Cariana: Welcome to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. I’m Cariana Morales, an Associate at Valor Ventures, which is the number one seed stage venture firm in the region as we invest in more diverse founders than any other VC in the southeast. Today, we’re happy to welcome Sheffie Robinson, the entrepreneur behind a seed stage startup called WPClover. Sheffie, thank you so much for being on the show today. We would love to hear what you’re doing with WPCover.
Sheffie: Sure. I’ve been a software engineer now for about 20 years, WordPress specific for about 15. Over the years I’ve freelanced and back in 2015, I launched Touco Direct, which is a software engineering firm that specializes in open source development for enterprise solutions. Starting that business, initially, we started with small businesses, but as we kind of grew the business, we gravitated into an enterprise model but my passion was still “How do I solve web design for small businesses?” So I toyed with a couple of different iterations of WPClover. We had one that when we launched last January was called Wares by Touco, which we compiled complete websites into a product and would sell the entire website to a person based on what their needs were. That didn’t still didn’t solve the problem because the person would still have to worry about configuring what they were purchasing, so we iterated and iterated until we kind of came to what WPClover is now today.
It is a managed WordPress hosting solution that provides development. Not only are we designing and developing websites for clients, we’re also hosting in our cloud infrastructure that allows us to build in a way that we know is always going to be relevant to our customers needs. Our server platform, of course, is always going to be able to handle it and our customers don’t have to go multiple places to solve their problems.
They don’t have to go to GoDaddy to get hosting, they don’t have to go somewhere else to get their domain, and then they don’t have to go on like Fiverr or Upwork to find somebody to design it. We handle all of those aspects of the business for them, so that they have one stop shop to go for their website needs. We always have a team that’s backing them up to assist. That’s kind of where WPClover was born out of and why we do what we do because we know small businesses need websites, but a lot of them don’t know how to get what they need. They end up with static websites with Wix or Squarespace or something, but it turns out they actually need a little bit more, so we try to serve that purpose for them.
Cariana: Gotcha. I know that you guys are still in your more early stages, so where do you see the future of WPClover going?
Sheffie: Well, our cloud infrastructure is mostly built. We are actually in the process of building out the AI portion of our product where once a person goes through the registration process, we will build an AI version of their website that’s readily available within minutes of them signing up. That’s kind of where we’re going in the whole process of things. Right now, we still have a lot of management with the team as they actually touch websites and things like that, but we’re definitely going to a process where we can more expeditiously get web sites up and running for the customers so that we can deploy them to live sites faster. That’s kind of the goal, where we’re going. We’re still a full-service web host. We can potentially go that route, but I see us kind of sticking to where we are with WordPress.
Cariana: Gotcha. Understood. Sheffie was one of our finalists at Startup Runway, which happened last week, which is a great achievement. There were hundreds of applications, and you were chosen as one of the 10 finalists, which is amazing. I would love to hear about your experience with Startup Runway and kind of some of the biggest takeaways you took from that experience.
Sheffie: The probably greatest application that we had from the whole experience was the board meeting with other folks. Even though this isn’t my first startup and I’ve been in business for quite some time — this isn’t my first business either — it’s always humbling to get the feedback of other people. It’s not just because you don’t know something, it’s because that other perspectives are different when they’re not as intimate with what you’re working on. I always value that information from other folks, and the board meeting was pivotal for that.
One part of our future was us looking at becoming a full data center so that we can utilize the information we’re getting between our AI, as well as our customer base, to kind of see how we can use that in a big data fashion. Some of the feedback we got from other folks was like, “Okay, well, would you be reinventing the wheel?” I’m like, “You know what, that makes perfect sense.” It kind of got me to thinking about some other ways we can position ourselves with the data warehouse and that will come from our AI prospects and be more effective in what we’re doing as a business versus finding a new vertical. That alone, I think, was probably some of the most pivotal advice I got. I thank Startup Runway for having that board meeting because it was just amazing to hear other perspectives.
Cariana: Yeah, I absolutely agree, and I know a lot of the mentors that you spoke with have years and years of experience to offer so I think that that’s extremely valuable. It sounds like you had a little bit of a pivot change and direction change. Was there anything else from the board meeting that you took away that really helped you?
Sheffie: I wouldn’t say it’s a pivot change so much, it’s more of a focus. That part was something that’s five years away, but it got me to thinking more about what we’ll be doing in the next year, the next two years, the next three versus the next five. It just kind of refocused me on what we were doing because I know I have had the ability to exercise that data muscle before, and I’ll go after it, but then that also detracts from focus. That was definitely something that was helpful just to get that refocus.
