Raising funding is really hard. — Many people talk about raising money like it’s easy, that you’ll have several options to choose from and it’s assumed in Silicon Valley. It’s one of my pet peeves because it does entrepreneurs a disservice and sets false expectations. When I speak with entrepreneurs or people thinking about taking the leap, I think it’s important to be real with them and not put a fake spin on it.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Marie Udo.
Heather is the Founder, CEO, and product visionary behind Shoppable®.
While with Shoppable®, she won the 2013 Women in Digital Award from L’Oréal and was named one of the ten “Most Powerful Millennials in Manhattan” by Gotham Magazine, and one of the eleven “Tech Gurus Changing the Luxury Game” by Refinery29. Shoppable® was a 2014 Webby Award Honoree for “Online Shopping,” a 2016 Webby Honoree for “Technical Achievement” and Shoppable was named one of the “100 Brilliant Companies” by Entrepreneur Magazine.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I have seven siblings and my parents provided us each with a weekly allowance that started at .05 dollars per week and eventually went up to 1 dollar per week as we got older. I remember a time when I wanted to go to the movies but didn’t have enough money. My parents said that I had two choices, I could save for weeks (or months) to get enough to buy a movie ticket, or I could figure out another job to make more money now. It felt like a challenge and way to be independent. I truly believe that this is what ignited my entrepreneurial drive as it set up a series of mini gigs that I did in grade school and middle school to earn more money and learn the basics of business at a young age.
To set the scene, I grew up in Wisconsin on a country road with only one neighbors within a mile. They had twelve kids and we had six living at the time. The problem was, we were so far from the nearest candy store that we always had to beg our parents to take us into town to the candy shop. I saw this as an opportunity. I decided to create a “cool kids club” and invited a few of the neighbor kids and a few of my siblings but told them all they had to pay 1 dollar to join. Then, we took the dues and bought extra candy on the next trip which we later turned around and sold to the non-kid’s club kids for a profit. It still makes me laugh today to think about this story.
After that, I later setup AOL via the CD-ROM they mailed my parents and came across eBay in its early days. I noticed the high prices people were paying for Beanie Babies, so I tracked down local stores to find out when shipments arrived and then sold them to the highest bidder. These are just two of the many entrepreneurial efforts I ventured into prior to high school.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The biggest life lesson is that “you can achieve anything if you believe it’s possible.” If you don’t, you have already failed because you won’t try. If you can see a path to success, you’ll be much more likely to achieve that goal. This is true in business and in your personal life.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I would have to say, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”. It was the first business book I ever read. I read it in middle school after wondering past the best-selling books in a local bookstore. Ever since then I have loved business books and the mindset it puts you in as an entrepreneur learning from other people’s experiences.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I started Shoppable in 2011 because I continually discovered new products on blogs and content sites that I wanted to buy but couldn’t.
I was 24 and I had just moved out of a roommate situation and into my own one-bedroom apartment for the first time. I had a completely blank canvas that I needed to figure out how to turn it into a home, so I started researching on sites like Pinterest and Elle Décor.
The problem was that often when I found something I liked; I wasn’t able to purchase it. Sometimes I would spend close to an hour trying to track it down and other times I just didn’t bother looking for the item because I was so frustrated by friction in the experience. I said to myself, “I feel like the retailers don’t want my money.” Then, came the “ah ha” moment. I said to myself, “Obviously they do, but then why is it so hard to purchase products you discover outside of a retailer website? I realized 1) there needed to be a single, multi-retailer checkout that a shopper could use to purchase from retailers on a publisher’s website and that 2) the space was so fragmented that it didn’t make sense for retailers to do deep, expensive integrations with every website that existed. That was the opportunity. There needed to be a retailer-agnostic (hint-not Amazon) third-party that partnered with all the top retailers to integrate their current inventory availability into a single digital catalog and a multi-retailer checkout technology that could create a streamlined technology platform to be licensed and distributed to the all of the publisher websites. This is where Shoppable was born.
The idea that consumers should be able to easily buy anything we see online, wherever we see it may be more obvious today, but before Shoppable developed the universal checkout, this wasn’t possible.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
The first step can often be overwhelming for people and that is why most people will not take it. The key to getting started is to create the MVP and then break off one small piece at a time. An MVP is a minimum viable product (MVP). This is not the full big picture vision, but it’s a dramatically simplified version of your idea and what you need to test your idea. For Shoppable, I knew I needed to see if creating a multi-retailer checkout was even possible, I needed talk to retailers to see if I could get them on board with my idea, and I needed to see if publishers were interested in the idea.
