Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 11: Pat Sullivan and Sebastian Jackson

Startup founders strive to turn their dreams into reality, and the mentors who guide them often learn as much as they teach.

How startup ideas are developed and nurtured was the focus of conversations with the latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Pat Sullivan

Pat Sullivan

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were:

Sebastian Jackson

Sebastian Jackson

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Pat Sullivan is a serial entrepreneur who has been building software for more than 30 years, starting with the ACT! contact software he created in 1985. Pat was named one of the “80 Most Influential People in Sales and Marketing History” and was twice named Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year” for both ACT! and SalesLogix software.

Having had terrific mentors over the years, Pat makes it a point to pay his what he’s learned forward. He’s learned that mentorship is a two-way street:

I … meet with any entrepreneur who has a legitimate idea, or is in the process of starting something, for two reasons. One (is to) give back. The other is, I find that I always learn something. Younger people than I, they’re into things that I’ve never thought of. (For example) I thought Twitter was a really stupid idea, until my kids explained that it really wasn’t. I always learn something extraordinarily useful by meeting with others. 

… There are many times where I don’t fully understand what exactly it is that they’re trying to do, and the domain expertise that they have … but there are many things that are general in nature, that I have that they don’t have, and that I can give to them.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here are some of the things his mentors taught him:

Once I was agonizing over the fact that it took me a really, really long time to recognize that an executive … I hired just wasn’t making it. … It took me forever to decide to fire him. I … talked to my mentor and I was complaining how long it took. He listened, and listened, listened, just quiet, and all of a sudden he said, “You know, I think it’s great that everybody back at the office knows that you’re not quick on the trigger.” It totally … changed my perspective.

Another … mentor … said …: “You know, I may not be the smartest, I may not be the richest, but I can out-work you.” …

That has always stuck with me, that I’m not the smartest, I’m not the brightest, I may not have the most money, but I can out-work you. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Sebastian Jackson got his start cutting hair and dreaming of the day he might have is own barbershop. He said his early life had a profound impact on the way he thinks:

Sebastian: My mother, she suffers from schizophrenia. She was diagnosed when I was 1 (or) 2 years old. She’s always had this imagination as a part of that illness. It’s kind of helped me imagine things, right? …. Also I have to work, to execute on that imagination, just so that I know I’m not suffering from the same illness, that if I execute then it’s real.

Steve:  There is a fine line between insanity and genius.

Sebastian: There is. In America, I think it’s money; if you can make money from your illness, then you are deemed a genius. 

Steve:  I mean, that is kind of … it’s interesting you say that. I don’t mean to diminish what you went through with your mom but founders with big visions are treated as insane by most people who kind of go, “What do you mean you’re going to create a rocket company?” Or, “What do you mean you’re going to put the auto industry out of business?

Sebastian: Delusions of grandeur.

Steve:  … I think you said the magic word, the distinction between entrepreneurs and just people with ideas are they figure out how to get the resources to actually execute. …

Sebastian: Absolutely. …Oftentimes thought I was crazy but then … another opportunity will present itself or I will create another opportunity and be able to execute on it and that … validated my thinking. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here. 

Both men are self-motivated and driven.

Pat explained that when he was a computer salesman, he created programs that eased his work problems and challenges. They became the foundation for ACT!

Being in sales, it struck me that, here I was selling computers but couldn’t find a really good reason to actually use one.

… You could some word-processing, a little spreadsheet-type stuff but there wasn’t really anything useful to me as a salesperson. For whatever reason, I began to teach myself programming and built what ultimately became the prototype for the product ACT! 

I did it (on the side) for about three years while I was selling computers. I was building applications that I use day in and day out. Anything that was routine, I hated routine so I would figure out how to program that. The last thing that I built was a contact manager, the ability to track all the information about my prospects, about my customers, so that I could remember them. …I solved a problem that I had.

… I really wish I could say that it was an overnight success. But April of 1987, we shipped the first version of ACT! My partner and I (had finally) decided to do a startup.

Steve:  That was pretty scary, wasn’t it?

Pat: I was a risk-taker. My wife and I discussed it with my partner and his wife over a weekend. I had put a couple of years into building this application. My wife said, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Well, in Texas, which is where we were at the time, they couldn’t take your house. They couldn’t take one of your cars and they couldn’t take your kids. She said, “If that’s the worst that can happen, then you ought to try it because if you don’t, you’ll never know.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Sebastian also took a hands-on route:

… Before I started cutting hair for other people, I cut my own hair. … It was a pretty good haircut. … I just used a Schick razor and lined up the edges of my hair. Didn’t cut any off the top. I gave myself kind of a little taper or fade on the side and the back, and it was decent. Used my dad’s clippers. …

It was spring break. I saw other people doing it. My barber did it and I said, “If he can do it, I can do it.” …

Now, that first time kind of validated that I had the ability. The second time, I was so confident that I had actually tried to cut the top down. I left patches and everything everywhere. … It was terrible. …

I went to the barber, and he fixed it.

That first time stuck with me though. I had the confidence that I could do this and I continued to do it.

… From my sophomore year, when I was 15 years old, I started making five bucks a haircut, three bucks a shape-up, and started to travel to different clients in their homes, in their parent’s homes. I made a little bit of pocket change in high school, out of my parent’s garage, and out of other friends’ basements and garages.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Sebastian has a founder’s signature tenaciousness. He had to write four business plans to get the OK to open his barbershop.

Wayne State saw that the previous business had failed, so they said, “No, no, no. No non-profit. We’ve got to make money here. How are you going to pay us?”

I wrote a second business plan and it showed how I would pay them. (It showed) the support I had to raise money to pay them and they still didn’t like that.

The third business plan was a for-profit showing an actual business model. It was very simple. We’re going to cut hair, people are going to pay us money, and then we’re going to pay you a portion of that.

… They said, “You’re onto something here.”  

The fourth one was the social club, which explained how we would create impact within this space …

… Wayne State wanted to create a campus where student life was abundant, where they can really have students live on campus and have a great time. We showed how we could add value there …how we could use a barbershop to create a place where students could come and have a good time, and get a service that actually make money. A service that … they’re willing to pay for. … 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

The Social Club Grooming Company has become a community hub, in part because of its Shop Talk monthly panel discussions.

… We bring people of interest in; they tell their story while getting a haircut.  

…As you’re getting your hair cut, you’re on the panel with maybe one other person and it’s a traditional barbershop talk. It’s an audience of people sitting around these 2 barber chairs. We take our other six barber chairs out of the way and we have two barber chairs that are front and center. People sit around and you tell your story. I moderate and then there’s a Q&A between you and the audience. It’s a TED talk in a barbershop.

