Series A - The Podcast
Summary: Series A goes in-depth with the founders, investors and others changing the world with their startups. The show travels the US and Canada, going behind the scenes of some of the most successful startups
Why would anyone leave a highly successful sales career after a decade at Microsoft with all the benefits that come with it? "One day I just realized sometimes you have to step out of the picture to actually see the picture clearly," says Piyush Saggi, the CEO and co-founder of Atlanta-based SalesTing. What Saggi repeatedly encountered was a huge disconnent between sales and marketing. So the Georgia Tech MBA set out to fix it. Saggi shares his insights founding the flourishing startup in the latest edition of Series A-The Podcast, recorded on location at the Atlanta Tech Village with host Jim Brisimitzis. Saggie offers great lessons in moving from the enterprise to a startup, and the problems that come with shifting from selling IT to creating solutions. "The realization was that marketing organizations, sales organizations...they are basically living in two different solar systems, and the lack of data is causing bad decisions or lack of decisions in many cases," he says. Saggi admits it's been difficult and humbling at times, and acknowledging his own shortcomings has been a key in his own development as a CEO. "There are all these skill sets I did not have to build a company," he laughs. Saggi offers tremendous insights for other founders, including the need to build relationships and shore up those shortcomings well before you launch your startup to minimize the learning curve. Saggi also shares his learnings on building a team and hiring employees, including the challenge of actually identifying the best fits. "Everybody has to share the dream and the vision. It's not about the 401 match at this point...And you need people who are really good at execution," he says.
From the time he was a kid, John Dogru was always tinkering with electronics, taking them apart and trying to put them back together again. So it's little surprise he would one day become CEO and co-founder of 3DPrinterOS, a company revolutionizing 3D printing. But it's a journey over 30 years in the making. "I quickly realized (as a child) this mechanical world had a lot of restrictions," he tells host Jim Brisimitzis in the latest edition of Series A-The Podcast. Dogru offers tremendous insights into founding a business in such a nascent field, where technology is just beginning to catch up to the vision. He likens it to when IBM DOS first came on scene. "You need a platform that's agnostic to whatever printer manufacturer and design tools they're using," he says. 3DPrinterOS accomplishes just that. It's an elegant but simple solution that allows anyone with a web browser to log in and manipulate designs then print anywhere around the world. The platform has become the gold standard at leading universities and enterprises around the world, from Duke and Caltech to John Deere and Bosch. With 3D printers sitting idle at times around the world, 3DPrinterOS allows anyone to access them, and watch their creations come to life. And with the quality of desktop printers rapidly approaching industrial strength, it's revolutionizing manufacturing, Dogru says. "You know it takes five years to set up a factory for a car....but in 3D printing what you see on the screen comes out the other side. No restrictions," he says. Along with a fascinating look at the world of 3D printing, Dogru offers tremendous insights for other founders gleaned from the past several years of founding the company, from hiring to fundraising. Dogru likens adding members to his team to a rock band. "You can't tell people how to play the guitar or drum or bass. You need people that come in there and know how to be in the band and know how to add value instantly," he tells Brisimitzis. And he says you also have to be willing to cut people quickly if they aren't up for the task, unlike some large organizations that can accommodate weaker links. He admits of the over 160 software engineers that have joined 3DPrinterOS at one time, only 12 or so remain. "You can either do the task or you can't do the task...you either know what you're doing or you don't," he says. Dogru shares his experience raising capital, and offers sage advice he's followed religiously. Although he's raised millions, he's turned down plenty more, choosing quality investors over quantity. The key? Finding mentors and partners with deep experience and connections, not just deep pockets. "I see a lot of entrepreneurs that are just begging for money for their ideas. And really, ideas are nothing. It's all execution," he says. And after a number of years, it's clear 3DPrinterOS has gotten the execution down pat, with hundreds of thousands of print jobs on thousands of printers across the globe. And a manufacturing revolution well underway.
