This share-based startup story offers powerful advice

Insights from Instally’s launch, the app for finding parking spots

Skateboarder and Pedestrians and Cars Share Roadways On UNR Campus

Skateboarders, pedestrians, and cars share roadways on the UNR campus, as seen on May 7, 2019. Photo and story by K. Patricia Bouweraerts.

Ryan Klekas, courtesy photo

Ryan Klekas, courtesy photo

This is the story of an entrepreneur’s journey — not to his expected grand destination, but to a turning point where he chooses an entirely new direction.

Ryan Klekas, founder and CEO of the sharing-based parking app Instally arrived at a kind of summit vista the day he graduated with his Master of Business Administration from the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). Cars jammed Virginia Street and congested lots for Fall 2016 Commencement.

“And on that day, while there’s lines of cars going up and down Virginia and people are trying to get into parking garages and park on side streets, I showed up to campus the same way everybody else did with no idea of where I was going to park — and I opened up an app that I had taken from an idea in my head all the way to building it to a tangible thing,” Klekas said. “And I booked a parking spot through an app that I created, with the help of the developers, obviously. But then I parked, and I walked across the street, and it’s just like, that was a really big moment for me.”

He reserved a spot that morning using the beta version of Instally. It was officially released on Apple’s App Store in January 2017.

“Instally is a marketplace platform that allows owners of non-commercial parking to rent their unused spaces to drivers that need a place to park — ‘Airbnb’ for parking,” he said.

An exciting journey launched in fall semester 2015

The emphasis of Klekas’ degree was entrepreneurial studies. His exciting journey first set off from an entrepreneurship class taught by Matt Westfield, Advising Director for the Entrepreneurs Club at UNR. Students were to come up with a startup idea, pitch it to the class, and work on it for the rest of the semester. One day, he was taking a closer look at his surroundings and saw the supply of empty driveways near full campus parking lots.

Photo of Crowded Parking Lot on UNR Campus

A crowded parking lot in front of UNR’s Joe Crowley Student Union, as seen on May 7, 2019. Photos by K. Patricia Bouweraerts.

“The idea was based upon a problem that I, myself had while attending grad school … which is parking; it’s kind of hard to find a place to park there,” Klekas explained. “To me it seemed like a pretty no-brainer solution — ‘Hey, look at all of these places to park that are in other people’s driveways.’”

So he performed the necessary research, completed a business plan, worked on his pitch, and even entered the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition, an annual event at UNR. He designed the user interface (UI) for the Instally website. The grand prize of Sontag is $50,000, typically used by the victor to help launch his or her business. Klekas believes he won the Competition that spring because he had done extensive, broad-based research and built an effective model.

“I actually had a working product, it was just a very manual-based version of what the end product was,” he said. “I had already gone to driveway owners myself, door-to-door, and spoke to them about my idea, and told them, that ‘Hey I’m really trying to test this. …I kind of want to see if it’s something that you as a driveway owner would be interested in doing, and also see if I can get people to park in your space.’”

The locations and hours of availability for about 20 driveways were gathered from property owners, entered into a spreadsheet, and Klekas took pictures of the parking places.

“And then I got another group of people, that were like, ‘Hey, ya, parking sucks, we have problems with it all the time,’” Klekas added.

When individuals in the test group sent an SMS text message that they needed parking, he made a match based on the spreadsheet and the drivers’ desired part of campus. Customers paid through Venmo, a service of PayPal, Inc. Parking spots netted $3–8 an hour depending on nearness to UNR. Instally took its 20–30 percent commission, and driveway owners were paid.

Screen Capture of Instally App Download Page on iTunes Store

A screen capture of the Instally app download page in iTunes. Capture retrieved on Apr. 24, 2019.

The manual model launched in spring 2016, and then with the Sontag prize money, Klekas outsourced development of the automated app to a talent platform in the Bay Area, Gigster. The app cost between $30–40K to develop, he said.

The app went live in January 2017, and was well-received — property owners were interested in signing up their underutilized parking spaces, and customers were booking spots — Instally was generating income.

It appeared that the business could be scaled to include additional colleges and universities.

