Podcast Transcript – Series FOUR, Episode 59
naza Shelley, CarpeDM August 2023
[00:00:00] Naza Shelley: I can look at the data. I can look at, you know, what they say in the industry about black women raising. I can look at the other women around me who are building phenomenal companies and they’re also struggling to raise, and I can tell you that. There’s too much money in the ecosystem for it to be this hard for us to raise.
[00:00:22] And it’s really hard when you see another company that you know, raises a hundred million dollars, right? Like and [00:00:30] then. Covid hit, or you know, the recession hit and now they’re out of business. Right? And like they’ve closed shop, but you struggled, you know, to raise a small fraction of that. And you’re still here because it is more difficult for us to raise, we focus very much on business fundamentals.
[00:00:45] In some ways that really helps us in trying times like this fundraising climate. But you know, we shouldn’t have to struggle all the time, right? Like we shouldn’t have to be in like survivalist mode at all times.
[00:00:57] Dan: What’s up Unfound Nation? Dan Kihanya [00:01:00] here. Thanks so much for checking out another episode of Founders Unfound.
[00:01:04] That was Naza Shelley, Founder and CEO of CarpeDM, an exclusive member only dating community, created for single seeking meaningful relationships with professional black women. Naza is the daughter of military parents, so she lived in many places growing up. She eventually settled down in Virginia for high school.
[00:01:22] And then the University of Virginia for college from a young age, she had aspirations to become an attorney. She pursued this journey with a law degree from [00:01:30] Howard University. Naza says it was a year post law school teaching in China that reinforced her desire to practice law, and so she did when she returned to the US as a successful black professional woman in DC.
[00:01:43] However, she still found something missing. As she explored the various online dating experiences, she became more and more frustrated. Why wasn’t there anything for her specifically? And so the idea for CarpeDM was born. Fast forward through milestones like landing a co-founder going through Techstars [00:02:00] and launching a truly unique hybrid service that is part online dating and part matchmaker.
[00:02:05] Naza has closed an oversubscribed pre-seed round. Gaining her membership in the still relatively small group of black women founders who’ve raised over a million in venture capital. Naza has a great story you’ll wanna listen in. Our episode is sponsored by BLCKVC, a focused community built for and by black investors.
[00:02:24] Check out the link in the show notes for more about their exceptional programs and events. If you ever thought [00:02:30] about getting into venture, you definitely want to connect email@example.com. That’s B L C K V C dot com. Before we continue, please make sure to like and subscribe to Founders Unfound. We are available anywhere you get your podcasts, even good old YouTube, and of course you can follow us on Twitter, that’s X, instagram or LinkedIn @foundersunfound. And if you like what you hear, drop us a review on Apple or at podchaser.com.
[00:02:57] Now on with the episode. Stay safe and [00:03:00] hope you enjoy.
[00:03:15] Hello and welcome to Founders Unfound. Spotlighting the best startups you don’t know yet. We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented and underestimated backgrounds. This is the latest episode in our continuing series on founders of African descent. [00:03:30] I’m your host, Dan Kihanya. Let’s get on it.
[00:03:32] Today we have Naza Shelley, Founder and CEO of CarpeDM, an exclusive member only dating community, created for singles seeking meaningful relationships with professional black women. Welcome to the show, nesa. We’re super excited to have you on. Thanks for making the time.
[00:03:48] Naza Shelley: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
[00:03:51] Dan: Awesome. So I gave a quick overview, but can you tell us a little bit more about what Carpe DMM is trying to address in this noisy world of [00:04:00] online dating?
[00:04:01] Naza Shelley: We’re really in the middle space between dating apps and traditional matchmaking services. So what we really saw was that there are a lot of basic dating apps that, you know, are really swipe driven and gamification driven, but not really focused on results.
[00:04:14] Um, and they’re free and you’re the product, right on those services. And then there’s high-end traditional matchmaking services that a lot of people actually have no point of reference for or connection with. Though they’re very popular in certain cultures, but you know, professional matchmakers are charging [00:04:30] $15,000 and a hundred thousand dollars to find clients, their partners.
[00:04:35] And so we wanted to marry the idea of a traditional dating app with a matchmaking service so that we can elevate the online dating experience while kind of bringing a personal touch. So we say CarpeDM is traditional match making meets modern online dating. We’re online dating with a personal touch.
[00:04:53] We are the one solution addressing major problems in the dating market by providing high quality background check [00:05:00] matches, hand selected by a personal matchmaker, expertly curated by our proprietary algorithm, and then conveniently delivered by our patented video first dating app.
[00:05:09] Dan: I love it and I love this idea of taking these disparate parts of the market and kind of vertically integrating that in a very unique way. And we’re gonna dive more into CarpeDM in a little bit, but before we do that, I would love to hear more about you. Where did you grow up?
[00:05:28] Naza Shelley: I’m a military child. My [00:05:30] mom and dad were both in the military. My mom was in the military for 22 years, so I was born in Germany and I lived all over the us. I’m the youngest of three from very, very humble beginnings.
[00:05:42] We settled in Virginia when I was about 12, and I went to high school and college in Virginia. Then I went to law school. In DC and then really was just, you know, out in the dating world, and that’s how CarpeDM kind of started. But I’m really at heart, a very family oriented [00:06:00] person. I have a very close knit family, an older brother, and then it’s my brother, my sister, then me, the baby. Yeah, that’s kind of the structure of my family and grew up all over the place, but really called Virginia Home.
[00:06:12] Dan: Having older siblings, were there things about what they did? I’m the oldest, so I don’t have as much perspective on this, but was that a situation where you’re like, oh, I want to be like them, or was it more like, I definitely don’t want to do anything that they’re doing. I, I wanna stand out on my own and be my own person. [00:06:30] Like what was that dynamic with your, with your siblings?
[00:06:32] Naza Shelley: I think the great thing about having siblings is that you can watch and learn from their mistakes or from their winning, from the things that they do that they do, right? And so I’m a very observant person and I never wanna waste my time or energy, so I’m always looking at like, how can I get the cheat code by like learning from someone else?
[00:06:52] So that’s one thing I really love about my. Siblings. My sister has a very entrepreneurial spirit. She’s a [00:07:00] caterer and she also has a candle making company. Um, and so that’s amazing. And then my brother, he went to college. He went to Michigan State and he scored like the highest a c t score in like his high school’s history.