Yes, I had all kinds of ideas for features and a huge vision, but if I couldn’t create a universal checkout, the idea would be dead in the water so I started with that and wire-framing out my idea using PowerPoint which is what I liked to use at the time.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Sara Blakley, Founder of Spanx, says everyone will have a million-dollar idea in their lifetime, but most won’t go after it. If you want to see if your idea already exists, the easiest place to start is on a search engine. Think about all the different ways someone could describe what you are doing to make sure you are researching a variety of keywords. You can also try searching the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website to conduct a patent search as well.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
I would have to say my Father. He is a very intelligent and pragmatic person that will tell you like it is, but he has also always been very supportive and encouraging along the way. For instance, I started the company when I was living in San Francisco and working full time at another job. I worked nights and weekends to get the proof of concept going, but I felt like I had to fully quit my job to be able to move faster. It was the middle of the recession and many people I knew had lost their jobs. I called him to ask if I was crazy to voluntarily quit my well-paying job during a recession. We talked through the worst-case scenario of what could happen, and I got comfortable with the worst-case scenario plan, but was confident that I wouldn’t need it. Shortly after that, I flew to New York City on a business trip to meet with a few of the country’s largest retailers about a potential partnership. I realized on my second day that I accomplished more meaningful work in two days of meetings in New York City than I had in the last six months in San Francisco and that I needed to move to New York City. I remember standing outside of the Apple store on Fifth Avenue calling my Dad to talk through my new crazy idea — move to New York City to try to start my new company from the most expensive city in the country and during the recession. We talked through a variety of different outcomes and risks and ultimately, he told me he agreed with my analysis and reasons for why the business should be based in New York City. Now, nearly a decade later, it’s clear it was the right decision. Living near most of the businesses I needed to partner with absolutely helped the business get off the ground and secure those partnerships faster than if I had stay in San Francisco.
For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally launched? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to develop the product, and how to find a launch partner.
This is a big question, but I’ll try to drill it down to the highlights. The first step I took was to research the idea, understand the competitive landscape, and the current market dynamics. I wanted to make sure that there wasn’t something glaring that I was missing as the reason this didn’t exist yet. Then I drafted up a rough mock of what my vision was for the technology to put my ideas on paper and think through the flow and user experience. Next, I had a couple of conversations with senior software engineers to confirm the technical viability of my idea before spending time and money building a proof of concept. The next step I took was to pitch my idea to top retailers so I could confirm their interest and get access to what I needed in order to build Shoppable’s proof of concept. Lastly, I had to find a publisher to agree to be my launch partner. I didn’t know anyone in the space when I moved to New York, so I had to both cold email publishers and then go out to all the industry events and NYC networking events to get in touch with the right people. I learned that there were literally multiple networking events every day of the week in NYC. It truly is the city of opportunity. That process helped me build an incredible advisory board, connect to people that would later become partners, and ultimately one of my new advisory board members helped set up a meeting for me with multiple top publishers and we ended up launching Shoppable with The Wall Street Journal as our launch partner and specifically creating Shoppable Gift Guides on their website.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I incorporated way too early, but specifically in December in California where I pretty much immediately had to pay a calendar year minimum corporate franchise tax of 850 dollars. It was a minimum amount for less than 30 days “in business” that year and it just was a bad idea. I wasn’t even fully operating yet and I already had to pay taxes. I incorporated and set up the formal part of the business way too early and should have waited longer until I had the concept a little further along. That’s my opinion based on my experience, but I’m not a lawyer so it’s best to consult with one on when you should formalize your business entity.
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
There are multiple tipping points during the life of a business as it grows through different stages, but the first one for us was launching with a marquee launch part like The Wall Street Journal. It generated a lot of inbound interest in the business and our technology and also helped us secure additional retail partners. It was also the first time we had real shopper feedback to learn from.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
“Tell everyone what you’re doing. Don’t keep it a secret”. Many people keep their idea private because they are afraid of someone stealing it. That is very unlikely to happen though. In my experience, telling people what you’re working on helps keep you accountable for your goals which is really needed when it is just you and your idea at the beginning. It also gives people the opportunity to offer to help you and introduce you to people that could help. You never know if that person has someone in their network that is the person you’re trying to reach or has valuable experience in their past that can save you time or pass on a lesson learned. Businesses, like children, take a village to raise and the more help you have, the easier it’ll be.
