Episode 140

Raad Ahmed ·  Overcoming All Obstacles

“Assume that you have product-market fit, but fundamentally if your underlying unit economics is not sustainable and your customers, aren't really sticky and they're not constantly coming back to the platform and using it more then it becomes really hard and really expensive to grow your product”

Raad Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of Lawtrades, an angel investor, writer, and musician. In 2011, Raad started myfbcoverphoto, one of the first apps in the Facebook app store that grew to over 30 million hits per month, while attending law school. In 2015, he got into the 500 Global Flagship Accelerator Program and launched Lawtrades, one of the first marketplaces for legal services that made it easy for big companies to hire legal freelancers. The company has gone on to raise $9.7m in total funding and freelancers earn millions on the platform every year. In 2019, he started publishing a newsletter called Spacecult. Raad is originally from Queens, NY, and a graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School.


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Raad Ahmed

[00:00:00] Bryan Pham: Hey, everyone. We’re so happy to have Raad Ahmed today on our podcast. Raad’s an awesome entrepreneur. We got introduced through one of my, you asked just to one of our friends, she’s actually currently working as their head of growth and we’re super excited to hear more about his story. So Raad, what was your childhood experience like, and what led you down the entrepreneurship path?

[00:00:20] Raad Ahmed: I think it was a pretty tough slash interesting childhood, like probably many first-generation folks in the U S. I had a really strict dad and a really lenient mom. And I think that kind of balanced out in certain ways where the expectation has always been to be X, Y, and Z.

[00:00:42] Like probably many people listening to this podcast have experienced – lawyer, doctor, scientist, whatever. But my mom played a really interesting role in my life where she encouraged me to pursue more of the creative side of me. That was just a little bit more free-spirited, free-flowing.

[00:01:01] And I actually grew up listening to a lot of music and I used to play in a punk rock band. I love its creative ability. The downside was that it didn’t really make a ton of money which is why I ended up on the more sort of college route and then went to law school and all of that.

[00:01:19] And, but then eventually I was just like, I’ll figure out some way to make money off of it. And a startup seemed like a good middle ground for doing creative stuff. And then, hopefully, at some point it makes some money and goes from there. 

[00:01:29] Bryan Pham: I really liked that mindset too. 

[00:01:30] Contrary to belief, I think, compared to how it was back then, there are a lot more ways to make money if you’re creating right now. But I think 10, 12 years ago, the idea of being a musician, being a cook, being a content creator, it seems so far-fetched. 

[00:01:44] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. 

[00:01:46] Bryan Pham: So out of curiosity too, how do you feel like you’re just being more creative, being in a rock band or being in a band and playing music. Do you feel like that sort of experience helped you become the entrepreneur you are today?

[00:01:59] What kind of creative process would you feel like that you took from the experience? And then you apply it to be like creating your own company, which is Lawtrades, which we’ll talk about in a bit. Do you feel like our processes helped you shape the person you are today? 

[00:02:12] Raad Ahmed: I think so. Cause I still basically listen to the same music that I listened to in high school, and I still get a similar feeling, which is for me, like listening to punk rock music just made me feel really free. Made me feel like anti-establishment made me just want to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. And I think fundamentally, really good startups go against the grain in that way, where they look at the world and they see what exists and they try to do the opposite of that. And with some sort of good measure incentive behind it of helping people. 

[00:02:46] There’s always a part of me that’s just like that sort of high schooler, skater, punker kid. But now, doing internet companies. And there’s a lot of overlap behind that. I’m definitely more on the product design marketing side of things.

[00:03:01] And I still like lots of hours of deep work. I’m not a big like meeting guy, even though nowadays, we’re doing a lot of recruiting. So, I have to talk to a lot of people which is just fine, cause a lot of them are really interesting and I’d love to get to know interesting people.

[00:03:14] But yeah, there’s always an element that I guess for me to still keep this fun where I have to still feel like I’m creating something new I’m iterating I have a say in something like the fonts or the colors or the shade of gray we’re using it’s just the same old story as before, but just interpreted through the lens of a company, I think.

[00:03:38] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I really liked that too. I really liked the fact that you mentioned that you’re going against the establishment, anti-establishment in fact, you became a lawyer. So I really liked the contrast. 

[00:03:49] Walk us through that too. 

[00:03:50] What year was this when you decided to become a lawyer? And why didn’t you continue being a lawyer? What led you down the path of, Hey, one day, I’m just going to wake up and be a startup founder. I’m going to create this awesome company. What was that mindset behind law school at the time and what year was this? 

