Raising capital was both harder and easier than I thought it would be. As a first-time founder, it was all new to me. I quickly learned that the way you sell your company to investors is very different than the way you sell your product to customers.-Amy Tang, Founder and CEO of Folio
As part of our Founder Focus series featuring conversations with up-and-coming SaaS companies, we had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Tang.
Amy Tang is the founder and CEO of Folio, an AI-enabled, B2B SaaS platform that’s making guest management easier, starting with the $120B short-term rental industry. As a Columbia Engineering PhD, data scientist, and recent Phocuswright (leading travel authority) award winner, she is passionate about leveraging technology to modernize the way hotels and vacation rentals interact with travellers worldwide.
Prior to starting Folio, she spent 5+ years as a data science consultant, leading teams to design and implement AI capabilities for large, multinational companies. When she’s not working, you can find her in the darkroom, working on a jigsaw puzzle, trying to perfect her sourdough loaf, or (unsurprisingly) traveling.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to know more about your backstory. How did you get started on the path you are on today?
My background is in data science.I got my PhD from Columbia and instead of going into academia, I decided to go into consulting. A lot of the work I did was around leveraging data to generate more revenue for my clients or to make operations more efficient.
I traveled every week for work, flying to the client site on Monday and leaving on Thursday to either go home or go somewhere else for the weekend. I ended up going on 12 to 15 personal trips per year, and I was constantly trying to plan all of this travel, I just found the whole process very annoying.
Eventually I left consulting, because I wanted to build my own company in the travel space that would make it easier for people to plan their trips. Initially we tried to reach the traveller directly, which was challenging for a lot of different reasons. Then when COVID hit, there was a huge surge in demand for short-term rentals like Airbnb and Vrbo. So we kind of saw this as a really big opportunity to help hosts instead, especially newer hosts or those who were just getting into professional property management. Our ultimate goal is to make it easier for hosts to provide a better guest experience for their guests.
It was a little bit of a windy path to get to where we are now: a platform that property managers and short-term rental hosts use to create interactive apps for guests to use. Each app has information on property amenities (wifi password, how to light the grill, checkout instructions) and local recommendations for what to do in the area.
At Sonan Digital, we love chatting with founders from across the globe. Can you share where you and your team are currently located?
We’re based in New York City and working out of the Columbia Startup Lab. It’s a really cool space supported by the university, and there are about 60 different companies currently in the Lab. It’s a really great group of founders who support one another. It’s nice to be able to turn around and ask “hey, does anyone have experience with this?” And almost always someone is willing to help out.
Share a little bit about your previous experience. Have you been involved with any entrepreneurial ventures in the past?
This is my first venture as an adult. But, when I was a teenager, I had printed up flyers because I was trying to start a babysitting business. I went door to door to all of my neighbours and put it in their mailbox. And then I got a very scary phone call from the US Post office telling me that it was illegal to use mailboxes or send letters without stamps. So then I got crafty and I just started putting them under peoples front doors to avoid the whole mailbox situation.
What is the ultimate problem you are trying to solve with your product and what was the “aha moment” that led you there?
We reduce the amount of time hosts spend communicating with guests. Most people send guests really lengthy emails that don’t get read, PDFs that don’t get opened, or they have a physical “house manual” in the property that’s often sticky, a little gross and outdated which guests can’t access until they get there.
So, we’ve gone ahead and digitized the whole experience, making it super user-friendly in a mobile web app that guests can take anywhere. Hosts who use our product get far fewer questions from guests. One host in particular based out of Chicago, he used to get questions about what to do in the area from maybe a third of his guests. After creating and sharing an app with his guests, questions about things to do drop down to zero. It’s really validating to see that the problem we set out to solve is actually being solved.
Give us your elevator pitch. In your own words, what does Folio do?
Folio is a hospitality solution that makes guest management easier for short term rental managers. We provide a platform for managers to create interactive apps for guests that share information about their property, as well as food and activity recommendations in the area.
Acquiring your first customer is something most never forget. Can you share how you acquired your first few customers?
As a startup, we had to be super scrappy. We noticed that in many Airbnb listings, the hosts would mention an Instagram or a Facebook profile.
So we started DMing the properties directly on social media, and we actually let the algorithm do the work for us. Once I started following five or ten short-term rental properties, Instagram started recommending more properties for me to follow. It was great because they were curating this prospecting list for us of the exact type of customer that we wanted to reach.
It was a lot of grunt work sending cold emails or messages and trying to set up sales calls, but that’s how we got our first 20 or so properties on board.
It’s a competitive world out there. How are you positioning yourself against competitors?
While there are some digital guidebook providers out there, what we’re trying to do is be a comprehensive guest management platform. We’re starting with these interactive apps and we have a lot of plans to introduce new features and products to further reduce operational costs and increase top line revenue for the hosts as well.
What is the biggest hurdle you’ve faced so far? How did you overcome it?
Our biggest hurdle so far is actually a good problem to have— the demand to use our platform was much higher than we originally anticipated, and the initial tech was not designed to support so many apps.
It was a little bit of a scramble to get more engineers on board to make the platform more scalable, and we had to temporarily stop growing our user base so quickly, which is always a bummer. But now we’re ready to launch the next version of our product, so very excited about that.
It can be helpful for new entrepreneurs to learn about the financial side of SaaS. Have you raised any capital or have goals for the future?
We raised an Angel round earlier this summer.
Raising capital was both harder and easier than I thought it would be. As a first time founder, it was all new to me. Getting that first bit of traction was more difficult than I thought it was going to be. But once you have it, it snowballs from there and wrapping up the raise was much easier. My experience with raising this Angel round is definitely informing my strategy for the next. I quickly learned that the way you sell your company to investors is very different than the way you sell your product to customers.
What marketing strategies are you currently finding the most effective?
Partnerships have been really successful for us. Find other companies who are selling to the same customers that you are, and then set up an affiliate program or revenue sharing agreement. You don’t pay anything until you’ve already gotten a client, so it’s a great strategy to consider.
The future is looking bright! What are your plans for the growth of the company?
We are super focused on growing the number of properties that use our platform in the next 6-12 months. Beyond that, we will introduce more features that add value to the property managers we’re supporting.