… The real stickiness here is we’re able to have these unfiltered conversations … where you can tell us some secrets that you may not be willing to talk about in a traditional panel discussion setting.

The barbershop breaks (down social) barriers. If Reggie Bush comes in and does a Shop Talk, or if whomever comes in to a barbershop and there’s a line (to get a hair cut), they have to wait. You’re no longer this celebrity. You’re no longer this influencer 

…It’s a leveler and I think people really appreciate that about the barbershop heritage. … I think … my team … can … execute this and I think it’s because of my … being an entrepreneur and a highly technically skilled barber.

I understand the barbers and I understand a bit about business and I’m asking a lot of questions and I’m getting opportunities like this when I can ask you more questions. … Also, in interacting with our customers every day, I can learn quite a bit. I can ask them questions and really figure out what they want, what they want to pay for, so on and so forth. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Pat discussed the characteristics of world-class founders and told me why he can’t imagine doing anything else.

Tenacity.… persistence … perseverance. I like the word perseverance because the word severe is in it, and you often face things that are severe. An entrepreneur who is formidable typically finds a way to get through it. I love the book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things (by Ben Horowitz) that there’s always a way …

Steve:  So why do you still do it, after 30 years?

Pat: Well, first of all, it’s the only thing I get paid for, so it makes me a professional. I would be totally unemployable, there’s no one who would hire me, because they always know I’m going to do another startup. (And) doing something with particularly young, really, really bright people, doing something that’s hard, is just a lot of fun. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to my full interviews with Pat and Sebastian by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Andrew Breen, Vice President of Product Delivery for American Express’s World Service division; and David Binetti, founder of Dinadesa, from the Lean Startup Conference.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Lean Startup In Japanese Companies

Implementing the Lean Startup in any company is hard.  All the culture and incentives are designed for execution. Innovation at times seems like you’re swimming up hill.  Now compound that level of effort with trying to put a Lean Startup culture in place in Japan.

According to Takashi Tsutsumi and Masato Iino, Japanese companies tend to be technology centric, obsess over quality and have weak leadership.  Technology centric leads to companies ignoring their customers and the challenge is that they don’t do customer interviews.  The obsession with quality leads to a silo mentality and a mania for procedure, the challenge is a lack of flexibility. And weak leadership leads to a reluctance to change and the inability to mandate Lean as an innovation process.

They list four actionable steps for implementing Lean in Japanese corporations.  I think they’re relevant for all companies.

If you can’t see the presentation click here

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 10: Reetu Gupta and Mandela Schumacher-Hodge

A startup is not a part-time activity. Trying to do a startup while keeping your day job may doom you to failure. So will failing to understand your customers.

Successful founders have a laser-like focus and commitment; a keen understanding of customers’ needs; and a tenacious spirit, said the latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Reetu Gupta

Reetu Gupta

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were:

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Mandela Schumacher-Hodge

Mandela Schumacher-Hodge

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Before starting CirkledIn, Reetu Gupta spent 20 years in corporate America doing internal startups as well as marketing and engineering work at Fortune 50 companies including AT&T Wireless and Honeywell. In between, she started a wearable startup in her spare time, but failed. Here’s what happened:

Timing the market is a critical piece of any successful startup. We were early to the market. Even though there was a real need in the market it wasn’t right (the right time) for a wearable (product). Today, everybody is wearing an Apple watch, five years ago, not so much.

… another reason (we failed was that it was a) side project. …The thing is, when you do it as a side project, one, you don’t have enough fire under your feet. … You have consistent paycheck coming in. There’s no reason for you to freak out and you’re not running out of money and you’re not trying your best (and) your resources are diffused. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Named to Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education list in 2014, Mandela Schumacher-Hodge is a former high school teacher who later served as global director of Education Entrepreneurs, a Gates Foundation initiative operated within UP Global, now Techstars. Her first startup was Tioki, known as the LinkedIn for educators. 

While building Tioki, Mandela fell under the spell of her own reality distortion field:

One of the biggest lessons I learned was really understanding the problem… of your user. …. You think they want your product … or you think because you are one of those users everyone would want what you want. I think that I gave myself a little bit too much power in the sense of, well, I’m a teacher; I know what all teachers would want, instead of getting out of the building and really practicing those early skills I learned at Startup Weekend. Get out of the building and really talk to people. Really understand their pain points. …

… I (also) wish I would have just understood how this industry works a little bit better,” before jumping in, just so my expectations would be equal to what the circumstances would require of me, like constantly learning and iterating and being super agile. I don’t think I had ever had to be that way in my other career paths. That is a for sure requirement of entrepreneurship that I wasn’t aware that I would … I thought, “Oh, we’re getting funded. We made it.” But that’s just the beginning.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Playing sports helped prepare her to be an entrepreneur:

The elements I learned from being an athlete, as well as a captain (are) first and foremost … being a teammate. I think that you can be an individual and build a great product, but in order to really turn it in to a fantastic sustainable company, you really have to understand team dynamics, and you really have to understand complementary roles and skill-sets, and how to position people in the right seats, at the right time, depending on where you are at, in a season, or in a game and, of course, (in) your startup life…

Steve:  … Team captain is a lot like the founder and CEO of a startup. We talk a lot about (how) startups need teams with complementary skills. … When you get a monoculture, you sometimes have a less successful startup. …

Mandela: … The teamwork aspect is huge. … Aside from teamwork, I would say a huge thing I learned was perseverance by being an athlete. When you want to give up, and you’re tired physically, mentally, and the effort it takes to just keep going, get up one more day, I have oftentimes found that’s when I score that last-minute goal. It’s the same thing in my entrepreneurial career: If I just stick with it and I put myself in uncomfortable situations, that’s oftentimes … where success is found.          

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Mandela gave up a Ph.D program to become an entrepreneur:

…I was on my way to the Ph.D… that I had worked my behind off to get into. It was a really big conundrum for me.

… I tend to feel like sometimes I am Super Woman. Like I can do everything. … (so) I was going to do both — naivete, right? So I started my PhD program. I did that for several months, and I started building the Tioki … with my co-founder.

