Female Founder Stories: Danielle Morrill, Founder of Mattermark (YC S12)

by Y Combinator2/8/2015

Mattermark organizes content, information and data about private companies. Our tools are used by investors, corporate development and business development professionals to prospect for qualified opportunities. Eventually we would like to be able to answer any business question a user can think of, but for now we are starting with questions round startups, private markets and emerging technology.

Q: Tell us about your background.
I have always been racing to go faster in life. I began working at 14 and by 18, I’d held jobs as a stable hand, receptionist, tennis instructor, barista, analyst for my father’s wealth management consulting business, McDonald’s crew member, building personal websites for authors and artists, and teaching older people how to use computers for the first time. I was making enough money by my senior year of high school to move out of my parents’ house. I also took an extra class every semester of high school so, by the time I was a senior, I was only required to attend part-time.

While I was growing up, my dad worked on startups in the financial services industry. I watched one collapse due to internal mutiny and another successfully sell to Bank of California but the founder got nothing. Eventually my dad started his own company and I worked for him from age 13 to 19. There was a lot of drama in our household related to the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship.

I wanted to go directly into business after high school graduation, but where I grew up, everyone aspired to an Ivy League education. I lived on an island that is a 30 minute ferry ride from Seattle, and had never visited those schools or met the people who attended them.

My parents’ near bankruptcy followed by a return to a high tax bracket meant I was nervous about spending their money yet also not qualified for any financial aid. I was extremely rebellious at this point and, despite scoring a 1390 on the SAT and a high GPA, I didn’t apply to any colleges at all.

At this point my relationship with my parents was extremely strained and I had very little money and even fewer plans. I was playing in a punk/emo band, working full time at McDonald’s and part time for my dad, dating my high school boyfriend, living in a cheaper nearby military town and really going nowhere at 18. Fortunately, my boyfriend and I were into 3 things that would end up turning things around for me: philosophy, massive multiplayer online video games and building websites.

Q: YC funded Referly in the summer of 2012, but the idea wasn’t working and you made the tough decision to completely change your idea. What happened?
After we shut down Referly, we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do next. We were burned out and decided our new idea needed to be something we were genuinely passionate about. I spent some time reflecting about things on my list of “someday maybe” and combined that with things I naturally gravitated to. That’s where blogging about startups using data came about. I had always wanted to re-create the Seattle 2.0 Startup Index for all startups in the world, and I was pretty convinced there were tons of under-appreciated companies to cover.

A lot of people scoffed, including some of our investors. “You can’t just be a blogger,” they said to me. But I told them to wait. We were going to figure it out this way and it was a temporary thing that I needed to do. I’ve had experiences like this before where my gut tells me to do something enough times that I needed to play it out if I was going to find inner peace.

I also became obsessed with a show called Gossip Girl, where the protagonist is an anonymous blogger revealing the secrets of elite New York society kids. The idea of the “ultimate insider” writing from a position of knowledge and influence was very compelling to me. The motivations and impacts of the protagonist throughout the series had me reflecting on tech media.

On a darker note, after going through YC and failing, I didn’t want to be in San Francisco. I didn’t want people to ask me what I was working on now (since I didn’t really know) and or run into people in SOMA. It felt like being an awkward teenager– so hyper-sensitive about people noticing things that in reality no one actually cares about. So we left town (me, Kevin and Andy) to stay with my parents up in Washington State. We bought one-way tickets there and a small part of me never wanted to come back.

Spending time with them and being outside of the tech scene reminded me how important it is to build things that can have a meaningful impact on peoples’ lives. Business is about making money, but people pay money in exchange for impact. I spent a couple weeks reconnecting with what people value most– time. The majority of people in the world work in order to enable other things like vacations, education for their kids, care for their parents, hobbies, passions, etc. The value of software is that is speeds up things people are doing and frees up time. If you can give someone tools that let them go home at 5pm each day and make things a bit more enjoyable for them in the process, that is worth billions of dollars.

This reaffirmed something I had known about myself but had been fighting– I just don’t care about building consumer products. I care about the consumer experiences, but it has to be baked into something that people are willing to pay for.

I was blogging, organizing this data and hacking a prototype simultaneously. When I got back to San Francisco I asked Marc Andreessen (who had started to email me out of the blue about my various posts) for a bridge investment so we could keep working. He said yes, and so did NEA, so we were able to keep going. Just a month later, Leena Rao of TechCrunch wrote her “Quantitative VC” post which kicked off an early launch for us.

We basically just survived long enough to find the thing. From there, there were a bunch more iterations which I’ve documented in more detail here.

Q: How did you meet your cofounders?
I met Kevin when I was 19, at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. I had actually emailed him about a year earlier in an attempt to find out if a philosophy group he was running was still active. Because my name is Danielle and my father’s is Daniel, he assumed I was my father when he visited our company website. When we met again he tells me he was kicking himself the whole evening. I was dating someone else at the time, but there was a very strong attraction from the first moment we spoke. We started dating 2 months later and were engaged about 2 years after that.

