Cloudflare TV

💡 Founder Spotlight: Ayham Ereksousi

Presented by Ayham Ereksousi, Dan Hollinger
Originally aired on 

This week is Cloudflare's Founder Spotlight on Cloudflare TV, featuring dozens entrepreneurs from across the tech industry and beyond!

This session features Ayham Ereksousi, co-founder and CEO of Stomio, Inc - a pre-seed tech startup focusing on building a SaaS platform for product teams to help them get the most out of beta testing their products during development. Prior to Stomio, he had an extensive career in product leadership: both at Cisco Meraki (CSCO) where he led a team of product professionals through a substantial expansion of Meraki's SD-WAN product line. And at Snap One (SNPO), where he started a networking product line under Araknis Networks brand and grew it to become #1 market leader in the high-end home automation space. Ayham is an engineer by trade and a Fulbright scholar with two Masters degrees

Visit the Founder Spotlight hub to find the rest of these featured conversations — and tune in all week for more!

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Founder Spotlight

Transcript (Beta)

Hello, hello everyone. Welcome to Founder Spotlight. I'm Dan Hollinger, I manage global services here at Cloudflare and I am pleased to be joined by Ayham Ereksousi, co-founder and CEO of Astomio .io.

As part of Founder Spotlight, we're going on a world tour of various founders, various startup leaders, learning their tips and tricks for what it takes to be successful in the startup world, what level of insanity is ultimately required.

So Ayham, thank you for joining us today. Yeah, thanks Dan.

Thanks for hosting me. It's a privilege and honor. Thank you. Well, we're glad to have you here and glad to have you on Cloudflare TV.

We look forward to all the people joining live or catching one of the recordings.

And so to kick things off and get things rolling, I'd really love to learn what it is that Astomio.io is doing today.

Yeah, so Astomio.io, we are a pre-seed, post-MVP, pre-launch, pre-revenue, pre-swag actually startup.

I thought startups start with the swag.

No, swag is for the startup, right? So yeah, we are very early stage. I would say we were incorporated in January.

We were officially full-time working on the venture and closed our pre-seed round in August.

So we're about five months old, I would say, or four and a half months old.

We are building a SaaS platform for product teams to solve the challenges and headaches that goes into their beta testing cycle.

So when you build a product, you have to go through beta testing and that's a mini process on its own.

It's extremely challenging. And through Astomio.io, what we're trying to build is a platform where you can, as a product professional or product team, you can organize all of your beta testing cycles.

You can provide a more engaging and fun way for your testers to execute on their tasks and their tests that you want them to execute.

A streamlined communication channel between the tester and the product team directly.

So you break down the barriers and the email chains.

It feels more engaging, feels more fun, like a chat.

And a way to analyze that feedback at scale and get insights that make sense for you as a product person, not just a giant spreadsheet that you come through.

And finally, hopefully some integration with your existing workflows that make everyone's life more seamless and easier.

Fascinating. And so I guess first question that comes to mind is, are you guys dogfooding your product as you're building it to help with your own beta testing and performance?

Absolutely.

Yeah. When we were building the MVP, actually one of the jokes that we had internally with our first groups who adopted us is that we used the platform to beta test the platform.

Yeah. And that's what seems fascinating, especially in this modern world of startups and SaaS applications that in many cases, what you're building is solving a problem that you yourself are experiencing as a developer or as someone building into that SaaS space.

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So the idea actually came from my experience.

I've been in the product world for, I would say, nine years.

I was at Cisco Meraki for three and a half years. Prior to that, I was at Snap, AV at the time, now SnapOne, the public company for about five and a half years.

And I built a lot of products, I would say, like more than 70 products under my belt, which mostly a networking space and mostly hardware products.

There's some software components included as well. But smaller size, mid -size and bigger size companies, I experienced firsthand that the challenges on the backend for product teams when it comes to beta testing, it's really, really chaotic.

It's very inefficient. It's very frustrating. It feels that time that you get to the beta phase, it's just chaos.

You're trying to recruit beta testers, you're trying to send units, you're trying to get some instructions, you're trying to facilitate feedback.

And really the response rate is not that great. Low double digit percent and for something that you have to ship actually a unit to, that's a very low return investment.

And throughout that experience, I was trying to think, there's got to be a better solution out there.

And you go out and you find some companies are trying to get something ancillary or maybe something that doesn't work well until you finally get fed up with just the struggle and say, I'm going to solve this thing.

So that's the genesis of the idea. And what's fascinating is to see a problem you experienced in your day-to-day life or in your career.

And then we were able to point to or draw the circle around and say, yes, I think we need a better solution or a better mousetrap to this.

