Co Founders Alex Smith and David Weiser nourished LanternCRM during their time in Longhorn Startup at the University of Texas.
Previously, we spotlighted our friend Aceable and how they got from zero to where they are now. Then, we realized we haven’t done that ourselves, nor does our ‘About’ page list any background about the company, only its employees.
Where did the original idea for LanternCRM come from?
Lantern, like many startups, was born out of necessity. Alex, our founder, had decided to bypass a college career and began his entrepreneurial journey early. Being a talented developer, he did freelance work out of his father’s office. A common complaint from his father’s employees was their CRM, which was surprise…Salesforce! Their main issues were with the complex interface and having to manually log emails and phone calls (see where this is headed?). Alex decided to act as the IT manager and help them find a CRM that better suited their needs. After some searching, they found and implemented Zoho, which turned out to be a pain itself.
Finally, Alex decided to take a few weeks and crack the problem himself to build a proprietary in-house CRM which, laughably, is something we highly suggest not doing as it’s a painful and complex animal.
What were the first features of your CRM?
He released the initial version to them with much praise from the team, mainly because he listened to their needs and executed an elegant solution. It wasn’t a pretty app, as you can see below, but it was functional for the team. After that, Alex began visiting the users frequently, shadowing their daily activities to learn how they used the app and what they wanted from it; then iterating accordingly. At one point, he noticed the amount of time and number of steps it was taking for someone to search for a contact then dial their number into their landline for a simple call. He spent a few weeks hacking Google Voice and building an unapproved API to hook into the CRM. This allowed the reps to use a simple click to call a Contact vs the wasted effort to manually punch in numbers (a lot of time saved extrapolated over the course of a month).
Who supported the product once you knew it was a viable idea?
After his father’s clients and friends began inquiring about the software—at the time called TeleForce—Alex figured he might have something more than a one-off solution for his father’s company. He stumbled upon an article about the Longhorn Startup Lab taught by Josh Baer and Bob Metcalfe. As we know, Alex wasn’t a University of Texas at Austin (UT) student, but his childhood friend and former neighbor David Weiser, happened to be a current UT student. Through David, Alex, and TeleForce were accepted to the Longhorn Startup Lab and Alex relocated to Austin from Atlanta. Over the course of the semester, David and Alex learned a lot about entrepreneurship from minds who had experienced the frustration and successes first-hand.
At the end of the semester, David went back to school, and Alex continued into the Capital Factory incubator through an invitation by Josh Baer. Starting February 2013, Alex, now with market validation, entrepreneurial education, and a year CRM experience—decided to rewrite the app from scratch under a new name. Enter LanternCRM.
When did the product and team really start to grow?
For the better part of a year, Alex lived at Capital Factory. Learning via CFU classes, consuming experience and suggestions via daily 1-on-1 meetings with mentors, and spending the rest of his time coding. As Lantern slowly grew organically, picking up users here and there, Alex continued to focus one hundred percent of his time on the product. David checked in on him every now and again, eventually realizing there was a lacking in sales and customer support. David took it upon himself to act as the customer facing side of Lantern for sales inquiries and customer issues. Months later, thanks to consistent meetings with CF mentors, Alex raised the first part of his angel round at $250k which allowed Lantern to grow from 1 to 4. David and myself (Chad) came onboard in late January, and Andrew joined the team shortly afterward.
Since the forming of the four-horsemen of Lantern, app functionality, stability and awareness has grown by leaps and bounds. We’ve been heartily pushing the flywheel with all our might and it is now beginning to pay off with consistent trial signups and a fairly stable close rate.
Lessons to be learned from Lantern
- Build from a real use case. Don’t build something you think someone will want, build something people need.
- Once your initial version is released, be prepared to listen to feedback, iterating the product based on customer needs. Software is never finished.