[00:07:11] Like very, very intelligent guy. Now he works in, uh, government. Um, and so I definitely feel like I have really great role models. From my siblings, but more so from my parents. Like my mom is like my North Star role model. She’s amazing. A rock star, and so I definitely like to take other people’s lessons learned [00:07:30] so I don’t have to learn them personally.
[00:07:31] But I definitely also think that I have a tendency to march to the beat of my own drum. And I am not as risk averse as some people are.
[00:07:41] Dan: I like that. Pretty good introspection there. And of course, thank your parents for their service. That’s a pretty committed career. Thank you. I’ll, did you have any sense about the military, like as something that you might wanna do?
[00:07:54] Naza Shelley: Yeah, no, I knew I didn’t wanna do it. I mean, I think the military is [00:08:00] amazing because. My mom was a single mom. It really gave me structure. It gives you so much support. You know, we grew up on military bases and were able to like travel the world, and so that’s really fantastic. But I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from a very young age, and it was just by happenstance that I became an entrepreneur.
[00:08:18] I tell everybody that, like I never had a goal in my mind to be an entrepreneur. I thought I was gonna be an attorney, then I was gonna be a judge, you know? And so that was kind of like the life path that I envisioned for [00:08:30] myself. Like I said, I like to march to the beat of my own drum, and so the entrepreneurship thing just kind of came up outta personal necessity trying to solve a, a personal problem, and then I kind of just end up running with it.
[00:08:41] Dan: Well, we’re gonna dive into that in a minute, but I, I don’t know a lot of young kids who say they definitely want to be an attorney. Tell me what sparked that. What made you think like, this is something a I wanna do and then I can do? What was the driver behind that?
[00:08:56] Naza Shelley: Yeah. You know, I really love animals.
[00:08:58] So when I was really little, [00:09:00] I thought I was gonna be a veterinarian. And then I learned that veterinarians have to, like, they work with all types of animals, not just like dogs, cats, bunnies. And I was like, oh yeah, no, that’s not for me. And so I was a very, very shy kid growing up. And so I read a lot. I like watched a lot of TV.
[00:09:17] I was like, kind of like an indoorsy type of kid. Really nerdy, like I was a nerd. That’s that’s the right word. And so I think just like always reading, constantly like learning was a passion of mine. And then just like hearing what [00:09:30] attorneys do, like seeing attorneys in books and movies and stuff. And I was like, that’s really cool.
[00:09:34] That’s kind of I think what I wanna do with my life. And so I’m a taurist and you know, we get singularly focused and we like, we make a decision and we set a goal and we run after it. And so nothing else just kind of came into vision that took me off. I literally went into college knowing I was gonna go to law school.
[00:09:54] But when I went to college, I double majored in English and Spanish, not like pre-law. And then [00:10:00] I took that and, you know, went to law school just because I really love literature and I love to read. So I was like, I wanna do something that I love in undergrad and that I think will still help me, you know, later in life.
[00:10:09] Dan: I think a lot of folks even today look at, you know, undergrad a little bit too prescriptive and vocational, right? And I think there’s a lot of value in learning and problem solving and reasoning and those kinds of things. So I. I’m curious ’cause you went to a bigger school for undergrad and then you went [00:10:30] to an HBCU for law school. How did that decision come about?
[00:10:34] Naza Shelley: When I was in high school, I was in Model un, so I was a debater. I like to, I like to debate, I like to be analytical. I can go back and forth. And so we went to UVA for. A debate and like when I got to the grounds, I was like, oh, I’m going here. You know, I was like, this is gonna be my college.
[00:10:54] I know this is where I’m going to university. And so that is how I ended up going to the University of [00:11:00] Virginia. It happens to be like the best school in Virginia. And I, you know, um, wanted to stay close enough to home that I could. Visit, but not so close that my parents would just pop up on me. I wanted to have like that university feeling for Howard. I actually thought I was gonna go to the University of Richmond for law school or to U V A for law school. And my mom, she was like, you should apply to Howard. And I was like, I don’t know. I didn’t know Howard. Right. But I don’t know that much about like Howard, so I started to like, Research it, look into it, look [00:11:30] into law school, look at into all of the distinguished legal minds and scholars that have come from Howard.
[00:11:35] And I was like, yeah, I think that this would be amazing for me. So I applied and went in. Honestly, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life to get that experience of going from, you know, A PWI to an HBCU, and it is a very different experience. Experience and they both have their pluses and minuses for different reasons, but I definitely feel very lucky to call myself a H.U. [00:12:00] Alumni and, um, to have had that experience to be able to go to Howard and be, you know, an alumni among some of, you know, the most brilliant legal minds.
[00:12:09] Dan: Like you said, it’s kind of a great balance of experiences, you know, between UVA and Howard. So, When you come outta law school, was there an area of law? Was there a specific kind of place you wanted to put your legal chops to work?
[00:12:25] Naza Shelley: You know, we came out of law school during like the great recession, so I [00:12:30] came outta law school with no job. I thought I was gonna work for a judge I interned with, and that was really like what I was. Super focused on, but I didn’t get the clerkship, so I was really, you know, disappointed by that. And then a law school colleague of mine who knew that I was graduating without a job, he was going overseas to teach in China, and he was like, you should come to China.
[00:12:49] And I’m like, I should come to China to teach. But I was like, all right. So I went to China for a year and I taught English. I taught English as a second language for a year. And it was a very, [00:13:00] very formative experience in my life. And when I back. I, you know, kind of tapped my network and I’m like, Hey, I’m back.
[00:13:08] I’m looking for work. I, you know, wanna, you know, get an attorney position. And then one of my mentors put me in touch with a DC agency and I ended up working there as an attorney for six years. And that was like really my, and I’ve had other, Uh, legal roles. I was corporate counsel for a small IT company and some other positions, but really [00:13:30] most of my legal experience was in the utility regulation, energy and environment, administrative law fields from working at the DC Public Service Commission.
[00:13:38] So when I handed in my two weeks notice that I was gonna do carpet union full-time, it was to my really, my first. Legal job. ’cause I had been there for six years and so don’t have a ton of, you know, experience jumping around. But I didn’t know where I was gonna land. But the type of work I did was very engaging.
