Velvet · Emma Lawler

From idea to reality: Navigating the entrepreneurial roller-coaster with a data startup’s journey.

March 2, 2024
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  • Emma Lawler and Chris Hendel
  • New York City, USA
  • Started in 2023
  • Funded startup

What's your backstory?

I grew up in Colorado and went to school in Boulder, where I studied technology and media. The year after college, I worked and took classes at an experimental graduate school where I learned to code and design products. I dreamed of living in San Francisco and landed my first job there as a creative technologist at AKQA, which is a product agency serving global clients like Visa and Audi.

Living and working in San Francisco was the highest-quality education I could have asked for. I learned from some of the best designers and engineers in the world and saw first-hand what it took to build a high-growth startup.

And, the stereotypical roller-coaster ride of startups did not disappoint. I joined an early-stage startup called Fitstar as the 10th employee, and we were acquired by Fitbit a few months later. I stayed through the IPO and then started my first company called Moonlight.

We bootstrapped Moonlight for a year, raised a pre-seed round of funding once we got to $10K in MRR, and then sold to another startup called PullRequest at the peak of the pandemic. I learned a ton through this process about company building, raising institutional VC funding, hiring a team, and pursuing an exit. There is no better way to learn how to be an entrepreneur than just doing it yourself.

I was living in New York at this point, so sought out a job at an NYC-based startup called theSkimm. They had recently closed a series-C of funding, and I was a longtime follower of the founders. I joined the team as lead product manager, tasked with building a membership model out of their various content verticals.

I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur again in the future, so I decided to apply to business school. This would give me two years to figure out my next business, find the right co-founder, and raise funding. After a gruelling application process, I got into the full-time program at Chicago Booth, and moved to Chicago.

While in business school, I worked on the investment team at Chicago Ventures, where I got to learn what it's like to be an investor. I took difficult classes on investing, economics, and finance - and spent the rest of my time getting my next company off the ground (Velvet). Upon graduation in June 2023, I had convinced a co-founder to join me and had raised a pre-seed round of funding - led by Chicago Ventures.

What does your company do and how did you come up with the idea?

We were originally excited by the prospect of consumers controlling their identity, payments, and notifications all in one place. As we started building, it became obvious that this product required B2B infrastructure and adoption, rather than a B2C application.

Through many small pivots, Velvet became what it is today.

Velvet makes everyone on your team a data engineer. We unify your data in one place and automate SQL queries with AI. The result is a collaborative workspace for the entire team to query, visualize, and use data. Data infrastructure is the underpinning of any good digital product but is often cost-prohibitive. We save startups money by bundling the software required for growth, so they can build products on top of interoperable data infrastructure.

Teams use Velvet to run analytics queries and visualize data - accessible to every product stakeholder. Then they can turn those queries into API endpoints that are interoperable with their entire tech stack.

How did you get your first 10 customers/subscribers?

Infrastructure products require a heavy engineering lift just to make them work, and then there's an extremely high bar for customer adoption.

Before we had a fully-featured product, we validated our ideas with design prototypes. We built a pipeline of every founder we could think of and shared a personalized design prototype with them. We'd schedule a call first, then share a google survey link for asynchronous responses. These early design partners have informed every product decision we've made, and eventually became our first customers.

It's fun to build products, and less fun (at least for me) to do outbound sales. To keep myself accountable, I set weekly outbound metrics and blocked off chunks of time for outreach and product marketing. This constant networking and content motion is what led to our first customers. It's a satisfying feeling to have a prospect tell you they'll use your product for the first time - which always makes the sales investment feel worthwhile.

What steps did you take to understand and confirm that your product or service was a good match for the needs and wants of your target customers?

My co-founder and I know that the best digital products are built on top of flexible and interoperable data infrastructure. There are many paths to get there, often resulting in a bloated engineering team and a long list of enterprise products. We set out to bundle data infrastructure for real-time product development.

We had an opinionated view from the beginning around who we were designing for; Engineering and product teams. However, early adopters often want frictionless features made for non-technical stakeholders, like marketing.

Because of this, we're careful about which customer feedback is relevant to our product vision. Velvet should be easy to adopt, but it should never abstract away the sophistication of a startup's data model. We design our product for technical stakeholders first, and prioritize data interoperability over surface-level feature requests. It's a balance of driving adoption while staying focused on the longer-term vision and market.

How did you reach and acquire your first 100 customers? Which platforms or methods did you use to connect with them and promote your product or service?

We spend more time on product marketing than any other growth tactic. This involves writing long-form content on topics related to our system, like docs and articles. They're often technical in nature or about building for 0-1 product development. This kind of evergreen content is helpful to our customers and will result in an ongoing virtuous cycle of organic growth. We share this content with our newsletter subscribers and on social media, where it's often forwarded or re-posted.

Our other one-off marketing channels have been podcast interviews, written interviews (like this one!), and Product Hunt launches.  These require a meaningful time investment, but provide a long-tail of customer discovery for months or even years. They also boost SEO and add to the credibility of a startup.

Over time, our most important growth mechanism will be product-led growth and expansion of existing contracts. We're building a product that's delightful to use, and we ship new valuable features weekly.

What distribution channels did you try that didn’t work?

We haven't tried any paid ads yet, and hope to avoid it for as long as possible. When building my last company, Moonlight, we found it ineffective to drive technical adoption through ads. Engineers tend to be savvy about ad blockers, and they trust word-of-mouth recommendations more than programmatic acquisition.

What specific tools, software, or resources have been most helpful in growing your business?

To grow the business, we leverage networks on LinkedIn, Twitter, Slack, Product Hunt, and HackerNews. Having a presence on these platforms is a meaningful time investment, but they turn into free acquisition channels when done right. High-quality, personal, differentiated content goes a long way in the world of AI-generated clickbait.

Personally - I consume a lot of podcasts, long-form reporting, and audiobooks. My favourite newsletter is Stratechery by Ben Thompson, who sends in-depth analysis on tech businesses every morning. I try to seek out time-tested content from industry veterans who have been through several tech bubble cycles.

How did you make the transition from a side hustle to full-time entrepreneurship?

When I founded my first startup (Moonlight), I was working at Fitbit. I stayed at the company through an acquisition and the IPO, and I knew I wanted to start something of my own. I worked nights and weekends getting basic things set up - like incorporation, a landing page, and other logistics. I eventually lined up part-time jobs doing product design work and teaching at coding boot camps. This contract work covered my living expenses while we got the business to profitability, and eventually raised a pre-seed round of funding.

When I started this company (Velvet), I was in business school at Chicago Booth. I pursued an MBA with the sole intention of starting another company and raising VC. I landed an investing internship at a well-known local VC firm, and eventually became their entrepreneur-in-residence. They led my pre-seed round of funding, which I closed just before graduation.

What drives you to do what you do?

I love being an entrepreneur and discovering new things. It's also why I like living in dense urban cities - because there's always something interesting and unique to uncover. While I can find this working as an employee, there's nothing like the ups and downs of being a founder. Every day is different, and you get to have a very direct impact on people's lives.

Your links + socials


Velvet website

Emma Lawler

Emma Lawler website



Chris Hendel


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