YellowBird co-founders Michael Zalle and Michelle Tinsley took very different routes to get where they are today. Michael, the CEO, is a lifelong entrepreneur who has always used tech to innovate and problem solve. He founded several different companies before YellowBird and worked in industries ranging from satellite communications to banking. Michelle, the COO, is a long-time Intel veteran, where she gained extensive experience in a variety of different fields, including product, marketing, sales, and finance.
In 2019, they came together to start YellowBird, a two-way marketplace that connects the best experts in Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) with business and government entities, on-demand. In a short time and despite the pandemic, YellowBird has already made incredible progress.
Michael and Michelle joined us on the latest edition of Collective Conversations to talk about why they founded YellowBird, their journey to traction, and what the next steps are for the rising startup.
What is YellowBird?
Michael: YellowBird is an environmental health and safety marketplace. We place environmental health and safety experts across the country in high-risk construction environments.
Michelle: YellowBird also has quite a few industrial hygienists on our platform, so when the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, we immediately put them to work to help companies and universities get back into their buildings. We licensed a protocol and rolled it out across the U.S. We love being able to help a broad set of people.
What prompted you to build YellowBird?
Michael: I’ve been in a space driven by environmental health and safety for 20 years of my career, primarily in satellite communications, which is often in a remote, high-risk environment. I founded the company because, based on that experience, I knew there was a need.
The idea came together when I was fortunate enough to have a very opportunistic ride in an Uber with a driver who was way overqualified to be driving me. When I got out of the car, I started thinking about all the other overqualified people who could be doing something to leverage their hard-earned skills.
What were you doing before YellowBird and how did you end up as co-founders?
Michael: I am the quintessential entrepreneur. I’ve been an angel investor and startup operator my entire life, starting when I was the young boy making tie-dye t-shirts and selling them at concerts. I’ve been involved in various startups. My background is actually in satellite communications but I was also in fiber optics in the early days of the internet revolution in 1994. I was also part of the startup, De Novo Bank. I’ve started an industrial company, which my wife took over. So, I have an interesting background, but it’s all circled around startup ventures that use technology to help others. That’s what I’m passionate about. And I’ve never experienced anything like YellowBird.
I initially founded the company toward the end of July 2019, primarily just to start down the path and gain a deeper understanding of what we wanted to do. Within two or three months, I was looking for a co-founder who had the right skills, capabilities, and passion for the idea. I was introduced to Michelle through an accelerator here in town, and we hit it off. She has brought so much to the table, so I was very excited to have her join me on this journey.
Michelle: I joined the company in September 2019. Before that, I had a long career at Intel. I started in finance, worked my way up to a pretty senior position in the Internet of Things, then moved sideways to be a GM, and later worked in product. My last role was in sales. I left the company to start my own consulting business and ended up working with a bunch of startups, which I loved. I was almost jealous of the progress they were making, and I really saw how much my finance, product, and marketing experience helped. I then joined a different startup and when I left, I decided to join forces with Michael to make this a formidable opportunity.
What were some of the first steps you took after launch?
Michelle: Our minimum viable product went up in November 2019. Essentially, we had to build our first task on a two-sided platform, and we had to figure out which part to build first because it’s sort of a chicken and egg scenario. We decided the professionals would probably be a bit more patient with us, so we initially focused on building our inventory of professionals. Once we hit about 50 professionals in January 2020, we figured it was enough critical mass to begin pursuing revenue customers.
How has growth been so far?
Michelle: It wasn’t as predicted. We had a very nice model that we solidified six weeks into revenue which charted our course for the year, and it got promptly wiped away when COVID-19 happened. We had to go into a restart mode, and we managed to lock in some great customers. Our Q2 revenue was 6 times our Q1 revenue, so we couldn’t complain.
But what we had to do was circle the wagons and find a way to turn what was happening in the world into a positive. One thing we used to our advantage was people caring about workplace safety, even in office environments, which up until the pandemic wasn’t a big priority. Around the same time, we saw a sudden explosion of professionals joining our platform because of all the layoffs in the oil and gas industries.
We exceeded our goals with our professional acquisition, which means we had to ramp up our customer acquisition. To do that, we went from three employees to eight, and now numbers nine and ten are on their way shortly. We’re building our dream team.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Michael: Naturally as a startup, it’s always going to be capital. When you start a company, it doesn’t matter who you are or how much success you’ve had. When you go from a napkin to creating an MVP and finding product-market fit, it is very hard to find investors willing to join unless you have proven some of these metrics. Like any other startup, finances are always a concern. That being said, we were very fortunate to raise money quickly, and consistently had checks landing because of our progress during the pandemic.
The other challenge is that we are trying to disrupt an old school industry — one which was founded in the 70s. A lot of the people in the industry have an older frame of reference on how things are done. As an organization, we have to figure out how to communicate this to the market properly while showing we have good intentions and are a better way to accomplish an old school method.
What’s been the best thing to happen to YellowBird since launch?
Michelle: One of the best things has been getting new offices, which are amazing and truly fit the tone of what we are trying to build. But I think it’s really that we have such amazing customers, which I’m really thankful for. They've put a lot of faith in us. It's incumbent upon us to then execute and make them really happy so they continue to go with our model.
Michael: Michelle joining!
Why did you decide to join the StartupAZ Collective?
Michael: I know a number of successful startup leaders in town, and the StartupAZ Collective is known as being the crème de la crème for tech startup entrepreneurs. It’s not just that you are entering into a group of elite people. You are entering into a community of people you can really trust and talk to. You can trust the other CEOs and leaders to be honest, and you can talk about your challenges and experiences.
Michelle: It’s coaching at exactly the right time you need it. With this collective, you're almost all at the same phase in business maturity, and you're facing a problem that three other people around the table are facing as well. You can bring out your problems and try to solve them together, but also hear what other people have tried and what worked and didn’t work.
Being a leader in a startup is a lonely job. Sometimes you need the wind in your sails refueled. Mike and I do this for each other but not every startup has the duopoly that we have.
I encouraged Mike to join because I can't think of a better way for us to continue to develop new ideas. There's nothing like the tightness you get with the cohort you're matched with.
What’s next for YellowBird?
Michelle: We’re setting really audacious goals for 2021. The biggest thing is to start rocking and rolling on our repeat customers and getting more of our partnerships kicking into gear. For a while, we were excited if we saw one job posted per week on our platform. Now, we’re getting multiple posts per week, and I’d like to see that expanded to at least 10 per week.
Michael: I’m outward looking and always thinking about where we can go next. The changes in labor regulations and gig economy regulations opened up a lot for us. The strategic opportunities we have to leverage additional value-added services for our pros and companies on the platform are very interesting.
So, we're gonna scale. It’s getting the right people in the right locations doing the right job, on their own terms. But to take it a step further, how do we take those right people in the right locations and give them the tools that they need to really wow their customers? That, in addition to raising money, is going to be what I’m focused on over the next 24 months.