Episode 25: Clearco & The Future of Finance

As most of you know, I want to empower people to work on the things they love. As a result, I am excited that FJ Labs invested early in Clearco (formerly Clearbanc), now valued at $2 billion, which is helping entrepreneurs all around the world to live out their dream.

Clearco is on a mission to remove the barriers between brilliant ideas and brilliant businesses. They invested over $2 billion in over 5,000 companies. Until Clearco came onto the scene it was difficult for many e-commerce founders outside of Silicon Valley to get funding.

In this episode, I chat with Andrew D’Souza and Michele Romanow, Clearco’s founders, to learn about how they started, some of the challenges they faced along the way, and advice they have for founders.


Andrew was born in India but grew up in Toronto via Chicago. He studied engineering at the University of Waterloo. Andrew got into the world of startup through Chamath Palihapitya (a.k.a. The SPAC King), when Chamath asked him to move to SF and join Top Prospect.

Michele is a judge on the hit show Dragons’ Den (Canadian version of Shark Tank). Prior to Clearco, she was the founder of SnapSaves, acquired by Groupon. She also founded Buytopia.ca, which made the list of the fastest-growing Canadian companies and acquired 10 of its competitors.

Key Takeaways

  • Honest communication is the key. Sit down and have difficult conversations early and often.
  • Good communication takes practice. It is never organic.
  • As a founder, think about how you can mature and grow as the company grows. Do not get left behind.
  • Stick with your convictions. Do not always wait for market data to catch up with your convictions because then it might be too late.
  • Be relentless around problem-solving.
  • Make sure your team knows that they are part of the solution.

Andrew’s realization

Andrew realized that many of his non-Silicon Valley founder friends were not getting the same access as those in Silicon Valley. He wanted to level the playing field for them.

Michele’s aha moment

Michele’s moment happened during her time as a judge on Dragons’ Den. The Den sees over 250 pitches in 17 days! Many of the pitches were e-commerce companies wanting $100k for 10% equity. Often these companies planned on using the capital for inventory and customer acquisition. Michele thought there was a better way to help these founders.

“Why are founders using the most expensive capital in the world to do something with a fixed return?”

Two brains better than one = Clearco

An e-commerce company does not need to give up so much equity if they are investing the capital into marketing and inventory.

Equity = offloads risk at a high cost, debt = adds risk and leverage but at a lower cost

Michele and Andrew dreamt up of a middle way between debt and equity and Clearco was born. Clearco offer founders capital to finance marketing and inventory. They reimburse themselves by taking 10% of the revenues until they are repaid plus 6%.

In under 20 mins, Clearco gives founders a term sheet. Founders also get access to free tools and data analysis that help them make better decisions.


In the early stages, Clearco lost money because they were building a new asset class.

Now, one of the biggest challenges is hiring the right people who will add to the thriving culture and making sure that the leadership team continues to mature and grow with the company.

Rethinking Investing

Humans are social creatures and so we like to be part of groups/tribes. Venture capitalists are no different. Part of the reason why VCs fund founders with similar backgrounds is to cut time spent on deal flows. Deal flows get filtered out over time via preferences, interests, and social circles.

Clearco wants to help as many founders from all walks of life as possible. Some of the companies they are most proud of are companies that would have never received funding because most VCs are not interested in that space.

Finance has always required permission. Clearco wants to make finance permissionless.

We at FJ Labs absolutely love Clearco’s mission and are excited for the future of democratized funding. If you have a successful e-commerce company and are looking for funding, reach out to Clearco.

If you prefer, you can listen to the episode in the embedded podcast player.

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Episode 24: How Slice is helping mom and pop pizzerias compete with Dominos

One of our main theses at FJ Labs is to focus on vertical marketplaces. Slice is a great example of a company that has found product-market fit within a vertical.

In this episode Ilir Sela gives insights into how Slice empowered 16,000 pizzerias to compete with giants like Dominos and Pizza Hut.

Ilir Sela is the founder and CEO of Slice, formerly MyPizza, the all-in-one ordering and marketing tech platform for local pizzerias. He was born in Macedonia and raised in Staten Island. Ilir grew up helping his family run their New York City pizzerias.

Top Takeaways

  • Within a marketplace build products that empower the supply side to focus on what they do best. For Slice, this was helping Luigi create and sell more delicious pizzas to his loyal customers.
  • When unpredictable events happen, learn to play on the offense.
  • Always be intentional in figuring out your customer pain points.

Mom and Pop Pizzerias v. Big Pizza

The pizza industry generates $47 billion in the US alone. There are 77,000 pizza restaurants and only 20,000 are franchises. These independent pizzerias generate $27.6 billion in revenue compared to $18.7 billion by Dominos, Pizza Hut, Papa Jones, etc (henceforth, Big Pizza).

Slice gives independent pizzerias tools and services of Big Pizza to small independent pizzerias at a low cost. This includes online presence management, order processing, and marketing. It is closer to a Shopify model than an aggregator like GrubHub.

The independent route to opening and running a pizza restaurant is a black hole because there is no data point. Most pizzerias feel like they are in business by themselves and not for themselves.

