Joe Ahearn

1/2 of the Brooklyn duo making subscriptions possible for any business.

Company: Withfriends

Role: Co-founder, CEO

What drew you to this particular problem Withfriends is solving?

Me and my co-founder, Kunal, have worked together for more than a decade on a number of different projects. We ran a venue/small business incubator called Silent Barn, a three-story punk warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a really unique space engaging hundreds of people from the community. The music venue had events every single day and every single night, probably 400+ concerts per year. Then, the other part of the building was all of these really wild entrepreneurial experiments – a barbershop/record store (where you cut hair and give people music recommendations while you're doing so), a synth library, a legal cafe (where you sell coffee and give five minute legal advice for free) – all of these ideas that were really inspiring, new business concepts, but in a rental environment like New York, would never have been able to take the risk of opening up a storefront.

In short, Kunal and I have long been interested in figuring out ways to help small businesses become more sustainable such that the entire landscape can grow and play an even more powerful role in shaping culture.

During Silent Barn, both of us were very involved in the art and fundraising worlds.

Kunal had started the first video game art gallery. It was actually able to pay for its own rent in Manhattan, almost entirely based on a membership infrastructure that he’d built (the skeleton of what would later become Withfriends).

At the same time, I was working in the institutional art world. I worked for many years as the program director for the woman that started MoMA PS 1, seeing firsthand how these huge institutions were able to support their operating budgets through recurring support from a very large community of donors. I saw the extremely streamlined system these institutions had for engaging visitors as they come into the building to help turn those visitors into recurring supporters.

So, with the insights that we got from these experiences coupled with our goal of trying to make small businesses more sustainable we decided to to expand beyond just building these tools for our own communities to creating something that would enable every business out there to make the most of the community around them.

How do you feel you've grown personally in building this company?

Delivering on quality of experience while keeping costs as low as possible has been tough. In previously running Silent Barn and building strong relationships through that, Kunal and I have a very high bar for how attended to and cared for we want Withfriends’ now 7,000 members to feel in using the platform. But we also have to prioritize being as efficient and effective as possible so that the tool itself remains as affordable as possible. Striking that balance is a very new skill for me, personally.

Another thing that’s new in this experience is figuring out how to translate very physical, interpersonal experiences into the virtual realm. Leaving a tip in a jar as a customer or greeting concert goers as a venue manager are very specific experiences. It’s been a huge challenge to figure out how we can communicate that same kind of warmth and intimacy through an online transaction, requiring a ton of trial and error.

What’s the best piece of user feedback you’ve gotten so far?

Early on, we enlisted a bunch of business owners, organizers, leaders in our community that we really respected to test out the platform. Our friend Jeff Stark is a lifelong community organizer who, before Withfriends, had a patchwork solution of using recurring payments on PayPal. After switching over to our platform, he was appreciative of the platform’s streamlined nature, but he suggested we build in a testimonial feature – a tool for customers / subscribers to leave comments. He said this feedback from his subscribers was more important to him than the extra money he was pocketing.

So we built it, and it is now hands down everyone’s favorite element of the platform. The money is critical but most small business owners are not in it just to make a bunch of money; the best ones are those really trying to connect with their community.

What’s been the most exciting milestone you’ve hit as a team?

Well, we just became profitable 2 months ago and that certainly feels great; knowing that we’re not on borrowed time is super powerful.

A little farther back, though, we started building a Shopify app in October which will allow business owners to have the entire onboarding process, the creation of memberships, the selling of memberships, the management of those benefits, all be automated directly alongside the Shopify store. I think launching the app was the biggest turning point in our company trajectory so far.

Shopify actually only recently released a new recurring billing API which was heartening for us in the larger sense – it suggested that this is beyond just a vision that me and my co founder have but it’s something one of the biggest e-commerce platforms in the world is leveraging their companies towards. It really validated our conviction that recurring payments might be the primary way that a lot of businesses will support themselves in the future.

Is there a specific source of inspiration that keeps you pushing through tougher moments?

Anytime I'm overwhelmed or scared to open the inbox or feeling disconnected from the people we’re helping, being able to look through the feed of testimonials from members signing up on the platform is just as empowering for me as I imagine it is for the business owners themselves. There’s no need for me to wonder if people really love what we're building or if they need what we're building, because I see the confirmation in writing everyday.

What was YC like?

YC was intoxicating. Being around 300 of people tackling some of society's largest, most acute issues was such a distinct, exhilarating energy. I will say, though – since you complimented me on my mustache – my mustache turned gray two days before demo day because the environmental pressure was just so high. The energy is intoxicating but intense – definitely one of the most intense experiences I’ve had to date.

What’s a song or album that’s gotten you through 2020?

I love this band called Future Islands. I've had the pleasure of watching them go from being a band playing for like 20 people in my living room to now like headlining festivals, touring, and playing for thousands and thousands of people. So they put out an album in 2020 called As Long As You Are and I love it very, very much. I highly recommend that people check it out.

I think that's one of the most fun things about working with organizers, small businesses, artists – the opportunity to help people when they have this massive vision and they're just starting out. That's the most fun time, in my opinion – when you have the opportunity to be an active participant in culture, as opposed to just a voyeur.

Favorite emoji or gif?

The upside down smiley face 🙃