Raleigh-based tech startup Rownd has joined the likes of Airbnb, DoorDash and Instacart now that it’s entered the YCombinator accelerator’s winter cohort.
Being a part of the highly selective Silicon Valley accelerator—which runs from January to March and invests $500,000 per startup—was a long-held vision for Rownd’s CEO and Founder Robert Thelen.
In 2010, when he was serving in Afghanistan—just a day after a terrorist attack left two of their own dead—a chaplain and mental health expert asked his unit to write down their life goals.
Thelen wrote: Start a family. Build a startup. Go to YCombinator.
And with Rownd’s acceptance to YCombinator, Thelen has now checked off all three.
“I really wanted this opportunity to be around these other companies that are also trying to break how the world works and do something amazing and solve pain points for customers and really build stuff that people want,” Thelen said.
Rownd was initially denied for the spring 2021 batch but tried again and found success. And because of the accelerator, Rownd has made an integral pivot for the company.
While Rownd previously focused on enabling customers to own and control their own data, they’ve now transitioned into streamlining the registration and user authentication processes for companies, Thelen said.
Through YCombinator, Thelen said the Rownd team realized they were working to build a future they wanted, where you have complete control of your data. But their actual clients were not staying up at night thinking about that particular pain point.
Building for the customer, not yourselves
Other things were more pressing, like the gap between marketing pages and actual product usage. Rownd’s clients told them they had hundreds or thousands of users on a wait list or newsletter, but only a small percentage ever actually became real users—in part because users found the registration process too onerous.
This was something Rownd had been working on in the backend and could address to solve a key concern held by their customers. Thelen said Rownd still has a strong core value of privacy, but creating something more companies will actually pay to use is vital.
“We can build the best product in the world but if no one uses it, who cares?” Thelen said. “That’s what YC gave us the opportunity to do is to really go deep and focus and not have that fear that we had to hold onto this past. We just move forward.”
So many landing pages force potential customers to enter a slew of information and choose passwords before ever getting in front of the product. With Rownd’s new solution, the login/registration process will be seamless. By creating a “magic link” to put in clients’ newsletters, their clients’ customers will be immediately sent to the experience of the product and then provide more registration information over time.
“There’s no friction whatsoever,” Thelen said. “They go directly to where you want them to see the best absolute experience that your product has to offer. That is what we’re trying to make simple and fast.”
Rownd’s business model will continue to be SaaS and subscription-based, charging additionally based on the number of integrations clients require.
Pivot(s) with purpose
Before Rownd’s formation as a data privacy company, the same entrepreneurial team had created a “smart driving” startup to track your vehicle. But since most people view themselves as good drivers and won’t listen to anything saying otherwise, the team then went into the data privacy space. [Editor’s Note: We covered Rownd’s first iteration in December, 2018; then wrote about its move to data privacy in November, 2020.]
Rownd’s latest pivot into authentication streamlining marks the next chapter for the team, but it is this ability to transform that Thelen believes makes the company so powerful.
“Our superpower is the ability to take data in and then change on a dime,” Thelen said. “That is what makes us special, and that’s what makes us ferocious and formidable.”
The key now is to keep talking to customers and understand their pain points, Thelen said. He goes by the advice he once received from a partner: It’s better to have a few customers that love you than tons that like you. From those few customers that adore you, you can find out far more and then discover others who fit the same niche.
“It’s better to fully understand what the pain point is, what our solution is and what our customers need, and to truly delight our customers to make them so they can’t imagine a world without us,” Thelen said.
Still in the initial stages of the pivot, Thelen said they will know they’ve found product-market fit when they are overwhelmed by the number of people waiting in line to pay for their product. It’s early, but Thelen feels confident that the new platform Rownd is building could lead to that.
“This is the direction that we’re going,” Thelen said, “and we’re going to run as fast as we can in this direction, find out as much as we can in this direction, until we get other facts.”