Yeah.

And also that's interesting for the founders or potential founders out there that they're watching hopefully the segment is, especially for early stage, for pre-seed round or first round of funding, what investors look for is founder market fit, not product market fit.

So what makes you as a founder or as a founding team uniquely positioned to solve this problem that you're trying to solve?

And it could be a multitude of things, but in my case, it's just the real experience that I had in the past nine years.

I experienced it firsthand. I know how it goes.

I know the ins and outs of it. I know the pain behind what goes into the psyche of a product team or a product professional going through the process.

And that on its own, I can advocate for the voice of customer, not to mention that we actually interviewed a lot of people along the way.

But that was it for my investors.

That's a founder market fit that is strong enough that they believed in us as a team.

And speaking of kind of finding that founder market fit or particular those early steps, what's it like that first week of being a founder?

Like what do you prioritize?

Funding, getting a team, building out additional relationships.

What do you think is most important or what do you think other founders should look towards first?

I would say every startup is unique. It's on its own.

They have their own set of composition and challenges. For us, so I met my co-founders a while ago and can touch on that later on.

But we decided early in the year that we wanted to start the business.

Early actually we incorporated in January 2021.

And then in April, we decided we're going to raise our fund round or first round.

And in July we closed the round and in August we closed, we started full time, all three of us.

So the first kind of week, my co-founders are in Spain, actually in Madrid.

So I got on a plane, went to Madrid, met them in person.

And the very first thing we decided to focus on, you have this whole universe of things you can focus on.

Like you can build a product, you can go to market, you can do all of these things.

We all agreed that this business or any business is all about people.

We as people, our investors as people and our team members as people.

So we wanted to actually hire people because we closed our round and we have needs for the team to go fast.

So the very first thing we focused on actually is agreeing on our mission, our vision, our values, what we care about, what kind of company culture we want to create, what kind of talent we want to seek, how we want to go about that.

So we spent an entire week just brainstorming and agreeing on the pillars of our business.

And that proved to be, I'll say very advantageous for us when we start reaching out to candidates and talent and because they would have those questions like, what are you trying to solve?

What is the long-term vision of it? What's the company culture like? How do you think about those things?

And I would say like if you spend time early on really thinking about those things and they might seem to be really far-fetched because you're just going crazy at it.

I would say that they will pay you dividends really long-term.

We haven't been long-term, I've been like five months into it, but so far we're getting some dividends out of it because it just sets the level playing on your hire.

So we hired three people in the first month. We're very fortunate that we have them on the team, then they believed in us.

But that is a great foundation that we can go back to and say like, are we really exercising the values that we agreed on?

And hopefully so far the answer is yes. And we can always go back. Yeah, what I've generally heard or learned is when you're dealing with a startup of that size, it really comes down to the people and the technology.

So if you're pre -product or that still has to be developed, building that foundation of people who you know are going to be hiring the next phase or getting you to the next round of funding becomes vital to have that initial culture and building that initial level of trust and people that believe in the vision and what you're trying to solve and how you're trying to solve it.

Yeah. And we can see it, like we could see it two months in when everyone got on boarded, everyone really got through the process and learning and everyone starts talking the same language.

And that's for us a positive sign and reassuring sign that, hey, we're getting positive feedback here.

Everyone's thinking the same way and everyone's driving towards the same mission.

That's not easy to do when you were like early stage.

If you hire somebody, it's like, oh, just come on board and do this thing. And people will be doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff.

And did you find any challenges or any particular challenges in launching during a global pandemic or had you prepared and knew going into it you were going to be a distributed company?

You said you had founders out of Spain.

How did that impact or alter how you were starting this business?

That's a great question. I think that there was a benefit for us to be launching or be thinking about fundraising and starting during pandemic is that everyone got trained to be remote more or less.

So actually our investment board, I met only two of them or three of them actually over Zoom.

The rest just watch a recording and they sign up for it.

I met two of my investors in person.

I flew out to East Coast and met them in person. One of them I actually know for a long time.

But it's helped us actually think about the composition of the business.

So my co-founders are in Spain. So one option is to have everyone move to the US.

And that's very challenging and very expensive. The other option is what we agreed on is make it remote, but we're going to focus our hiring for engineering talent and design talent in Spain where my co-founders are there.

They know the culture, they have their network. We can manage the operation locally in the same time zone there.

And then as we scale, we can focus on the customer facing functions in the US since most of our target customers or target audience is going to be in the US.

And then I'll hire people and again, we can build a culture on both sides.

So I think that's a plus overall. The challenges that we had so far really selfishly is the time zone difference.

