On November 15, 2018, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP hosted Rufus Griscom ’91, Founder of Babble.com and The Next Big Idea Club, for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ’20.5
Griscom, a serial internet entrepreneur, inspired students about the potential for rapid growth of an online platform, speaking from personal experience as the founder of Nerve.com and Babble, which he sold to Disney. Griscom provided actionable steps, timelines, and frameworks to use when creating ventures, building user bases on platforms, and exploring acquisitions. It was an insightful discussion that ended with an engaging think-tank about the future of literature and content delivery to students as it relates to Griscom’s current work with The Next Big Idea Club.
Starting a venture: think about the interests of others
Griscom’s start in entrepreneurship was not successful. As a matter of fact, Griscom admits that his first few entrepreneurial ventures were failures. In these initial ventures, he gained a key insight: his tastes were not shared by everyone. He realized that while an entrepreneur must be personally passionate and invested in their product, they must also be creating something that appeals to the interest of others.
Griscom shared a framework with the roundtable participants that he suggests entrepreneurs use to evaluate their ideas and ventures: think about a venture in terms of three overlapping circles of a venn diagram. These circles include the world’s interest, the entrepreneur’s interest, and proven opportunity to monetize. Griscom learned in his initial ventures that he was focusing too much on the “personal interest” circle, and not enough on the world’s interest. Over time, Griscom realized the importance of working in spaces where there is a validated market and need for the product.
With this framework in mind, Griscom launched Nerve.com, a smart website about sex and culture with his then girlfriend in 1997. Nerve quickly grew to several million unique users per month, which led to a tv show with HBO and book deal with Random House.
Applying learnings from one venture to inform the next
Griscom was in for an educational ride with Nerve. Nerve was launched before the dot com implosion in 2000. Ad revenue cratered overnight, and Griscom explains that it was “like a meteor hit.” Nerve survived by creating a paid content subscription and launching Nerve Personals.
The personals business accelerated quickly, so Griscom spun off the technology behind it as a separate company called Spring Street Networks, which eventually powered online dating for 100 companies including AOL, Sony Music, Salon and The Onion.
Both Nerve.com and Spring Street Networks continued as businesses and were eventually acquired, but in the meantime Griscom was looking for a business model with a better potential to grow. Having lived firsthand through the dot com bubble, the experienced entrepreneur in Griscom knew that he needed to create something where advertisers would want to get involved.
Griscom learned, over time, that it is best to assume that you won’t cause people to shift their mindsets and desires for certain products. Advertisers follow the interest of consumers, so it is in an entrepreneur’s best interest to carefully interpret the market and recognize what advertisers are interested in. Griscom realized that advertisers were interested in parents, so in 2007 he and his wife Alisa Volkman launched Babble, an online platform for top mom bloggers to share more honest, contemporary insights and advice about parenting. Over time, he and his wife grew the platform to 15 million unique users, leading to an eventual acquisition by Disney. In this process, he learned about what it takes to develop a following on a platform.
Building up the user base on a platform
Early on in your venture, Griscom suggested that you engage in conversations with friends and watch when their eyes light up. When their facial expressions demonstrate an interest in what you’re saying, that’s when you might know you’re onto something. Overall, you want to be pitching your idea as often as possible.
Once live and online, Griscom suggested doing AB testing to see what is resonating. Most companies have a special sauce. For example, Nerve’s secret sauce was garnering a lot of press. Griscom explained that discovering your audience can take a lot of trial and error, but it is very important. In the case of Babble, the platform generated a lot of buzz early on for being an irreverent, hipster parenting site. This market positioning helped Babble grow from zero to a couple million visitors per month. Eventually, it was time to transition Babble, so that it was more broadly appealing — now a more honest, contemporary website for a new generation of parents — and not just geared towards the “hipster” parents.
Babble leveraged Pinterest, an emerging platform at the time. Babble became the third most pinned site on Pinterest, which helped to drive traffic over to the platform.
Creating connections with potential acquirers: start early
Griscom recommended that entrepreneurs should think about who the three to five most likely acquirers are for your business. Then, he suggested you do research and discover who the stakeholders are within those companies. Finally, and importantly, seek those people out. Griscom suggested that you should try to set up coffee with the people you’ve identified. By doing so, you will establish trust with potential future acquirers, which is of vital importance.
