Techies: Erin Parker

Original Interview: http://www.techiesproject.com/erin-parker/

Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.

I was born in the Philippines. I’m ¾ Filipina and ¼ Austrian. I understand Tagalog and I speak elementary German. I have lived in the Philippines, Germany, and all over the United States (Connecticut, Nebraska, Missouri, California, New York, Boston). My family relocated a lot because of work, so from an early age I was comfortable with the idea of constant change and impermanence.

I was a hard worker and rather ambitious for as long as I can remember. For example, in the third grade, there were these boxes with cards in various colors for different topics like math, language, science, etc. Every day you were supposed to do three. I remember feeling rather competitive and ambitious (with myself, not against other classmates) and I would want to finish the whole box as fast as I could. So what I would do is, I would steal a large quantity of cards, take them home, and then I would work on them the whole day. Sometimes it’d be 9:00 PM and my mom would be like, “Why are you still working?”. I would lie and tell her that it was homework and I recall she was so perplexed — how can a third grader have so much homework? My teachers were also perplexed at how I managed to finish boxes and boxes of cards during school hours, but for me, it was just fun.

How did you first discover tech and get into tech?

I first learned about tech at Stanford. When I started at Stanford, I was certain I would become an investment banker and work for Goldman Sachs. My grand life ambition at the time was to one day become the CEO of Goldman Sachs and I had to start now!

One day, my best friend was telling me how she discovered the tech industry and how she wanted to “do start-ups”. I asked her what that meant and she said, “Well, in tech you have a really scrappy attitude. So, let’s say you don’t have a table. What do you do? Well, you don’t buy a table. You don’t have time for that. You grab a box, then you rip down the door, you put the door on top of the box, and ta-da! You have a table. That’s how scrappy you have to be when you do start-ups.”

“If I’m going to be CEO one day it might as well be now.”

Her “how to make a table” story made such an impression on me. It was the seed of ever considering doing a start-up because I could see myself thriving in an environment with other people who shared that scrappy attitude.

I continued to pursue my investment banking dream. I became the president of the investment club, did internships at top banks every single summer and even during the year, and eventually got an offer from J.P. Morgan in New York for their Leveraged Finance division. But the truth was, by the time I experienced the “New York banker lifestyle” that I always dreamed of, I was deeply unfulfilled. I remember asking my boss, “If I put in the best work possible and have the skill-set of an Associate a year from now, will you promote me?” And he said, “No, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you still have to do 3 years and then go to business school for 2 years and only then can you become an Associate.” This didn’t sit well with me and long story short (after relinquishing my “banker identity” that I had held on to for so long) I decided I was going to start a company.

I realized that if I wanted infinite skill-set growth and no system to hold me back, that I could make this work if I created a profitable company by the time I graduated from college. I had one year. If I’m going to be CEO one day it might as well be now.

Looking back at this rejection of the J.P. Morgan offer and starting the journey on the scrappy startup path, I now see that this was the beginning of my ability to reject a traditional hierarchical system that I used to follow so strictly. Back then, I based my personal worth on my company name and job title, and back then, it needed to be Goldman Sachs and CEO. Rejecting that value system, however, has helped me realize that my value lies in deciding what I want to do and then making it happen. I no longer had to knock on someone’s door, play by the rules, form myself into “this perfect person” with a prestigious job and title. Now, I could simply decide what I wanted to happen and then make it happen.

A week after I turned down my “dream job”, I started teaching myself static front-end web development (HTML/CSS). I made a website all about how to get top investment banking internships (because that was the only topic I could write about in great detail that would be valuable to many at the time). My first business taught students all about how to prepare for finance interviews, how to write great resumes, how to get top internships. I wrote all the content, wrote all the HTML/CSS web pages, hooked up PayPal to sell my resume review and interview prep service, then I put it online and made it a real thing.

“I no longer had to knock on someone’s door, play by the rules, form myself into ‘this perfect person’ with a prestigious job and title. Now, I could simply decide what I wanted to happen and then make it happen.”

So, that was my first tech-enabled small business. I saw the full stack, from the web development to actually providing a service to my customers. Its growth motivated me to do something bigger and something not about finance. But I could see it now. I could see how if I made this my craft, I could make something really impactful.

Four months later, I started my first “real” tech company. The first idea that got me really excited was basically Airbnb for tourism. I wanted to build a site that sold fun and unique tour experiences like “Espresso Bar Hopping in SF’s Mission District”. I was a single founder with grit and an idea. There was an upcoming Entrepreneurship class and I decided that my goal was to take the class and make revenues by the end of the class so that I could work on this full time after graduation.