So there's about nine hours delta between Bay Area here in California and Spain.

So that's challenging.

So we have two hours of overlap from here in the US, either late in my day or very early in my day.

So that's a big challenge. But the way we got about it's like, Hey, I'm one person now.

I can fly every quarter if travel is allowed to go there.

And we can meet with the team for a couple of weeks, get things done more, and then go back and do things remotely.

I would say, do you feel that that builds almost a follow the sun model where they can run with the work and be able to put in a place where you can pick it up and then run with the work?

Or is that kind of asymmetric style, not really working well, or as much as you'd hope, given where you guys are as a company?

It depends on the function. If we had development both sides, that model would work.

But there are some things that we were challenging, they were challenging, that they need my inputs on, and they were thinking about it, but I was asleep.

So I was like 3am on my time. Then I would wake up and just provide my input and then the rest of their day, and then they have to go do it the following day.

So we felt that when I went there and we worked together for about a couple of weeks.

We were very productive, we got things done very, very quickly.

We shaved two months, I think, of back and forth in just two weeks.

And I'm doing it again, like in a couple of weeks, I'm going for three weeks.

So that's a challenge when you have to have more brainstorming, you have to have more collaboration.

I think the time zone is really, really challenging. But hopefully in the future, when we have more teams, we can do that continuation of work.

And highlighting how you guys have just gotten started, would you be able to share any tips or advice for any of our viewers on how to secure that first round of funding, especially as a first time founder?

Yeah, I mean, that's, I was fortunate enough to lead teams and my career, and I talk about their career plans and what the long terms are.

And almost consistently, if you're in product, you're thinking about starting something at some point.

But my advice to those people is like, if you're doing that, if you really believe that you want to start a business at some point, then you need to start building your network to serve that purpose or get to that point in the future.

So for me, I had that idea or the desire to start a company about five years ago.

And I started building my network five years ago.

And our board member and investor who introduced me to our lead investor is a person I worked with for a long time.

And he was part of my network. And most of the people we interviewed so far, as part of the solution and get customer interview was a customer.

And we interviewed more than 25 people. There are people in my network.

So I think that if you're really serious about starting a business, start now, start building a network, think about where you want that network to be, you want some investors, you want some people who want to be subject matter expertise, you want some people who you want them to join your startup when you started, you know, when you started at some point in time.

So be thoughtful, be methodical about it.

I was gonna say, you're almost saying you have to pregame before you even have either the final idea or the final product, knowing that if that's where you'd like to take your career, you know, you're going to have to have some of these fundamental relationships, or at least to make it a little bit more straightforward or easy, as opposed to just having the better mousetrap, but then no one who believes in you or has either the skill set or funding to be able to support that.

That's what worked for me, right. So there's obviously multiple examples of people who had a fantastic idea and hit product market fit out of the gate.

And then they start building the network. And there's the people with the rich uncles and cousins that are more than happy to put the seed around.

Yep. Yeah. But for us, we were really fortunate. So my, my contacts was board member introduced me to the lead investor, and then the lead investor, once he was closed, quote, unquote, introduced me to everybody else.

And we closed around really in two months.

Fascinating. And do you think that having that network or establishing it, you know, helps you develop that founder to market fit sooner?

Or how would you, how do you make that pitch when you're, you're seeking that first round?

Yeah. So again, like investors at the really early stage, they invest in founders, invest in the team and not really more than anything else.

Then they will start focusing on the idea and the business and the viability of the business idea.

And I remember the first pitch I did to our board member, he was giving me feedback on the slide deck as a practice run, I put the team at the last slide.

And he told me, like, you should put it on the first slide, because everything after the first, the team can change.

And for us as investors, we want to know the team first, because that's the only constant in this equation, because we know it's very risky, very high probability of pivoting or changing or maybe failing.

But if we believe in the team, we're going to dig later on and in the actual business idea.

So I would say like, the team at the beginning is very, very important.

And the other thing is that the founder market fit, like what makes us unique.

And that what makes us unique is someone who has either suffered the pain, or has some insight or has some connection that they can get into the market.

And some sort of validation of the team dynamic, because that's a risk, very risk point for the investors, right?

Because it's all about the team, if there's friction in the team, if the equity split is all jacked up, and there's some bad blood or something like that.

So that's another red flag they look for. So for me, our lead investors, when he was, quote, unquote, interviewing me, he focused a lot about, you know, my background, how did I find my co founders, what's our relationship like?

And what my pitch to him is that we bootstrapped the thing for two and a half years before actually raising money.

