Raising Finance

A profanity-filled letter got a CEO funding – and persuaded employees to get hitched

4 min read

31 July 2015

Have you ever tried to get funding by doing your best to get turned down? Autopilot CEO Mike Sharkey did.

Sharkey runs a marketing automation firm called Autopilot alongside his two brothers, which is by no means their first venture together. The brothers created Stayz, a home-rental sharing company, while still in their teens – eventually selling it to Fairfax in 2006.

They then went on to create Driven by Limo, which Sharkey likened to an Uber call-a-limo service. The company still exists and “is a very good business for us,” he said. He suggested that the two companies gained them so much traction that technology entrepreneurs had started approaching the brothers for advice.

This led them to start digital marketing consultancy firm Sharkey Media.

However, Sharkey said: “Technology from 90’s, email, is still really ruling the digital marketing world.” He wanted to, for example, send customers hand-written thank you cards triggered when they accepted an email deal. Bisir was developed with that concept in mind, but despite having bootstrapped the platform they wanted outside investment as well.

So, Sharkey applied for an Australian grant programme. There was a catch: it would only fund companies that had been turned down by venture capitalists (VCs). 

Read more about venture capital:

“So I wrote arrogant emails to the two major investment companies in Australia, saying ‘I’m going to build the biggest company ever,” he said. He admitted to filling the email with swear words, “hoping they would reject [the company] so [it] could get the grant.”

To his “disappointment”, someone actually asked to see the product. “They became really interested and said we’d like to put in some money,” he said. It just comes to show that if you have an innovative idea, it’s bound to hook the right investor.

Said investor told the company that it would do better in a different country, Sharkey claimed.

“And we agreed,” he said. “So after building the company for a year in Sydney, we moved to San Francisco. I had to march staff members into my office one-by-one and ask them if they were willing to move. We literally gave them three weeks notice. You can imagine what that was like. It was a big risk and crazy leap of faith.

The brothers and Autopilot’s seven engineers left the country. Before doing so, however, Sharkey needed to tie up a few loose ends – namely finding a way to lure his girlfriend into coming with him.

“I had to go to her, randomly, and say, ‘Do you want to get married and move to America in three weeks? That was one of the hard parts,” he said. Of course, she agreed. Sharkey also noted, however, that he had to convince one of his developers to marry his girlfriend, “which was an awkward conversation as well,” he said.

The company’s growth since then has led to a $7m funding round with Salesforce, Stage One Capital, Blackbird Ventures, Garnett Ventures, and Tim Draper. 

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