[00:13:57] It was very technical [00:14:00] and it really took a lot of. Dedication. It wasn’t like an easy area of law. Not to say that any area of law is easy, but you know, we presented before the DC Court of Appeals, so I argued before the DC Court of Appeals several times, and so it was a very challenging role, which I think kept me on my toes and kept me really interested and like content being at the agency.
[00:14:22] Dan: I’m sensing this thread of network, like you have connections that result in [00:14:30] opportunity, which is powerful. But I, I just wanna go back to China, uh, real quick ’cause that seems really fascinating to me. You said it was transformative for you. What’s some ways that it was transformative?
[00:14:42] Naza Shelley: When I got to China, I didn’t know what to expect and I was, you know, teaching three or four days a week. But then the rest of the time I wasn’t te I didn’t have anything to do, right? So I ended up working at a internet gaming company, a company that like developed, uh, video games and helping them [00:15:00] market. Those video games into the international market. But I spent a lot of time riding my e-bike around the city, sitting in coffee shops and learning Mandarin, you know, laying by the pool and like also just recalibrating what my expectations for my life were.
[00:15:17] And it’s almost like I had a gap year after law school instead of before going to law school. And it really gave me the opportunity and the space to think about. The things that I was putting, placing value in and like why I was placing value in [00:15:30] them and whether or not my desire to do certain things came from inside or it came like from external pressure, right?
[00:15:36] Like, did I want a clerk for this prestigious judge because that’s what I really wanted to do, or was it just because. Everyone said that’s prestigious, that I wanna go to a big law firm because that’s what I wanted. Or was it because everyone said that like, the best thing is to go to a law firm like after you graduated?
[00:15:52] Right. And the conclusion to a lot of those questions was, it’s not the things that I wanted. It was the things that people were [00:16:00] saying are indicators of success that I was putting on my shoulders as something that I needed to achieve. And so it really helped me recalibrate and refocus what I wanted to do with my life, what I considered success, and you know how I kind of gauge that for myself.
[00:16:17] So I kind of came back from China with a new outlook on what direction I wanted my life to go and how I wanted to gauge, you know, the things that are important.
[00:16:28] Dan: What a tremendous good [00:16:30] fortune to have that experience. I think a lot of times. Like you said, you get into this, okay, this is what is expected to be the next and the next and the next, and having that time to really focus on what’s important.
[00:16:43] Last question about this and then we’ll move on, but I’m just curious. I actually haven’t spent much time in China, but did you feel more conspicuous as a black woman in China or less than in the United States?
[00:16:56] Naza Shelley: More like everywhere I went. I’m also like a sizable black woman, so I’m [00:17:00] five, 10 and a half, you know, curvier, full figured.
[00:17:03] And so it was, I couldn’t do anything. Like if I went to the grocery store, people were taking videos of me and pictures. If I rode the bus, people would just come sit next to me and say that they wanted to talk to me. I mean, anywhere I went, like I. Very much stood out. And in some ways it made me more confident as a person.
[00:17:21] In other ways it made me way more self-conscious as a person because they just have a very different culture than we have. Right. And so my blackness after [00:17:30] coming from H B U were when it was a non-issue, right? Like very much was an issue in China. And not to say that like I felt like discriminated against.
[00:17:37] ’cause in some ways it was a benefit. Right. But I personally didn’t like it being an issue at all. But it definitely was.
[00:17:44] Dan: That’s interesting. Yeah, I would imagine there’s a curiosity factor and hopefully relatively respectfully doing videos of you at the grocery store. Maybe a little bit too much. But that’s good.
[00:17:58] Like you said, there was a [00:18:00] balance of some confidence building and some other aspects. So I’ve actually heard this story on some other podcasts, but I love the story. Tell the story about the idea for CarpeDM and how did that come about?
[00:18:11] Naza Shelley: So I was dating, I was in the DC streets, as I like to say. You know, I was, I was in that attorney role, I had just bought a condo in DC so I was like living in my place for the first time and I was like, I’m gonna find my man and you know, I’m gonna put some effort behind this.
[00:18:26] And so I was, let me download all the apps and, you know, put my [00:18:30] profiles up there and really like, approach it like I’m trying to get a job or approach it like, you know, I’m trying to like make an investment in this because I think it is an investment. And so I was going on multiple dates a week sometimes, and you know, at the end of the year, I don’t know how many dates I went on, I say it was between like, you know, 75 to a hundred dates or something.
[00:18:49] And I just realized I was exhausted and it just really wasn’t working out. And so I was lamenting to my girlfriend, who’s now my co-founder, and I was like, this sucks da. She’s like, you know, [00:19:00] I’ve been reading this book called Modern Romance, you. So I was like, okay, I, I told you I like to read. So I, I, every day on the bus, I would read on my way to work.
[00:19:08] And so I’m reading Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, and there’s a section in the book about asynchronous communication and how it’s like, you know, not really great for building new relationships. And so, A communication is just text messaging or like emails, right? It’s like when a communication comes and then there’s a delay in time and then another [00:19:30] communication follows.
[00:19:30] And so I was like, yeah, it’s a actually horrible way to meet someone, especially a stranger. Like if you’re talking to your partner, your mom, your sibling, and they text you, you can literally like read the text message in their voice, right? Like, you know, if they’re. Being sarcastic, you know, if they’re being, if they’re angry, if they’re, you know, like the difference between Okay.
[00:19:52] Because you can just hear it, right? Like, so, you know, if they’re just saying okay, or like, okay, or you, you, you know, you have no context for that with a [00:20:00] stranger at all. What I realized is I’m like, yeah, you’re building up this whole person’s persona via text messaging or like chatting in a platform without ever really having any context to who they are, and you don’t get that context until you’re face to face with them on a d.
[00:20:13] I say that’s why a lot of people end up on dates and within the first 10 minutes they’re like, man, this person’s really boring. But they were great on text messaging, right? Well, they are great on text because they have that time lapse, right? To like think of something witty to say or you know, or you’re [00:20:30] interpreting their text as funny, even if it isn’t.
[00:20:32] And then the same thing would happen some, maybe there are people who. Aren’t great texters, but in person. Like they’re super engaging and charming, but you would never know, right? Because they took two days to respond to your text message. So you kind of, you dismiss them. So the original concept for Carpe Die was for a video first dating app where members matches had to video chat before they could text each other.