[00:04:07] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. 2010 is when I started my first year of law school. Why law school? I was actually genuinely interested in law and philosophy, and that was actually my major in undergrad. It was the philosophy of law and legal studies. And I just found Law to be a fascinating thing. It’s like this piece of code that society writes and people abide by it and it can change and it can be evolved, so from that perspective, I found it like an interesting sort of area to learn about.

[00:04:41] And then law school just seemed like a logical next step for me to just get deeper into that. And also it probably made my parents really happy that I’m going down that path, but at least for me in my head, I was just like, okay, but I’m genuinely interested in it. So it doesn’t feel like I’m doing this for somebody else.

[00:04:57] The way that, as I detoured was probably after my first year of law school, I actually launched this other internet company for fun. It was this web app for Facebook, it’s actually one of the first apps in the Facebook app store when they had it around and it allowed people to customize their cover photos.

[00:05:14] So I built a simple website where you can go in and scroll through different sorts of cover photo images, whether it’s pop stars or Justin Bieber photos or quotes and you would click and it would automatically change it on your Facebook profile. So somehow that grew to about 30 million hits a month and I ran some banner ads and turned it into a six-figure business while I was still in law school.

[00:05:36] So then when it came time to interview for different firms, I was making more money doing less work. So that doesn’t add up or make a lot of sense for me to trade that off. And that’s when I guess I caught the entrepreneurial slash internet bug and I’ve always been like tinkering around the internet growing up. I just found it really fascinating. 

[00:05:55] And actually the internet was very much not banned from my house when my parents really didn’t like me being on AIM and browsing the web and joining random chat rooms, they just found it to be a waste of time. So, when I was younger, I would have to sneak down to the basement where we had our dial-up and eventually our sort of modem and like at two or three o’clock in the morning. I would chat with people. I would build little like AIM buddy icons and sell some of them for fun and self-burn CD. So I had this whole sort of thing on the internet that was really frowned upon by my family growing up.

[00:06:28] So I guess it all just connected eventually back to law school. And I was just like that was really cool. I built something that removed a couple of steps and a bunch of people found it valuable. And I figured out some way to sell some banner ads and make some money off of them.

[00:06:42] Can I do this again? And what would that look like? And that sort of set the stage a little bit for Lawtrades which is like a marketplace for legal services. And it was a much harder problem to solve and took way longer than just oh, let me post this up and the thing goes viral.

[00:06:58] But it’s been just like an amazing learning experience, journey, and all of that. And I just can’t see myself doing anything else.

[00:07:04] Bryan Pham: I love it. I love how you found your true passion. And when you brought AIM, man, like those are the days, but I know exactly what she meant in my parents says the same thing.

[00:07:12] They’re always like, why are you on the computer? Why don’t you like reading books? When, how, when are you going to the library? But I think that experience really shaped who we are, like to stay connected, they can build their curiosity with the internet guys, familiar with everything.

[00:07:25] Man, that just brings back a lot of good memories too. And I think that the best part about this story is how you’re able to tie back the experience of building. I believe it’s myFBCoverPhoto, it’s that website? 

[00:07:40] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. Probably not. I think I still pay the hosting fees for it, but I haven’t updated it in years. But eventually, there are competitors that came out and out SEO’d me and there’s a bunch of copycats. And that was also like a learning lesson. I was like, oh, this was fun. It’s going to last like this forever, but it only was a good two or three years, and then the traffic spiked back down.

[00:08:01] So that was really my first lesson in entrepreneurship, which is that you can’t just launch something and just expect it to just do everything. You have to really monitor it. You have to improve it. You have to iterate it. You can’t just sit back and collect. It was an amazing high and it was also like a really low, low, but it just taught me just how the internet companies work in that way. And you have to constantly be like, I’m sure for you guys to have to constantly be coming out with really awesome content and growing the brand and growing your community. And it’s not just like a set it and forget it kind of thing. There is blood, sweat, and tears that go into products like this, even if it looks like it’s totally free and you just update something, you need a team behind it. And I think I took a lot of those lessons into building out my current company, but it was still fun. I enjoyed it. I had no intention of making any money from it. So that was just like a delightful surprise.

[00:08:51] Bryan Pham: Yeah. It really does lead you down the path of learning a lot and getting your feet wet into entrepreneurship. 

[00:08:56] But yeah. I want to talk a little more about Lawtrades. I see that you’re part of 500 Startups. So walk us through this. So during law school, you started this Facebook cover app company after law school.

[00:09:10] What made you make the transition? Did you start your career in big law first in New York? Or was this something in the back of your mind where it’s like there must be something more to life than just working in my corporate job. What was the start of Lawtrades that we should know about?

