Spring 2024 Issue

From Rocket Pitch to Liftoff

Three W&M alumni turned entrepreneurs pioneer interactive software demos

By Catherine Tyson ’20
Photography By Brittney Hanvey

Spring 2024 Issue

Imagine being asked to buy a car without ever test driving it. Feeling a little hesitant? You’re not alone. Getting to “try before you buy” is a key part of most high-dollar purchases.

However, if you were a company looking to buy software before 2020, there was no easy way to “test drive” it beforehand. This could make selecting the best product a long, arduous, frustrating and somewhat opaque process. Overcoming this problem is the goal of Navattic — a company creating interactive product demos to curate a better experience for software buyers and sellers.

Key to Navattic’s story are three William & Mary alumni — Neil McLean ’18, Chris Hoyle ’18 and Natalie Marcotullio ’19. How they ended up working together is no coincidence. Their story starts at William & Mary, where, through the university’s entrepreneurial community, they forged a bond of friendship grounded in a shared interest to create solutions for everyday problems.

Entrepreneurship and new beginnings

Displayed in William & Mary’s Entrepreneurship Hub is a sign that reads, “Make your idea more than an idea.” That phrase, which serves as the Hub’s tagline, was coined by McLean, now CEO of Navattic.

An out-of-state student from Michigan, McLean entered William & Mary with an eclectic set of interests which he pursued with a double major in art history and data analytics.

“I’d always maintained an interest in startups, but coming into W&M I wasn’t clear about a) whether my goals were attainable and b) how to go about achieving those goals,” says McLean.

One day, while walking through Miller Hall, home of the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, McLean discovered the Entrepreneurship Center, where he would find the answers to both those questions. It was also there that his friendship with Hoyle began.

A student-athlete on the men’s track and field team, Hoyle pursued his interest in engineering as a computer science major at W&M.

“I took my first computer science class freshman year and was sold right off the bat. I carried that textbook around with me everywhere and read it during all my other classes,” says Hoyle.

Like McLean, Hoyle had a passion for “solving problems and bringing ideas to life.” Following that interest, he also found his way to W&M’s Entrepreneurship Center. Having sustained several nagging injuries during his time on the track team, Hoyle decided it was time for a change, joining McLean to work at the Center.

Central to McLean and Hoyle’s entrepreneurial experience is Graham Henshaw, assistant provost for entrepreneurship at W&M. With a background in startups and a passion for creating community, Henshaw sees his mission as making W&M entrepreneurship a cross-campus movement.

“Entrepreneurship is about cultivating the tools and mindset to thrive in an ever-changing world,” says Henshaw. “Those skills are valuable regardless of your major.”

To promote that message, W&M launched the Entrepreneurship Hub in 2019, moving the core of the university’s co-curricular entrepreneurial activities from the business school to Tribe Square on Richmond Road. This location brings together students and faculty from all corners of the university, providing easy access to anyone interested in entrepreneurship.

Before the Hub’s launch, Henshaw looked to spread the word about the far-reaching benefits of entrepreneurship education with student voices.

“When I came on as executive director, I knew we needed a core student engine to tap into university-wide connections and spread the word,” he says.

In pursuit of that strategy, Henshaw became the faculty advisor for Tribe Ventures, a student organization focused on cultivating entrepreneurial thinking. A few years later, Tribe Ventures became part of the Entrepreneurship Center, morphing into a fellowship program for interested students.

From consumers to creators

As two of the Center’s original five fellows, McLean and Hoyle played a foundational role in creating what entrepreneurship looks like at W&M today. This experience was transformational for them both, taking them from “a consumer’s mindset to that of a creator,” according to Henshaw.

“Graham Henshaw gave us a tremendous amount of autonomy and ownership from an early stage,” McLean says.

