CEO Rachel Olney, a 2017 Threshold Venture Fellows graduate, shares her experience as a Threshold Venture Fellow and founding Geosite, a platform that combines geospatial data from tracking and monitoring systems for non-technical users.
When did you become an entrepreneur?
We’d just finished our seed round for Geosite and signed a lease on our new office — a tiny 300-square-foot glass box. I was in the office putting washi tape on the floor to figure out where the desks would go. At that moment, I thought back to being a kid growing up 30 miles from the US border in New Mexico, never imagining I’d have the ability to launch a company, or even have the resources to do that — or to have other people invest in my vision. It was truly extraordinary.
How did you identify the problem you’re solving with Geosite?
My PhD research at Stanford University’s Center for Design Research focused on how engineering teams build and scale new technologies within large complex organizations. My research focused on US Cyber Command, looking at how people deploy new technologies inside of bureaucratic organizations, so I understood how complex integrating new technologies in enterprises can be.
At the same time, I was watching a massive proliferation in types and quantity of spatial data — like Internet of Things sensors that are feeding data from remote locations or satellite imagery providing better imagery of the Earth. But even though tons of new data was becoming available, there was almost no movement in terms of software. People were stuck with the same engineering tools to access this extensive data, and it wasn’t working. People were going into critical missions with outdated geospatial data. The gap in information was causing casualties — and that was untenable.
I became determined to solve this problem, and I realized I had the toolkit to do it.
Can you draw a line between what you do today and what you learned as a Threshold Venture Fellow?
I never heard of venture capital when I was growing up — or series A and B funding. These were foreign words to me. I was at Stanford working on my master’s degree in engineering after getting my bachelor’s of science degree in product design, and I was starting to recognize that I was good at being a connector and coordinator on teams, not just an individual contributor. I was starting to think about what role I could play.
The fellowship was totally not on my radar, but I had no idea how much I needed it. A good friend who is usually five steps ahead of me pressed me into applying. I decided to trust our collective instincts and do it.
Before, being an entrepreneur felt like something other people would do, not me. The fellowship changed my trajectory.
There’s also healthy and positive peer pressure in the group. You’re in the program with other entrepreneurial students, and you realize how incredible they are — and then you also see that you are part of that group. It starts to seem normal. It takes that group of people to help you realize starting something new is possible.
What should every entrepreneur know before starting out?
When I mentor other founders, I tell them to figure out what their personal competitive advantage is. What makes you the best person to solve this problem? You need to know yourself very well and lean into your advantages.
I also tell founders to pick problems that they really care about. To this day, three years after I founded Geosite, when I talk about issues around geospatial data, I get fired up. That excitement is important because energy and morale have to come from the founder. You have to be extraordinarily passionate about what you’re doing.
Do you have a mentor?
Yes, and I think you need to have mentors for all parts of life. Heidi [Roizen, Threshold Venture Fellow co-lead] and Tina [Seelig, Stanford management science and engineering professor] are wonderful entrepreneurship mentors. I have other mentors who are good at work-life balance, or building strong teams, or understanding national security politics.
Also, having peer mentors is important. You should have CEO “besties” and be there for each other because it’s hard being a founder. The fellowship program totally provides those mentors.
What was the most important thing you took away from your experience?
To be unafraid and bold. If you’re going to attempt entrepreneurship, you can’t second-guess yourself. It’s like pole vaulting: If the standards are set to 12 feet and you slow down or get scared, you’re not going to plant your pole with enough speed to launch you in the air. As an engineer, I’ve been taught to approach things cautiously. But to be an entrepreneur you have to be bold and aggressive to get over the hurdles.
What advice would you have for someone thinking about applying to become a Threshold Venture Fellow?
If you’re on the fence about applying because you don’t think that creating a startup is for you, know that the program will have an immense impact on your life. Look at me: I planned to go into engineering and manufacturing, and instead, I went into “humaning.” You have no idea what the skills you learn could lead to.