Professional Development

3 startup founders share lessons learned as they built toward success

At the inaugural RustBuilt Pittsburgh conference, a trio of Pittsburgh-based founders shared important lessons in being adaptable, leveraging community support and confidence.

Kit Mueller hosts the first RustBuilt Pittsburgh conference.

(Photo by Sophie Burkholder)

Some of the best lessons come from hearing the experiences of others.

At the inaugural RustBuilt Pittsburgh conference on Friday, three of the city’s successful founders shared their entrepreneurship stories. Though the journey of each founder at the conference was unique, there were foundational lessons threaded through each talk: Be adaptable, be open to community support and have faith in your idea.

Technical.ly rounded up some other important details from the talks for even more specific advice below.

Be persistent and adaptable: Luke Skurman, Niche

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Skurman got the idea for Niche — a website the compiles relevant data and reviews on colleges, grade schools and places to live — while he was in college himself. Inspired by the unwieldy difficulties of the college search process, he wanted to make a platform providing real student reviews and feedback on academia, social life, campus resources and more. In the 20 years since, Skurman has grown the business to provide this kind of data on not just universities, but grade schools, graduate schools, places to live and places to work as well.

Luke Skurman

Luke Skurman. (Photo via Twitter)

One of the biggest takeaways from Skurman’s “20 years in 20 minutes” talk was how he showed persistence and confidence in his business idea. After getting a “no” from nearly every venture capital firm he approached for backend software funding, he sought out individual investments from private placement memorandums (PPMs), raising $4.6 million over 18 months. The idea gained traction and brought in more investment, including a Series C round at the beginning of 2020 for $35 million.

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Then the pandemic hit. But Skurman adapted again. Though grade schools stopped returning some of his calls as they grappled with navigating online learning, universities with more resources realized they “couldn’t administer standardized tests [in the same way] anymore, and needed to build new pipelines to connect with students,” said Skurman. Soon, Niche started selling bigger contracts than the company had ever expected with those clients.

After slashing the initial revenue predictions for 2020, “We ended up beating the original forecast last year,” Skurman said.

Now, the company has over 200 employees and has plans to hire 100 more.

The biggest message from Skurman to find success like his? Be persistent and adaptable.

Trust others: Rachel Reid, Subtl Beauty

The beauty industry is hard to break into, but Reid shared insights on how to be flexible and balance growing a venture with a full-time job and much needed mental health care. After getting her startup idea from personal experience with hard-to-transport makeup products, Reid realized that her business would take time to grow, and she couldn’t afford to quit her job and lose income right away. Whether or not to do that, she said, can sometimes be a “hot debate” in the startup community. But the recommendation that founders should quit their day jobs to pursue their ventures full time is “rooted in assumptions,” Reid pointed out — “the assumption that you can leave a full-time salary, that you’re going to start making money immediately, that you’re going to start attracting VC immediately.”

Rachel Reid

Rachel Reid. (Photo via Twitter)

All of that is hard to do, she said. And the “hustle porn” idea of over-committing and burning yourself out for the sake of your venture is toxic.

Instead, Reid recommends finding ways to maintain balance. Before the pandemic, she worked 16 hour days. But once stay-at-home orders were in place, she started getting more sleep and delegating to new team members as the company grew. She realized that at the pace she was moving at before, “no break led to severe burnout,” and that identifying her biggest stressors would help her stay on track.

One of my bad habits is that I like to do everything myself,” Reid said. “Some people would call it being a control freak, I call it being a Virgo.”

Learning to trust others helped her trust herself and the success of the company, particularly as it adapted from its initial direct to consumer model. And that trust is the advice she gives to all founders grappling with similar overwhelm.

“There are two ways to exit a burnout phase and that is to quit or to get the help you need,” she said.

The latter is the one that will help your startup thrive. 

‘No means you’re on’: Leah Lizarondo, Food Rescue Hero

Sharing a presentation of “memes and astrology,” Lizarondo discussed her five-year journey in building Food Rescue Hero, which uses an app to connect volunteer drivers in food surplus redistribution. Initially not wanting to be an entrepreneur, Lizarondo pitched the idea to food donation-focused organizations, offering to take on the role of program manager or supervisor. But everyone told her no.

But she believed in the idea and started to believe that her passion in it could be enough to launch it as a venture.

Citing her horoscope, she said, “There is no better way to motivate an Aries than to tell them something they want to do is not gonna work.” 

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo. (Photo via Twitter)

That motivation fueled Food Rescue Hero’s growth, and the business now has 25,000 people on call as volunteers across 13 cities, with a 99% service rate. The lessons she learned in pushing through all those early no’s?

No means you’re on. Take no, especially when you’re inspired by your idea, as a challenge to show that yes it can work and you have it in you to do it.”

Echoing Reid’s talk, Lizarondo also underscored the importance of maintaining mental health along the way, and not pushing yourself to the brink of burnout.

“I knew the idea wasn’t going to last if I wasn’t going to last, so at some point I decided to put on my own oxygen mask first,” she said.

Finding that balance, she said, helped her remember her life beyond the startup, and kept her invigorated to come back to it every day.


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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