…and I got quickly pushed on my behind — humbled you can call it — and I realized that I’m being good at two things but I’m not being great at either. I understood the importance of making a decision and having a laser-like focus to really hone in my energy, my time, everything on one thing. So I made the decision to drop out of the Ph.D program and take the plunge full time. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Today she is applying the lessons she learned from her Tioki experience to The Startup Couch:

I tried to learn lessons from my previous startup failure and this time around I didn’t launch anything for three months. I just solely tested and rather than go out and build a site I just utilized Medium to test the content. … Medium is a blogging platform and you can start a blog in a matter of seconds rather than investing time in WordPress which I did later. It was just an easy, light lift and I started blogging about these private struggles I had gone through with anxiety and depression and insecurity and financial strains, being broke — my cofounder got his car repo’d at one point. It got bad. And I was honest about it and people reacted. In that first month I got 20,000 hits and all this engagement, and I started doing surveys to see what are people doing to solve this solving that they say they, too, have.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

For Reetu, coming to America from India marked a watershed moment:

I always felt I was a misfit in India . … I don’t have any brothers and India is still a very male-dominated society. When I was growing up, it was really bad. Everybody used to feel sorry for my parents. I remember one particular incident when a next-door neighbor came with his three sons. It was a dispute. He said that my dad didn’t have any son to protect him. It used to boil my blood. I was very frustrated. I always used to tell my parents, “I’m going to be that son that you don’t have.”

… Women (in India) were not safe. Girls …couldn’t do this … couldn’t do that. I was very frustrated. In fact, I used to think, “I should write a book on how to raise a rebel in society.” It made me that rebel.

When I came to Maryland for the first time, I was like, “Oh my God, this is where I should have been born. This is where I fit. I can go to the store at night and not be afraid of getting killed.”

Just basic necessities are met. Infrastructure is there. There’s no corruption. You can really focus on things that you really care about. There’s running water in the sink and there are no potholes in the road. There’s no electricity card. I can focus on my career, my job, my business idea if I have one.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here. 

Reetu’s current startup idea came out of her experience of documenting her daughter’s achievements for a school application. Here’s how she validated it:

After we went through that process, I said there’s got to be a better way. I started Google-ing “kids’ profile,” “resume building,” and all of that, and I did not come up with anything. … The first thing I did was I made a lookalike of our website, what it would look like, and I went and started interviewing people. …

I had a Kindle and I took that to the mall. …I started in my neighborhood, everybody I met with, I said, introduce me to two other moms, two other parents, two other whatever. I interviewed a hundred people over two and a half months. At that time, we had three different offering ideas and I asked them to prioritize those three. Everybody asked for a profile. The words we heard were, “It’s a godsend, when can I have it? I wish I had it when I was growing up. This is a great idea.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here’s Reetu’s advice for other founders:

One thing I will say is know what you are getting into. Entrepreneurship is very glamorized. You hear about 20-year-old billionaires, you hear about success stories. What you do not hear about, all the antidepressant consumption that’s going up. You do not hear all the failures of the startups that did not go anywhere, didn’t get any funding and died. It’s like, I say, it’s like child(birth): you do not know what you are getting into until you go through it.

… Just know that it’s harder than anything you have ever done.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to my full interviews with Reetu and Mandela by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Elin Elkehag, founder of Vinna Ventures; and Hillary Hartley, deputy executive director and co-founder of 18F; in the first of three episodes recorded at the Lean Startup Conference.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 9: Jered Lawson and Chase Adam

Passion powers entrepreneurs; tenacity pulls them through, and entrepreneurship can do good for the world explained todays guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

jered lawson

Jered Lawson

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were:

  • Jered Lawson, co-founder of Pie Ranch, a 14-acre farm on California’s San Mateo coast that is reconnecting people to their food
  • Chase Adam, founder of Watsi, is on a mission to provide healthcare for every person in the world
Chase Adam

Chase Adam

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show: Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Jered Lawson discovered a passion for community farming while in college. He founded Pie Ranch to create a healthy local food system and educate the next generation of farmers. Although driven by a passion for changing our relation with food, Jered didn’t start out thinking of himself as an entrepreneur.

I think I had, in some ways, even consider(ed) myself the antithesis of an entrepreneur in the traditional sense of somebody who’s driven to create a business that’s profitable.  

… Now … I can see myself as somebody who had that entrepreneurial drive, but instead of thinking about personal gain … it was more about how do we create lasting social change?

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Before founding Watsi, Chase Adam worked in a market intelligence company. He also worked in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica and helped start a national health program in Haiti. Here’s how his vision for Watsi kept him focused:

I think the first one I’ve learned is … to find something that I care about more than myself, to find a problem that I care about solving more than … anything else … that’s going on in my life right now. …It’s so easy to quit as an entrepreneur. …There are so many times when I’ve been tempted to quit or give up because it’s hard, it’s hard to start something new. If I didn’t believe so strongly in the end result and what we’re trying to build I think I would’ve given up 10 times over.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Both Jered and Chase looked for ways to make a big difference in the world.

Jered worked for a time helping other community farmers, then decided he wanted to help in a more hands-on way:

I got to that point where I thought, “All these places that I’m promoting for that connection to the farm … I would love that for myself as well.” I always had this idea that maybe I could have a hand in the production as well and… the person I fell in love with also shared that dream. …We had this idea that it would be great to start an educational farm that had a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), that brought youth to the farm, and provide those same kinds of experiences that I had growing up in LA…

I think in some ways … the only way you can make a go at it, is to find other people that share such a … passion. … Farming is not like your high-tech startups. …

You’re recognized as a serial entrepreneur. We see ourselves as the other “cereal” entrepreneur but spelled with a “C.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

After helping to set up banks through his work with the Peace Corps, Chase wanted to be a change agent on large scale. He discovered a way to do it on a bus ride in Costa Rica.

These banks I was helping to start were now running on their own. I essentially retired myself and said, “You guys do this and I’m going to work on some other things.” I came back to the States, hadn’t been back home in a year and a half … and tech was this big thing. …

Everyone in San Francisco was starting these tech companies. I had never … heard of a tech company, didn’t know what a startup was. These … guys and girls my age were raising millions of dollars to build apps and build startups that were reaching tens of millions of people. That to me just seemed crazy.

… I just spent a year trying to do a $2000 … offering for this bank to reach 100 people. I came back to Costa Rica after that trip back home and honestly I felt a little jaded. I was really excited about the work I was doing abroad but it felt really small … compared with the scale (of how) things were happening in San Francisco.       

It was an eight-hour bus ride… to where I was serving (in the Peace Corps). … After about seven hours, I’m now in the indigenous territory. A woman gets on the bus I’m riding on and … starts asking all of the local passengers for donations to pay for her son’s healthcare.