[00:09:27] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. So I’ve actually just started tinkering with Lawtrades right after I graduated law school. I ended up just going all-in on it. Instead of going and working as a lawyer, I was just like, let me just try this thing out for a year. Worst case if it doesn’t work out, I can go and work as a traditional lawyer at any of these firms, that are in New York City.

[00:09:46] But I really want to give it a good year or two. And just to figure out, if this is a viable path or not, I’d save some money from the Facebook app side. And there were a few other similar ones I did, content-based websites that just got made money from like ad clicks. And to me, I just basically spent, it ended up being longer than a year.

[00:10:03] But I spent the first couple of years really just treating it like a side project kind of thing, where I was working on it a lot, but I wasn’t ready to just be like, this is what I’m doing. I still needed to think through the idea, I still needed to figure out who I’m going to sell this to.

[00:10:22] Today Lawtrades is like a marketplace that connects people to illegal freelancers, a kind of a Fiverr Upwork model, but for corporate legal services. But at the time when we launched, I really wanted to just connect with people. I was really inspired by the time there were companies like Uber and Airbnb were really starting to take off.

[00:10:39] And I saw all these other marketplace models out there for all these industries. And I was like, I know how a law firm operates. I do know why law firms are very expensive because there’s a bunch of overhead. They have physical offices and really fancy locations. There’s a bunch of partners at the top that make millions of dollars.

[00:10:56] What if you just got rid of all of that and just connected these independent lawyers directly to clients wouldn’t it be faster? Wouldn’t it be more affordable? And if we took all this offline work and brought it on the internet, could people be more productive that way? But in its earliest days, like Lawtrades was just this website that had two buttons, one that said, I want to provide legal services. One that says I need legal services and people opted in. And then I made it look like it was automated but was just basically me just emailing, introducing people and just letting them figure it out and just learning from how they interacted and what kind of services they need. And I just kept drilling deeper and deeper into that.

[00:11:35] Bryan Pham: That is an amazing story. And this is the definition of an MVP, Minimal Viable Product, and really getting that idea into place too. And I really liked the fact that you created a marketplace, but at what point were you free of this product where you realized that you have product-market fit, and how did you advertise this product too, did you go on different forums?

[00:11:55] Did you pay for ads? I would imagine it’s throughout the 15th. So social media is still around. Leverage social media to find a product-market fit or did you get boots on the ground and go out there and door knock these law firms, “Hey, check out my app”. Like how’d you hustle your way and get more users?

[00:12:09] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. So it started with that. I eventually recruited my co-founder. Who’s still with the company now I went to college with them and he was in my fraternity and we did start knocking door to door, going on Yelp, with a square reader, charging people 300 bucks to join the platform and promising them clients, even though we had no idea how we would get any clients.

[00:12:29] And then we realized that actually is the harder problem to solve for not getting lawyers to pay for your services. So it started off as like the SAS subscription model. We allowed lawyers to upload their real-time availability. So it was like a Zoc doc for lawyers where people of clients can click a slot, get a consultation and they would get the lead and they would pay us in exchange for that. That wasn’t a really good product-market fit.

[00:12:48] It wasn’t sustainable. We were going after so many different practice areas from divorce lawyers to personal injury law. We were spread too thin. And eventually, we focused around startups and small businesses and we found, I’ll tell you more of this story later, we thought that we had a product-market fit at the time, but it really wasn’t, but it was enough for us to get the attention of 500 Startups because we were growing. We were doing a few thousand dollars in revenue a month and it was picking up and we were focused on startups and in terms of social network and how we marketed, I actually wrote a lot on Quora. So I just basically went on this website called Quora, which is a Q and A website.

[00:13:23] And I just filtered through all the legal questions that people are asking. And I just cracked up on my old law school textbooks and just answered hundreds and thousands of them for free. And I just would link Lawtrades at the bottom to check it out and a bunch of people from Quora checked out the website because I would answer this question like, should I incorporate as an LLC or a C Corp?

[00:13:43] And I must’ve answered that in 50 different ways on the site, but it eventually drove some traffic back to the main homepage. And what’s cool about Quora is it also picks up with SEO. So, if it is like a really popular question, people can type it on Google, and then Quora will usually be like the first answer there.

[00:14:00] So not only do you get Quora traffic, you get Google SEO traffic as well. So that jump-started a lot of our early growth, a lot of our early users we eventually applied to 500 Startups. And after two failed attempts, they accepted us on the third try because we just asked anyone and everyone that was involved in 500 Startups to put in a good word for us.

[00:14:18] So we definitely hustled our way into that crazy story with that. But eventually, we got in, moved the mountain. Grew the company from there, and worked into phase two of this, but we have to eventually have to make another major pivot to the company that kind of brought us into where we are now.

