Ashlee Ammons of Mixtroz on conquering the fear of starting over

In 2014, Ashlee Ammons was living a comfortable life in New York City, producing celebrity driven events and working in brand marketing. She’s close with her mom, Kerry Shrader, and one day Ashlee called to vent about an awkward experience she’d had at a conference mixer. The two women realized that, despite having strong networks in their respective fields and feeling confident in their social skills, they’d both found it difficult to strike up conversation in a professional setting—especially in the digital age. After four hours on the phone, the duo hatched an idea. They saw themselves as natural connectors, able to bring people together from all walks of life, and wondered, “How do we do this with software?” 

Their answer? Mixtroz. A mashup of “Mixer” and “intros,” Mixtroz is an app designed to help event attendees connect, breaking the ice and building engagement while collecting real-time data for event organizers. In 2018, Kerry and Ashlee became the 37th and 38th black women to have raised $1 million in funding, and their clients include TEDX, Alabama Power, and universities that use the app to help incoming freshmen meet new people. So how did this mother/daughter team get from a phone conversation to co-founding their own company? Read on.

Go “all in”

After they came up with the idea for Mixtroz and decided to forge ahead, Kerry put in long hours in Nashville while Ashlee moonlighted from New York, holding down her full-time job. Ashlee liked predictability and order, and she enjoyed her big-city lifestyle—entrepreneurship was a total departure from who she was at the time. But in October 2015, Kerry was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within a month, she went through surgery and radiation and still never once lost focus on Mixtroz. Kerry’s determination in the face of hardship inspired Ashlee to dive fully into their journey together. Ashlee packed her bags and moved into her family’s home in Nashville, surrendering her professional identity to start from scratch with her mother. It was a humbling refresh when she had already risen to the top of her career. “Entrepreneurship made me do it again,” she says. 

Take care of yourself

During that first summer in Nashville, Ashlee suffered from FOMO, watching from the sidelines as her friends explored extraordinary things. As a 28-year-old living at home, she saw life passing her by and started experiencing signs of depression. “Entrepreneurship is hard. If people don’t take care of themselves mentally and physically, it’s a recipe for disaster,” she says. Ashlee sought treatment to address her depression, and eventually got back on track. Still, founding Mixtroz—like almost every startup—meant pushing through a slow start accompanied by rejection. “There’s a huge misconception that entrepreneurship is a sprint when it’s actually a marathon,” says Ashlee. Blocking out the noise of naysayers, Ashlee and Kerry persisted: refining and iterating on their product, listening to feedback from early adopters, and continuing to push their product forward. 

Do your homework

The two founders pursued every opportunity to meet with investors and began entering pitch competitions. “If I hear anybody saying anything contrary to me, my mom, my business, my team, I am ferocious. I don’t have a soft spoken bone in my body,” Ashlee said. This served her well, especially when competition was tight. At the Rise of the Rest competition in May 2018, Ashlee pitched Mixtroz to Steve Case, former CEO of AOL. “We may not have had the best product,” Ashlee recalls, “But I was the most prepared and I came ready to win.” Case commended Ashlee after she finished her pitch, the last slide of which included an African proverb that Case wrote about in his book, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In an effort to tailor the presentation to her audience, Ashlee did some homework beforehand that ultimately helped her win the competition. She walked away with $100,000, and she and her mom decided to relocate from Nashville to Birmingham, Alabama, where the competition had taken place.

Find the right geographic fit

Ashlee and Kerry had already spent time in Birmingham, where they participated in Innovation Depot’s Velocity Accelerator. When asked what Mixtroz brings to the city today, Ashlee says, “We are literally reshaping what people think of entrepreneurship. We are making it more colorblind, more inclusive, more age agnostic, more gender agnostic—that is a great thing.” Birmingham itself is a city that implements coding programs into core curriculums and provides proper resources so that young adults don’t feel the need to move away from Alabama to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. The city has redefined entrepreneurship so that it’snot just “a sport for the elite,” as Ashlee says. She adds, “I want their journey to be a bit easier than mine was.” 