When it comes to the founding of insurance industry upstart Flyreel, there's been nothing quick or easy. "Everyone reads the TechCrunch article about so and so raising $5 million and it just seems so effortless. And that just wasn't our experience at all," admits Cole Winans, the tenacious founder and CEO of the rising Denver-based startup. Winans is the latest founder to share his experiences, insights and embarrassments in another revealing episode of Series A-The Podcast. "Trust me. People say after your first no it gets easier, but the only thing harder than getting 50 consecutive nos is 51," he tells host Jim Brisimitzis. But eventually he started hearing yes, and Flyreel has emerged as a leader in the business and residential space, creating a unique new platform that promises to revolutionize the way everyone's property and possessions are insured. Flyreel leverages AI and machine learning to capture and then catalog everything in a business or home. We've learned that a lot of these businesses are insuring properties sight unseen or they have to spend a significant amount time effort and money having to have an inspection done. It all adds up to a problem where because of the lack of transparency and accountability carriers can't accurately price premium. They're using high level analytics and predictive modeling to guess the value of these properties and now we just let them know," Winans says. Winans and his team were in Redmond recently at Microsoft headquarters for a hackfest where engineers from his company and the Microsoft for Startups team worked feverishly to help prepare the Flyreel platform for scale. "With your (Microsoft) engineers and the talent that you have internally on leading really the next wave of technology on automation, AI and the like, it's been a dream," Winans says of the partnership that leverages the Azure platform. Winans shares the struggles he faced as a solo entrepreneur, escaping to the solace of rural Missouri to build out his platform after facing a series of rejections. He offers keen insights on fundraising, hiring his first partner, and working with investors. He provides a valuable perspective on the burgeoning Denver-area startup ecosystem, and why you don't need to be on one of the coasts to be successful. And perhaps most importantly, he discusses trusting your gut. "One of the things I've learned is a lot of people are ready and willing to give you advice, and most of them - even the experts that have been in the space for years - are mostly wrong because your case is different than anyone else's that they've seen," Winans says. Listen to the lastest edition of Series A-The Podcast with host Jim Brisimitzis now on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or Blubrry.
When it comes to innovation, some old-school industries aren't exactly the epitome of transformation. But thanks to a number of exciting new partnerships between Microsoft and some cutting edge startups, dramatic change is coming to the insurance industry and other traditionally staid finanical services sectors. It's far more sexy than it sounds, according to Microsoft US insurance industry lead Colin McClive, who offers a wealth of insights in the latest episode of Series A-the Podcast. The New York-based McClive works directly with all of the leading insurance companies across North America - companies he says are just beginning to embrace the coming revolution, making startups relevant to the enterprise and vice versa. Colin tells host Jim Brisimitzis his eyes were opened recently at a national industry conference where he expected mostly aging accountants. Instead, he was overwhelmed by the number of ambitous and whip-smart young people he'd more likely run into at an incubator or hackfest. "I said 'why are you guys in actuarial sciences?' And they said 'we're all math and computer science majors. It's where the money is'," Colin explains. According to Colin, the insurance industry is a multi-billion dollar business organized around six fundamental areas - each one ripe for disruption: sales and marketing, underwriting, claims, actuarial, investments and financial controlling, "Whereas Microsoft builds really cool platforms, we don't necessarily build solutions," Colin says. "So it's an ideal time to bring together the best of Microsoft with partners." That's creating a world of new opportunities for startups. But connecting the old school with the new kids on the block to come up with solutions isn't always easy. That's where Tereza Nemessanyi, Microsoft for Startups Entrepreneur in Residence, comes in. Nemessanyi is a veteran founder and startup mentor in New York City. She's been working closely with Colin and others at Microsoft to bring the resources of Microsoft to the most innovative startups poised to transform the enterprise. "To me that means things like access to revenue, saving time, derisking stuff, finding ways to get to solutions you might otherwise not," she says. A great example is a recent trip Colin and Tereza took to Colorado, where they cemented a new relationship with Boulder-based Flyreel. (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/microsoft-and-flyreel-accelerate-insurance-industry-access-to-groundbreaking-new-ai-powered-underwriting-solution-300599249.html) The company is at the forefront of incorporating AI and big data to transform all aspects of the insurance industry. That includes everything from sensors in cars sending accident data instantaneously to insurance agencies to automated visual identification of personal items in a home or business for identification. Imagine being able to take a picture of your restaurant and having Flyreel rapidly determine the make, model and value of your equipment, furniture and inventory. And it turns out Flyreel was already building its solutions on Azure, but didn't know how to get them to the C-level decision makers at the major insurers - insurers clamoring for just such a solution. "It's not just technology. It's a whole rethinking of the business itself," Colin says. "The fun thing for me selfishly altruistic is I get to have something that's of value and relevant to my customers but I also get to help a startup get to market. " It's a powerful lesson for other startups across all industries, and one Colin, Tereza and Jim detail with insightful, thought-provoking and humerous accounts in the latest edition of Series A-The Podcast. Listen now.
