How I learned to never stop never stopping and love the startup life
To shine a light a on the SAP.iO FoundrySF’s special focus on female founders in tech, SAP TV has a new series featuring the voices of the Foundry’s first cohort. The first blog in this series comes from Liz Derr, co-founder of Simularity. To read the rest of the series, click here.
What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur? In my experience, it is confidence, resilience, the ability to execute, a high pain tolerance, hard work, some luck, and the ability to inspire others. What does it take to become a successful female entrepreneur? Well, all of that, plus so much more.
Being a female founder in a technology company has some unique challenges. I have had plenty of experiences with gender bias throughout my career. Dealing with this has helped me navigate the challenges of having customers in cultures that are very different from ours, cultures which have strong gender roles that don’t include females being business leaders and technologists.
My current company, Simularity, is focused on eliminating inefficiency though predictive insights and AI powered analytics. When bad things happen, it is human nature to try to make sure that the problem doesn’t happen again. This is at the core of Simularity’s value proposition, and it also applies to me personally.
Simularity isn’t my first startup. I poured 3 unpaid years of my life as a technical co-founder into a spam filtering startup in the early 2000s. To pay my mortgage and live, I walked dogs, ran up my credit cards, borrowed money from family, and even refinanced my house. I cried when I paid my bills. Once, I was nearly mad with joy to find a grocery store whose freezer had broken and was practically giving away their frozen food. It was at this point that I swore to myself that I wouldn’t do another startup.
Yet here I am again. My first startup was painful, but also personally transformative. I learned what it takes to be an entrepreneur. This time has been different, and better. But it still isn’t easy or pain-free.
Sworn off the startup life, I joined Alibris (now Monsoon Commerce) in 2004. Alibris is a books, movies, and music marketplace with 150 million inventory items and $500M gross merchandise value transacted annually.
Alibris had a home-grown recommendation engine, but I realized that it would be more effective with more relevant information. We only had a small view into what our customers like — we only knew about the things they bought on our website. I reasoned that the best way to predict what an individual customer would want to buy was to know more about them.
The more relevant information you know, the better choices you can make.
This concept, that the more relevant information you know, the better choices you can make, was the vision for Simularity from the start, and remains so today. Our scope has expanded, though. Instead of helping people find books they will love, we are looking at massive amounts of information to predict and prevent bad things from happening.
With all the sensor data now being collected and the billions of connected devices generating information, we know that there are predictive patterns in data that we could harness for good. The trick is to find those patterns, and generate alerts in time to take mitigating action. That is what Simularity does.
As an enterprise software company, we have found that large enterprises frequently don’t want to take chances on small startups. We’re part of Intel’s IoT Solutions Alliance, and were in the 3rd cohort of the the Cisco Entrepreneur In Residence Program. Recently, we were fortunate enough to be selected for SAP.iO’s summer program. These relationships with global brands have helped us gain customers that we would not have been able to reach otherwise.
SAP.iO’s summer program is focused on female founders. I am grateful for the many men and women who have encouraged and supported me along the way. There are a number of resources available for female founders, and I strongly encourage other female founders to make connections with supportive organizations and groups. Ping me if you’d like a list of groups I’m active on.
Simularity’s co-founder and CTO, Ray Richardson, and I have worked with many excellent people over our careers in the software industry. Over that time, we have built strong relationships with our co-workers, and inspired them with our talent and leadership. We’ve brought a number of these talented people into Simularity, and their faith in us really helps us through the hard days.
The SAP.iO summer program has come at a great time for us. We have finally found our product/market fit! As SAP.iO welcomes us into the SAP ecosystem, we are poised to accelerate our growth. We are at an inflection point and are ready to scale. The mentoring advice and the help honing our fundraising pitch that we’ve received as part of the SAP.iO program have been invaluable.
Starting Simularity is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. But I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. We are at the very forefront of technology, implementing solutions that were the stuff of science fiction not too long ago.
We have the opportunity to make a significant positive impact on the world, making industrial jobs safer and more efficient, saving lives, finding and addressing environmental problems, increasing productivity, and using resources more effectively. Simularity is my passion. It’s the culmination of my 30 years of experience in the software industry, and this, this very challenging journey, is exhilarating and terrifying and so very fulfilling.
I’m not a thrill-seeking person. I don’t gamble; I don’t jump out of planes. And yet here I have taken a huge risk with my savings and that of my friends and family. The difference is that I am betting on myself, and I know I have what it takes to survive and succeed. The first startup taught me how resourceful I was, and although that time we did not have a successful exit, it did wonders for my self-confidence.
The difference is that I am betting on myself, and I know I have what it takes to survive and succeed.
Anyone that embarks on an entrepreneurial journey of their own has my heartfelt empathy. May you learn from your experiences, find reasons to keep going, recognize when things aren’t working and pivot appropriately, and find ways to create happy customers.