Also, we talked a lot about just the user experience that comes from our website and some of the things where we may be losing people in our funnel. That additional information also got me to just thinking about, “Yeah, I had this approach when I initially did this particular design, but now that we’re at a different place, we need to have this other approach.” It was just more of fine tuning what we have because the pricing is good, the product is good, but the value proposition may not be as visible to folks that come to the website. Things like that were very helpful, too. Ever since that, the team and I got back to the drawing board to just make our user experience a lot more friendly so that people can know exactly what we’re doing since we’re doing something significantly different from your typical web host or your typical software design firm.
Cariana: I see, I see. Well, awesome. I also know that Startup Runway was a bit different this year. Usually every year we hold it in person, and given the current circumstances with COVID, that wasn’t possible. We did our first virtual Startup Runway, which meant that you and the other 10 finalists actually created a virtual pitch that the judges watched beforehand. How was that experience? I’m sure it was very different from any other sort of pitching you’ve done before in person.
Sheffie: Yeah, I actually liked it a little bit better, reason being that I didn’t have the pressure of eyes. As many talks as I give because I’ve mentored startups, I’ve given many of my own like sessions, I can do those with my eyes closed. When it comes to talking about my own product, I freeze up every time. It never fails. It’s actually easier to do it pre-recorded than to do it live, I think, for me and that’s just because I’m uncomfortable about talking about my own product. I don’t know why that is, but in a pitch setting, I am vastly uncomfortable. If I’m selling to a customer, I can talk all day face to face and it doesn’t matter. But in a pitch session, it’s just weird for me. I enjoyed it, to be honest. It was like, “Oh, I get to pre-record. Oh, this is easy.” I actually liked it fine.
Cariana: I understand that. I feel like you know your product better than anybody but there’s definitely moments where you can freeze up for sure. Do you have any advice for other founders that are pitching virtually now given the current COVID situation? Any advice for things that you did that you felt helped you in this scenario?
Sheffie: Yeah, so definitely having people check behind you to make sure you should say what you’re saying. I sent Jean-Luc my initial pitch and he said “You need this thing, you need this other thing, and this other thing.” It’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right. I do need those things.” If you have people you can lean on to kind of give you a bit more insight on what you should have in the pitch deck, definitely go after that.
Practice a couple of times just to get it down. I mean, I can pretty much go through my pitch deck without missing a beat in a virtual setting just because I’m that intimately involved with the product to the point where I don’t necessarily need the deck to help me. But at the same time, you want to make sure your flow is matching with a certain timeframe. For instance, if you’re given three minutes, if you’re given five given five minutes, and you want to create decks for each one but make sure you’re covering the bases that are expected from the deck. I think that’s one mistake a lot of founders make — they have one deck and that’s the only deck they use. They send that same deck to everybody. It’s like no, you have to have different decks for different types of people, different instances. I mean, I have 10 different versions of our deck. We have a three minute, a five minute, a ten minute. I have an exploratory one that doesn’t include the ask or financials, then I have one that is an investor deck. You want to make sure you are meeting the standards that are requested for the particular competition if there is one or the or the audience that you’re trying to reach in that regard.
Cariana: I think that’s a really great point and speaking to the audience you’re looking to. Yes, absolutely.
I wanted to circle back a little bit to the mentors. Through Startup Runway, you talked about the board meeting. For those people that didn’t attend Startup Runway, basically Sheffie was able to meet with some more experienced people and their experience would be relevant to her and ask them certain questions and present on a few ideas she has and get some feedback. Through that, you were given a bit of mentorship. Do you have any advice for founders looking for mentors? What kind of experience did these people have that you’re able to leverage? What personal qualities do you think were important and helped you in that setting?
Sheffie: In finding a mentor, you definitely want to find somebody who’s not going to tell you yes. The reason that’s huge is because if you have somebody’s always telling you yes, then they’re actually not helping you because that likely means they’re not thinking critically about the question you’re asking. That doesn’t mean the person means any harm, that could mean they don’t know enough about the subject to tell you no or that they are just not comfortable with telling you no. This is why you can’t use mentors like your family members because they’re like “Oh, that’s a great idea” when they should probably be saying, “Oh, no, maybe you need to go back to the drawing board and think about this.” In finding a mentor, you definitely want to find somebody who’s very critical in what they’re thinking.
