Building and growing a startup is hard, but pivoting said startup into something new and then achieving that same growth is even harder. But it’s not impossible.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, founder and CEO of PromisePay, and Jessica O. Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, both have experience doing this. At TechCrunch Disrupt, they shed some light on their respective, yet somewhat similar, paths.
PromisePay, formerly known as Promise, got its start as a bail reform startup that aimed to reduce the number of people held behind bars simply because they can’t pay bail. Now, it’s focused on helping people make payments for parking and traffic tickets, court fees and child support.
“We actually had this huge existential crisis,” Ellis-Lamkins said. “We at Promise are focused on ending mass incarceration and on decreasing the number of people in jails. So we started to be very successful and we sold very well. And what we realized fundamentally is when we created efficiency, it made the systems more efficient at incarcerating people. It didn’t make them more efficient at what our wrong assumption had been, which is if the system is more efficient, it would decrease the number of people in the system. And so we made a decision that growth was not consistent with who we were as a company. So I went back to our investors, which is hard when you’re making money and said, this is not the path because I don’t think this is a long-term path.”
She told investors there are already people who sell their tech to law enforcement, but what Promise wants to do is liberate people. It became clear to her that she was selling to the wrong people when she was talking to a client who said the difference between them and her was that she cares about people in the criminal justice system and they don’t. Ellis-Lamkins told investors she was going to stop selling to prisons and jails, and offered to give investors their money back.
Instead, she started looking at why people are ending up incarcerated.
“And luckily, that spurred growth, but I’m just not going to be a company that grows on the backs of poor people and Black and brown people, because there is a better way,” she said. “But it was frightening in the moment to abandon a market in which we’re making money.”
Thankfully, she said, not one of her investors had a problem with her decision.
Matthews said she had a relatively similar experience with her company, Uncharted Power, which got its start as Uncharted Play. Her company’s first product was an energy-harnessing soccer ball that could power a lamp after just a few hours of playing with it. She later integrated that tech intro strollers to power cell phones.
But after raising her Series A round for Uncharted Play, Matthews realized that her company needed to go all-in on infrastructure. She thought about the ultimate goal of her company, which is to get people the infrastructure they need in their lives. She just didn’t see a way of doing that with soccer balls.
“So we got good at making these things and pushing them and scaling them out, but when you have this balance of not just profit and impact but impact because you know that you’re a member of the group you’re trying to serve. For me, it was sitting down and saying ‘is this actually solving the problem even if it’s successful?’ ”
Matthews said she realized it wasn’t. So that meant walking away from the products that were bringing in millions and had 64% gross profit margins, Matthews said.
But it all paid off. Last year, Uncharted Power raised additional funding from an investor that validated her thesis for the future of power infrastructure.
“That moment was huge for us,” she said.
Matthews and Ellis-Lamkins also had some other gems worth sharing about imposter syndrome and measuring success. Here are some more highlights from the conversation.
On imposter syndrome and representation
It feels like tech has failed so significantly in investing in people they don’t know and missed out in growing companies because of that. So I think our obligation is to help make sure that we are not the only ones.
It’s not imposter syndrome, it’s representation syndrome because I feel the exact same way. When we raised our Series A, the immediate thing I thought was, ‘Oh, man. I can not lose these people’s money.’ This is huge and if we don’t work, it’s not even about us, it’s about every other person who looks like me.
On measuring success
I think part of what we should measure is how does technology improve our society in general, a measurement of success. I do think that if we measure success, it should not just be, I could make a billion dollars or have a company that is valued at a billion dollars if the consequences are greater than the actual benefit and so I think that’s really important.
Let’s get rid of the term “social enterprise.” It’s bullshit. Enterprise is an enterprise. A problem’s a problem. Let’s create a value system based on the problems. There are some problems that are more important than others. And knowing that means we need to back and support the founders who get that more than others, and then beyond that.