The Fast & The Curious: Kushal Byatnal and Joe Albanese, co-founders of Stir

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“What’s most impressive to us is how On Deck has grown without diluting the brand at all. They’ve kept the bar extremely high, and people love the program (including us). They’ve also fully democratized the network, which is extremely important for tech access.”

Building a company comes with a litany of challenges, the scariest of which can be choosing the right co-founder. For On Deck alumni Joe Albanese and Kushal Byatnal, finding the perfect partner couldn’t have been more important. After countless coffees, interviews, and failed “first founder dates,” a chance encounter over Slack led to the perfect team-up, and their startup Stir was born.

One year later, they couldn’t be happier with their decision to work together. With big-name investors like YouTube superstar Casey Neistat and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, Stir is rapidly making a name for itself as one of the hottest new startups in the digital media arena.

We sat down with Joe and Kushal to discuss their experience at On Deck, the pros and cons of accelerators, and their best tips and tricks for building the perfect co-founder relationship.

Are you attending an accelerator? Prepare for Demo Day by learning everything you need to know about fundraising with SAFEs, browsing our Series A pitch deck, or forecasting your fundraise with our free SAFE and convertible note calculator.

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First off, guys, thanks for being here.

Kushal: Thanks for having us!

Joe: Yeah man, thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

Before we dive in, can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds?

Joe: Sure, yeah. We founded Stir together in early 2020 — prior to that, I had a background as a product designer for various different startups, and I also spent quite a bit of time at Facebook.

Kushal: My background is in engineering on the fintech side. I was at Google for about a year working on ads, and after that I decided I wanted to work on a smaller team. I ended up joining a startup called Brex, which was about 25, 30-ish folks at the time. At Brex I worked on everything from the credit card to the checking account product, and all sorts of things in between.

“The word creator, to us, means everyone from YouTubers to podcasters, course instructors, fitness instructors, and so on. They’re all creators in our eyes.”

For those who don’t know, what do you do at Stir?

Joe: Stir’s mission is to empower creators to run great businesses.

Our thesis is that these connected platforms that we spend all of our time on have basically enabled any person to create a business. When people start to become businesses – especially this unique type of business that couldn’t exist before – they have all kinds of different needs. The way they transact is different. The way they make money is different. The way they operate is completely different.

“We actually didn’t need to work together for a long time at all to know if it was a good fit. We just had to answer some very specific questions.”

We felt there was a strong opportunity to service these folks with tools that help them run their businesses. The way we do that is through management, payments, analytical and operational tools to help them get the job done.

Anyone that builds or maintains an audience online – whether through content or community – is someone we want to service. The phrase we use internally is “people business.” Sure, they sell content, but they also have this knack for bringing people together.

Kushal: The word creator, to us, means everyone from YouTubers to podcasters, course instructors, fitness instructors, and so on. They’re all creators in our eyes.

“I’d heard about On Deck, and I liked that they attract people who are at that stage in their life; there aren’t any questions around motivation, there aren’t any questions about timeline. The only thing you have to solve for is the fit — making sure that this is someone you want to spend sixteen hours a day with for the next ten years.”

Why did you choose to go the fellowship/accelerator route?

Joe: There are so many people in tech. But everyone’s at a different life stage, and wants different things out of their career. Being able to join a community that filters for other people with entrepreneurial aspirations is what really attracted me to it.

Kushal: It can be hard to filter for people who want the same things you want.

Joe: Starting a company is kind of a crazy thing to do. The accelerator environment gives you a space to find that perfect partner — that other crazy person who thinks the same way you do. It does a really really good job of doing that.

“Here’s what matters: Do you want to start a company for the same reasons? If you want to start a company to get rich, that’s fine…but you’d better make sure your co-founder wants to do that, too, because value alignment is the first thing to get stress-tested when things get hard.”

Why did you choose On Deck, specifically?

Kushal: For me, I’d heard about On Deck because both my roommates had gone through the second fellowship. At the time, I knew I wanted a co-founder. I knew that if I were to ever start a company, I didn’t want to do it alone.

I spent a couple months going through my own network, but there were just so many things that didn’t line up — whether in terms of skill sets, or timelines, or everyone just being at different places in their lives. I wasn’t able to find anyone in my network that would be right for taking this crazy jump with me.

I’d heard about On Deck, and I liked that they attract people who are at that stage in their life; there aren’t any questions around motivation, there aren’t any questions about timeline. The only thing you have to solve for is the fit — making sure that this is someone you want to spend sixteen hours a day with for the next ten years.

“The accelerator environment gives you a space to find that perfect partner — that other crazy person who thinks the same way you do.”

Joe: I really look up to the team that runs On Deck. I mean, look at how well they’ve handled their growth over the last year. What are they at, 70 employees now? That’s insane! Their team is really inspiring to me — for example, they took COVID, which could have hurt their business, and did such a great job of building a brand, and iterating, and testing. They’ve completely redefined what a fellowship could be.

What’s most impressive to us is how On Deck has grown without diluting the brand at all. They’ve kept the bar extremely high, and people love the program (including us). They’ve also fully democratized the network, which is extremely important for tech access. It’s incredible.

