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“Don’t linger on your failures” With Douglas Brown & Kim Raath

Fail fast, fail forward: Don’t linger on your failures. Another great Texas saying is “looking backward is a surefire way to walk into a post.” As best you can, recognize that when it doesn’t lead to constructive progress, resenting and spending energy in the past only poisons the future. During our CEO transition, we (the […]

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Fail fast, fail forward: Don’t linger on your failures. Another great Texas saying is “looking backward is a surefire way to walk into a post.” As best you can, recognize that when it doesn’t lead to constructive progress, resenting and spending energy in the past only poisons the future. During our CEO transition, we (the three founders) realized we needed to reorganize our org chart. In short order, we gathered for discussions, called the board, and dug into our network of advisors and mentors. While it was a busy three weeks with long conversations and late nights, we’re able to facilitate a switch that set us up for success.

As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Raath, co-founder and CEO at Topl. Kim’s upbringing in South Africa with a family of mining and agricultural experts brings background and color to the problems Topl is solving. She is the first Rice student to simultaneously complete an MA in Economics and a PhD in Statistics and has since given numerous talks globally about the power of technology leapfrogging to affect positive social change and create innovative opportunities.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Well, I grew up in South Africa during a time of political and economic turmoil. After graduating high school I decided to take a gap year and worked with various NGOs in 18 developing countries, which highlighted the acute need for digital infrastructure in emerging economies. I came to the U.S. the following year on a track and field scholarship to Arkansas State University, before continuing onto Rice University for my MA and Ph.D. While at Rice, I studied how large-scale economic issues impact availability and access to basic needs at the Center for Computational Finance and Economic Systems (CoFES), where I met my co-founders, Chris and James. At first, the challenge of starting a company like Topl was daunting, but I know how technical innovation can empower communities and economies to improve both quality of life and access to opportunities. Topl’s technology is an economic backbone designed to empower entire ecosystems — a cohesive digital network that moves and proves funds, goods, and impact throughout the world. The transparency our blockchain offers helps put power back in the hands of the people that actually drive the global economy: consumers and producers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I think March of 2020 was a memorable month for everyone, but for me, it was a perfect storm of three huge shifts. First, I had just defended my Ph.D. and was starting to dedicate my full attention to Topl again. Two, I was preparing to raise Topl’s second fundraising round, hoping to close by the end of summer at the latest. Third, discussions with the board and my co-founders meant I was transitioning into the role of CEO. Then, NYC shut down, the bottom dropped out of the market, and all of our plans went up in smoke. Suddenly, I was a new pilot with a short runway running out of time. The following month held constant pivots, revisions, and reinventions but we have come out the other side a better, more focused, and cohesive company. I can’t begin to unpack all the lessons learned from the last year (I’ll need until at least 2030 and a lot of red wine) but I’m grateful and proud of Topl’s resilience and the path ahead.

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?

Oh, this is a good one. The first time I ever pitched Topl in public was the Open Houston Pitch Competition in 2018. I’d rehearsed, I knew what I wanted to say, I even had a coffee cup and some chocolate as a props, but when I showed up to the event I was the only presenter without a powerpoint. Now, when I read the instructions I thought it said NO slides, but clearly, everyone else had received a different memo. I was horrified, but I’d rehearsed, I knew what I wanted to say, and I had my props so I got up anyway and gave my first ever public Topl pitch, sans presentation. I hated every minute I was on the stage. But then I won the four-foot cardboard check. I don’t know if I won because I actually read all the instructions or because of my killer props, but I think this story has two good takeaways: stick to your guns, and always read the fine print.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Chris, James, and I have a favorite quote from Ed Latimore that describes our trio: “Sharp intellect must be married to wicked resolve and indomitable courage to be most effective.” While we all have a bit of each of these characteristics, James is the sharp intellect, I’m the wicked resolve, and Chris is the indomitable courage. Only by working together has the founding team been successful, by balancing each other’s strengths and weaknesses have we weathered our storms — and there have been a lot. The last two fundraising rounds have both been in hostile markets; the crypto/blockchain winter in at the end of 2018 and the ongoing aftershocks of COVID-19. But spending two years with your company’s nose to the grindstone means you shave off a lot of rough edges and dead weight. We benefit from a deep bench of mentors and experts who have been able to offer us support, feedback, and advice on how to best move forward. It was never really a question of giving up but of just what we needed to do to move forward. We believe in what Topl can become; that’s never been in doubt.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My Ph.D. thesis advisor Dr. Ensor has been an enormous support and source of guidance. In the five years I was her advisee, I was a witness to her masterclass of working behind the scenes helping to foster better relationships and solutions on a regional and national level, which have a major impact on our everyday lives. I would not have had the grit or resolve to finish my Ph.D. in Statistics and an MA in Economics while fundraising for Topl last year were it not for her continuous support and guidance. She truly leads by example in drive and determination to better the world, inspiring me to work harder, dream bigger, and do more for others.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Since I moved to the American South, I’ve learned lots of great life lesson quotes such as “never ride a gravy train with biscuit wheels,” but the one that’s truest to me is “never stop.” As a woman, I’m no stranger to discrimination. One of the stories I like to share is from when I was a girl and the women’s track event I was supposed to run was canceled. I had my heart set on getting to nationals, so my father lobbied for me to get a chance to run in the boy’s race. Eventually, they let me run and I came in second place. I’ve continued to observe moments like this throughout my schooling, especially when I started studying male-dominated studies like mathematics, economics, and statistics. I just do not believe in giving in, and I absolutely never stop. When some closes a door on me, I start building a window.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Right now, the global market is saturated with huge companies that have little transparency or accountability to its customers and supply chain. Their segmented supply chains and limited market access take advantage of the most vulnerable producers by undervaluing their labor and goods, directly contributing to global poverty. But changing consumer demographics are increasing the demand for reliable transparency, sustainability, and positive social impact for their purchases. Challenger businesses have embraced this mission and are challenging traditional market leaders. However, technological and institutional deficiencies of trust, access, and coordination prevent effective operation and verification of supply chains and marketplace impact. Ethical competitors pursuing certifications suffer from time-consuming and expensive conventional audits, which cost months and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Further, technological limitations prevent transparent, verifiable proof; data-hand offs leave gaps that allow for data loss or manipulation. With a remarkable degree of supply chain visibility, greater control, and increased accountability, Topl empowers businesses of all sizes and scales to reduce accounting and administrative overhead, increase their impact footprint, and streamline their processes. The Topl blockchain tracks all instances of a business’ supply chain to help companies prove their claims, offer producers alternative sources of credit, and provide end-consumers information on where and how their products are made.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

