Danielle 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.


Reading Lists

I believe in keeping up a very active reading schedule, and I try to complete at least one book a week in addition to consuming hundreds of articles, essays, and blog posts.  I’m a fan of focusing on reading books and long form writing like Paul Graham’s essays or the 7+ page articles in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Economist because they are more substantive.  They’re high fiber reading compared to a lot of the fluff online.  You’ll also find a write in a longer format.

After joining the tech industry, about 5 years ago, I had to make a special effort to read things that are substantive, that demand my whole attention, that make me think, that transport me.

I think reading the things on this list have significantly changed my world view.  I could gush about each one for an hour… but instead you can try them for yourself.

What I’m Reading Right Now

I tend to read several books at once – I’m convinced that it helps me make better connections between various ideas.  I love it and I have been reading this way since I was in my early teens.  Here are the books that are currently active in my Amazon Kindle reader, as well as some from my bedside table.

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World – by Richard Rhodes

Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist – by Brad Feld, Jason Mendelson, and Dick Costolo

Steve Jobs – by Walter Isaacson

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

All of Paul Graham’s essays – he’s the guy who started YCombinator, and he writes about all sorts of things related to startups in long form essays



You know, those things you read on your Kindle or iPad

Marketing Strategy

The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Thinking and Writing – by Barbara Minto

The Marketing Playbook – by John Zagula

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die – by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant – by


Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization – by John King & Halee Fischer-Wright

The Future of Management – by Gary Hamel

Business Processes & Efficiency

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement – by Eliyahu M. Goldratt

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Myth of the Paperless Office – by Abigail J. Sellen

Specific to Startups

Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow: Discovering Your Right Livelihood – by Marsha Sinetar (this one is particularly special to me because I read it for the first time when I was 12 and my Dad was reading it while on his 2nd startup)

Growing Pains: Transitioning from an Entrepreneurship to a Professional Managed Firm – by Eric G. Flamholtz

Rules for Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products & Services – by Guy Kawasaki

The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything – by Guy Kawasaki

The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development – by Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits

The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products That Win – by Steve Blank

Shipping Industry

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger – by Marc Levinson

Biographies & Historical

Thomas A. Edison, Benefactor of Mankind; the Romantic Life Story of the World’s Greatest Inventor – by Francis Trevelyan Miller


Ender’s Game – by Orson Scott Card

Wizard’s First Rule (1st book in the Sword of Truth series) – by Terry Goodkind

Atlas Shrugged – by Ayn Rand

Pride & Prejudice – by Jane Austen

The Power of One – by Bryce Courtnay


Entrepreneur Blogs

Keeping track of people who make, say, and do interesting things in the tech world

Anil Dash – New York based, writes about the intersection of tech and culture

Eric Ries – former CTO of IMVU, brought the lean methodology to startups and created a movement

John Britton – New York hacker at large, working on P2PU University & Mozilla Foundation

Leah Culver – founder of Convore, creator of Hurl.it, and other cool stuff

Marcelo Calbucci – Seattle-based cofounder of EveryMove, sold Seattle 2.0 to Geekwire in 2011

Naval Ravikant – AngelList and VentureHacks cofounder, angel investor, advisor to several companies

Poornima Vijayashanker – founder of BizeeBee, previously first engineer at Mint.com


Startup News & Community

Keep up with the latest startup news around the world

The Usual Suspects: TechCrunchReadWriteWebMashableVenture Beat,

The Kernel – magazine started by Milo Yiannopolis to take an inside look at the U.K. startup scene

Arctic Startup – startup news from Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Russia and Sweden

The Rude Baguette – funny and irreverent French tech blog written in English


Great Articles

Single pieces of writing that should never be forgotten

How To Get PR For Your Startup: Fire Your PR Company by Jason Calacanis


Venture Capitalists

Discuss how they think, what kinds of deals are compelling, trends in the market, hot new companies, deal terms, etc.

A VC – Fred Wilson, Union Square Ventures

Both Sides of the Table – Mark Suster, GRP Partners

Continuations – Albert Wenger, Union Square Ventures

Ben’s Blog – Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz

Essays – Paul Graham, Y-Combinator

PMarca Blog – Marc Andreessen, Andreessen Horowitz

Scott Weiss – Andreesen Horowitz

Master of 500 Hats – Dave McClure, 500 Startups

Redeye VC – Josh Kopelman, First Round Capital

What is Left – Chris Sacca, Lowercase Capital

True Ventures Blog

Venture Hacks – Babak Nivi & Naval Ravikant


Marketing Blogs (new section, work in progress)

Marketing bloggers who are legit, helpful, and interesting

Market by Numbers – Brant Cooper



Reflecting on Women 2.0 Startup Weekend

Two weekends back I joined over 100 people for my 4th Startup Weekend, this time in San Francisco at the newly launched coworking space cubeSF

It was awesome,  I was (as usual) feeling like I should be working but I dragged myself there for the panel on Friday night and once I began talking to people I was able to shed my work-related stress and focus on the ideas people wanted to make a reality.  As the Women 2.0 blog summarizes:

Kicking off Friday night, Tina Seelig (author of What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 and Executive Director of Stanford Technology Ventures Program) moderated a discussion between an expert panel about how they would build a company over a weekend. Jessica Livingston (author of Founders at Work and Founding Partner of Y Combinator), Xochi Birch (co-founder of Bebo – sold to AOL in 2008), Shanna Tellerman (founder and CEO of Sim Ops Studios), Danielle Morrill (Marketing Director of Twilio), and Dan Martell (angel investor) shared their opinions about how to best utilize the short 54 hour time period to build a startup, how to utilize the strengths of each individual, and drew from their experiences to advise the audience on how to build a successful startup.

That’s right – I was on a panel with those fantastic people and it was so fun watching them think of their feet for the panel – where we had to basically go through the process of coming up with an idea, making plans, and answering some tough questions from the audience.

What did we do?  How did we do?

I posted over at Seattle 2.0 about how to get the most out of Startup Weekend, and decided to test three things:

  • Could I successfully run a Startup Weekend team based on these principles?
  • Could I be a little less nice, and get a little more done?  (I put a sign on our table that said “If you’re not on my team, don’t talk to me — or anyone else on my team. kthxbai”)
  • Could I build the entire front end (HTML/CSS) – my first time being a technical contributor on a SW team?

To see what we came up with check out EscapeMyDate – warning though that it is currently broken because our Twitter account was suspended yesterday in that whole Gov 2.0 expo debacle.

AND WE GOT TEH MOST VOTES – effectively “wining” and getting free office space from Plug and Play in Palo Alto for one month!  Yipee

More posts on the event: