The FOUNDER.org Experience

The 2014 FOUNDER.org Penn Launch is February 17: Get more info here and register here.

By Vinay Mahadik WG’13, co-founder of Securly

I am a co-founder of Securly, a cloud-based service that keeps kids, schools and families safe online. This post is about our wonderful experience with the FOUNDER.org program so far – about half way into the yearlong program for founders chasing big ideas.

We got introduced to FOUNDER.org via Wharton while I was finishing up my Executive MBA at Wharton San Francisco. We applied to the FOUNDER.org $100K Competition, and were among the 10 startups that were selected (from a pool of over 500 who applied) for the first cohort. FOUNDER.org started by Michael Baum (WG ’89), the CEO and founder of the highly successful enterprise company and darling of many IT admins, Splunk. I still remember our face-to-face Skype presentation to FOUNDER.org. My co-founder and I had boot-strapped Securly and were debugging a server crash when we jumped on a call with Michael. It was perhaps the least prepared presentation I have ever given simply given how long it had been since I had pitched the company. At the end of the essentially improvised pitch, Michael said something to the effect of, “your presentation could be better, but I believe in the problem and really love your solution.” It was a refreshing change from having pitched to investors who ask a company with two first-time entrepreneurs, with no sales background, but a $250K+ recurring revenue in six months to “try making your product viral first.”

Fast forward by a month, before the program even began, and FOUNDER.org stepped up to lead our seed funding with FOUNDER.org Capital, their fund focused on student founders.  This was in addition to the $100K grant prize we received from the competition. Michael also got on a call with other investors we had lined up to both accelerate the due diligence and serve as a reference. With the FOUNDER.org investment as a catalyst, Securly was able to go from being a boot-strapped startup to an over-subscribed $1M+ round within a month. We were able to attract investments from some Wharton professors, the New Schools Venture Fund and Imagine K-12 founders all of whom have been strong networks to have access to.

FOUNDER.org isn’t a typical incubator or accelerator – it is a company building experience. The FOUNDER.org University program (of which we are now part) lasts an entire year.  We get an office hour every week with Michael and access several times a month to FOUNDER.org’s network of industry experts. The best part are the quarterly 3 day get togethers with all the other founder. It is clear that the University curriculum and program have not only shaped our company, but has also molded us into substantially better entrepreneurs. The program is extremely well thought through and executed upon. It is hard to believe that this is simply the first cohort.

The first quarter kickoff event was an entire day of immersion into the world of whole-brained thinking and high impact team building. This was a clear indicator of the kind of rigor the program exposes founders to. The hypothesis is that while a good product-market fit can easily get some early traction, it takes a lot of discipline to go from that early traction to a sustainable company with dozens of employees, all of whom collectively define the company. FOUNDER.org University kicks off with an in-depth HDBI assessment and follow-on consultation that allows the founders to build a strong founding team, and later on, an entire organization, that collectively uses the whole-brain thinking and decision making processes. This ties well into the subsequent “A-player hiring and management workshop” where we learned how we can systematically recruit A-players and develop powerful competitive advantage through hiring when most entrepreneurs only seek competitive advantage via product and strategy.

Right after the first quarter kickoff, all the companies got individual appointments with Ondi Timoner, a two-time Sundance Film Festival award winning film director and producer. Ondi and her team spent an afternoon interviewing and filming Securly at our offices along with the rest of our team. The goal has been to capture our entrepreneurial journeys so far in the form of a documentary and also allow us to use several of these video assets for our own marketing efforts.

We recently had our second quarter FOUNDER.org University event that covered all aspects of user experience, marketing and sales. After two years of MBA studies at a prestigious program, and having graduated from two well recognized accelerators/incubators, I thought I had seen it all. However, within a short period of time, we have seen immense value from mantras I had not picked up anywhere else – “Always be hiring”,  “Create a marketing-driven self-serve sales model”, “Create a vision of an alternate future that is uniquely possible only with your company” to name a few. Several of these strategies were covered at length by demand-generation, sales and positioning experts we get unlimited access to, not just at the events, but even as consultants or advisors afterwards. We have already consulted with Jef Bekes, a seasoned UX expert who helped shape the Splunk brand and product UI substantially and with pricing guru, Rich Mironov.

We pride ourselves on being part of the first cohort of the FOUNDER.org phenomenon – encouraging student entrepreneurs to dream of big ideas, helping them with seed-level financing, having experts spend 100+ hours of their time advising us, getting our team ready for a series-A funding, and eventually creating both economic value and jobs by becoming sustainable and thriving entities.  My co-founder and I have worked at large enterprises for about 10 years each. Today, within a short time, we have created high paying and rewarding jobs for seven additional founding team members of which two have received career/life changing breaks thanks to Securly and FOUNDER.org. We are looking forward to the continued success of the FOUNDER.org mission.