… It was a little embarrassing but I tuned her out because people get on the bus all the time … ask(ing) for donations (and)… no one ever donates. I remember looking up a few minutes later … and almost all the local passengers … are giving her donations.

… It turns she had her son’s medical record with her. It was in a red folder, she was passing it around the bus. …She really seemed to earn the trust of these local passengers. I gave a small donation, she got off the bus and a few minutes later I remember thinking, Why isn’t there a website for this? Why isn’t there a website that makes it really easy for people like this woman to raise money for healthcare?

… I got back to my little village and there was the indigenous government office about two miles away. It was the only place in the entire territory that had WiFi. …

… I just immediately draw my bags up at home, ran up there and … started Googling every combination of “funding healthcare,” “crowd-funding healthcare” I could think of. I thought surely this must exist.

(But) It didn’t exist. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Jered grew up in the city. His love of the outdoors was born on family vacations to Yosemite and at summer camp. Here he explains the origins of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement he’s working to foster.

It’s where a farm is … supported directly by a community of … the eaters … It’s …shared like investments. There are shareholders who commit in advance of the season, and then the dividend is their harvest. Every week throughout the harvest season you get that diversity of foods …being harvested from that farm.

… in the deepest way possible, (the community is) even closer to the farm than (they are buying at) a farmer’s market. There are usually events on the farm that families, households, individuals can (attend). There are regular newsletters that describe the activities… (such as) … “What’s happening with the drought,” or if there is a bumper crop of tomatoes, come on out and bring your family and pick some more, and do some canning. These kinds of direct relationships are … lost in our anonymous market place of the global food system.

… The first CSA in California was in 1988, and that was the farm … I visited as a 19-year-old … and planted pumpkin seeds. I was visiting a friend who was an apprentice on this farm, and he came back and visited me in the fall at UCSC, and brought me one of the pumpkins from the seeds that we planted.

That experience of … having the seed go in the ground, being out in this beautiful place with this amazing family, and people who were working this land, were all the ingredients for what to me was that kind of disruptive idea of a food system that’s really based on health, from seed to table.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Now he’s training next generation of farmers:

…We’ve come from a great training program just down the road at UCSC and we feel like there’s a really strong demand for skilled practitioners in organic farming, diversified organic farming, that’s really geared towards local markets.

Steve: You also supply food to some companies now in Silicon Valley, right?

Jered: …That’s … the third dimension of what we do. I got invited to participate in an innovation lab at Google, in their food program that brought …folks from all over the world to engage in this kind of thinking about the food system and how we can make it more healthful and just. … really a shared mission.

Steve: You’re apart from Silicon Valley but you’re connected as well.

Jered: Right. For us, it was such an exciting opportunity because clearly the power that exists on this side of the hill is part of what is needed to develop these kinds of more meaningful changes in our food system.

(Our vision is starting to come together.) … For the last two years, we’ve created … an institutional level CSA where the company’s food program commits in advance of the season and we bring them food from the farm on a regular basis.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Chase shared what happened when Watsi launched:

… We’d had one of these coming soon sites. “We have this nonprofit. Sign up now and we’ll notify you when it launches,” and we had about 600 people sign up. … The morning we launched, we sent this e-mail to 600 people saying, “Hey, we have this website. It’s now live.”

(By this time, we had 10 people from the hospital we had partnered with) who needed money.

… We launched at 9 am and …I remember thinking, “Okay, it’s going to go viral. This is it. It’s going to be the next big thing,” and we waited a few minutes and I’m looking at the list of donors. There are no donors. … and then my mom donated and then …my co-founder’s mom donated.

… and our friends donated, we had this little stream of donations and then it just died. By 10 am, no more donors. … It was a little depressing.

… I had been an avid reader of (the online news forum) Hacker News (and)… posted a link to Hacker News (at around 10:30). … It said, “I want to show Hacker News this website we just built to save lives. Give us your feedback.” The idea was that people would look at this website and critique it. … Within an hour, it was the No. 1 post on Hacker News. … 16,000 people visited Watsi in that first day …

It … exceeded all of our expectations. … (the traffic briefly crashed the site, but) once the site was back up, in about an hour we funded healthcare for every single patient we had. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Watsi was the first nonprofit Y Combinator supported. Here’s how the company got on the accelerator’s radar.

The goal was to fund-raise. We didn’t have any money in the bank. I had three months of savings….In that period of time, I needed to …raise enough money to at least pay my salary to help me keep going. (But) everyone turned us down … because we didn’t understand how to fund-raise as an organization. We didn’t have any connections. We didn’t know anyone in Silicon Valley. We didn’t know anyone in the foundation world. We just didn’t know how you went about raising money for a nonprofit organization. A big thing we learned is that in the nonprofit world, funders tend to be very risk adverse. 

… Everyone talked to us and said, “This is a good idea but I’m going to give it another six months, give it another year and see what happens.”

…We got really desperate for money. After about 2 1/2 months … I had about 2 or 3 weeks left of savings, until I was going to have to move in with my mom. The Huffington Post had this online voting competition. (If) you got enough people to vote for your nonprofit, you would win $10,000. At that point … I thought I could live on $10,000 for a year. This is it. This is all I need.

… We get to the finals of this voting competition. It’s us versus one other organization. …. The last night of this competition … we’re neck and neck. … It’s about 10 pm, the voting ends at midnight and I’m out of ideas. I’ve asked every single one of my Facebook friends to vote, multiple times. All of the sudden, I notice that we start to take off; we start to get all of these votes. (Turns out) Grace, my co-founder, was at a bar in San Diego (and) convinced the bouncer … to make every single person vote on their phones for Watsi before they entered the bar. …We ended up winning the competition.

… Then, we ended up meeting Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator. He wrote us our first big check. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Listen to my full interviews with Jered and Chase by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Reetu Gupta, co-founder of CirkledIn and Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, founder of The Startup Couch.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 8: Phil Randazzo and Derek Andersen

Successful entrepreneurs show up a lot and make their own luck. And they are resilient – they’re able to bounce back after failure.  Both of these traits made all the difference for the two latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Phil Randazzo

Phil Randazzo

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were

  • Phil Randazzo, is the founder of American Dream U, a national entrepreneurship and coaching program that helps transitioning soldiers find work or start their own business
  • Derek Andersen, is the founder of Startup Grind, a 200,000-person entrepreneurial community with chapters in 75 countries run by more than 1,000 volunteers
Derek Andersen

Derek Andersen

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here (And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Phil Randazzo is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of American Dream U, a nonprofit that helps soldiers transition to civilian life. Phil also owns Nevada Benefits Corp; and is the co-founder of Drive Safe Mode, an app that prevents teens from texting while driving. In addition, he started Capital MD, Inc., a medical billing and financial company; and owns interest in 44 Subway Sandwich shops and in Source Intelligence compliance firm.

