Zero To One: How I Raised My First $100K In VC Funding With Abdul Hassan (Co-Founder/CEO, Mono)
“Remember that this started out as just a side project, so the company wasn’t incorporated and we didn’t have a bank account, but we were able to get our first 3 customers.” — Abdul Hassan (CEO/Co-Founder, Mono)
“Zero To One” is a monthly conversation hosted by FirstCheck Africa on Clubhouse. By telling the journey stories of a cross-section of post-seed stage founders, we want to provide relatable guidance for early-stage founders on their customer acquisition strategies, fundraising and sales.
For our fireside chat in June, “Zero To One: How I Raised My First $100K” we were joined by Abdul Hassan (Co-Founder & CEO, Mono).
Mono provides APIs and tools for developers to build a better customer experience, their mission is to create an open financial data system for Africa.
This post is a condensed clubhouse conversation between Eloho Omame (Co-Founder, FirstCheck Africa) and Abdul.
Eloho: Where did the idea for Mono come from?
Abdul: After I left Paystack in 2019, I joined a friend of mine to start an AI company called Voyance. While working at Voyance, during my weekends I would look for what problems I could solve on the side and one idea that stood out was building an application that would allow users view all their bank accounts in one application. Prakhar Singh (who is CTO/Co-Founder at Mono) and I decided to build the app, and we decided to call it MUNUY. There however wasn’t any infrastructure that would allow us to connect to different bank accounts across Africa, so we first had to build the infrastructure ourselves, then we launched the app through medium.
What was interesting was when we launched, people were not responsive to the app itself but the API. Remember that this was just a side project, so the company wasn’t incorporated and we didn’t have a bank account, but we were able to get our first 3 customers. So, at that point it was clear we were on to something with the API and chose to focus on that.
The traction for the product was very good, people were talking about it online and then sometime after we launched, a senior colleague- who is the CEO at a top payment gateway company- reached out to me to ask what my plans were for the product because he had noticed it was getting a significant amount of traction, so we had a conversation around what was possible and he wrote us our first cheque of $100,000. We basically raised our first $100K in one hour.
Eloho: That’s amazing, $100,000 in one hour! Let’s take a step back and dig into your journey before MONO. Did you build any startups prior to your time at Voyance and Paystack?
Abdul: The first time I built something was in 2014, it was a marketplace for laundromats called Washify. Shortly after I built that I left to study Computer Science in Northern Europe but I dropped out in my second year because it felt like a waste of money since I spent most of my time tutoring my classmates and building personal projects, as opposed to doing any actual learning. One of the things I was working on at the time I dropped out was a chatbot platform that allowed businesses to create chatbots on demand that could be deployed on social media so the customer support could be automated and more efficient.
I later on applied to an accelerator in Abu Dhabi and got in to that. After that, I applied to a program by the French government called the French etiquette, a 4 year residence in Paris, where you are awarded 60 thousand euros over the years, so I moved to Paris and I started running the company there, raised money and got customers. Within twelve months, the company got acquired but I stayed with them to help figure out social media automation since they were more focused on hardware.
After that, I moved back to Nigeria around the time Paystack and Flutterwave were expanding across Africa and I started OyaPay. It was like AliPay but for Africa. That shut down because the term sheet was not founder friendly so we had trouble raising money
Before I left Nigeria for Europe, Shola Akinlade of Paystack had reached out to me about a job but I wasn’t available at the time, so when OyaPay wasn’t working out, I reached out to him and that’s how I got my job at PayStack.
Eloho: Awesome, I am glad for that segway. I haven’t heard your story before but I suspected that we would end up here because the truth is no investor just hands a founder $100K, without a good network and credibility points, and that credibility for you was built through all the things you built and your relationship with Shola which helped you get hired at Paystack. Can you speak a bit about what in your view, it takes to sort of be in a position where you have sponsors and advocates and people who will give you a call and say look I’m already doing my thing, here is a $100K to build your business.