“I am as much of an entrepreneur as a guy who puts a lawnmower in the back of his truck and realizes that he can offer something that the competition can’t,” Ashlee continues. She credits Birmingham’s environment with helping Mixtroz to thrive, even positing that she and Kerry wouldn’t have been able to pursue their business anywhere else. “Birmingham listened and didn’t assume. We’ve had such an ugly history here. It’s not lost on me that my grandma is 90 and she lived in Alabama during [the fight for] civil rights, yet my mom and I raised a million dollars here.” 

Change the narrative

Although Ashlee and Kerry had a limited knowledge of entrepreneurship before embarking on their Mixtroz journey, the thing that mattered most was that they cared about solving the problem they had unearthed: how to connect individuals at networking events and gather data in the digital age. Their early promise and dedication was seen by family and friends, who raised $200,000 to fund Mixtroz at its outset. This was at a time where African American females, on average, were raising $36,000—an upsetting number when compared to white males who, at the same stage, were raising an average total of $1.3 million. From the earliest part of her startup journey, Ashlee learned an indelible takeaway: “Don’t let the fear of not knowing something stop you from starting.”


Amanda DoAmaral closes a $615K seed round—and opens up about her roller coaster year as a founder

Amanda DoAmaral is the founder and CEO of Fiveable, an edtech livestream platform with a growing user base of teachers and students from every state in the US. She has described Fiveable as Twitch for education: “If kids can get help with video games, they should be able to get help with homework, too.” amanda doamaral headshot

Fiveable focuses on preparing students for AP exams, and—as of November 2019—the platform has hosted livestreams for close to 30,000 unique users. For the 2018-19 school year, Fiveable students reported a 92% pass rate across the seven subjects offered, while the national average was 55%. (Full disclosure: Beta Boom was one of Fiveable’s earliest backers. Amanda earned $20K in capital and a spot in our Salt Lake program in June 2018.)

News hits for Fiveable suggest a near-meteoric rise: after Beta Boom’s early vote of confidence, Amanda posted a viral YouTube video advocating for students in an exchange with a College Board exec, then she and her tiny team earned a spot at gener8tor, a Wisconsin-based accelerator which promises $100K in investment, and in June 2019 she impressed celebrity entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis enough to garner $10K of his personal capital on top of taking second place at the 5 Lakes Pitch competition.

What’s more, the company announced it closed on a $615K seed round just after the new year. But rather than let that money tell her story, Amanda took to the company’s website to speak frankly about how Fiveable almost didn’t make it through 2019. We’ve pulled together some of her notes on the struggles faced and lessons learned on her startup journey so far.

Follow your passion—which sometimes means taking a detour

Amanda joined Teach for America right out of college, moving from Boston to Oakland to teach AP World History and Geography to public high school students. At first she wasn’t sure she was qualified to teach AP courses, but it turned out she loved it. After five years, however, she had to confront the fact that teaching wasn’t financially sustainable for her. “I was paying more for my student loans than my rent,” and Bay Area rental prices weren’t cheap. What she didn’t realize was that staring down her own financial precarity would be the spark for a much-needed startup.

Learn to see yourself as an entrepreneur

Amanda left her teaching job, traveled a bit, then moved back to the East Coast. Her next job involved making fundraising calls to potential campaign donors, and many of the people who gave money were startup founders. At that point, she had only an abstract idea of what startups and entrepreneurship looked like. But she started researching how to build a business, and realized, “I could have an idea, try it, and pitch it to people.” This was 2017, she was living with other young campaigners and looking for a way to use what she’d learned as a teacher. “It was the students who lit the way,” she explains. Kids from the school where she’d taught were asking for support, so Amanda started livestreaming AP history lessons for them. “It didn’t start out as ‘I’m gonna build a startup’—it started out as ‘I’m gonna help people [in the way] I know I can help them.’”

