The Enduring Entrepreneurial Journey

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 third blog in this series comes from Gowri Rao, co-founder of CareerLark. To read the rest of the series, click here.

I wanted to be an entrepreneur long before I even knew what entrepreneurship really entailed.

All my life I had followed clearly defined paths to success, like studying hard, going to a “good” college, and getting a “good” job. In my naïveté, I expected the entrepreneurial journey would be much the same — make a plan, follow it, work hard and success will come

In a nutshell, the step-by-step plan was:

  1. Get an MBA from a top business school to learn all the necessary skills
  2. Work in an operational role at a large company for a few years to gain experience and relevant expertise
  3. Join a smaller (but already off-the-ground) startup to truly experience ‘startup life’
  4. Start my own company

True to plan, after finishing my MBA at Columbia, I moved out west to Seattle to join Amazon as a product manager on Kindle. Amazon taught me what it meant to be a tech product manager and I learned a lot in a relatively short period of time.

“Great! That box is checked!” I thought to myself, eager to move on to the next step. Coming from Amazon (about as large a company as they come), I honestly believed Zynga (a still private, VC funded company of about ~1000 employees at the time) to be a “startup” and I excitedly made the move to SF to work for the gaming giant.

Presenting at TwilioCon 2013

After a couple of years at Zynga learning the art of data driven product management, I joined Twilio, the developer platform for communications to run their messaging product line. Telecom was a completely new industry to me and there’s no better way to learn quickly than being thrown in the deep end! There were always interesting problems to be solved and new challenges to be taken on, which included launching several new products and features including programmable Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS).

It was during my time at Twilio, that I reconnected with Ellen, who would become my co-founder. Ellen had gone to business school with my husband Abhinav, so we had known each other for a few years. We had previously talked about wanting to do something together and towards the end of my time at Twilio, the time felt right for both of us to take the leap.

I‘ve always been passionate about empowering employees, increasing retention and workplace satisfaction, and presenting employees with better opportunities for feedback. Essentially, I asked:

  • How do you get hyper-growth companies to prioritize career coaching and development — something that tends to get put on the back burner?
  • How do you make it easy for them?

Having witnessed employee disillusionment across my different roles, I felt confident there had to be a better way. Ellen felt similarly and from there, CareerLark was born.

Icebreakers featured on the Slack app directory

In 2015, we built and launched Micro-feedback, a Slack app that allows employees and managers to give and get continuous, contextual feedback, with built-in frameworks that make the process quick and painless. We were featured by Slack on their app directory home page for almost a year. Subsequently, we launched another Slack app called Icebreakers which helps employees get to know each other. Icebreakers was also featured by Slack. The Slack promotions got us a ton of inbound interest and we now have more than 5,000 slack teams with our apps installed.

The CareerLark team — Ellen Choi, Gilbert Gong, Gowri Rao

Our journey has been extremely enriching and rewarding; we’ve taken great pleasure in being able to provide multiple workplaces with a platform that increases communication and professional development, while decreasing employee turnover rates and stagnation. There’s nothing quite like hearing from individual employees about how CareerLark feedback has made them happier and more productive in their day-to-day.

However, if there is one thing that I have learned as an entrepreneur, it is that there is no single “best” path to entrepreneurship. While the experience I gained and the lessons I learned along the way certainly have been helpful, there’s truly nothing that can prepare you for the many ups and downs, and trials and tribulations of starting your own company. In the span of a day you can be taken from the height of ecstasy at some small success to the depths of despair caused by a setback. At the end of the day, the only things that really matter are grit, perseverance, and an almost delusional belief that success will come.

There is no single “best” path to entrepreneurship.

We’ve been so fortunate to have wonderful supporters and mentors along the way. As women entrepreneurs, we’ve faced some challenges but also have had access to incredible opportunities. The SAP.iO Foundry summer program was one such opportunity. It has given us access to a depth of HR expertise in SuccessFactors leadership and has truly helped us grow our business.

Building CareerLark has been the journey of a lifetime. I know now entrepreneurship cannot (and should not) be mapped precisely — a plan can be a helpful guide, but there are many paths here and to do it, you need to just dive in and live it one day a time