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Lisa Thee of Minor Guard: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup

An Interview With Paul Moss

Many technical founders fall in love with technology for technologies sake. They don’t understand the need in the market or how to help potential customers become aware that they are addressing that pain point. There is much more to running a business than building cool stuff.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Thee.

Lisa Thee leads Launch Consulting’s Data for Good practice, helping the world’s most innovative healthcare, and global technology companies to improve digital safety, anti-toxicity, and apply machine learning for innovation. As an entrepreneur, she is the CEO and Co-Founder of Minor Guard, an Artificial Intelligence software company focused on making children safer online and in real life, and is doing a TEDx talk in 2021 about “Using Technology to disrupt Human Trafficking in the digital age”. She is the Co-Author of Demystifying Artificial Intelligence for the Enterprise and the Navigating Forward podcast host. Lisa also currently serves as an advisory board member for Engineered Medical Solutions, Humaxa, Orchestrated Intelligence, Spectrum Labs and Marketplace Risk.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I started my career as an engineer forecasting the cellular market supply chain in the early 2000’s. We talked about phones one day having color displays and cameras, but nowhere in my mind did I envision the phones of today being used to weaponize children against themselves. Yet that’s exactly what is happening right this minute, for the purposes of Human Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation. In 2016, I was in a meeting in Washington DC, where I had a chance to speak with the CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and he said “Handing your child a smartphone is like dropping them off in the most dangerous city in the world and walking away” (John Clark CEO NCMEC).

That one meeting in DC literally changed the course of my career and my life. As a parent myself, it shook me to the core. Many of you probably don’t know about the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), but you are definitely aware of their work. They produce all the Amber Alerts for the country and are the mandatory reporting location for all child sexual abuse material identified by internet service providers, law enforcement, and the public.

Being deep in data with NCMEC, we learned a surprising fact: over 40% of child sexual abuse material is generated by children themselves! It’s the split second that a kid decides to send a nude photo to “someone they trust” — who they shouldn’t. We are expecting kids to have the judgement of adults, while some adults are weaponizing their phones against them. It’s not a fair fight. It sets off a chain of events from one small bad decision.

This means if we stopped kids from being able to take these photos in the first place, we could have prevented 26M Images and Videos of child sexual abuse material from circulating in 2020. That was the catalyst for my co-founder and me to leave our global tech jobs to launch our company Minor Guard whose mission was to make kids safer online and in real life.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

In late 2017 I was at a crossroads. I had achieved the milestones I had strived for and I was looking to infuse more meaning in my career. As a working mom of young children, the expectations from the corporate world were out of alignment with my responsibilities at home and I was on the edge of burnout. Over coffee with a mentor of mine, I shared my idea, and I asked him to talk me out of doing it. He replied with a question that got me out of my own way: “If I am at your funeral and you never tried this even though it would likely fail, are you ok with that?” I have never felt clearer on my answer of NO. I recognized as a technology insider, trust and safety expert, and sales professional, that I was uniquely qualified to lead this initiative. He ultimately provided the Seed Round for my company, Minor Guard, to be born, and served on my Board of Directors. Without Gregg Descheemaker I would not have taken the leap into entrepreneurship.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Minor Guard was a female-founded company with a social justice focus. We were able to scale our technology roadmap into major players in the technology industry, leveraging cutting edge artificial intelligence capabilities. This benefit marginalized women and children while making a profit — showcasing Shared Value is possible.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Today I have expanded the impact of shared value beyond Minor Guard. as a Board of Directors advisor for technology-forward startups in the variety of areas including healthcare, supply chain, human resources, and content moderation. I love working directly with operators to accelerate their vision of success and help them drive revenue. As a consultant I get to work with some of the largest technology and healthcare companies on their Digital Safety strategies for data for good. My team at Launch Consulting often bring together the public and private sectors to address the challenges of Human Trafficking, FDA approvals for AI on medical devices, and reducing Toxicity online. I specialize in helping executives make the invisible visible, and how to find the actionable wisdom in an ocean of data to de-risk companies in the areas of cybersecurity, digital safety, and privacy.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Persistence — I am from the Midwest and was raised with the mindset that your word is the most valuable asset you have. When I commit to something, I will see it through in a way that brings along everyone. My mantra is: bad news is ok, but surprises are not. Where you have transparency, trust, and the ability to adjust to new information, you can drive the change you want to see in the world.
  • Passion — As a female social impact start up founder, I had to learn that my passion is what makes me memorable. My skills, credentials, and network are what gets me in the room; but what closes the deal is people’s belief that I am the right person at the right time to execute the vision I lay out. That is all based on emotion which is triggered by passion, then validated with data.
  • Connection — I am the classic definition of a connector from Malcom Gladwell “The Tipping Point.” I love people, learning more about what inspires each and every individual I encounter, and how I can remove roadblocks to bring their unique vision to the world. It is an honor when someone truly allows you to see them.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