Over the course of the quarter I led a team of students. Since I was the only technical person on the team, I designed and wrote another basic website and integrated with PayPal. My team and I created real tours on campus, one was a design workshop at the D School, another was a tour of the Solar Car team’s workspace, for example. We sold our first tours and we were in business. If I recall correctly, my teacher said we were probably the first team ever to make revenues during the class in the history of the class. Shortly after, I recruited a technical co-founder and we decided to really build this as a business with the joint goal that we had to grow our revenues enough so that we could support ourselves full time after graduation.

One of the things we did was apply to Y Combinator. My co-founder was obsessed with being a “YC Company” but I didn’t really see what the hype was. I remember in our interview with Paul Graham he said, “You’re talented but I hate your idea. Change it, apply again, and we’ll accept you.” And both of us were like…hell no. We’re not changing our idea because you told us to! We’re founders!

Eventually though, as we did the math on our revenues, we realized, “Shit. We’re not going to make enough money if we don’t do something to accelerate our revenue growth ASAP.” Graduation was coming up. So, we started frantically calling tour operators, because we reasoned that if they knew how to sell tours well that we could learn a thing or two from them. This was a stressful time because I had to learn how to cold-call. I remember waking up at eight in the morning — which was an ungodly time to be awake as a student — calling these people, stuttering, and then getting hung up on. It sucked!

And then one person hung up on my co-founder, and he was fed up with it. And my co-founder said, ‘’You know what? I’m going to call him back. And I’m going to say, ‘’Don’t hung up on me, talk to me.’’ Ballsy, but that’s why I admired him. So he called again and the tour operator said, “You know what kid? I like you. You really want to help me? Build software for me.” We realized many of these tour operators were running their businesses on spreadsheets and whiteboards and quickly changed our pitch to cold-calling them and saying, “Hey we’re two Stanford kids who can make software for you — how much will you pay us?”

This became our new line of business. This time around, people were much more interested and some of them had such a “hair on fire need” that they wanted to meet us at 7am the very next day. We got our first customers that way and quickly made enough revenues to cover our cost of living within the first three months of running the business. I graduated, was able to move to San Francisco, pay rent. This was in 2011 and I was paying $600/mo to share a studio but you know what, I had my own company and we were killin’ it!

“I worked for a start-up for a few months, was a personal trainer for a few weeks, had many side gigs, I did a bunch of random, random things. I was searching.”

Eventually, running this business was no longer fulfilling. I realized that at the end of the day, all my efforts went towards making tourism software and helping tour operators save time and money. The day to day work was far from glamorous. Suddenly, I couldn’t see myself working on this “for the rest of my life” like I could when I first started, because we had rapidly pivoted our business into “whatever would pay us a bunch of money” without giving a care about whether this was actually the direction we wanted to take our lives. I was about 22 years old so it was great to learn this lesson early on in life. I decided I was going to leave the company and that in the future, I would very carefully choose who my customers are. Because if I’m going to spend all my time catering to their needs, I want to make a more meaningful impact at a deeply personal level.

And that was basically the end of that company (for me). A whole year went by. I worked for a start-up for a few months, was a personal trainer for a few weeks, had many side gigs, I did a bunch of random, random things. I was searching. One of the random life-changing things I did was attend Railsbridge, a free 2-day ruby on rails seminar for women. After this seminar I realized I was pretty good at Rails and wanted to really learn how to code so that I could build and test other start-up ideas rapidly.

This is how Spitfire started. It was my chosen “coding project”. I wanted to build a site called “Spitfire” that was a place where badass women could go to be with other badass women and become stronger, smarter, and inspired. There was something exciting about the identity of “a spitfire” that I captured in early versions of the site that kept me learning Ruby, Rails, Javascript, and that kept me developing the idea.

Soon, I was immersed into learning to code. Every time I would learn something new, I would add/modify Spitfire, then show it to people and ask for their thoughts. Months later, I had a mobile web strength training app that people were actually using. Since the mobile web app was so popular, I decided to make it a real native iOS app and started learning Objective-C/iOS.

“Every time VCs or investors would say things like, ‘I can’t see this being a large market,’ or otherwise express disbelief it would definitely annoy me, but not discourage me, because in my gut all of those interactions with customers that I had were just proving their opinions wrong.”

Eventually, the iOS app had about 100 people using the beta, and that’s around the time when I realized that this can be a real brand. A real business. I recruited my co-founder Nidhi Kulkarni, an extremely talented engineer from MIT who was also a D1 NCAA lightweight rower in college. I met her at a party and we connected as both women in tech and female athletes.