In short, Phil has a lot of ideas and is eager to make them work.

I get bored really easy. … (so) I just start new things. (The) first thing was I wanted to be a land developer because I wanted to be my own builder. What did I know about land development? (But) someone told me it’s better to own than to rent. … (So) I bought some land. I had a meeting with a guy who lived (next to) the land and I said, “Hey. I can’t buy this whole piece. You want to go in with me?” He went in with me. … I’m still in that building today. 

… I bought several buildings. People think I’m smart because I sold a lot of (buildings) in Las Vegas (at the peak) in ’04 and ’05, before the big crash. I just was lucky. 

Steve: … entrepreneurs make their own luck. … I’ll contend that showing up a lot, trying a lot of things (makes a big difference). If you’re just sitting at home saying, “Woe is me,” that’s pretty different than, “Hey, I tried X, I tried Y, and I tried whoa!” That’s not luck. … 80% of entrepreneurship, I’ll contend, is (showing up so you can be) in the game.

Phil: For sure. There’s that movie, The Secret, where you wish and hope things happen to you. (The reality is that) if you don’t act and there’s no movement, nothing happens.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Before founding Startup Grind, Derek Andersen spent four years in product management at Electronic Arts working on games like The Godfather, Burnout, The Sims 3, and Mirror’s Edge. He left EA in 2009 to start Vaporware Labs, a product incubator that mostly failed, but also created products including Commonred, which was acquired by Income.com in 2012. His first startup, built soon after the birth of his son, was advertising on trucks. Here’s what happened:

… It was a bad idea, because … in spite of all my efforts I couldn’t beg anyone to buy it. I worked for months on it and eventually realized I was just spinning my tires. … It was the wrong product and people didn’t want it. …

… I felt awful because I just quit my job. Not only that, but when I told Electronic Arts I was going to quit, this is in the summer of ’09… the middle of … the Great Recession. My boss called me and said, “Look, if you’ll stay we’ll give you a double promotion and a 25 percent raise.” … 

…. Here I am. I’ve just quit and I’ve turned down this huge thing and … my brilliant idea is nothing. … It was heartbreaking. …

Steve: So why didn’t you go back to EA?

Derek: Like every great entrepreneur I would’ve been too embarrassed to go back.  

Steve: So that’s a big idea … a little hubris. You said no, I’m right, just wrong idea. I’d do it again.

Derek: Yeah. …

… (And when a friend with a new startup called asking me to do some marketing for him) I said, I’m totally focused on on this truck idea. I can’t deviate from that. He said, “Well, why don’t you (work for me for) 20 hours a week?”

I said, “How much would you pay me?” He said, “Well, how about 80 bucks an hour? 

It’s one of those moments where you remember exactly where you were. … I looked at the phone and my jaw dropped. I put it back to my ear and said, “I couldn’t do it for anything less than 85. … So for those 20 hours a week, I could pay all of our bills, and that felt really good. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here’s why working at big companies wasn’t for Derek:

I was working really hard. I was the first person in. I was the last person out every day. I was rated in the top 2 percent of the entire organization. One day I was having lunch with my boss and I’d worked really hard on the weekend, and he said, “Hey. You need to do XYZ more.”

I said, “Look. I’m not getting paid like an investment banker. I’m working as hard as I can. I’m already working harder than everyone.”

…A few hours later, he pulled me into his office and he said, “Hey. I’ve rallied for you. I’ve really worked hard and I’ve gotten you a … $4,000 raise.”

The biggest thing that bothered me about it was, not that it was only $4,000, which was laughable, but I said to myself, if it takes me complaining or, if people don’t notice my work, then it’s just not worth it to me.

I didn’t want to be a cog in the system. Then I realized, if I worked 110 percent, I was in the top 2 percent. Then I had this great epiphany. … I realized if I worked about 70 percent, I would still be rated in the top 90 percent. I started going to Starbucks in the morning and working for an hour and half. Then I’d come in, I’d be like the third person in. Then at night, I would go home earlier and I would just work on my own projects.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Like many founders, Phil was not academically inclined:

My senior year, I finished with a whopping 1.8 GPA … I was ineligible to play sports. I was not a great student to say the least. I didn’t even like attending class. …

…The good thing was, back in the day when I went to school, they didn’t have online reporting. I used to run home and take all the notices out of the mailbox before my parents would see them whether it was poor grades or I think I set the record for the most absentees.

My dad was an immigrant from Italy. He was born in Sicily. … He was a smart kid as well. … (and went) to University of Chicago as a junior in high school. He skipped through. School is really important to him so I think I was a little bit of disappointment. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

But Phil has an incredible work ethic:

(My) wife of 24 years … got pregnant, while I was still in college. …I had to grow up pretty quick, and figure out how to support a family. … I worked my way through it. I did odd jobs.

I ended up getting a job as 100 percent commission salesperson selling insurance. It built both (character and desperation).

Then I had two other …. jobs, and my wife worked two jobs. … I delivered newspapers at night … for the Las Vegas Review Journal. Then I helped write parole and probation reports for first-time offenders. …My wife had a daycare in our apartment, and worked at SafeKey in the school district. …

(The work ethic) definitely (came) from my father … he really instilled in me, (that) hard work solves a lot of problems.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

And a resilient spirit

… if you look at my background and look at my education, I would not be .. one that (you might guess) would be (an entrepreneur) …. I did not drop out of Stanford to start (a company). … Anyone can be an entrepreneur…

… I think we are either winning or learning, and I have a lot of failures. I considered those learning experiences, some of them are really expensive learning experiences.

… You are going to hear a lot of chatter from friends and naysayers. …

Probably the biggest thing was, “Ah, Phil, you can’t possibly do that.” Right?

I was voted second class clown in high school. And I was actually funnier… than first guy. My whole life it was like, the joke of my house, was my dad would say I was going to be the head dishwasher and my sister was going to be the assistant head dishwasher. …

Resilience, is not listening to all the noise going around – that’s big.  