[00:14:33] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I love the stories. If you guys can see there’s a big smile on your face, from the pure hustle of everything you’ve done, dude, like being on Quora, I didn’t realize that’s actually very genius to go in there, establish yourself as an expert. So you’re building trust with your community online and having flow traffic into your new website. So I think that’s absolutely amazing. 

[00:14:52] And 500 Startups, right? You talked to everybody to get into that. I think that’s extremely smart because I think what people really forget about startups and businesses and whatnot is that the relationship you build is super important.

[00:15:05] And I can feel that with the hustle in the relationship that you have, I can really see why you’re so successful already at what you do because you have that drive inside you. And I feel like with a lot of new founders, especially when they hit a problem, they just say “Oh no, there’s a problem. I need to stop and figure it out”. I feel like with great founders, they run through the problem and “You know what, this is not going to stop me. I’m just going to run through it. If they are a solution and we’re going to make it work”.

[00:15:27] And time again, I hear in your story where it’s “I have to find my customers, the paying customers and I figured out the product”, I think that’s super, super smart and. Over time, like you ended up refining your products. I want to quickly talk about that too. What kind of pivots did you make in your product to turn into it? What is it today? Because I know that you initially mentioned that you thought you had a product-market fit, but what was a real pivot that caused a product-market fit, ’cause sometimes as you’re working inside your company and you’re working on your product, you can’t see that you don’t have product-market fit.

[00:15:58] So what came to that realization was “Maybe we don’t have product-market fit” and that’s extremely difficult for most founders to realize. What was that point for you? 

[00:16:05] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. It’s a tricky thing, right? Because you can grow your company and get paying customers and just assume that you have product-market fit, fundamentally if your underlying unit economics is not sustainable and your customers aren’t really sticky and they’re not constantly coming back to the platform and using it more.

[00:16:22] It becomes really hard and really expensive to grow your product. You can be tricked into thinking that you have product-market fit, which is what happened to us. We were selling to startups and small businesses, really early-stage folks. Eventually got into 500 Startups. They invested, I think at the time, 125k and then we eventually raised like a seed round shortly after doing demo deem. I think the total around raising our seed round was a little over 3 million bucks. The course of two or three tranches was led by Draper Associates.

[00:16:48] They’re like a kind of a big VC fund. They’ve done things like space X, Robin Hood, and all this. 

[00:16:53] So we were like on cloud nine, we got out of 500 Startups and we got all this cash and we’re just like, we’re going to grow the crap out of this thing. And at that point, we switched a little bit away from just posting on Quora. Cause it wasn’t scalable to doing more ads on Google and running ad-words and at a certain point, I think we were spending close to a hundred grand a month on Google ads, just acquiring lots and lots of customers. And just focusing on growing like the top-line revenue in the business, even though we were actually losing a good amount of money because the problem with the early-stage startup small business segment is the vast majority of them go out of business within the first year. And then the ones that stick around are using you, not so frequent. If you think about when you’re starting a company, The last thing you want to spend a lot of money on is a lawyer. And using it frequently, like you’re trying to like hire for an engineer. You’re trying to grow. You’re trying to market, you’re trying to spend money on customer acquisition. You’re not just letting them spend lots of money every month and more and more, every other month on lawyers.

[00:17:50] The problem with that is when you’re building a marketplace startup, if your demand-side usage isn’t predictable and recurring then that doesn’t provide a lot of incentive for your supply side to stay on board, because if it’s coming in and out, then they get disinterested, they’ll join another platform. They’ll take another job somewhere else. And the model sort of falls apart. So at this time we were losing lots of cash but were growing top-line revenue.

[00:18:15] I think at this point we were doing. A hundred, anywhere from a hundred to 250K in the monthly top line, gross revenue, a sizable amount. And actually, most companies would be able to like, at that time this is I think 2017, 2018 raised a Series A, which was what we were going to do, or just “You know what, we’re going to raise a Series A and we’re going to figure out this loss of a money thing, later on, we’ll just raise a bunch of cash.” But as we failed to raise our Series A at the time, we didn’t know why, but then we realized that there was a competitor that came out and he took our idea a little bit and raised like $70 million on this idea. And it so happened that he was a famous founder. You guys might’ve heard of him, his name was Justin Kan, and he’s launched his company called Atrium. And we were just sitting there watching any raise from every single VC that we spoke with and were just like, “Oh, so that’s why everybody stopped answering our calls”.

[00:19:06] I was like, I got it right. The guy had a close to a billion-dollar exit. That’s doing a legal tech company. Why would you trust a bunch of nobody from Queens to be able to compete with him? This kind of goes into the second phase of it, but we were forced to get profitable.

