Interview with Bart Lorang of FullContact
Bart Lorang is the co-founder and CEO emeritus of FullContact. His company provides a suite of cloud-based contact management solutions for businesses, developers, and individuals. As of 2015, they are handling over a billion contacts, and they’ve raised around $20 million in funding. On our blog, we already published interviews with fast-growing startups such as the co-founder of DigitalOcean, and we’ve interviewed one of the biggest API companies in the World, Sendgrid. FullContact fits this profile since they had a very powerful API from early on, and are still growing very fast.
I interviewed Bart back in 2015 for my ebook, and I’ve just decided to make it available here for free. Some of the advice Bart has shared are still relevant and are testament to a time period of how FullContact was doing and what they were working on. As of 2022 when I updated the interview with new graphics from FullContact, according to Crunchbase, FullContact has raised $55.1 million, with more than 200 employees.
Goran: Can you go back to 2009 or 2010 when there wasn’t an idea for FullContact? What were you doing back then and what caused the trigger for the idea FullContact? Were you at Cloud Center ALC?
Bart Lorang: So actually 2009 I was in grad school. I had exited my previous company which was an enterprise software company that had bootstrapped for like 13 years and I sold my shares. And I was just starting school. And that was the time when I met my wife.
I met my wife in grad school and we started dating. In the midst of the dating, I noticed her Outlook contacts were really amazing. And when I say amazing what I mean is they were perfectly accurate, up-to-date set of Outlook contacts; completely filled out.
So every contact record had a phone number, a photo, a first name, last name, job titles, fax number, birthdays, anniversaries, spouse name, assistant’s name, and detailed notes. I mean those were certainly the most immaculate contact records I’d have ever seen.
And I said I want that for my contacts because it’s something that I struggled with. I was switching from a PC to a Mac and Gmail and Cloud and Yahoo and Exchange and LinkedIn and Facebook and before I knew it, my contacts were a mess.
So I basically said I want those contacts for myself. But I have 5000 contacts and my wife only had about 150 contacts. So she was manually curating all that data. As a programmer, I knew all this data is out there somewhere. Let’s all bring it all into one place. And then update my contacts with that.
And then I also sort of knew in the back of my head that a lot of people struggle with this problem. And it was not just a problem for individuals; there were businesses as well as solo entrepreneurs. I also knew the struggle with keeping contact in a uniform, accurate up-to-date across platforms. So I sort of instinctively knew it was a big problem, and I started writing code so that it would come to the Cloud Center. I created a product called Rainmaker which was the sort of first product that our company shipped. So that’s how it sort of all started.
Goran: You mentioned it was called Rainmaker. So was that like the beginning of FullContact?
Bart Lorang: Yeah the company was Cloud Center with a product name of Rainmaker. There’s a play on rain and clouds there. And the first product Rainmaker was very much a prototype. But we put it out there and the main feature of the product was synched up with your Google contacts; you connected your social network, and you could make it rain on contacts. That meant you could buy rain drops and enrich contacts by doing it from your social networks. And you’d pay for the privilege of 10¢ per rain drop or 10¢ per contact.
And it got featured on Life Hacker. Within like a week on the front page of Life Hacker, our servers totally exploded but people were pulling out their credit cards left and right to make that happen for their contacts. So we kind of knew we had a thing.
Goran: So you actually just started answering my next question. Was there a moment in time when you realize that the company is taking off the ground? For example, how did you get the very first 20 customers? And was it with Life Hacker?
Bart Lorang: Yeah. It was featured with Life Hacker and then Google blogged about it actually. But it was sort of like this first 20 customers that actually paid with their credit card, “who-hoo!”
Bart Lorang: I was just really excited. We didn’t think we had a business. Let’s be clear. We didn’t think we had a business but we knew through building a prototype that we were solving a pain that was more than just my, Bart Lorang’s pain. It was a lot of people’s pain. And they would actually pull out their credit cards to pay for it. Even in the sort of prototype state of our application was at the time. We didn’t know exactly what that something was yet. That would come later.
Goran: Sounds great. So you said that you knew, in plural. So we can assume you do have other cofounders. Did you have to pitch them or how did the first initial team form?
Bart Lorang: Well the initial team formed with me and another guy and he was working with me for like 6 months, 7 months. And then he decided he wanted to leave and pursue another opportunity. And around that same time, 2 guys that were previous co-workers joined the team. And then they were co- founders as well.
We sort of just decided what we were doing and that we wanted to work together.
Goran: What about your fundraising experience? How long did it take you to get the first investment? And how much did you fundraise? Has anyone helped you with that or were you on your own?
Bart Lorang: Well I actually wrote a very decent blog post up on that about this called “The Story of 126 No’s and 1 Big Yes” (chuckles) that sort of detail. So I encourage you to take look at that. But basically, it took about 9 months to fundraise the first $350K and then another 2 months to get the next $1.5 million in the business. Obviously, part of that was accelerated by Techstars.
But it was a brutal, brutal, brutal, brutal experience in the first 100 investors that said “No.” There were all types of investors that I was reaching out to. A lot of investors wanted patents. A lot of investors just sort of said, “Well you’re not in Silicon Valley, we’re not going to invest in you.” There were investors that said, “When I get some more traction; you’re a feature, not a product; not even a business”. There was just a lot of no’s. During that period I did not get a ton of help, tried to provide my own help to myself by reading AsktheVC.com or VentureAsk.com. You’re reading Do More Faster by David Kelly and Brad Feld (you can read our interview with him here). I just tried to teach myself. With the School of Hard Knocks I had a technical and technical sales background. So I knew that eventually, I’d be able to breakthrough.