[00:20:57] And it’s still a part of our core offering [00:21:00] with Carpe dmm. Now our members. Receive a match that’s hand selected from a matchmaker or delivered from our algorithm, and then within 72 hours they have to schedule a video date in the app, and that video date lasts between five and 10 minutes. And then after the date’s over, they get to say whether or not they wanna remain matched or not.
[00:21:18] And so I didn’t know how innovative the concept was until we got a patent for it, or two patents for it. And so it is definitely a different way. For people to engage and I think it’s, it definitely [00:21:30] suits some people’s lifestyles a lot better than others, right? Depending on where you are in your dating journey and how committed you are to actually finding someone special.
[00:21:40] Dan: I love that. I mean, some of the best founder stories are stuck on it. I don’t like this and I am going to fix it. Well, we’re gonna hear more of the story in a minute, but we’re gonna take a short break and we’ll be right back with Naza Shelley from CarpeDM.
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[00:22:48] Dan: So we’re back with Naza from CarpeDM. So Naza, you were telling the story about how the idea came about through your own personal journey. How did it go from an idea to [00:23:00] something that you wanted to pursue as a business?
[00:23:03] Naza Shelley: Great question. So slowly and over time, right? So it was an idea in my mind and I was like, I don’t know, maybe this is good, maybe this isn’t. I started to just talk to people and like mention like, Hey, would you video chat before you could text someone? I had this idea, I. For this dating app or whatever. Have you seen anything like this? I’m looking and seeing if I see anything like it, and then I’ve had other ideas for businesses in the past I didn’t pursue.
[00:23:26] So like I had an idea for a makeup brush dryer that would [00:23:30] like dry and disinfect your makeup brushes. And I had like someone create like a, you know, a prototype of it and then I kind of just, Didn’t pursue it. And then maybe a year later I saw it on the market and I was like, see, this is your million dollars right here.
[00:23:43] Um, and so I was talking to my mom about this idea and I was like, remember the makeup brush dryer that we didn’t do? And now somebody’s making a million dollars off of it, like, I don’t want this to happen again. And so she was like, you know, if this is something that you really believe in and you think that will work, you know, create a business plan.
[00:23:59] Like let’s [00:24:00] talk about it. And I was like, okay, create a business plan. So, Then my journey and my love affair with Google started and I just went down a Google Rabbit hole on like, I think the first thing I typed was like, how do you build a dating app? And then I just started to. Build a, how do you create a business plan?
[00:24:17] Like how do you fund a company? How do you get marketing resources? Like I think my How to Google searches were like Alpha Wall or whatever. So, I mean, that’s literally kind of how I approached starting the [00:24:30] business. And when I decided that I wanted to, that I, I personally didn’t have the money to fund the business.
[00:24:36] That’s kind of how I was like, Hey, I wanna get this funded. I did some research. I think it’s gonna cost me $86,000. I think it’s gonna cost me $86,000 to like build this app. That’s an interesting figure. Yeah. Yeah. It was like a aggregate. It was like, you know, I added three different quotes from three different developers and then I averaged like the quotes and I was like, I think it’s, we all know [00:25:00] what of early stage I.
[00:25:02] I was like, okay, I need to raise $86,000. I also thought in my head, if I can’t convince anyone to gimme any like investment for this, and maybe it’s actually not a great idea if I’m like to put my own money behind. And so I started to, you know, I started the Friends and family journey. So my first stop was like my friends and my family to see if they would, you know, invest in my, my concept and I.
[00:25:26] The business plan, the pitch deck, the pitch, calling my [00:25:30] friends together at my parents’ house and you know, feeding them little sandwiches and like putting the pitch on the television screen behind me and you know, really taking it seriously. And so that’s kind of how I originally got some money to build the first M V P for CarpeDM.
[00:25:46] And then I would say the bones around the rest of the business just started to happen outta necessity. Okay. So you have an app. Well how do you get people to use the app? You have to market it. Okay. Well how do you market an app? Oh, well you use social media like, so it just, you know, every [00:26:00] question beget an answer that kind of starts to grow the business around you.
[00:26:05] Dan: And did you still have your quote unquote day job at that point?
[00:26:09] Naza Shelley: Oh yeah. That was 2018. I didn’t leave my job until 2020.
[00:26:14] Dan: And what was the catalyst for like, this is it. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to do this a hundred percent.
[00:26:21] Naza Shelley: You know, I think I was just so spread thin. I mean, I was running to pitch meetings on my lunch [00:26:30] break, you know, I was like trying to take calls like in my office to like pitch to people and you know, trying to take marketing calls with the marketing team to like, and so it just got to the point where it.
[00:26:41] I wasn’t fully giving myself to either role, and so I wasn’t doing either job like a service, right? And so I kind of started to realize, and then talking to other entrepreneurs in this space, like one of the pieces of traditional wisdom that people will tell you whether or not it’s right or it’s wrong, is that it’s hard to get a check if you’re not full-time, right?
[00:26:57] Like if’s hard to get people to invest in [00:27:00] you if they don’t believe that you’re fully invested in the business. And so I started to look at, okay, well how can I kind of set myself up so I car. So I really at first thought I was gonna sabbatical, so I was like, I want three to six months. Hedge your betts.
[00:27:15] Yeah, hedge my betts. I was like, okay, I’ll do a sabbatical like three, six months and then I’ll go back to my job if things aren’t, you know, picking up. And so I was like, let me save money. I had saved enough money so that I could like pay my mortgage or whatever for that time period and like, you know, whatever.[00:27:30]
[00:27:30] And focus on car. My job was like, no, you can’t have a sabbatical. And I was like, darn. And so when they said no, I couldn’t have sabbatical, I was kind of put between a rock and a hard place. And it was kind of like, no, you can’t. And, and you know, not to get too personal, but I mean, there were other things that were stressors.
[00:27:49] Like I was so stressed out that I was losing my hair. I couldn’t sleep. Like I, you know, was like crying at like, Just randomly, like I had so much stress and so, you know, [00:28:00] on me that I was like, I can’t continue to do both. Right? And so it kind of was like a ultimatum where it was like, well, you can’t do a sabbatical, this thing that you wanted, that you had planned.
[00:28:09] And so, okay. I was like, I have, I have six months of. I can survive for the next six months. And so my last day was, I think February, end of February, 2020, and then Covid hit like the next month. And so my last day at my job, I had about a month that I was like full-time working on CarpeDM and WeWork and stuff, and then [00:28:30] Covid hit. So it was crazy, but fortuitous as well.