When having coffee with potential future acquirers, Griscom suggested that you should be way too honest. Griscom explained that most large companies are focused on their current business and are not very interested in stealing your ideas.
How should you approach these conversations? First, you should tell them where you are today with your business. Secondly, you should tell them where you want to be in six months. After the conversation, you should follow up six months later to meet up again. In that conversation, you should share what you’ve accomplished. If you’ve met many of the goals you outlined six months prior, you will impress potential future acquirers. With a few of his businesses, Griscom engaged in three or four conversations with the same people over a course of 24 months.
Griscom emphasized to the participants that when working on a future partnership or acquisition, you obviously need the product, but you also need to have the human component. Your future partner or acquirer has to like you. Ultimately, for something to happen, someone from within the company will have to push you through. The best way for this to happen is to create connections very early on so that you have a strong relationship in the future.
By approaching potential acquirers or partners early, you can have conversations with no angle. Then, many months or years down the road, you will have established relationships that are not predicated on your request for anything. These longer-term relationships are almost certainly more valuable and effective than reaching out to a potential acquirer or partner as soon as you’re ready to sell or partner.
Be honest and realistic when speaking with potential investors or acquirers
Griscom outlined a few essential components that you should have when fundraising: a business thesis, traction, and an “adequately compelling story.” Nothing crazy novel there.
But then Griscom suggested something that you might not hear very often. He encouraged entrepreneurs to be completely honest when speaking with potential investors, and to even share what’s wrong with their product. He suggested that when making and presenting a pitch deck to a potential investor or acquirer, the entrepreneur should include a slide about the top three to five reasons why you shouldn’t invest. When Griscom sold Babble to Disney, he presented a slide with the top three reasons why Disney should not acquire Babble.
There’s a reason why Griscom suggests being honest with investors. Investors get excited when they see the entrepreneur(s) get excited. They obviously want to invest in ambitious people. But they are also looking for what is wrong with your business; they want to understand the obstacles, and if you provide this information you demonstrate that you are not only trustworthy but also savvy in the process of overcoming the obstacles.
Creating the Next Big Idea Club
Griscom discussed The Next Big Idea Club (NBIC), his current project where he is the CEO and co-founder. NBIC was created in a partnership with Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant. The core thesis behind NBIC is clear: not everyone loves reading or writing long books. Given that the book business is a $28 billion industry, Griscom sees the field as being ripe for disruption.
In creating NBIC, Griscom asked lots of writers what their biggest pain points were. Figuring out the industry was not easy, as Griscom and his team tried twelve different business models and spent over $2.5 million without finding any success.
Eventually, NBIC landed on a subscription model, where they select groups of books and distill them down to 20 minutes of audio, visual, and text for each book. Through NBIC, you can purchase a package that includes just the distilled versions, or the distilled versions as well as the hard copy versions of the book.
NBIC boasts lots of big executives as subscribers, such as Bill and Melinda Gates. NBIC is getting traction, and they are now exploring other platforms and means to get literature, or summarized versions of it, in the hands of interested customers, in particular students. NBIC’s investors include The New York Times, Comcast, Bloomberg, and Bertelsmann, which owns Penguin Random House, among other media companies and VCs.
NBIC’s objective is to begin publishing original content from top authors in new formats, eventually evolving into a next-gen publishing platform.
Think tank: how do students feel about books? The future of literature and content delivery for students
While NBIC currently offers a student discount rate, Griscom wanted to take a deep dive with the entrepreneurial-minded students in the room about how NBIC can become more appealing to students. The discussion turned into a real think tank; Griscom was excited to get a variety of student’s takes on things, and the participants were enthusiastic to share their opinions.
The group discussed what would be engaging to students in terms of literature and means of delivery. Amongst ideas thrown around, students expressed an interest in hearing the actionable steps presented in books. Additionally, students showed interest in learning about the criticism of books, as well as the context and market for the book.
Some students expressed their interest in having books become more customized to them, or at the least having a framework for understanding how books can be more applicable to them. Participants seemed to be interested in having books referred to them by trustworthy sources, and authors within the NBIC, such as Malcolm Gladwell and Susan Cain, might be just the voices that students would like to hear.
