“I’m all in. Can you quit your job too?”
Arry Yu couldn’t believe the challenge from Stuart Owen, a teammate she met only two weeks earlier at Startup Weekend Seattle.
“What!? Are you serious?” she asked.
The challenge was real. Owen was all in, having just scrapped his own startup endeavor.
Yu didn’t have to think very long about her job with Logic 20/20.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll quit my job. Here you go—technical cofounder. Bam!”
And as simple as B–A–M, GiftStarter was transformed from a cool idea into a serious startup.
Yu knew she was on to something after pitching her idea (she wasn’t planning on it), finding a team (the team found her), and winning a Startup Weekend in late March 2014 (the Sunday-night demo was a hit). She realized that the team and the momentum she had achieved were rare in any endeavor, including startups. She described the decision to go all in as “really a no- brainer.” When you hear this from an overachieving Cornell graduate and former management consultant with enterprise clients like Microsoft, Cisco, Google, and T-Mobile – you appreciate that the phrase “no-brainer” is not used lightly.
Growing up in upstate New York, Yu had every intention of pursuing a career at an investment bank on Wall Street. But early on she was exposed to entrepreneurship by watching her mother start several small businesses. Yu’s formative years also included stints as an artist, musician, furniture maker, and waitress. Her most recent “real jobs” were with Microsoft and management consulting firms while she dabbled in startup ideas on the side. Listening to her recount these experiences, I begin to see that her savvy mix of artistic sensibility, determination, and intelligence is better suited for a startup than for Wall Street.
We’re chatting over coffee in a conference room high above downtown Seattle at SURF Incubator and 9Mile Labs on a cloudy Seattle morning. Yu is previewing GiftStarter with me while describing the human and emotional touches that are missing from most digital gift giving.
“We are a very human-centric company. It has to be emotional,” she says, unveiling a beautifully personalized print piece that precedes every GiftStarter gift delivery. I see—and feel—what she means.
It wasn’t always so clear. What started out as a “Kickstarter for gifts” in March proceeded into the Startup Next program (a benefit of winning a Startup Weekend.) There it “pivoted several times a week—and came out as a slightly different company. But with more tough muscles— and with the realization of how quick we have to move and how to do customer validation. That DNA was drilled into us and remains with us today.”
“They were like, ‘Let’s see how you hustle!’”
While Startup Next provided great training, the application process for 9Mile Labs’ accelerator upped the level of rigor and effort. “Over July Fourth weekend—on Wednesday—they said, ‘You need to interview to six brands that are retailers and then 10 customers and report back on Tuesday’ We were like, ‘It’s Fourth of July weekend!’ They were like, ‘Let’s see how you hustle!’”
I got the impression that hustle and success haven’t been much of a problem for Yu and her growing team. They went on to be accepted into 9Mile where they just completed their November Demo Day.
GiftStarter is one of 10 startups in the recent accelerator program at 9Mile Labs.
Like most accelerator teams in coworking spaces, the GiftStarter team is huddled around a few small tables, with computer screens, whiteboards, and Post-it walls taking up almost every inch of real estate. However, it’s clear the clutter doesn’t take anyone away from focusing on the product, the experience, and the customer.
GiftStarter seems to have gotten it right without losing the spark of that Sunday night pitch back in March—or at least their partner roster would indicate as much. It takes Yu, Owen, and GiftStarter’s partner lead Roy Shin an average of 15 minutes to close after making initial presentations.
Rounding out the rest of her company profile I ask Yu which vertical they operate in. “We are a meta market maker,” she responds. I take this to mean that she intends to create a unique market of gifting across verticals. “I suppose you could call us a social commerce enabler,” she adds. Her response makes it clear to me that Yu is truly an entrepreneur. Nothing is ever boring to her, and no category is beyond being busted.
Check out GiftStarter’s new gifting experience here— www.GiftStarter.co—just in time for the holidays.
Arry Yu: CEO and co-founder
Stuart Owen: Tech lead and co-founder
Christie Gettler: Design lead and co-founder
Roy Shin: Partner lead
Chris Cashion: Product lead
Damon Gjording: VP of Marketing
John Peck: Engineering
BY THE NUMBERS:
- Startup Weekend: March 21–24, 2014
- Startup Next: April, 2014
- Idea to MVE (minimum viable experience): 100 days
- 9Mile Labs: August 1–November 20, 2014
Jobs created: 7
Products shipped: 100 gifts (with virtually no marketing beyond friends and family)
Average gift size $350
Customer statistic: 20% of people who pitch in for a GiftStarter gift become GiftStarters for the next group gift
Brand partners signed up: 9, including:
Funding secured: 35k pre-seed money from 9Mile Labs
Fund-raising in progress as of this writing.
Industry: Social commerce enabler, aka meta market maker
Platform: Python and Google app. engine. (back end); Stripe payment processor (which makes Yu’s developers very happy).
The Notable Startup series highlights entrepreneurs who’ve started-up with help from an UP Global program.