Funding a Startup by Starting an Agency
AJ Picard is a multi-business founder who recently launched Clava, a location-based social media app. He shares how he has bootstrapped his journey and tells his story.
Hi AJ! Can you give us a short intro to who you are and your businesses?
Sauce Designs is an app/website design/development studio. Clava is a new social media app that allows people to discover promotions and connect with others in their surrounding area.
“Why couldn’t I connect with others in the same food court? I continued to iterate that idea to form what Clava is now.”
Pastryy provides designer-quality feedback on your logos, websites and mobile app designs.
Growing up I watched my mom & stepmom run their own businesses, which inspired me to always want to do my own thing. When I got to college, I was a huge gamer and was able to raise a friends and family round to create a video game discovery app. I pushed that for three years and later shut it down.
During college I was playing basketball. After I graduated, I tried playing overseas, but unfortunately I didn’t make the cut. I came back home and started working for my mom’s health insurance business as a customer support representative. I was there for about a year when I decided to work for my stepmom’s business, doing sales.
I went into sales because I wanted to make sure I could sell (every entrepreneur, I believe, has to know how to sell). I hit my quota both years. In December 2017, I left that job to pursue Clava.
That’s where my journey begins.
Give us the background on Clava, Sauce Designs, and Pastryy.
I thought of Clava one day sitting in the King of Prussia Mall food court. At the time, Instagram and Snapchat were blowing up, but I was confused why there wasn’t a feature that allowed me to connect with other people in a specific location. Why couldn’t I connect with others in the same food court? I continued to iterate that idea to form what Clava is now.
I was able to build the first version of Clava because I met a developer at Starbucks one day who I pitched the idea to. He and his friend were able to develop my MVP in 2.5 months.
“There are so many ways to grow your business nowadays without having to pay for ads. For me, it was a ton of manual work.”
I created Pastryy for designers that don’t want to share their work to publicly but are still looking for feedback so they can improve their designs.
Sauce Designs is my development studio I created in August of 2019. During this journey, I gained a passion for designing and I started sharing my designs on social media and other outlets. People then contacted me to design their website/mobile app. Soon, I was designing these projects for people and I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do it. I then started diving into a bunch of no code tools so that I could not only design these clients' websites/apps but build them as well. That’s the main reason I started Sauce Designs, due to the influx of people reaching out to me and my burning passion to help people create their ideas.
How have you grown your businesses?
There are so many ways to grow your business nowadays without having to pay for ads. For me, it was a ton of manual work. I’ll share two examples, one for Sauce Designs and the other for Clava.
When Clava (Chad at the time) launched I tried to brainstorm ways I could get people inside of the app. I discovered an app called Whisper that’s kind of similar to what Clava is doing. At the time I was traveling, so whenever I was in a new city or location I would post something in Whisper promoting Clava to the users that were around me. Within 2 months I had 800 users inside of Clava. I plan on doing the same thing once we launch the next update.
“I’ve probably contacted about 1000+ people. I’d say 7 have responded, and I closed 3 for a total of $30k+ in business.”
Growing Sauce Designs has been tough as well. During my journey with Clava I connected with at least 500+ overseas developers on LinkedIn. If you post a status on LinkedIn saying you need a developer for an app idea, you will have 100+ connection requests and 100+ comments on your status within the hour. The reason is that some overseas developers have tools to target these types of statuses. They then comment on these statuses with hopes of winning the project.
Since I’m connected with all of these developers, LinkedIn starts to curate my timeline with posts that they are liking/interacting with. They're interacting with the exact customers I’m looking to get in touch with… people/businesses that need a website/mobile app designer/developer.
Every morning, I spend 30 minutes to an hour commenting on people’s statuses and explaining to them what I do and how my team and I are all located in the US. I try not to sound spammy. I then request to connect with them (more than 99% of the time they don’t respond to my comments). If they accept my request, I head to their profile and message them.
I’ve probably contacted about 1000+ people. I’d say 7 have responded, and I closed 3 for a total of $30k+ in business. Might not seem a lot to you, but it’s a life saver for me.
What are the tools of your trade?
The tools I use are:
- Notion: I use this for all my businesses and to keep everything in my life organized. I have a todo list, a page where my developer and I quote projects, an investor update page for Clava and I can have pages for different types of programs I want to learn that have a bunch of resources I can dive into in my off time.
- When it comes to coding, my team does everything in React Native. I personally use style-components to code the pages I’ve designed.
- I’m also actively using Xcode + SwiftUI. SwiftUI feels like a no-code tool and the animations you can create are INSANE.
- When it comes to designing, I use Figma.
- I use Protopie to create prototypes.
- I use Slack to talk to bigger communities (Nocode, DC Tech, Webflow, etc).
- I use Webflow to build websites - nothing better.
- I use Memberstack to add memberships to my websites.
- I use Spark for email.
- My web browser is Google Chrome.
What's your backstory and when did you realize you wanted to work in tech or startups?
Growing up my Dad was always obsessed with Apple and technology. When he passed, I felt like Apple was the only connection I still had with him, so I fell in love with the company.
At the time, Steve Jobs was running the show and I was inspired by how he told stories and by his focus on the product. From that point on, it was a passion of mine to stay in the industry, which led me to getting into apps.
My first tech gig, well actually my only one, was working for my stepmom’s company selling Audio Visual Equipment.
Fun fact: I made it to the third interview to work at an Apple Store, but got denied.
What have been the most helpful or influential resources you’ve learned from?
HIGHLY suggest checking out www.DesignCode.io. Meng To is the founder and he has taught me so much. I learned how to code using React Native from his course. I learned how to use Protopie and now I’m learning SwiftUI. Great teacher - highly suggest checking him out. I’m constantly watching his videos. Plus, he’s very active on Twitter. I don’t know where I would be without him.
A lot of my learning actually came from doing it myself. Just constantly designing apps, practicing how to code, and practicing with other tools. That’s how I think you get better at something. The people I look up to are Meng To, Elon Musk and John Ivy.
What advice do you have for someone looking to break into tech?
People don’t understand how competitive and crowded this market is. Do you know how many people know how to code and design? You have to figure out your own style and what’s going to separate you from the rest. More importantly, you have to always be learning and staying up to date with what’s new in the industry.
If you’re looking to start your own app/service one thing I would suggest is test, test, test. Unfortunately your chances of getting funded are very slim unless you can prove your concept is working. The only way to prove that is to show that you have traction or provide some sort of data that can backup your product. That’s why I suggest focusing on turning your idea into an actual business, instead of relying on funding. Think about ways you can monetize and keep your business afloat. That way you’re in control instead of relying on someone else's resources. That’s something I realized 1.5 years after I started Clava.
I honestly wish I took design + coding classes in high school/college. At the end of the day, tech rules the world and if you can code + design, you can do anything.
Was there anyone in particular you want to shout out who helped your career along? An individual, or community?
I want to shout out to Meng To and Vlad Magdalin.
Meng has taught me how to use Protopie, code using React Native, and code using SwiftUI. I also check out his work for design inspiration as his designs are ALWAYS above the norm. Not to mention, Meng’s been awesome on Twitter. No matter how big he has become he always responds to me on Twitter, which is cool. I hope I can meet him one day.
I want to thank Vlad, founder of Webflow. I actually just met with some of his team this past Wednesday in DC to chat about ways Webflow can be improved, along with their team’s future plans. I want to thank Vlad because if it wasn’t for Webflow I wouldn’t have been able to build any of the websites that I've made for both myself and my clients. Webflow makes things so much easier. I’m not sure where I would be without it.
Where can we go to learn more about you and your work?
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