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

World-class entrepreneurs are comfortable in chaos, and Derek is no exception. Here’s how he learned to embrace new experiences:

When I was young my family moved to Europe. My dad was working over there, and we spent six years moving across Europe and then back across the United States. I was, at one point, in 10 schools in 10 years. …

(The travel) affected us a lot. … it either makes you stronger or it kind of turns you into a mess. I don’t know which one I ended up being, but it brought our family very close together. At times the only friends we had were our brothers and sisters. …

It was interesting because every year was … in some ways … a new startup because I knew every year I would be saying goodbye to everyone, and so I would start fresh somewhere new. Each summer as I started the new year I would say, “OK, this didn’t work last year. This didn’t work. I’m going to try this. I’m going try this.” You try to make friends as quickly as you could, or you cry yourself to sleep.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Startup Grind evolved from an effort to help fellow entrepreneurs, but didn’t take off immediately. Here’s how Derek made it work:

We tried … all these different platforms. Every month … kind of like school, it became a new cycle. … We tried apps, we tried different technologies, we tried different formats, and nothing really worked. I had this event where we had four people come, and I got in the car and I remember saying to myself, “What a freaking waste of time.”

… This is four years ago. (It) was a one night a month thing… a side project just for fun, and I’m building the game and then I was building Commonred, these were the things that I was really focused on building.

(But then) I decided that even if it was a side project, I was either going to do a job I was really proud with, or I was going to shut it down and stop wasting my time. …

Six weeks later, we got a speaker who had sold his company to Oracle. We brought him in, he was a friend of Spencer’s, the guy who started with me, and we had 40 people show up. No one was more shocked than me. I didn’t know hardly any of them. They weren’t my friends who I had been begging to come. We … had our epiphany of “Wow, we need speakers. We need people who have their own brand who can share. We need to raise the education bar of these events.” The next month we had a bigger speaker who’s a friend, and we had 55 people. …

Then the next week, or the next month, we had 80, and the next month we had 100, and then the next month after that, which was our 1-year anniversary, I invited Jason Calcanis to speak, who’s a fairly well-known investor and entrepreneur in technology, and he said, “Look, I don’t have time to prepare a talk. … But if you want to interview me, I’ll just show up for an hour and then I’m going to leave.”

And I said, “Great, no problem. I can interview you. That’s easy.” So I prepared an interview, we filmed it, it’s still online, our very first interview. (People can see it on) …Youtube.com/startupgrind

People really liked it, and it was so easy for the speakers, so the value proposition kind of aligned that night, where the speaker could come in and they just had to share their knowledge. They didn’t have to prepare anything, and they could leave. They get a really great hour of mentorship. The audience had this really great value proposition because they got to really get close to the speaker (and network with themselves), and then it was great for me as the organizer, because I got to get to know this guy.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to my full interviews with Phil and Derek by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Jered Lawson, co-founder of Pie Ranch, and Chase Adam, founder of Watsi.

Tune in today at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Pixar, Artists, Founders and Corporate Innovation

I’m still surprised when I find unexpected connections with innovation in different industries.


In a recent workshop with a large company focused on the Innovation@50x process, I mentioned that founders and intraprenuers operate more like artists than accountants – on day one they see something no one else does. One of the innovators in the room said, “It sounds like you’re describing exactly what Ed Catmull the CEO of Pixar wrote in Creativity, Inc.”creativity inc

Say what?  I kicked myself knowing that I should have thought of Pixar.

While I’m sure Ed Catmull doesn’t remember, when Pixar was a startup selling the Image Computer, their VP of Sales and Marketing brought me in to put together their marketing strategy. John Lassiter was just beginning to make commercials, Alvy Ray Smith was building Iceman and Loren Carpenter and Rob Cook were writing Renderman.

I should have realized there was a ton I could learn about corporate creativity by looking at Pixar.

So I bought the book.


I always thought that when I used the “founders as artists” analogy, the “artists” I was describing were painters, writers, sculptors and composers. I wondered what lessons Pixar, an animation studio, could have for founders. What were the parallels? Startup founders operate in chaos and uncertainty. Founders get out of the building to talk to customers. We create minimal viable products to test hypotheses/our vision, and we build a culture that supports innovation. It never occurred to me that the directors of 3D animated movies at Pixar could be the same “founders as artists.”

It turns out that they are. And in fact, the creative process at Pixar has a ton of lessons for both startup founders and corporate innovators.

Directors = Startup Founder
Pixar is a filmmaker-driven studio. That means the entire company is driven by directors – the artists – not by corporate executives in management with MBA’s or financial models or a development department.

A director at Pixar is the equivalent of a startup founder. At Pixar a director’s vision for a film is much like a founder’s vision for a startup. The director starts with a vision of a great story he wants to turn into an animated movie. On day one, all a director has is his vision – she doesn’t yet know the exact path to get to the final movie. (Like a startup founder.) Pixar directors use their ability to tell a compelling story to convince management that their initial idea is powerful enough to be a great movie. (Like a startup.) They get approval, build and rally a team, get their team out of the building and do research and iterate and at times pivot the story/film as they refine the vision of the movie. (Like a startup.) Once their idea is approved, the company organizes its technical and production resources (hundreds of people on each movie) behind those directors to turn their vision into a great movie that lots of people will go see. (Like a startup.)

It Starts With a Vision
While the parallels between a director and a startup founder are striking, what’s even more surprising is the match between the creative process Pixar uses to make its movies and our implementation of Lean for startups in the Lean LaunchPad and I-Corps incubators.

When Pixar begins a new movie the movie doesn’t exist yet. It’s only an idea in the head of the director (or in the case of a startup, the founder.) How the director crafts reality out of this vision is exactly like how a founder creates a startup – it’s a combination of vision, reality distortion field, tenacity and persuasion.

pixarDirectors, like founders, develop mental models for how they search for an unseen destination – they “get in the zone.” Some directors view it as finding a way out of a maze, or looking for a light at the end of a tunnel or uncovering a buried mountain.

Greenlight = VC Funding
At Pixar, if you’re a director with a passion for a project you pitch a very simple minimum viable product – in this case storyboards which are just rough illustrations that help to tell the story page by page. If you can convince John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, the film will be greenlit – it gets funding. The process is akin to pitching a VC firm.

Braintrust = Continual Feedback
One of the systems that Pixar has put in place to keep the development of a movie on track is regular doses of open and honest feedback from other experienced directors in regularly scheduled meetings called the “Braintrust.” A director shares his latest progress in the the form of storyboards, demo reels, etc. (what we in startup world would call the minimum viable product) and the critiques from other directors take the the form of comments like, “Have you considered x or thought about y?” Directors are free to come up with their own solutions. But if feedback from the Braintrust is given and nothing changes… that’s a problem. And if the director loses the confidence of his crew, Pixar management steps in.