[00:28:35] Dan: Thank you for sharing that. I mean, I think that’s, that’s the reality a lot of founders face. They’re trying to get to that point. Where does the product resonate? Is, is the opportunity really that good? And probably as a lawyer and me as an engineer, always thinking like, what could go wrong?
[00:28:51] What’s the risk factors? As opposed to, yeah, this is good enough, let’s go. So sometimes you need some of those forcing functions and factors. [00:29:00] How did the combination of you bringing on a co-founder, I know you’ve talked about the being friends with her, but like how did that come about? The decision to have co-founders or to have somebody else as a partner?
[00:29:11] Naza Shelley: I. Yeah. You know, Sally, that’s my girl, that’s my bestie. And we went to law school together. So we just have like a whole little love story aside from being co-founders. Like we went to law school together. We experienced our first like major breakups together while we were like writing our two L like final paper that was like, you know how they give you the [00:29:30] paper that’s like the majority of your grade?
[00:29:32] So she’s at my apartment and we’re like switching between crying and like trying to write and like, you know, talking to each other about like dating and like our exes. And then, so we ended up, we passed, you know, law school. I got Sally to like ditch our law school, I mean our college graduation so that we could get ready for the law school graduation.
[00:29:50] Like we studied for the bar together. We took the bar together. We passed the bar. Like I was with her when I found out I passed the bar and she passed the bar. We’ve trout all the, all over the world [00:30:00] together. And so she’s the person that lent me the book, modern Romance, Azi Ansari’s Modern Romance. And so she was the friend that I was turning to like dating sucks, like are you having as much problems dating?
[00:30:10] But she didn’t use dating apps. I was using the dating apps. So she like didn’t have like a. Context for it. So when I was turning to my friends like, would you use something like this? She was like, yeah, that sounds like a cool concept. When I had my friends come for a pitch meeting, she was one of the first, she was like my friend, one of my friends that was there when I said, Hey, [00:30:30] like, will people invest a thousand dollars minimum?
[00:30:32] And my friends and family round, like she was literally one of the very first checks that like was put in my hand. And so I was in New York for black women talk tech and she was there ’cause her brother lives there and we were all having dinner and I was just talking to her about, you know, marketing the first version of the app.
[00:30:48] And I’m like, you know, this is hard, but she’s an attorney and she works at a marketing and ads agency. So it was just like, you know, serendipitous. And I was like, you should come and like help me. I was like, you should help me, [00:31:00] like market Carpe dm, and like, come on. As like C M O, blah, blah, blah. And she’s like, seriously?
[00:31:04] I’m like, yeah. And so she’s like, okay. So we, you know, we met and had like an across the board, like table meeting about like her coming on as CMO and, you know, exchange of value and all that stuff. Like very, very formal. And then a year passed and like we pivoted during covid to our new model. And then it just made sense that like she was elevated to co-founder in [00:31:30] 2021.
[00:31:30] And so we’ve been doing it together for quite some time.
[00:31:34] Dan: That’s great. That’s a great story. And a lot of times co-founders is such a tricky thing, but it’s so helpful when it’s somebody you know and have had experiences with that are, I don’t know, intimate is the right word, but deeply connecting experiences, not just going out to lunch once in a while.
[00:31:51] So that’s really cool and it’s cool that you decided to come on board. That’s great. Let’s talk a little bit about the company and the, and the product. So do you remember the [00:32:00] time when you first sort of had that customer feedback that said, you know, I think we’ve got something here.
[00:32:08] Naza Shelley: Yeah, so when we pivoted to our current model, which is like I said, matchmaking meets modern online dating where we provide a personal matchmaker and, you know, hand selected matches and everything.
[00:32:22] Well, part of our onboarding process is an interview. So like our members each meet with one of our matchmakers in a virtual interview, [00:32:30] and it serves a couple purposes. We wanna put eyes on you. You put eyes on us, right? We make sure you’re. A real person. ’cause we know that, you know, 60% of dating profiles are fake.
[00:32:39] There’s just so much stuff going on in online dating. And so we were like, we really wanna make sure that you feel comfortable with the service, you understand the service, you understand how we’re we’re different. And so in those first matchmaking interviews, like we were conducting them, I’m conducting ’em, Sally’s conducting them.
[00:32:54] ’cause like we didn’t have anybody else on the team. We were the, we are matchmakers and we were the ones doing this [00:33:00] customer discovery. And it was, when I’m talking to the black women who are joining. And just we say Ponte, like on their own without provocation or like queuing. They would just thank me.
[00:33:11] They would say, thank you so much for building this. Like there’s nothing like this in the market. We really need this. I’m so glad that I was able to find you guys and that this exists. And so to me that’s like, and it happens all the time. Like at first it’s like it’s super moving. It’s still really impactful.
[00:33:27] When I hear this, like in these matchmaker calls, or I [00:33:30] hear this from members, And so I think what that, I think was the first hard, hard confirmation that like we were doing, not just something that I thought was gonna be successful, but something I think is, is gonna be impactful. And so I am super grateful that I try to like, keep that in my mind at all times.
[00:33:49] Like our customer, like the value of our customer. Customer. Customer, you know, who we’re doing this and building this for and like our long-term mission and like the, what we actually wanna come out as like on the [00:34:00] impact side of, you know, us building this business.
[00:34:03] Dan: I love that. And it’s amazing how those two things are connected, right? Success and impact. And when the customer echoes back to you, the impact. Not only is it a good validator, but I know as an entrepreneur myself, it would be great fuel. Oh, we had a bad day today. You know, this happened that happened, this setback, and if a customer gave me positive feedback, I’m like, okay, I’m ready to go in and do it again.
[00:34:26] Let’s just keep at it. You know, one of the great quotes [00:34:30] I saw in the reviews from the app, Somebody basically wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, but it was like a light bulb. I don’t have time for wasted dates, is what the person wrote, and I was like, yes, I totally relate to that. And you’re basically creating a trusted opportunity for somebody to say, okay, I have something in mind.
[00:34:52] I have an outcome I’m trying to get to, and I don’t want to do this meandering. And I love the fact that you have this five to 10 minutes face [00:35:00] to face. It is amazing that in like your hiring or in relationships or anything, you have these cues in the first few minutes, right? Like you have that read, so it’s, it doesn’t have to be a half an hour or whatever, right?
