Doreen Bloch is an entrepreneur, startup expert, and the co-founder of Poshly, an early-stage technology startup. In her new book, The Coolest Startups in America, Bloch identifies the country’s most innovative newcomers and uncovers the 7 characteristics that make them successful. In this interview with The Story Exchange, Doreen tells us what makes a startup cool and sheds light on women in the workplace. She also shares an excerpt from her book.
TSE: In your research of The Coolest Startups in America, what roles did you find that women commonly held in these organizations?
Doreen Bloch (DB): I find that there are women involved at all levels of companies featured in “The Coolest Startups in America,” including as CEOs and founders. I featured dozens of women from the C-suite in my book, such as Sarah McIlroy of Fashion Playtes, Leah Busque of TaskRabbit, Adriann Wanner of evoJets, and many more. Broadly speaking, gender inequity in the workplace is still a problem in 2012, but of all lines of work, entrepreneurship is one of the most meritocratic—the best ideas and executors prevail—so I’ve found that startups are a great space for women to thrive and it’s exciting to see so many women founding companies.
TSE: What are some of your personal favorite startups and why?
DB: I am fond of so many startups, including the 72 plus companies featured in my first book! In particular, I admire Square, the mobile payments company which has grown to be a multi-billion dollar business in just a couple years. I also enjoy studying companies with innovative business models, like Rent the Runway or Better Place. Rent the Runway is a fashion-based startup, and Better Place is a cleantech firm, but both spark my interest by disrupting existing business in an enlightened way.
TSE: What would you say is key for creating a cool startup?
DB: I identify seven important characteristics of cool startups in my book. First, a cool startup solves a real problem. Second, it approaches the solution in a unique way. Third, cool startups have reach in terms of pursuing a large market. Cool startups are also ambitious, execute tirelessly, focus on the customer, and have catchy brands. These seven factors create an exceptional litmus test for new companies hoping to be in the realm of “cool startups.”
TSE: What are some characteristics that entrepreneurs behind the Coolest Startups have in common?
DB: I’ve found the entrepreneurs of the coolest startups to be visionary. They have very deep convictions for changing the world in positive, productive ways. They are tremendous do-ers, in that they’re constantly motivating their teams, connecting enthusiastically with customers and partners, and living the mission of their firms. It’s not easy to be the “new kid on the block,” as every startup is, yet I’ve found that the entrepreneurs in The Coolest Startups in America love the thrill of the startup life.
TSE: What advice would you give to women trying to enter into the startup sphere?
DB: First, cultivate your network. Participate in phenomenal organizations like Women 2.0, Tech Meetups, and more. Second, get wise in your math skills. Having a strong command of numbers will only help your business. And third, never lose your passion for getting stuff done; it’s great to have an idea, but thereafter, it’s all about execution.
Book Excerpt from the Introduction of The Coolest Startups in America. You can find Doreen’s book on Amazon.
What makes a startup cool?
When I began writing The Coolest Startups in America as a passion project, I defined a cool startup as any startup I liked to share. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that approach. Alex Taub of Aviary, featured in Chapter 61, says he defines a cool startup as any one he’d recommend to friends, particularly any startups that “make me look cool if I know about them before other people.”
But once I committed to publishing The Coolest Startups in America, I needed a more rigorous definition because people ask me about the characteristics that make up a cool startup. After dozens of interviews and extensive analysis, core characteristics of “cool startups” did emerge. While some of the startups featured in The Coolest Startups in America may lack one or two of the qualities, most of them hit these marks. The list serves as an excellent litmus test if you want to join or create a cool startup, or hope to catch my eye for the next volume of this book.
1. Solve a Real Problem. “It has to make lives meaningfully better,” says Aaron Schildkrout, co-CEO of HowAboutWe (Chapter 36). In the startup scene, people speak often about “pain,” and making clear what the “pain point” is that the startup solves. If the startup’s mission is vague, it’s not likely to be too cool. Sutha Kamal of healthcare startup Massive Health urges founders to “gravitate to real problems.” That’s how important companies are built, says Michael Sinanian, who reports on startups for VentureBeat, an important technology publication. “If a startup tackles a hard problem and they’ve accomplished the impossible, they’re creating value,” Sinanian says.
2. Do It in a Unique Way. Nick Ganju, CTO of ZocDoc (Chapter 55), cites “an overabundance of startups doing something one percent different than a big player. No one will be seduced by a clone.” Marc Brodeur, CEO of Brode (Chapter 29), agrees. “If you’re going head to head with Facebook, you’re not setting yourself up for success.”
3. Have Reach. For the purposes of this book, cool startups have already launched and must be scalable. Startups that are pre-product release are too early-stage to be considered cool. Why? There’s still so much that can go wrong; fledgling companies are untested by the market forces that set the bar for “cool.” “Reach” is one of these market forces because it affects how many customers a startup can amass. Ilan Abehassera, CEO of Producteev (Chapter 49), says crossplatform performance is a bonus because it bolsters customer acquisition when “you’re available everywhere and you’re able to be accessed no matter what.”
4. Are Ambitious. “There are a lot of startups and raising money isn’t as hard as it used to be,” says Ilya Sukhar, founder of Parse. “Some companies are okay selling out, but cool startups are ones that do something large, bold and successful.”
5. Execute. Jeff Fernandez, CEO and Founder of Grovo (Chapter 34), says cool startups “do what they say they’re going to do and they do it quickly and efficiently. They execute like hell. When we set a date, we ship the product on that day. The whole team rallies around it.”
6. Focus on the Consumer. Schildkrout of HowAboutWe would add that cool startups don’t execute arbitrarily; cool startups engage with their consumers to generate products that address consumers’ needs. “Their users are constantly delighted by what the company is pushing out and that should never stop,” he says. Brodeur of Brode describes that “when you build a company, you’re building a relationship with your customers. It’s a corporate personality. You need to be consistent and give them something of value.”
7. Have Cool Brands. Sometimes, wonderful brands sprout from the compelling personal stories behind them, says Alex Budak, Founder of Start Some Good, the platform that allows social-minded upstarts to raise funds. This storytelling should run through all levels of the organization, Brodeur adds. “Every single time you talk to or email someone, it’s branding. Anything that anyone sees is branding. You never cut corners with it.” And that includes naming your startup. “If you don’t have a cool name, it can kill a startup,” says Will Curran, Founder of Arizona Pro DJs. “Flickr changed the game of naming by remove the ‘e.’” Nowadays, great design is also critical. Henrik Werdelin of Prehype, a product innovation consultancy, calls design a macrotrend. Products “have to be prettier and prettier,” he says.
These traits constitute a fantastic framework to analyze whether a company could be classified as a “cool startup,” but that’s not to say there aren’t other guiding notions. An elegant concept I came across in writing this book was the idea that sometimes, cool startups lead businesses that are so obvious, you wouldn’t believe they didn’t exist before. The idea came to me as Ed O’Boyle, founder of Fotobridge, described his startup in the digital photo space. “People have hundreds, if not thousands, of images that they want to preserve and share,” he told me. “I thought, ‘There has to be a company that creates good quality digital images.’ But there wasn’t, so I created it.”
Daryl Bernstein, CEO of RightSignature (Chapter 52), phrased this concept well. “I love smart solutions to obvious problems, especially those that have some degree of ‘wow’ effect. These are products and services that make their users gasp, out loud or not.