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October 2, 2014

One Year Since TechCrunch Battlefield

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Over the past few days in Israel and around the world, the Jewish people celebrated Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew for “head of the year”). Our new year coincides with the end of summer and the beginning of the academic year, and brings with it a general sense of introspection and renewal.

Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, erroneously known as the “Day of Atonement”, are the “ten days of returning”. Some mistakenly use this period as a chance to only look backward in order to reconcile wrongs committed against oneself and others over the past year. In reality, however, the opening and most well attended Yom Kippur synagogue service, Kol Nidrei, is meant to facilitate the worshiper’s meditation on the year to come.

Those that know me know that I make no separation between work, life, and play. For me, they are each part of a universal rhythm. Sure, I am sometimes (my kids would say mostly) out of tune and missing the rhythm, but give me time and I eventually find my groove again.

My approach to this season is no different as a CEO of a startup than as a father; looking back is important, but looking forward is my focus.

A year ago, I stood on stage at the the Techcrunch Disrupt Battlefield. Being one of the highlights of the startup year, the event could be called the Yom Kippur of the tech entrepreneurial ecosystem. Along with Zula co-founder Jeff Pulver, I introduced the public to our vision of how conversations will take place in the future. We didn’t have a releasable version of the app ready, but we had a pretty good prototype running on iOS.

The crowd, the judges, and the Techcrunch team all validated our vision, which for a startup, is love. And we all want to be loved and spread that love.

Where are we a year later? I will skip to the present and then take a few steps back. We have 8,000 team members using Zula, around 20% being active monthly users on iOS, Android, and on our yet to be officially released web app.

A combination of trial, error and constant feedback from thousands of users has helped us improve immensely.

Most of this past year was spent digesting what users want from a team collaboration app. In a lesson in humility, we learned to never assume that our audience’s preferences and behavior will mimic ours. Just because I enjoy typing on my iPhone (this very piece is being written on my 5s as I fly from Istanbul to New York) does not mean that users share this preference.  It may have taken me seven years to shake free of my bias for keyboards, but we have discovered that most people still want to use Zula through standard web browsers and native apps on Windows and Apple computers. Our previous focus on mobile suddenly seemed limiting.

Of course, building our webapp didn’t detract from recognizing that iOS and Android are essential to facilitate seamless conversation management. We knew that moving from platform to platform needs to look, behave and feel familiar. Our audience must recognize the “tune” even if we move from guitar, to piano or ukulele (I love saying that!).

Some of the work done over the past year by our growing sixteen person strong team is not easily noticeable at first. There has been a lot of “plumbing” in the background to ensure a smoother user experience. Other parts simply didn’t work as planned. For example, our VoIP infrastructure needed to be completely rebuilt instead of trying to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

The momentum of being on the TC Battlefield stage propelled us forward, helping us raise what became a $3 million round of financing led by 2M Companies, later joined by Microsoft Ventures and OurCrowd, our original seed funders.

Of course, the last year was not all smooth sailing. Aside from the major problems with VoIP in our iOS and android apps, our web app development took much longer then expected. As is common in startups, the progress of the web app stalled as life was thrown at our sole web app developer. Marriage, an unexpected reserve duty call up during the tragic fighting in and around Gaza, and, finally, a much deserved honeymoon definitely threw us all a curve ball! Not to mention the affect of the war on the rest of the team, school vacations and summer family time.

So, where do we go from here?

First, Zula will move from user feedback focused trial usage to promoting the application as a leading solution for bringing order to the chaos of team communication.

Second, we hope to increase visibility by capitalizing on the reach of the incredible folks on our board and of our devoted shareholders.

Third, our product will be propelled from great to awesome with the launch of what we are internally calling Zula 2.0.

We know what we need to do, now is the time to execute.

Part of looking forward is acknowledging the past, and I want to take this time of reflection to say thank you to all those who brought us to where we are: our families, the team at TechCrunch, our seed investors, series A investors, and most importantly, the people who work 24/6 making Zula happen, the Zula team.

May we be blessed to enjoy a year of innovation, product excellence and an engaged user community that uses Zula to make their lives that much more full of joy and delight!

-Jacob Ner-David, CEO