As an early operator in a startup, you have exposure and access to so many parts of the business. And the great news about that is that you start to actually think, could I go and start my own organization one day?
— Emily Pik, Co-Founder of Propel
Founder Visibility is an interview series that highlights founders that inspire us and shares how they found their firsts: co-founder, customer, capital, and confidence.
Meet Emily, Co-Founder of Propel, a community for future builders that captures and supports people in the pre-idea stage as they look to launch their own business or pivot to other potential careers. Emily is a go-getter, problem-solver, and most of all, a passionate co-founder with lots to share — so we sat down with her to learn all about her journey to date.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m about seven years out of undergrad. I went to University of Virginia and studied Public Policy and Leadership.
I spent the first six years of my career working in New York at two different types of companies. The first was almost like a startup, where I started as a research analyst for different types of financial institutions and management consulting firms — it was my building-block job. Little did I know that I would end up staying there for four years and be given managerial responsibility relatively early on. So I was a manager at age 24 and Vice President at 26.
But I really loved to build best practices and processes and wanted to do it at a small organization again. So after four years, I pivoted intentionally to health tech, wanting to do something more mission-driven. And this actually is the collision with Tom, my now co-founder of Propel, which is the third leap I have now done in my career.
We recognize that as an early operator in a startup, you have exposure and access to so many different parts of the business. And the great news about that is that you start to actually think, could I go and start my own organization?
At what point did you and your current co-founders realize that you would be pursuing Propel together?
In Fall 2019, I grabbed coffee with Tom. I sat him down and said, I have this idea. It was not a fully fleshed-out idea of Propel, but it was me voicing that interest to start a side hustle and think about ways to support people like me. While I was fortunate that Tom had connected me with that next job in health tech back in 2018, I had felt so lost and confused about a few things. This included how my skills were transferrable, how to be set up for success, navigate promotions, ask for raises, let alone think about my own entrepreneurial endeavor.
In late 2019, we continued to talk. We trialed a couple of ideas that were not community-based, so we chose not to move forward with them. Then we started to talk to Scott, our third co-founder of Propel, who had a background in community-building. Scott had set up a free Slack group for the folks in the Chief of Staff role at various companies in the New York City area and beyond, so we wanted to see if he was at all interested in solving for something a bit larger.
So I would say January 2020 was when we were like, cool, let’s move forward, let’s build out what the user journey is. And we continued to brainstorm financing, fundraising, and customer personas, from January through to Fall 2020.
I’m excited to share that we’re actually now working on both communities. We saw so much momentum within Propel that we wanted to go back and apply it to the Chief of Staff audience Scott knew so well. Now, Scott and I share best practices and are building them side by side. We’re peers while managing these different, yet also very similar, community spaces — and it’s that much more fun to do what I’m doing in the day-to-day.
What were you looking for in a co-founder?
That’s a great question. I’m not one of those entrepreneurs that just decided one day that they wanted to build something, or that always knew they wanted to be a CEO. In 2018, I developed an interest in eventually being my own boss. I was drawn to having that agency, flexibility, and passion. That’s when I started to realize that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Though, in retrospect, it looked different! I wanted to be a coach and solopreneur.
Honestly, it’s really interesting to try to reflect back on why both Tom and the Propel idea were the right fit to continue. Neither of us was rushed because I had a job and team that I loved and he had just started business school.
Tom had always been one of the few people in my life that understood my career goals from day one, and I always knew that he had an entrepreneurial spirit. For example, I’m sitting down and going through my resume with him at a coffee shop, and I had never even met him prior to that. And he was so gracious and offering not only to connect me with his company but also to offer six other job openings. So, I think the pre-existing relationship was super helpful because the problem we were solving was personal, yet we had slightly different lived experiences, access to different groups of people, and different strengths. He had a lot of experience liaising with leaders and was interested in the strategy and operations aspect of things, whereas I wanted to be the coach, the connector, and the person developing people to be the best leaders they could be. And so that enabled us to really think, where was our gap? What would each of us have to learn to further support one another?
And Scott certainly brought deep experience running a community. He had vocalized that passion and interest. He helped tremendously in refining how we thought about our users and where to find them outside of our immediate network. He’s also worked for CEOs directly and has a similar operations and decision-making background as Tom.
So that’s why I chose them, maybe let’s ask them why they chose me, ha!
Who was your first customer and how did you meet them when you launched your beta?
When Tom and I started talking in Fall of 2019, we wanted to host an “operator ideas” dinner at his apartment on the Upper West Side in New York, and everyone invited was asked to bring a business idea. It was nerve-racking for me because we were still in the very early stages of talking about our idea.
To learn more about my prospective customers, I drafted a survey that was sent to my close friends and former/current co-workers. I then asked these other seven strangers at Tom’s dinner to listen to my pitch, and I listened to theirs. 100% of them had an incredible passion for their ideas, filled out my survey after, and were our beta testers. They are also all still part of the Propel community. Not only are they Propel champions and now friends, but they were also all very open and candid with their feedback and continue to be.
The impact of community is really as strong as the people in it.
So as we slowly started to ask for referrals, and grew by word of mouth, the value to the user increased incrementally, and it became clearer what our direction forward should be. That inflection point was really special. We also are actively diversifying our users, focused on finding folks outside of our immediate networks. We know anyone can and should be able to grow into an amazing leader, manager, builder, and founder — and we’re trying to find and support those people, wherever they might be today.
I know I personally wouldn’t have identified as a “builder” or “future founder” until I surrounded myself with people that listened and told me that could be my narrative.
If I can help all the people in the Propel community find that clarity and rise to be impactful leaders solving real problems, right now or eventually, I will die happy. Truly.
What is one piece of advice you would give your past self when starting a company?
It seems a lot scarier than it is. I have been paralyzed so much by my fear of either not perfecting something or not delivering it in a way that I would feel was good enough. And yes, I seek support from Tom and Scott to break through that paralysis and move forward. Sometimes, I just have to talk it out. Why am I nervous? Why am I scared? What is a baby step that I can take?
The things I’m scared of are not groundbreaking, nor going to break the business. It’s the novel things when you’re a new founder, like just putting your brand and name on something. I’m here to tell you (and myself) that it’s all in your head.
People always tell me, if you choose to become an entrepreneur, you’re one of the crazy ones. I don’t believe that. However, the stories you tell yourself about what other people think about you, your brand, your business, or your ability or lack thereof are just going to slow you down. And let them slow you down a little so you can recognize it. I’m happy to be slowed down if it allows me to process why I’m so scared and create mental models (and have pep talks) to move past it the next time around. So don’t be scared of being scared, and slow down when you need to.
I’m fortunate that I have a great set of co-founders who can coach me through this. I’d be remiss to not mention how much I’ve been able to leverage the Propel community myself in these times, too. Propel members and advisors are incredibly kind with their feedback, ideas, and time. Honestly more so than any other group of people in my life. They have provided me with both confidence boosts and their own stories, pushing me through to make that decision or try the thing I’d been sitting on. That’s so powerful.
So if you’re brainstorming or building on your own, find advisors, mentors, or other like-minded peers. This is also why we built Propel! No one is building or leading alone, even though it can feel incredibly lonely sometimes. I want to normalize that fear and loneliness. I encourage everyone in my life to surround themselves with people that can show and tell them that they are capable. It’s changed the way I view myself as not just a leader, but a creator and builder.