Startup Stories: Melanie Kansil, Co-Founder & CEO of Alyte

Melanie joined us on Startup Stories to talk about building an online social fitness studio, their recent $3 million seed round, building a remote-first company culture, and more.

by hao-nguyen on August 24, 2022

Melanie Kansil is the Co-Founder & CEO of Alyte, a social fitness app transforming the way individuals connect and share healthy experiences together.

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Hi Melanie, great to be chatting with you again. For those who may not know, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and Alyte? 

Thanks – great to be here again! As background on me and Alyte: I’m the CEO & Co-founder of Alyte and we are an online social fitness studio made for friends. We’re about making it easy and enjoyable to build healthy habits – in an app, so that you can do it from home, but at a set time so your friends keep you accountable. Our broader vision is to make it easy to share healthy experiences online, and our mission is to build human health and happiness.

You’ve bounced back and forth between corporate and startup roles. In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of working at each one? 

There are great elements about both the start-up and corporate experience – and some not-so-great bits too! The top three things for me in a start-up are the energy, creativity, and purpose associated with working with a great team to solve a problem that hasn’t yet been solved. It forces you to bring everything you’ve got in terms of skills, creativity, insight, and people leadership. The downside of course is the existential threat: will we make it in time? 

In corporate, the great benefit is that you already know people want the thing that you’re making and you know who those people are. So many problems have been solved (usually a long time ago) and the focus is clearer and narrower. There’s creativity in discerning what to focus on and where to change, and there’s the power of having financial and people resources at the ready. The challenge is the inability to move at speed. There are usually too many stakeholders – big decisions require many people to get on board. And of course, the politics!

I’ve really enjoyed my time in both. From my earliest days as a management consultant at McKinsey, learning how to structure problems and getting exposure to so many different businesses and people, to my first start-up and more recently executive roles in corporate, I’ve learned so much. I am loving being back in start-up land this time. I feel like I’m able to bring what I’ve learned from both sides to Alyte. 

Earlier this year you completed a $3 million seed round for Alyte. Can you talk about what the fundraising process was like? It would be great to hear your perspective, especially with the recent slowdown from VCs and investors. 

Fundraising is always an intense and stressful process. My main takeaways from having been through it are to ‘keep calm and carry on’ and really listen to what you’re hearing from investors. We’ve been lucky enough to have some truly wonderful investors come on board to Alyte who understand and believe in our vision.

But it was a process to get there, and we needed to trust the process. Not just in terms of the basics of being organised, tracking who you’ve spoken to, follow-ups, etc but also in terms of refining our pitch. When we first started speaking to potential investors, we were not as clear on what we were doing, why, and the big vision. Over time, we got sharper and sharper and got positive responses. This sharpening is helpful with investors – and importantly for ourselves as a business. 

And of course, relationships are important. I read a piece years ago by Mark Suster about “Lines not Dots” – meaning, build relationships over time; don’t expect that someone will come on board from one meeting. This is something I try to do. One of our investors is Lars Rasmussen (the founder of Google Maps) who I first got to know more than 10 years ago in my first start-up! 

The environment has definitely changed over the course of this year, and from my conversations with investors, it’s clear that they are taking a more cautious approach. But the market environment and broader investor sentiment is not something that we as a company can control. What we can do is focus on our business and try to make that as successful as possible; that is my advice to others as well. 

What do you think have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far as a start-up founder?

Founding a start-up is hard. That’s the reality. It’s also exciting and energising like no other job. And it is filled with challenges, especially at the very earliest stage where we are. These are both business related as well as personal. One of the biggest – and one of the things I’m most proud of – is building an outstanding team. When you’re starting from scratch, you have to sell everyone on the vision as you can’t yet point to something in-market.

Having a great team is critical to success. I learned this the hard way. With my first start-up, I tried to do almost everything myself, and that was a huge mistake. It’s a recipe for slowness and burnout. This time around, I’ve been lucky to have wonderful people as part of Alyte. We’re able to move quickly and provide different perspectives on the problems we’re solving.

On the personal side, a big challenge is to manage my own time, energy and stress levels. I’m much more conscious this time around about maintaining my energy and health, and the Alyte app itself is a great support of course! I’ve finally become the person who makes exercise a daily habit and this has made a positive difference in terms of my sleep and my stress levels (as well as being able to do a plank!).

I’m much better at setting boundaries around saving time for my family or with myself and a book. I’ve realised that I need to be able to think clearly and deeply about what we are doing, and what we should do next. And yes, of course there’s stress, but I love the challenge of operating in uncertainty, of working on something with the potential for big impact – it’s a package that I gladly embrace.

Alyte is a remote-first startup, so how do you find yourself building and maintaining a company culture? 

Remote-first happened more by accident than design: the great people we wanted to join the team happened to not all live in Sydney. So we developed an approach to balance this. We spend one week per month ‘hot housing’ in Sydney. This is our time to see each other in person, problem-solve, and also have those casual interactions in the office and over coffee that build trust and evolve perspectives. 

We have made a conscious effort on building a strong positive culture from the start – even when it was just a few of us. We did work together to define our company values (Curiosity, Empathy, Connection and Fun), and have regular conversations about how to strengthen and maintain culture. Most of us have experience working in environments where culture has gone awry and have a strong motivation to shape Alyte to be a high performance company that is also a great place to work.

Some of the specific things we do include: a monthly team event; daily team stand-ups; and ‘donut’ meetings which pair up two people from the team randomly to catch up 1:1. We also do something we call the ‘Georgia Project’ which is a ‘positive habits’ club where we meet weekly to keep each other motivated and accountable for habits we want to build. And of course we use Alyte: for a morning workout with people on the team or an afternoon stretch break.

One last question before you go, where do you see Alyte in the next few years? 

Our mission is to build human health and happiness. This mission is an animating force for us.

Yes, of course we want to build a big business – we want to take Alyte global. And we want to create an amazing place to work. But most important of all is to have a positive impact by making it easy and enjoyable to fit exercise into real life, to fit connection into real life. 

So in the next few years, I hope what we see is people all over the world using Alyte as part of everyday life to maintain health and maintain connection.

Are you looking for a startup or scaleup recruitment agency? We can help connect you with world class talent around the globe, get in touch with us today!

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