Most people today don’t understand modern foreign aid. As far as most of us are concerned, the US government sends money to another country and says, “Here you go.”
But foreign aid – or international development as it’s more professionally called – is more than a simple donation. It’s the quiet funding arm of the US government’s soft power. Its goal is to make the world a better, more equitable place. It’s an industry worth $500 billion every year working with thousands of carefully selected contractors.
Susanne Barsoum always knew she wanted to work abroad. Through a chance application, she began working for the largest international development company in the world. While there, she saw a huge inefficiency in how the industry hired consultants and saw an opportunity. She left to found a startup called Keylime to help international development consultants operate more efficiently.
Today she runs a profitable business with a global remote team and astronomical growth prospects – completely bootstrapped. Here’s how a girl from Florida became an international development consulting mogul (say that five times fast).
“I Always Wanted to Live and Work Abroad”
Susanne has a calm and friendly demeanor. You can tell she’s used to being around and working with people. Today she lives in Lebanon with her husband and son even though she was born and raised in Florida, USA.
Growing up, Susanne’s family traveled frequently to her parents’ home countries of Northern Ireland and Egypt. Later, while she was in high school, they would frequently visit South America. She loved these trips and was always sure she would work abroad when she grew up. To that end, she studied anthropology at the University of Florida and then went on to the University of Chicago to study a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies. After graduation, she found the perfect opportunity.
“I just knew there was something I wanted to do internationally, so I was always looking for the opportunity,” she says. “Once I got to the job market, I randomly heard about this business called Chemonics that does international development and I thought that sounded like what I wanted. I applied for the job, they gave it to me, and I was in. Nothing too dramatic about it.”
So in 2005, Susanne joined Chemonics, the top for-profit recipient of US government international development today.
“When you hear a president or a secretary of state make a speech saying ‘We’re going to lead the way in eliminating HIV and AIDS in Africa’, that’s done through international development programming,” says Susanne. “One of the examples I usually give is how president Biden wants to help countries cut carbon emissions or adapt to climate change. The way the US government does this is through international development contracts with businesses like Chemonics who work with local partners to make it happen.”
Susanne started out working on a food security program in Nigeria.
“I focused on connecting farmers with buyers,” she says. “There were tons of cocoa and rice processors that couldn’t secure enough raw material to operate at capacity. Meanwhile, the country was importing rice and there was a huge coco market globally already. We just needed to make sure the farmers were tapping into that demand by meeting certain regional and international standards.”
Susanne spent the next decade working her way up the ranks in the Middle East. By 2011, she’d reached the position of Director of Business Development for the Middle East. The job had been everything she wanted and more.
“As soon as I got to Chemonics I knew this is what I wanted to do. International development is different from charitable giving because it’s solving some of the world’s most difficult problems with a business-like mindset. You can still do it with your heart on your sleeve because you’re in a mission-driven context,” Susanne says.
Despite her love of the job, she felt the business could use a little help in some areas. Specifically, she had difficulty hiring consultants.
“I was bringing in freelance consultants all the time and had trouble getting all the necessary information about them and storing it in my head,” she says. “You know, when are they available? What’s their rate? What’s their expertise? Do they speak French? Do they have experience working in this country? I knew it was really important, though. Hiring the right contractor could be the difference between us winning a $100 million contract or not.”
Eventually, Susanne realized others were likely having the same problem. She quit her job at Chemonics in 2018 and created a consulting firm intending to pivot into the tech space once she made a profit.
“I always knew my business was going to be in the tech space, but I didn’t have any background in tech. I probably spent eight months as a pure consulting business to earn some revenue. Since I did it that way, we had clients and consultants on day one so we didn’t have to chicken-or-egg it,” she says.
She picked the name Keylime for her business because it harkens back to the key limes of Susanne’s Florida home.
“I’m from Florida where we have lots of key lime things like key lime pie and key lime candles. It just has a nice vibe,” she says. “I looked up some facts about key limes and learned they are highly sought after by chefs because though they are smaller than limes and they have a stronger aroma, more juice, and better flavor. That’s what I wanted to be, small but with a lot of added value.”
Transforming Into a Tech Founder
A tech outsider, Susanne initially was unaware talent marketplaces like the one she envisioned were already an entire sector. She only had a vision for a platform similar to Airbnb except for consultants. She spent a short period crawling the net for other people working on similar projects.
“I didn’t know what I was trying to do or what terminology to use,” Susanne recalls. “I knew how Airbnb operated, I knew how Uber operated, but I didn’t know this was called a marketplace. I essentially just Googled what I was interested in doing until I fell into the world of marketplace gurus.”
Susanne quickly gained deep proficiency in marketplaces. She spent the following years learning how to make one. She claims to have notebooks as thick as encyclopedias crammed with information on marketplace mechanics, cold starts, search bars, confirmations, and liquidity. She made countless accounts on other marketplace platforms to learn their UX and joined numerous online forums.
“I felt lucky I entered the industry at the point I did because everything had been written about,” says Susanne. “I’m currently part of an online community called Everything Marketplace. It’s a group where people share their stories, hacks, and tools for making online marketplaces. I also made an account on every marketplace platform I could participate in so I could know exactly what was working today.”
She even met the person she considers her cofounder in spirit by sharing her story with him online.
“I met one guy named Mike who’d built and invested in a lot of marketplaces by sending him a Loom video of what I was trying to make. He said it was really cool and ended up working with me for a year and a half. I jokingly call him my ‘cofounder as a service.’ He brought in my first developers for me. We still work together and keep in touch,” says Susanne.
While Susanne feels extremely fortunate for all the help she received to make Keylime possible, she thinks her years of management played a large role in her success as well.
“You have to be curious and disciplined to do this,” says Susanne. “I had almost 15 years of professional experience managing teams. I know how to set a strategy and then pursue it. Maybe I don’t have the fearless attitude of a 22-year-old, but I have the experience to get from point A to point B. I also knew when to make a turn, when to pull back, and when to ask for help. All equally important.”
Keylime was built to solve a problem for all businesses looking for government funding: how to find a trustworthy consultant specialized in the field in which they needed a grant. Susanne created her marketplace betting there were more than enough businesses and consultants to go around. They just had trouble finding each other.
“My clients have trouble quickly identifying who has the skills, who’s available, and what their rates are,” says Susanne. “On the other hand, independent consultants usually don’t go to job boards to search for jobs because they generally have enough work. People contact them and they have their pick of what they want to do.”
Ironically, Susanne says one common match made on her platform is between ex-employees-turned-consultants and their former employers.
“Companies often scour LinkedIn and other forums for a consultant and then they check out my marketplace, see some familiar faces, and then hire someone who used to work with them within an hour,” she says. “It’s a magical moment because we are making the best possible connection for them. They have an automatic trust in this person since they used to work with them. You’d think this could easily be solved, but big organizations can’t put every leaving employee on a retainer. That would mean managing freelancer agreements with 800-plus people at larger agencies. And even with retainers, they can’t keep track of all the details.”
Besides talent matching, Keylime also helps businesses track their consultants.
“We help businesses efficiently and expediently access and organize talent and information,” Susanne adds. “Things can be difficult if a business has a few thousand employees and consultants. Most have an applicant tracking system only for full employees. Not for consultants. As with any business working with government funding, there is a lot of bureaucracy. Many of these businesses really need something new to get with the times.”
Today the Keylime team is made up of a development team based remotely in California and a business development team made up of former coworkers from Chemonics.
“I’ve brought on incredible people who used to work for me one by one,” says Susanne.
Susanne doesn’t like to give too much information on profits or current clients. She does say that within the first eight months she had hundreds of consultants and dozens of clients and both numbers have increased significantly.
A White-labeled Marketplace
Right now Susanne describes Keylime as more of a tech-enabled consulting firm while she continues product development. She has designs to make it much more of a plug-and-play platform down the line. She is even piloting a white label service so international development organizations of any size can launch their own private marketplace in days.
“A lot of these businesses are motivated to build their own marketplaces now, because if they run their own, they can dump all their people into it,” Susanne explains. “They don’t want to put their people into our marketplace because ours is for public use. That means knowingly handing talent to potential competitors, which we wouldn’t ask them to do. We’re getting a lot of use out of our marketplace as it is, and we also see huge potential here.”
Bootstrapped Is Better For Everyone
Susanne briefly considered going after VC funding, but quickly realized it wasn’t necessary. She built her MVP on a budget then used profits to scale the product with new features that customers wanted.
“A paying customer is way more powerful than a VC dollar,” she says. “Bootstrapping allowed us to be focused.”
Most of Susanne’s competitors are VC-backed outsiders trying to get into international development. Despite their large amounts of capital, she believes it’s hard for these businesses to crack into an industry and add value without any understanding.
“At Keylime, we’re international development professionals using custom technology we built on our own. We are aligned with our clients because we are our clients. Silicon Valley outsiders seem to think international development is easy money and I guess they need to show investors an ROI, which means they have to charge 10X what we charge. That’s hard to stomach in an industry focused on alleviating poverty,” she says.
The money these cash-rich companies can put into marketing and sleek packaging is something her platform has trouble competing with – that and a premium price tag.
“Unfortunately, a lot of businesses are lured in by a sleek website and a premium price,” Susanne says. “I’ve had clients come to me and say they paid six or seven figures to a VC-funded startup but their staff and users were unsatisfied. Now they’re getting a better service from a five-figure investment with Keylime. We don’t have a sales team, we don’t have debt, we’ve been profitable since day one, and that’s why we offer better prices.”
However, Susanne is content and even proud of what her small team has accomplished so far. She thinks her story is a real testament to the fact that anyone can be a founder if they put in the legwork.
“You don’t need to be a tech founder. If you are curious you can teach yourself. The trick is to be both curious and disciplined.”
“You don’t need to be a tech founder. If you are curious you can teach yourself. I’ve taught myself and been taught by hundreds. The trick is to be both curious and disciplined,” she says. “When you feel like you’re drowning in the daily grind and struggle, it can seem like failure. I always find it helps to take a step back and see that we have returning clients, we’re profitable, and we have many satisfied customers who love what we do for them.”
Susanne’s story shows the dark side of throwing large amounts of capital into a marketplace business. When everyone says they have the same connections and the products seem similar, should businesses choose the companies with more resources and an arbitrarily high price point? Or should they choose a business with more experience and prices set by the market?
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