July 22, 2021

Styra’s Unusual Journey

Bill Mann
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Styra’s Unusual JourneyStyra’s Unusual Journey
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Editor's note: 
In honor of Unusual’s three year anniversary, we’ve partnered with our founders to tell their stories in the form of our Unusual Journey series. This piece is by Tim Hinrichs and Teemu Koponen, Co-Founders of Styra, and Bill Mann, CEO of Styra, the founder of Open Policy Agent (OPA) and leader in cloud-native authorization.

In May, we announced our $40M Series B, but when we first partnered with Unusual Ventures at our seed stage, we were at ground zero of building our business with $0 of ARR. At that stage, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve read about building a company or the organizations you’ve run in the past. It’s a different world and you have to go back to the basics of rolling up your sleeves and need venture partners who are willing to do the same.

From our first interactions with the Unusual team, it was very clear that they invest in entrepreneurs not only monetarily, but also by dedicating the time and work necessary to help their founders reach important goals. John was very involved with us from day one and asked us tough questions—but important questions—to help us set clear milestones we needed to hit in order to raise our Series A. As first time founders and a first time CEO, this guidance was immensely helpful—it helped put structure on the stages we go through as a company. We understood that we needed a strong vision, product, team, and $1M ARR.

Once we set our goals, it was time to get to work. We engaged with the sales arm of Unusual’s Get Ahead Platform (GAP) team—Unusual’s world class operators who embed within a portfolio company’s organization to deliver results—to help jumpstart our sales motion. At the time we kicked off our engagement, we had zero customers. Liam, Unusual’s Director of Sales GTM, became our sales organization. We literally gave him access to our HubSpot, he dove in as an embedded team member, and he’d update us on progress via weekly meetings. Not only did he define our sales pipeline and help us better understand our customers’ needs, but his MongoDB background proved paramount for us. There are unique challenges that come with being an open source company. It was so helpful to have someone like Liam who has fought some of the same wars we were up against as a sounding board, especially around the conversion of open source to commercialization.

Once we gained momentum and became closer to hitting the goals we set, particularly our $1M ARR goal and obtaining 10 customers, we began serious discussions with John about raising our Series A. From giving us a list of VCs that we needed to pitch, making the connection to these VCs, coaching us through timelines, what VCs look for in a pitch deck, and on, we were amazed by the lengths the Unusual team went to in order to help make this a successful process for us. 

We were again connected with the GAP team and engaged in multiple sessions to help us create a compelling pitch deck. Generally speaking, we are building a foundational service, which is abstract to most people. More times than not, people don’t understand what authorization is, so it’s always been a struggle from a visual communication point of view. The Unusual team helped us create a pitch deck that communicated our vision in a visually compelling manner. Jyoti in particular helped us tremendously during this process and coached us through the importance of leaving our meetings with a punch. Our interaction with him wasn’t passive like, “Yeah, show me the deck and let’s talk about it.” He literally rolled up his sleeves and drew out on a white board what he wanted to see. That slide made it into our deck. Unusual’s finance team also helped us put together our business plan that we still use today.

Once we actually started to raise our Series A round, John leaned in hard and offered deep support on multiple fronts. Any time we ran up against a difficult question, John would help coach us on how to tackle the conversation in a meaningful way. He also went out of his way to get us feedback from investors we pitched to understand concerns and/or areas we needed to improve upon. This enabled us to continuously refine our pitch and do the best possible job of telling Styra's story. 

The work the Unusual team did to help prepare us leading up to our fundraising process and John’s in-depth support during the process were invaluable. In November 2019, we announced that we raised our $14M Series A, which was led by Accel. John and team were fundamental partners in helping us not only achieve this milestone, but also to find the right Series A partner in Accel. Their work wasn’t done there. Though Unusual mostly focuses on the early-stage, John and team also helped us define the goals we needed to hit to achieve our Series B, in terms of sales, community, and the adoption of OPA. Thanks to Unusual’s guidance and our hard work, we raised our $40M Series B in May of this year to continue on our mission of driving access, security, and compliance in cloud-native applications.

Final thoughts

From trying to find product-market fit, building a team, creating an open source community, outmaneuvering competition, and on, the road to our Series B has been a difficult journey. There’s so much complexity involved and it doesn’t matter if you’ve built a company five times before because building something in 2021 is very different from doing it in 2016. We can’t underscore the importance of having venture partners you can not only call and ask for advice, but who are also willing to get in the trenches with you. We’ve found they’ve been our coaches and have helped pick us up on our bad days. There’s something special there with Unusual. You aren’t just an investment—they actually roll up their sleeves and help you grow your company. Similar to when you’re hiring and looking for an employee to exhibit passion for what you’re building, you want to see that from your investors and that’s exactly what Unusual has brought to the table for us. 

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