A promising idea needed marketing and fundraising

Klekas implemented the initial marketing for Instally, and then set out to raise money. He built a pitch deck and met with investors in Reno, San Francisco, and in Silicon Valley. Klekas and his wife were starting to raise a family when he was in grad school. There would only be a few short months before he would need to generate an income.

He contrasts small business startups — often local and family-owned — with technology-based startups that can be scaled up to serve surrounding or distant regions.

College Student Paying for Parking Inside a Campus Parking Structure

A student pays for parking in a campus parking structure.

“So, I was trying to build a startup,” he said. “And what’s typical in instances like that is you can, investors particularly, can see the value in it, and they’ll give you money to let you — in my instance for example — pay my bills while I’m going through kind of those harder first couple years of trying to get it off the ground, start to scale, start to get customers, and kind of eventually get to that end goal, where the investor is going to get a return on their money.”

He was launching the business alone, though, and regrets not bringing in a business partner sooner.

“I tried to raise a quarter of a million dollars to essentially bring on one other person … a partner on the development side, and then to pay myself some type of salary, essentially to just kind of get me through that,” he said.

Klekas set a hard deadline of six months to raise his funding goal.

“And I basically said, ‘If I can’t do this by mid-June, or if it doesn’t look like there’s a 90 percent chance that I could do this, then I’m going to shut it down,” he added. “And that’s pretty much what happened.”

He closed the app in June 2017. From the manual, alpha, and beta versions that began in 2016 to the functioning app live in 2017, Instally successfully ran for about a year-and-a-half.

Two-fold practical advice for new entrepreneurs

Photo of Students Walking in Front of Business Building on UNR Campus

Students walking in front of Nazir Ansari Business Building, UNR, as seen on May 7, 2019.

Klekas has two main suggestions for entrepreneurs looking to build sharing-based startups. The first and most important is to team up.

“So definitely don’t try to go it alone,” he explained. “You need other people to share in your vision. …You need other people and you depend on them in order to reach that shared vision.”

There will be days when an individual starting a business needs supportive and friendly camaraderie.

“Find partners; find other people that complement skills, perhaps, that you don’t have,” Klekas added. “Like I had the business side of things and I have a creative mind, but I couldn’t actually execute in terms of technological things that were necessary to make it work, so partnering perhaps, in hindsight, with a CTO would have been really beneficial for me, someone who could manage the technical piece.”

The second factor is to avoid guessing what people want — instead, conduct comprehensive surveys to assess actual problems and needs. He spoke with numerous individuals who would potentially use the app.

“And I said, ‘Hey, would you list your driveways on this app — would you do this, is that interesting to you,’ he asked. “On the other side of the equation, ‘Would you be willing to park in a stranger’s driveway in order for convenience?’ …So to me it was like, ‘Wow, if I can get people to participate in this really kind of hacked together SMS version of what an actual app would look like, I’m pretty sure if I had a really streamlined way to do this, I mean it would be even more successful.”

An unexpected opportunity at a multi-million dollar startup

Klekas is now Partner Account Manager and Director of Channel Partnerships at Bombora, Inc., a large startup headquartered in New York City, with additional locations in London, San Francisco, and Reno. He credits finding and landing the position to his Instally experience and the people he met along the way.

Bombora is a business-to-business (B2B) company that collects and aggregates data to help large enterprise customers acquire and fine-tune advertising reach, increase direct sales opportunities, and perform marketing automation. For instance, with a list of 1,000 companies, sales professionals may not know which firms are best to start calling.

“What we do is take that list of a thousand companies and run it through our product, and we essentially tell you, of the 1,000 that are on your list, which 10 you should reach out to today, because they’re interested in what you sell today,” he explained.

Klekas exudes a natural entrepreneurial spirit and thinks he may take another stab at developing an innovative personal idea again in the future.

“I’m in a really awesome place now, where I’m at a startup of about 100 employees,” Klekas said. “I came on as, around number 50, and I really got to see how an actual startup works and how it grows. …And I feel like that’s going to round me out and make me better when I essentially give it (entrepreneurship) another shot down the road.”

 

Initially published on Medium.com by the writer on May 7, 2020.

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