CEO of FiscalNote On The Challenges Of Starting The Company As A College Student

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Answers by Tim Hwang, Founder & CEO, FiscalNote, on Quora.

A: Prior to starting FiscalNote I had worked heavily in government. My first "job" back in high school was working for the Obama 2008 campaign and I had the opportunity run for public office on the Board of Education after that. You get a really strong appreciation for the inefficiencies in government very quickly and how much time people spend trying to understand what's going on and influence outcomes. (These are some of the largest institutions in our society and the sheer amount of inefficiency is mind-boggling!)

At Princeton I'd studied this intersection between computer science and public policy (ICT development in Jordan, compliance of data privacy standards, etc) and I wanted to find a way to merge two of these interests together.

FiscalNote came to me as a solution for a problem that I had seen when I was in government and working in policy. Looking around, there was an industry that was largely passing information to each other asynchronously from human to human (either by hiring an expensive attorney/lobbyist/trade association or waiting for a journalist to process the information). To me this was a simple solve: create a real-time information platform that aggregated and analyzed government information (legislation, regulations, and court cases) and allowed people to access this information.


A: I started FiscalNote the summer before my senior year at Princeton. The challenges of starting a high growth company as a college student are not terribly different from that of any first-time entrepreneur. You mostly don't know what you are doing, but you have a lot of conviction around the problem set you are trying to solve.

The first consideration is perhaps the academic dimension. At the time, I'd pretty much finished all of the academic requirements for graduation (barring a thesis, which I had mostly done the work for) -- so I was honestly pretty much checked out by then. However, when we started getting traction that summer, we knew we pretty much wouldn't be going back to school (logistically) and both myself and one of my cofounders pretty much finished out our academic careers without attending classes our senior year (our third cofounder dropped out). You miss a lot your senior year (friends, relationships, experiences) and to this day sometimes I regret that.

In May of 2013, we bootstrapped a couple thousand dollars and high-tailed it over to Silicon Valley from the East Coast and parked ourselves in a Motel 6 in Sunnyvale (there was no way we could afford rent in South Bay as three 21 year-olds but we knew we had to be in the Valley to have the terminal velocity to succeed). It was myself, my two cofounders, and another engineer (we had all been friends in high school) sharing two beds. The financial challenges were offset by the simple fact that those early days really helped us develop the strong relationships and culture we needed to scale the company later.

Luckily, on the investor front, there are enough people in the Valley that are willing to take a chance on a group of young, hungry founders with a compelling ideas. To us, they happened to be Mark Cuban, Jerry Yang, NEA, and First Round's Dorm Room Fund. That being said, getting in the door was challenging as it took us all our effort to move from introduction to introduction and get our foot in the door.

Experience is severely overvalued in general and we generally found that our early hires helped us balance out the skill-sets we needed both on the technical and business operations side of things. Once we passed 15-20 employees, our team was fairly balanced in terms of our experience, but it took a lot of self-reflection and effort. Today, as we pass 100 employees, I think it's also been a tremendous asset in terms of being able to recruit a group of hungry, like-minded folks who are interested in learning quickly as we went through a similar experience.


A: Two lessons that are interrelated. 1) Never give up. It's such a cliche, but if you truly have conviction in your idea and you see the traction in the marketplace, you'll get there. 2) Build a strong culture within the organization from the very beginning. That's the only thing that matters, especially in difficult times.

As an example: when we were raising our Series A, we lined up several investors and ran a clean process. There was strong interest as we went into the process and ended up choosing between multiple term sheets.

However, as we began the process of due diligence with the fund we picked, we realized our visions of the future did not fit. We looked for three things while raising capital: 1. A strong operational background 2. An interest in our space and 3. A long term capital partner that would stick with us through thick and thin. We had chosen wrong.

As hard as it was, with only six weeks of payroll left in the bank, we parted ways from the financial marriage. That afternoon, I gathered the entire company in the kitchen and stated that despite the deal falling through, we were still confident that we would close out a round. I, for one, would not give up and insisted that we could power through this hardship together as a family-that when we got out on the other side, we would be stronger and more determined than ever.

Astonishingly, each member of the FiscalNote team volunteered to either cut or forgo their salary until the round was closed. Focused on our goal, everyone worked harder than we ever had-many staying late into the night, contributing to document preparation, and acquiring customers. When it seemed like the entire world was against us, our team stood shoulder to shoulder and took it on. It took two more months, but we closed the $7 million Series A for which we had hoped. The sacrifice and trust shown by the team had gotten us here, and for that I will always be grateful.

A short two months later, we closed our Series B -- adding an additional $10 million.

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