By Chuck Isgar ‘20.5
On March 6, 2019, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP proudly hosted Laura Thompson ‘09 for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ‘20.5. Thompson shared lessons learned through her journey leading the growth of Google X.
An early non-engineering hire at Google X
When Thompson first came to Brown, she thought she would concentrate in applied mathematics. She approached her time at Brown as a way to take engaging classes, and many of these courses lay in the realm of entrepreneurship. She ultimately graduated with a degree in public policy, but not before successfully launching Runa, a tea company with a social mission of providing opportunities for Amazonian farmers.
After doing some work in London with Google’s budding consumer electronics group, Thompson joined Google X, Google’s “moonshot factory”. Thompson was a unique addition to Google X as she represented an early non-engineering hire for the team. When she joined, there were four projects in the works under the Google X umbrella: one being self-driving cars. And you’re probably wondering about those other three? Well, as much of her work at Google X, it was secretive.
So, what was a public policy major doing as one of the few non-engineers on a team trying to solve complex technical problems, ranging from combating climate change to the future of robots? Thompson shared that the fact she wasn’t an engineer is actually what made her so valuable at Google X. For example, Thompson helped teams think about the human consequences of their work and what it would take for projects to land successfully in the real world.
Leading Google X through the years
There is a growing need in technology to prioritize human-centered design and Thompson is pleased to see this movement progressing. Along these lines, Thompson explained that they thought about sustainability at every level of the project and ideation process in her time at Google X.
The goal at Google X is to create a culture of innovation that leads to development of ideas for the future. At first, Google X thought that the way to achieve the most success would be to have everyone together. Over time, they realized that this model wasn’t sustainable. Thompson was part of the transformation from the ‘everyone-in-a-garage-mentality’ to a more sustainable model where each project gets spun off and has its own business model, while still being under the Google X umbrella.
Analyzing ideas at Google X
To the budding venture capitalists in the room, Thompson shared a framework that they commonly utilized at Google X when deciding which new projects to undertake. For each potential project, they would make a list of all the reasons the project would be an epic failure. As the team worked on the project and overcame the challenges, they would cross them off the list. If a project could overcome one quarter of their challenges, the project would likely be a go, as the team had proven they have the ability to overcome the difficulties that will surely present themselves along the way.
Thompson explained another rule of thumb used at Google X when evaluating new projects: “is this going to affect one billion people in a meaningful way?” This message resonates closely with the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s mantra: create solution with impact.
Despite the best intentions, many successful innovations come from random, happy experiments. It is for this reason that while they had rubrics in place, they also saw it was important to let teams run loose.
The innovators in the room were curious to get Thompson’s thoughts on what’s next in terms of innovative technology. Thompson explained that, for one, it is good to see a growing skepticism surrounding technology. She is excited that the next generation appears to be focused on technology being good for humanity.
Thompson thinks there are opportunities for disruption in the fields of personal finance, logistics of shipping and transportation, and sustainability. And her personal favorite, dog-related startups, too.
As the discussion neared an end, Thompson left students with some words of wisdom: “you’re only going to be great at something if you’re excited about it.” Along these lines, Thompson stressed the importance of pursuing things you’re excited about with people you respect and who you have shared values with and enjoy working with.
By Chuck Isgar ’20.5
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.
By Chuck Isgar ‘20.5
On October 30, 2018, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP hosted Steph Korey ‘09, co-founder and CEO of Away, for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ‘20.5.
Participants at the roundtable were excited to learn more about Away, as well as Korey’s prior experiences. After an hour of close discussion, students walked away with valuable insight into building a successful direct-to-consumer brand. Korey shared practical advice about the importance of gaining in-the-field entrepreneurial experience before launching a company.
Building a D2C brand
Participants were interested in Steph’s experience launching a direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand. Being a D2C brand has allowed Away to bring their various luggage products to consumers at a lower cost than if they used a retailer to sell their products. Cutting out the middleman is only one part of the advantage of being a D2C business. Very importantly, by being a D2C brand, Away owns their customer feedback and relationship loop. As a customer-conscientious brand, Away heavily uses input from customers to tailor future decisions.
While the D2C model has worked well for Away, Korey explained that running a D2C brand has its host of challenges, most notably the fact that many operations must be done in-house, such as the web platform for selling product, user experience design, and more.