Slice views its primary role as helping increase the LTV and to transition independent pizza restaurants into the digital world with ease. More than half of Big Pizza revenues happen online, whereas the majority of revenue for independent pizzerias happen offline.

Slice is full-stack and vertical and so can provide valuable insights to them in the same way Dominos can provide data-driven insights to their franchises.

Quick glance at Slice’s numbers

  • 90% customers come from organic channels
  • 0 spent on CAC channels
  • Average order is $36 on Slice v. $20 on telephone
  • Slice charges $2 only on orders $10, otherwise $0 on orders below $10
  • 75% gross margin
  • The expected GMV by end of 2021 is $1 billion
  • $40 million burnt to get to $100 million in revenue
  • Raised $40 million Series D in April 2021

COVID-19 & Lockdowns

In March 2020 everything shut down for 2 weeks. Ilir took this moment to go on the offense. Slice offered their product for 6 months without pay to all merchants.

This unlocked new channels for consumers as most where pizzerias were cash-only pre-lockdowns. This online presence in turn brought in new customers for many independent pizzerias.

The crazy thing is that only 9% of pizzerias in the US are on Slice.

The Future

Independent pizzerias are drawn to Slice because it empowers them with tools they can use to increase sales and get data at a low cost. These independent pizzerias and the pizza consumers trust that Slice will connect the right people with the right pizza. Slice’s goal has always been to continue growing every merchant’s order volume. To take them from $500k to $800k or $1 million.

The future roadmap for Slice includes short term capital and micro-distribution centers. Independent pizzerias pay a premium to purchase goods because they buy as individuals. Slice, however, can purchase at bulk and store goods in micro-distribution centers cutting costs for merchants.

Entrepreneurs should be inspired by Slice’s because it reveals that the verticalization of marketplaces is still nascent.

If you have not ordered on Slice, then download Slice and order a pizza for dinner tonight.

If you prefer, you can listen to the episode in the embedded podcast player.

In addition to the above Youtube video and embedded podcast player, you can also listen to the podcast on:

Episode 23: Synthesis: The startup scaling up the most innovative ideas from Elon Musk’s school

The education system has not evolved since the industrial era. New tools have been introduced over the years, but nothing has dramatically changed. To reinvent education, you don’t more tools to add to the arsenal, but first principal thinking. What assumption have we been making about education? And are these assumptions true?

Chrisman Frank is the co-founder and CEO of Synthesis, an enrichment club that teaches complex problem-solving and decision-making for kids 7 to 14 through online team games.

Top Takeaways

“The more the world becomes the work of our minds and creativity the more amazing it becomes.”

  • Education should be problem-focused not tool focused. Kids will figure out how to use a screwdriver if they must rebuild an engine.
  • Kids crave complexity. We often do them a disservice by dumbing down things. When instead we should be encouraging them to solved problems using their already creative minds.
  • The hammer and nail principle is the idea of having kids surrounded by others who are more advanced than them and kids who are less advance than them. This allows kids to be both grow and help others grow.

How Chrisman got into education

Growing up Chrisman was extremely interested in education. He was an avid reader and realized that not only could you acquire ideas through reading, but he could learn how to live a better life. Education was the biggest lever in life. Immediately after college, Chrisman started an online tutoring company which was acquired by ClassDojo.

From ClassDojo to Synthesis

During Chrisman’s time at ClassDojo, he visited many schools and got to see first-hand all the ways education was being implemented. But this made him disillusioned with the state of education. There was no innovation happening–everything was stagnant.

One day he visited Ad Astra (the school his co-founder, Josh, was helping develop). After a school tour, Chrisman witnessed some kids shouting complex answers at each other. These kids were not mad at each other. Instead, they were part of Synthesis, and they were having tremendous joy completing this activity. At this point, Chrisman saw what the future of education could become.

Synthesis: Teach problems-solving

The mission of Synthesis is to accelerate human progress through education.

At Synthesis, the focus is on problem-solving not memorizing answers. Kids are divided into Uppers (age 11-14) and Lowers (age 7-10). The benefits of having kids being around other kids who are more advanced and less advanced is that it allows them to be challenged and help others grow.

Kids then complete simulations which are situational based complex problems that have constraints. They must actively collaborate and compete with other cohorts doing Synthesis. It is similar to a startup in that every person must participate if the teams want to succeed. No one person can finish the task by themselves.

These simulations grow in complexity and the kids enjoy them. Surprisingly, kids are more interested in playing simulations than Call of Duty. There are no grades at Synthesis. But the kids are eager to level up in their ability to solve problems.

Synthesis recently raised a Series A, and I am happy to say I am an investor. They plan on expanding their cohort based in the coming months and years.

I am deeply excited about what Chrisman and Josh are building. Honestly, something like Synthesis would have been extremely beneficial for me when I was young.

I recommend any parent who wants to equip their kids with creative problem-solving skills to check out Synthesis. I plan on sending my future kids to Synthesis.

If you prefer, you can listen to the episode in the embedded podcast player.

In addition to the above Youtube video and embedded podcast player, you can also listen to the podcast on: