Episode 001 - Taking Risks
Taking Risks in Entrepreneurship, with Vaidhy Murti '15, Daphne Earp Hoppenot '10, Marcus Stroud '16 and Brandon Allen '16.
Produced by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council. Music by Wright Seneres. Theme music by the Treadmills (Wright Seneres, electric guitar and electric bass; John Damond, Jr., drums). Engineered by Dan Kearns and Dan Quiyu at the Princeton Broadcast Center. Edited and mixed by Wright Seneres. Promotional readings by Megan Donahey '20.
From the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, this is the Princeton Spark. I’m Wright Seneres.
On your way up the main staircase at the Frist Campus Center at Princeton, if you look to the right as you go, there’s a marble bust of a man named Cyrus Fogg Brackett. Legend says his classroom was the first classroom anywhere with electric lights, which he rigged up himself, sometime in the 1870s.
Brackett was the first Joseph Henry Professor of Physics at Princeton, named for that large, looming figure in American science. Based on Joseph Henry’s work in electromagnetism at Princeton, the unit of electrical inductance is called the henry. From Princeton, Joseph Henry went on to be the first leader of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1848.
All of which goes to show that the entrepreneurial spark has always existed at Princeton, at least that long ago.
The various people that make up the Princeton entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem have long been at work, taking risks to bring transformational ideas and companies to the world, in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity. These are the stories of Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way. Hello and welcome to the Princeton Spark, a production of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council. I’m your host, Wright Seneres, social media and marketing specialist at the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council.
At PEC, we support Princeton-connected startups and help to build the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Jersey and beyond.
In this first season of the Princeton Spark, we’ll explore what it takes to succeed in entrepreneurship from experienced Princeton startup founders, investors, mentors, and more. We’ll look at their experiences in different industries, but we will likely see that these experiences...are not so different. Through these shared experiences, we will illuminate some aspects of the startup journey for the benefit of early-career and first-time founders.
No matter what kind of entrepreneurial pursuit you’re involved in, you will be taking risks. This is true whether you have a Princeton degree or not. Meet Vaidhy.
I'm Vaidhy Murti. When I was a sophomore, I wanted to build a better way to help college students on campus connect with each other. And I felt that when I was a freshman, the first few weeks like, it was this magical feeling where everybody was willing to, you know, reach out and connect and try to meet new people do new things, like you'd walk past someone on the sidewalk, they would, you know, look at you and smile and sort of look down at their phones. And I met a lot of like, my best friends in those first few weeks. And I think a lot of that was through serendipity and random chance. And I felt especially as I got older, as I you know moved on, like my next year in college, like those opportunities became like fewer and farther between. Everybody sort of was set in their social circles. And it felt as though everybody wanted to branch out and meet new people. So the core initial idea for Friendsy was, "Can we build a risk-free way to help college students, you know, branch out and meet the people around them?" And it was all started out of that.
And then Vaidhy got to work. In December of his sophomore year, he built out a website for other Princeton students to meet each other based on their interests, with the same kind of double-blind matchmaking concept that Tinder now dominates. With a couple friends, they rolled out a big marketing plan, and Vaidhy went to bed. With great anticipation for half the campus to sign up, Vaidhy woke up, opened his computer, and found one person signed up. One. But a couple of days later, they had a hundred users. After a week, a thousand. After some time, they rolled out to other schools, then came a problem.
What was happening was people would try to sign up for our app. And because the server was getting hammered, like every time, they would try to do anything, it would take, like 45 seconds to get a response. And that first impression is everything. So for a new user, when he walks into a new school, they download this app, and, you know, it's not working, they're going to immediately think, "Oh, like, what what junk, like, I'm not gonna ever use this again." So that was the first time where I was just like, "I don't know what to do, but we need to do something." And we try to, you know, talk to as many advisors as possible and try to get help from people who had a better understanding of how to set this up.
One of these advisors, had them over.
And what we ended up doing is we went over to his house one day. It was my CTO, another guy, and myself. And our goal was just to, you know, stay awake, until we were able to get our entire infrastructure off the single core machine into like the cloud, such that each part can be vertically and horizontally scalable, and to handle our traffic. And I remember, he told me, he was like, "Alright, well, your job is to buy as many energy drinks and coffee as possible. And so I went and I did this. And I remember, my mom asked me, she's like, "Where are you going?" And like, "Why do you have all this stuff?" "I don't know, Mom, like, we could be in for a long night."