Vinay photoBio: Vinay Mahadik WG’13 is the co-founder/CEO of Securly – a cloud-based service that keeps kids, schools and families safe online. He has over 10 years of experience in the network security space working most recently at McAfee as a senior R&D manager leading the next generation firewall, botnet and intrusion prevention teams and was the primary inventor on several patents there. He and his wife spend most of their free time traveling and running after their two year old. Vinay holds a masters in computer networking from NCState, and an MBA from The Wharton School.

You Don’t Find a Technical Co-Founder, You Earn One

By Robert Snowberger, Wharton MBA 2014

(Robert originally wrote this responding to an email from Wharton VIP advisor, Jeffrey Babin, who commented: “You don’t find a technical Co-founder, you earn one.”) 

While my company exists in the Nanotech space, it certainly speaks to the very unique and challenging relationship between the “business” and tech relationship within startups.

To start, we began our company with an unusual problem…. The original founder of our technology was the engineer, and he needed money and connections/“business sense.”  That’s where the other two business co-founders came in, one being me.  From that point, we were a three-man shop that started going to meetings with potential B2B clients. “Cool idea, but too risky for us” was pretty much what every facial expression told us during those meetings.  This is where everything changed.

We began to shift our focus toward developing the technology internally, which is an incredible task for a physical invention in the Nano realm. We would not be able to find a “strategic development partner” until we made some major steps forward in our product development and research design models. Ultimately, our new task was to find engineers that were capable of understanding our technology and willing to work “on a hope and a prayer.”  This is where our problem became: “Where do we find engineering talent and how do we evaluate engineers?”  Later, we would find that these were the wrong questions to ask up front.

We started by reaching out to colleges, smaller tech companies and old friends, but we were unwilling to give up equity and we could not afford to pay the high price for qualified Nano Engineers  and Theoretical Physicists.  So, after wasting months, we decided that our only chance was to move our engineering effort to San Francisco (a place where we thought engineers might work on a startup, without receiving equity – think Napster guy in the first part of the Facebook movie).  This meant our company would be operating from two different coasts.

Now, we “business” guys were physically isolated from the daily grind of the tech side. A  situation I would consider synonymous with a startup that has a “business” founder who knows nothing about what the “tech” founder is doing (the movie startup.com demonstrates the pitfalls of this dire situation).  Back east we had two “business” co-founders, our accountants, our IP attorney, our general counsel, and all of our B2B contacts with Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrup, etc. But out west, where the “tech” was, we actually had a company.

Our CTO quickly began to find eager engineers who were ready to work on our technology for what seemed like curiosity.  We got these people to believe in our idea, and their “talent” began to evaluate itself.  We were making significant progress on our technology for 6 months without writing a single payroll check (besides living expenses for our CTO, and a few free iPads and travel expense reimbursements for the “team”).  This was the “ah-ha” moment where I began to realize that we were “earning” our engineers. We didn’t need to put anyone through a comprehensive, formal evaluation process.  What our CTO was doing to gain their trust was nothing short of a miraculous, herculean effort, but what were we “business” co-founders doing? Making sure that we were building a company where engineers could get paid at some point. We were also trying to learn about Nanotechnology and material science, and their markets/sales cycles/competitors/grants/etc.

At the end of the day, engineers dictate most everything in a tech startup (as I am still learning).  They are putting in all of the actual work on the product that you are trying to sell. They are the ones that will choose to meet / not meet deadlines. They are the ones that could easily walk away and get paid large sums for their skills in the established sector.

My advice to non-technical founders is to focus on being a salesman. You need to sell your idea to a “special” engineer who one, believes in what you are doing, two, trusts that you will try your hardest to learn the “tech” side of the business and what he/she is actually doing and, three, has confidence that your business skills and work ethic are nothing short of heroic.  After you find this then you can get them started and see if THEY match YOUR work ethic and enthusiasm. As I said before, engineers dictate most everything, even the initial “feeling out / talent evaluation” process.  An engineer or CTO who is worth being partners with and/or trusting with your idea or company will evaluate you before they commit to the TONS of work and risk you are proposing.

I have certainly learned that engineers and the technical guys are not just some piece of the puzzle; they basically are the puzzle maker. As the business leader, you get out there and sell that put-together puzzle to someone at a huge margin (so I hope). Today, we have been able to retain many of our engineers, found ways to pay them a decent salary, and moved them into our new offices at NASA Ames where they get to work with top industry engineers to develop a cool technology. Luck is a factor.  

If you have money, pay engineers what they are worth and get rid of them if they under perform.  But if you are giving equity or asking them to become a true partner in your company, they better believe in it, and you, so that they are honest about their own limitations.  But first, you have to sell your idea through hard work, lots of searching, and tons of creativity to keep engineers happy and involved.

 

SnowbergerBio: Robert Snowberger is a first-year MBA student at Wharton, majoring in Finance and Entrepreneurial Management.  Robert is a co-founder of a nanotechnology startup that is currently a member of the Wharton VIP community.  Before coming to Wharton, Robert spent five years as an officer in the US Navy SEAL teams and completed two deployments to Iraq.  He earned his undergraduate degree from The George Washington University, and he grew up in Wilmington, Delaware.