- Framebridge is a hot Washington, D.C. custom framing internet startup that has landed deals with Target and Crate & Barrel.
- Founder Susan Tynan’s career has been a wild ride that includes a stint in the White House under President Obama.
- Framebridge nearly crashed and burned right out of the gate.
- Her story shows the kind of grit it really takes to found a successful startup.
Susan Tynan’s favourite bit of advice when asked for words of entrepreneurial wisdom is this: Ignore the well-meaning naysayers who tell you your idea can’t be done.
Tynan is the founder and CEO of Framebridge, an internet custom framing startup. Founded in 2014, she has raised nearly $US37 million from backers like NEA and Steve Case’s Revolution Ventures at a $US58 million ($AU75.79 million) valuation, according to Pitchbook, a database that tracks venture capital financial records.
Tynan’s journey to CEO shows that the road to success is more about grit and determination than anything else.
Tynan is a fountain of positivity who won’t take no for an answer. That’s how she landed herself her “dream job” back in 2009 working at the White House for the Obama administration.
Back in 2006, she was a Harvard MBA working at Steve Case’s startup called Revolution Health, basically a WebMD competitor, that gained a reputation for its layoffs and struggles at the time. (Case turned it around and sold it to Everyday Health Network in 2007 for $US300 million.)
Working from the bathroom for the White House
With Revolution under new ownership, Tynan was at a crossroads in her career. She was living in Washington, D.C. during the euphoric days for Democrats right after President Obama had been elected. Although she had no experience in government, she decided working for Obama would be her “dream job,” she told Business Insider.
To get such a job, she sent her resume to “like 10,000 people,” anyone who she thought could get her an introduction, she laughs. It worked and she landed an interview — during it, she apologised for “going overboard,” she said. The guy who hired her told her, “My wife came to me with your resume. Everyone came to me with your resume.”
The job involved writing policy papers on things like using technology to improve customer service. While she loved working at the White House — it felt like “a privilege,” she says — there were some downsides. For one, White House staffers were expected to be work around the clock.
“I remember one time, my parents were in town and we went to dinner and I was hiding out in the bathroom on my Blackberry, working,” she said.
Meanwhile, several of her old buddies from Revolution had gone on to found LivingSocial. “It was growing so fast and was so exciting. I was watching them truly with envy, and one day they called,” she said.
Less than two years at the White House, Tynan quit to join LivingSocial and help them launch new product lines. The pace of the startup world after the slow grind of government made her head spin. She started on a Monday and was told her first new product would launch on Friday.
The big lesson was, “speed is a virtue in a startup, and sometimes you just have to move on a lot less info than you comfort with,” she said. She went on to launch three product lines for LivingSocial before jumping onto another job at another startup, called Taxi Magic.
The idea for Framebridge occurred to her when she was still at LivingSocial. Tynan went to get some mementos custom framed and was shocked at the expense. She searched for a cheaper online alternative and didn’t find one. She had just started her new job but become obsessed with launching an online custom framing company, in much the same way she had become obsessed with getting a job at the White House.
With several years of startup experience, she felt ready, but investors weren’t biting.
“I had to quit my job,” for people to take her seriously, she said. With two young children at home, “That was scary. A really big leap.” But she did it.
And then, “I hit the jackpot with Dayna Grayson,” a VC at NEA. Grayson had recently gone through her own struggles to get a project framed. She backed her and taught her how to pitch other investors. “Raising capital is its own game with its own set of etiquette rules,” Tynan said.
For instance, you can’t send a cold email but must be introduced to an investor, Tynan learned. And you have to show a track record. So if your career didn’t provide that, you have to manufacturer it, such as telling investors your next steps like completing a mock-up and talking to 100 would-be customers, and then completing them.
The true challenge was running the business
With funding, Tynan launched Framebridge — but soon after, was almost a victim of her own success.
In 2015, the company’s first big Father’s Day campaign was wildly successful and landed them too many customers and too many projects than she had the staff to fulfil. Instead of the promised one-week turnaround, customers would have to wait weeks.
Her reputation for customer service, the main marketing pitch, was about to be pummelled.
“We’re not going to go down like this,” she said. She wrote a heartfelt apology letter to customers, gave them more realistic dates and pulled every employee, even the office workers, into the workshop. They worked seven days a week through July and August and madly hired more framers.
At the end of that episode, she hired an experienced production manager who taught her how to plan for orders on daily basis. “We’re not building a SaaS business where I can look out 18 months and know what my business is,” she says.
Fast forward to 2017 and Tynan now employs 200 full-time workers, and will balloon to 400 people over the holiday season. Framebridge, meanwhile, has landed deals with Target, and Crate & Barrel. And Tynan has built her first US factory, too, in Kentucky.