In business, in our technology, and in our community building, Topl is people-focused. We realize the immense potential blockchain has to empower economic systems, but we also realize that bleeding edge technology comes with a steep learning curve. Topl is dedicated to making blockchain concepts accessible, fun, and community-oriented; we see our infrastructure, not as a product, but an ever-evolving ecosystem that needs people to drive it forward. Our CTO teaches Rice University’s blockchain course, and we host talks with Houston Blockchain Alliance. We’re also working toward founding a Houston chapter of Diversity in Blockchain to further our community outreach. The goal is to create teammates and champions in uniting purpose and profit by illustrating how technology can impact people’s lives and unblock opportunities.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Since our technology is designed to help trace and verify ethical and sustainable business practices, all Topl powered platforms are currently enabling social impact around the globe. Our first user, Fairfood, tracks spice and coffee supply chains on their Trace platform since 2018. These projects subsidize living wages for over 300 Indonesian and Ethiopian farmers. Our partner LuDeim traces ethical and conflict-free diamonds from 20 different environmentally conscious South African mines, ensuring fair labor for miners since 2019. Topl is also working with African Fintech company Paycode to provide mobile biometric identity and access to financial services for three million unbanked farmers by 2021.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

As I was settling into my position as CEO, the US was facing another social justice reckoning. I have a strong belief in the power of representation and mentorship; in people that look like you pulling you up and holding doors open. My career has included many badass women who gave me access and opportunities for growth. Tech and software is a particularly white, male industry — especially blockchain — but I am proud of Topl’s commitment to being a force for a new status quo. Topl’s plan and commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion features a majority-minority board, representing diverse groups including women, immigrants, and people of color. Other initiatives include, but are not limited to, the Diversity in Blockchain Chapter we are founding, a commitment to maintaining our 40% female diversity metric, conscious initiatives in hiring and professional development, as well as educational outreach programs to underserved populations.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Like I said, the tech space remains one of the most male-dominated professions. So of course, the first challenge faced by women is often being the only woman in the room. This is a hurdle in and of itself, but it brings lots of other little behavioral hurdles too. Because men and women are socialized so differently, women often have to adapt to or accommodate for male-pattern behaviors. For example, where men up-sell, women undersell; women tend to suggest, men make statements; women are more likely to be talked over in meetings; men are blunt and direct with their opinions and feedback. Being a woman in the tech space means learning how to accommodate, navigate, and hold your ground. The solution to changing the status quo is creating supportive networks. As I said, my career has benefited from the women who have opened doors for me. To address the issue, women (and men!) leaders in the space must work on cultivating inclusive environments, actively recruiting and developing women, and combating the sexist stigmas and realities of the industry.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Topl is early in our journey and not yet into enjoying years of successive growth. This is something that I would like to learn more about as we map out our future and hear answers from others who have reached this milestone in their own startups and companies.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Again, Topl is still in its early stages, but our primary strategy thus far has been keeping the team motivated, united, and energized. Topl uses collectiveperformanceincentives, meaning teams have group metrics and goals they must achieve as a unit for any individual to receive their incentive. It has also helped us cultivate and maintain alignment with our team and culture.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Topl’s commercialization is an ongoing and evolving approach, but we stepped back to consider and categorize our customer landscape based on where our tech could add the most value. As a result, we categorized the supply chain and sustainability space into three main segments of potential customers: brands seeking to incorporate fair labor practices and adhere to environmental regulations (Compliant), brands that commit to sustainability and ethical sourcing as a key marketing strategy, and product differentiation (Committed), and brands that place environmental and ethical practices at the center of their operations and identity (Core). Our initial focus is is “core” customers because this segment usually has the least legacy technology competition and can get the most value from our technology. “Core” customers also have mission-driven alignment with Topl, a common goal of combining purpose and profit.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Be responsive and build a relationship: Life gets in the way, things come up, and plans change (see: all of 2020). Most of the time people are understanding and flexible when you communicate directly and quickly. Responsiveness and remembering relationship details are a great way to demonstrate that you care and are in fact paying attention to what a customer need.