[00:35:14] It’s like that first connection, is it there and is it done on a regional basis? Do you launch by region or how does that work in terms of connecting people who might be in, in different areas?
[00:35:25] Naza Shelley: Yeah, so we’re currently available in dc, Maryland, Virginia, like, but we get [00:35:30] applications from all over the country, all over the world actually.
[00:35:33] And so that’s fantastic. Like we have wait lists that are growing in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, LA, all the, you know, Miami. We have people applying from Canada, from London, and it’s super, super exciting. We’re hyperfocused on the DMV area for our, um, first year, but our goal is really to be that household name, right?
[00:35:54] When people say black love, like, you know, how did you meet your husband? How did you meet your spouse? Like, we want, [00:36:00] like majority people be like, oh, I met them on car diem, right? And so, For us, like our expansion plan is definitely to be able to connect people, not just locally, but across the country and across the world who are looking for romantic relationships.
[00:36:13] And the exciting thing is that, you know, our internal plan was like, you know, we’re just gonna stay super focused on DC but we’re hearing more and more from our members. I’m willing to date New York, I’m willing to date Chicago. I go to LA you know, twice a month I’m willing to date someone in Miami. And so I think it’s because [00:36:30] of.
[00:36:30] Our demographic and our target audience, that they just have more access, right? To being able to like travel or interest in that. And so that may actually accelerate, you know, our ability to launch in other cities and match people who are not just in dc, Maryland, or Virginia.
[00:36:50] Dan: That makes sense and, and I could totally see that, how people are maybe even actually kind of tired of what meeting people in their local.
[00:36:59] Let me, [00:37:00] lemme see what’s going on in Chicago, la, Dallas, Atlanta. So you have sort of this classic, I’ll call it a marketplace, but you have the two sides, right? So you’ve got obviously black women and people who want to connect with them. How do you think about building the two sides of that two sided supply, for lack of a better term? Like how do you think about building those two sides?
[00:37:23] Naza Shelley: Yeah, so for us it’s really like how do we get as many people to know that Carpe deem exists and like our specific [00:37:30] mission to help black women find love. And so, like you said, we call like one side of the marketplace professional black women or black women.
[00:37:36] And the other side we call suitors because we are sexuality and ethnicity agnostics. So we are.
[00:37:48] Black women, women, and then also men of any ethnicity that are interested in dating black women. And so a lot of what we do in order to kind of share our brand and what it is that we’re doing [00:38:00] is through community efforts. So we do a lot of events. We do a lot of social media content, and there’s a lot of word of mouth.
[00:38:08] So we get tons of referrals from our. I get calls all the time. It’s like, yeah, my friend at work like told me about this or, and I, you know, wanted to join or, yeah. You know, one of your members, so and so told me that, you know, she had an amazing first date, you know, the very first match she had. And so she told me I should definitely try this, and so, For us, we know that it’s gonna be an [00:38:30] important balance of being on the ground in the community in order to like let people know that we’re a different option than what they’re used to with freemium model dating apps.
[00:38:39] But then also making sure that our existing members are like happy with the service that they are, that we’re delivering on what we say we’re gonna provide. Because that like word of mouth is so important.
[00:38:51] Dan: I love that, and I bet you have your own radar out in the coffee shop. You’re like, Hmm. Yeah, that always,
[00:38:57] Naza Shelley: We’re always got our eyes open for amazing [00:39:00] singles, so I always have cards on deck that are like, Hey, take this card.
[00:39:04] Like if you’re single, you know, please check us out.
[00:39:07] Dan: I love that. That’s great. Well, we’re gonna take another short break and we’ll be right back with NAA Shelley from CarpeDM.
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[00:40:08] Dan: So we’re back with Naza from CarpeDM. So, you alluded to this a little during the last part of the conversation, Naza, but I always like to ask, what is the ultimate success for CarpeDM? You know, if I bump into you in five years and everybody says this was a, just a slam dunk, this was a great success, what would that mean to you? What, what does success for [00:40:30] this company mean to you?
[00:40:31] Naza Shelley: Yeah, so we actually have a, a very clear cut mission. It’s three prongs. The first prong is to elevate black women. The second one is to help build generational wealth in the black community through the formation of two income and parent households.
[00:40:45] And then the third is to give black. So like we give 5% of our subscription revenue to organizations doing amazing work in the black community. And so for me, the measure of success is like how much impact are we having in like each of those three areas? Are [00:41:00] we doing our part to consistently and intentionally elevate black women?
[00:41:04] I mean, there’s. So much negative stigma around black women in that, specifically in the dating industry, let alone like beyond that industry in society at large. But like our part to help people understand how amazing black women are as life partners and how deserving we are of amazing life partners.
[00:41:24] Right? And so that’s one. And then two, the generational wealth thing like. We want them babies, we want those [00:41:30] marriages. We want those engagements, right? We want those growing families. We want people to be able to say that they met on CarpeDM and like now they are in a happy and stable relationship, and that we were able to make that introduction and then hopefully in the long term we’re able to support them in their relationship through other services, right as we grow.
[00:41:48] And so how many people can say that that’ll be a huge impact for us? And how are we tracking, you know, how many dates that we’re facilitating? Ultimately, how many of those long lasting connections, you know, can trace their [00:42:00] origin story back to car. And then the third one is giving black, right? So, We know that it’s super important for our community to invest and reinvest right in our communities.
[00:42:10] And so we provide 5% of our subscription revenue to organizations that are doing impactful work. And then we require them to track how they’re spending those donations, right? So that we can get tangible evidence of, you know, what impact we’re able to make through them as organizations, right? So I think through [00:42:30] tracking all of that and using our mission as our kind of.
[00:42:34] Star and how we grow. Um, that’s really gonna be in five years as you bump into me. If I’m able to kind of like tell you the highlights from each of those three categories, then I’ll, I’ll be able to say that I feel successful in my role. Right? In kind of leading CarpeDM.
[00:42:49] Dan: Incredible vision and it’s so well thought out. A lot of times people answer one or two things and sometimes it’s about the economics, but sometimes it’s about, you know, this one element. But [00:43:00] that’s really powerful. I love that vision. Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about fundraising. So you are a part of, uh, still unfortunately, a relatively exclusive club of, uh, black women founders raising over a million dollars. Tell us about that journey. You have several investors, you did a friends and family. What has it been like overall in the fundraising journey?
