Susan Coelius Keplinger, Triggit: Winning the Venture Game

Transcript follows & video below.  This is Part II of her interview.  You can view Part I here

In your opinion what percentage of women would qualify then as regards having these qualities?  Could they be developed?  If so what are your ideas about how this could happen?

Going back to asking for money & then not getting it & failing & that experience of failure!  I know personally for me, part of the reason that I’m so comfortable living this lifestyle, which is often poor & often unsure & often you just kind of assume it’s going to work out somehow in the end.  For me I got that in playing sports & playing sports in a way, playing pickup, playing in a way you’re gonna win, you’re gonna lose, you’re gonna fail & sometimes you’re not going to be picked for the team that you want.  That’s where I found it personally! But I started at a very, very young age: my willingness to take a risk, to ski down a run that I may or may not know I can get to the bottom & just go for it!  I play a lot of extreme sports.  That started very, very young doing extreme things, chasing my brother & hoping that I didn’t end up anywhere I shouldn’t end up being. But I think you can achieve that in a lot of other places, starting at a very, very young age taking risks & realizing that when you take a risk it will probably just work itself out. Having that gut instinct is I think what’s core to an entrepreneur.  Then when it comes to sourcing venture, the risk is asking for money & having them say no but at the end of the day, having them say no is the worse thing that can happen!  Having that understanding & being comfortable with that understanding is important.  You can start it at a young age, by getting comfortable with risk & getting comfortable with failure knowing that there will be more opportunities, there will be more places.  But its hard, even for someone that is comfortable with it, its still hard!

Susan Coelius

Do you think that the challenges that women entrepreneurs/startups have historically faced, mean that we will always be under represented sourcing venture?

Absolutely not!  I think especially with technology.  I got on a computer when I was very, very young. I was one of the first kids in my neighborhood to be on a computer.  My father recognized and interestingly my mother made the money when I was growing up.  So I had a stay at home Dad & so my Mom was the breadwinner of the family.  My Dad was the one who was into technology so Mom bought the computers & Dad got the computers! So I grew up from the age of 10 on Instant Messenger & that was really early.  We’d gone BBSs which is a dial up to a single machine & Zac & I would roller blade down to the local college & get the newspaper & get the phone numbers because we wanted to play Risk. We wanted to dial up & play Risk but it was before the internet. We were very lucky because we became very  comfortable with what the internet is & the capabilities of the internet.  When we started our non-profit in College together it was about the internet.  Whereas everyone was just starting to use email, just starting to have computers – we were very comfortable! But young people today, they are all on iphones & ipads & instant messenger.  It’s more about parents are trying to shield them from the mass versus giving them access to it.  I think you start to see these young entrepreneurs in general, young men & women that are in startups.  Modcloth is a great example.  This company was started by a young woman who was 17, liked to shop at vintage thrift stores but also loved the internet.  Now they sell $100m in revenue. Started by a 17 year old woman who is now 26 or so.  I think what you are going to see coming up is that kids are going to start doing it as they’re kids 15, 16, 17 & suddenly its about the success they’re achieving rather than is it a boy or a girl?

Susan Coelius

How do you feel about incubators?  Do you think that is a way that more women could achieve funding?

I am wary of incubators in general from a raw entrepreneur’s standpoint.  I think ycombinator is a good example.  First of all they take a lot of the company & they give you a structure.  ‘This is how you start a company & this is how you do things!’ But really some of the greatest companies of all time are built in rebellion towards what is supposed to be the way.  Its more about really bright people looking to start, what works & doesn’t work, reading lots of books, blogs & websites & everything & figuring out how to do it. An incubator tells you how to do it & keeps a lot of ideas out.  But it does provide a safe, structured place to learn how to start something or how to build something.  So for a certain type of person that’s a great environment.  Its protected & you don’t have all these outside people telling you that your idea is stupid, that you shouldn’t be doing that & that you’re wasting your time.  So its been very successful for a lot of young men especially for young, technical engineers who may not be business savvy or as excited about the business perspective.  In that way it might just be as successful for young women engineers but I personally am not a fan of incubators!

