On a rainy evening in the fall of 2018, I was sitting in a small Thai restaurant in downtown Boston with one of the most fascinating people I had ever met. Richard Mensah had recently moved to Boston from Ghana and was just starting a master’s degree in international business. At the ripe old age of 23, he was an award-winning software engineer who had already started two startups in his home country. He was dynamic, insatiably curious and driven to create positive change in the world.
The two of us met at the Forbes Under 30 Summit earlier that day, and in the course of our three-hour conversation, I shared with him an idea that would become the foundation of our company: EllisX.
Almost a year before meeting Richard, I had started Ellis Project, an event series that helped increase visibility for immigrant entrepreneurs in order to shift the narrative around immigration in a more positive direction. The events resonated with the Boston community and, soon enough, local entrepreneurs started reaching out, asking if I could help them connect with media or speak on a panel. It seemed like access to visibility was a challenge for the majority of foreign-born founders. It felt like I was on to something.
Richard was intrigued. The project had a social justice component and some early validation. The two of us agreed to stay in touch, and over the next 10 months, we had multiple coffee chats that would ultimately lead us to start EllisX together.
During this time, the idea kept evolving. I still had a day job but would often go out of my way to attend networking events, arrange coffee meetings and find opportunities to share my idea with folks in the Boston startup community. After a while, I noticed a trend: American-born startup founders would mention that getting visibility was difficult for them as well. They needed exposure for their companies in order to attract the right people to their cause, but their options were limited. They could not afford to pay a retainer and hire a PR agency, and if they tried to find visibility opportunities on their own, it would take so much time that it would distract them from building the business. To top it off, they usually had insignificant results to show for their efforts.
That’s when it clicked: All early stage startups — regardless of whether the founders were American or not — found it challenging to get exposure. What if we were to offer a solution to this problem and help startups harness the power of visibility without breaking the bank? At the end of the day, sharing your story with a broader audience is all about connecting with the people who want to tell it. If we were to help early stage companies find visibility opportunities more easily, Richard and I would need to build a platform that connects the right people with one another. No intermediaries, no hefty fees and no time wasted. Just targeted human connection.
We were excited about the idea of enabling innovators to access visibility opportunities more easily, regardless of their personal backgrounds and/or financial status. However, we couldn’t start building a business on a hunch. The only data we had were the conversations we had had with founders in the local startup community, and we had to validate our assumptions further before going all-in. If we were to invest our lives in this idea, we had to make sure that it was scalable.
What followed was a short but rigorous data gathering process. The first step was online research. We would comb through online data in order to find out how many startups were started every year, how many of them got funded and how long that took. We would follow news cycles and take note of the stories that were covered. If an early stage company was covered, what was the story that got it noticed? How often did this happen? We looked at the hottest startup markets in the United States and found out how many events happened in each of them every year. This way we could extrapolate and make an educated guess about the number of local events happening nationwide every year.
The data seemed to show there was an opportunity. But we knew that we could not be sure unless we spoke with our potential users. We had already established demand from early stage startups, but what if nobody else wanted to use our product? What followed were conversations with event organizers, journalists and independent podcasters. We would inquire about their processes, how they approached the people they found interesting and what the biggest challenges in their work were. To learn more about the current state of the communications industry, we sought out publicists and leaders from later-stage startups and mid-sized companies. We took careful notice of any challenges or friction they mentioned. Each obstacle was an opportunity in disguise.
There was only so much information we could gather without building a product, but, at this point, the aggregate data of our research tipped the scale to the “yes” side. Richard and I were starting a business together.
Less than a year later, we’ve launched and been through countless product iterations. We now have more than 60 customers who love us. And the best part is that we’re just getting started.