Startup couple shares their experience with entrepreneurs


Ryan and Laura Vaughn make it their business to help other entrepreneurs. Courtesy Kelly Vanderwell

Ryan and Laura Vaughn have a nickname: the “Batman Startup Couple.”

Ryan is the co-founder of the startup Varsity News Network, hailed as “ for high school sports.” Laura is the co-founder of the startup Sitting in a Tree, a wedding-planning website allowing users to harmonize custom-designed wedding coordination.

Together the dynamic duo, newly wed since summer, has been active in Grand Rapids’ startup scene and in each other’s work. They even named each other’s startups.

“Laura has named every project I’ve ever worked on,” Ryan said. “Varsity News Network was originally going to be called ‘Varsinet’ before she said it sounded stupid and made me change it. But I came up with the name Sitting in a Tree, so it all evens out.”

The Vaughns shared their unique perspective with startups at Grand Rapids’ fourth annual Startup Weekend, which took place at The Factory space at 38 W. Fulton St.

They offered three main pieces of advice for startups: get the family on board; determine whether the startup is a venture or lifestyle company; and find a repeatable way to get customers.

“From a family perspective, having a startup is a lot of sacrifice,” Laura said. “With a startup there’s inherently more risk. If you even have any salary at all, there’s still not as much income coming in at first. … But there’s also a possible huge return at the end. It’s good to look at it like that because there’s sweat equity put in at the beginning.”

It’s important to have family aligned with the understanding of startup sacrifices, Ryan said, adding that sometimes having a spouse in a similar field can help.

Although the entrepreneur might be bringing in only half as much revenue as before, it’s an investment that will pay off, he said, and the second startup is always easier.

“I’ve been running this company for over two years, and when Laura (got into startups), a lot of our friends were like, ‘You shouldn’t do that. Someone should have a stable income,’” he said.

“But non-startup jobs are not inherently safe,” Laura said. “We’re young; we have parents who will bail us out. We’re going to be risky while we can, while we don’t have kids or a house that we bought. Now is the time to jump in and make that investment.”

It’s important to determine what kind of startup it’s going to be, Ryan said, because that will guide business choices on issues like taking loans, franchising and growth direction.

“The minute you take the money, your personal incentives change a lot, or the company’s incentives change and your personal incentives better change too and come along with it,” he said. “By doing this, the goal is to grow as fast as possible and then sell it.”

A replicable sales model is key to a startup, Laura said, but unfortunately, it’s the problem common to startups everywhere, answering who’s going to buy the product and how to get repeatable customers.

Laura recommended using Google Adwords, a PPC program allowing webmasters to make their own ads and choose keywords. It has allowed her to create global customer conversations for Sitting in a Tree, she said.

“Now we ask customers through a channel I can multiply,” she said. “From a marketing perspective, I don’t think people worry about that in the beginning, but you need to. How are you going to find a repeatable source to open the floodgates?”

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