When most people think of Los Angeles they think of movie stars and film sets. Not surprisingly, others may reference the beach, palm trees, and Rodeo Drive. Yet, what may surprise some, is that Los Angeles is rapidly becoming a hub for some of the country's most innovative and creative technology startups.
"Silicon Beach" as its been dubbed, is not only attracting some of the world's largest technology companies such as Google and Twitter, but also sprouting a whole new crop of exciting startups. One of these companies is Textpert, a mobile application that seeks to harness the power of the crowd to make sure you never have an awkward text message conversation again.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Textpert Co-Founder Ray Christian to discuss, among other things, his business, how to successfully build an app, and his views on launching a startup in sunny Los Angeles.
CG: What's your background and what led you to become an entrepreneur?
RC: I'm an East Coast guy originally and graduated with an accounting degree from James Madison University. After years working as a CPA at a Big-4 accounting firm I transitioned to business development. In conjunction with that career pivot I launched my first startup which helped people prepare for job interviews. The company never quite took off so I licked my wounds and moved from DC to Los Angeles to be closer to my younger sisters. I spent years in business development, saving up and planning to chase my entrepreneurial dreams. Last year the timing was right so I dove back into the startup game.
My father was an entrepreneur as well so I suppose it's in my blood. There's something exhilarating about chasing your dream. I've always wanted to create a company that helped people and with Textpert we believe we have done just that.
CG: Your company Textpert helps people come up with the perfect reply to text messages by providing crowdsourced advice. How did you come up with the idea?
RC: Almost one year ago exactly I was dating a reporter in LA. We had two dates but I couldn't get a third set up. I'd text and get a response back 4 hours later, then another text and another response 5 hours later. Maybe she was out of my league, maybe I was off my game...either way this was going nowhere fast. A week later I'm out with my sister, Kerry. She's beautiful, smart and very savvy with this kind of stuff so I pass her the phone and tell her to text the reporter, carte blanche. After only three texts back-and-forth the reporter responds "I want to see you tonight".
After this exchange, I knew immediately that this was a real consumer pain-point, it was scaleable, and best of all it was a way to help each other.
CG: Can you walk me through how the app works. Let's say I need advice responding to a text....
RC: Ok you get a text message (or a Tinder message or a Hinge message) from a guy or girl that you like and you aren't sure what to write back:
With three quick steps you'll get advice: A) Take a screen shot of the conversation; B) Upload the screenshot on Textpert; and C) Type in some context for the textperts such as how you met your crush or how many times you've already hung out. That's it...then just wait. Within seconds you'll get suggestions on what to write back from friends, peers, and experts.
On the other side, if you think you have solid text game you can prove it. Users can switch over to textpert mode and then they can be the ones GIVING advice, instead of receiving advice. The fun part is that everybody gets rated when they send advice so you'll be able to see if you really are a good texter.
CG: This is fascinating. What has been the response and in what kind of situations are people most likely to seek advice from Textpert?
RC: The response from users and the community has been overwhelming. I think we really touched a nerve because for better or worse (definitely worse) texting has become the standard for dating communication. Although it has its benefits, texting lends itself to miscommunication and misunderstanding. It's difficult to convey 1) tone, 2) context, or 3) body language over a text message and it's through those three forms of communication that we primarily interact. Textpert makes texting easier by giving you objective advice. Our simple mission is to help people get the next date, and ultimately find love...and I think that really resonates with people.
People are using the app for advice about texting with someone they met at a party, a bar, a dating app, even church...it runs the gamut. We see people seeking help for initiating the conversation and even for advice when texting after a 3rd or 4th date. We've also seen people asking for help on how to gently break it off with someone they weren't interested in. The most interesting request we've seen was one woman asked for help in dealing with the father of their child because he was late on child support.
CG: I know from personal experience that the process of developing an app, from conception of the idea to having a finished, fully functional version can be a long, bumpy road. Do you have any advice on how to manage this process successfully?
RC: Haha yes you are absolutely correct. Here's some advice that helped me:
1. Find the right team. I scoured the land until I finally found my two exceptional co-founders. The credit for all the accomplishments and wins goes to my team members. They inspire me everyday and like all good co-founders they make a company feel like a family. I made sure both of my co-founders had skills that would complement, instead of overlap, my skills. As a result we have a fantastic marketing co-founder and an excellent technical co-founder.
2. Ask for help. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't ask my mentors, family, or friends for advice or counsel. Cultivate a network of people that are willing to help, ask for their advice early and often, and remember to remind them how helpful they are to you. People like helping others.
3. Make the leap. Fortune favors the bold - it will be damn-near impossible to accomplish great things with a startup if you're afraid to leave your day job. Make responsible decisions but ultimately you have to bet on yourself to make it big. The average millionaire has been bankrupt three times in his or her life so remember that "rock bottom" may not be as scary as you thought.
CG: What's the biggest challenge?
RC: The biggest challenge is iterating fast. The pace at which apps are being developed and updated is staggering. In order to stay relevant we need to analyze the customer usage data, obtain feedback from customers, and A/B test new features by updating the app software almost every week. It's a lot of work to figure out what needs to be done and to then code that feedback into a new upgraded version of your app extremely fast.
CG: Tell me about your team. How did you meet and how do you split/delegate duties?
RC: Kate Edwards is our Chief Marketing Officer and co-founder. Her most recent job was as a professional matchmaker where she interviewed over 900 singles so she is a true expert in the singles scene. She also happens to be an MBA from UCLA who previously worked at Facebook and JWT.
Nick Goehner is our Chief Technology Officer and co-founder. He is a technical whiz that has created successful native apps and websites in a number of computer languages. In addition to being a prodigy on the coding side he's also an expert rock-climber and black belt in Kung Fu.
We also just hired our first college representative and we're getting ready to launch our university campaign.
CG: You are based in Los Angeles. What is your impression of LA's tech and startup scene?
RC: It's phenomenal and the "Silicon Beach" hype is justified. We're currently ranked as the 3rd best city in the world to launch a startup (tech.co) and when you're here you can see why. There's a reason companies like Google, Snapchat, Tinder, and Yahoo have offices here. Some of the savviest tech leaders and entrepreneurs in the world are building companies here. Investors have also taken notice with fundraising in LA reaching new heights every year. It certainly doesn't hurt that it's 70 and sunny everyday either.
CG: Any parting words?
RC: It's a dream come true to be able to build something that we're passionate about. If you're thinking about launching a startup then dive in and be prepared to work your butt off. Research your market and your product relentlessly and be sure to listen to the Y Combinator podcast series.
If you have funds saved up then go full time. If not, then keep your day job and work nights and weekends on your startup until you can quit: set a schedule and treat it like you would treat graduate school classes.