What do you do when a friend asks for help with her wedding? If you're veteran Microsoft engineer Vishal Joshi, you hack an app. And before you know it, you’re CEO and co-founder of a burgeoning startup disrupting a $90 billion industry. In this edition of Series A-The Podcast, Joshi details the improbable rise of San Francisco-based Joy. You could call it a happy accident. Joshi was a rising star at Microsoft on the fast track to senior leadership. But as word got out about the app that combines all of the disparate services needed to put together the perfect wedding, the pull to focus full-time on Joy with his co-founder Michael became too strong. His co-workers began leaving Post-It notes on his computer with their wedding dates, telling him to make sure the app was done before then. “It was just going to be a project. But at some point in time it just got to a state where it was just not ignorable anymore,” Joshi tells host Jim Brisimitzis. Joshi offers a number of valuable insights for any founder with a rare honesty and sense of humor. He details the learning curve for forming a new venture, starting with the creation of a legal entity. There were no high-powered lawyers. Just a visit to Legal Zoom to create the company and a basic site license. “By using Joy, you agree to not sue us,” he recalls the initial license read with a laugh. “I mean really, the entire gobbly-goo that’s written is for that. We said we are making this for friends and family, it’s for a happy occasion. Just don’t sue us! We are working really hard to make this thing work." Did it ever. The first wedding was a success, and traffic to the site quickly grew as people discovered a one-stop shop for everything from invitations to catering to photography. Joshi tells of the unique way they chose their first employee, an under-employed physicist who was working odd handyman jobs to make ends meet. “We were foolish. That foolishness was necessary for us to get started,” he says. Joshi talks about the need to hire initially from what he calls the “missionary bucket” in building an early team. “You have to eventually hire from the mercenary bucket because you need people who are like hired guns, who are extremely good at stuff. But the initial 15-20 people you have to have those people you can really count on,” he says. Joshi describes the serendipitous meetings and circumstances that led to Joy’s acceptance in a cohort of Y Combinator, and the lessons learned thanks to his tenure there. The insights are extremely valuable as one of only 100 chosen from about 7,000 applicants. Most notably, the keys to successfully pitching potential investors. “It’s just crazy that your entire life’s work boils down to these three minutes,” he says of the YC pitchfest before hundreds of the most influential VC’s in the world. Joshi’s secret? Refining his pitch with waiters, bartenders or anyone else who would listen. “I think that helped a lot,” Joshi says. “Talking to a real normal individual who’s not invested in investing, who’s not judging you, who’s just listening to your story. And if it resonates with them, I think it will resonate with investors too. They are also humans, you know? “What I learned is you can raise when you really need money, second is when people really want to give you money…It is easier said, but I think that you should probably put 10x more effort to get into the second bucket,” he adds. The story of Joy has been a rousing success so far. The site has tens of thousands of users, significant seed funding, and a bright future making the biggest day of couples’ lives go smoothly. And it offers a font of insights thanks to Joshi’s candor in this revealing edition of Series A – The Podcast.
