Humanizing Technology

The Low-Down on Startups

By Elizabeth Randolph

Jonathan Berger ’01, Daniel Leslie ’01, and Alison Albeck Lindland ’00 share strategies for navigating the world of digital technology startups.

Jonathan Berger ’01 is a design manager at Pivotal Labs and the cofounder of Market Publique, an online marketplace dedicated to vintage fashion. He has helped to organize such tech-oriented events as Agile Experience Design Meetup, the Pivotal Labs Tech Talk series in New York City, and Startup Weekend. Berger has worked for institutions as diverse as Eyebeam, MTV Networks, Yahoo!, OgilvyInteractive, and the American Museum of Natural History. A philosophy major at Vassar, Berger later earned a master’s degree in media studies at the New School.

Daniel Leslie ’01 is director of business development and a partner at Reflexions Data, a digital strategy and development firm he cofounded with Alex Smith ’01 at the height of the dot-com era, while at Vassar. Now with 20 employees and offices in White Plains and Manhattan, Reflexions works with clients including funded startups and established companies like Johnson & Johnson, PwC, DDB Worldwide, and ESPN. In 2011, the Business Council of Westchester selected Leslie as one of the “Forty Under Forty” rising stars. He was a philosophy and computer science double major at Vassar.

Alison Albeck Lindland ’00 is an account director at Movable Ink, a venture-backed agile marketing company in New York City. (Agile marketing companies maintain a level of flexibility that enables them to respond quickly to changes rather than follow fixed plans.) In her 14-year career in the tech field she has worked in client services, business development, and product management at such startups as TheaterMania.com and Kohort, and at Fortune 500 companies such as OgilvyInteractive and American Express. She serves on the boards of Venture For America and Agency Spotter and is the cofounder of the Vassar in Tech Meetup. She majored in drama at Vassar and went on to receive an MBA from Columbia Business School.

You all majored in subjects that one might not necessarily think of as prep-work for technology startups—except Dan, whose double major included computer science. How did your liberal arts backgrounds come into play?

Daniel: Much ink has been spilled questioning the value of a liberal arts education, of late, certainly hastened by financial issues like student loan debt. But the very nature of startups—in fact, technology—is combinatorial. You’re combining different things, maybe you’re applying some innovation to an industry that’s ripe for disruption. And so that model means that cross-discipline studies have never been more important. I feel like I learned more as a philosophy major than as a computer science major in actually being able to think and articulate things that are relevant to what we do.

“There’s a cultural norm in startup culture: acceptance of failure. It’s not a badge of shame. This is an advantage that American culture has over a lot of places where if you fail once you’re marked forever. The tech community here is really wonderful and forgiving and welcoming of people trying things, finding they don’t work, and trying again.” —Jonathan Berger ’01
“There’s a cultural norm in startup culture: acceptance of failure. It’s not a badge of shame. This is an advantage that American culture has over a lot of places where if you fail once you’re marked forever. The tech community here is really wonderful and forgiving and welcoming of people trying things, finding they don’t work, and trying again.” —Jonathan Berger ’01

Jonathan: Liberal arts people are phenomenally well disposed for startups. The wide range of ability that you need to figure something out and get it done is really the name of the game when it comes to young companies operating in conditions of great uncertainty.

Alison: Yes. So many startups enter a new market with nothing to present except the value the consumer derives from their service, so you need to convey to your customers what that value is. Having been a drama major, I was very excited about the fact that storytelling is not just ancillary to the industry, but something you need to rely on.

Jonathan: I think a large piece of what we’re seeing is technology bringing humans and machines together. We’re taking the 20th-century information systems and putting them online, but at the end of the day, humans are fundamentally narrative creatures, and if you don’t capture that in your business, you’re probably going to be throwing darts with a blindfold on.

What would you say to those who might be interested in starting a digital technology company or working for an established group, but don’t know where to start?

Alison: I’d say that tech is not just about coding. Being able to code is a great skill but once it’s demystified—maybe you take a Code Academy class—you can either say, “Okay, this is a path that I need to pursue, and become an expert on,” or you say, “Okay, I feel comfortable enough with this technology, but I don’t need to pursue an advanced knowledge of this. I’m going to go specialize in everything else that’s really important to my business!”

Jonathan: They’ll need to get past the “gating factor”—fear. A lot of people, particularly liberal arts people, feel like tech is this chasm that they can’t jump over. But there are varying degrees of literacy. It’s not a binary skill that you either have or don’t have. You don’t need to be a poet. If you can string together a few lines of code, if you can help out with the front-end, or if you can change copy, or check it in a version-control system, that makes you more effective as a product manager, as a marketer, or as a nontechnical CEO.

For people just starting to explore tech, I’d say take advantage of the wonderful array of community resources out there. Find a Startup Weekend. Find a Lean Startup Machine. My personal favorites are hack-a-thons. They’re for people who are curious about startups, but either don’t know enough, or don’t have the opportunity in their day-to-day lives. They spend 54 hours on a weekend completely exhausting themselves, but generally having a good time meeting new people and working in a team to build a project.

You show up on Friday, and usually it’s 100 or 200 people. First, there’s an open call to pitch. So everyone who wants to will get 60 seconds to say: Here’s a problem I see. Here’s a solution that I’d like to build for it. And here’s what I’m going to need—a developer and designer, etc. After the pitches, there’s a selection process. By Friday night, you’ve found teams of anywhere from 3 to 10 people. Then, on Saturday morning, you hit the ground running. You start building—some people stay up all night—and then on Sunday afternoon, there’s generally judging, sometimes with prizes. After taking a few of these, people usually have enough data to know whether they’re going to transition out of their current career into technology, or whether it seemed like a nice idea, but they really don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day.