In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps our equivalent to the Braintrust are weekly meetings where teams present what they learned from talking to customers and show their latest minimum viable products, and instructors provide continuous feedback.

I found other parallels between Pixar’s method for managing innovation and what we built in the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps incubators. (Oren Jacob, Pixar’s ex CTO has been teaching with us at Berkeley and Stanford and has been trying to point out this connection for years!)

Innovation Management – Animation and Startups
Dailies are the way animators (and movie makers) show and measure progress. Everyone can comment but the director decides what changes, if any, to make. Dailies are Pixar equivalents of showing your incremental MVP’s- minimum viable products. In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps, we make our teams show us MVP’s weekly to measure progress.

Research trips – Pixar wanted to avoid the trap of cutting up and reassembling what was done in previous movies so they instituted research trips – “getting out of the building” to get authenticity and keep clichés at bay. Pixar animators flew to Hawaii and went scuba diving for Finding Nemo, to Scotland while they were making Brave and drove Route 66 when making Cars. Pixar movies feel authentic because they’re modeled after the real world.

Lean Startups are built around the same notion as Pixar research trips. With startups, there are no facts inside your building so founders have to get the heck outside. Entrepreneurs work hard at becoming the customer, so they can understand customers needs and wants and experience the customer’s the day-in-the-life.

Pivots – Directors can pivot as long as their team can believe the reasons for changing course. When you lose your team’s trust, the team will bail. Same is true for startup founders. And if pivots don’t work or the Pixar Braintrust feels that after lots of feedback, the movie still is heading in the wrong direction, they replace the director – identical when a founder loses the the board’s confidence and gets replaced.

The power of limits – Although Pixar movies are incredibly detailed, one of their strengths is knowing when to stop.  In a startup knowing that every feature isn’t necessary and knowing what not to ship, is the art of a founder.

Postmortems – After a film is completed, Pixar holds a postmortem, a meeting to summarize what worked, what didn’t and what they could do better next time.  In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps classes, the teaching team does post mortems weekly and then a final wrap-up after class. More importantly, our teams’ final presentation are not a Demo Day, but a Lesson Learned presentation summarizing what they hypothesized, what they did and what they learned. 

Artists and Founders

Pixar            Startups
Visionary Director Founder
Discovery Research Trips Customer Development
Outside Feedback Braintrust feedback Weekly team feedback in
Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps
Progress Dailies Minimum Viable Products
Continuous Learning Post mortems Lessons Learned Day &
Instructor Post Mortems

Continuous corporate innovation @ Pixar
While the parallels between individual Pixar movies and startups is striking, Pixar’s CEO Ed Catmull has built is a company that has continued to innovate, making hit after hit.  While part of Pixar’s success has been built on a series of world class directors (John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich), what makes Pixar unique is that in a “hits-based business” they’ve figured out how to turn directors’ visions into blockbuster movies repeatedly. Pixar has built a process of continuous corporate innovation.

Innovation Killers – Pixar Lessons for Corporate Innovation
Ed Catmull points than one of the impediments to innovation in a large company is the “fear of failure”. In a fear-based culture people avoid risk. They repeat things that are safe and have worked in the past. His solution at Pixar was to get directors to talk about mistakes and their part in them.  Surfacing failure publically by the most respected innovators makes it safe for others to do the same. (Getting middle management to tolerate and not feel threatened by problems and surprises is one of the biggest jobs of Pixar’s CEO and senior leadership.)

The second innovation insight at Pixar is the power of iterative trial and error – the notion of being wrong fast. (One of the key tenets of the Lean Startup.) Catmull observed that even the smartest person can’t consider all possible outcomes. Managers who over-plan just take longer to be wrong. Managers see change as a threat to their existing business model – and it is. Self-interest motivates opposition to change but lack of self awareness fuels it even more.

Finally, Catmull’s observation that “originality is fragile” speaks to the startup process as well as to making movies. At Pixar in it’s first moments, originality is often far from pretty. Early mockups of Pixar films are called “ugly babies.”  However, while it may be ugly, it’s the opposite of the established and entrenched. (We remind large companies that version 1.0 of disruption – these ugly babies – coming their way always looks like a toy.)


Lessons Learned

  • Founders are closer to artists than any other profession
  • Founders and Pixar directors have uncanny parallels
  • Pixar, more than Apple, Google, Amazon or any other large company, holds the record for continuous innovation
  • Pixar and the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps share common ways to support repeatable innovation and market success


Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 7: Betsy Corcoran and Miriam Altman

Startup success starts with passion for a job you want to spend your life doing. And great founders never stop to wonder if they’re qualified to do a startup.

Passion and fearlessness — two key ingredients the latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111, leveraged to build their companies.

Betsy Corcoran

Betsy Corcoran

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were:

  • Betsy Corcoran, co-founder and CEO of the education technology news site EdSurge
  • Miriam Altman, co-founder and chief business officer of Kinvolved, which is working to improve high school graduation rates by increasing student attendance
Miriam Altman

Miriam Altman

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Betsy Corcoran was a science and technology journalist for many years, working at Scientific American, The Washington Post and Forbes. While at The Washington Post, she broke stories on the Microsoft antitrust case from Washington before establishing the paper’s Silicon Valley office. She left journalism in 2009 seeking a way to bridge the education and technology spaces, and went on to co-found EdSurge.

She told me that she received the best career advice of her life as she looked for her first job out of college:

As I was graduating, I was coming out of Georgetown with a degree in economics and math and all this weird stuff in the background. I did a number of different interviews for jobs … with people who came to school and that included banks. I would have these interviews and the bank would say to me, “So why do you want to work for Irving Trust?” 

… I’m a terrible liar, so I would say things like, “Well … I have an economics degree, we have a lot in common, right?” These were by far the worst interviews of my life and it was so bad … that some guy leaned across the desk and said, “I’ve got an idea for you. Why don’t you apply for a job you’d like to have? … It was the single best piece of career advice I’ve ever received.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Miriam Altman got her career start through Teach for America teaching in the New York City public schools. There she saw inequities in the education system that inspired her to act.

Her first idea for a startup was not Kinvolved, but was also education-based. She never paused to consider whether she was qualified to do it.

My idea, and what I wrote about in my application to go to grad school, was to start a school. That was my plan. … charter or public, either one, but I really wanted to stay in education, so the experience of the classroom had gotten me hooked. And I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. … 

Steve: What make you think you were qualified to do this?

Miriam: … I don’t know if I ever thought about qualification. … I don’t really know if I ever really thought about that in particular.

Steve: I want you to know that’s one of the key characteristics of a great entrepreneur. My wife used to explain to me that I was too dumb to know I wasn’t qualified for whatever job I was attempting to do. And I’ve heard that implicitly or explicitly from a number of entrepreneurs, but I think you just nailed it. Right, it’s like well, if I would have thought about what’s required, I never would have started that company, right?

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Both women cultivated a love for entrepreneurship from an early age.

Betsy enjoyed participating in Junior Achievement, a hands-on program that introduces high school students to entrepreneurship:

… I was in Junior Achievement like so many kids, and I went out and I hit the streets, I sold plant hangers. …

Junior Achievement is a program for high school kids to start companies. … It’s been around forever and what you do is come together, create a product. In those days, we made things out of wood, so we made wooden plant hangers and we made these really really awful wall hanging things that you could use as a cork board and chalkboard. They were terrible looking. And then you’d go out and sell the thing. And you created a full company and you ran it, and competed in sales competitions. … 

The astounding thing is that I sold more plant hangers than anyone in their right mind should have sold. … I was the best salesperson in the Northeast corridor one year. … Those plant hangers were moving like crazy. … 

… I did Junior Achievement for a couple of years and I did wind up as CEO of my little Junior Achievement company and I loved running the company. I think what I took away from that experience (was that) I loved coming up with an idea, I loved making something, and then I loved getting it in the hands of people who got excited about it. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

That passion for starting things grew during her work as a journalist, particularly when she was at IEEE Spectrum, where she created a new section:

What I found most fascinating and what maybe kind of does go back to the early days of Junior Achievement was the chance to create something. I was creating it within a framework, within the context of the magazine, that I was creating my own section, I was creating kind of new types of ways of talking about things. (It felt) great. I loved it …(although it was) very scary.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Miriam was similarly introduced to entrepreneurship at a young age:

My father, Frank Altman, is the founder and CEO of an organization called Community Reinvestment Fund. They … work to … help get capital to communities that typically can’t receive traditional capital to grow small businesses and fund  charter schools …  

When a lot of other kids during breaks from school were playing or doing other fun activities, I was going to work with my dad, which maybe didn’t seem that fun at the time but I actually thought it was a pretty cool experience. …

Lots and lots of filing and lots of uploading business cards. At the time it wasn’t really that simple to digitize. …

It definitely built character. It was fun to see how an office operated and really from an early age learn about he mission and be surrounded by professionals who were really focused on social impact work. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Betsy shared why she created EdSurge:

I quit a very well paying, very prestigious job in the middle of what will hopefully be the biggest economic downturn we will experience in our lifetimes. 2009. And I took a deep breath and said the only way I’m going to figure this out is if I really set aside time to do it. 

And so I quit and then I devoted the next year to really understanding what was going on in education, what was happening in the schools. I worked as an IT person in the local public school, and plugged in computers and did professional development for teachers and learned a lot about what the problems were that were going onin the schools as well as what’s emerging in technology. And around that time, I started to see new technology companies starting to pop up and at that moment I realized what I could do. … When a new industry is emerging, there needs to be some way of pulling people together, some sort of information source, some sort of water cooler, because people who are coming into an industry have several characteristics in my opinion. …  

… No. 1 when they are really, really smart and really talented and critically don’t actually know very much about the business they are starting to get into, because if they really understood it and they really understood how hard it was, they’d probably choose not to do this. So they need someone … who helps introduce them to other people in the industry, who shows them what’s going on in the landscape. So that was one idea.  

The second, really powerful idea in education which is that this is a marketplace where people — schools — were starting to buy millions of dollars worth of technology without any kind of outside commentary, without any third voice, without any independent analysis of was this stuff the right stuff for them.

So we started EdSurge with two very strong ideas. No 1: support this emerging ecosystem of companies, but No. 2, help the buyers, help the schools get an idea of what they are getting themselves into and make smarter choices.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

A grad school competition got Miriam and her co-founder, Alex Meis, started building Kinvolved:

We saw an email on the Student ListServe, (and said) why not enter this competition? It sounds like fun. It was open-ended what you selected as your issue area, and I said I definitely want to do education. I threw out a couple of ideas. Alex said parent engagement is something I really am concerned about and focused on. We had that in common so decided to put together just a one-pager and advance through the process, really talk to 100s of people. 

… I definitely think that’s a huge part of the process,, not keeping your idea within your own head, but talking to people in a variety of different areas — potential customers, school leadership, administrators, district leadership, teachers, colleagues, but also researchers, people who develop technology and really understand how you can put this kind of idea into action.

… We wanted to focus on improving family engagement, which is a very broad goal. As we wee talking to more and more people, we said, ‘So how are we going to do that?’ and what does that mean? We decided to really target the issue of absenteeism and try to engage families more towards the end goal of trying to improve student attendance rates. And decided, again through conversations with people, that developing an app was the best tactical way to do that. Certainly we tightened our business model by talking to many different people. 

… Neither Alex nor I have technical background. We have a lot of deep passion for the issue areas and experience in the community, but not a technical expertise. So we found ourselves at a hackathon at Pace University one nice Friday night. We had no idea what a hackathon was. We sort of found it in an email and said, Let’s try and see if we can get someone to develop a prototype that we can present at this competition and sure enough, we go the prototype developed. It was like a 48-hour thing adn there was also a competition associated with that particular hackathon, which our team won. So I guess that was our first success early on.  

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Miriam also shared her startup lessons learned and advice for other founders:

I think most broadly no matter how you think things are going to go, they never go that way, so being flexible and comfortable with uncertainty is necessary. 

Steve: You mean no business plan survives first contact with customers?

Miriam: That’s true! … we developed our business model canvas … through NYU’s Summer LaunchPad — the accelerator program that we participated in — that really practices and enforces Lean Startup (methods). Every single week within that 10-week program, we were going back and revising our business model canvas… and I would say that is a practice we’ve taken on with us since 2013. …

… Being able to talk to customers, realize that nothing is static is also an important lesson we learned, and always being as nimble as possible … and really taking data from your customers to understand what’s working, what’s not working, what needs improvement, and implementing that in the product roadmap. 

Steve: What’s the one piece of advice you would tell aspiring entrepreneurs?

Miriam: … Don’t worry if you’re qualified or not. … Don’t be afraid of taking risks. Don’t be afraid of failure. You’re certainly going to along the way. And take a moment to celebrate the successes, because they are all so easy to overlook but really important to your team. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to my full interviews with Betsy and Miriam by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Phil Randazzo, founder of American Dream U; and Derek Andersen, Founder of Startup Grind.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111


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