Regardless of the business, artificial intelligence has become the holy grail for just about any startup. There’s been plenty of buzz but we’ve barely scratched the surface, according to Microsoft Applied Machine Learning Scientist Justin Bronder. In this edition of Series A-The Podcast, Justin joins host Jim Brisimitzis for a revealing and fascinating look at the history, present and future of AI as it relates to the startup ecosystem.Justin says the AI offers huge potential implications to everything from data to cryptocurrency “Some big breakthroughs are coming,” Justin tells Jim. One area he points to is autonomous vehicles. Justin predicts not only a dramatic increase in the number of self-driving cars and trucks on our roads in the next few years, but the endless opportunities for car makers and supporting companies alike. “Microsoft not only works with Tesla but we work with a bunch of other startup-based companies that focus on autonomous driving systems that are independent of the actual vehicle. So, they can sell it to Ford or Chrysler or some other companies,” he tells Jim. As for the easiest adoption opportunities for startups, Justin points to tremendous opportunity in the hardware space since Nvidia remains the dominant player. “Everybody runs on Nvidia GPU’s. The space is ripe for competition,” he says. He also sees AI massively disrupting software development. “Right now, we have a human being who writes the lines of code. But we’re getting to the point now where a lot of the tasks that we hand curate can be done in an automated fashion by software,” Justin says. “We’re doing a lot of research into whether programs can be written based solely on intention.” Justin also discusses the role AI and deep learning will play in navigating what he calls unstructured data, such as images, audio and video. For example, he details the potential for AI to allow home security systems to differentiate between a person moving in your back yard, an animal, or even a tree blowing in the wind. “We’re doing work with reinforcement learning where those (AI-enhanced systems) are going to actually do more measurably useful things for us,” he tells Jim. As for which companies will prevail on the platform side for AI, Justin says it’s still the earliest days or the “Wild West”, with many competitors. So how should even the smallest startup prepare for an inevitable future? Justin says it’s critical for founders to make sure data science or AI is as much a consideration as traditional engineering. “Some people have argued you need a Chief AI officer along with a CTO,” he says. But he warns small startups in the garage that AI requires petabytes of data. “If you don’t have a lot of data, it’s hard to build deep learning systems. You can design them, but you need some source for a lot of your data for training.” As Jim often points out, data is the new oil. But not everyone will get in on the gushers. Jim’s conversation with Justin includes the sobering reality that the disruption coming could bring significant job cuts in many industries ranging from transportation to agriculture. And Justin says we could see a higher impact on white collar jobs than in past technological and industrial revolutions “It will be painful for some,” he says. But by the same token, we can’t even begin to imagine the wealth of possible jobs that don’t even exist now once humans are freed from labor intensive tasks that can be done by systems instead. It’s an exciting and uncharted frontier for thought leaders like Justin Bronder, which makes this episode of Series A-The Podcast so fascinating, timely and relevant.