Soon, we had an app that was ready for submission to the App Store. This was a really exciting time because we didn’t think anything would happen. We thought it’d be a big achievement if we got 1000 of our friends to use it. But something crazy happened. Apple ended up featuring it on the front page that first week we launched, and we were stunned. We were stunned that this thing we created was viewed as good enough by Apple to be featured on the home page.

We couldn’t get any work done that day. We just kept looking at our dashboard and seeing downloads go up and up. That’s when we realized that there was something here that was much bigger than what we previously thought. This app is no longer for hardcore athletes like us. It’s a product that resonates with the everyday woman who aspires to train and develop her inner athlete. And that’s huge.

“If we don’t actually make women stronger, if our work doesn’t help instill true confidence from within, then we are failing. You have to be really careful in the health and fitness industry because if you don’t think deeply about your language, your photography, your diet recommendations, you can actually hurt and hamper people at scale and cause people to have low self esteem and eating disorders.”

We have come a long way since then. Over the last few years we raised funding from TechStars, launched a successful 179% funded Kickstarter, got featured in major news publications like Washington Post and ABC/CBS news, have recently reached our milestone of 100k users and are making our first revenues through our premium subscription offering.

Of course, those are just the successes. I’m not quite ready to discuss the hardships we have gone through at length just yet but one of the toughest years we had was 2015 when my co-founder’s mother passed away. She was with her family in New Jersey for a good chunk of that year. Our progress slowed to a crawl and I actually got pretty depressed while she was gone. So we definitely have had ups and downs.

What do you think are the biggest motivators behind your work?

I am the most motivated about building Spitfire into an eternal resource that truly helps women build their mental and physical strength and that grows into a brand that truly represents the female athlete within. If we don’t actually make women stronger, if our work doesn’t help instill true confidence from within, then we are failing. You have to be really careful in the health and fitness industry because if you don’t think deeply about your language, your photography, your diet recommendations, you can actually hurt and hamper people at scale and cause people to have low self esteem and eating disorders.

I want to help women internalize that they are strong, powerful, independent. I care a lot about that transformation and it’s both physical and mental. I view Spitfire as a vehicle to take that transformation and allow a lot of people to experience that for themselves in their own way.

“I want to help women internalize that they are strong, powerful, independent.”

We definitely have already seen the transformative effect of Spitfire on various women’s lives, but I still feel like we have a lot of work to do and a long journey ahead. This mental and physical transformation into one’s most confident and independent self is one of the most exciting things that Spitfire can offer. That’s the part of spitfire that I’m really excited about.

How did you learn not to get discouraged when people disagreed with your idea behind Spitfire?

From very early on, when I would talk to various women about Spitfire, they would just get so excited. Their eyes would light up and they would say things like, “I need that in my life! That’s for me.”

So, every time VCs or investors would say things like, “I can’t see this being a large market” or otherwise express disbelief it would definitely annoy me, but not discourage me, because in my gut all of those interactions with customers that I had were just proving their opinions wrong.

“At first, I was kind of like, ‘Oh no, he’s disagreeing! He’s a big prestigious VC and he’s disagreeing!’ And then eventually I would just conclude, ‘Wow, this guy is an idiot.’ But I would still be nice. And smile. And then eventually I just decided, ‘You know what? I’m tired of hearing this shit. I’m going to argue back and tell them that they’re wrong.’ And the first time I told a VC that he was straight out wrong, it felt so good. He was surprised. We couldn’t come to an agreement, but I felt badass as fuck for standing my ground.”

Back when I was just getting started, whenever random people said things like, “Oh, no one’s going to actually use this.” I couldn’t help but think, “Wait a second. Every single interaction and every single data point with a customer tells me otherwise.” Eventually all of those interactions and data points solidified my intuition. At first, I was kind of like, “Oh no, he’s disagreeing! He’s a big prestigious VC and he’s disagreeing!” And then eventually I would just conclude, “Wow, this guy is an idiot.” But I would still be nice. And smile. And then eventually I just decided, “You know what? I’m tired of hearing this shit. I’m going to argue back and tell them that they’re wrong.” And the first time I told a VC that he was straight out wrong, it felt so good. He was surprised. We couldn’t come to an agreement, but I felt badass as fuck for standing my ground.

How do feel like you fit into Silicon Valley culture?

I fit in well with other engineers. I enjoy meeting with the types of engineers who care about what they’re working on, who have side projects and who tinker with new technologies because they’re excited about it. Who are always building things. Trying to get better. I really get along with those types of engineers. Brogrammers — not so much.

“When it comes to venture capital, funding, large tech companies, and the ‘grow fast and become a rocket ship’ mindset, I disassociate with that and view myself as an outsider to those types of belief systems.”

I also fit in very well with the women in tech community. I see or hang out with other women and tech and have this sense of calm, I feel like, “these are my people!”