“Figure out your MVP and then simplify it even further. You’ll realize many things you think early on are essential are actually nice to have and should wait”. Looking back on the initial MVP we did, I realized we wasted time adding features that were really not necessary for the MVP and we should have paired it down further to be able to better execute the core of the business faster and launch earlier.
“Launched is better than perfect.” Too many people spend extra months in the early days of their company perfecting every little thing and debating and re-debating the same things and sometimes it prevents people from ever launching. Early on, you can have a thesis for what you think will work, but you won’t know for sure until you launch and start looking at what the data tells you. Focus on getting launched asap and getting user feedback and data to help direct your next move.
“Pitch your MVP in PowerPoint (or keynote) before you build it”. This will usually be all you need to get initial feedback on the idea. If your design skills are not great, it’d be cheaper to hire a great graphic designer to make your vision come to life in a polished presentation than it would be to hire an engineer to code it all up and demo it or hire a manufacturer to create a physical product. You’ll need that later, but you want to get the initial feedback from the visuals and use that to fine tune your business before you start the actual work to create it. It’ll save you time and money — two things that are almost always in short supply.
Raising funding is really hard.
Many people talk about raising money like it’s easy, that you’ll have several options to choose from and it’s assumed in Silicon Valley. It’s one of my pet peeves because it does entrepreneurs a disservice and sets false expectations. When I speak with entrepreneurs or people thinking about taking the leap, I think it’s important to be real with them and not put a fake spin on it.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
- Write down your idea and the initial details at it comes to you
- Research the idea and understand the competitive landscape. Make sure to look at both direct and indirect competitors. Familiarize yourself with the current market dynamics and risks.
- Create a visual MVP and get real feedback from the market and potential customers.
- Incorporate the data and feedback that makes sense.
- Build your MVP or prototype
- Start selling and pitching the partners you need
- Launch MVP!
- Collect data and iterate
- Get to product-market-fit
- Grow, grow, grow
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I haven’t personally had experience with them, but I think it’s important for the inventor or entrepreneur to flush out their core idea on their own before diving in with consultants and advisors. Advisors can add a lot of value, but they will also have several questions for you before they can start to guide you. If you don’t figure out the basics of what you are building, why, for who, and where you want to go, it’ll be hard for them to help you and it’ll likely end up just costing you money.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I think this is a tough question as it depends on what the entrepreneur’s goals are and if they have the option of choosing at all. Both options are not available to everyone to begin with, but typically if you have a low-cost business including a service business, it’s best to bootstrap and then you are able to retain 100% of your equity and 100% control of your business. If you can’t execute your business without venture capital, then you’ll have to try to raise what you need to get the business off the ground and either to profitability or to the next major milestone that those investors are expecting to see. The tradeoff is that you’ll be giving up some equity and control in exchange for the money, but raising money is a tough process and you have to get those investors to see your vision and how your business can be a billion-dollar business. If it can’t, bootstrapping may be your only option.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As the Shoppable team has grown over the years, I have really focused on diversity and inclusion. When you’re a business owner or leader, you have a responsibility for the hires you’re making and the environment and culture at your company and I’m so proud of Shoppable’s incredible team and the inclusive environment that we have. It is an important value at Shoppable and one that we pride ourselves on.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This is a big question. As it relates to commerce, I think there needs to be an increased focus on sustainability in products, packaging, and delivery. Some experts argue e-commerce is more sustainable than physical retail, but there are a still big opportunities for growth and improvement.
I’m also a huge fan of re-selling and giving away products you’re not using any more to help them find a new home and avoid ending up in landfill.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to meet Oprah and Jeff Bezos. Oprah has such an inspiring story personally and professionally and her businesses cross many different industries. I think she would be a fascinating person to have lunch with.
Jeff Bezos is obviously the king of e-commerce and product search today. I don’t agree with him on everything, but he is clearly driving innovation and consumer behavior shifts around the world and has created a business impacting lives every day. I would love hear how thinks and approaches challenges and key lessons he has learned.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.