Susan Coelius

Do you have any tips for women who are currently sourcing venture?

Perseverance & be fair to yourself.  I think something that we did pretty well, maybe not perfectly well, is if every vc is saying ‘We don’t think your idea has legs!’ maybe take a step back from the drawing board & try to figure out why they’re saying that?  Then see if you can spend a few months correcting the problems that they see and then go back.  Instead of just saying ‘they don’t get it, they don’t understand, why aren’t they giving us money?’ We got really lucky because we spent the first 4 years with angels. Go talk to angel investors instead of thinking maybe the reason you’re not getting vc money is not because you’re a woman but because it simply that there is something missing?  And we had that ‘something missing’ for a very long time when we were trying to source venture money.  We had a board & had a lot of partner meetings early on with some of our products & we just never quite turned the corner. We were very lucky that vcs said ‘we encourage you guys to take on a little more angel, see how much further you can get & then come back.’  Then we were at a point where we could raise it.

Susan Coelius

So what you’re saying is don’t get stopped by it & don’t get paralyzed by it but start looking creatively at what can be changed?

And don’t think that they’re saying no because you’re a woman, or because you’re too young or you’re too old.  It likely has to do with the fact that there is something missing.  If you can figure out what that missing thing is & you can fix it, then suddenly… be it adding a better revenue stream, growth model whatever that thing is.  I think vcs that I’ve seen over the last 5 years have just gotten more & more sophisticated. They want to see a company that can scale & now they know what a company that can scale looks like.  So now when you go in & you’ve got the great idea! One of our first products was an amazing technology, won a bunch of awards, everybody thought it was the coolest thing – it let you drag & drop pictures & we wanted to drag & drop advertisements onto our website.  But at the end of the day the technology was profoundly complicated & so if we were going to scale it up to the user based size it was going to require tremendous amount of serving & all these complications.  The vcs said yes this is an amazing product, you’ve clearly got something but you’re missing the whole ‘how are you going to scale it’ component.  So we had to step back & say ‘can we scale this product?’ & we actually found we couldn’t. It was an unscalable product!  So then we switched & keep pounding for a new business model.

Susan Coelius

So I am hearing this extra message, that it is extremely important to listen when you do make meetings with VCs & angels & take some of their feedback on board?

Yes & don’t be offended is someone says no!  There are a lot of reasons why someone says no & your goal is to make them regret it!

Susan Coelius

Revenge is the best form of success!

Well look at all the people who passed on Google & Yahoo & facebook & they’re just kicking themselves.

Susan Coelius

Would you like to see changes in the venture capital community that could support women startups & if so what are your ideas?

As I mentioned earlier, I think a lot of VCs would love to have more women founders & startups in their portfolio simply because it looks great for them.  I’ve tried to get involved in some of the women events & go pitch to a vc & they always feel very entry level.  They always feel very basic, I already know everything that I’m learning at this event.  I’m not really going to waste my time going to this & those same events exist for both men & women in lots of different ways. Those events are great for have an idea, bring an idea but what about people who are actually starting their companies?  And there really aren’t that many good female mentors.  You don’t see that many mentors that you can say ‘I’m a female entrepreneur & moving forward.  Now let’s talk about not how to raise money but how to scale a company.’  That piece is just missing, that next level – the mentorship. I’ve been doing this for 5 years & I’ve had many conversations with friends that want to start companies about how they can start companies. Really its just doing it!

Susan Coelius

So what you’re saying is that there really needs to be more mentorship of women mentoring women?