[00:19:20] And at that time it was a travesty. Me and my co-founder stopped taking salaries, we got laid off 80% of the team and we just had to get profitable. And it forced us to basically do that, cause we had no choice. And at this point, we were all in on Lawtrades. Failure just wasn’t an option. It was just like, it just can’t happen. 

[00:19:41] So, it was a blessing in disguise because it forced us to make this pivot into selling into, and this is like phase three of this story where we find true product-market fit by actually selling to legal departments in bigger companies.

[00:19:55] So, we now work with companies like DoorDash, Pinterest, Opendoor, AngelList. And what we do is we sell to the general councils at those companies who have a daily legal need. So it went from startups that might have an annual or quarterly legal need to companies that use us every single hour because their legal teams are small, but their companies are growing and scaling like crazy.

[00:20:16] So, it seemed we were doomed for failure, but it all made sense. We actually rebuilt the product, but we used pieces of it that worked for the small business side and tweaked it for longer-term enterprise-level engagements. And finally, it all clicked. And our LTVs went from a thousand dollars to basically close to a million dollars. And we started attracting even better supply and the revenue was predictable. And then we kept getting more customers which attracted more supply, and then we got more supply that attracted more customers. And then we got to cash flow positive just based on that sort of pivot. Atrium as you guys may or may not know ended up going out of business.

[00:20:52] We end up surviving. Another competitor also went out of business and now we just actually just raised our Series A a couple of weeks ago. 

[00:20:58] Bryan Pham: Congratulations on raising a Series A. And I think that behind every quote, unquote, a bad situation is always a silver lining. So I’m really happy that you guys were able to pivot and make it work because I think you guys really cracked that problem. I think had this not happened to you guys, you might not be sustainable. And I do feel like most first-time founders fall the following mindset to where it’s “I’ll just figure out like revenue later, get profitable later. I’ll just go out there and raise a Series A because they’re already on the money”. But I think that contrary to belief, if you don’t have to raise money and feel profitable, that’s probably the best way to go.

[00:21:32] The fact that you raised your Series A so much later, doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t take away from your success actually means you’re even more successful because we’ve never had to. 

[00:21:38] So, I’m curious too, like what was going through your mind? I would imagine during this time where it’s oh my God things are not looking great. And that tends to be a very common theme with being a founder. Just some days are rosies, some days are complete crap. So what was great to that mindset where you’re just like, oh crap, what did we do? What was going through your mind when you had to lay off 80% of your staff, you no longer take a salary? Put us in that mind state right now. What were you feeling? How did you pull yourself out of that rut to reinvent the company essentially? 

[00:22:08] Raad Ahmed: It was really depressing. I’m not going to lie. It’s not as glamorous as you think it is, which is just you go through a period of troth and then you come out swinging. It felt like it was forever. It felt like we were at the bottom of this abyss and there was really no way out. And even with all of our solutions, we were second-guessing ourselves. Cause we’re just like we clearly didn’t make the right decisions.

[00:22:30] Cause we’re in this situation. How can we actually trust ourselves? And I think it helps to have a good co-founder or a good early employee or team. Eventually, at some point, it was just three or four of us, it was myself, my co-founder, our one engineer. And then one ops-finance person who had just made sure that there was enough money coming in to make payroll. And we would just sit together and some days were just really quiet and we wouldn’t really say too much to each other. And other days we would just explode and just be like, this is not working.

[00:22:58] That’s not working. But I think ultimately, having the trust, at least for me, like I started the company, but I brought on my co-founder pretty early on, knowing that he wasn’t ready to quit, gave me hope. And then I think when I got to hope he got hope from that. So it was a little bit contagious in that way.

[00:23:15] And we were just like, “No, you know what? We’re going to figure this out. Let’s look at the data. Let’s look at who’s using the site and that led us to find this one general counsel who worked at this company called Equities, then that used the app like every single day and was just, and we gave him a call.

[00:23:30] We asked him a bunch of questions and he was just like, yeah I just want to use you guys on a monthly basis. I don’t want to continuously start projects as startups do. And that’s when this light bulb moment went off and we researched what a general council was and what they did and what his company was about.

[00:23:44] And his company was way bigger than other startups we’ve worked with. And then it also just forced us from a financial standpoint. I didn’t go to business school. The way you get a business school education is when your startup is failing because it forces you to look at cash flows.

[00:23:56] It forces you to read a financial statement. It forces you to reduce expenses. And I learned how to read a financial statement for the first time when the company was failing and actually care about that. So all of these things that were just like the harder, the problem, the bigger the lesson, and there was no amount of schooling or advice or, networking with people that would have taught, what we went through during that two to three year period of making that pivot. And it required us to also shut down the startup side of the business, which was doing a decent monthly revenue to just focus on this segment because we couldn’t do both. There were only four people. So it was even scarier because now we’re just like completely shutting down this other side of the business and going all-in on this one side that was even smaller than from a revenue standpoint, then that one.

