What would you tell your younger self before getting starting on your professional or entrepreneurial journey?
As part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Big Idea Center hosted its annual Steel City Startups event — this year as an online Zoom webinar. In a roundtable discussion with Big Idea Center Director Rhonda Schuldt, four local founders traded stories on the motivations behind starting their respective companies, how they grew those businesses from ideas to commercial opportunities and the challenges they faced along the way.
The founders ranged in age and background, including Ravi Gandhi, CEO and cofounder of assistive device company Reachable Solutions; Chelsie Hall, founder of natural language processing-driven social listening tech company ViralMoment; Noah Snyder, president and CEO of industrial biotech company Interphase Materials; and Andy Chan, CEO and cofounder of AI-driven workplace risk reduction company Vigilant Technologies.
Technical.ly rounded up some of the best questions from the conversation along with panelist answers below. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the source of inspiration that made you want to turn your idea into a company?
Chelsie Hall: I love entrepreneurship. I’ve always wanted to have a startup and I have tried a lot of things that didn’t work. Actually during my time at CMU, I was a finalist in the McGinnis [Venture] Competition with a health food startup and now I’m doing computer vision for social media analytics. So I think it’s a little bit more passion for the grind than for a specific idea. I wanted just to try things and solve problems.
Noah Snyder: Probably like many people in this meeting, I became an engineer because I ultimately wanted to help people. But late in my career in grad school, I realized that I think my path towards making an impact was outside of academia. I wanted something to be part of taking technologies from cradle to the grave, getting it out of the university making an impact. At the end of the day, everything that we’ve done has always been going back to that original mission of, how can we help people? How can we work on being a mission-first company where we’re focused on making an impact?
Ravi Gandhi: The actual idea is not necessarily as important as the motivation. Once we kind of got our idea, we ran with it and we did a lot of pivoting and a lot of testing and changed up a lot of stuff depending on you know manufacturing requirements or when COVID-19 came — that changed a bunch of things and how we could test things but we kind of stuck to that initial goal and that initial problem that we wanted to solve.
Andy Chan: We were really interested in health and intersection of how wearables can make more the quantified self movement so. My roommate’s father was an orthopedic surgeon, and total knee replacement is actually like one of the most common surgeries in the US, so we have been looking at a way to track range of motion, so you could do at home rehab. [But as we pitched it] they’re like, “We like who you guys are and the team, but like we not in love with the idea, we don’t understand how to sell it to people like.” [We realized] we could do everything that we’ve been doing, but also for more consumer models and athletes, which we thought was a sexier market. And they did think it was a sexier market and then that’s when they called us back again.
How did you get through moments as an entrepreneur where you realized you had to pivot or even shut down and start new?
CH: I don’t think it ever ends, even with the big companies. I would say the the hardest part is — they talk about like the need to have grit. And you just need affirmation from people all the time, which is sort of stressful because it’s like, “Wait, is what I’m doing good? Do you like this now?” And you just have to kind of keep going to people to find out like, “Is this solving your problem?” And a lot of assumptions that you make where you think you’re solving someone’s problem, you actually aren’t or maybe it solves someone’s problem but it’s the wrong person and they don’t have the money to for it or there’s no structure in place. But keep trying things until you see people’s eyes light up. And it’s almost like you’re just fishing and you’re like, OK, who’s gonna bite and really want this and come knocking on my door for it? That’s the experience we’ve had.
AC: I think something we learned the hard way is that there’s really this clarifier that [you should look to solve] not just a big problem — there’s a lot of big problems out there, but it’s the big problems that people are willing to spend money on today. And I think that’s the biggest caveat that we learned the hard way, where we were solving some what we perceived to be big problems. We could go into the Bureau of Labor Statistics and pull up these huge numbers of people having back pain, but that doesn’t mean people are going to pay to solve those issues. I think really understanding your customer is so important to understand the right solution for them.
NS: I think there’s this this concept of pivoting where you have an idea in a focus area and then maybe the market’s not ready, and so you start following the market research or revenue. I think it’s really important to understand that as a founder there’s a lot of external noise about trying to push you in different directions. The the art of pivoting is important. But don’t let it interfere with going after your mission. If you see yourself pivoting towards something that you don’t really care about it’s just not sustainable.
RG: One thing that someone said to me pretty early on in my entrepreneurial journey that’s really helped is, what prevents people from buying something great today is if something good enough already exists. You really have to understand what your customers are willing to buy.
Looking back now, what advice would you give to yourself as a new entrepreneur starting out?
NS: Obviously the big one is being uncompromising about the mission. But I think the one that is maybe really challenging for founders, especially if you’re in a position where you’re just coming out of school, I think the big thing I would tell people is that be unabashedly yourself, and let your company be an extension of that. You want people to meet you and you’re so genuine that they’re like, “I believe in this individual and I want to be with this individual doing this particular mission till the end.”
AC: When you first start off, you just don’t know what you don’t know. And so it’s so easy to look at someone who’s in a billion dollar industry and be like, “Well they they’ve been there, they know what to do and I should listen to them.” But they’re not running your company. You’re running your company for a very specific reason, and that’s because no one else can. Really internalizing that takes some time. So I think the number one thing is just keep your head down and keep grinding forward.
CH: My biggest advice to myself will be that you don’t have it figured out and you won’t have it figured out, so don’t wait to figure something out to start. I think the only reason we’ve been able to do this is because I tried it, even though I didn’t really know how when we started. And the idea was wrong, and we built the wrong thing, but we were like, that’s OK, because I wouldn’t be here if I wouldn’t have started then. You are wrong and just having the confidence to know that you’re doing it and you’re doing it wrong and that’s OK, because you’ll never get better unless you start.
RG: The biggest piece of advice I’d give is that balance is everything. This is really a marathon not a sprint. I think it’s so easy to burn out when you’re doing a startup, especially if you’re a full time student or if you have a job full time. I know there’s been times in my own company, where people have taken weeks off or months off if something really big comes up. It’s easy to get back into the swing of things if you do have to take a break, but it’s really difficult to come back from just straight burnout.
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.