It was also discussed what medium would work best to present content to students. Podcasts and email digests appeared to emerge as favorites amongst students. One thing was clear: students like things to be short. Participants expressed that a 20 minute summary/criticism of a book might be too long for the attention span of current students, even though the book might typically take several hours to read. While Griscom hopes you’ll consider subscribing to NBIC, he wanted all interested students to know that NBIC meetups are open to everyone.
A special offer for Brown students to join NBIC
Griscom would like to offer a rate of $9 per annual subscription to NBIC Express (which does not include the books, but does include all the e-course, podcast, and live video / community access), discounted from the normal rate of $89 per year (!!!!) for any group of three or more students who choose to get together to form their own Next Big Idea Club.
He is also happy to offer a student discount rate of $19 for NBIC Express for either personal subscriptions or gift. If you’re interested, email email@example.com, tell them you are a Brown student and she will set you up.
Have you subscribed to the Buoy Brown newsletter? Buoy Inspirations LLC is a social impact company that was started by Jordan Evans ’14 as a first year at Brown.
“In December of 2010 my world almost collapsed. It was the winter break of my freshman year at Brown University and I found out I FAILED Principles of Economics…
Never in my life had I experienced that much stress, anxiety, and depression. Fortunately, I had my peers and teammates who picked me up with motivational and encouraging words that gave me the confidence that I could make it…and I DID!
After reflecting on my experience I wanted to create an authentic resource that would enable Brown University students to inspire, motivate, and encourage one another on a regular basis. Today that resource is an authentic, fun, and encouraging monthly email newsletter with over 900 Brown University student subscribers!
The mission of Buoy is to enable diverse student communities across the country to inspire one another through authentic student-centered testimonials.”
Jordan has interviewed and featured over 75 Brown students and most recently launched a Buoy network at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry partnering with their Diversity & Inclusion Office.
Jordan loves connecting with inspired Brown students interested in entrepreneurship so please don’t hesitate to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been actively involved with the Nelson Center most recently participating in focus groups for the Center’s Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan. #staybuoyed
Environmental Studies concentrator and visual artist, Isabella Giancarlo ‘14, never imagined cosmetics would be her future, but in creating the first genderqueer beauty brand,Fluide, she may have found her calling. Giancarlo’s foray into beauty emerged as she was working as a brand strategist and designer in NYC, and saw an opportunity to “create something new and empowering for people of all gender expressions—to locate makeup outside of the paradigm of cis-female beauty opens up the potential for makeup to be an empowering form of self-expression for all people, rather than a representation of all the ways you don’t measure up.”
Launched in January 2018, Fluide is a collection of colorful, cruelty-free makeup available online and through a growing list of U.S. retailers. Founded in Brooklyn, New York, with business partner, Laura Kraber, Giancarlo explains that Fluide was created with the belief that makeup is a tool of transformation and a powerful means of self-actualization. “From a personal place, I wanted to ensure that queer folks like me were both in front and behind the camera as much as possible. I knew that a younger me was dying to see queer beauty represented by queer people and I know the process of coming into my queer identity would have been a lot easier had I had more gender-expansive role models, says Giancarlo.
Fluide has been well-received by the media and covered by outlets fromTeen Vogue toBuzzfeed toFast Company and is looking forward to increased distribution and continuing to make the world a little bit sparkly-er in 2019.
More About Fluide:
A mission-driven startup, Fluide donates five percent of profits to organizations that support health + legal rights in the LGBTQ community. Fluide’s collection includes liquid lipstick, lip gloss, nail polish, eyeshadow, and glitter free from potentially harmful and/or endocrine-disrupting chemicals including phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde and triclosan. By naming lip and nail shades after queer spaces around the globe, Fluide seeks to pay tribute to the importance of safe spaces for the LGBTQ community. Get in touch with them here – email@example.com.
I wrote The Navigator because I wanted to help new entrepreneurs start their venture well prepared in their founder role. I am a firm believer that new entrepreneurs need to develop their business idea in tandem with their founder skills.