This ownership came with significant responsibility to ideate, plan and execute the Center’s events and to track student demographics and engagement. As operations fellow, Hoyle wore many hats and was challenged to use his computer science background in new and innovative ways. He spearheaded building the Center’s website and developed different automations to raise student awareness and interaction as well as monitor attendance trends. This all involved a level of technical expertise, mathematics and troubleshooting that required tremendous creativity and focus.

“Working as a fellow was a great opportunity to apply the knowledge I was learning in the classroom in a practical way,” Hoyle says. “Graham really pushed us to develop sophisticated solutions to solve the Center’s problems.”

While Hoyle dove into the data, McLean got to work planning events to increase student engagement. One such event, which remains a core part of entrepreneurship at W&M, was the Rocket Pitch.

The Entrepreneurship Center began hosting pitch competitions every Friday, from 1-2 p.m. Participating students had 90 seconds to explain a problem of interest and their ideas for how to solve it. Winning pitches went on to compete at a larger end-of-semester competition with a panel of expert judges. Rocket Pitches were a fun, informal way for the fellows to drive student engagement with the Center, inspiring ideas and increasing participation.

However, McLean points to the coworking sessions after Rocket Pitches as the secret behind building the Center’s community.

“After Rocket Pitches, we had Cowork Fridays — time for students to socialize, share ideas and collaborate on projects. That is really where the community was created, during that unstructured, informal time.”

Thanks to culture-building activities such as these, more and more students started to show up for events at the Center. One of those students was Marcotullio, an inquisitive and somewhat skeptical junior.

As an 800-meter sprinter on the women’s track and field team and an art history enthusiast, Marcotullio shared similar interests with McLean and Hoyle. However, unlike the duo, she did not initially feel drawn toward entrepreneurship.

“To me, an entrepreneur equaled Mark Zuckerberg — a genius from birth who had wicked coding skills,” she says.

Lacking those wicked coding skills herself, Marcotullio didn’t see how this world could apply to her. However, moving into her junior year, she experienced some injuries which prevented her from continuing to run competitively. With a lot of time on her hands and a bit nervous about her post-graduation career opportunities, Marcotullio said yes when one of her friends invited her to a Rocket Pitch.

Rather than meeting a bunch of coding whiz kids (although there were some very strong coders, Hoyle included), Marcotullio was struck by the creativity and openness of the community.

“People were just throwing out these crazy ideas and trying to be as creative as possible,” she says. “There was a sense that anything was possible.”

This focus on innovation and thinking outside the box appealed to Marcotullio as a marketing major with a creative mindset. At her fifth Rocket Pitch, she decided to throw out her own idea — an app that would help people identify and sort recyclable material. She won that Friday’s competition and pitched again at the end-of-semester Entrepreneurship Week.

Although her environmentally savvy app ended there, a new chapter of Marcotullio’s university experience began. She had caught the entrepreneurship bug. Marcotullio eventually decided to become a fellow alongside McLean and Hoyle, using her marketing skills to spread the word about entrepreneurship at W&M.

A key part of her role was building relationships with W&M’s alumni entrepreneurs, inviting them to engage with students at the Center through on-campus talks and a sponsored internship program. As the “guinea pig” for the internship program, Marcotullio got her first internship at Map My Customers, an alumnus-founded startup. She would go on to work there after graduation.

In addition to Marcotullio’s work as a fellow, she also pursued her own entrepreneurial project, co-founding WM Laptops. A student-run venture, WM Laptops supplied students in a pinch with Chromebooks and made over $1,000 in revenue.

“It was an incredibly valuable experience,” says Marcotullio. “I learned about supply and demand, the customer experience and that I could try something completely new, figure it out and succeed.”

For Marcotullio, McLean and Hoyle, their time at the Entrepreneurship Center helped them get comfortable with the unknown, adapt to change and thrive in new and challenging situations. Not long after graduating from W&M, these newfound skills would be put to the test in both their personal and professional lives.

