Raising $20M from A16Z

Today, Reforge announced that we raised $20M+ from a top VC firm. I'd like to reflect a bit on that journey and some decisions made.

Founding Engineer

I am the founding engineer at Reforge. "Founding engineer" just means that I take a lower salary than I would make in Facebook or Google in exchange for a large equity stake that vests over the period of generally 4 years. Sometimes this pays off, and "founding engineers" make millions or tens of millions of dollars in a short period of time. Most often, it doesn't.

I've been a founding or early engineer a few times. At Eventbrite, I was engineer #3, going from $4M to $700M in valuation. That turned out well.

Additionally, I've started two companies, one of which was a 100% total loss, and a waste of 18 months of my life. I'll never get that time back, but I gained some perspective on identifying good opportunity. The other is doing okay at 500k users, but still too early to tell.

Which is a good segue for shit.

Why Join Reforge

When I was considering joining Reforge, I had just started Casting Call Club, and built it up to about 35k users. But, Reforge had a lot going for it on paper.

Brian Balfour, ex-VP at Hubspot and 3 time startup founder, was at the helm.

When I met Brian, I got the same butterflies in my stomach that I got when I met Kevin Hartz, the founder at Eventbrite. Brian is a guy who simply knows his shit. The biggest successes I got in life was aligning my career journey temporarily to someone who knows their shit. You can't latch on forever because you'll never grow out of their shadow, but you can suck the experience out of them by getting as much 1-on-1 time with them as possible during the early days.

How do you know if someone knows their shit? First you have to know your own shit, and know where the gaps in your shit are. Fill the gaps in your shit with their shit. #RealTalk

For 2.5 years at Reforge, there would only be 5 people at the company (all of whom are incredible in their own right), and my opportunity to siphon off as much knowledge from Brian as I could would be abundant.

The Reforge content was really fucking good.

Brian had started the Silicon Valley Business Review with Andrew Chen (ex-VP Uber, now A16Z). They did a couple summer cohorts where they ran a program that taught the basics of what Growth is. Not Growth Hacking, or the disparate learnings of greasy bloggers looking to sell their guru courses. Brian and Andrew were offering a deep, comprehensive, foundational walkthrough of Growth, and they called it the Growth Series. This gave birth to Reforge.

When I caught whiff of what they were up to -- and realized how it was different, and far better, than the static and shallow MOOCs you'd find on Coursera and Udemy or the massive time-dump a 2-year degree was -- I knew there was real potential. Nothing out there could compare.

The network is the moat.

I was thinking about Harvard a lot when I was deciding to join Reforge. No one spends a quarter million dollars to go to Harvard just for the content they could get for free on the internet. They join Harvard for the network.

Reforge was already attracting leaders I looked up to, like Casey Winters, Fareed Mosavat, Elena Verna. They were the real market makers in tech, driving hundreds of millions in growth in companies like Instacart, Slack, Eventbrite, Miro, Survey Monkey, Mulesoft. A network like this would be hard to beat.

Cohort-based learning in a huge TAM

From my Techstars days, I knew that learning in cohorts was magic compared to learning things on your own. It feels like you're part of a band of individuals trying to overcome a challenge together, and it builds camaraderie. When my lizard brain finally made the connection that companies would pay for their employees to take Reforge as part of a group, the opportunity clicked.

For example, let's say Shopify has 50 product managers all speaking slightly different product management vernacular. Shopify sends them all to Reforge to build a common vocabulary and best base practices. That's step 1. Step 2: Shopify hires 5 more product managers per quarter. Guess what becomes a part of their onboarding?

Now multiply this by every tech company there is.

Okay, I'm convinced. I'll put Casting Call Club to the side and I'll join Reforge.

Early Problems

Three problems nearly killed the business.

How do you productize networking?

There are lots of tools out there that help build communities, but nothing really felt right for us.

First, no one was talking. Either they were wary of competitors listening, or too busy with work itself, or simply afraid of looking stupid in front of a group of intellectual peers.

Second, we wanted to facilitate both surface and deep conversations at the same time while bubbling up valuable insights to relevant people in a relevant time. From there, we wanted to match people based on interests and relevancy.

After solving these by [redacted], the seasonal data was too few to have confidence in our findings, and so began our efforts to make learning always-on.

Seasonality

Seasonality was a challenge, because user engagement waned during the off-season, and our ability to experiment with new features was limited. But seasonality also gave us plenty of time to be pensive. We weren't going to be the kind of company that threw ourselves against the wall until we broke through. Early Reforge was all about careful cuts. We measured everything well, and it led to results that would've been hard-pressed if we were a venture capital backed startup then.

But our purely pensive days were numbered.

Imagine if your company makes millions of dollars in one week, twice per year, and you earn no other income. That was our lives for nearly 4 years at Reforge. Our program cohorts were doing so well that we didn't want to change it too much. We worried over price points, positioning, cannibalization, and we hesitated.

Another question started to rise: Did we need to scale? Is there happiness is building a small company that we don't have to turn into a billion dollar company? We spent a long time questioning this. We stayed heads down and optimized all we could.

By 2019, there was only 5 people in the company and we were making mid 7 figures per year.