Abdul: I reached out to Shola for a job for 3 reasons. First is that I knew working at a known company would give me some credibility, second, I knew I would be able to learn about the basics of building a company, and the last thing was I knew I would be able to have a direct impact on the product and that would further boost my credibility as I would always be able to say that I contributed to X or Y product at Paystack.
If being an entrepreneur is your end goal, I always advise that you work for someone else first, as working for someone else helps you build credibility faster than founding startups. It doesn’t have to be an established company as such, just work for someone you respect, you will learn a lot from them, they will provide guidance to you and that will save you from making a lot of mistakes.
Another thing I say to entrepreneurs is to always communicate what you are building in clear and simple language.
The last thing I would say is be honest. I see a lot of startup founders try to make their startup seem further developed than it is in reality, and all that does is make it difficult for other people to help you.
Eloho: So, work for someone else, communicate your product in clear terms and always be honest about your startup. Great. Let’s talk a bit about building in public, you mentioned that you launched MUNUY through a medium post and the traction that was generated was what ultimately led to the investor writing you that $100,000 cheque.
Abdul: For us at Mono, building in public was really the only option, because when we started, we didn’t have a growth or a marketing team, it was just me on Twitter making noise about Mono. Laughs. So, I think it is in 2 buckets. If you are building a product that requires community support, then building in public is the best line to tow, but if you are building a product that requires secrecy, maybe a company building something for the US government, that certainly needs to be done in stealth mode.
Building in public and developing a community was very helpful for us. If you are a founder that doesn’t have resources for a marketing team, it is best to keep your community engaged about your company. Just continually talk about your product. To me, building in public is a form of marketing.
Eloho: Let’s talk about the journey from raising your first $100K to $500K and to raising $2M?
Abdul: After we raised $100K, we made our first hire, it was an Engineer. Interestingly, when we raised $100K, I reached out to someone who I worked with at Paystack and got him to join Mono, which just further shows why it is important to work for someone else before you start your own company as it helps build your network.
So, we hired an engineer and we didn’t want to raise the second round of $500K, but we got a lot of inbound from Angel Investors and customers. We had customers who said to us that they wanted to invest in Mono, and that was an insane type of validation. Shortly after that, our first angel investor asked us to apply to YC, we got into YC and by YC’s Demo day we announced our raise.
Eloho: A pattern I see in your journey is early customer validation- from getting 3 customers when you didn’t have a company, to the investor who called you and wrote your first $100K cheque in an hour, to customers asking to invest in Mono. So, just before we round up, I would like us to talk a bit about the importance of customer validation versus the actual building and the technicalities of coding.
Abdul: In my opinion, you can’t validate a product without an MVP. For example, if you are trying to build the next AirBnB, you don’t need to build the full blown version of the MVP, you just need to build your idea that you have that makes yours different and show it to a few set of customers, which is what we did with MUNUY- the API Infrastructure which eventually became Mono and so on.
Eloho: Build fast, focus on what is lacking in the current market and make that your core value proposition. What was the MVP of Mono? How long did it take to build the MVP and how much did it cost to build? What’s the difference between the MVP and the full blown product today?
Abdul: My co-founder/CTO built the MVP in 3 days. We had the API prior to building the platform, so what we needed was the UI for people to get the API. The only thing on our current platform that was on our MVP is sign up, sign in, create an app, get your API kit. The significant difference between the current platform and what we have now is in the functionality and better user experience.
Eloho: Just before we close out, let’s talk about your journey through YC.
Abdul: YC was very useful to Mono and honestly I would say every early stage company should apply to YC because even if you don’t get in, the application forces you to think deeply about your product and further simplify your product. While applying, we realized the way we thought about our market was really wrong. Our interview was brief and intense, we got straight into it, there were no salutations or preambles, they asked questions like- what are you working on? How do you intend to make money? After the interview , we received feedback via email asking more in depth questions concerning our views on the market and here we see it going in another five years. Eventually we got in with YC after the intense interview.
Eloho: Congratulations and thank you so much for sharing your journey with us.