I’ve spent two decades in the startup trenches as a serial founder and collaborator with founders and co-founders. I’ve worn different hats during my entrepreneurial career: startup strategist, brand strategist, product developer, researcher, team builder, client relations director, operations manager, and crisis manager.
Time and again, I’ve witnessed first-time founders fail not because they didn’t have a great product idea. Some did. There was a founder-CTO who developed a software that was the precursor to Google Street View. Another founder came up with a community-building platform called Circles, a few years before Google added Google+ to its product portfolio. A third founder developed a service that delivered private and trackable messages.
These entrepreneurs failed because they had spent most of their time in the Product room and missed the big picture: a successful startup operation comprises many components that need to synchronize and move forward as one engine.
Most first-time founders employ the conventional product-centric startup approach, placing most if not all their efforts and resources on their product idea. They believe that if they can build a prototype or even a complete product (whether this is a physical product, a service, or a software) and show that they can sell, scale and raise money, they’re on their way to entrepreneurial success.
They’re either unaware of or choose to delay the need to create a structure and processes to support their product and operation through their entire entrepreneurial journey. By the time they decide to focus on infrastructure building, they have to backtrack to incorporate all kinds of data and knowledge into their execution plans.
More important, product-centric founders overlook the need to develop their founder role to lead and build not just their product team but their entire company successfully. Most new entrepreneurs don’t know the questions to ask and don’t perform self-analysis to determine their own competency for the founder role. Many are insecure about taking the helm so they have this default plan to improvise in their founder/CEO/President role until they can afford to hire a qualified individual to take charge. They often believe that they are smart and can figure things out as they move along, but the startup environment is not a dress rehearsal; it can be very unforgiving.
The one major difference and advantage that successful serial entrepreneurs have over first-timers is experience: seasoned founders know how to take short-cuts and be effective. For new entrepreneurs who decide to wing it, it’s like taking command of a vessel and leading a crew without having studied seamanship and planning resources for the long journey.
After one of my startups that I was advising failed in spite of possessing many winning attributes, I took time off to reflect and review my experiences in the trenches with founders and co-founders. I decided to share my insights to help new entrepreneurs prepare well for their founder role and avoid many common missteps committed by product-centric entrepreneurs.
The Navigator employs the metaphor of an entrepreneurial journey as a sea voyage with the founder at the helm as skipper. The book reflects my belief that a new entrepreneur needs to allocate time to take stock of where she’s been; what qualities, skills and resources she’s bringing onboard as captain of her own startup vessel; and what she needs to cultivate and prepare well for the journey.
A product idea may evolve or change completely over time. The one constant in each venture is the founder, who shoulders immense responsibility and wields great influence over outcomes. The Navigator offers an integrated process to help new founders train and develop competency prior to launching their venture. Proper planning prevents poor performance.
On Friday, April 13, 2018, Chuck Isgar ‘20.5, a student member of Brown EPproudly hosted the inaugural Roundtable Discussion with Grant Gurtin ’12, founder of Fanium and Verb.Me. It was an exciting opportunity for student entrepreneurs on campus to have a candid conversation with an active angel investor and fellow student entrepreneurs.
Several students discussed marketing difficulties involving their products and services. To this point, Grant emphasized the importance of having someone on your team whose specialty is marketing. He explained that in this day and age, marketing is very quantitative, which helps to explain why it’s all the more important to have a team member or advisor who can help a startup talk through how they can best market their product or service.
Students at the roundtable also shared their own startup perspectives, such as their positive experiences with Facebook ads as a means of testing marketing strategies. It was a unique environment to have students receiving advice not just from Grant, but also from fellow student entrepreneurs.
Grant revealed that his experiences have taught him that to be a successful entrepreneur, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but rather do something better and market it well. A common issue is that there’s often a lack of authenticity in a certain space, which presents itself as a ripe opportunity for an entrepreneur.
Right now is an extremely exciting time for entrepreneurship. Grant encouraged all students who have a passion for entrepreneurship to consider working at an early stage venture this summer. He explained that the experience of working at a startup will throw one right into the mix of the daily madness that occurs in the exciting and unpredictable environment of launching a new business.
