Some Advice From Silicon Valley's Heavy Hitters
From tech to PR to urban ventures, we asked some of The Valley’s rising stars what aspiring entrepreneurs need to know.
March 31, 2015
by Joseph Master
Last week, the Close School’s Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community traveled on an experiential field trip to Silicon Valley to meet with startups, network with founders and get the inside scoop on what it takes to make it in any valley.
Here’s some advice from the trenches.
Nancy MacIntyre '81
CEO and Founder, Fingerprint Digital
Figerprint Digital created a platform on smartphones and tablets for educational games and works to raise awareness for educational mobile games. Fingerprint’s platform allows kids and their parents to share apps, and has even been licensed out to other companies (such as Samsung).
What is the best advice you ever received?
I would have to say it’s “always be selling.” I think it’s true. You always have to be selling.
Back in the day, it was that you had to come dressed to play.
What was the moment when you realized your company had made it?
I don’t even think that now. I don’t think I’ll ever really think we’ve made it until we have an exit. But I felt pretty damn good when we closed our Series B. Getting to the point where we’d raised $19 million and DreamWorks Animation, one of the leading brands in the world, led the round and bought enough of us to validate that — I was pretty psyched about that. So, I wouldn’t say, “made it.” But I felt personally super-validated by that.
What is the number one trait you look for in new hires? And let’s make those role-agnostic. What’s that one trait that all of your people must have?
Communication skills and a positive attitude. That’s the most important thing. We have a lot of super intelligent people here. It’s a cost of entry to have technical skills no matter your field. So I just assume all our hires have those basic technical skils. But if they can communicate and work as a team and also have leadership sklls, then they’re golden.
Senior Vice President and General Manager, San Francisco office, Waggener Edstrom
Waggener Edstrom is a global, comprehensive public relations and digital marketing firm that has executed engaging campaigns for companies large and small – from Silicon Valley startups like Tally to mainstays like Microsoft and Volvo.
At Drexel, we have lots of young entrepreneurs who have started companies on their own. Any advice on how they can bootstrap their own public relations while they’re still fledgling?
Great question. First, you need to have a really great story. And you need to make it clear. PR is all about telling the story of the company. So have a really good idea and know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
The other thing is networking. Read a ton. Read stories by the reporters you want to cover your startup. Reach out to them. Comment on their stories. Reach out to them on social media. You can build a relationship that way. And like any relationship, there is give and take. Don’t just reach out to a reporter when you have a story. Engage before that.
What if you don’t find your personal story to be particularly marketable? What can you do to give your story wings?
So… it has to be about what you’re trying to achieve. What problem are you solving? Put yourself in the position of your customers, your investors and the broader ecosystem you’re a part of. Try to tell your story from their angle.
If you’re in business, you’ll always have a story — whether it’s about you, your customers or the problem you’re trying to solve.
What stage companies do you take on?
Typically, we start working with companies around a Series C level. That’s where we feel we can have the greatest impact. And we try to keep a really balanced portfolio. That way we have a few startups, a few mid-stage companies and a few larger brands.
So, for all of those young entrepreneurs out there — what is more important, contacts or content?
Content! Content! You can build contacts. If you don’t have a story, you can’t make it out of thin air. You can always build the contacts.
What’s the biggest PR tool at your disposal, especially moving forward?
That’s where it comes down to the content. It’s funny. There is always something new. Twitter. Snapchat. Instagram. It changes so fast. You need to keep up with where your customers are and pivot your content for the appropriate channel.
President and Co-Founder, Tumml
Tumml is an urban ventures accelerator with a mission to empower entrepreneurs to solve urban problems. With a hands-on approach, Tumml provides entrepreneurs with the tools to help scale their impact and enhance quality of life in cities everywhere.
VC money is a little different in Philadelphia than Silicon Valley. Everything is tech tech tech! What advice do you have for young social entrepreneurs who might feel like their ideas won’t fly?
It’s tougher for social entrepreneurs in some ways because there isn’t as much capital allocated, especially at the early stage, for social ventures. That being said, the thing about entrepreneurship is always prevailing under tough circumstances.
You have to hear a lot of “no's” to get to that “yes.” You have to see the product, the big vision and keep pushing despite all obstacles. And certainly social entrepreneurs are no strangers to that. Nor should they get a pat on the back just because they are trying to do something good for the community.
We try to emphasize that there are always barriers; whether it’s your next dating app or your next homeless app. It’s always going to be a struggle. But we’re all working.
Is there an inherent disconnect in trying to make money while trying to do social good? Do you see VC money moving closer to social ventures?
In my mind, impact and capital go hand in hand. More money equals more impact. And I think more people need to be comfortable with that, and we’re not. So, we’re comfortable with the CEO of Bank of America making a ton of money while people are losing their homes in a financial crisis, but we’re not comfortable with the CEO of the United Way making a large salary.
We need to become more comfortable as a society with the idea that we must fairly and appropriately compensate people who are doing well and making money. And that making money should be a red flag in the social good space. We need to attract talent. We need to attract more capital in order to make an impact.
When it comes to non-profits, since 1970, only 144 have scaled beyond $50 million in revenue out of hundreds of thousands. It’s less than a tenth of a percent. It’s ridiculously low. When you look at that, you think "doesn’t having more money for a social good organization a good thing? Doesn’t it help you help more people?"
What is the one college class that made the most impact on you?
So, I took the entry-level Computer Science 106A class, a pretty seminal class at Stanford. And after taking it I realized I do not want to be a programmer.
So, it was a helpful class for me.
Any advice for young social entrepreneurs?
Social entrepreneurship… just do it. The capital isn’t as free-flowing as it is in a traditional tech landscape. But you can help change that. So, be prepared for a challenge. But it’s nothing you can’t overcome.
Sean Behr (Founder/CEO) and Peter Eisenman (V.P. of Growth and Partnerships), ZIRX
ZIRX is an on-demand valet startup that charges $15 a day to park your car using an app that is available for download on iOS and Android. ZIRX began its operation last year in San Francisco and has since extended service to Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
What’s the number one trait you look for in a new hire? And remember, Drexel University students are reading…
Peter: It’s cultural fit. Especially when it’s a young company. Someone who won’t disrupt what’s going on and who will create and add a lot of value. Also, you want some one who will do anything. Someone who never says “no.”
You need to hire utility players who might have a title, but can do more than just that.
Sean: I’d second that. I’d also add a real confidence that the person can solve big problems. You can put them in any situation, in any group, in any department, and have a confidence that they’ll be able to solve the problem.
I also look for people who have taken a leap. It could be anything. Where they went to school. Where they studied abroad. Where they departed from the normal course. They studied something new. That skill of taking a leap translates really well into a startup.