Tufts Talk 2020-02-23
Notes ahead of my talk to the Tufts CS and Entrepreneurship Communities
What sparked you to get the entrepreneurship bug
One possibility is that both of my parents were self-employed. My dad is a music producer and my mom was a photographer and then a real estate agent. Observing their ability to set their terms of work, and pursuing their work in ways that made it rewarding to them probably stuck with me.
In middle and high school, I'd sell gaming computers - order the components of Newegg and slap them together for friends at school. I also made websites and did neighborhood tech support. I think the ability to use technology as a means towards self-sufficiency was embedded at a young age. Towards the end of high school, I ran a summer camp for computer, video editing, Flash -yes flash- animation, and other fun things. That was the first time I developed a spreadsheet to model revenue, expenses like paying my co-teachers, and the snacks we'd get from our costco runs. That was super fun and since we were winging it, it didn't carry the baggage of a full-fledged "startup."
From that point on, I think there was a lot of pressure to start something. Observing all of the other students in my CS classes was exciting, but also daunting. It was exciting because I knew these folks would be my colleagues throughout my career. It was daunting because everyone else was so darn smart! I probably had a few dozen false start apps and ideas, usually getting sucked in to learning a new framework and forgetting to follow through on the concept or MVP.
My first job at Crashlytics made things click - how to create something of value to real users and grow it.
Biggest lesson learned in your entrepreneurship journey?
Big picture learning: Success is in the people and the execution, not the idea. I've been lucky to surround myself with some really talented folks, and the number of bad ideas outnumber the ones that have worked out 10-to-1. I'm not sure if this is just my luck, or if this is a universal truth, but it seems like you cross paths with folks you work with in your career often. I currently work with many people I've worked with at previous companies or know from Tufts. What does that mean? Work with empathy and care for your colleagues. You'll cross paths again. If you're a leader, lead with empathy. Push, but not too hard. Listen and change depending on what you hear.
Tell the one unexpected encounter you have had in this journey?
Any time something positive happens I am surprised. Shouldn't we be out of money? Is this large customer sure that they want to work with the new team versus the old school engineering firm that's been around for a geological age?
One thing that was unexpected was an invitation to the United Nations to testify about remote sensing and machine learning's potential to build resiliency in the face of climate change. Amadou and I dressed up and went to one the big chambers in the UN NYC headquarters that to me exist only in pictures. I received a lesson on how to properly thank the delegates for their questions and was shoved on stage to give a presentation and do Q&A. That was pretty surreal.
If you had to do it all over again, what would you have done differently?
If you ask any mid-stride entrepreneur that question, they'd probably say "this" (referring to what they are doing at present) "... but sooner." We had some odd angles for our projects to start. We were deep in water markets, trying to build analytical systems to conserve water and move water to higher economic usage. It was complex. I learned a lot about that world, but wouldn't start with that again. It's the classic case of trial and error.
We were acquired in 2018 by Natel Energy. It's been a bizarrely perfect relationship, where we've been able to lean on their fundraising process and grow the team, and provide them with a diversified business model and a nice chunk of cash flow which balances out their core long-term hardware business. I think any person who's gone through an acquisition wonders "what if?" Not super productive, but certainly something that pops into my head from time to time.