Harvard Business school. A former Associate Partner with McKinsey & Company. A financier at Societe Generale Investment Banking. By most measures, you'd call Germain Chastel a business success. But it wasn't enough for the CEO and co-founder of New York-based startup Newton X. "I was very comfortable in corporate life," Chastel tells host Jim Brisimitzis of Microsoft for Startups in the latest edition of Series A - The Podcast. Chastel says he saw a significant pain point for his customers at McKinsey - connecting them with more of the expertise they needed to further their businesses. And he realized there were many businesses who simply couldn't afford or didn't have the resources or knowledge to connect with the experts generally only available through high-prices consultancies. And Newton X was born. "One of the metaphors we use is we're the AirBnB of expertise. Instead of going on AirBnB and renting time in people's homes, you get on Newton X and you're renting time in people's heads," Chastel says. It's a simple but brilliant idea that landed the company over $3 million in venture capital in just the past year. Chastel pulls back the curtain on what he calls the three pillars of his organization: AI, engineering around specific marketplaces, and operations. He shares his experiences in building both a company and a culture, something he calls critical to Newton X's early success. A big key? Avoiding what he calls the "adrenaline engine" model most startups operate under, where everyone just goes non-stop until they often burn out and go bust. "You can not run on this kind of fuel for a year. You need motivation, you need purpose, you need friendship," Chastel tells Jim. Employees are your first stakeholder. They should weigh as much as all the others together." Chastel details the company's risky move from San Francisco to New York City, which he credits with propelling Newton X to newfound heights. While the Bay Area offered an environment rich in technical expertise, Chastel and his team determined they needed to be alongside their customers - the biggest of which were financial institutions and consultants. "We could say we were the best, but they need to see us and we needed to knock on doors. And we needed to sit with them and train them and educate them for them to use us properly," he tells Jim. Newton X's user base continues to swell with customers and experts alike. And thanks to the platform, even the smallest of companies can connect with an expert in their field for as little as $300 an hour. It's a far cry from the $2,000 experts only available to enterprises. The French national also offers profound insights into the differences between startup ecosystems in the United States and Europe, as well as business in general. Chastel's wealth of experience brings a font of valuable learnings and insights for any founder or startup, and we're thrilled to bring them to you in this edition of Series A - The Podcast - Josh Kerns/Producer
Silicon Valley, Boston, Seattle, New York, Austin. They're all synonymous with startups. But often overlooked is the nation's second largest city. While Hollywood is the 800 lb. gorilla in the City of Angels, a vibrant and ever growing tech scene continues to flourish to the west of downtown Los Angeles in what's become affectionately become known as Silicon Beach. Veteran entrepreneur Joel Luxenberg was convinced there was plenty of talent and opportunity in LA for his newest venture, Deep Current, and is quickly proving there's no shortage of opportunity for startups to thrive amidst the sunshine and palm trees. "It was very important to me as a founder to say 'no, we are bucking that trend.' We don't have to be up in the Bay to do this or Seattle. It was really important that we're building this community here in Los Angeles," Luxenberg says in a conversation with producer Josh Kerns and Microsoft technical evangelist Anthony Kelani in the latest installment of Series A - The Podcast. Deep Current is at the forefront of dramatic advances with AI and machine learning . The enterprise SaaS company uses a series of neural networks powered by Azure to automate data entry and help companies make better business decisions. In this episode, Luxenberg reveals some of his important insights for other founders, discusses his experiences raising millions of dollars in VC, and how his experience as a starving jazz musician on the streets of New York shaped him as a founder and technologist. The company was among several recently backed by a a new $125 million fund raised by Los Angeles-based Cross Ventures, and Luxenberg offers his philosophy that led to Deep Current's recently sold out funding round - a stark contrast to his previous companies where he had to "beat the pavement" for relatively minuscule investments. But he admits with even the best laid plans, every day brings unknown and unexpected challenges, experiences and adventures. And it's his foundation in jazz he relies on to help get him through it. "The beauty of jazz is - it's very similar in mathematics to engineering - you learn all of this to be able to forget it. To let it come out organically as you improvise," Luxenberg says. "Being a founder is all about that improvisation within structure, but it still has to resolve, as chord progressions and changes do."
While hundreds of companies and thousands of potential customers packed New York’s massive Javits Center for the annual NRF Big Show, a much more select event was taking place at Microsoft’s flagship store in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. Tereza Nemessyanyi - who spearheads Microsoft for Startups on the east coast out of New York - curated the exclusive panel of top retail startups. It was a chance for each one to pitch to NRF attendees from all over the world – showcasing the power of their transformational businesses for retailers seeking truly disruptive solutions in a dramatically and rapidly changing world. You could consider it retail startup speed dating of sorts. And there were plenty of matches made. Host Jim Brisimitzis and producer/correspondent Josh Kerns take a deep dive into the major tech trends reshaping the retail landscape, as seen at the Microsoft Startup Showcase at NRF 2018. The episode features founders and key leaders from Glam ST, Everywear, Cosign, Prevedere, Tangiblee, Genostyle, Papervault, Markable.AI, Maxerience.
