Uplevel: Inside the journey from idea to $7.5M in seed funding

By Jay Bartot, CTO of Madrona Venture Labs

At Madrona Venture Labs (MVL), we believe exceptional teams are key to building the best technology companies and Uplevel co-founders Joe Levy, David Youssefnia, Ravs Kaur, and Dave Matthews, are the prime example.  Incubated inside of Madrona Venture Labs, Uplevel announced last week they raised $7.5 Million in funding from Norwest Venture Partners, Madrona Venture Group, and Voyager Capital to empower engineers to do their best work.

Uplevel represents a sweet spot in our deep history and focus on working with entrepreneurs to develop vertical machine learning companies. As the efficacy and applicability of machine learning technologies continue to advance at astonishing rates, Uplevel uses it to help organizations leverage their once unusable and messy unstructured data (Github, Slack, Jira, etc.) and turn it into a treasure trove of actionable information. We deeply believe data-driven companies will increasingly strive to utilize all of their available resources, including ‘ambient’ data generated every day in the course of operations, to dramatically improve all aspects of their businesses.  

Idea Discovery

Our journey with Uplevel started at a Go Vertical workshop, which we created in partnership with Madrona Venture Group and TiE Seattle to bring together the best and brightest Seattle-area technologists from companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Google to hack on vertical machine-learning ideas over a weekend. After an intensive 48-hours of market research, customer discovery, and prototyping, ten teams presented to a panel of VC judges, including Madrona’s Soma Somaseger, and Uplevel emerged as the winning idea.

From there we invited Uplevel project lead, Dave Matthews, to join MVL as a founder-in-residence to further validate the idea. Dave had experience as a senior PM at Microsoft and led product for my previous computer vision startup Vhoto (acquired by Hulu).

Idea Validation

Each idea we validate goes through a rigorous process and few survive. In fact last year we explored over 200 ideas and of the ideas we formally vetted, we sent over 60 ideas to the grave and only a few ideas eventually became companies. For Uplevel, we started our process by talking to over 30 customers, many of which were Madrona portfolio companies in our network, and interviewing potential buyers, who we had identified as CTOs and CPOs. Insights derived from these conversations helped us reposition the company from reducing engineering team attrition to measuring engineering team productivity -- a major pivot that hit on a massive pain point we had uncovered. This decision helped us to clearly articulate our differentiation in what had become a competitive HR tech/people analytics space and get feedback from our network of over 40 investors. Our practice is to pitch investors early, to get signal on the investability of the idea, in advance of forming and funding the company -- for Uplevel, the positive investor signal was resounding. 

Founder/Idea Fit

As our confidence in an idea grows, we begin to map out what an ideal founding team would look like, which is generally a combination of domain experience, skillsets/competencies, and diversity (over 50% of MVL companies have a diverse founder).  For Uplevel, the obvious next call was to David Youssefnia, a PhD in Organizational Psychology with over 20 years of experience working on employee engagement and people analytics with Fortune 500 companies.  In his practice, David relied on employee surveys to measure the health of an organization. In that first meeting, David volunteered to us that he thought employee surveys were dead and that the future was in ‘ambient data’ and ML/AI.  We had a clear meeting of the minds!  We were thrilled to have David join Dave and MVL as a founder-in-residence.  From there, to create the product we envisioned, we needed to bring on an experienced data scientist and were fortunate to recruit Stefan Schoenmackers, a UW PhD in NLP, who had previous startup experience at Decide.com (sold to eBay).  With the idea forming and the founding team coming together, we moved to the next phase of our process -- building customer traction.

Uplevel founders David Youssefnia, Joe Levy, Ravs Kaur, and Dave Matthews

Initial Product and Customer Traction 

From our earlier customer outreach, we were able to secure our first pilot customers, and they supplied us with critical data sets on which we tested our product hypotheses with data science and machine learning technologies. Our initial analytical results were promising and that led us to productization of the technology.  Through design sprints and early prototypes, we were able to bring a product to life that built on the 150 signals discovered in our initial passes over the sample data.  With the product, business model, and investor pitch coming together, we turned our attention to recruiting a CEO.

Bringing It All Together

Ultimately, through Madrona Managing Director Tim Porter, we met Joe Levy, a veteran of the Seattle startup scene and an accomplished SaaS analytics go-to-market leader.  Joe’s background and personal passion for the problem made him the ideal co-founder and CEO to join David Youssefnia, Stef Schoenmakers, and Dave Matthews.  We were excited to see Ejiro Akporobaro, who was a senior engineer at MVL, also join the team. When MVL team members get passionate about an idea they are working on, we always encourage them to join the companies. We also believe it is of great value to our entrepreneurs leading the companies to bring on folks who have been involved since day one.  With the team in place and some early pre-seed funding by MVL, Joe raised a strong seed round led by Norwest Venture Partners with participation from Madrona Venture Group and Voyager Capital.

It has been so exciting for us to watch Uplevel grow way beyond what launched out of MVL, including the addition of Ravs Kaur, their technical leader and co-founder, as well as seeing an increasing number of customers onboard to their platform.

At MVL, we’ve just scratched the surface, and opportunities abound to develop products and companies that help enterprises leverage the value of their data with ML/AI technologies.  Ready to become a founder?

COME TALK TO US!