More than a luggage company
Away is highly regarded for its effective marketing strategy. Korey attributes much of Away’s branding and marketing success to her Co-Founder, President, and Chief Brand Officer Jen Rubio.
The principle behind Away’s branding is quite simple. According to Korey, they “treat people like people.” You’ll never see an Away product say ‘best in the world.’ Rather, their branding and advertising takes a focused effort to connect with people who care about experiences. Korey explained that their customers don’t have any one thing, such as age, in common. Instead, the Away brand focuses on tapping into traveler’s shared passion for the unknown.
Away is a travel brand, not merely a luggage company. This notion was clear from the inception of the company. Korey explained that in the summer of 2015, when they knew they wouldn’t have inventory until the spring, they made a book about travel that customers could purchase in conjunction with a gift card that would be redeemable for a carry-on once the product launched in the spring. It was an impactful strategy for several reasons: it helped bring in orders before the product had even launched, and most importantly, it set a precedent that Away was a brand focused on travel, not just luggage.
In discussing how Away raised its first venture round of fundraising, Korey explained that she and Rubio had a very carefully-planned strategy. In knowing that they would be meeting with many VC’s in a short period of time, coupled with the fact that the world of VC is a well-connected community, they arranged to meet with many VC’s in the course of one week. By doing so, Korey knew that they would create buzz around Away, and even ignite some “FOMO,” or ‘fear of missing out’, amongst venture capitalists.
It worked. And this past June, Away closed on a $50 million Series C round.
Setting yourself up for entrepreneurial success
Participants at the roundtable wanted Korey’s take on how they can set themselves up for entrepreneurial success. Korey emphasized her belief in the value of gaining experience at growing startups before launching your own company. Prior to launching Away with Jen Rubio, Korey was the Head of Supply Chain at Warby Parker as the company grew from 30 to 300 employees.
Following her experiences at Warby Parker, Korey consulted for Casper, of which two co-founders are Neil Parikh ’11 and Luke Sherwin ‘12. In these roles, Korey gained invaluable experience about building brands and companies, especially how to navigate the supply chain and waters of being a D2C business. Korey explained just how valuable every year of work at a startup is before launching your own business.
Participants were interested about the types of startups at which Korey recommended they look into interning or working. While Korey didn’t recommend a certain industry, she did emphasize that you should seek to join a company led by founders with a strong vision for the future. She explained that over time, you develop pattern recognition when it comes to figuring out whether or not founders have a vision for the company.
Cultivating a company culture
Korey has learned her fair share about trying to create a company culture from the inception of the business. Korey expressed that creating a clear set of values is very important. Everyone needs to be on the same page, and having established values will make this easier. Korey explained to the new and aspiring founders in the room that despite best intentions, drama within the company is inevitable, but you can learn how to minimize it.
Hiring based off “culture-fit?” Not at Away, according to Korey. Away places a strong emphasis on having people with various ways of thinking, and hiring based off “culture-fit” would create a homogenous way of thinking. Korey explained that they strive to hire employees whom are a “values fit, but culture add.”
What’s next for Away
The group was eager to learn about what Away has planned for the near future. Korey shared that we can expect to see the brand and community platform expand in bigger ways. Additionally, you can expect to see a continued rise in the media division of Away. The company recently forayed into the media space with their release of Here Magazine. The early success of this initiative indicates that media production could become an important component of Away’s efforts to create the ultimate travel brand.
Korey warned entrepreneurs in the room that not everything is going online, and that roughly 80% of purchases still happen in stores. To this end, Away has been recently developing select in-person retail locations, including a new store in London.
Korey is an advocate for having a vision and relying on your strengths to achieve your goals. When starting Away, Korey admits that she knew nothing about suitcases. She relied on her detailed knowledge of supply chain that she had gained in earlier roles. By having a vision and knowing what to ask for, she and Rubio were able to build the Away brand without very much product-specific knowledge. This serves as a valuable lesson to entrepreneurs who might be fearful to get going on their business due to a lack of product-specific knowledge.
The roundtable was a special opportunity for participants to learn about the facets of creating a lasting brand, as well as the importance of connecting with customers. Korey helped students to better understand the pro’s and con’s of being a D2C business. Participants left the roundtable full of practical knowledge that will be beneficial as they plan their summers and years ahead. Most importantly, they walked away inspired and excited about the many pathways that entrepreneurship can provide.