That night turned into 50 hours straight. Five-zero. Certainly a risky move, health-wise. But they did get Friendsy on the cloud. Fortunately, this was not a regular occurrence. But the startup founder’s life has a sense of responsibility when weighing the risks.
I felt a sense of responsibility to everybody who is using our service to constantly improve it constantly try to make it better, I felt a sense of responsibility to my team, who believed in our vision and who believed in me to make sure that this can continue to be a possibility for them, that we could raise enough money that they would be able to get paid over the summer for their jobs, and then the bets that they were taking on me and this concept would also be good bets and pay off for them.
It crossed my mind the most once we graduated, and I was, you know, I had to make payroll every month, so people can pay their rent. And that's why it really, really, really hit me where if I cannot do this, many people will be negatively affected. You try, I feel like you try as a founder to not think about that as much as possible. Because you have to stay positive, you have to try your best to believe in what you're doing, and to try to not let those negative thoughts drag you down. But they're very, very real. And I feel like people don't often talk about that. When I was in school, it was somewhat easier. We had people I would say, taking risks by working with us over the summer, working with us during the school year. And you know, not going to that big Google job or that big Goldman job or, whatever it is they're interested in. It's like you're taking a bit like, there's, there's some opportunity cost there. But then, I also feel like the types of people we attracted, in terms of a team are not the types of people who necessarily wanted to go work at Google, or you know, work at one of these big companies anyway. There are people who were really, really excited by this idea.
And startup founders have their own personal risk calculations to make.
So you never really thought, “I'm gonna go get a job at Goldman or Deloitte or something.” was that ever part of your risk calculation? Like I could take this high paying job, I’m a CS major from Princeton...I could do that, or work on this, work on Friendsy or work on a startup. Was that ever part of your calculation?
It's tough. It was definitely a part of my calculation. It was definitely something that I had to consider because all of my friends were doing it. And that's like, I felt in college, that this was the standard thing that people would do, right? There's a lot of peer pressure, and even external pressures from other people who are like, “Oh, this is like a fun little side project, but you're gonna get a real job, right?” And gratefully, I would say, my mom and my sisters have always been immensely supportive of what I've wanted to do, and that's helped a ton. I know, there are people in situations where that's not the case. But that, that really helped me. At least, worst case, if all else fails, and I fail at everything, I still have them. So in my mind, that's how I rationalize it. Like, how bad could it really be?
Friendsy did reach a point where Vaidhy had to decide whether the worst case was happening. You’ll hear about that in Episode 3, available now wherever you got this episode.
Coming up next, we’ll meet someone who had a wonderful, perfectly stable, well-paying job with a great company that was going to send her to Paris to open a new office there. But this is an episode on taking risks, so you might guess where this is going. After the break.
Welcome back to the Princeton Spark. On this episode on taking risks, we go to a different type of matchmaking. This is Daphne, founder of The Vendry.
Daphne Earp Hoppenot, Princeton graduate 2010. And I am an entrepreneur based in New York City, who founded a company called The Vendry, which is an online platform that is connecting brands who are investing in events and live experiences with the venues, the vendors, and the promotional good companies that they need to hire for their events.
Before The Vendry, Daphne ran partnerships at Yext, an enterprise software company in New York City for seven and a half years. She opened the Berlin office during her last seven months at Yext.
And to be totally honest, I mean, I grew up at Yext, like it was my everything. And I, for the entire time I was there. I couldn't imagine leaving. And I think it just sort of came to me quite suddenly, but in a very peaceful way.
I agreed with yet to basically moved to Paris where my husband's originally from Paris, okay, and so he was going to move from New York there. And I was going to move from Berlin there to meet him and I was going to work for that office. And what I felt happening from my career, which just starts playing a little bit into the risk that I wanted to take was, I was really comfortable. I knew that I had everything I needed at Yext. I could sort of, you know, increasingly coast there and sort of maybe increasingly vague positions, as they were like, “Go help in Paris, we got you.” And that's great. But I was 29 years old, and I had no real desire to coast. And I felt that it was just the time to sort of say, you know, this chapter of my life was awesome. And I want to make sure that I can sort of stand on my own as a professional and as a wannabe entrepreneur without the comfort of this machine behind me.
