Austin Cohen is the perfect candidate to kickoff a series of Aabaco Small Business interviews about how startup CEOs overcome challenges to growth. After all, his own personal growth is what inspired his business. Cohen’s creation, WhoNowApp, aims to help people like him “be better daters.”
The 37-year-old entrepreneur graduated from the University of Miami in 2002, ran and sold a limousine business, and worked as a DJ before conceiving an app idea during a vacation. “I was very single at the time, and I was dating a few girls and swiping right and getting together with my coupled friends,” Cohen says. “Ten to twenty percent of our conversations were about my dating life. I was talking about inconsequential memories, about big waste-of-time dates, instead of talking about real things that matter and have lasting effects.”
Still, he reasoned, feedback from friends was useful. “If I’m going to meet somebody and have a chance at having a growing, successful relationship, I might as well get help from people who’ve done this before.” He didn’t see existing social media channels as the place to do that.
“I’d see people share Facebook posts about how great this person they’re dating is, but a few days later those posts would be deleted,” he says. “I wanted to share that stuff, but not with random people I met in an airport lounge and accepted as friends on Facebook.”
So, one morning after conceiving the idea for WhoNowApp, Cohen says, “I jumped out of bed and said, ‘I’m making this happen.’” Four days later he was in Los Angeles taking a General Assembly class. “I went to different startup events and conferences every single night, shook hands, and took advantage of the startup economy,” he says.
By April 2015 he had raised more than $700,000 from investors, and screened more than 100 app developers before hiring one in New York. The team there helped him build WhoNowApp as “a way of sharing your dating life while protecting people’s privacy and not leaving a social footprint,” he says. The app is designed for creating deliberately small networks of confidantes, invited by phone number, who can help users make sense of their matches and make better decisions about dating. It’s also useful for seeking anonymous feedback about relationship conundrums.
As for hurdling the major challenges to growing the business, Cohen says prioritizing the tasklist is a big one. “As a startup, our resources are limited and our time and attention is needed on everything that happens. There are so many things to do. Hundreds of emails a day, user inquiries, product development, pursuing marketing opportunities like hotel key cards and creating fliers for club events. But there’s only a limited amount of time in the day to do them.”
Cohen says his solution is a “turn-me-on” routine. “I start off every day by asking myself, ‘What is the most important thing I can do right now for my company to grow?’ I think about three to five things that make me anxious, that challenge me or make me uncomfortable,” he says. “If I answer those 100 emails I’ll be busy all day, but I won’t move the needle on the company.”
For instance, Cohen says he dreamed of having the rapper Nas, a former limousine customer, play his Miami launch party in December. Calling up a celebrity to ask for a favor was anxiety provoking, and the payoff was big–media buzz and a happy crowd.
“Since then we’ve been doing a lot of advertising, observing user behavior and interaction, and figuring out how to grow it to critical mass quickly,” Cohen says. “We haven’t had hyper growth yet, but we have been growing several hundred percent every month over month.”
As for generating revenue, Cohen says he’s not worrying about that yet. “We are totally focused on product market fit. We’re not assuming any revenue. We are building something people want and desire and have a good experience with.” Ultimately, he expects that if the product adds value to the dating experience, revenues could come in from offerings and partnerships that subsidize that.
How does he avoid temptations to work on things that won’t move the needle? “I have my phone set to ‘do not disturb’ all the time and I have all notifications turned off except for my WhoNow account,” he says. “When our users are asking us for help and support I’m responding as quickly as possible, and I’m available when my friends are sharing their own dating moments on the app.”
Those notifications are especially gratifying, Cohen says. “When I’m sitting with someone and that WhoNowApp notification pops up, I say, "Look, people are using it! Every time I see that notification it’s like my baby taking its first steps.”
Follow Adrienne Burke @adajane