By LAURA LOREK
Founder Silicon Hills News
Startup founders can learn a lot from entrepreneurs who have been there and done that.
And on Monday, three serial entrepreneurs in Austin shared some of the challenges they faced in building their companies and some tips on how others can succeed.
Sam Decker, co-founder of Mass Relevance, Carl Shepherd, co-founder of HomeAway and Susan Strausberg, co-founder of 9WSearch participated in a RISE lunch and learn entrepreneurship super panel moderated by Ellie Brett, founder of Media Bombshell. About 120 people attended the event held at Mass Relevance’s downtown headquarters and sponsored by Turnstone.
Decker’s entrepreneurial roots go back to fourth grade when he ran a go-kart repair business and that got him into fixing engines.
He started working for Apple out of college. Then he ran three failed startups in the Bay area before Dell called.
“Even at Dell I always sought out the entrepreneurial jobs,” Decker said.
He worked at turning Dell.com into a big business. But after seven years, he wanted to launch a startup again.
Decker left to work at Bazaarvoice, founded in 2005. After five years, Bazaarvoice had $50 million in revenue and 500 people.
“Any time you are making that move to the next journey you are stepping off a cliff,” Decker said.
He left Bazaarvoice to co-found Mass Relevance, a social media company focused on handling Twitter campaigns for TV, sports and media companies.
Today, Mass Relevance has 85 people and does half its work for brands and half for media and sports teams.
Strausberg grew up in an entrepreneurial family.
“One needed to be in control of one’s own life,” she said.
Over time, she became obsessed with computers. She worked in publishing and film. She founded a publishing company and co-produced “It Came from Hollywood,” a Paramount Pictures film.
She earned the title of “Dot Com Diva” for launching EDGAR Online, a financial data company, in 1995 with her husband Marc Strausberg. They left the company in 2007 to pursue other interests. They moved to Austin a few years ago to launch 9W Search Inc., an advanced financial search engine aimed at mobile users.
Shepherd, co-founder of HomeAway, was not a born entrepreneur.
“I did not come to be an entrepreneur overnight,” he said. “I was a late bloomer.”
At first he worked as a consultant for what is now Accenture and he also worked for magazine publishers.
He cut his entrepreneurial teeth at Hoover’s Online, where he worked as chief operating officer. Hoover’s Online was an information research business and was one of the first successful subscription based companies on the Web. He took the company public in 1999 and stayed on for a few years and then he joined Austin Ventures. That’s where he met Brian Sharples. They had coffee at Starbucks, the one that’s across the street from what’s now HomeAway’s headquarters. At that Starbucks, they started brainstorming ideas for businesses. They came up with one for selling information on outsourcing. But they both settled on addressing the pain in the vacation rental market. They both had families who liked to stay in rental homes instead of hotels when they travelled.
“Renting a vacation home really sucked,” he said.
They set about to fix that problem and came up with HomeAway as a solution.
Today, HomeAway has 1,300 employees on six continents including 600 employees in Austin, Shepherd said.
Next, Brett with Media Bombshell asked the entrepreneurs a series of questions including what was their biggest surprise about being an entrepreneur.
“The biggest surprise is that really great ideas and wonderful people and the best possible teams fail,” said Shepherd.
“So few people understand and embrace innovation,” said Strausberg.
“The highs are higher and the lows are lower,” said Decker. “Every rejection is like a rejection. And every win is like we’re going to be huge.”
But over time, the volatility starts to shrink, Decker said.
The next question Brett asked was what was the toughest challenge the entrepreneurs faced and how did they get through it.
Strausberg said in 2003 Market Watch wanted to buy EDGAR Online but that fell through. They had to pivot the business and find another way to exit the business, she said.
At Hoover’s Online, Shepherd bought a company called Power Rise in August of 2001 and after September of 2001 they had to completely revamp the business and eventually close down Power Rise. They had to pivot Hoover’s Online to go back to a subscription model.
Coming up with a company name is one of the biggest challenges a startup faces, Decker said.
One of the big challenges Mass Relevance faced when it launched was securing an official partnership with Twitter, Decker said. He personally negotiated the rights to use Twitter’s data, which was a critical aspect of their platform.
The panel also discussed how they handled risk. Decker said a good entrepreneur does his best or her best to mitigate risk.
And Shepherd said he has gotten more tolerant of risk during the past five to seven years.
“I feel like I’ve been far more in control as an entrepreneur than I was as an employee,” he said. “And I’m far more aggressive today than I was five or six years ago.”
The panel also gave advice to entrepreneurs.
Don’t lie to the IRS, said Shepherd. He has a 28-year-old son who is running a startup in the Bay Area and that’s the advice he gave him.
“Surround yourself with people and advisors who know what they’re doing,” he said.
“I would say first of all, think twice, then think three times,” Strausberg said. Thoroughly investigate the market, the competition and the validity of the idea, she said. And make sure you’re ready to cope emotionally with the risk and uncertainty of running a startup, she said.
“Think bigger,” said Decker. Whatever you’re thinking about add a zero to it, he said.
“Push yourself,” he said.
By LAURA LOREK