But was her next move fleshed out?
Not at all! So I literally called my husband in Berlin, and he had already quit his job and moved to Paris for my job.
WS: Wow. So that sounds risky.
Yeah. So that was a phone call, because it just literally came to me in a flash and I was like, “This is the cleanest, best time for me to transition to something new.” And so I called Pierre and I was like, “Hey, I know you quit your job to move to Paris for me, but actually, I also want to quit my job.”
And so I pitched him. I was like, “Look, look, we don't need to freak out. Let’s still move to Paris.”
They still moved to Paris. They spent the next year living in Airbnbs. He worked on freelance projects remotely, and she set out to find her next path.
And I guess through my soul searching in Paris, I just totally got that entrepreneurial bug. I love New York City, I'm totally obsessed with New York City and just the work culture here. And so both Pierre and I – he also was itching to come back and start his own company, which is an architecture firm – and so we decided to move back. I decided, I wanted to start a company and I had all these ideas. And so what I started doing was, I started putting together pitch decks as if I was pitching an investor something.
I think there were two ideas early on, totally different, that I dropped fairly quickly. But the truth is that at the same time, I was planning my wedding – Pierre and I got married in Franc – and I was feeling a lot of these pain points around event planning specific to sourcing vendors and managing them, as the event planning rolls out. And so I started seeing in the back of my mind, I feel like there's room for technology to make this all much more efficient. Personally didn't feel much passion for the wedding market. Also, there's already been a lot of investment from the venture side into that market. And so Zola raised $100 million last year, Wedding Wire and The Knot merged and so I just didn't feel that that market was big enough to merit another big player. But tapping into my experience at Yext running partnerships, and then also the consumer thing, pop-ups everywhere, brands investing in IRL, I knew that there was something in that space.
Thus, The Vendry was born. And…
And so Pierre and, I moved back to New York last fall, September. And that's when I started talking to potential angel investors about raising an angel investment round. Also found out I was pregnant, which was a little bit of a surprise.
New companies for both of them. New baby. New York.
We were jumping into the unknown. We're like, we're doing this and we’ll figure it out, and that’s how it's played out.
And I was very lucky, I guess, speaking a little bit about just going through pregnancy as an entrepreneur, You know, every woman and every family is going to have a totally different experience. And any parent knows that. And So I was very lucky in that I had a very easy pregnancy. And it just I literally worked until the last day. It just wasn’t a thing.
And we didn't have an easy start to parenthood. So we had some unexpected events that made the first two months of parenthood really difficult. But, you know, you just work through it. And we had supportive families. You know, we were very lucky in that regard.
It’s already been quite a journey. Daphne had this reflection on it.
I think, you know, after you guys asked me to do this podcast, I thought about what I felt What I felt I had taken in this journey. And I think there's one big glaring one, which is that I feel I'm somewhat risking my reputation. And that is a risk that I took on without needing to, right? I think I built a very good professional reputation and networking at Yext. And I think I easily could have stayed at Yext and, you know, chosen that path or taken another high paying job somewhere else. And instead, I chose to basically start my own company, go to all the most powerful people I know and say, “Hey, make a bet on me, will you give me some money?” And that is a risk I didn't need to take and I did because I have conviction in myself and The Vendry. But it's a risk. It definitely is.
At the time of this episode’s release, Daphne is charging ahead, and The Vendry is rolling out. You can find The Vendry on Instagram at thevendry and online at thevendry dot co.
After the break, we’ll meet two men who have embarked on a venture capital journey in an unlikely place.
Welcome back to the Princeton Spark.
On this episode about taking risks, here now are two men with Texas-sized entrepreneurship goals, deep in the Lone Star State. Meet Marcus Stroud and Brandon Allen, the founders of TXV Partners, a venture capital firm.
Marcus: Yeah, my name is Marcus Stroud, class of 2016 from Princeton, I am one of the founding partners of TXV Partners, we’re an early stage venture capital fund, based in Austin, Texas with an office in San Francisco as well. We focus on early stage investments.