It took me a long time to recognize that I was an Intrapreneur (till 40!) always preferring the jobs where I could get something off the ground and transition it to another leader once it was running smoothly. I wish I would have left corporate America earlier. it was significantly harder to drive change from the inside of a multi-national company than from outside. That’s why I have partnered with Women in Data and fellow founder Emily Kennedy on our Entrepreneurship 101 courses to help demystify the process.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I remember the first month of starting my business having the aha moment that as CEO, I was now responsible for Legal, HR, Product Development, Finance IT, and Janitorial services. Leading my company was the best street MBA I could get; I learned how to prioritize, assess risk, build my brand, establish a company culture and create new products. It rounded me out well beyond my traditional career experience as an engineer and sales executive. I will never take experts in support organizations for granted again, it is much different paying a lawyer $500 for advice you don’t want to hear then getting it for free working inside a large company.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Sadly, I believe my drive was born out of trauma. In 2016 before I worked in child safety professionally, I was selling technology to the Education sector. During a sales call we were in an elementary school in Hawaii when the principle received an emergency alert from law enforcement to go into a lockdown due to an armed gunman on campus. For two hours we sat in the dark waiting for the shooter to get to our area of the building. I remember seeing teachers exuding calm and singing to the children while they sat in the dark, while I was in a conference room in the fetal position writing goodbye letters to my family. I think what drives me on in times that are hard is my mission to use technology to protect vulnerable women and children.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

The best day and the worst day as a founder are often spread out by hours and may happen a few times a day. Wellness practices are required to be effective for the long term. In order to recharge my batteries, I use meditation, walks, yoga, and time with family and friends to recover from some of the harsh realities of an entrepreneurial life.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

I choose to bootstrap my company in order to maintain control over the direction and vision. I help companies I advise for raise capital when they are focused on scale and need the relationships, expertise, and funding a VC can bring to the table. It is important to ensure you are only accepting “smart money” where the investors bring more than a check book to the table. You are effectively entering into a relationship where they become your boss, it is important to interview both ways to ensure it will work for the long haul.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Clarity of vision

In order to lead it is important to know your “Why” and make that transparent to your team. Your company culture should be aligned with that Why. Integrity in how you operate will lead to long term loyalty and growth for those who choose to join you on this crazy adventure of inventing the future.

2. Fundable Executive Teams

Most investors know that what an early stage startup thinks they need to build will not be the final product. It is important to showcase that your leadership team can react to changes in the market, customer feedback, and technology trends to stay aligned to a real consumer need. Investors are betting on Founder teams as much as they are on ideas.

3. Relentless focus on the customer

Many technical founders fall in love with technology for technologies sake. They don’t understand the need in the market or how to help potential customers become aware that they are addressing that pain point. There is much more to running a business than building cool stuff.

4. Focus, Focus, Focus

Just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should. I find a lot of “Shiny Object Syndrome” in start-ups. An offhanded comment from a potential customer can spin up many hours of wasted time prototyping for an issue only they have. It is important to know what your team can do uniquely well and deliver that; done is better than perfect.

5. Building your company brand

Coming from large companies, I never had much of a need for a website, Linked In, or Twitter. I could lean on the brand of my employer to open doors. It is critical to ensure you own your pipeline and have regular touchpoints with your potential buyers to move them through the customer journey. It took me many years to build a following for my company and myself. It is never too early to start.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Spending too much time making decisions that are not critical or can be easily changed down the road. I think I took a month to pick a technology platform for running my company; check out our pro tips for Free Resources you need to Build Your Idea Into a Business. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, leverage your network to go faster.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

I am a huge believer in community to buffer isolation as a founder. I recommend joining industry associations, attending conferences, and listening to podcasts. In our Startup Masterclass, Emily Kennedy and I share out best wellness and resiliency tips on the EmPower Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/097-startup-masterclass-wellness-resiliency-practices/id1440536165?i=1000524126274

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to help educate more guardians of tweens and teens about their roles as a gatekeeper for the digital lives of young people. Here are my top 5 tips about what to say to a child when they are given access to the digital world:

  1. It is my device, not yours. Write up a contract on how it is to be used you both agree too.
  2. You should never expect anything to be private on it.
  3. I am not concerned about the choices you will make online, I am concerned about the access I give to others to make bad choices that affect you.
  4. Remind them if they come to you, you will not panic and take their device away. You are here to support them. Secrets can only live in the dark, and they need you alongside them for teachable moments online.
  5. Teach your kids technology emergency drill: when they feel uncomfortable with something they see, experience, or do online teach them to STOP, WALK, TALK. Stop what they are doing, walk away from their device, and talk to a trusted adult.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I am an “Arm Cherry” and would love to sit down with Dax Shepard for his Experts on Experts series. A book I co-authored is coming out in Fall 2021 called Demystifying Artificial Intelligence for the Enterprise; who knows maybe I could transition from a fan to a guest?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I am active on linked in or you can check out my website www.lisathee.com

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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