Elle Morrill

Timeline: Starting Referly Took Me Three Years

On Monday we launched Referly, and announced we will be participating in YCombinator this summer. While this is only my second full-time week as a founder, I thought it would be fun to rummage around in my email and Github to grab a timeline of how Referly went from idea to actual company.

As Kim-Mai Cutler of TechCrunch reported, I haven’t been particularly secretive about the idea. I’ve gone through period of active and passive engagement with this idea since October 2009, and got really serious about just this past February.


April 2009
Just a few weeks after starting at Twilio I was still working out of Founder’s Fund and coffee shops and living in the Travelodge in the Presidio for $49/night (I hadn’t yet moved to San Francisco from Seattle, and Kevin was still based in Beijing with Microsoft). I met my future Referly cofounder Al Abut for the first time, at the first Startup Weekend in San Francisco. We vowed we would work together someday and stayed in touch.

October 2009 – Women 2.0 Startup Weekend SF

In October of 2009 San Francisco hosted Women 2.0 Startup Weekend (read my recap blog post of the event).  I was invited to join a panel with Dan Martell, Jessica Livingston, Xochi Birch, and Shanna Tellerman.  Quite frankly, I was pretty starstruck – these people had built companies, written books, and launched Y Combinator — what had I done to deserve to sit next to them?  But I knew what I had done… I had participated in more Startup Weekend events than anyone there.

As panelists our job was to walk the audience of about 150 people through the process of forming an idea, making plans, and answering some questions from the audience.  As we convened to figure out what to pitch I threw out an idea that had stuck in my mind for a month or so – affiliate for everyone.  We were down to the wire on time, no one else had another idea (and knowing myself I was probably pretty forcefully determined to my idea: Obsession) so we pitched it.  The audience had a few questions, but I’d say the reaction was a collective yawn.

We went on to build something completely different on my team, launching Escape My Date and winning the People’s Choice award (Foodspotting was created won the event!) and even getting a little press.  I pushed the idea for Referly to the back of my mind.

February 2010 – Leadscon Conference

Went to support our customers and had heard a little about the lead generation industry from the year before (enough to form an idea of it and the idea for Referly) but my eyes were really opened fully for the first time. I was surprised people weren’t doing something similar to Refer.ly and shocked by how little Social Media was part of the conversation for generating business in this channel. It was surprising that it made me wonder if there way some big barrier to entry that I just didn’t know enough to see.

June 2010 – Registered Refer.ly

I signed up for the refer.ly domain name on Libyan Spider:

And another chat that night with a friend from a previous startup, on the idea. Its amazing how little it has changed, and I’m actually surprised to see how confident I was that this was my future company even then!

February 2011 – Shared First Version with Friends

I got the first version of Referly built and shipped to about 50 friends for feedback.  In fact, I just found a screenshot of some bug reports from the lovely Liza Sperling, who has been so supportive!  This might be the only image I have of the old site.  Edit: And yes I do own fuckyeahitscales.com and used to host a lot of my side projects there.

November 2011 – Meeting Alicia at Skimlinks

At first I thought Skimlinks was going to be a huge competitor (I was bummed for about a week, because they are clearly kicking butt and would have been a formidable competitor), but then I realized what I wanted to build was in the consumer space and that they could be a potential partner instead.  Meeting her tipped me off — maybe the time was right for this idea.

February 2012 – Refactoring & Redesigning Referly + Alpha Launch

At first I just wanted to reskin Referly using Twitter Bootstrap, but my PHP skills had evolved a lot since I first wrote the app, and reviewing my previous code I found tons of bugs I couldn’t have spotted before. I decided to completely re-write it and move it from my Dreamhost box to its own instance on EC2.

Once it was working, I got good feedback from friends and decided to start talking about it a bit more and to launch to a bigger audience.  We added about 500 people through invites at this point. People told me about Gumroad, Pinterest had drama with Skimlinks, and Facebook announced it would re-launch Beacon. The market seemed right.

March 2012 – Applying to YCombinator

I hadn’t really planned to apply to YCombinator when I started coding in February. I felt like I might not be a fit as a solo founder who already had some funding commitments. As the deadline approached I started to fill out the application – at first just on a whim and then more seriously.  The morning of the deadline I woke up early and quickly recorded my application video at a friend’s office. I only had time for 30 minutes of practice, then it was just cut it and send it and head off to work.

I also made a ton of last minute edits to my YC application (which I was never very happy with) and sadly I didn’t save the text or I’d share it as well.

April 2012 – Interviewing with & Getting Into YC

I was very surprised to get the invitation to interview. The process of prepping for interviews and interviewing with YC is a total blur to me now, probably because I didn’t sleep much during that time – doing Twilio by day and Referly by night.  Byt the time I interviewed I had two employees on board: Alexandra Harris (who I went to middle school and high school with on Bainbridge Island) and Hudson Kelly (who I met while he was visit Silicon Valley with his college class).

I am indebted to many YC founders who agreed to meet with me, and gave their brutally honest feedback on the product and pitch. The more skeptical they were, the better they made me – and I’d often fall asleep feeling raw but wake up feeling like I had grown thicker skin and greater wisdom overnight. I met with one every day between submitting my application and going to my interview. I think Referly developed faster in this period than at any other point.

April 2012 – Wrapping Up at Twilio

I love Twilio, and after spending over 3 years there building the marketing team from the ground up to 18 people, I was very passionate about making a solid transition.  We brought in two great hires: Lynda Smith from Jive to head things up as our CMO, and James Parton from Telefonica to take the reins in Europe as Director of Marketing in London.

