- Insight: Take some time to learn more about emerging technologies.
Thursday, November 30th, 2023
Annie Reardon and Renee Russo were corporate software developers turned entrepreneurs. It was intimidating to quit a stable job and continue living in New York City, but their superior planning and resourcefulness helped them found two very successful businesses. One of those businesses being LUDO, a loyalty based company that is turning customers into brand advocates for some of Gen Z’s cult-favorites—including Barbie, Forever 21, period care brand August, and organic pet brand HAPPY BOND, among others. This savvy business sense helped them to raise $4.15M and landed them on the Forbes 30-Under-30. Check out our case study to learn more about How Annie and Renee started.
If you aren't embarrassed or cringing at what you put out two months ago, you're not growing fast enough. --Annie
The most important thing is to keep customers happy, listen to them, build with them and make them feel like they're part of something special and revolutionary. --Renee
How She Started: How did you both become co-founders?
Annie: We’re both software engineers, and we met at JP Morgan. We coded together for three years and saw that we really had complementary skill sets. Renee is a back-end engineer, and I’m a front-end engineer.
HSS: How would you describe your entrepreneurial journey?
Renee: We've always been very entrepreneurial, but I think the first time we made the jump to be entrepreneurs is when we left JP Morgan and started our first business, a beauty booking app. We had thousands of downloads and hundreds of salons. It was almost like Class Pass for beauty salons. However, the landscape for apps changed with the iOS 14 update, which stated you can't track data on your customers anymore. With that change in the market, we couldn’t necessarily buy targeted ads and learn about potential users to get them on the platform, so we ended up sunsetting the app. We then joined an EIR (entrepreneur in residence) program in New York City called Human Ventures. There were a bunch of these conferences and meetups as part of the program. One of them was on this new emerging technology called the blockchain. We were instantly hooked. It was only a 30-minute session, and we just felt as though blockchain is the future.
It was that conference where we knew exactly what we needed to build. That week, I built a mental wellness subscription on the blockchain. It was doing millions in revenue and got acquired a couple of months later. We had so much data on our customers with this new technology. Learning about blockchain helped us uncover this gap in the loyalty space. That's how we created Ludo, which is the next generation of loyalty rewards.
HSS: Why did you raise money, and how were you able to raise that over $4M?
Annie: We saw such an immense opportunity in loyalty and felt we needed to have the resources to scale. To raise money, we really relied on having a playbook. We went to the best people at raising money, researched them, and had a tight process.
We met with investors to establish relationships and had an email list for them which grew our network. We gave them updates for six months, and when it came time to raise, we were successful. We ran our fundraising in three weeks. The playbook was the best thing that we could have done for ourselves.
HSS: Being a founder is risky, especially when you have the security of lucrative job at a very profitable company like JP Morgan. How did you both decide to take the risk of creating a startup?
Renee: We were in our early 20s and were living in New York City, which isn’t the cheapest place to live. We left very stable 6-figure salaries and gave ourselves much lower salaries. It was definitely a shock, but I think it's the fire that we needed to really create something on the side to make money and be able to support ourselves in the future.
Annie: We've always been builders and love hacking. We constantly create little side projects. Then we became passionate about this space and started planning our exit from our corporate jobs. We gave ourselves monetary savings goals so that we could take the leap and do it full time.
I would suggest bootstrapping it as much as you can and making sure that you can create a situation that works for yourself. With our savings, we knew we were potentially funding six to eight months.
HSS: Once you got some initial traction, how did you get those clients, and what did customer discovery look like?
Annie: We ask questions about our client’s business via sales calls and analyze these sales calls to better understand and tailor our product. We are intentional about getting to the client’s needs. Our software has 6 to 8 features, and about 3 to 4 will work for the client. Some of our initial clients have been in the Food and Beverage and beauty lifestyle space. Anything that's repeat purchases, like toilet paper or tampons, for example, we’ve especially seen traction with, and we just have gone deep on that niche. We then rinse and repeat. We’ve been focused on creating a repeatable sales cycle that’s pretty much a sales machine so that we can scale quickly. We're also on Shopify along with other distribution channels so that we can get our product into customers’ hands faster.
HSS: How do you retain your clients?
Renee: I give all of our customers my phone number, which I don't think is scalable. We might need to hold back on that in the future (laughs). For right now, though, the 40+ businesses we work with have a direct line of communication to me. The most important thing is to keep them happy, listen to them, build with them and make them feel like they're part of something special and revolutionary.
They love being part of emerging technology and how they can better benefit their customers. We also have a clear ROI on our dashboard. Right when you log in, you can see your ROI. You can see how your orders have increased or decreased this week or month. You can see their retention, redemption rates, and new customers that were onboarded. It's super clear to them that this is a tool that's working for them.
HSS: How do you handle the competition?
