In many ways, Return is a product of serendipity.
The Baltimore-based company’s founders, Greg Dvorken and Tracey Halvorsen, met entirely by chance in early 2020; Halvorsen was coming out of her Baltimore apartment building, while Dvorken, who was apartment hunting with his girlfriend as he prepared to move to Baltimore, was going in.
Dvorken’s girlfriend had worked with Halvorsen in the past, so the three ended up chatting. Quickly, the conversation turned to a new business
venture that Dvorken was working to start, which would later become Return. Meanwhile, Halvorsen had recently exited her previous company and left a 25-year relationship and was in need of a fresh start.
But not everything about the launch of Return, a sales intelligence software company, went so smoothly. Its founders had only just been able to meet with analysts, finish its initial stage of funding provided by angel investors, and hire a firm to develop the alpha version of the product before the pandemic started.
“I think I went to go skiing for a weekend, and while I was away in Utah, the whole world shut down,” Dvorken said. “And then we actually started (the business) the next week, or something like that.”
Suddenly, one of the great assets of the Hunt Valley firm Halvorsen and Dvorken had selected — its proximity to Baltimore — went down the drain. Previously, the pair had been planning to visit the firm every single day as they worked to create the best version of their platform, which aims to quickly collect sales insights, allowing sellers to focus on selling rather than on administrative tasks.
Now, that option was off the table.
“I’m a big believer in people should be together, especially when you’re trying to prototype things and you’re trying to test for usability,” Halvorsen recalled. “I saw a lot of value in the fact that they were right up the road … and then, boom. The door shut.”
The plan was to start working the day lockdown happened, but the founders ended up delaying the process a few weeks as they waited for their developer to figure out its remote working situation. The first few weeks of the company’s life ended up overlapping with the early weeks of the pandemic, and the founders found themselves struggling to begin developing their product while simultaneously trying to improve their virtual working and virtual collaboration skills.
“I’ll never know if it would have been different if we’d been there in person, and what got lost in translation because we were all forced into this remote situation,” Halverson said.
The pandemic also had an impact on the approximately $300,000 they’d already accrued from friends and family pre-pandemic, Dvorken remembered.
“Once the pandemic did hit, the people that just wrote checks were like, ‘um, are you still going to do this company?’” he said. “We had to answer a lot of questions about, yeah, we are moving forward.” On the plus side, a sum of $100,000 that had been set aside for travel was able to be saved due to meetings being held virtually.
Getting further funding also looked like it could become a major challenge. Dvorken had come to believe that venture capitalists wouldn’t give to founders who they hadn’t met face to face — they needed to look into the founders’ eyes “and see if they’re for real,” he said.
Still, that didn’t stop TEDCO, which invests in Maryland start-ups and technology ventures, from contributing $200,000 — around four times as much as the organization had originally planned to contribute when Return applied for TEDCO funding pre-pandemic, he said.
“They say that when an investor reacts to you, it usually happens immediately. We had an immediate reaction, almost during the call, where they were like, ‘we’re going to write you a check,’” he said. “The process was very accelerated. I think they had gotten used to, how do you get through the vetting process virtually?”
But although the limitations of virtual fundraising haven’t slowed Return’s growth, the pandemic did impede the duo’s ability to meet with advisers and potential clients.
The founders wanted to show the product to as many knowledgeable people as possible early in the process, and while virtual meetings allowed them to meeting with more advisers, it also limited who was included in those meetings and how those conversations developed.
“When you’re meeting with a CMO from her kitchen, she can’t grab her head of sales and say, hey, come in here for a second, I want you to see what we’re talking about,’” Halverson said. “It made everything take longer, require more conversations. And it’s a big ask for us. We’re asking people to give us their time and input (while) they’re trying to do their own jobs and figure out the pandemic, too.”
Despite setbacks, the pair were able to start showing people the initial version of the product by the fall of 2020; soon, however, they realized it had grown too complex. Throughout the end of the year, the team worked to strip the software down to a simpler form and redesign the user interface, launching a prototype soon after the holidays.
The company has two pilots underway now — one with a large financial services company and another with a high-growth cybersecurity company — and is currently working to acquire $2.5 million in startup funding, a goal it hopes to reach by the end of the summer.