As a founder, one of the challenges is knowing when to listen to others, and when to trust your gut. It became pretty obvious to Lately founder and CEO Kate Bradley Chernis after years of working for others. “Once you know that it’s a line in the sand that you draw. And to know what you have to do as a result of it,” Kate says in the latest episode of Series A-The Podcast. What the founder of the burgeoning New York City-based startup has done is built a powerful marketing software solution that’s taking business by storm, from the SMB to the enterprise. Kate tells host Jim Brisimitzis of Microsoft for Startups launching the company was something she did somewhat begrudgingly. She had owned a thriving agency managing multi-million dollar national campaigns for the likes of Walmart, the United Way, and many others. The former radio DJ had built a booming business with the help of her savvy for spreadsheets, developing a reputation for her mastery of managing disparate campaigns and contacts. Some friends and colleagues urged her to automate her spreadsheets into software and create a company. They figured it would cost about $25 thousand. Kate wanted nothing to do with their idea. “What are you talking about, why would we do that, leave me alone,” she told her friends. “I’m buying a house with my money.” Unbeknownst to her, her friends funded and built the product themselves and showed up at her house on the Sunday after Christmas. She wasn’t happy. “I was so pissed and annoyed, and then they showed me what they had done and then I was like ‘Oh! Oh my god,’” Kate recounts in her conversation with Series A. And Lately was born. Kate shares the myriad insights gleaned during the past several years as a founder, including how to find her product market niche, navigating some of New York’s top accelerators such as Entrepreneurs Roundtable and Grand Central, and the necessity of repeated preparation for the pitch. She offers founders valuable hacks gleaned from years behind the microphone and on the stage and reveals how she’s overcome a painful and debilitating condition that requires a number of adaptations including frequent use of speech-to-text software (with a cautionary tale: Dragon tends to misinterpret VC’s as feces, she laughs.) And perhaps most important, Kate teaches others how to be true to themselves, and embrace who they really are. “I’m a pain in the ass. I’m a wild horse. I’m really stubborn, sometimes belligerent. I like to do what I like to do, warts and all,” Kate laughs. It seems to be working just fine. Join Kate Bradley Chernis with host Jim Brisimitzis for the latest episode of Series A-The Podcast, now available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Blubrry.
LogDNA isn't co-founder Chris Nguyen's first rodeo. But when he and longtime partner, friend and co-founder Lee Liu learned a new baby was on the way, they realized it could be their last as co-founders, and LogDNA was born from another startup the pair had built. At the time the company had just $17,000 in the bank, so it was as Chris calls it a true "Hail Mary." But the bet paid off and the reception for LogDNA has been overwhelming. Along with numerous major customer wins, the burgeoning startup recently raised $7 million in Series A funding. In this in-depth and revealing conversation, Chris discusses his experiences, lessons learned and keys to success as a founder with host Jim Brisimitzis. Chris describes LogDNA's "Slack moment" - the dramatic pivot he and Lee took after exiting Y Combinator with a company the pair determined would never gain the traction necessary to achieve profitability. Other entrepreneurs can learn much from his insights as a repeat founder, from building products to satisfying customers to creating the right company culture. And this humble Canadian shares some of his biggest secrets to success, such as his willingness to ask others for help. Join Chris and Jim for a fascinating and insightful conversation with plenty of valuable lessons for any founder.
They're the disruptors, the innovators, the dreamers and the doers. Men and women changing the world as we know it, one startup at a time. Series A-The Podcast goes in depth with the founders, investors, engineers, technologists and others paving the way to the future. In this prologue, join host Jim Brisimitzis - the head of Microsoft for Startups - as he introduces you to some of the top talent he'll profile throughout the series. They share unique insights, lessons learned, personal stories of triumph and tribulations as they seek to build the next great success. Throughout the series you'll hear and learn from founders at flourishing startups including LogDNA, Joy, Deep Current, Lately, Bittrex, Gfycat, SummitSync, and many others across the US and Canada - From Silicon Valley to Toronto, New York to Atlanta. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.