Goran: How would you describe the advantages of joining accelerator programs such as Techstars? At what stage exactly were you when they invited you and when you got in?
Bart Lorang: So at that stage, we had 3 products we had built some “prototypey” products, which is insane, I know. But 3 products and we had paying customers and 15,000 users. We had a team of 3 or 4 people. I think it was 4 people. And so that was the stage when we joined Techstars. As far as the benefits that Techstars provides I would say it’s a little bit like college. You get out what you put in. So we really worked the network. We met a lot of people. We were raising money during the program. We worked really hard.
Some people waste that opportunity. Some people don’t. We made sure we didn’t. So it’s sort of “you get out what you put in.” If you put in a lot of work and a lot of long hours you’ll get amazing dividends. If you don’t you’re not going to see the dividends that you would expect.
Goran: Could you tell me a couple of things that make FullContact like a typical startup? And a couple of things that you thought were unique? It could be like a situation you were in or your paid pay vacation.
Bart Lorang: So things that make us a normal startup are that we try to do things incredibly lean. We sometimes change our minds a couple of times and don’t get it right perfectly the first time. We have a very casual work atmosphere with t-shirts and flip-flops; a beer in the office corner. Pretty relaxed and I think that makes us very typical.
I think what makes us not typical, not normal is that we have essentially a very large vision and we’re going after a horizontal market. So normally you’re supposed to say, “Hey you’re going to be the best in the world at one thing for one type of customer. Well you know we’re trying to invest in a lot of contacts for everybody – individuals, businesses, software developers which makes it very difficult.
Unusual as well is sort of our commitment to our staff. In terms of our paid pay vacation; our “powder day” (skiing) policy; our healthcare benefits that are unparalleled. We really spend probably more money than a lot of startups on our employees.
Goran: Has the startup been through any near-death situations? Or has perhaps someone offered to acquire you earlier on.
Bart Lorang: Yeah I mean we’ve had a number of acquisition interests but we’re trying to build a really big billion-dollar business in Colorado. So we’re not interested in those acquisition attempts. As far as near-death experiences, sure. In the early stages, I was writing all the checks for the company. And there was a certain point where I said, “I’m not gonna write any more checks.” Good thing I poured out my few hundred thousand dollars into the business.
As far as other near-death experiences we haven’t really experienced a lot of those. I mean you got to make sure you’re not running out of money. We haven’t had any sort of moments where there’s been an amazing competitive threat that we were super worried about the dynamics of our industry. It’s such a hard technical problem that it’s thrust on solving it versus competitive threats.
Goran: Can you tell off the top of your head how many contacts you handle right now? Last time I heard it was over a billion.
Bart Lorang: Yeah I mean I don’t know how many distinct contacts there are in terms of sort of partial. I know we have about 1.5 billion people, unique people indexed which is comprised of billions and billions and billions of partial contacts. So yeah it’s a lot of data, Terabytes and Terabytes of data.
Goran: (chukles) Yeah. There would probably be tons of questions for a whole different interview just to cover that.
Bart Lorang: Yeah.
Goran: What would you say the biggest contributor was to your personal growth? Were there any books, seminars or problems that you had to deal with; work; or anything else?
Bart Lorang: Well I mean I think a lot of my personal growth has come from a few people. My wife, being one, she’s an amazing manager in her own right. Just incredibly more talented manager than I am. She’s constantly finding ways that I can improve.
I think my board members Brad Feld, Chris Marks, Tia McCann have been amazing in providing input and advice for me over the years. I think I have a CEO coach Jerry Colonna who I work with who has been tremendously helpful.
And so those are the biggest drivers behind my personal growth. It’s literally learning from mentors and trying to soak it all in. Soak it all in, take what you learn. Switch it up; make it your own and then sort of adopt in a way that’s authentic for yourself.
FullContact acquired Cobook
Goran: What’s next for FullContact? Where do you go from here? You mentioned briefly you want to build a billion-dollar business in your industry. So do you have any plans for like an IPO? What’s the grand vision?
Bart Lorang: Yes, eventually the plan as an IPO. I mean right now we’re focused on making an amazing user experience for our individual professional customers. And we have some really cool stuff rolling out in Q4; in terms of multi-platforms. We acquired a company called Cobook. Earlier this year we announced that and we’re integrating those applications with our suite of products so that we’ll ultimately be ubiquitously available on iPhone, Android, Outlook, iCloud, Yahoo. Basically, every service that people use is our next goal. And really nail that experience because nobody has built this sort of “Dropbox for contacts.” And that’s what we plan to do, so we’re still working on that.
Goran: Do you have anything to add I’ll be more than willing to listen and take notes (chuckles).
Bart Lorang: No I don’t really have anything to add. I mean the thing that probably sets us apart and sets our team apart is that we have this notion of persistence. I think that a lot of times, especially in a Bubblish or Boom environment people can get like hung up with, “oh my gosh my startup was a complete failure it didn’t take off. It wasn’t an overnight success.” But in reality, all overnight successes are really, really the first 5, 10 years of effort into something.
So I think, I’m almost 5 years into FullContact and I think we’re just getting started. And so I think people need to realize that it really is a long-term effort and you got to have that long-term thinking.
Goran: This reminds me, I just recently watched again Shawshank Redemption. And that guy escaping out of jail with a small stone hammer something like 3, 4 inches. And he was hammering for literally a decade. And then ultimately he got out and ended up on a beach in Mexico. Basically, that’s how you have to think of pretty much everything. Especially startups.
Bart Lorang: Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right; time and pressure.