Or men mentoring women or men mentoring young entrepreneurs.  Though I feel the problem for young female entrepreneurs is that, sometimes it is uncomfortable for older men that they can comfortably mentor young women. There’s just an awkwardness going on. I think its both a generational thing & a gender thing. With a younger man its a very simple relationship.  I think its a generational thing as much as a gender thing.  But it definitely can be awkward.  Whereas with some who is in their 30s or 40s I don’t feel any gender conflict.

Susan Coelius

You are a non-technical CoFounder, do you believe that it is easier for technical women founders to achieve venture funding than non-technical?  If so what are your reasons for this?

As we discussed earlier as well, having a very, very strong technical person on board & ideally a founder simply because they have more vested.  For instance our founder has a tremendous amount of stock in this company, we ended up giving him very much a cofounder share of ownership.  So now he is very interested in making sure this company succeeds or fails.  So having someone who is very strong technically who’s vested in the process.  They’re not going to go quit & get a different job because they have all this stock that they want to come to fruition to make money with, is fundamental. Investors are able to have faith in our company because we have a technical cofounder who’s not going anywhere because the only way he’s getting rich is if Triggit succeeds.  When we raise other funding, for instance when you raise funding you going to reset some of the founder’s vestings, especially early on like right now so Ryan’s vesting got reset as well. So now our CTO is not fully vested with stock so he plans on sticking around for a while, he’s not leaving. That’s very important because if he leaves we have a problem because we are a technical company. So having technical talent & understanding technical talent is important. But Ryan is not a business person, our CTO is not a business person & he doesn’t want to be a business person. For us that was the team dynamic that worked – I do Operations, Zac our CEO does more external sales role & Ryan is our CTO.  Ryan never goes to a networking event unless there’s free food & he wants to.  He never has to pick up the phone to call anyone unless he wants to.  He literally just gets to build a product. For us that was the role that worked.  The technical founder that has business acumen that’s very rare, the Googles, the facebooks very very rare, if you have that’s fantastic but I don’t think it’s necessary.  Though having a technical person that’s vested in your company is fundamental, if you’re going to be a technical company.

Susan Coelius

Could you list some of the advantages of gender diversity in a startup?  Are there any disadvantages?  I note you are the only woman on this team.

I absolutely would love to have another woman in this company. I try hard to hire women.  But we decided & I agree that when we hire its the best candidate that we hire & that we offer the job to.  It’s never going to be ‘I’m offering you this job because you are a woman even though you beat others’.  Interestingly in the office we have 5 other men, but out of the office we have a handful of consultants that are fundamental to our company who are women. They don’t want jobs.  Our Comptroller wants to be a consultant, without her a lot of things crash but she doesn’t want a full time job.  She doesn’t want to come into the office, she likes that she works from home, she likes that she does that.  The woman who is in control of our PR & Marketing just had a baby & wants to be at home with her baby but she still works many hours a week for us. So as we grow we will absolutely bring on a lot more women.  Interestingly we don’t have any women in our accounts team right now, that will fundamentally change.  At Google I think that 80% of the incoming ad words accounts managers are women & in part they did that to balance up the technical side which is men. We got Mike from Google & he said ‘In a class of 15 I was one of the 3 guys.’ I have no bias towards women.

Susan Coelius

No obviously you don’t, I just wondered if you’d seen what advantages women can bring?

I think it’s diversity in general is the most important thing. We definitely don’t have great diversity right now.  We’re all athletes that grew up in the Mid West that are under 30 (I think Tony might be over 30). But we do have a sales guy who’s 50. But it’s also hard when you’re building a culture & you’re attracted to people who are just like you & they’re doing the same things as you. On one hand you definitely don’t want to create a fire in there by creating conflict.  So that’s the fear but I don’t think gender has anything to do with that. I think for us we just haven’t had a woman accept our offer but we’ve put offers out there. But we have had a lot of women reject our offers.

Susan Coelius

So maybe someone will see this & apply for a job with you?

Yes especially if you’re an engineer.

Thank you very much Susan I really appreciate your time today.


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