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Bootstrapping to $8 Million: Sina Khanifar, CEO of Waveform (Part 3)

Posted on Wednesday, Apr 8th 2020

Sramana Mitra: Let’s talk a little bit about how you built the pieces of the business. Let’s talk about the retail e-commerce piece. It sounds like there is inventory involved. Did you finance the inventory through some bank, or did you just do it organically?

Sina Khanifar: That’s where seed capital came in. We didn’t need any financing.

Sramana Mitra: How big a business did it become? Your customer acquisition was all Google keywords?

Sina Khanifar: Yes. I wrote my thesis on search engine algorithms even though I studied Physics. We had a big focus on search engine optimization. In 2012 to 2013, we were up to about $3 million in sales. Today we sell about $9 million a year.

Sramana Mitra: This is both the retail and the services?

Sina Khanifar: Yes, combined.

Sramana Mitra: What percentage of the business is retail versus the services?

Sina Khanifar: It’s about 50/50.

Sramana Mitra: What is the delivery model of services? Do you have your own employees or do you do it like a marketplace where you have technicians in different parts of the world?

Sina Khanifar: Initially we tried the marketplace model. It was more of subcontracting out the installation. The results weren’t good enough, so we moved everything in-house. I even spent a lot of time traveling around the country, running the cable, installing the systems myself.

Now we have our own team. We still subcontract out for the cabling work. Some of the low-voltage cabling is done by a third-party but we always have someone on site, everything else we do in-house.

Sramana Mitra: How many technicians do you have on your payroll?

Sina Khanifar: A relatively small number. Enterprise team is about 13 people. We distributed everyone geographically. We have an office in Philadelphia. We have someone in Atlanta and Sacramento. We spread to try and cover both coasts. 

Sramana Mitra: Interesting. What else is interesting in your journey? What other inflection points have you experienced? What else has happened that is interesting and worth discussing?

Sina Khanifar: In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission started the rule-making process around the use of signal boosters. During that time, there was a lot of uncertainty as to what kind of product would be allowed. We started another company as well.

In 2010, we started OpenSignal. I really didn’t work on this company. I had a team that ran it from 2010 to 2016. I was doing other things. We started OpenSignal from 2010 to 2013. We got it to the place where we raised our fundraising round.

We pursued a different model with OpenSignal. We went the VC-backed route. We raised a seed round, Series A, and Series B. That is now headquartered in London. It’s a bigger company. It’s a purely software and data-driven company. There is no hardware involved. I helped get that off the ground. 2013 was when we decided to base it in London.

Then I spent two years doing political advocacy and activism. I started on a pet project with cell phone unlocking. It was on the legality of consumers’ ability to unlock their cell phones. It was made permanently legal by a Bill signed into law in 2014. I spent a lot of time running the campaign to make that happen.

There was a big debate around privacy and net neutrality. I got quite involved with an organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I took that extended break. It was something that I needed. It’s helpful to take a break. 

Sramana Mitra: For small businesses, that luxury often doesn’t exist. What is the situation in your company? Do you have other people who can deal with all this?

Sina Khanifar: We had a management team in place who kept things afloat. The company didn’t grow as quickly. Our sales went down during that time period. It was definitely in maintenance mode rather than in growth mode. We were able to get the ball rolling.

I came back in late 2015. It was when we started the services division. It’s very hard to step away from a company and be able to keep it running. We’re lucky that we had an excellent team that was able to manage the day-to-day operations.

Sramana Mitra: Thank you for your time.

This segment is part 3 in the series : Bootstrapping to $8 Million: Sina Khanifar, CEO of Waveform
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