Even in a startup’s early stages, founders need both a roadmap and destination, said Zerryn Gines.
“You don’t need to know exactly what you’re doing every step of the way, but if you know where you want to go — then you can connect to the right people and ask the right questions,” explained Gines, who founded Peep Connect in 2019 with fellow Northwest Missouri State University graduate Valentine Osakwe.
What is Peep Connect?
Peep Connect is a social marketing platform that helps community members learn about and connect with their local businesses. Click here to learn more.
The first-time founders knew exactly where they wanted to go: Techstars.
Attracted by the access to resources and mentors that Techstars provides, the duo applied to the accelerator program five times before being accepted into the Techstars Chicago 2021 cohort on their sixth attempt, they recalled.
“We applied to Iowa, Chicago, Boulder, Austin, Kansas City and then Chicago again — so, we really wanted to get in,” Gines said. “… We want to build a company, and that’s what Techstars helps founders do. They have provided me and Val with every single thing that we need to build a company.”
Through the Techstars Chicago accelerator, which launched July 19, the duo is working on forming key partnerships and building an advisory board, they shared.
“Most importantly, the family that is Techstars — it has a far-reaching capacity,” Osakwe said. “For example, I just emailed someone on the Techstars [business development] team, asking if she would be able to connect me with this mentor, who also was outside of their network. It was a shot in the dark; but five minutes later, there was an introduction made. That is the power of Techstars.”
Kansas City’s Techstars program held its in-person demo day today at The Truman, featuring five Kansas City companies.
Along with connections, Techstars has challenged the Peep Connect founders to think creatively in building their platform, they added.
“In our first meeting with their [business development] team, we went over what we were currently working on, and they had a lot of great input on what we could be doing,” Gines said. “Our stage is all about experimenting and trying different things, so it’s helpful to have a team of experts guiding us on how to be successful.”
Launching the beta version
Building on their momentum from Techstars, the duo is launching the beta version of Peep Connect in two phases. The first phase hit Sept. 1 and included the onboarding of the 150-plus businesses that enrolled for the app.
The second phase is expected Sept. 14 with the full public app launch for users.
“We ran our alpha [version] from October to May 2021. With that, we started building revenue with that and got up to a few thousand users,” Gines said. “Once we release our beta, it has a lot more features, and I think the app will give business owners even better outcomes than they had before.”
Focusing on areas with college communities, the Peep Connect team is also launching its college ambassador program this fall.
“If anyone is interested in becoming an ambassador, they should definitely reach out to us,” Osakwe added. “It is an opportunity for students to build their network and make connections.”
Click here to join the Peep Connect community and become a college ambassador.
Raising funds — but not in Kansas City
Peep Connect closed its $350,000 pre-seed round earlier this summer. The funding was sourced from Crunchbase with its first venture capital investment from Responsibly Ventures. None of Peep Connect’s funding came locally, they noted.
“We tried raising our pre-seed round in multiple places, but we found that Twitter was the most helpful,” Gines said. “We were then able to raise our pre-seed round in six months.”
“There are also thousands of VCs out there,” Osakwe added. “That person who waits until you’ve already made it is not going to be your ride-or-die. I would tell other founders to choose who will pick up that call at 12 a.m. Everyone who we have on our cap table today would pick up my call at 3 a.m. and have a conversation with me.”
Click here to read about Zerryn Gines’ thoughts on being a young, Black and first-time founder in the tech industry.
After a year of tremendous growth, the duo expressed excitement for what they have in store.
“Within this past year: we opened our pre-seed round. Closed it. Got into Techstars. Started making money. Hired a team. Fired some of the team. And really found our niche,” Osake shared.
“… We are not just those kids who came out of college and went into a startup anymore,” he continued. “We have networked with people who I’d never thought we’d meet. We have been places I’d never even thought I’d go. But all in all, we’ve learned so much. And this is just the beginning for us.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.