However, when it comes to venture capital, funding, large tech companies, and the “grow fast and become a rocket ship” mindset, I disassociate with that and view myself as an outsider to those types of belief systems.

It feels like there are people who work inside “big tech company” paradise, and then I view me and my co-founder as wolves on the outside, in the snow, hunting for food every day. We’re just in a very different mental and physical place.

I feel proud to say, “I learned to code and built a great product with my co-founder.” But I don’t feel like, “I’m in tech and being in this industry resonates with me.” Because it doesn’t. So that’s kind of a sensitive topic.

My identity doesn’t really lie with tech, it lies more with the strength community and especially women’s empowerment, badassery, strength training community.

I’m curious how you found strength training in the first place.

I was an avid runner in college, I ran multiple marathons and half marathons. After several knee injuries, I decided to learn how to squat. From there, I learned I really liked the weight room and how it felt to lift and build muscle. Running helped me develop the ability to endure tough times, but weight training helped me develop the ability to take on tough times with strength and power.

“It feels like there are people who work inside ‘big tech company’ paradise, and then I view me and my co-founder as wolves on the outside, in the snow, hunting for food every day. We’re just in a very different mental and physical place.”

I got into Olympic style weightlifting because a trainer at my local gym saw my potential encouraged me to compete in the sport. I didn’t even know the sport existed! “There’s a competition in two weeks, I’ll train you for free.” I learned the snatch and the clean and jerk that day and competed two weeks later. I was already able to clean and jerk my body weight and snatch 85% of my bodyweight in two weeks, so I realized I had potential to be pretty good at this sport.

I fell in love with weightlifting because I wanted to train feeling badass at every single training day. Why train to critique one’s body in a mirror when you can train to feel so good about what you just lifted and how you lifted it?

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I see Spitfire as a healthy and growing (but still young) child. I think we’re going to have a small team. We are not going to be one of those “grow as fast as possible” companies, but one that has a very clear sense of what it stands for and that forges ahead on its own and at it’s own pace. It doesn’t try to rush, or it doesn’t try to push itself when it doesn’t need to. It blossoms on it’s own so I see myself still at the helm of that, and guiding it, and working with a bigger but still tight knit team.

I believe Spitfire is going to be a brand that’s in people’s lives on a daily basis and that’s as well known but more badass and more iconic than Nike. Our presence in people’s lives is going to be positively influential and nourishing. The content that we’re going to produce, the things that we’re going to promote, it’s going to have a clear, distinct, unique identity that is really hard to copy, and I feel like people are going to try and copy it, or copy aspects of it, and they’re just not going to nail it, or they’re not going to do it right. People are going to know when it’s by Spitfire and when it’s by someone trying to be like Spitfire.

Investors will ask stuff like, “How are you going to beat Nike?” It’s funny because Nike, they’re trying to appeal to as many people as possible. But we’re speaking to one very specific thing — that inner voice in every woman that makes her feel like, “I’m a badass and I can do anything I put my mind to.”

“We are not going to be one of those ‘grow as fast as possible’ companies, but one that has a very clear sense of what it stands for and that forges ahead on its own and at it’s own pace.”

People at Nike don’t wake up every morning and think about how they’re going to achieve that. They’re in the business of clothes, shoes, and wearables. But we are going to get better and better at speaking so soulfully to women’s deep inner selves, we’re going to be a distinct persona in people’s heads and women are going to want to have a daily dose of spitfire in their lives. That is where I want to get.

Personally, I also want to be a really competitive national Olympic weightlifter. I see myself doing weight-lifting for a long time. There are some internationally competitive women in weightlifting who are in their forties right now and they’re doing amazing — and I want to be just like them. They are so happy. They are so fulfilled and kicking ass! I want to lift heavy shit. It’s funny, when weight lifting gets hard I ask myself, “Why, why do I do this?!” Well, one day I decided I was tired of being weak. And unlike many, I decided I was going to do something about it. And that’s why I’m here now.

What advice would for others wanting to build a product of their own?

When people ask me how to learn how to code, they often ask questions like — What programming language should I learn? Or what book should I read? Instead of suddenly picking a programming language I usually ask, is there something cool that you personally want to see in the world that you would love to make?

Then I say, “Okay, take that, and make it really, really, really crystal clear, and then scope it down to the most basic thing you can think of, and then learn how to code that.”

Because when you learn how to code the other way — by learning a language — you just end up reading a bunch of stuff that you don’t know how to apply. But when you have a very specific vision for what you want to build, you end up deciding what you need to know to build the thing, and you just break down the pieces.

“One day I decided I was tired of being weak. And unlike many, I decided I was going to do something about it. And that’s why I’m here now.”