Kerry Schrader describes herself as an unlikely entrepreneur. She even insisted that I use the term “ass backwards” to describe part of her journey. Unlikely or not, when Kerry teamed up with her daughter, Ashlee Ammons, to bootstrap their startup, Mixtroz, and take on the world of event networking, they became the 37th and 38th women of color in the US to raise over $1 M in pre-seed funding.
I sat down with Kerry to hear more about her experience founding a startup after a 25-year career in corporate HR.
Mother and daughter sharing notes
“It started with one of our normal mother-daughter conversations, one of many that happen every week. We had each spent the weekend at separate networking events and found them awkward and unproductive with nobody making any meaningful human connections. There had to be a better way to get people to interact with each other and build relationships. We started googling to find a solution and quickly realized that there was nothing that was solving the problem in the way we saw it, which was always humans first, technology second.
We may be non-technical founders, but I would say that we’re human asset experts. I spent a couple of decades as an HR executive and Ashlee is a director of events out of New York where she worked on events for Oprah and Leonardo DiCaprio and for brands like the Olympics and Moët Hennessy.
We were our own test market because of our careers and experience. We knew we had something and when we talked it through with friends and colleagues, they agreed – and Mixtroz was born.”
I suggested to Kerry that this may have been an atypical idea validation process for a young startup and she admitted as much.
“I tell people, “Don’t do what we did!” We just didn’t know what we didn’t know, so I used an iterative process that I had been trained on in my manufacturing career to test a hypothesis and refine it.”
Using data to make networking more productive
Mixtroz boosts engagement and encourages users to start networking outside the people they already know. It’s a SaaS platform that empowers organizers to create impactful connections for their attendees by collecting custom data in real time at live, virtual and hybrid events. Attendees access Mixtroz through their phones and organizers can broadcast to all or create virtual breakout rooms complete with ice breakers to help users widen their circle and network more efficiently and successfully.
“Any time you have an event of at least 50, and up to 50,000 people, Mixtroz can help. Mixtroz removes all the awkwardness and anxiety of trying to find and corner the person you really need to talk to. When you answer some simple questions in the app, Mixtroz makes sure to pair you with attendees with similar interests, so you never need to waste time talking about the weather and gauging whether or not you’re speaking to the right person. Events offer a captive audience and the adoption rate for Mixtroz is 90%.”
Creating an MVP
“As non-technical founders, we needed to hire someone to create an MVP. As someone on the outside of the tech world, I didn’t know where to begin in finding our first technical hire. I went to CES in Las Vegas by myself because that seemed like the center of the tech industry, and via networking events I stumbled across these great developers. I brought them on shortly after, and if it wasn’t for them and the work they did for us over the next four years, we wouldn’t be here today.”
“Mixtroz was a two-person startup for quite a long time. We did everything ourselves, including fundraising. We didn’t set out to bootstrap the company, but it was the right choice for us.
The first money we raised was from friends and family. I was taking increments of $2,500, but I wouldn’t take more than $10,000 from any one investor. I didn’t want the stress or the worry about breaking these valuable relationships. And we made that money last. We funded the company with that first round of $200,000 from June 2015 through to December 2017 and that included the period from June 2016 when Ashlee left her job and left New York to come on full time at Mixtroz.
We could definitely have moved faster if we’d had more capital, but I will go up against any company in terms of capital efficiency!”
Moving to Birmingham
“At the end of 2017 we needed capital. We knew we had done everything we could do with the money we’d raised. We were ready to call it. Ashlee and I came back from winning a pitching competition in Copenhagen, Denmark to find out that we had been accepted into an accelerator called Velocity in Birmingham, Alabama.
We used that capital injection to switch to a SaaS model and work the accelerator which was like an Executive MBA for us. At the end of it we were one of eight companies that got to pitch in front of Steve Case, one of the original founders of AOL. We won the competition and $100,000. That kicked off our fundraising and in the next six months became only the 37th and 38th black women to raise over $1M in pre-seed in tech. And we did it in Birmingham, AL. To be able to come here, have the support of the city and the titan entrepreneurs and VCs that exist in Birmingham with all the history of this place is amazing to me.”
Working with Microsoft for Startups
Kerry talks about serendipity and things happening for Mixtroz, just when she needed them to, but every entrepreneur knows that you need to position yourself to benefit from the opportunities when they come. I asked Kerry how Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub had contributed to the continued success of the company.
“At the beginning of 2021 we raised another bridge round of $1M and I applied to Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub. We moved our platform from React Native to .NET. We have been using the Azure credits that we got from Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub, to prototype and iterate our app. This is NOT trivial for startups like ours. Every cent we save of the money we have raised keeps us in business for longer and helps us achieve our goals at the right pace. There were many times in our story where we would have had to stop if we didn’t have the funding and Microsoft for Startups is giving us the support and the recognition we need.”
There were so many more topics that Kerry and I wanted to cover before we ran out of time. She is a tremendous powerhouse and a great inspiration. I am already looking forward to talking with Kerry again.
Do you have an idea you want to turn into a reality? Sign up for Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub today.
Tags: Bootstrapping, fundraising, Mixtroz