Facing adversity

At the start of the pandemic, McLean, Hoyle and Marcotullio were all working remotely. McLean had started a position as a solutions engineer at enterprise software company Oracle. Hoyle worked as an independent developer, helping early-stage startups build and grow their products. He also launched several startups of his own. And Marcotullio had gone on to work for Map My Customers, where she had interned during college.

Having stayed in close contact after graduation, they began to discuss the pandemic and how they might cope with it. During those conversations, which included other W&M friends, someone threw out the idea, “Why don’t we quarantine together at Airbnbs and travel the country?”

While many Americans may have had a similar thought, this set of friends went the actual distance and, in keeping with McLean’s tagline, made their idea more than an idea. Ending their leases and packing up their things, they headed off to their first location — South Carolina.

“What started as a couple-week hiatus turned into a several-year road trip,” says Hoyle.

As the pandemic wore on, the friends continued to live together, traveling to Colorado Springs, Seattle, San Diego and elsewhere. Mainly housing friends from W&M’s entrepreneurship community, these Airbnbs transformed into mini Entrepreneurship Centers, where the friends collaborated on projects and sought advice from one another.

“In many ways, those Airbnbs had a lot of the creativity and encouragement that was so palpably felt at the Center,” says McLean.

Faced with change and new challenges, this group of friends applied their shared entrepreneurial mindset to identify an opportunity and take action, helping them to cope and even thrive during the pandemic. These decisions paved the way for new avenues of opportunity, for it was at that first small Airbnb in South Carolina that the idea for Navattic took form.

Falling in love with the problem

While road tripping during the pandemic, McLean was still employed at enterprise software company Oracle. In his role, he frequently worked alongside the sales team to demo the company’s products to potential clients.

McLean quickly discovered pain points in the process of software buying and selling that made it time and resource-intensive for the seller and overly complex for the buyer. Central to these difficulties was the inability of would-be buyers to try out the product for themselves. The tools simply didn’t exist to provide them with a hands-on, interactive demo. Instead, they were offered long video demonstrations — which often went unwatched — or “sandbox environments” which allowed them to play with the product but required engineering support to maintain and often broke during demos.

Ultimately, this meant companies trying to sell software were losing out on deals and those on the purchasing end were losing precious time and resources in the process.

“The key entrepreneurial tenets that Graham had preached at the Center really impacted me, so when I encountered these pain points, I didn’t just think, ‘Oh well, that’s how it is.’ It was so clear to me that there was a problem worth solving,” McLean says.

Creating a solution began with falling in love with the problem.

“‘The Lean Startup’ was one of the most influential books that Graham recommended we read,” McLean says. “It taught us the foundational importance of asking, ‘Is this a problem worth pursuing?’”

Partnering with Randy Frank, a like-minded colleague at Oracle, McLean began interviewing over 250 other pre-sales engineers. The duo quickly found that what they were experiencing wasn’t an isolated problem, but one with vast potential for impact.

The idea takes shape

During this stage of interviews and insight, McLean began to talk to Hoyle about Navattic.

Through his work as an independent developer, Hoyle had become somewhat familiar with how early-stage startups grew and sold their products, but knew less about enterprise software sales.

“I remember being very surprised by the complex process that potential customers had to go through to get a product demoed,” Hoyle says. Intrigued by what McLean and Frank were working on, Hoyle was eager to lend his skills to the budding venture.

Working together, the trio brought the right blend of talent and expertise and began to take their ideas to the next level. In the summer of 2020, they secured a spot at Lighthouse Labs, a startup accelerator in Richmond, Virginia. The small amount of funding they received from that opportunity allowed Hoyle to begin working full-time on Navattic.

The name Navattic is a combination of “navigation” and “automatic.” The idea behind the nascent company? Build a “try before you buy” experience for software. That is, create hands-on, interactive product demos. On the seller’s side, this provides a quick and easy way to highlight key product strengths; on the buyer’s side, a way to efficiently evaluate the usefulness of the software.

To accomplish this, Navattic pioneered a novel technique to capture interactive copies of any software application without requiring engineering support.

