I sit down with Hunter Baker, co-founder of Leanr - a sales messaging automation tool for small businesses to talk about what its like to found a business while your still in college, the need for a tool like this, some of the difficulties of founding a business in a developing tech hub like Houston, and how Hunter found and partnered with his co-founder!
Well, hey Hunter, great to have you on! You are creating Leanr. Am I saying that right?
Yeah, Leanr. It’s Leaner with no E.
Okay. Nice startup name there. What is it?
So it’s an SMS automation platform for small to mid-sized businesses. You see what they have now for SMS marketing and such out there, and it’s kind of like not conversational. It’s just, this is whatever business, and then the deal they’re running and then a link to learn more about it.
And what we’re trying to do is really bring that to the next level where it’s connected to a CRM and it’s, “Hey, Owen how are you doing? This is so-and-so from this place, and I just want to let you know that we’re doing a deal for this, and if you’re interested, just let me know!”
And then from there, you could then respond conversationally. So it would then prompt an “Oh, cool. Well, here’s the menu. Let me know what you want and I’ll have it ready for when you come here.” And then, you know, send a Stripe link, and then boom, you have a transaction. So we’re taking SMS marketing to the transaction phase and we’re completely automating the whole process using a couple of different integrations and a little bit of our own secret sauce.
So kind of like a concierge interaction, but just through SMS alone.
Yeah! It’s just figuring out what are the intents of different kinds of messages that are sent and then prompting our response from that.
Gotcha. If you had to distill it down into about five words, what would you go with?
Oh, I always say the SMS automation for SMBs. And it’s also iMessages. So that’s kind of really cool because you get the full conversational feel. You might even see, you know, the three bubbles typing and such. So you’re going to feel right out of the box like you’re talking to a human. And we’re also going to have things where you can text an order to a number and you can then place your order, things like that.
So why this? We can get into your background a bit more later, but I’m just curious on the surface, what kind of turns you on to, “Hey, there’s a need here.”
Yeah. So, first off, the number of people with newsletters in email marketing completely exploded over the last two years. Everyone has their own newsletter and they’re constantly bombarding you. You have spam, you have scams. And I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t click on any links or do any transaction through that.
And then that mixed with kind of the rise of all these large corporations killing small business, I wanted to create a way for small businesses to combat that and kind of get that consumer mobile real estate, through SMS. But at the same time, you don’t wanna overbear them or overwhelm them with the number of inbound and outbound text messages being sent. So that’s where we came up with automating that process for them. Because the same way you have an app from Chick-fil-A that says, “Hey, we’re running a deal.” Well, now you’re getting a text message that says, “Hey, we’re running the deal.” And if anything, you’re going to look at that first. So that’s the idea behind it.
So on the surface, this is a pretty crowded space, right? A lot of people are doing this sort of thing. What makes you different?
How it’s molded over time is, in the beginning, we wanted to make a no-code tool for small business owners. And then I realized, there are things like that out there. Twilio has their studio, right? It’s a really great studio if you’re someone who works in tech. If you’re someone who owns a bakery and just knows how to make some killer donut holes, it’s not for you. Instead, what we’re doing is target a small niche of 10 to 20 businesses to start. Like bakeries, real estate agents, things like that. And then from there, when they go to sign up, it’ll go, “Hey, what kind of business do you own?” They’ll click, “Oh, I Own a barbershop.” Right?
“Well, here are 15 different flows for barbershops that we know y’all need based on user interviews and just talking to the community.” So whatever the community thinks they need, that’s where we’ll step in and create those flows. So that all they have to do is go on there, upload their documentation of their content, maybe that’s like a rate card or a menu, something like that, and then put the little keyword to text an order to trigger that event.
Or maybe if you’re a landscaper and you want a message sent to all your clients, when it rains saying, “Hey, I can’t come mow.” Well cool! That’s already set up for you. You just have to import your contact list and that takes care of that time. So that’s our value prop; having it be a truly turnkey solution where you go on there and don’t know how to use the computer and still figure it out.
So what was your market research like? Clearly, you’ve talked to some of these businesses. You kind of know what they need. Tell us a bit about that process.
Yes, we’re actually right in the middle of that now. I brought on my co-founder, and he has an amazing background; started and exited four different companies. And what he’s doing now is dealership marketing automation. And he saw the use case of, “Hey, I saw you looked at this car, I just want to let you know, we have another one on the floor and you can come by today at two and we can check it out.” From there, it kind of went off of my head that, “Hey, we need to make this very turnkey and specific to industries.”
When I was in high school, I started a little landscaping empire in the niche of my town. And there were so many niche problems that I had to deal with and text people about that would take up the first two hours of my morning. If I could just automate that entire process, shoot, I would pay, what we’re going to charge in a year in a month just to have that accessibility to my customers without actually having to deal with them.
So funny enough, some of the investors we got early on, they were like, “Hey, well, we had this type of business before we get into all this. This is where I see this being useful and all these different scenarios.” And it’s really just been very organic. Like my uncle owns a tractor supply company. I’m going to go, “Hey, what is the stuff you talk to customers about? What are you picking up the phone the most for?”