Brandon: Hi, I'm Brandon Allen, one of the other founding partner at TXV, as Marcus said, focusing on early stage investments, a lot of which is in the consumer space, in the enterprise space. And so I tend to handle some of the enterprise related companies.
The two of them set up shop in Austin, which is certainly on the rise. But frankly, not the most obvious place.
Marcus: I will say this, it definitely is risky, because at the end of the day, two-thirds of venture capital comes from one part of the country, which is Silicon Valley. And then a larger concentration is also in New York City and in Massachusetts obviously. And Texas is kind of a state that is going through this initial growth of venture capital. Historically, we have had successful funds before from the likes of Austin Ventures or Sevin Rosen and we've never had venture capitalism, the level that other parts of the country have, regardless of how incredible our economy has been for the last 10-15 years. So there's definitely substantial risk that we're taking in saying that we're betting on Austin as a venture capital fund regardless of our network, the strength of it that largely resides in San Francisco and New York, and other places. But at the same time, venture capital is inherently risky asset class, you have to take that and double down on places that people may have some skepticism about. And, we are making that bet on Austin and Texas as a whole.
Not obvious, like Silicon Valley, although they do maintain an office out there. But they observed and calculated that Austin - and Texas - have the resources to make this idea work.
Marcus: I interned in New York. And then, when I got into my professional career spent a substantial time in San Francisco, in various investment roles on behalf of firms in Texas and New York. And being in those places, really taught me that, man, Texas has all the resources, has just as much capital, that you would need to build an ecosystem. But I'm not sure that there are a lot of folks that have the same vision that maybe needed to create an ecosystem of something of that magnitude, or that could scale.
Texas is great, in that Austin has a great amount of venture capital funds, there's a ton of funds moving there. There are a ton of people moving from the Valley to Austin every day, because the cost of living is so much cheaper. And then the standard of living is a little bit higher, as a result of a lower amount of money needed to do well. But being a native Texan, I have a ton of pride in Texas. And when I was pitching Brandon on setting up shop in Texas, he saw the same vision in Texas also.
The two of them are building a $50 million venture fund. TechCrunch says TXV is the largest fund led by an all African-American general partner group.
Marcus: as far as we're concerned, we know, as of right now, we're the largest African-American GP-run fund in Texas. As far as the country, I'm not sure, because there's a lot of great firms out there right now that are building strong track records, building large funds like Harlem Capital and others. So we're not sure but you know, we're glad to be in the conversation.
TechCrunch also called the $50 million dollar number “lofty”, especially for two young, black men starting their first fund. In Austin. In Texas. But to them, it was almost necessary to set that as the goal.
Brandon: We definitely set a pretty high target for ourselves. I think that was driven by the work that we felt that we could do with the perspective that we thought we could bring. $50 million for a first time fund is definitely a little bit higher than some other people would have chosen to do. But at the end of the day, when Marcus and I decided to do this, we decided to do so with a mission, and to have A mission driven firm. And so for us, the amount of the fund is just simply going to be a factor in the amount of good that we can do.
Marcus: Yeah, I'll say this. I think in life, you gotta have big goals. And like, you gotta take crazy shots, you gotta do things that folks aren't willing to do. I think if we were in Silicon Valley or New York City, then you're playing by those standards, you’re playing by those norms, you’re playing by what the venture are rules out there, then yeah, you can call it lofty. When you're in a different place, a different ecosystem, you’re playing under different rules, the LP base is a lot different, things are just much different. And so I wouldn't necessary call it lofty, we're just playing in a different ecosystem in different worlds than the rest of the venture capital world. So we can do things a little bit differently.
Brandon: I think whenever you do something, especially if it's atypical or ambitious, or whatever word we choose to use, is you have to be willing to risk it all. And so I think that if you set a goal, like raising a $50 million fund, when it's not done too often, especially at the ages that we are, you have to be willing to really go for broke. You know, there are times I think that, we think about what our lives were before. And you know, what we've given up, but I think we actually circle back to what we've gained, and what we've been able to do with the people that we've been able to meet. And so risk doesn't play into it anymore. For us what plays into it is, what's the scope of what we're trying to do, and how do we get there? And how do we execute on a plan that you had say, How much were you willing to risk to get this done? I'd say that we will continue to risk everything.
