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Image credit: Skritswap

Melissa Kargiannakis: Raising investment for Skritswap...

Melissa Kargiannakis: Raising investment for Skritswap...

...and proving that good networking works

Image above: Melissa Kargiannakis with Darren Redfern, Skritswap's Chief Technical Officer

In the winter of 2016, Queen’s Young Leader Melissa Kargiannakis was drowning in debt. Now Silicon Valley investors are investing six-figure sums into her company, Skritswap. She tells Leading Change how pitching, networking and hard work are making her dreams come true.

“Two and a half years ago I was on unemployment insurance, had no job, had moved back to mother’s house at 27 after eight years away,” says Melissa Kargiannakis. “I had nothing.”

But Melissa did have something – a dream. She had a burning ambition to make the internet – and the language used on websites – accessible to all, regardless of their education or reading ability. And she had an idea of how to make that happen.

“I was like, I believe in this. I need to make it happen.”

Starting up

The first step was learning the art of asking “fancy people”, which she has admitted takes courage. But she also told Leading Change two years ago, “You’d be astounded at how many people who you think are untouchable, who are just like ‘I was in your place once, I’d love to help you on your way’.”

This is how she made connections at the University of Alberta to help her develop a proof of concept and made contact with the University of Toronto, which continues to partner with Skritswap on research and developoment.

University of Toronto

University of Toronto

She then discovered the Women’s Startup Lab (WSL) – an accelerator for women entrepreneurs in California in the United States – by “scouring the web for all things relevant to tech startups and particularly female founders”.

Word of mouth

Melissa was accepted onto the WSL accelerator but didn't have any money to pay for it. So she asked a friend who works in communications, Chelsea Prescod, to help her write the copy for a Gofundme page.

Chelsea showed her mentor the Gofundme page and told her about Melissa's plan to make the internet more accessible. Her mentor, sent the page on to Joseph Fung, a tech angel investor and entrepreneur. 

“So he and I started having meetings starting in October 2016. Almost monthly, I would drive down.”

Pitching is about more than money

Melissa honed her pitching skills to approach potential investors. Being partnered with the UofT, helped her win research grants worth $50,000 Canadian, but this would never be enough to set up the company.

In the spring of 2017, Melissa hit the road to pitch her company. “Between end of April beginning of May, I travelled 4,000 kilometres in four weeks,” she says, “mostly by car.”

Pitching at Women's Startup Lab

Pitching at Women's Startup Lab

She didn’t win any financial investment, but the effort was still worth it. “One of the four biggest banks in Canada said 'We want to buy your product. We want to be a client.”

And she learnt a lot about pitching – tips that she has shared with Leading Change  not least that persistence works.

“They say, in the investor world, if you’re trying to get investors it’s 20 to one. So you’ll talk to 20 investors, and one will invest.” 

Keep potential investors up to date with your progress

That sounds like a lot of work just to get one investor. But now the other 19 know you are out there. They might become clients. They might invest later – when your startup has grown, or they see others investing.

Melissa has kept in touch with the people she has met along the way. She sends out email newsletters and press releases to update her contacts around the world. She has built on the contacts she made on accelerator programmes like Women’s Startup Lab.

And she uses online networking tools.

“I was on this Women Who Start Up Slack group,” she says, explaining how she met the Director of Operations at Boost Venture Capital, Maddie Callander. “I just messaged her. Same thing right? Ask fancy people. So I just started talking with her.”

This was back in the spring of 2017. In May that year, Maddie and Melissa video-called for the first time. “I had no private capital investment. Zero. I had no team. We had signed UofT as a research and development partner, but we had no product.”

Three men and Melissa speaking at a panel event

Melissa speaking at an event

The following June, Melissa got her first investment cheque from Joseph Fung. “He took a chance on me when nobody else would,” she says. “I couldn’t have started without him.”

Melissa went out to California to meet Maddie, who gave her a lot of advice. By the following September, she had some investment from angel investors. They were both women who believe in investing in women. These were not huge sums, but were invaluable to the venture.

She was also close to signing up her first paying client, the Algoma District School Board. And all this time, she kept Maddie and Boost up to date with what was happening.

By October 2017, Boost was showing a keen interest in Skritswap. “Maddie was like, 'You’re making strides, you’re making progress.' She said 'Look, we want to consider you for the fund.'”

Melissa speaking at Boost Venture Capital's Tribe 11 Demo Day

Melissa speaking at Boost Venture Capital's Tribe 11 Demo Day

The six-figure deal was closed in February 2018 and announced in April.

More recently, in September 2018, Melissa secured funding from Unshackled Ventures and shared a useful networking tip with her local newspaper, The Sault Star.

“Once I knew we were getting close to a deal, for about two weeks I called some of the different investors I’ve built relationships with who I knew would be interested in a deal of this size,” she told them. “I asked who wanted to be on standby if a lead investor came in.”

Overcoming gender bias

Melissa now has three confirmed clients – the Business Development Bank of Canada, Manulife Insurance and the Algoma District School Board – and a team of salaried staff.

She acknowledges she would never have been able to bid for the large sums from venture capitalists in California, if it hadn’t been for her first investor, Joseph Fung and the two women angel investors.

“So very grateful to female investors,” she says. “We need you. We’re not being funded in the same way and we need you.”

Flyer for League of Extraordinary Women event at the Women in Tech Festival 2018, featuring Melissa Kargiannakis

Flyer for League of Extraordinary Women event at the Women in Tech Festival 2018, featuring Melissa Kargiannakis

She talks about the conversations she’s had with potential investors, who have invested in other startups – without proof of concept or clients – that are run by men. One, when challenged, responded, “I guess its pattern matching!”

“Pattern matching is looking for someone like yourself,” says Melissa. “If you really want to see how bad sexism is in 2018, start a company.”

She acknowledges that there are other startups who “start further behind me”. The world is a very unequal place. “Now I’m just accepting this is the way it is. I can be really angry, or I go to boxing and hot yoga.”