“I really look up to the team that runs On Deck.

They took COVID, which could have hurt their business, and did such a great job of building a brand, and iterating, and testing. They’ve completely redefined what a fellowship could be.”

How did you come together to start Stir? Had you met before joining the On Deck Fellowship?

Kushal: No, we’d never met before. The program is really conducive to meeting like-minded people, so I actually spent the first month-and-a-half of the program just trying to talk to as many people as I could. I probably had 50 to 75 conversations — but while I definitely found people who I respect as friends, for some reason I had trouble finding that “perfect match” to start a company with.

Then randomly, on a Sunday night, I get a cold DM from Joe. He says, “Hey, I’ve been sent your profile by three different On Deck people in the last 24 hours. Want to chat?” Basically, it was three people that we had both mutually talked to, who it didn’t work out with. Those people came to the realization that hey, maybe we should introduce these two guys.

Joe: (Laughs) It’s funny. The people who introduced us were people that it didn’t work out with. I guess we have a good referral system built in.

“I probably had 50 to 75 conversations. But while I definitely found people who I respect as friends, for some reason I had trouble finding that “perfect match” to start a company with.”

How long did you work together before you knew it would be a fit?

Joe: We actually didn’t need to work together for a long time at all to know if it was a good fit. We just had to answer some very specific questions.

If you’re choosing a co-founder, the big question you have to answer is: Do you want to start a company for the same reasons? Not the “right” reasons, or anything like that, but the same reasons. That matters. If you want to start a company to get rich, that’s fine…but you’d better make sure your co-founder wants to do that, too, because value alignment is the first thing to get stress-tested when things get hard.

Another important question to answer is: Does the partnership hinge on this particular idea? If not, it won’t work, because the idea is going to change a million times. If this one particular version of the idea is what makes the relationship solid, then good luck trying to make it work, because the partnership should be able to outlast any idea.

I think we were able to answer those questions pretty early on. We talked everyday. We were diligent about learning each other’s qualities. We made sure we understood what it would be like to work together.

“Does the partnership hinge on this particular idea? If not, it won’t work, because the idea is going to change a million times. If this one particular version of the idea is what makes the relationship solid, then good luck trying to make it work, because the partnership should be able to outlast any idea.”

You’ve built a successful co-founder partnership, which is hard (to put it gently). What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are struggling to find the perfect co-founder?

Joe: Okay, you have to do this one thing — you just can’t work with somebody if you don’t do this first.

Kushal: (Laughs) Are you talking about…?

Joe: Yes! There’s this article on First Round, a co-founder “dating playbook” that was written by Gloria Lin. It’s a questionnaire, basically 50 questions that tell you if you and another person would be good co-founders together. Kushal and I literally sat and went through each question, back and forth, and it was huge for us.

That would be my biggest piece of advice. If you’re starting a venture-backed tech company, you have do this exercise and answer these 50 questions. It goes back to the value alignment that I mentioned a second ago — it’s okay for you to be honest about your reason for starting a company. There can be a million reasons. But these questions help you make sure you both have the same motive.

Kushal: I have three pieces of advice, actually. First – and On Deck was obviously really helpful with this – I think you have to work in-person with someone before you can really know if it’s a fit. At least for me, that was pretty important. One Deck allowed us to to connect and dig in fast together, and just working with each other closely it didn’t take long for us to realize, oh yeah, this works.

The second thing…to be honest, once I became a founder, I now think it’s crazy that I didn’t look for this in the early days. But it’s important to look for someone with complimentary skill sets to you. Really ask yourself: What gives you energy? What are you good at? What excites you? The thing I’m most grateful for is the fact that Joe and I are good at different things, and that we enjoy working on different parts of the company. The company benefits from that diversity of skills.

Third is a mistake that I personally regret. The standard advice is, “Don’t quit your job until you have a plan, and know what you’re working on.” For me, following that advice too much was a mistake. If I could go back, I would have made finding a co-founder and building Stir my full-time job much sooner. Otherwise I might have never done it.

“It’s important to look for someone with complimentary skill sets to you. Really ask yourself: What gives you energy? What are you good at? What excites you?”

Anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?

Joe: Can we get some Carta swag?

Kushal: (Laughs)

It’s already in the mail, guys. Thanks so much for your time.

Kushal: Thanks for the opportunity!

Joe: Yeah, it’s been awesome.

At Carta, we help startups with fundraising, compensation, valuations, equity management and much more. Talk to us to find out how we can help you grow.

DISCLOSURE: This communication is on behalf of eShares Inc., d/b/a Carta Inc. (“Carta”).  This communication is for informational purposes only, and contains general information only.  Carta is not, by means of this communication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services.  This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business or interests.  Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business or interests, you should consult a qualified professional advisor.  This communication is not intended as a recommendation, offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. Carta does not assume any liability for reliance on the information provided herein. ©2021 eShares, Inc. d/b/a Carta, Inc. (“Carta”). All rights reserved. Reproduction prohibited.

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