Alison: There needs to be some sort of litmus test because a lot of people are attracted to the idea of tech startups—there’s so much hype in the press right now. Hack-a-thons are a great way to put your toe in the water and ask yourself, “Do I like working in this meritocracy where I have this 21-year-old telling me what to do?” By no means are they full labs for what it’s like to run a tech startup, but they give you a small sense of what it’s like.

Jonathan: They also give you something to point to, to say, “I helped build this.” And they provide the opportunity to work with people rather than simply network with them. By the end, there are a few people you’re going to love and want to work with again. I’ve actually hired many of the people I’ve worked with in that sort of crucible.

“The startup world is not for the faint of heart. The excitement of building a team and launching something new is matched only by the stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation that come with the startup life. The results can be deeply rewarding, even if you don’t end up fabulously wealthy.” —Daniel Leslie ’01
“The startup world is not for the faint of heart. The excitement of building a team and launching something new is matched only by the stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation that come with the startup life. The results can be deeply rewarding, even if you don’t end up fabulously wealthy.” —Daniel Leslie ’01

Daniel: I’d echo what you both said, but add that some people find the larger tech meetups overwhelming. To really put your finger on the pulse of what’s happening and to embed yourself in some of the really innovative stuff, you also have to look a little bit outside the spotlight, to the perimeter of what’s happening. If you have a better idea of what you actually want to be doing, there are some interesting, smaller groups that can be better at fostering relationships. I belong to a group called the NY Semantic Web Group. But there’s a Big Data Meetup. There’s a Cloud Computing Meetup. There are startup-oriented breakfast clubs. And there are other ways of aligning with various segments of the startup community. For example, coworking spaces [shared office environments, occupied by individuals or small groups of people who work independently, but who often have industry affinities] are sprouting up everywhere.

What lessons have you learned over the course of your careers that might benefit others considering the field of digital technology?

Daniel: I’ve learned that having the right team is about more than having the right employees. It’s about having the right support network, a referral network, a network of partners, a network of advisors—all of those things that go into an ecosystem of people. Fundamentally, startups are all about people, as are all companies, and I think once you understand that, you understand how important the traditional modes of business are to the tech world. Personal relationships are still at the core of success.

“At the end of the day, there has to be a market for your service that’s based on added value to people’s lives. At first, people thought cell phones were frivolous and corroding the way we interact. The idea of a phone that was ubiquitous was just offensive. But the value that it added inch by inch into our actual lives made it indispensable.” —Alison Albeck Lindland ’00
“At the end of the day, there has to be a market for your service that’s based on added value to people’s lives. At first, people thought cell phones were frivolous and corroding the way we interact. The idea of a phone that was ubiquitous was just offensive. But the value that it added inch by inch into our actual lives made it indispensable.” —Alison Albeck Lindland ’00

Alison: In the early days of the New York Tech Meetup, I had the chance to meet with [venture capitalist] Fred Wilson, who gave me great advice on getting back into a leadership role after business school. Being a drama major, I hadn’t gotten the technical skills. He told me: “You need real hands-on tech product management experience. No venture capital-backed CEO is going to let you learn on their dime, so you need to go to a big company where they’re not going to blink to give you millions of dollars to launch some website, or service, or some back-end capability.”

So during my MBA program, I got an internship at American Express and joined their mobile team, which was just two people at the time. There I fell in love with mobile and launched their first iPhone app. I’m really grateful for my time at OgilvyInteractive and AmEx. You can learn to be entrepreneurial and innovative with technology in the right type of big company and, ultimately, they can be great springboards into startups.

Something that’s also helped me in my career—and I definitely attribute this to my Vassar upbringing—are the “emperor’s clothes” moments. In these big companies, where people are apt to be very polite and politick, to just have the wherewithal to say, “Wait, how are you going to get that done?” or to say, at the end of a two-hour session, “I’m not clear on exactly how we’re going to go from A to Z between now and the next meeting.” Just having the guts and being fearless about the outcome helps.

Anything not-so-rosy about the industry?

Daniel: Well, the tech industry culture can be jarring to someone coming from a more traditional company. And there are elements of the culture that can be disconcerting, like the lack of women. It’s gotten more attention in the last few years, but there’s still a long way to go. Ageism is another issue in tech. Age is something that is a deterrent to a lot of people who already have a career but have thought about opportunities in the startup world.

But I think there are ways to help overcome some of these things. There is a sense that the tech field is a meritocracy, so certainly building an identity or a reputation for yourself and understanding what role you really want to play is a key part of it.

Alison: I’m glad you mentioned women in technology. I’ve actually had two great experiences with startups while having my children, but not without recognizing that, as a woman, you’re always conscious of how to navigate that terrain.

Becoming a mother is certainly something I approached with my eyes wide open. I reached out to as many women with children in tech as I could so that I could assemble my own little personal advisory board, and that’s something I think everyone should have. I found a lot of VPs, a lot of tech entrepreneurs from Fortune 500 companies, or those who were venture capitalists or mid-level career women who were at big companies working in tech, and younger women who were real dynamos, and assembled a “board” to get more than one answer to questions like: “How long should I take maternity leave?” “I’m up for a promotion—what might that look like?” Whether you’re a woman who plans to have children—or anyone else—it’s important to find a chorus of voices to help guide your strategies.