And then from there figuring, okay, where can we sense common themes? And then we’re going to keep doing that on a larger scale with strangers. So anyone listening that owns a small business, reach out because I would love to pick your brain a little.
So are you starting with specific industries and tackling them industry by industry?
Yes. So first prototype we plan on having out will probably have five different use cases as well as a sales use case, a marketing use case, and also a SAS use case which is kind of getting out of the SMB and more into the sales SDR role. But yeah, it’ll be probably five, six niche use cases to start, and then hopefully they expand into having a broader spectrum of use cases.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. Go with a market that you know, prove the product, prove the concept and then expand from there. So many businesses just try to hit everything at once. Like, “Oh, this is brilliant. It can do everything.” And it ends up doing nothing and you die. So that’s wise.
So let’s talk about you. What’s your background? Were you entrepreneurial at all as a child or how’d you fall into this?
I think I made money in every way possible as a child. I mean, I was 12 years old Photoshopping cars to have different wheels on them and then selling them for like five bucks a piece. I did everything as a kid and probably my biggest thing in high school was that landscaping company I started. I’d be in class that day and then get a text that I had a huge job where I needed three guys. So I would look around in the class and go, “Hey, uh, do you have basketball practice after school? Do you want to come earn like 20 bucks an hour with me and we’ll pull shrubs or something?” So I started learning very surface level, the power of delegation and knowing where your strong suit is, and then what can you automate through having other people do it for you basically?
Kind of like a four-hour work week by Tim Ferris, before I ever even heard about that. So that was my big thing in high school, which led to me getting an internship my freshman year of college working in software development. I knew nothing about software development. I just knew that I had a lot of apps on my phone. I grew up having apps. I mean, I had an iPad in my hands at six years old, I knew what made me stick and what maybe didn’t.
So I kind of excelled in that area cause I’d be talking to people in their forties or fifties. They haven’t really given a lot of time to applications. So they don’t know really what to look for and what makes it viral and what makes people pick it up on a daily basis. So that’s where I kind of found my strong suit and understanding, and I just loved product management at that point.
Yeah. Okay. So you started at college, are you in college now?
Yeah! And It’s funny, cause I’ll be on a call with an angel investor and then I have to cut it short to go to my business 1301 class and learn about what an asset is. So it’s really slow and it’s a lot of juggling, but then again, I’m not at a dream school right now. So my end goal, if everything goes great with Leanr, is to take that and then get into that dream school using, “Hey, I built a company. Here you go. You probably use it.” So that’s the end goal. It’s not even really like I want to take over the world.
Gotcha. That’s fascinating. So you’re in college right now and staying in college. I mean, there’s a long and proud tradition of people getting their gig going and saying, “All right, I’m done with this.” Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, all those guys.
Well, I see the value in not growing up too fast. Looking back at my high school years, I’d be late to school some days because I’d be mowing and then I’d leave early because I had to go to a tree trimming job. I’d go to school with limbs in the back of my truck looking completely like an idiot. And looking back, I was like, you know, the amount of times that I missed with friends because I was doing that makes me just kind of want to go back and have never done it. But then again, I wouldn’t be where I am now, so who knows?
That’s a balance. You need both as much as you can.
Definitely. So I think I’ll get that balance as I eventually probably move to Austin later next year. That’s where my girlfriend is at. And also just being around other students is great. But not in the position I am right now. We’re hiring computer science students from UT and Berkeley and Cornell right now. Those are actually like our three hires this next week. And it’s cool, but it doesn’t feel the same as kind of having that buddy-buddy relationship.
No, it is never going to be the same. That’s an important thing to understand. You can be friends, but it’s never going to be quite the same, you’re never going to be equals and that’s both good and bad.
Yeah. It’s so awkward getting on those calls with a full ride, valedictorian of their class, and it’s kind of intimidating. A little bit of imposter syndrome from being the one interviewing these kids. But at the same time, I’m like, he could go off and do exactly what I’m doing, but he’s not. So there’s that willingness to take risks that trumps how well educated you are.
Talk a little bit more about that if you’re okay with it because you are young, I think you’re the youngest guy we’ve ever interviewed on this podcast, and I’m sure you deal with that all the time because you’re talking to investors. I mean, heck, we feel young, but we’re not that young, we’re in our late twenties.
Yeah. it’s interesting. I mean, the first real hit to it was when I was working in software development and I went to an application launch party at a bar and I walk in and they go, you’re 19, what are you doing here? And I was like, “Wow. I’m 19, this is insane.” And like everyone there then knew how old I was. So it’s been a little tough, just kind of gaining people’s trust and understanding that I’m actually very committed to this.
And it’s been helpful since I brought on my co-founder because when an investor or employee is talking to us and he mentions that he had an over a hundred million dollar exit last December, all of a sudden the tone completely changes. Because before they see it as, oh young kid and random old guy. Why is he here?
Have you found that it’s mainly an advantage or an obstacle or a mixture of both?