“This sort of technology didn’t exist in the market and required significant technical investment and trial and error,” Hoyle says.

Iteration by iteration, their software began to gain more traction.

“In the second half of 2020, it became very clear that our product had a strong market pull,” says McLean. “We’d hop on a call with a potential client and they’d ask, ‘When can you guys get us started on this? Could we sign up tomorrow? Next week?’ We had 10 people commit to paying us $500 per month within a period of two weeks. So, it was obvious there was an incredible market demand.”

In the following months, Navattic’s growth progressed at lightning speed, testing the limits of the trio’s grit, discipline and dedication.

Winning over Y Combinator

For any startup team looking to catapult its growth, Y Combinator (YC) is the place to be. A world-renowned startup accelerator, YC provides funding and advice to catalyze the most promising innovators of the hour. With an acceptance rate of only 1.5%, it is “tougher to get into YC than Harvard,” says Henshaw. Despite the odds, McLean, Hoyle and Frank decided to give YC a shot and applied in the fall of 2020.

Just a few weeks before the YC application was due, the team decided to do a major overhaul of their product based on feedback from their most recent round of customer discovery. To meet the deadline, Hoyle worked heads down for two weeks to create what became the first truly interactive product demo. Fittingly, it was a demo of YC’s own software.

Sure enough, they got through to the interview stage. However, after the interview, their application was denied. The rejection email came with a small caveat. They were told, “If you can sell and onboard five YC companies in the next 30 days, we’ll give you guys another interview.”

“That was on Oct. 30,” McLean says. Including the Thanksgiving holiday, this gave Navattic only 15 business days to “take a fledgling product that barely worked and get five YC companies signed on.”

While others might have relented in the face of a near-impossible challenge with an uncertain outcome, McLean, Hoyle and Frank knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. They decided to go for it.

The following 15 days were an all-out sprint during which the team refined their product and pitched themselves to as many YC companies as possible.

“It was the most intense period of rapid prototyping, working at all hours to build effective demos,” says Hoyle.

The end of November arrived, and “through an extraordinary amount of outreach, will and persistence,” Navattic persuaded not five but seven YC companies to purchase their product. Y Combinator accepted them into the program.

The team says being part of Y Combinator’s startup cohort was transformational. Having all transitioned to work full time on Navattic, Hoyle, McLean and Frank devoted their efforts to the program. During the three months at YC, they grew in leaps and bounds, developing a consistent product and grossing over $120,000 in revenue.

“Having the encouragement and guidance of that startup community was a real turning point for Navattic,” says McLean.

THE MENTOR: Graham Henshaw, pictured in William & Mary’s Entrepreneurship Hub in Tribe Square, has ignited a cross-campus movement. Photo Credit: Alfred Herczeg P ’23

Onward and upward

As a pioneer in the interactive demo space, Navattic uncovered a problem with massive market potential.

“People didn’t know this problem could be solved and so there was a tremendous amount of latent demand for demo technology and automation,” says McLean.

Answering that demand, a wave of like-minded startups swept into the space. Several of these companies quickly outpaced Navattic in funding and size.

“Some of our competitors raised north of $60 million and brought on hundreds of employees,” says McLean.

This disparity in growth initially earned Navattic a reputation as an underdog.

Unfazed by these early challenges, McLean, Hoyle and Frank continued to pursue the problem they had set out to solve. To aid their efforts, they focused on growing a lean, talent-dense team relentlessly focused on executing for clients at the highest level.

They sought out individuals who were not only experts in their fields, but who also shared the entrepreneurial mindset and loved “the daily grind.” As a former Entrepreneurship Center fellow at W&M and a good friend, Marcotullio fit right in with the team.

While living as part of the Airbnb gang, Marcotullio chatted with McLean and Hoyle about their work on Navattic. In 2021, she decided to move back to New York and kept up with the company’s progress over phone calls with McLean, who reached out several times for her take on Navattic’s marketing and sales strategy. What started as occasional phone conversations turned into an offer to join the team in 2021.