Kevin is really the one who encouraged me to view myself as a software developer and to seek out more support from the community, so that I wouldn’t be so alone in my work. At that point, I was working for a shipping company and coding in Delphi PASCAL and Visual Basic and felt very uncool among the people working on the Internet. But I needed their help to keep learning. When I asked Kevin to become my cofounder it felt like proposing marriage. We’d been married for 4 years at that point, and I remember sitting down on the end of the bed and saying, “We need to talk.” It was a very serious conversation, and I was very nervous that he would say no.

I met Andy at SXSW, the annual tech event in Austin. We met on an RV some mutual friends had rented to promote their startup, and I invited him to a dinner I put together. He was 21 or 22, still wrapping up college at Ohio State. He’d created his own degree in entrepreneurship and was currently in the process of starting his second brewery. We bonded over science fiction books, philosophy, startup stories and our shared love for the Startup Weekend community.

When he finished college, he reached out to tell me he’d started a company and was moving west with his two cofounders. By the time he arrived, I was wrapping up my time at Twilio and we ended up living very near each other in Mountain View while I was in YC. The following winter he decided to shut down his startup. We “acquired” his company into Referly, and Andy joined as our third cofounder.

Q: Tell us about your experience at YC.
Going to YC that first day for orientation, I remembering wondering if this is what it would have been like to attend MIT, Harvard, or CMU. I had just spent the past 3 years at Twilio working with incredible people, and yet, as I started to meet my batchmates, it was a bit surreal. I remember feeling that I was intimidated but at the same time I wanted to rise to the challenge of impressing these people.

Our batch was very large, with 84 teams and almost 200 founders. This was larger than my high school class! Early on, I remember meeting Michael from Submittable, Apoorva from Instacart, Brian from Coinbase, Ela from Applicake, Katelyn from Eligible, Seth from Amicus, Alex and Boris from FundersClub, Wade from Zapier, Russ and Fred from Rainforest, Dustin from Svbtle, Chris from Light Table, Kirill and Jennifer from Scoutzie, Baldwin and Cullen from Partnered, Jonathan from Vastrm… I am still in touch with all these people, do business with them and have friendships. This is a lot of new friends to make at one time.

In YC I felt very rebellious. I did not like it when people just took things the partners would say as the law without asking why. I was constantly challenging things and “testing the fences” (as my Mom says) to figure out what was true both in office hours and in conversations with my peers. At first I wanted the approval of our product, our team, our vision, our metrics etc. but once I got over the need for validation (a few weeks before Demo Day) that was a breakthrough– not just for the company in that moment but for me going forward overall.

I think the greatest value of YC for me and for our company was actually after Demo Day, as we continued a dialogue even when things weren’t working and as we were restarting. Being able to find our employees new jobs when we had to let them go, and help in hiring when we were ready to ramp again, should never be taken for granted. There were also crucial moments where we needed “permission” to do the crazy things we dreamed up, being told it was okay to stop being plausible and suspend disbelief longer to find out the real opportunity.

Q: Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?
I know that I care a lot of about nurturing people and making them feel how important they are through care and thoughtfulness, and so I have worked very hard on things like HR and diversity early on. I’m hesitant to attribute that to my gender, though my inclination to be more nurturing might start there.

One big benefit of being female is that a lot more women apply to work for us. I’ve been told it is a relief not to be the first woman on a team. We have 6 women other than myself, 2 of them are in engineering and I believe we will hire many more. Women are still less than 10% of the total applicant pool for technical jobs, even with this “advantage”.

Q: Why do you think there are fewer startups with female founders than male ones?
Until recently you really needed to be a full stack founder to start a company, both about to code and do whatever else was necessary. Now I think a lot of startup ideas don’t actually require hardcore tech, or you can have more of a division of labor between founders. This implies that women might benefit from more non-technical founder roles being available and this is true, but there are far fewer technical women.

Culturally, I think women are not encouraged to go build empires. Partly this has to do with a lack of heroes they can relate to, but I think it is also tied to raising children and the fact that women have really only been legally equal to men for a very short period of time in the whole of history. I come from a long line of strong Irish women, but all of them have chosen to be matriarchs of large families. Some of my aunts decided not to ever have children and instead start companies, write books, get PhDs. That was the first generation in my family where women did that stuff and I look at their lives and that’s what I want for myself. I read about Cleopatra and I want to be her more than I want to be Cinderella. It’s new.

Q: What do you wish someone had told you when you were 15?
I think people were telling me a lot of helpful things when I was 15 but it was very hard to listen.

You don’t have to go to college. What are you building? Can you show me? How does it work? You can take classes at the University of Washington in Computer Science right now. Hey, I build websites too (from another girl in my school; I bet they were out there, also hiding).


  • Y Combinator

    Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon