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

One Response

  1. “So why do you want to work for Irving Trust?”

    Hah, I hate these questions, but I like that you were honest. It seems so dishonest to sit there and say something like “your company has a long prestigious history and blah blah blah…” when the real answer is “uh, I need a job, and I think I’m qualified for the position”.

    I know if I were hiring someone I’d rather they be straightforward with me than have them sit there and try to butter me up.

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