It’s an obstacle. When it gets to the point where investors have to write a check or, you know, spend time on you or whatever it is, then it’s like, “Well you are young. Right?” So it’s trying to make sure that the calls that I get on are very purpose-driven and intent-driven. Where I’m asking you, “Why are we getting on this call?” Is it to pitch to you because want to hold my cheeks and call me great at what I’m doing, or are you actually interested in what we’re building and trying to contribute to that and see it through? So that’s really the biggest thing.
Right, I understand that. We were older than you, but not much older when we got started and there was plenty of that. So I understand.
Yeah. It’s tough. But hey, then again, I get in a lot of rooms that I wouldn’t have been able to get in just because people don’t see any type of reason to turn me away, you know?
How did you find your co-founder? What was that process like?
It was actually interesting. So back when I worked at the software dev shop, he reached out to me. I think he was trying to hire me, but I took it as he was trying to hire developers that we had. And we got on a call and started talking and realized we had no way to help each other. And he was like, “Well, um, let’s stay in touch. I just moved to Houston. So I’d love to just catch up later.” Radio silence. And then he starts to see what I was doing and he’s like, “Wow.” Basically, this is in line with an internal tool he wanted to build, but now he sees the value in just building it as a SAS product.
So he came on board to help me just this past month and after we’d known each other for about eight months. So it’s been really nice because he has the roadmap and the architecture in his brain. And now we just have to lay it out and make it fit the use cases that I want to fit rather than just a dealership, SMS marketing platform. There’s a company doing similar to what we’re doing, but only for dealerships. And he was telling me that he saw what I was doing, and then that company sold for I think it was like around 600 million. And he goes, “I see the value in this kind of product.” And then that’s when he sent me a LinkedIn message and said, “Hey, let’s connect again.”
Okay cool! So you mentioned earlier that you were dealing with, is it my understanding, primarily new grads doing your development?
It’s all full-stack junior devs. The idea behind it is we’ve been looking for interns who look at this as kind of like an internship now, but can slowly morph into something bigger. Because the worst thing that could happen is you hire a bunch of three-month interns and they spend a quarter or a third of their time just recovering from the last person’s code and reading through it and trying to understand how to build off of it. So we’re trying to avoid that by having long-term interns who the second we get something to pay them with, they’re getting paid before we ever do. Because they deserve it.
Good. Technical debt is how companies like Axon stay in business. We call ourselves technical debt collectors.
That’s funny. What’s nice is a lot of them see the end goal. And they’re really just coming on for equity. We offered them pay and they said, “If you’ll pay me double that equity, we have a deal.”
So there really is an alignment of that they want to see this succeed. They have a literal stake in what’s going on. What’s on the horizon here?
A big thing that Atule wanted to do is have this be his first Houston-based startup. And I wanted to move to Austin, right? Because that has the tech hub and everything. The biggest struggle is staying true to the Houston startup ecosystem and keeping as much of that in this sphere of Houston. I want to be one of the initial companies to come out of Houston.
I know there are a lot of companies in Houston, but it’s oil and gas and stuff. Right now is ground zero for the innovation hub. But you just don’t have the same resources, which has been really tough. Nor the same community to go out to any bar or coffee shop and see other people in tech. You don’t have that here.
Well, it’s just beginning. My personal philosophy and Axon’s philosophy is that we’re moving beyond these super geographic centers. I know Capital Factory in Austin and in Texas has been very supportive of the, “View Texas as its own hub.” And stimulate the deal-flow between Austin, Dallas, and Houston, and treat them as one big mega city rather than competing with each other.
So it’s been kind of neat to see that gain momentum. And Houston is just starting to get going. Austin is well-established, they’re going, their trajectory is clear, but the rest of these cities are just kind of approaching that hockey stick curve point. And it’s cool to be part of. We continue to build this larger community of deal-flow back and forth, that’s a good thing. We can take the best parts of each locality and build something better. That’s neat.
So looking back, is there anything that you wish you could tell yourself right as you were getting started on this? Just one thing, I’m sure there’s a lot, but what’s the biggest piece of wisdom you’d give to yourself?
This is actually funny, I had to remind myself of this yesterday — move really quick. When I got a co-founder I started moving a bit slower, but the faster you move and the more you mess up, the more time you have to recover from that failure You know the 80% rule, just get 80%. well and someone else would come along and get it to a hundred. Just ship it overnight. Build your startup as quickly as you can, because worst-case scenario, you build another one as quickly as you can.
Yeah! Fail fast, fail hard. That’s good. Is there any podcast or book or a particular piece of learning that you would pass on as highly influential to our listeners?
Yes. So I owe all my tech understanding and such to a podcast called My First Million. I’m a Big fan of it. Highly recommend that. That’s where you go to get your ideas from because they’re just bouncing off each other.
That’s cool! Well, where can folks find you? Do you have a social media presence? Any of that? I know you’re just starting to build so maybe a little early.
If you go to tryleanr.com, that’s a better explanation of what we’re building. But to find me if you just look up hunterwbaker on any social media, I’ll be there! Reach out! Talk to me! I love to hear why you think it’s a stupid idea.
That’s right. All feedback is good feedback!
All right. Well, Hunter, this has been fun! This is cool! I’m sure that we will touch back in the future and see how things are going!
How to Get in Touch with Hunter:
My First Million Podcast