“The stars just sort of aligned,” Marcotullio says. “I had just started looking for a new challenge, and they were hiring a head of marketing.”

Having been a software buyer in the past, Marcotullio was well acquainted with the problem Navattic was trying to solve. She also deeply identified with the values McLean, Hoyle and Frank brought to the company.

“In Navattic, I saw reflected the qualities I most admired in the founders — kindness, humility and curiosity.”

Add to that the enticing opportunity to build Navattic’s brand from ground zero, and Marcotullio didn’t take much convincing to come on board.

In building the Navattic brand, Marcotullio embraced the narrative technique “show, don’t tell,” taking every opportunity to highlight Navattic’s strengths by spotlighting client success stories.

“The goal was to make our customers the heroes as much as possible,” Marcotullio says.

Thus, skillfully and somewhat paradoxically, Navattic became the “company everyone was talking about” without having to say much about themselves.

The industry buzz surrounding Navattic has continued to grow. Despite 2023 being a challenging year for tech companies, Navattic doubled its customer base, helping to create over 18,000 interactive demos and surpassing 7.5 million demo views.

Underdog no more, Navattic has become the market leader in its space, according to software-ranking service G2. Maintaining a lean team of 23 full-time employees, the company currently manages over 750 clients, including big names such as Cisco, Dropbox and Bloomberg.

Staying true to their roots

Looking back on the path that led them to Navattic, McLean, Hoyle and Marcotullio give a lot of credit to their time as entrepreneurship fellows with Henshaw.

In Hoyle’s words, “Graham is a masterful storyteller and a builder at heart — the perfect recipe for an entrepreneur.”

Through Henshaw’s example, they learned the principles of entrepreneurial thinking and the confidence and leadership skills necessary to excel in the startup world.

“Working with Graham to create the Entrepreneurship Center was really Navattic 0.5,” says McLean. “It was there that we learned the essential tenets, skills and mindset to succeed during Navattic’s journey. Graham instilled in us the belief that, with consistent work and determination, we could make a change in the world.”

While McLean, Hoyle and Marcotullio did enter the startup world, entrepreneurial thinking is “far more than just startups,” according to Henshaw. Rather, it’s a “broadly applicable toolkit and mindset” that Henshaw sees as a real differentiator for graduates.

“If you can come to an employer and speak to entrepreneurial experiences that have enhanced your ability to be open to risk, tolerate ambiguity, to improvise, to fail wisely, that employer is going to want you over the student who can show they got a 4.0 GPA.”

To better understand the usefulness and applicability of these skills, Henshaw is part of a research group examining the impact of entrepreneurship education on the early career trajectory of graduates.

“We’re seeing a different trajectory for these young graduates. They are equipped to add value in distinct ways from their peers who don’t have the same background.”

McLean, Hoyle and Marcotullio’s efforts as students to make entrepreneurship a cross-campus movement have paid off. In 2019, W&M opened the Entrepreneurship Hub in Tribe Square, across Richmond Road from Blow Memorial Hall.

“The vision was for a place to cultivate disciplined creativity across the university and with our regional partners, recognizing that collaboration, creative thinking and calculated risk-taking are essential capacities for driving positive change,” President Katherine Rowe said at the Hub’s ribbon cutting.

A modern, colorful space, the Entrepreneurship Hub was designed for collaboration and learning. Upon entering, visitors are enveloped in the energized buzz of student conversation, walls plastered with sticky notes and an atmosphere crackling with creativity, optimism and innovation.

One of the walls displays a revolving list of more than 100 W&M alumni who have founded their own companies. Their majors, listed below their names, demonstrate the diverse disciplines that entrepreneurship encompasses at W&M.

The Hub’s location reinforces the message that entrepreneurship is open to everyone — a message that is clearly resonating.

“This academic year we engaged with over 1,000 students from 52 different majors,” says Henshaw. “So, this is truly a cross-campus movement.”