A little about me
I’ve wanted to be an entrepreneur my whole life. Actually, that’s not true. When I was a kid I wanted to be an architect. I would walk down the streets of New York City and marvel at the skyscrapers – my favorite, without a doubt, was the Chrysler Building. And that enchantment with the city’s skyline is what ultimately led me to move back to New York last summer after an 11 year stint working in tech in California.
Fast forward to high school. From that point on, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I studied how to make it a reality in high school, college, and business school. Well, “study” is a relative term I suppose, because it turns out becoming an entrepreneur is something that can only really be learned by doing. That’s where the real lessons lie – it isn’t something you can understand simply by reading a textbook. The ups, as an entrepreneur, are monumental. But the lows feel almost life-threatening. And the lessons are truly indelible.
UpdateAI is the third startup that I’ve personally founded. It’s in a trophy case (and also, in some cases, a cemetery) of about 10 companies that I’ve had the fortune to help start from the very first team. My first startup was a sports social network platform – our MVP was an ice hockey community called HockeyBarn.com. My second startup was a marketing platform called Liveguide that facilitated college admissions information sessions virtually. (Sometimes timing is everything…if only we had started it in 2019!) Back then, my co-founder Hrag Hamalian and I selected a growth stage startup hardly anyone outside of the Bay Area had heard of called Zoom to power our video sessions. That decision led me to today – to the present and future of my mission in entrepreneurship. To UpdateAI.
(Current homepage of my second startup www.onliveguide.com)
Our origin story
As is so often the case in startups, UpdateAI’s story began in my last role as a General Manager of startups at Boston Consulting Group’s digital ventures division. At BCG I helped lead interdisciplinary startup tribes that moved really fast.
And, as usual in consulting, we communicated constantly. Downward planning sessions, lateral peer reviews, upward steering committee presentations – you name it, we did it. With this as a backdrop, one of the rituals I embarked on as a team leader was publishing a weekly wrap-up to distribute to everyone. It focused on highlighting the most important components of the week behind and the week ahead. The key wins, blockers, deliverables, risks, etc. It was a way to cut out the noise of lesser important information that accumulated in a team moving so quickly. It was an effective tool, but there were also areas for improvement. Still, despite its flaws, it planted a seed.
In the Summer of 2020 I approached Bill Gross of Idealab with the idea of creating a platform for crafting a better internal team newsletter – a way to enhance team communication while reducing the friction of creating that messaging. Its codename was “Flo.”
(The very first problem statement slide for “Flo”, now UpdateAI.)
Bill loved the idea. He was in the middle of building his other business at Heliogen and was experiencing the typical growing pains that come with it, including how inter-team communication was becoming more difficult and more time consuming. (An issue that was only exacerbated by the pandemic.) He felt we were onto something important, and soon after, Bill and the Idealab Studio team were in as co-founder!
Like Bill has done for countless startups before UpdateAI, he elevated my idea to the next level.
“Why create a manual CMS when we can use artificial intelligence?” he asked. “Let’s shoot for the moon and do this through AI.”
From that point forward, our mission was set – to leverage natural language processing and artificial intelligence to distill the noise of fast-moving teams into only the good stuff. Like Snapple.
And so we beat a path, talking to different functions within high-performing teams: product managers, engineers, project managers, marketers, etc. From talking to those team stakeholders we realized that, for better or worse, meetings were at the heart of team communication. Deliverables were both the inputs and outputs of meetings; blockers were announced in meetings; open questions were shared; key wins were celebrated. A disruption to meetings was taking place due to COVID, and Bill is a big believer in the importance of timing (see his TED Talk on The Single Biggest Reason Why Startups Succeed)
So then it was decreed: the destiny of our company was to make sure that meetings resulted in leaner, more productive team communication.
With our vision made clear, we then had to go back and set the starting point for our business. I refused for us to become a generic meeting app. We needed to be hyper-focused on what problem we were solving and for whom. So we went back, job function by job function, to our interview subjects and explored where we could provide the most pain relief. (At this point it’s important for me to note that for the past 15 years I’ve been biblically guided by the principles in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. And I am convinced that it’s absolutely table stakes to find a single early adoption segment in order to grow a successful business.) Again, we spoke to product managers, engineers, project managers, and marketers. And this time we extended our list to include customer-facing functions: sales, customer support, and customer success.
(The market adoption curve from Geoffrey A. Moore’s Crossing the Chasm is my north star framework for building new businesses.)
There are those moments when you’re running a business when the light bulb turns on like in a Disney cartoon. Speaking to our first batch of CSMs was one of those remarkable moments. Here was a function on the rise, yet still so under acknowledged and underserved. It was a smaller community – the best estimate today is that there are only 250,000 Customer Success professionals worldwide – but one that felt approachable and accepting to newcomers. And its value was of huge importance to modern day SaaS organizations.
As we spoke to CSMs we also realized that our own mission and value proposition aligned with their needs. These folks were on back-to-back calls with customers, and keeping all of that customer knowledge organized was both a real challenge and a drag. That leads us to today at UpdateAI. Everything we do is devoted to removing the overwhelming stress of back-to-back customer meetings, so that CSMs can focus on the bigger picture: building relationships. We have a strong vision for what we are building, and I’d encourage you to read Our Story on our website, which serves as a bit of a manifesto.
All of this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, which comes from Yankees legend Babe Ruth. “I swing big, with everything I’ve got,” the slugger once said. “I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.” I love that line, and not just because he’s a fellow New Yorker. I love it because it not only applies to baseball but also to being an entrepreneur. You can’t be afraid to fail – that’s something I learned early on. And like any entrepreneur, I’ve had a few misses. But between the team and vision we have in place, I’m confident I’ve hit big with UpdateAI
(We hope and believe that UpdateAI will be the next Grand Slam!)