Grant explained to students that being on College Hill is a unique place for entrepreneurship — he encouraged students to appreciate the array of talented students on campus, and to take advantage of the “bubble” of entrepreneurial energy and skills that surround them.
Students were left with not just specific advice for their businesses, but also some words of wisdom from Grant: he emphasized that students should not worry about their lack of entrepreneurial experience, but rather focus on their passion for creating something new. He explained that you have to believe wholeheartedly in your passion to make a startup succeed.
About Brown EP: Brown EP is the student-run entrepreneurship group on campus, overseeing the planning on various entrepreneurial-related events on campus. Brown EP supports student entrepreneurs by connecting them with resources and mentors on campus.
About the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship: Our mission is to make entrepreneurship an essential part of the Brown University experience. We offer curricular, co-curricular, and venture support to students, staff, faculty, alumni and the local community. Learn more here.
On October 12, 2018, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EPproudly hosted Rip Pruisken ’10, co-founder of Rip Van, for a roundtable discussion. The discussion is a part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ‘20.5.
As Rip discussed how he got his business started at Brown, a clear theme emerged: the importance of experimentation. Rip advocated to students that they should think about entrepreneurship as a series of scientific experiments. At the start of the process, an entrepreneur should view their idea as their hypothesis.
Pruisken explained that early on, the entrepreneur is in the information gathering stage to determine whether there is data out there signaling that the hypothesis has merit and is worth testing. Once convinced of the hypothesis, Pruisken recommended to students that they should go into ‘doing’ mode quickly into their process to test their hypothesis.
Based off the outcome of tests, the entrepreneur should continually be asking themself whether the process or the hypothesis needs improvement. In other words, the entrepreneur needs to determine if they have discovered a real need, pain point or problem and solution thereof. Pruisken explained that business strategy can also be viewed through the lens of experimentation, where measuring the results of a strategy implemented can help one assess whether the strategy needs to be improved or the execution thereof. Doing this over and over again will help the entrepreneur get better at operating their business.
Not only are Rip Van Wafels products tasty with 55% less sugar than a candy bar, but they feature intriguing branding. Many participants were interested in the brand that Pruisken has built. He explained that the packaging of Rip Van Wafels products has been designed to match the consumer’s expectation of the product. He suggested that entrepreneurs ask themselves: “does my packaging represent the value proposition?”
When asked by a participant what his motivation was, Pruisken explained his love for building great products that are impactful. He suggested that entrepreneurs ask themselves: “what’s my drive? Do I have a clear definition for myself?” According to Pruisken, if you want to excel, you’ll have to go through a lot of hurdles to get there. As such, he encourages entrepreneurially-minded students to really think through what it is that drives them so that it will help them persevere through thick and thin.
Pruisken acknowledged that a distinct part of the success of Rip Van Wafels has been positioning the product as a better-for-you sweet snack for on the go and uniquely delivering on that value proposition. The Rip Van Wafels positioning is especially relevant because there is an increasing demand for better convenient foods to meet the needs and health preferences of students and professionals with increasingly busy lifestyles.
Pruisken is constantly innovating, and shared with the participants that his business seeks to improve their product every two years. He made it clear that even if the business is doing well, you have to continually be reinventing your brand in order to remain fresh in a competitive marketplace.
So far Rip Van has launched 3 Rip Van Wafel iterations, reducing sugar levels from 14g to <9g, without sacrificing on taste.
The next iteration, which is slated to launch in Q1 of ’19 will only have 3g of sugar!
Whether you’re just starting your venture or well into development, Pruisken emphasized that you need to take your ego out of the process. He explained, for example, that if you haven’t done something before, such as branding, you probably don’t have the experience to effectively do it on your own. Along these lines, Pruisken shared the importance of surrounding yourself with others who are experienced in their respective fields. Pruisken emphasized the opportunities that students on College Hill have to collaborate with other students, Professors at Brown and RISD and Industry Professionals.
We will soon be having Rip Van Wafels available at a variety of Brown campus dining locations, including the Blue Room and Jo’s. Perhaps the next time you bite into one of the tasty snacks, you’ll have a better appreciation for the experimentation that went into creating the treat.
If you are interested in participating in a future roundtable discussion, visit the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s event page and sign up for the next one!