Be proactive and anticipate needs: You gain customers by identifying the specific ways you can add value; you retain customers by continuing to add value to their business. Being proactive means taking the initiative on checking in and exploring how the relationship can be grown.

Have a set process: the easiest way to be proactive is to know what’s coming. By setting up a process for all new and existing customers, you give yourself and team the benefit of foresight, hindsight, as well as the ability to perfect your process over time.

Be solution-oriented: When things do go wrong, avoid the pit of pointing out the source of fault until after the issue is resolved if it needs to be addressed at all..

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

This is another area where Topl is just dipping its toe. I actually read this article in March during the CEO transition, when we switched gears in favor of a recurring revenue model. Like the strategies above, our customer approach is to be attentive, responsive, and proactive. Our technology is constantly evolving and improving, giving us the ability to help develop a product with real-time feedback from our customers on what they want and need. Looking forward, we plan to be active in seeking additional tools, features, and functionalities to build into our offering to help retain customers. This is another area where customer alignment is key; narrowing our focus to the “core” customer segment allows us to narrow our technology focus to the features they need and use our resources most efficiently.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

Fail fast, fail forward: Don’t linger on your failures. Another great Texas saying is “looking backward is a surefire way to walk into a post.” As best you can, recognize that when it doesn’t lead to constructive progress, resenting and spending energy in the past only poisons the future. During our CEO transition, we (the three founders) realized we needed to reorganize our org chart. In short order, we gathered for discussions, called the board, and dug into our network of advisors and mentors. While it was a busy three weeks with long conversations and late nights, we’re able to facilitate a switch that set us up for success.

Don’t be offended — your baby IS probably ugly, or at least difficult to understand: professional ego or attachment to a plan can make us reluctant to change, but try to view all feedback as a growth opportunity. Since our technology is the core of the company, our first messaging strategies were extremely technical, using jargon and dense explanations of blockchain concepts. We’re proud of our devs and get excited about our technical features, but all people were taking away from our baby was gibberish. When we talked through it and received feedback, we realized we need to shift our strategy from telling people how the technology works to illustrate what it can accomplish. No one wants to hear about the birth or diaper changes; focus on showing people what your baby can do.

Noise vs. Signal processing: As a statistician, I have a deep appreciation for data points. In general, more are always better, but they shouldn’t all be weighted equally. This was a lesson we learned in the first year of our materials for pitching, sales, decks, etc. As I said above we took advantage of our friends and accelerator networks to get feedback and suggestions for our materials but fell into the trap of trying to incorporate everyone’s comments. Always listen to criticism, but only take the bits that resonate with you, your strategy, and your mission.

Stay focused on your core competency: The startup space is the business incarnation of “what if;” an arena full of shiny objects that say go bigger, do more, be a unicorn! This is, in my opinion, one of the best and most exciting things about being part of the community, but it also represents a big mistake founders can make: too much, too fast, too soon. I have big plans for Topl, I see a future industry of ImpacTech as big as FinTech and an overhaul of the relationship between business and impact. However, before we can have all the fortune 500 companies on our infrastructure, we need to continue to invest in our competency: technology. Topl is a force for good, but the impact we can generate is directly correlated to the efficacy and capacity of our tech. As we made the CEO transition in March, we also shifted our business strategy towards developing and commercializing our tech stack.

Seek new and appropriate mentors as you grow: Dr. E was a stellar thesis advisor and continues to provide us excellent guidance in economic system growth. However, as we continue to accelerate our business and technology development we needed new mentors with experience and networks that could further our growth. In my (limited) experience, finding mentors that are right for the current stage involves a constantly evolving roster of advisors that challenge you.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. 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. 🙂

Every startup wants to be a Unicorn, but Topl is seeking to grow a herd of Zebras; companies committed to both doing business and improving society (purpose and profit). Solving problems of inequality, poverty, and climate change have long been considered the responsibility of governments and non-profits, divorced from businesses and consumer activity, but modern consumers see the connection between good works and responsible purchasing. If ethical businesses can become more efficient and profitable, not only will their individual capacity for change increase, but competitors and the larger market will be incentivized to address social problems. Unicorns are focused on disruption, but Zebras have the power to change the commerce status quo, to force companies to take responsibility for the impact they generate, and to become contributing members of the communities they profit from. Topl believes that economic and social goals can be complementary instead of competitive, that profit should drive impact — and vice versa.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Good question — there are too many to name but Melinda Gates has long been someone I have admired as an engineer, philanthropist, and leader. I’d love to pick her brain on the separation between the business activity that causes social issues and the efforts to resolve them.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

Thank you!

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