Renee: I love Jeff Bezos’s strategy on this. He says if you’re competitor-focused, you're just going to wait until your competitor does something. If you're customer-focused, you can be the one that's pioneering. We just focus on our customers and keep people happy.
HSS: What would you say was or is the most pivotal moment in Ludo's history?
Annie: I would say when we rebranded to Ludo. It means play in Latin. We wanted to highlight that we're a plug and play solution. There’s no code, and it’s super easy to use, which is intentional. We were Glow Labs before, and we felt like labs was too blockchain branded. We also created three pillars: playful, professional, and transparent.
To reflect those pillars, we made some changes to our brand elements. Our colors were dark, which may be interpreted as opaque and mysterious. Though we’re an emerging technology, we wanted our brand to be inviting, so we changed our colorway from dark to light and bright. We also strive to make our site very consumer-friendly. We have consumer-focused pages and tools and a user-friendly analytics dashboard.
HSS: What's your growth strategy?
Annie: I think happy customers and referrals really drive the sales side. We focus on education, social media, and product-led growth. We also invest in PR to get our name out there. We’re on all the Shopify marketplaces and board marketplaces, and we have formal partnerships with third-party vendors.
HSS: What are your lessons learned as you look back on the business?
Renee: Hire slow, fire fast is one that every founder or employer can relate to. We read a book by Geoff Smart that was a playbook for hiring (If you haven't caught on, and I love playbooks). It basically said hire the “A” players—these are the most desirable employees.
We followed the book, and one of the biggest helps was this graph that mapped skill to ambition. Some have high ambition and low skill, and those might be people who you coach to be better. That’s different than people with high skill and low ambition. Then you have high skill and high ambition, and those are the people that you want to hire.
Annie: Something to add is that we don’t have a ton of time for training, so we were looking for seasoned hires who have done the job before. If I give the analogy of hiring a pilot, we’re asking our new hire to fly a fighter jet, so we’re not looking to hire a commercial pilot for the role.
Renee created such a great strategy around sales and standardized our interviews so we could hire the best engineers. We really have a standard of excellence that facilitates efficient hiring practices. We also like meeting in person, so if there's any way that we can get in front of that person before we hire—that is everything to us.
To foster company culture we have a hybrid environment where we have employees come in three days a week. Sometimes we have some consultants support our work, but even with consultants, we want to go meet them in person. We find there’s a different sort of energy you create when you’re in person, and founders are at the center of that experience. If employees are in person, they're going to be growing with us.
Additionally, time management is super important. In my experience, I found 20% of the things I do as a founder are gonna move the business. If I consistently focus on those 20% and get them done no matter what in the beginning of the day, I’ll have a successful day. There's a book called Eat that Frog, that has helped me prioritize time management
Lastly, I find that OKRs are extremely important. We have company OKRs, team OKRs, and personal OKRs. It’s a great way to track and review progress, understand the key tasks, and if there is anything blocking completion.
HSS: Do you have any additional advice for female-founded businesses endeavors?
Renee: Yes, and this is the advice I got when I was really young from Reshma Sujan. She always says to be brave and not perfect, which I think is crucial to anyone. A lot of times we feel like we need to be perfect. If you’re brave, putting yourself out there, don't care about failing, don't care about what people might be saying about you, you’ll go far.
Annie: Renee and I are both pretty fearless, and maybe that's been the success code. I would say additionally that done is better than perfect is something we always say too. I think women want to be able to have all this traction before they raise, whereas their male counterparts will have nothing and raise. I would encourage women to go out there with whatever you got. If you aren't embarrassed or cringing at what you put out two months ago, you're not growing fast enough. Have momentum and keep growing because I think we tend to be a little bit more perfectionistic.
HSS: Thank you so much for taking the time!
- Choose a cofounder who has a complementary skillset to yours
- Take some time to learn more about emerging technologies.
- Studying best practices of other entrepreneurs can help save you time and help you create a playbook.
- If you have the luxury, try to save up money to give yourself a runway to build your startup and still cover your living costs.
- Stay close to your customers to help drive smart business decisions.
- Make the ROI clear to your customer. Quantitative proof that your customer is in a better financial position because of your solution is a powerful way to make them stay.
- If you’re competitor-focused, you're just going to wait until your competitor does something. If you're customer-focused, you can be the one that's pioneering.
- Rebrands can be a great strategy to make your business more relatable to your customer.
- Hire slow fire fast
- Identify an interview strategy to find the best hire for your open role
- Don’t sleep on a hybrid workplace
- Learn and sharpen time management skills
- OKRs can be a great way to keep people accountable to produce results and stick to the company vision
- Be brave not perfect
- If you aren't embarrassed or cringing at what you put out two months ago, you're not growing fast enough.
After my interview with Laura Bucks Tedesco from The Honeypot Co. I formed a partnership with their media relations agency JBC. JBC offers "a creative, multidimensional approach to consumer awareness defining what's next.”