[00:24:45] And it was scary as hell, but I knew that we had to go for the swing and it’s we also where just what else do we have to lose? Then just go all-in on this. And after the ego part of it went away. We were just, let’s just do this. Let’s double down on it. And it worked out and, we’re about to cross a million a month in revenue and there’s no sort of slow down in sight, but it wasn’t easy. The harder and riskier it is, the rewards are a little bit higher as well. I think. 

[00:25:14] And I don’t want to say there was a kind of a second part to this pivot, we made this pivot and we were just like, all right, we’re good. We’re heading into 2020 strong, and then COVID happened. And then everything stopped again. So we were on this path where “Yes, we just made enough money to get cash flow positive”. And then every company in those first couple of months, just pauses their usage with us. And we were holy crap. 

[00:25:39] And the thing with running a marketplace. It’s not like a SAS product. It’s not like a consumer app. There are people on the other side that are depending on this as their main source of income and the money needs to flow. And if a customer and or a bunch of them suddenly stopped using it, then it’s really bad from a supply perspective. ‘Cause, you’re still having to pay them out, even though the customer might stop their spending. And there are all these sorts of things there, but that was the last bit. And then we went through one more dip. And then finally, after that happened, usage has spiked up like crazy because companies needed to hire remote lawyers because the whole world rent or mode. 

[00:26:16] We just spent the last couple of years building the largest database of remote legal freelancers. Legal budgets were cut in half. Our services were half the price of a big law firm. The word of mouth group grew like crazy. If this was a much better alternative than using a big law firm. And then it all just came together afterward, but it doesn’t stop, but at least for now knock on wood. It’s stabilized for the most part.

[00:26:37] Bryan Pham: You give you chills because this is what we want in the podcast. You want this raw. Unfiltered, unglamorous, horrible startup experience, but it’s very rewarding. And it’s everything about your stories. I feel like you completely understand your situation really well, and understand what a clear mind is like, this is what I need to do with things that are not looking great.

[00:26:57] Unlike most people, in this situation you didn’t give up. You kept looking for new solutions. And I feel like when your back is against the wall, you have nothing to lose. You’re going to make things happen. You do things you would never do. Cause now you’re forced to look outside the box, and “Oh no, I need to make this happen. A lot of people depend on me”. This feels a sense of responsibility for making it through and taking care of people and taking care of your customer or your brand or your company. 

[00:27:20] So one thing I’m really curious about too, as things are looking really sour, how are you able to manage the expectations with your other co-founders? But on top of that, how are you able to continue building a trusting relationship with your group of investors? Raising money is pretty difficult, but managing investors is also difficult. They get angry, you’re, oh, what’s going on? I want my money back. What’s going on? So how were you able to manage your team culture pivot correctly while still, I don’t want to say this but, keep your mind focused as voices of investors started concerning you. How did you manage everything?

[00:27:55] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. I went through a phase, especially after the first time I raised the seed round and it was a few million bucks and I’ve never seen that kind of cash before in my life. I grew up pretty poor and I never even had a six-figure job before. There were a lot of high expectations of just navigating that feeling.

[00:28:11] Lots of guilt that, I failed them feeling like just lots of tiny voices in your head, just basically being, you totally fucked this up and they hate you for it. The reality of it is they’re not thinking that and if you actually raise from institutional investors, They’re dealing with hundreds of other portfolio companies. And for them, there are businesses that know that 99% of the investments that they make aren’t going to work out. Not that necessarily is going to fail, but maybe they’ll either return their money back or get a modest couple of, two, three X return. There’s usually one or 1% or 2% that end up just doing exceptionally well, which makes up for all of their losses. 

[00:28:53] But I had all these realizations afterward, but I really beat myself up about it. And I don’t think that way anymore now. I was always very transparent with them. Even despite all of the low periods of starting Lawtrades, I would still send out the monthly or quarterly investor updates. I would tell them, Hey, we didn’t get to raise this round. Our revenue is declining and it didn’t feel good sending that, but I still sent it. Of course, you’ll sense a little bit of disappointment because you know that it’s like, all right, they invested in you. They thought you were going to be a billion-dollar company and it ended up not being that it’s looking more and more clear that it’s not going to be that. But I think we lucked out in terms of getting good investors that didn’t really give us a hard time with that. They understood it. I think that’s especially, with this round, this that we recently did, I actually optimized for a lot of founders, operators, or even the VC that we took money from.