Covid went viral (get it!?!) in the middle of one of our twice per year cash injections, and we survived the shrinking education budgets of our user's companies, but we were jolted. This was the main catalyst we needed to push Reforge into an always-on model and urge us to build our defenses. Furthermore, the clock was ticking on the Growth Series itself, as it would become a commodity eventually. Other edu-tech companies were sprouting up like mushrooms. It seemed like the time to switch to scale-mode was here at last.

How to scale content creation?

I'd describe Reforge content as encyclopedic; it's a deep collection of theory and application. Every new program took on average 6 months to create in the early days, but worse is that they were made almost entirely by Brian himself. If we were to scale Reforge, we would need to either build a machine that pumps out high quality content or clone Brian. My money was on cloning tech.

The subject matter experts tended to be busy, or poor teachers, or lack the audience to build clout for themselves. We couldn't depend on subject matter experts writing their own content.

We experimented with many things around this time to mitigate the content crunch -- microblogs, connection tools, interactive learnings. Nothing was as powerful as having quality content speak for itself.

Let's go back to shit. Remember above, about knowing shit?

Enter the researchers, whose job it was to interface with the subject matter experts and slowly separate shit from the shit. I'll spare you the tedious details since you're not interested in industry secrets.

After a few arduous cycles of having research-led program creation, the content wheel was spinning and we were ready to scale.

Scaling Eventbrite

Being early at Eventbrite showed me the dopamine rush raising millions of dollars was. Teams would double overnight. Budgets would go from 0 to 7 figures. We'd get a dedicated ping-pong room.

Scaling fast also brought a lot of dangers. Communication is the first to go, and unless the pods have strong directional glue, there will be real pain to feel. Next, employee engagement would start to sway. Managers would hire people who spend more time figuring out how to hide than do actual work, and what's worse is that the managers don't give strong reprimand or simply fire the bad actors because the managers themselves would either hide or be too busy to spare the willpower to care. Lastly, HR will replace the ping-pong table with an Eventbrite University classroom, which is the greatest atrocity of them all.

Personally, I struggled scaling Eventbrite. I always volunteered to be on the frontier teams. We had no data team, so I raised my hand. We had no mobile apps, so I started the mobile team (while also learning how to build mobile apps). We couldn't support internationalization, so I co-led those efforts with the CTO as a skunkworks project. I tried my best to stay out of the politics, and into creating utility.

There's a famous saying though. If you want to lead, you must first learn how to follow. If you want to be a good writer, you must first be a good reader. If you want to scale a company, you need to have already done it before.

I think that's how it goes.

Scaling Reforge

Reforge feels much different than Eventbrite. For starters, every person in a leadership position here has scaled a company in the past - Hubspot, Eventbrite, Airbnb, Credit Karma, Slack, Instacart - and that led us to create stronger foundations than Eventbrite had. Our strong directional glue on the leadership team alone is healthy, and it's fulfilling to see everyone align so well.

Looking at the engineering/product side of things, we've established a playbook for many of the challenges that we've seen in the past, like where the bottlenecks will arise, how to handle bad actors quickly, career path progression, how to divide each teams into autonomous pods, who will lead them, and a bunch more.

Quick rant on just scaling the tech: It's a monolith rails app with a react front end. I chose a boring tech stack because I feel that speed is the most important thing when creating a company. From there, I typically see progressive steps like this:

  1. Pure vanilla proven web stack of choice (rails, django, laravel). Automate eveything like linting, testing, PR app builds, 99% of devops work.
  2. Then the front end grows into an SPA as functionality becomes more complex
  3. More microservices like search emerge into their own thing

By step 3, I've got a dozen engineers and things are still as smooth as one engineer. Engineering is never the bottleneck, and tech debt is super easy to spot. Scaling horizontally to many more engineers becomes straightforward. Simply put, you can do a lot more with less people in the beginning.

You can't plan for everything though. When covid hit, we had to work at a hasty pace to get the always-on experience launched and it caused some unsavory front end components to look fugly. Now, we've got a project to further atomize our react components and create better unity with the design team on Storybook. We will need to fix these systems before they create a schism between the two teams, ultimately ending life on Earth.

Future & Past

The interesting part about Reforge is that doors continually open, whereas other startups I've been at, we have to move ourselves into a narrower and narrower market wedge. Reforge is eating up adjacent disciplines organically. PS - We've never had a marketing team at Reforge, so this $20M will be nice to ramp up even further.

Final hype:

  • The product is turning into something truly interesting, like a bastard child (but is actually the true heir to the throne) of Notion + Reddit + Netflix + our unique flavor of a learning/networking platform.
  • The content has continued to impress me throughout and I'm thrilled to consume all the programs we create, selfishly.
  • The network is what excites me the most though. All of the subject matter experts and aspiring ambitious leaders together in the same place never fails to motivate me to get up in the morning.

Looking back on the last 4 years, joining Reforge taught me so much. From the failed multi-month experiments like our microblog, to the quiet diligent remote work building what I thought needed to be done, to 10X-ing our team size and our revenue, building Reforge has been what dreams are made out of. I feel incredibly fulfilled with the work we've done, but also still very hungry for more.

Finally, after many years of imposter syndrome, it's starting to feel like I know my shit. Well, how to fill the remaining gaps, at least.

Epilogue

Even though Reforge took most of my time, I still managed to squeeze in some weekends to build Casting Call Club out a bit more. Happy to say it's at 500k users now and I've got a small staff running it. Maybe with Reforge growing so much and more people to take the load off me, I'll have more cycles to spend on it.

But maybe not.