Now, the antithesis of that is you don’t want somebody who’s always telling you no because, at that point, there could also still be a disconnect as well. That person just doesn’t understand the industry. I’ve had mentors like that as well, where they were more into B2C versus I’m B2B, and their entire perspective was from B2C so their information wasn’t as helpful for me as somebody who was in B2B or somebody who’s actually in development. In picking a mentor, you want to pick somebody who has some domain expertise. They don’t have to be the expert at that particular thing, but they may have the same type of customer you’re looking for.
They may have the same customer archetype. Things like that are pivotal in “How did you talk to this particular customer archetype?” How can they assist you with sales in that realm? If they do have domain experience, is their domain experience directly applicable to what you’re doing? Our product is part cloud infrastructure, so certain cloud infrastructure folks help us really well in building out what we’re doing. But at the same time, if they’re coming at it with a more developer approach, versus we’re coming at it with an end-user approach, some of their information may or may not be helpful. Founders have to look at that piece of it, too. What portion of this information is helpful to me and is that person going to tell me what I need to hear versus what I want to hear?
Cariana: I think that is extremely important. I absolutely agree with you. I would love to pivot the conversation a bit and ask what kind of customers you’re looking for going forward. I know that there might be a lot of people listening to this podcast that could find WPClover extremely helpful, so what does that perfect customer look like to you?
Sheffie: Our customers are typically small to medium businesses that have website needs and they’re now kind of fragmented in their process. That could be they have a Wix website, but they’re having to send their customer to Google Forms to get things done when a WordPress site would house all of that in one location. Or they could have a WordPress site already, need changes, need things fixed, and they’re kind of spinning their wheels to get it done. They eventually get it done but of course now that that has detracted the time away from them running their business. Definitely people who currently have WordPress websites that they need somebody to just manage it, take it over, become their IT team so to speak. Then folks who have static websites that actually need a little bit more functionality than your typical static website can offer.
Cariana: If anybody listening feels that that would be perfect for them, how can they best get in touch with you?
Sheffie: They can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course our website is wpclover.com. We’re on all social media as @getwpclover. Just reach out and I’ll be more than happy to assist. We do demos, we do office hours and everything. We can get you to a point where you understand what we’re doing to see if we’re a good fit for you. If not, either way, I’ll have a conversation and I’ll direct you where you can best be assisted.
Cariana: Awesome. Sounds good. Do you have any last words of advice for our listeners and other early stage founders?
Sheffie: Yes, yes, definitely. One thing that has been pivotal in this business is that I started Touco Direct as a lifestyle company, and I had really had no intent of taking it past that. When I saw that in servicing my customers, I was kind of rebuilding the same sites over and over again, it felt like I was doing my customer a disservice just because at the expense of what typical software development is.
You’re building the same thing over again, it felt like I was overcharging people. Then also I felt like “Well, I’m doing the same stuff over and over again. I should productize this” so that’s how WPClover was born.
Anytime you’re in a business where you feel like I can productize what I’m doing to be much more effective at what I do, do it. The right way becomes like running a second business and like a start-up and starting over, but at the same time, you will realize much more creativity and how you approach your own craft. You’ll likely find a vein of customers that you didn’t know were available to you. That has been pivotal for me and just kind of taking a step back and relearning things I’ve already learned so that they’re now fresh in my mind and I can reapply them to what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter how much of an expert, how long you’ve been a founder, how long you’ve been in entrepreneurship, software development, whatever — doesn’t matter how much expertise you have in the market, there’s always room to learn, and there’s always room to get better. That’s kind of where this came from. I wanted to be better at what we do as a company and I want it to be able to impact more people. As often as possible, find those pieces in your industry where you can be impactful and do more, and go for it.
Cariana: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Sheffie: Thank you.
Cariana: If any listeners are interested in applying for future Startup Runway competitions, more information can be found at startuprunway.co.
Lisa: The Atlanta Startup Podcast is produced by Valor Ventures as a service to the startup and investor community. We couldn’t do it without the support of our sponsors–Atlanta Tech Park, the global innovation center, and Write2Market, Atlanta’s favorite tech and healthcare marketing firm. If you’d like to get your information on the Atlanta Startup Podcast, our share a message with our listeners, visit us online and check out our affordable rate card. All advertisements here are tax-deductible donations to the Startup Runway Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is connecting underrepresented founders to their first investor.