Turn your struggles into an asset

The fact that Amanda hadn’t ever considered founding a tech business is one indication of her “outsider” status in the startup world. But reflecting further on how that’s helped her (and her business) succeed, she notes, “I’ve always felt like I’ve had to work ten times harder to get to do whatever I have to do. Whether it was as a kid or in college, I knew I had to go faster and that’s how I’ve approached founding this company. I think that’s part of the advantage—knowing that people are going to overlook me and so I have to shoot higher than they’re gonna expect so that I can come out on top. I’m pretty sure that all female founders and founders of color operate in that way, and that’s probably what propels these businesses forward.”

Sometimes you need to go a little “nuts” 

From her first unofficial livestream to the day she completed Beta Boom’s startup program in 2018, not even three months had passed. Amanda returned from Salt Lake City with a clearer view of herself as a founder, then promptly moved back in with her mom and got to work on what she’s called the craziest thing she’s done on her startup journey: The Fiveable House. “I knew I needed a team, [but] I didn’t know any marketers or developers. I didn’t know anybody outside of my universe of teachers. The only way I could think to move this idea forward was to rent a house in Philly and convince people to come live and work with me—for basically nothing. It was nuts!” But it worked. The Fiveable house drew in Amanda’s first two employees and has since moved to Madison, then Milwaukee—where Amanda still lives and works with teammates Tan Ho and Aaron Levin.

Let your users be your guide 

As Fiveable expands its course offerings and experiments with new formats, Amanda stays attuned to what students and teachers are asking for, “because they seem to know what I should do next more than anybody.” What’s more, she’s also thinking about generational trends outside her immediate platform, observing, “This generation of teenagers is very connected. We’re seeing this with [activism]—teenagers are running massive movements because they’re connected to each other. But we’re not seeing that with education. When you think about a teenager right now, they’re on their phone, they’re hopping around on YouTube, they’re watching videos on Twitch, they’re on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok—but where is the learning happening? I think what we’re trying to do is just connect to where kids are right now.”

Don’t be afraid to operate outside of a tech hub

Since starting Fiveable in Maine, Amanda and her team have worked in Philadelphia, Madison, and Milwaukee. Beta Boom seeks out startups that may be overlooked due to geography, and Amanda explains how being based somewhere “small” can be an asset:  “These startup ecosystems are so much smaller than Silicon Valley’s. Even just pitching in a competition [like Milwaukee’s 5 Lakes Pitch] and getting to the final round,” is a unique experience. “I’m not competing against 20 other edtech [startups]. One of the judges [at 5 Lakes] called us the most exciting startup in Milwaukee right now, and there’s no way we’d get that title in the Bay Area, in New York, even in Chicago. It’s worth it for us to be in a smaller place so that we can stand out and all of these different people can help us.”

Find a way to connect with other founders

As she found her footing as a leader and Fiveable continued to grow, Amanda and her team moved to Madison to take part in gener8tor, a “concierge accelerator” that provides three months of business development programming on top of significant capital. However, she’s said that one of her key takeaways from the experience was meeting other founders. “It’s hard when your team doesn’t understand all the pieces you’re dealing with, and neither does anybody else. My family has no idea!” Because she lives and works with her team, Amanda admits it can be hard to expand her social network: “I have to be able to know other people who ‘get it’ in order to feel less lonely. [And through gener8tor] I’ve made friends who are starting their own companies and going through the exact same things but in their own way.”

Be prepared to weather the unknown

On top of the energy that infused her early successes, Amanda remembers a lot of uncertainty—and that hasn’t disappeared even today. This rollercoaster of emotions is one of the first things she likes to mention to would-be founders: “I honestly never knew how high the highs could be and how low the lows could be. Going from on the floor crying, calling my mom, to a total swing the next week—getting opportunities where people would see my vision with me. Just knowing that when you’re starting out, and that it will keep happening, is a big part.”


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