For Marcus, his risk taking is a kind of personal mission. His story is a classic, come from small-town poverty to make good at Princeton, and then get a great job on Wall Street. He thought he was set for life.
Marcus: When I began working in my first job in New York, I wasn't fulfilled, I wasn't satisfied. And I actually got very tough phone call from family members saying, “Hey, this is kind of position the family is in right now.” And here I am on my first day of work in New York City, really happy, just got a great signing bonus. And I'm getting a phone call from a family member about how bad financially the family is doing. And I just knew in that day, it was crazy. That first day of work. I just knew in that day that my life had to be atypical. Because we didn't go through normal things. And I think if I was going to help change the trajectory of my family, you know, change generations, I was going to have to be the one to take a significant risk in my life, because I was the one who was afforded the opportunity to go to a place like Princeton, where those resources are numerous, that folks will back you up on your crazy dreams, you're taking a risk that they took themselves.
To start a venture capital fund in Texas, instead of going down a traditional Wall Street path, that takes some risk. But they weren’t completely starting with nothing.
Marcus: We didn't have a numerous amount of money. We didn’t have an absurd amount of capital. We didn't come from wealth, but I will say this also: I would be lying if I didn't say we didn't have an upper hand compared to a lot of people. Yes, we didn’t come from wealth but I also was fortunate that I had somebody by the name of Torii Hunter and Katrina Hunter.
Yes, that Torii Hunter, the baseball star. He lives in the same small town as Marcus in Texas. Torii Hunter took Marcus under his wing, and gave him his first experience with venture capital. And now he’s encouraging him and Brandon - almost mandating them - to be bold and take on risk.
Marcus: He said, “You've been afforded the privilege you have, by going to a place like Princeton, by having a mentor like me, you better take some risk.” And so I didn't see any other opportunity not to do something like TXV. It was just meant to be.
TXV Partners is focused on millennial and Gen Z founded startups. When these startups walk in the door, this is how they weigh the risk.
Brandon: It’s a lot of different things. I think the first thing is, when the founder walks in the door, it's presentation. So presentations, first thing that anybody always notices about everybod y. After that, the second thing you look for is mastery. Does this person know what they're talking about? Do they have a lot of knowledge in this space? Marcus and myself, the rest of our team, we don't know every single thing about every single industry in the country. And we never will. But the people that we back should know, almost every single thing about the field that they're in. I think that's the second thing. As far as risk, there are going to be a lot of things that happen, just in the course of running a business. Pivots are going to be required. So the third thing after that is, you look to the person, to the level of grit and intensity that person has, Is this person relentless in accomplishing their goals? And so, things change, people change, markets change, company shifts strategy, but we're betting on a person or group of people to adjust to those headwinds or tailwinds, or macroeconomic factors or whatever else it may be. And so it really does come down to, I think, the person at the end of the day.
For partnership and investment opportunities, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to Vaidhy Murti, Daphne Earp Hoppenot, Marcus Stroud and Brandon Allen. You can read the show notes for this episode at our website princetonspark.com.
The Princeton Spark is a production of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council.
Engineered by Dan Kearns and Dan Quiyu at the Princeton Broadcast Center and produced by me, Wright Seneres.
Music for this episode is by me, Wright Seneres. Our theme music is by the Treadmills.
Special thanks to Rose Kelly, David Hopkins, Elio Lleo, Tiger Gao, Margaret Koval, Beth Jarvie, Kristin Haraldsdottir, Daniella DeLorenzo, Megan Donahey, Josh Carter, Morgan Spencer, and the whole Princeton Entrepreneurship Council team, which is Anne-Marie Maman, Don Seitz, Lauren Bender, Diane DeLorenzo, Neal Bituin, and me, Wright Seneres.
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On the next episode of the Princeton Spark, we’ll explore thriving under uncertainty. We’ll hear from two more entrepreneurs in the Princeton ecosystem on how they navigate uncertainty and succeed. It’s available now, at princetonspark.com or your favorite podcast app.
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