Five years ago, I was an Economics PhD student studying Auction Theory at the University of Maryland. I was on track to learn the theoretical foundations of multi-priced auctions and how human and buyer behavior affects the overall outcomes.
I ended up moving to Silicon Valley and founding an AI marketing startup instead.
If you had told me five years ago that I would be running a profitable startup and supporting clients like Curology and Peloton, I would’ve been shocked. But more often than not, success doesn’t happen the way we pictured it.
Learning through failure
It was during my PhD years that I became a performance marketer, although not on purpose. As a side project, I had started an ed-tech company with a software that helped students ace the SATs. It was 2013, and after talking to all the marketers I could find, I was left with a lingering question:
Why weren’t people telling me to run digital advertisements to acquire more customers?
The marketing advice I kept getting felt like it was from the 1990s. Friends and mentors told me to go door-to-door, send direct mail campaigns, and build relationships to grow my business. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that digital was the way to go.
I decided to trust my gut and began running Google AdWords campaigns, using all the bells and whistles to make the best ads possible. It was a complete failure. I had wasted $500 and felt the sting on my $20k/year grad student salary. But even at that low point, I still had a hunch that I could use my penchant for data to drive business growth.
Fueled by frustration from the lack of growth with my ed-tech business and my looming master's graduation, I took a crazy leap of faith. My husband and I packed up our house, piled into the car with the dog, and moved across the country to Silicon Valley.
Climbing the ranks
When we first moved, there was no plan — just a hunch. Neither of us had jobs lined up. But I knew I was good at math and a fast learner, so I convinced a startup called MileIQ that I could figure out how to run effective advertising campaigns. It was the break I needed. Just six months later, we got acquired by Microsoft and I was feeling the rush of startup life. The ups and downs of Silicon Valley can be addicting, and I was in deep. Only a year after graduation, I had gotten four job offers in San Francisco for Directors of Marketing and Directors of Growth positions.
Shortly after the acquisition, I joined Intercom and I knew that I would get them to a unicorn valuation. I was there for three months and completely overhauled the way the company thought about buying ads and acquiring new users. Using the skills I learned at MileIQ, I was able to help Intercom achieve fantastic results.
I had an idea that I took to the leadership team at Intercom. I bet that a computer could do the same work I was manually doing day in and day out. The team told me to give them three years to fully execute and implement this strategy.
I didn’t have three years to wait around, so I decided to start consulting on the side. In September of 2015, I had my first few consulting clients. I was helping companies effectively run their Facebook ad campaigns at the time. But once I started making enough money to afford my crazy San Francisco rent, I took the “entrepreneurial” leap. I left Intercom and Lightning AI was officially born.
From consultant to startup founder
These initial consulting clients shaped everything for what eventually became my business, Lightning AI. Other companies had the exact same problems I had faced at MileIQ and Intercom — they wanted to have exponential growth while maintaining the same cost per acquisition. In just six weeks, I had developed a web app that allowed users to rapidly create new Facebook advertising campaigns. Things weren’t perfect and a lot of work and improvements had to be made, but we got the initial product out there quickly and were able to serve our clients. Looking back, my initial group of consulting clients were crucial to the success and growth of Lightning AI. They provided data and helpful insight during the testing periods of the business. I’m not sure where I’d be today without them (maybe I’d still be working at Intercom!).
From the beginning, my goal was always the same: to build a computer system that created and optimized marketing campaigns using data science, not marketers’ intuition. Lightning AI solves a problem and no matter what happens in the future, running this company gives me a sense of pride, joy, and accomplishment I’d never feel anywhere else.
My advice to female founders
I got a lot of advice in the early days, but the best that I can give is to get to market as quickly as possible. If you’re spending months and months building, those are just months where you’re not able to earn revenue and sell to users. If you don’t have something out in the world, you have no idea if you really have a business or not.
For me personally, I also quickly learned that I needed to be around other people to work effectively. I wasn’t great at working from home by myself and if I’d known, I would have joined a coworking space right away and met other founders. If you’re a young founder or future entrepreneur, take note: learn and connect with a community of other entrepreneurs.
So, what’s up next for Lightning AI?
We just had our second birthday and sometimes I really can’t believe it’s only been two years. We’ve raised money, hired employees, and created a full product and built out an artificial intelligence platform that solves a problem. We’re gearing up to launch a full self-service version of Lightning AI this fall and we’ve achieved the vision of putting world-class marketing decision-making into the hands of every business owner.
A few weeks ago, I found myself wondering what my classmates were up to from my PhD program back in Maryland. It’s crazy to believe that I could still be in school if I stayed and never pursued my cross-country Silicon Valley dream. I would have never owned my company, and I’d probably still be sitting in class studying Auction Theory. Although it feels like it’s been decades of experiences I’ve lived, it’s only been a few years.
I created Lightning AI on a hunch that computers could make optimizations and decisions that marketers struggled with every single day. And I was right. So if there’s one thing you can take away from my journey, it’s to follow the hunches, take the leaps, and never stop learning. You never know where you might end up.
The rest is still unwritten.