[00:29:46] There were former founders that started their own companies and sold and then went into VC instead of purely being investors because that allows them to actually relate to you better, and have some level of empathy. And they’ve been there as well. A startup isn’t just this, isn’t just 20% month-over-month growth every single month for the next 10 years. There are ups and downs that take place and the right investors will understand that. And they’ll appreciate that. And they’ll know that is a normal part of building a business. 

[00:30:16] So I think all that’s to say that for anyone thinking about taking money. For me, that’s helped optimize people that have built businesses before, built other startups before to just have a deeper sense of empathy for when things don’t go. And then even if you have investors that don’t have a founder background, I would say just be transparent, but just don’t beat yourself up as much. Because honestly, they’re thinking about so many other things, they think way less about you than you actually think, if that makes sense. 

[00:30:47] Bryan Pham: Yeah. That’s actually a really good tip. And I’m personally guilty of this and we also raised a pretty sizable seed round as well for Asian Hustle Network, and honestly, the past year has been hard, like we had to cancel a lot of things, cancel all our events. And I don’t know, just at the back of my mind is, just letting everyone down. How do I keep the team together? And I’m going through the first pivot of your story right now, as we speak, it’s okay. I’ll talk to more founders. Okay. As long as I don’t give up, as long as I keep thinking outside the box, things are going to work out.

[00:31:16] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. 

[00:31:17] Bryan Pham: So I’m curious too. How do you take care of yourself? How do you take care of your mental health? Cause I think through your story, there’s a lot of inspiration of grit, perseverance, never giving up. Deep down inside when you’re by yourself, you’re sitting there at a sofa when you’re eating breakfast in the morning as you’re waking up each day, there’s obviously like everyone has their doubt, as we wake up in the hell, man, I don’t know if I can just keep on doing this. This sucks right now. Like how do you take care of your mental health? Do you practice any sort of affirmation? Do you exercise, like how do you take care of that side of your mental health and your physical health as well?

[00:31:47] Raad Ahmed: It’s a really good question. So for me after going through those different business pivots and getting to this product-market fit level I basically experienced two deaths in 2020, like shortly afterward. One, my mom passed away suddenly.

[00:32:02] And then two, one of my good friends who’s around my age, who got me into internet startups, to begin with. I learned a lot from him. He also was, unfortunately. And these two deaths were six months away from each other. So the reason why that relates to how I feel when I wake up is, every single day since that I want to say it’s been close to two years that happened in 2020. I don’t take any days for granted. I view my time as really finite. I know, I think as humans, we know that we’re not going to live forever, but I think the vast majority of us don’t really feel that or don’t really can think of that in terms of years or months or days or hours.

[00:32:44] I viscerally felt that. And I wake up each day wanting to change if that kind of makes sense. Just my outlook and not necessarily to be better or be optimized or be more awake or whatever. I just want to just change or just a little bit. And just whether it’s my perspective and obviously it can be reflected back into the business and all of that.

[00:33:09] So it’s just a combination of wanting to change, wanting to treat each day as an opportunity to be different. And, I think, a lot of that advice sounds a little repetitive, but it’s just milking each and every day and trying to make sure that I’m having the largest impact possible in the 18 or 20 hours that I’m awake. And whether that’s through learning something new, whether that’s through discovering something about myself, whether that’s developing deeper, closer relationships with other people or having hard conversations. It’s just really ultimately being as true and authentic as possible with as little filter as possible for the remaining days that I have. 

[00:33:54] So I wanted to preface with that aspect of it and then things that have helped me. And I wouldn’t advise people to just go and just copy this and do this for the sell of, and expect some sort of output. These are things that naturally gravitated towards me. And I do it as a way of self-discovery and self-understanding. But journaling in the morning helps me. I think for me, I’m not a big morning person. And also when I wake up for whatever reason, I’m always just a little anxious. So being able to be just right when I wake up. Drinking one liter of water and just writing out anything that comes to me, not with any particular objective, just pure stream of consciousness, like anything that’s there for whatever reason, if it feels a little bit better. And then I usually do a short meditation afterward.

[00:34:44] There are no apps, no music. I’m usually sitting just by myself with noise-canceling headphones for at least 30 minutes, but usually an hour. I usually feel the effects of it around the 40, 45-minute mark. And that to me, just acts as another sort of cleansing almost. It feels like I’m stripping away certain layers whether it’s thoughts or stress or anxiety. And I just do it for myself and I don’t keep track of it. I don’t view it as a habit. I feel more in tune with myself. I feel more in tune with the universe. I feel more in tune with things around me when I do get that quiet alone time in the morning. And then during the daytime, I just tried to kick some ass

[00:35:27] Bryan Pham: That’s amazing. I’m really sorry to hear about your mom and your friend. I can’t imagine what you have been through over the last two years, but I feel that too because I actually had two siblings that passed. So that feeling of I need to make the most of my time. I think that it’s always in the back of my head where it’s like nothing’s ever guaranteed.