[00:43:24] Naza Shelley: I feel like how quickly I raised my friends and family kind of prevent me from actually understanding like how hard it [00:43:30] is to raise funds until I actually went out to do like an actual round.
[00:43:33] So I raised like, uh, $186,000 for my friends and family over the course of a year. And so I was like this, you know, I had to take meetings. I had to like pitch carpet dm. I was talking to people one-on-one, you know, which was exhausting or whatever, but I was like, you know, this. It’s not that hard to like raise this money.
[00:43:52] And then, and then when I went to grow Carpe dmm and like, you know, we were looking at a substantial [00:44:00] pre-seed round and we were trying to raise, I think at the time, 500 k, that’s when it was like, oh no. Oh, this is hard. Right? I can’t go back to my friends. They already gave me their money. Right? So friends and family ain’t, they’re not deep pockets, right?
[00:44:12] They, they’re not following investors for the most part. Part, right? Like they give you a thousand dollars or whatever they got and, and that’s, that’s all you’re going to get. And so I was like, I can’t go back to that. Well, that well’s dry. And I’m so grateful, so, so grateful that my friends and family entrusted me with their money to that extent.
[00:44:27] So I started, you know, doing the pitch [00:44:30] competitions like, you know, pitching to investors and you know, a lot of people do remember, right? Like that pre covid time where if you weren’t in Silicon Valley, if you weren’t in New York, if you weren’t in the location where they were giving out the. The money, you’re really very heavily reliant on your ecosystem and the local people in your ecosystem to invest in your company.
[00:44:52] And like DC at the time, just did not have deep roots in like investing in B two C businesses like ours. It was very [00:45:00] FinTech gov, you know, health, you know, future education. It really wasn’t like B two C or like, you know, c P G, like that really wasn’t where like, um, a lot of investments were coming from.
[00:45:11] And so it was really, really tough. And so it was during Covid when investors from all over the country started hearing pitches from people from all over the country. Right? That we actually started to get some traction around our initial raise. And one of our first investors was actually Virginia Venture Partners out [00:45:30] of Virginia, and then also Pipeline Angels, which is a primarily women led and women based angel fund.
[00:45:36] And so it really is hard, like they tell you, getting that first check or that first commitment is the hardest part. I completely agree. And then from there, it’s what do you do with the money, right? Like how do you show traction from that money and kind of grow, but. I think that it’s definitely, I couldn’t say that it’s harder than it should be for women and minority women to raise, but I think that [00:46:00] asking someone for a million dollars or $500,000 should be hard.
[00:46:03] Right? Like it should be hard to get that type of money from people, but it shouldn’t be harder, right. For us to get it than anyone else.
[00:46:14] Dan: Speaking the truth. For sure. So, uh, elevate is were they the lead investor for this round?
[00:46:21] Naza Shelley: Yeah, so Elevate is um, our lead investors, Virginia Venture partner, elevate’s our largest investor.
[00:46:26] Dan: So your first check was essentially the round lead? [00:46:30] Mm-hmm. Yes. That’s, yeah, you’re right. That is a hard thing to pull off. ’cause sometimes people will do, if I can get some commitments and soft circle and as long as I can find a lead and then the lead part becomes the hard hurdle. Do you think for you, did you feel like it was harder? Was there more challenges as a black woman founder?
[00:46:49] Naza Shelley: It’s really hard to say because I only have my experience, right? I can look at the data. I can look at, you know, like what they say in the industry about black women [00:47:00] raising. I can look at the other women around me who are building phenomenal companies and they’re also struggling to raise, and I can. There’s too much money in the ecosystem for it, you know, raises. Hundred million dollars, right? Like, and then covid hit, or you know, the recession hit and now they’re out of business, right? And like they’ve closed shop, but you struggled, [00:47:30] you know, to raise a, you know, a small fraction of that. And you’re still here, right? Like you’ve provided traction over that.
[00:47:36] Time because we’ve learned so much how to be frugal, how to like, you know, make the dollars stretch and really prove traction. And like, I think because it’s so, because it is more difficult for us to raise, we focus very much on business fundamentals. In some ways that really helps us in trying times like this fundraising climate.
[00:47:56] But you know, we shouldn’t have to struggle all the time, right? Like we [00:48:00] shouldn’t have to be in like survivalist mode at all times. Like we shouldn’t have to take valuations that are a fraction of another company’s valuation with similar or less traction than us just because they look different or they went to, you know, You know the schools, you know, they went to Stanford.
[00:48:16] They went, you know, and so that’s the frustrating part. I always tell people that I try to live in the positive and I don’t try to compare myself and my situation to other people. I try not to play the victim and I don’t say, I’m not saying that to say [00:48:30] that black women or minority women are playing victim ’cause they’re not.
[00:48:33] I just try to really focus on. What is it within my control, right? Like what’s in within my control. I can’t control the nose, right? Like I can only control like my next pitch. I can only control like how our company is functioning. That’s where I try to live because I think if you’re outside of that bubble and you really focus on.
[00:48:51] How unfair it really is. It can be too discouraging for a lot of people to kind of really wanna press forward. So for me, I try [00:49:00] to live in the, this is what’s in my control, right? And like the ecosystem I’m building around me are people who wanna support women like me, who wanna support businesses like me, who wanna support the mission that we have, right?
[00:49:12] And see our vision and see our dedication, execution. Anyone who doesn’t see that it’s okay. They’re not in our orbit, they’re not our supporters, and that’s, and that’s okay.
[00:49:23] Dan: Wow. For somebody who’s a first time entrepreneur, you got a lot of wisdom for sure. You’re a quick study, I guess, [00:49:30] so it’s difficult to raise money, like you said, for everybody.
[00:49:34] Was there a bit of feedback or an unlock that you discovered at some point where, Like this element, like you said, of what you can control. You said, oh, that’s interesting. This happened, or I got this feedback. If I take this approach, it will unlock something. Did, did you ever have a, in a situation like that, I.
[00:49:54] Naza Shelley: Yeah. I mean our biggest pushback when we were fundraising and initially for our [00:50:00] pre-seed was how do you scale this type of business, right? Like it’s a business with a human element. There’s matchmakers because this is really what we’re doing, right? We’re scaling matchmaking, right, and making, and through technical ization we’re making.
