logistics and supply chain marketplace.
“It’s like Match.com,” says Chris.
Each user provides basic information, and Eyes on Freight does the work of finding where needs and budget match up. In an effort to make communication more transparent and direct, Eyes on Freight even allows users to communicate within the platform.
“If we do our job right,” Chris says, “we create a good match, and we can have a long-term relationship with both shippers and shipping companies.”
As those relationships continue to grow, so does Chris and Anita’s desire to grow the company. That desire met opportunity last spring.
At the time, the company had two full-time employees and a team of outsourced software developers. They were working out of the Missouri Innovation Center’s MU Life Science Business Incubator and actively pursuing funding from angel investors.
The Nyenhuises had moved the business from Kansas City to Columbia in November 2014. Eyes on Freight was in an important stage of growth at this point, and the couple felt the Kansas City entrepreneurial culture wasn’t conducive to moving the company forward.
“In KC, there are so many startups going up,” Chris says. “People would say, ‘Oh, you’re just like company X.’ And we’d have to say, ‘No, actually we’re not.’ ”
The two 30-somethings came up with the idea for Eyes on Freight in 2012, although they didn’t devote their full time to it until the move to Columbia. Chris, a native of Pretoria, South Africa, has more than eight years’ logistics experience in international sales and business development. Anita, from Kirksville, has a background in compensation analysis and business, and worked previously with the procurement/logistics division of a Fortune 500 engineering company.
It was AngelList, a website for startups and investors, that really shifted the rest of 2015 for the company. Through AngelList, Eyes on Freight applied to an accelerator in San Francisco called 500 Startups.
The seed fund and accelerator, which has locations in San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s Mountain View, was founded in 2010 by Dave McClure, the former marketing director at PayPal, and Christine Tsai, a former product manager at YouTube and Google.
Once Eyes on Freight applied, 500 Startups asked for an interview, and they Skyped the next day. A week later, 500 Startups officially accepted Eyes on Freight into the accelerator. 500 Startups would invest $125,000 in Eyes on Freight for a 5 percent share of the company, and would charge a $25,000 fee for participation in the program.
Chris and Anita started planning their move to San Francisco.
The two walked into 814 Mission St. on July 14 for their first day of the 500 Startups accelerator.
“They told us on the first day, ‘Think of it as a buffet line — you can get as much or as little as you want out of this,’ ” Chris says.
True to form, the accelerator made the entrepreneurs hit the ground running. At the end of their time at 500 Startups, everyone would be pitching their businesses to a room of venture capitalists during “Demo Day.” One of the first welcoming activities brought the group together to pitch their startups and start the editing process.
“500 Startups does a great job in constructively tearing your pitch apart and then people like Andrea Barrica help you restructure a much better two-minute pitch for Demo Day,” Anita says. “They start this process early and encourage you to pitch frequently, so by the time you get to Demo Day, you have lost your nerves and are so comfortable with your pitch you sound like you’re telling a story, not trying to remember facts about your company.”
From there, the weekly schedule was a mixture of presentations, workshops, advising sessions and interaction with the other startups in the program. Once a week, Chris and Anita spent their lunchtime learning from 500 Startups alumni, venture capital investors and other industry leaders (think Uber, Yelp, etc.). The program directors also hosted fireside chats each week, where any question was fair game.
To guide the companies through the accelerator, each startup connected with a main point of contact. For Eyes on Freight, it was Entrepreneur in Residence Ed Spiegel, founder of rental marketer RentMineOnline and a former executive with RealPage and DFJ ePlanet Ventures.
“He was a great resource,” Chris says, “and was always telling us to make sure you make decisions that are best for you and for your business. Don’t let outside factors or influences determine what’s best for you and/or your business.”
Since a major focus of 500 Startups is helping the companies develop their marketing and distribution channels, one of the highlights of the accelerator is Marketing Hell Week. A more formalized training that some of the other lessons, participants spend the week diving deep into the topics of social media, outreach, inside/outside sales and more.
“We found it very helpful in so many ways,” Anita says. “Some of the brightest and most successful entrepreneurs in the world shared their insight and secrets for success.”
As Demo Day grew closer, Chris and Anita leaned more and more on their coaches and colleagues in the program. Barrica — a 500 Startups venture partner and co-founder of inDinero — continued to help them hone their pitch, and Spiegel helped them draw a tighter focus on their audience for Eyes on Freight.
“Ed did a great job in helping us narrow down our focus and build a strategy in our growth model,” Chris says. “Instead of having a large net to attract all types of logistics and supply-chain companies, to rather focus on niche market opportunities such as oil, gas and heavy machinery, and then grow from there.”
So that’s exactly the kind of company Chris and Anita pitched on Oct. 30, 2015. And what they got out of the experience was one of the most important things for a startup — a path for growth.
“Being a Midwest company, we’d previously had limited access to VC firms,” Anita says. “At Demo Day we were exposed to numerous venture capitalists, started building our VC network and became more comfortable talking to and working with them.”
One of the hallmarks of 500 Startups, Chris says, is the network gained from working alongside such bright, talented entrepreneurs. Upon completing the accelerator, alumni become part of the “500 Family.”
Chris says the group is in constant communication with each other. If they need a contact, they reach out to the 500 Startups network. If they need advice on the next step for their business, they reach out to the network.
At 500 Startups, “you have companies from all over the world,” Chris says. “It’s like a fraternity network. You realize these people are going through the same headaches, pain and excitement as you are.”
Since completing the 500 Startups program, Eyes on Freight has grown and changed. The investment from 500 Startups has funded marketing, business development and technological growth.
The team now has four full-time members and one part-time member; the development team has been fully outsourced to Europe. Eyes on Freight now has offices in Columbia and San Francisco, and there’s thought about moving the home base to Europe.
“We have to have an international presence to grow,” Chris says.
FOR THE ENTREPRENEUR
Of course, Chris and Anita Nyenhuis learned tactical skills for running their business during their time at the accelerator, but 500 Startups also taught them more about what it means to be a startup today. If you’re looking for an accelerator for your company, Chris says you should be picky.
“You’re so trained as a startup to get to the next level, but it’s not always numbers, numbers, numbers,” he says. “Try to find an accelerator that fits your personality.”
Once you’ve chosen a program, start prepping. Though it may be tempting to sit back and act like a sponge while you’re learning all that new information, Chris says you have to be an active learner.
“Come up with a strategy that can best make use of all the great information and resources you will be exposed to,” he says. “Four months sounds like a lot of time but, in reality, it will fly by and you will be busier than you think and pulled in many directions during the program. Remind yourself that throughout the chaos and experience, you still have to be building a business.”
For more information about 500 Startups applications, visit www.500.co.