So I told him, okay, we work together on weekends and off hours for two and a half years, we have something that was working, the relationship was good, we had some rough rides, the path, we cleared all that out.

And now everyone is on board, and everyone is focusing on making this a success.

And that's a big selling point. Yeah, that's a fascinating tip of moving the team to the top of the, you know, the pitch deck, knowing that there'll be pivots, there'll be adjustments, you know, your forecasted revenue, you know, ideally goes to plan.

But at the end of the day, it's going to likely be the same few people really pushing the mission forward, especially in those first few months or years, as you're looking to ship.

Absolutely. And I'm curious, since you know, you mentioned you, you spent time before the the idea was there to help build out your network.

Where in your life experience, do you think you got that first taste of that entrepreneurial spark, where you knew, hey, I think I might want to start a company someday?

Or I think I might want to be a founder and entrepreneur?

How did how did that get, you know, introduced in your life?

That's a great question. I think in the past, if I have to go back really, really back, I, like anybody, as a millennial, we're fascinated with computers.

So I'm born and raised in Syria, by the way, I'm from Damascus, Syria.

And I remember the first computer I got, I was in fifth grade. And that changed my entire life.

And I'm forever thankful for my dad for introducing that into my life.

But I remember in 10th grade, I was just finished, you know, really deep course in Microsoft Access.

Right. And this is how old I am, there's something called Microsoft Access.

And my friend who was actually running a local computer shop, literally next door, shared with me that, hey, I really want something that is more easy for me to put together a, a PC that can sell to our neighbors, because the people come to me, it's like, I want to, you know, build them something and have some inventory and whatnot.

And I built them a database, I sold it. And that was for me was super exciting, right?

Because, you know, there's a problem, he came to me, and I utilize the skill that I built and solve that problem in a way.

And that was appreciated by some sort of transaction that I didn't put a price on it.

And he gave me something that I never thought I, you know, I would make as a teenager.

So I think that initially, that that was kind of like some of the initial initial spark, then throughout my career after college, after graduating, I was looking for something that I'm actually really excited about.

So it was a lot of trial by error.

So I was, you know, I'm an engineer by training, I worked in network engineer for about a year, then quickly found out that's not for me, then moved on to network design and architecture.

After a couple years, then found out that's not for me, then got lucky to come to the States and on a Fulbright scholarship and did my MBA, and then really found my calling in product management.

And I would say that the things started to click for me internally, at least at my first job out of business school, which is at Snap1.

So at Snap1, they hired me to start a company or start a brand within the company, right?

So it's more entrepreneurship, not entrepreneurship.

And that was a challenge that was challenged is that the, you know, it's a high-end audio video space.

There's a lot of conversions happening in that space between control system, home automation system, lighting systems, surveillance systems all over the network.

And Snap1 being a really big player in that space, they didn't have a good solution for their customers who are audio video professionals.

And the audio video professionals, they find themselves really forced into the networking space without knowing the tools or the technology or the know-how.

So that was an opportunity for us to build a brand and build a product line that serves that audience in a way that makes their lives easier and they can make money on top of it.

So we really built everything from scratch.

So my boss at the time, and he's now chief product officer at Snap, G-Paul Hess, shout out to G-Paul for being an awesome human being he is, really sat down in similar setting in an office.

We had a whiteboard and it's like, okay, this is going to be the product line, going to have an access point line, switch line, routing line.

And we hopped on a plane, went to Taiwan, start knocking on factory doors and trying to convince them to give us extremely ridiculously good prices for extremely ridiculously low quantities.

So fast forward four years from that or five and a half years after, you know, when I left Snap, we were number one brand for that market.

We were number one market share in that market.

We were number two for Snap, which just says a lot for an audio video company that has speakers and amplifiers that's really high volume network can be number two.

And that journey as chaotic and as crazy as it was, it was so satisfying for me personally.

Let's say like, yeah, I want to do that again. But maybe a bigger scale.

So that's why Meraki came in. We expanded the product line for the SD-WAN globally, global presence, and we accelerated the growth of the portfolio.

And now, you know, throughout my time at Meraki, I stopped going back to it.

I really liked going to build from scratch, like build from the foundation and scale.

Yeah. So from those early introductions going from zero to one, you got the taste of that and like, oh, this is nice.

Those greenfield opportunities or the mix of, I'm guessing, like creativity as well as the tactics to say, great, how do we get to the next step?

How do we get the first customer? How do we continue to push this forward?

Yeah, that excitement and that constant validation that, hey, you have some assumptions and hypotheses and a lot of risk.

And when things start to work, I was like, yes, I'm not crazy.