[00:50:17] Matchmaking something that’s typically completely out of reach to the everyday person. Even an attorney, like I probably couldn’t even afford, you know, a traditional match. I don’t have the $2,000, right? To like have somebody help me find love. So even for people who [00:50:30] are, you know, in that a hundred thousand dollars salary range, like a matchmaker could be completely out of reach.
[00:50:34] So how do we scale it so that we can bring down the cost, but bring up the overall experience that people are having with online dating, which is like just. Horrible. Right? And so the biggest question that we always got was like, how do you scale this? I don’t think that this is scalable. I, we don’t think that, da da da.
[00:50:53] And so that was our challenge. And that was, it’s a valid question, right? It’s a valid question, and it’s something [00:51:00] that we had at a, as a team, had to sit down and crunch the numbers under, look at our business model, look at where the human touch points are, you know how we’re izing it. Through technology so that it really can scale.
[00:51:12] And so I think that when we answered all of those questions upfront and answered them, you know, plausibly with like well thought out execution on how we do this, then it became easier, right? Because the roadblocks or the things that people thought would be the reason why we couldn’t [00:51:30] scale really. Turn into benefits, right?
[00:51:32] Like, yeah, we may not have 86 million members or users like Tinder, but we don’t need 86 million users, right? Our members are paying us a thousand dollars, or, you know, upwards of $2,000 each member. Why would we need 86 million users, right? Like in tenders charging $9, nine, 9 cents if they’re paying, right?
[00:51:53] And so it was also level setting the comparison because a lot of investors are a certain age and a certain [00:52:00] demographic. They have no reference point to online dating. And so they only know what they know from dating apps, right? They know tender, they know OkCupid, they know Bumble. Um, and so when you’re bringing in a completely different type of model that kind of marries two different.
[00:52:14] Sides of the industry. It takes a little bit of education for them as well as our customers, right? Like our customers also have to be educated. So I would say definitely tackling, like how do we scale was one of the keys to kind of unlocking the vault, the bank doors. [00:52:30]
[00:52:30] Dan: That’s great and that it’s not always as straightforward as that. But you know, if you can find an objection that somebody has and say, yeah, I’ve got an answer for that. It can be transformative. Not just because you answer the question, but that you’ve thought about it. I, I know a lot of investors say like, yeah, I don’t know if they are gonna have the perfect answer, but the fact that they’ve already thought about it or they’ve presented like, oh yeah, this is an issue that I think you’re gonna wanna know about, and here’s my answer.
[00:52:57] We’re having a great conversation, but I wanna be. Cognizant of [00:53:00] time. So my last question is always sort of the retrospective, which is if you could go back in time and meet this super successful attorney Naza and say you’re about to do this entrepreneur thing, here’s my advice, what, here’s what to do, here’s what not to do.
[00:53:20] Watch out for this, or run towards that. What would you tell her?
[00:53:24] Naza Shelley: I think I would tell myself to do a coding bootcamp. I’m a [00:53:30] non-technical co-founder, um, and my co-founder, non-technical as well, and. A lot of the challenges that we face that we’ve overcome deal with like managing technical teams, right?
[00:53:42] Without having like a technical background and like a lot of learning on the go. It’s funny now because I feel like I speak developer so much just because of all the experience I’ve had over the years, but having a better. Concept. I mean, our first app, like we hired a [00:54:00] development company to develop and it was like, oh, check in with me when it’s done.
[00:54:04] Like, can you imagine? Right? Like, can you imagine, you know, we were having like a call a week and like, you know, then every four months they would show us something that they’ve done. Like, can you imagine that that is what I was doing in that first year, and I had no. I no knowledge of like what it actually takes to run a team on a technical side, and it’s night and day, [00:54:30] right?
[00:54:30] The way that we run our technical, our developers now. Then the way that I was working with an outside, you know, development company and entrusting them to like build my vision. At the very inception of CarpeDM. And so I think I would wanna learn a little bit more about technical development and like how to actually build out a technical team and effectively manage them.
[00:54:50] I think I’ve learned a lot of that over the past few years, but it would’ve been good, you know, that year that I was, you know, riding e-bikes and laying by the pool, I could have been learning some technical skills for [00:55:00] sure.
[00:55:01] Dan: That’s great. I love that suggestion. And a lot of. Non-technical founders kind of go in thinking it’s just compartmentalized.
[00:55:08] Yeah, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll bring in a firm, they’ll do the job for me and then we will off and running. And it is much more complicated than that. And yeah, it makes it hard if you don’t know what they’re saying and have to trust them. So we always like to end with, uh, call to action for unfound our audience. Is there anything that we can do for you Naza, for CarpeDM?
[00:55:29] [00:55:30] Anything you want to shout out?
[00:55:31] Naza Shelley: Yeah, so if you’re in the DC area, sign up for CarpeDM if you’re single. We didn’t talk about this, but we throw events. So one of the things that people love about what we do is our events, they’re always sold out. So you can come and meet our team, you can meet other singles.
[00:55:45] You can get hooked up in person if you create a CarpeDM dating profile. Obviously follow us on social, refer CarpeDM to a friend. Tell your friends about us. Tell them tope us [00:56:00] calls.
[00:56:01] Dan: Awesome. Awesome. Unfortunately, I am not single and I don’t live in DC so I would love to be a fly on the wall for one of those events.
[00:56:08] Naza Shelley: Next time you’re in town, just so you can come through and we can just have a drink and watch the singles engage with each other.
[00:56:14] Dan: Yeah. I’ll be like an anthropologist just watching and seeing how it all works. Yeah. Well, this has been an awesome conversation. They, I really appreciate you taking the time today. Thank you so much.
[00:56:23] Naza Shelley: Thank you. It’s really, really been my pleasure.
[00:56:26] Dan: We’d like to thank our guest, Naza and our sponsor, BLCKVC.
[00:56:29] [00:56:30] This podcast was produced by me, Dan Kihanya.
[00:56:32] Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, or simply go to founders unfound.com or slash listen to. That’s listen to and follow us on X, Instagram, or LinkedIn @foundersunfound, and make sure to tell your friends about us. We so appreciate every new listener.
[00:56:50] Thanks so much for tuning in.
[00:56:51] I am Dan Kihanya, and you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound.[00:57:00]