Wandering into things
By following the path paved by opportunity — quite literally as a digital nomad — Max Greenwald is often updating the “current location” field on his Warmly profile. Keeping his mind open and figuring things out as he goes is Max’s operating style. It’s also why, when starting a role in product management at Google, he set an end date via email — a reminder to leave, should he still be there after two years. In 2019 his inbox “timer” went off and Max began thinking about what’s next.
“I looked into being a VC associate, starting my own VC firm, going to a startup, being a Chief of Staff, and starting my own company. For each one of those, I interviewed a bunch of people that I knew in those spaces and sorted through a lot of different factors. Ultimately, at the top of the stack rank was ‘start your own thing’.”
He teamed up with fellow Google colleague Val Yermakova, a designer, and then Carina Boo, an engineering manager. In creating the DNA of their next project they established two things — working together and the name Wamly, (with the deliberate comma as a nod to a more personal email signoff). For Max, having someone to take the leap with him was the encouragement he needed to take the next step. However, the next step on Max’s list was missing an important element… an idea.
Joining On Deck
Bolstered with the confidence to keep moving forward, Max found that elusive startup ingredient — luck. As Max puts it, “I was hit with lightning — with this amazing idea — Tinder for co-founders.” [With their fresh idea in hand, Max and Val expanded the founding team with a talented Google engineering manager, Carina Boo, with whom Max had built Google’s April Fools’ Day pranks in the past.] What would be next was still a bit murky.
“When I was at Google, I was part of the Google Associate Product Manager cohort, which is a niche community of product managers. That was an amazing community to get my career in product management started. But when I was new to this ‘Founder World’, I had no community, I had no people to talk to you. I didn't understand the legal, the HR, the tech, the coding, the fast iteration, the rapid pace —I was overwhelmed. So I went to On Deck seeking community where I could meet with and talk to other people in a similar stage.”
Max joined ODF2 in the fall of 2019 when, pre-COVID, the program was still in-person. The plan was to get a solid understanding of how to navigate getting a startup off the ground and to validate the “Tinder for co-founders” idea.
“The idea was that there could be an app that helps you find a co-founder. If anybody tried to do it today, I would say absolutely not. The only thing that helps you find a co-founder is On Deck.”
Max met Alan Zhao when they were incidentally paired together during an On Deck, in-person, weekend hackathon. That weekend gave Max a break from overthinking Warmly’s product, and instead focusing on building something for the sake of building. The two enjoyed creating a purely fun “T.V. 2.0” concept — where anyone could vote on Max’s next action as he live streamed himself on Facebook.
The two instantly recognized that they worked well together and had fun while doing so. Alan joined as a co-founder and Warmly’s VP of Engineering.
The idea maze
The co-founding team began to realize that the “Tinder for co-founders” idea wasn’t leading Warmly to the vision of building something amazing. However, Max’s time in ODF helped him navigate the uncertainty of idea iteration.
“One of the most comforting things was Erik Torenberg's advice around navigating the idea maze. It really gave me comfort to know that when I was lost trying to figure out my space, that I was okay—that I wasn't stupid or wrong or unable to find anything, it just takes time.”
Max and the team were able to navigate the maze through several stages. During On Deck Fellowship they shifted the product into matching individuals in current networks, then into a web-app of modern and cool profiles, or push-pull business cards that allowed users to “push” information about themselves and “pull” details about others. The goal was to create a richer base for interaction.
While they had some users, monetizing the product proved challenging. The team kept iterating — while following their northstar of connecting people and creating communities. First, they put their focus on helping sales professionals find and maintain leads, but mid-pandemic they expanded to a bigger market opportunity — the digital meeting space.
“Alan and I were living in Sitka, Alaska, which is a rural island off the coast of Alaska. We were kayaking on glass-blue water, looking at a volcano — we realized that Zoom is the platform through which people now connect. It led us to the idea of owning the space around somebody's face [on Zoom] by sharing [Warmly’s] push-pull business cards. It's a combination of all of our prior iterations combined. We’re helping bring humanity back into conversations by helping people connect on a deeper level.”
Communities fuel progress
Warmly is a tool for connecting through more meaningful information, which makes sense because Max is a lover of community. “My friends like to tell me that I’m a program junkie,” says Max.
After On Deck Fellowship, Warmly was part of Techstars Boulder, Sequoia’s Company Design program, and Y Combinator’s Summer 2020 cohort. The founding team also participated in On Deck Scale and Max went through On Deck Angel Fellowship. For Max and the team, the value lies in the learning — which gives first-hand, practical experience — and the community that comes together to enrich the process. The built-in lifelong network is something that Max sees as an asset now and something he can continue contributing to in the future.
Fundraising to augment the future
Warmly’s ability to enable connection is something Max sees as evolving beyond the pandemic. His vision of a not-so-distant sci-fi-inspired future is one of IRL augmented reality, where we can all access shared information about each other in real time via smart-lenses. We’ll all be able to see that Max is pronounced “Mah-ks” from its German background, his current interests, and other insights. This will provide a holistic view of an individual for better interactions, which are currently limited because we can only access to what we see and hear.
To build up to that mission, he needed to fundraise — not an easy task mid-pandemic. The possibility of setting meetings over coffee or in a boardroom where Max felt he had an advantage were off the table. Instead, Max embraced the unknown and pitched to investors scattered all over the country and even abroad from his Boulder basement apartment.
The ability to adapt to the process paid off — in August of 2020 Warmly closed a $2.1 million seed round, led by NFX’s James Currier. His stake in the company is particularly important to Max because “[James] is one of the foremost experts on network effects... [this] is the kind of business we are building.” For Max this investment came with an additional opportunity to learn.
The round was joined by Mike Vernal of Sequoia, Y Combinator, Matchstick Ventures, Scribble Ventures, and Harry Stebbings’s 20VC.
Subsequently in July, Warmly raised an additional $2.4 million in funding from Maven Ventures, which was an early investor in Zoom, F-Prime Capital, and other investors.
On the horizon
Getting the seed investment had allowed the Warmly to grow the team from four to now over twenty people. Max reports that team members are immersed in the business, everyone is working well together and shipping quickly.
Fueled by the seed round, the Warmly team began participating in Zoom’s Web App Store beta program in November 2020. Recently the company has also announced its free app — Warmly People Insights — within the Zoom App Marketplace. With the most recent funding, other aspects of the product on the horizon include the ability to exchange business cards inside the app as well as CRM integrations.
Going forward, Max explains that understanding and building the user base is crucial — “We’re focusing on activation numbers and retention numbers,” he says. Irrelevant of what focus Max takes, he’s certain that he wants Warmly to create opportunities for everyone “to show up and show off as [their] full self.”