[00:35:47] I don’t know where that thought comes from, but I keep thinking that way. Very similar to you, I have a very improved mindset as well, where it’s every single day, I just want to do something better. And I feel that goes a long way too, in terms of mental health and keeping yourself sane because as an entrepreneur, it’s just there’s not anyone telling us what to do. It’s mostly us telling us what to do. It’s like an internal voice. And sometimes you don’t even know if that’s the right thing to do, but your gut just says, trust me, just go down that path. And I really appreciate the fact that you shared that you journal and you write and you free flow.

[00:36:20] I think that it’s a great habit for a lot of us to adopt and especially. I feel a lot of times, especially that we know the answer already, but throughout the day, it’s we’re just so preoccupied at work or whatever it is you do, that you ignore the voice in your mind.

[00:36:34] But you really know the answer to what you need to do already. So you just have to let it free flow and you reread it. You’re like I know exactly what to do. 

[00:36:41] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. I think there’s a very big difference between having thoughts in your head and trying to tackle that problem and putting those thoughts onto an actual piece of paper and taking a step back and looking at it from different angles.

[00:36:52] I think that’s a very powerful thing because it removes it from a lot of the emotions that might be tied to some of these thoughts. And sometimes it is your intuition, but sometimes it’s your mind. And sometimes your heart will tell you to go in a certain direction, but that’s not always, and sometimes you need to use your mind, your intellect, whatever you want to look at it from a non-emotional standpoint to make the right decision. 

[00:37:14] For me, it’s just removing it, putting it in an external source, looking at it from various angles, and attacking it from different angles. It was really powerful.

[00:37:22] Bryan Pham: Yeah, definitely. So I have one final question for you.

[00:37:26] And I think this question is pretty unique in our situation. I don’t know if you noticed, but in the startup world, we realize that a lot of people go to really high-end schools, like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton. And I feel like, with our situation, we make things work for us. And understanding our circumstances, networking in your situation. Talking to a lot of people at 500 Startups to get started. What advice do you have for an entrepreneur that didn’t exactly tote for the most privileged background that wants to get into entrepreneurship that doesn’t have any connections, get into startups, and learn a lot more to find the right mentors and community? What advice do you have for them if they want to get into entrepreneurship and never really thought that they can do it themselves? 

[00:38:02] Raad Ahmed: Yeah. I think that the internet is the great democratizer of information and access to connections. And I think it’s one of the probably greatest inventions of our generation, right? There are people that are going to be able to listen to this podcast from all over the world and be able to pretty much listen in on a conversation with somebody who, frankly speaking, I wish I heard when I first started the company. 

[00:38:28] So I think that the world is moving less and less away from credentialing. I’m sure it still definitely helps, right? Like on paper, one versus another in the early days, maybe the Stanford computer science dropout will get picked over you for a seed investment. But ultimately it’s the people that stick around and the people that have the track record and the people that have built it brick by brick over the years, that will completely overshadow anybody with just any credential because your credential can only take you so far.

[00:39:01] And your work product is the internet, right? That’s the ultimate resume, what you publish, what you think, what you speak about. And, one of the reasons I did this podcast is I wanted it to share this story and just have that there. And if somebody wants to get to know me, they can just click, play, and listen to this.

[00:39:16] Get up to speed on my life story, and develop a deeper sort of connection with them. And I’m always happy to connect with people in that way. And then, that kind of goes into the connections aspect of it. You can follow people on Twitter, you’ll be surprised how many people respond to a cold email. How many people respond to a Twitter, DM. And I would focus more on the work. I think the new resume is the MVP, the product. The old resume is the PDF of where you went to school and bullet points of your work experience. And anybody can create anything on the internet now. So it’s the great equalizer. 

[00:39:49] Bryan Pham: I love it. I love that advice a lot. So what can our listeners find out more about you and reach out to you? 

[00:39:55] Raad Ahmed: I’m on all the main social channels. You could find me on Twitter. @R44D, Raad was taken with two A’s, so I just replaced it with four. raadahmed.com I also have a Substack, raad.substack.com, where I write out just weekly thoughts and things that interest me.

[00:40:12] Bryan Pham: Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing everything on this podcast. Raad. It’s absolutely one of my favorite podcasts and one of my favorite interviews so far.

[00:40:21] Raad Ahmed: Thanks, man. I appreciate it. It’s just super fun. 

[00:40:23] Bryan Pham: Of course.