And as we round down, I know we've discussed, you know, building out that first team, building out that first network and then getting funding.

Is there any other tips that you'd be eager to share you think would be very helpful for some of the other founders or future founders watching this today?

Yeah, I think two tips that comes to play. One is one of the, our board member told me, a lot of people, if you look at the, if you were interested in startup scene, there's a lot of celebration on funding milestones and it's an event, right?

That's a celebratory event. There's validation, there's more money, there's valuation of the company that puts on it.

But I think that the better way to think about it, funding is an enabler to a milestone.

The milestone is going to be whatever you're trying to accomplish.

For us, we're going to get some launch of product and get some traction.

Funding enabled us to, is going to enable us hopefully to get to that stage.

And then the next milestone is going to be starting to scale the operation.

The next funding milestone will enable us to do so, right?

So I think treat funding as enables four milestones and celebrate the actual milestones.

The other thing is that when you actually start working full-time on it, there's a lot of noise.

You'll get bombarded by people who want to sell you services or people who want to do some crazy ideas or maybe people who are just don't believe in you, right?

And that's perfectly fine. That's expected.

I would say the most important two things that you have to do as you start going at it is talk to customers and build product.

And I think that's why they pitch that.

So find a way to just quiet the noise, quiet some of the detractors or people that say, hey, this won't work or it's not a big enough problem.

And then just get that feedback loop between what you're building and the people using what you're building.

Yeah. Talk to people, just keep talking to people.

They will tell you what the problems, they'll tell you their pain points, and they will give you the validation that you need, whether you are on the right track or the wrong track.

And then the ultimate validation is going to be users and paying customers, right?

That's people at the end of the day will vote with their wallets.

But if you're early stage and you're still building, keep talking to people because a lot of companies, they start with ideas and they think, oh, we're going to build a product.

And then you see what's going on. If you talk to customers as you go through it and start sharing your ideas and sharing your mockups or whatever you're trying to accomplish, you will get a lot of good ideas that you haven't thought of.

Validation or new ideas. Yeah. Much more the lean startup method or MVP of, you might have an idea, go validate it, iterate, go validate again, iterate, build, get something that you're able to then start the longer term journey, as opposed to the more waterfall approach that might've worked a few years ago.

But given the rate of change these days, really doesn't feel like it's an accurate or would work accurately now, unless it's just that brain of a solution.

Yeah. And you have your biases as you go through it. But we had our biases as a founding team, because we would have been working as an MVP for two and a half years, right?

Before we officially started and we got the first hires and we onboarded the first team members, they came in with fresh set of eyes and they gave us tremendous different ideas and different solutions that they're going to be in our product launch in January, hopefully.

So that's the mindset I think that you have to go through.

It's like, be humble enough to say, okay, this is an opinion that I have, but my opinion is not truth.

It's not a fact.

Same thing with a user opinion. So they might be an opinion that said like, well, this thing is not going to work for me, or it's not going to work because A, B, and C.

You have to distill it and say, okay, it's not going to work for that user type and for that segment for A, B, and C, not because the idea is wrong.

It's just their needs are different.

And that makes a lot of sense. And being able to gather those opinions, that validation, kill your babies in some ways to be able to understand like, okay, yeah, this might be where I think this is going, but maybe it's just the wrong time.

It's the wrong place. We can re-explore later, but getting those data-driven decisions, I think it's clutch in especially the early stage of going from zero to anything.

Yeah, absolutely. So I think where we are now, we have high degree of conviction about the problem space, that this is a problem that people experience and it's painful.

The next frontier for us is to have an equal degree of conviction about our solution.

So we've had a lot of interviews.

We have a product advisory board that we meet with them on a regular basis.

They give us feedback. So we have some level of confidence and conviction about the solution, but when we do the product launch, we'll be maniacal about that.

We're going to be focusing about, are we solving the problem the right way? Is this the best way to do it?

Do you think about any different methods to solve it if we're not getting traction?

And that's when you start pivoting and changing things.

But we believe in the problem space because we have a lot of data points about it.

Well, awesome. Well, thank you for taking the time. And if anyone would like to learn more or join the beta testing and wait list, it's stomeo.io.

And so, Iham, thank you for taking the time and hopefully have a wonderful rest of your day.

Yeah, thank you. Go to our website. If you're interested, join the wait list.

If you are a product team or a product professional who's been through the problem and you think your beta testing should be better, join the wait list or reach out to me on LinkedIn or email me, Iham at stomeo.io, A -Y-H-A-M at stomeo.io.

I would love to talk to you. Awesome. Well, thank you, everyone.

And thank you, Iham.

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