A Slice on Thierry Schellenbach, Co-Founder and CEO of Stream
Two years prior to the birth of Pinterest in the U.S., Thierry Schellenbach co-founded a similar social network in Amsterdam. They grew it to millions of users before selling to a private equity firm (for an eight-figure amount) seven years later. While building this product, Schellenbach found it difficult to create the activity feed and messaging in-house while growing so rapidly. After the acquisition, Schellenbach and co-founder Tommaso Barbugli decided to start a company to help other app developers build their activity feeds and chat functions. The two founded Stream in 2014 and have since raised over $58M in funding with 140 employees (and growing).
After his experience with entrepreneurship and difficulty fundraising in Europe, Schellenbach knew he wanted to test out moving to the U.S. to build his next venture. Schellenbach and Barbugli reached out to Alex Iskold, Managing Director of TechStars New York at the time. They participated in the 2015 winter class and shortly after were approached by Dharmesh Shah, Founder of Hubspot. “Dharmesh Shah emailed me and said, ‘Hey, I want to put $100k into your business.’” Schellenbach asked Shah if he wanted to hop on a call to discuss the terms, but Shah said, “No, I’m busy,” and blindly agreed to the terms Schellenbach determined. Schellenbach was shocked at how nonchalant the interaction was, it was certainly different than anything he’d experienced in Europe.
With funding from Shah, Schellenbach decided to stay in the U.S. a little longer. He settled on Boulder, Colorado after a few considerations. Not only was his wife working for an American company based in Niwot, Colorado, but he also was persuaded by some successful entrepreneurs within the Boulder startup community. While still in New York, Schellenbach called up David Cohen, Founder of Techstars, along with the founders of SendGrid to get their opinions. “Everyone was very enthusiastic, so I moved to Boulder without ever seeing it. It was a bit of a gamble.” Living in Boulder, he’s found that the startup ecosystem is very accessible, “Whenever you want to talk to a founder of another company, it’s literally an email away. The whole ecosystem is very open. People care about paying it forward and helping each other out.”
The move to the U.S. didn’t come without difficulty, however. Getting a visa and dealing with immigration proved to be more cumbersome than he thought it would be. “Moving to the U.S., for people outside of Europe it’s harder, but even if you’re coming from Europe, it’s still pretty difficult. International taxation is completely broken so you run into 100 more problems caused by that. We also had some investors tell us that they wouldn’t invest in Stream because they weren’t sure I would be able to arrange the visa side of things. So it impacted fundraising as well, it was one of our biggest risks.” Still, despite visa struggles, Schellenbach describes the difference between fundraising in the U.S. and Europe as “night and day”.
Another major risk Schellenbach and his team took was expanding from just activity feeds to include chat functionality. “Customers started telling us that they couldn’t find a good chat solution, and they actually started using our Activity Feed API to do that. It’s weird because that’s basically like building chats by sending tweets. It kind of works, but not quite.” With this feedback, they launched their second product. “I remember some investors telling me, ‘No, don’t do this, this is risky, it’s gonna go wrong,’ It was scary, but we went ahead and did it, and it turned out well.”
Adding to this success, COVID-19 accelerated Stream’s growth as everything started moving online, from concerts to education, suddenly needing chat functions. They were able to navigate the initial uncertainty of the situation and keep growing despite many of their large customers going bankrupt. The tables started to turn for fundraising, and they were quickly able to raise their series A and B funding rounds.
From both of his experiences with entrepreneurship, Schellenbach highly recommends other entrepreneurs find a co-founder with skills that balance their own and can offer moral support. “Startups are a roller coaster. One day you’ll get amazing news, and then the next day you’ll run into major problems. I think having someone along with you for that journey is essential.”
Throughout the ups and downs, Schellenbach and Barbugli grew their team from just the two of them to over 140 people. Company culture was not at the forefront of their minds at first, however. When he initially got started with Stream, another founder told him, “At some point, it’s all about hiring and culture.’ At the time it didn’t really make sense to me because I was still so focused on the product-market fit side of things.”
When they started growing, though, they realized the importance of company culture. “We tried to be very explicit about our values. We work with Lattice to set our goals and make sure that teams know them. It sounds simple but it’s harder than it seems because if you get to a significant scale, people often get misaligned. That’s one of the hardest things, especially in this remote day and age, making sure people stay aligned and that teams know what they’re working on. It’s important to have regular check-ins.”
Looking ahead, Schellenbach sees Stream becoming the “AWS for these components [activity feeds and chats] of an app,” and eventually getting to an IPO. They also now provide their services to small companies for free, as a way of paying it forward. “That really resonates for me because when Tommaso and I got started, we were on a shoestring budget. It was just me and him building up the company, and it’s really nice to be able to pay it forward and provide that tech for other companies who are just getting up and running.”
Thierry Schellenbach is from the Netherlands, where he attended Erasmus University Rotterdam and founded his first company, Fashiolista.com. Schellenbach now resides in Boulder, Colorado running his current venture, Stream. Connect with Schellenbach on LinkedIn.