May 2012 – Launch

On Monday, we launched Referly to the world on TechCrunch, AllThingsD, PandoDaily and Geekwire. Next week, the team will be full time and June 1st we move into our house in Mountain View. So in some ways, this is all brand new, but in other ways it is a continuation of something that has been an obsession of mine for quite awhile. I used to think 3 years was forever, but sometime in the last few I’ve learned a bit of patience.

We now are a team of 5, as Kevin Morrill (my husband) agreed to join as cofounder and CTO and Al agreed to join as cofounder heading up all things design.  We’ll be moving into our house in Mountain View the first week of June.


32 responses

  1. Jeff Slobotski Avatar

    Great to read more on the backstory and timeline of what will surely be a great business and with many chapters still to come…

  2. karen_e Avatar

    Amazing story! Go!

  3.  Avatar

    I remember when you met!  A great story, hope to see it grow up, up and up!

  4. Will Avatar

    freakin’ awesome story, danielle! The leads world can be a bit of a shady place, here’s looking to you guys making it more transparent and um.. clean? 🙂  Looking forward to what your team is going to build!

  5. Brian Armstrong Avatar

    Great writeup thanks for sharing it! 🙂

  6. Rishi Talwar Avatar

    Great story! Way to go and I wish you all the best.

  7. themaria Avatar

    Amazing story, thank you for sharing, Danielle! I’m so proud of you for going with your dream — I remember the decision process!

  8. Amitc Avatar

    Hi Danielle,

    The blog page appears and then disappears on an iPad. Just FYI.


  9. Hrishi Mittal Avatar

    Impatience seems to be a common route to patience 🙂 That’s how I’m learning it anyway. Good luck with the new venture!

  10. T. Kjemperud Avatar

    Thank you very much for sharing this, Danielle! Really interesting to see this process in retrospect, in some ways it seems very familiar.

    I wish you the best of luck on YC this summer!


  11. david Avatar

    a couple of comments about refer.ly.

    1.  it’s not quite compelling enough for me to sign up because i’m not sure how i’ll use it after i sign up.  ideas:  let me play with a test account, make a video about it, or have a few thumbnail screenshots on the home page that will expand when i click.

    2.  is the only value i get out of it money?  why not have a scrolling list on the homepage of “recently shared links” or “popular shared links (past hour, day, week, etc)”.  even more interesting than $ is learning something, so this could even be a hub of interesting links around the web.  plus, i’d see how people are using the service.

    so brutal honesty is: i don’t feel as though you’ve communicated enough value for me to sign up yet.  so i’m not.

  12. Dann Berg Avatar

    Subscribed to your blog after your great article about hustling at SXSW. This is so exciting, congratulations! I wish you the best!

  13. David Spinks Avatar

    Inspiring story Danielle.  Sometimes the right idea just needs to wait for the right time.  Excited to follow the rest of the story (=

  14. Peter Bell Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your story. Very insightful and a fantastic idea to boot.

  15. eatsleephunt Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your story.  Good luck!

  16. […] post — a timeline of the process to take her idea from conception to full-blown company creation […]

  17. […] via her blog, where she recently posted about the decision to start her own company, Referly.Her post – a timeline of the process to take her idea from conception to full-blown company creation […]

  18. zaneology Avatar

    I am so impressed by you Danielle. This is going to be fun fun fun!! 

  19.  Avatar

    This is so inspiring, Danielle. Good luck with everything!

  20. Ben Ross Avatar

    That is kick ass. I have been working on my own startup for 9 mos and it has been more fun than I have ever had in my day job. Finding a name has been incredibly difficult, as the ones that were perfect are taken and too expensive. Good luck and I will be watching your progress.

  21. Oliver Avatar

    Love the website, keep it up!

  22. Tom Steenhuysen Avatar
    Tom Steenhuysen

    Inspiring to read this Danielle. Thank you for sharing. (and now back to our regular programming: crunching!)

  23. Alain Armand Avatar

    Thanks for the openness. Lots to learn here.

  24. കണ്ണന്‍ | Kannan Avatar
    കണ്ണന്‍ | Kannan

    great story, motivational.. thanks for sharig dear Danielle

  25. Frank Kishka Avatar
    Frank Kishka

    I gotta be brutally honest but I don’t think any of the things I saw in this post was really new to me. I am impressed how your story …is a story of personal drive…you can drive even the most intuitive ideas by working hard…and I am impressed!

  26. Rory Avatar

    A bit late to the party, but I loved the honest sharing.
    Motivated me to stop itching and actually do something.

  27. […] not an expert at figuring out what to do next, I mean I just changed course on an idea that took me 3 years to start and another year to prove didn’t work. But whatever… the point is that no one is going to tell […]

  28. Mike Carson Avatar
    Mike Carson

    fyi – the domain refer.ly is now up for auction on park.io: http://refer.ly

  29. […] you’ve been following our journey since the Referly days, you might remember the zombie VCs, the restart, the expanding vision, and the second seed round. […]

  30. Deman Avatar

    Whether it’s for sales and development research, a fundraising deck or personal revelation, the journey to “insight” often starts when you feel completely in the dark, when the overabundance of data feels like chaos. Once you accept entropy as a source of power rather than an obstacle, Danielle knows, it’ll become the mother of your inventions, leading to progress for everything from a single metric to an entire company.

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