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Video Interview with Julia Hu, CoFounder of Lark. Julia is the CEO and founder of LARK, a mobile and consumer electronics startup out of MIT that helps couples sleep better together. Before LARK, Julia was an entrepreneur dedicated to growing early stage startups in the cleantech and design space. She launched Clean Tech Open’s National Sustainability Program to provide sustainability mentorship, education, judging, partnerships and environmental initiatives to startups across America, and then worked with consumer products social venture D.light Design in China on managing international marketing. Julia received a Masters and Bachelors in Engineering and Design at Stanford,and an MBA candidate from MIT Sloan. You can find Julia on Twitter @ourlark
Transcript follows & video above.
- Could you tell me briefly about your past history in sourcing venture capital?
Our company started about a year ago & we came out of MIT where I was a business student at that time. Throughout the year I had been working a lot with business plan competitions. In that experience I met with a lot of venture capitalists. So that was a lot of great proving/training ground. Prior to MIT Sloan I helped run a clean tech incubator which grew startups to vc funding. At that time I was immersed in the venture capital startup ecosystem as well. But really I think my main learning experience has been this last month, month & half when I was raising our first round for Lark. That was a real steep learning curve & a roller coaster.
- What would be the highlight & what would be the most challenging in that experience over the last few months?
I think one thing is first understanding how much money you need & what goals you want to accomplish with this money. Being very clear about what you want to accomplish because you’re funding to a milestone. The most exciting part then is to understand who are the people that can most help you, in the sense of their networks or their expertise. So really trying to understand who in the valley can be your support system & be your champion & would be interested in the type of business that you want to create. It’s been very fun & very challenging as well trying to pick the right partners, investment partners. I see investment partners as a business partner who can really help grow the company with you. It’s about picking the right partners who are open to your type of company & then seeing if there’s a fit personally, as well as a market fit. That’s been the most challenging is trying to figure out who are the right partners for you.
- What’s been the highlight for you? Finding that fit?
I think finding the right group of people. The highlight I have to say was last week when I saw the first $800k in our bank account.
Thank you. We have been bootstrapping for a year. We’ve lived on very, very little, very happily, but a couple of hundred dollars a month. I think for my team just to know that doing what they love, they could do this for at least another year with this money was a really great day. Until the money is in the bank, it’s not in the bank! It was great to see the support coming through & really helping.
So moving from the dream realm to the real realm? The money made it concrete. That’s fantastic!
- What personal lessons being a woman have you taken out of your successes &/or failures in that regard?
As a woman I have definitely seen that I have had to really adapt to the environment. I think because by my nature as a woman, maybe, I am not as aggressive. Sometimes not that I’m unconfident but that I like to listen to people’s other alternatives & recognize the validity of those. Sometimes it comes across as if I am not completely sure of one particular direction. I think one thing in fundraising, learning a lot about myself & learning that this process is really about you just ploughing forward without any regard to your doubts & your potential down sides & just keeping optimistic. I think as a woman that’s really the most important.
OK so I’m hearing that you had to adapt your receptive nature to become much more assertive & putting out your vision & what you wanted to achieve rather than just listening all the time.
- What attitudes towards you being female have you noted from venture capitalists when you have been sourcing venture?
That’s funny! I have to say that the venture partners that I’ve talked to have been absolute gentlemen. Everyone has been extremely professional. There never really was a hint of ‘You are a woman, what’s the story?’
So no bias?
No I don’t think so. But I do think that having a male technical team & having a diverse team has helped that. I also feel that my background from Stanford & MIT in engineering has helped, being able to speak the same language in terms of business & in terms of technical product. I certainly think that that’s helped. Sometimes I do feel that it’s very obvious that I’m a woman & it almost helps me stand out in certain ways! So sometimes it’s a positive.
What you’re saying is that you could use it to your advantage? And some people say that the main thing is just to be yourself so if you’re a woman, obviously part of that is being a woman?
Yeah being a woman. I think women bring a lot of different skill sets. I think while most of the venture partners that I talk to are men, you can express your core assets as a woman. I just have to say I remember back in the day before I started raising venture I had this fabulous woman advisor, Mara Fitzgerald who was a pr firm founder. She would just say ‘Julia you’ve just got to leverage the hell out of your womanhood!’ It was so funny. I was kind of in shock. Not to say that we have to do anything out of the ordinary. Just recognize your own strengths. Recognize that you are given this opportunity to stand out & that you have a very different core set of assets & to use that not in any demeaning type of way. Just be confident!
Fantastic, thanks for that advice.
- What qualities do you think women entrepreneurs need specifically for sourcing venture?
I would say that you need to be disciplined. You really need to be disciplined & even keeled in your internal perspective as well. I feel like entrepreneurship is a ton of fun. It’s also a ton of work & a ton of troubles.
Yes very intense!
It’s very intense. It’s an emotional roller coaster more than anything else. I would say as a female, to be able to smooth that roller coaster out & to create a stability that will be core for you to continue forward. And for your team to feel that stability. I think it’s the CEO’s responsibility to create an atmosphere of extreme, continual stability for the team & protection from the outside world that is the roller coaster.
- Most founders would agree with you, I imagine & work out their own ways of doing that. Can I ask what techniques you use to do that?
One is surrounding yourself with great mentors. My fellow entrepreneurs who have gone through this have been so gracious. A lot of them have been men & they coach me in the mornings sometimes. They call me up & they say ‘this is normal, keep your chin up!’ Or they help me be more aggressive. I think having a core group of people who have gone through this before & can share these emotions with you & business strategy is really helpful. I think the other thing is staying positive in any way that you can. Even though almost everything I do is work & sleep, I used to be more regular about having yoga or some sort of stepping back ability where its some regular thing. That definitely helps. I hope to create a little bit more of a balance of life soon too. This last month has been totally crazy so that’s gone up in flames. I also think being able to have a great team that you can just be honest with because at the end of the day the team is everything. I really learned that. Then having certain family or friends that you can call up when you’re really feeling down that are outside. A lot of times you want to complain about this issue but you can’t complain to these people within this network because they’re part of it. Having your other life & support network I think really helps.
Where you can debrief & get encouragement? That’s fantastic thank you.
- In your opinion what percentage of women would qualify then as regards having these qualities? What I’ve heard is that you’ve learnt a lot of skills but also you have some innate ability because you’ve come out of incubators & helping a lot of people do that. Do you think that most of the skills could be developed? If so what are your ideas about how this could happen?
Yeah I think entrepreneurs need to be very well rounded, very adaptable & able to see different perspectives & coalesce these very different perspectives. I think it’s all about team building. I think it’s all about motivation & driving everyone forward with one clear vision. Also pivoting if need be. I think it really is a passionate mind set, a continual mind set that is ‘we can rise above the occasion & we’re going to go change the world!’ Those traits I think anyone could cultivate. If you have it in your heart to be an entrepreneur, know that they’re going to be crappy days, know that you’re going to fail most of the time. But keep on going towards your goals! Also realizing that if there is enough of thoughtful advice that you’re getting that says no, no this is not quite the right path’ of being flexible & going toward a goal that you see market acceptance to. It’s a balancing act!