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Women on Top in Tech – Emily Rotolo, Founder/CEO of SimpleForms

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Here is our interview with Emily Rotolo, Founder/CEO of SimpleForms. My company actually just went live on a crowdfunding website to bring accredited and non-accredited investors the ability to invest in startups.

What makes you do what you do?

There are a few things!
I realized I can help more people in the world from the CEO chair of a Public Benefit Corporation then I can working at the non-profit I was at helping 3 people at a time. Mix that with the fact that I lived a problem SimpleForms now solves. Luckily I was working at a Startup in Utah when I first encountered the issues around employment documents, the lucky part was that I was in an environment that was motivating and supportive. It really helped me realize that if you are not building your passion you are only helping someone else achieve theirs.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I went to Georgetown University where I wanted to be a doctor. However, I thought I should probably try and internship in another field before really committing. It was my junior year of college when I joined Bisnow Media as their first ever intern ( it was acquired this year) and I was hooked on the startup culture. I went from there to my goal company to work for in the Startup world which was Summit Series. I was a part of Summit Series when we purchased Powder Mountain. In these two startups I learned more than I could have ever imagined.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?

It’s definitely a challenge, especially being a female. I get asked the most inappropriate questions from investors, and each time it makes me stronger. The idea that something is challenging is really an exciting fact, not a deterrence. Also, I am REALLY open to help. I ask for it and seek it out, we’ve built amazing mentors and advisors into our company. So yes am I out of my comfort zone… every day. Did I learn to hire smarter, yes! Does that make it even more challenging sometimes — yes! But I couldn’t sit by idol. The idea that as a population we fill out government regulated forms without assistance just isn’t right, especially when it affects every paycheck in the country.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?

YES! I love my mentors. We have advisors (official and non-official) and tons of mentors. We were fortunate to complete Techstars this year, which if you know starts with mentor madness. The key is to really find someone you connect with whether it’s industry-specific or not. We do have some that are very industry specific joining us from Inuit specifically Turbo Tax, but then we also have mentors that build hardware, so while it might not seem like we have a lot in common the experiences and conversations are what elevate a mentor relationship
If you haven’t watched it yet- Ted Talk: The Art Of asking — It really allowed me to find the best mentors for our company.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?

One of our non-techstars mentors came from our engineer. He was friends with the VP of engineering at GoFundMe, so with him being the first employee, he was really able to help coach us and show us what it is going to take to make this work. The key is finding not only the mentor that you can connect with and have open, honest, vulnerable conversations but also incentives them so that they work that much harder to help you succeed.
I have 2 personal mentors that I’ve known for years one became our official advisor with his brand knowledge and design expertise the other, is a huge support system for me to turn to about the struggles of being a female founder, or the ups and downs of building a team. It’s a roller coaster!

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?

We have two really young employees, a college grad, and a college dropout. They are my favorite! I wanted to hire me when I was an intern at Bisnow. A sponge, someone with a thirst for knowledge and want to learn. Watching them grow has been one of the most exciting things to date. We focus on really deep learning, training, and onboarding in the beginning followed by autonomy for the second month. During the first month, it’s important to find the “puzzle piece” what made them want to join our startup? what excites them about what we are building, what’s the hook? The second month is really a proving point, can they keep up with outpace, does the work they are doing excite them, and can they bring new fresh ideas to our meetings. This level of independence and respect has really worked with our team.

We also do fun things along the way! If you stay with me for one year you get your birthday off PTO. Year two you get a second day until ideally you’re with me for 5 years and you get the entire week of your birthday as a paid vacation.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Consciously and unconsciously. We hire the best candidate for the job. We’ve been lucky to have a very diverse team, with a founding team of two females and two males. I wish I could say I favor females to hire, or race, however, any favoritism doesn’t help the system in my eyes.

I want to build the best product and to do that we need the best team. We do however Consciously give back to more diverse areas as a public benefit corporation we give back to low-income education.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?

It’s so hard! Just the other day I had one of my employees tell me that because he’s from the west coast and I’m from the east coast there is a tone difference and attitude difference, which is hard for him to feel like he’s doing a good job. (Being from the east coast I rolled my eyes). However, it’s really important to listen and learn what your employees need. I know that when I have a manager I need them to tell me “good job” we have a few of those on our team. We also have the employees that want to hear “good job” as a pay raise or promotion, or even just an afternoon off, or email announcing it to the team.
Really listening and learning how your employee’s work will make you a better leader. I try to stress, it’s not about the hours at the desk but the work that’s getting done. So if my employee doesn’t feel well, you’re not a child you don’t have to convince me, but if you’re going to stay home your work should reflect the same respect as if you were in the office.

Advice for others?

I could fit this into every answer: TRANSPARENCY — explain it. What you are doing and why. Especially in the startup world, I think it’s really hard on employees when they have no idea what’s going on with the company, upper management, or the founders. I share my schedule, my action items, my weekly updates as well as probably too much information. But it all comes together when you’re team has a question or you need to ask for help because you were transparent there is a better understanding.

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Andrew Schorr, Founder of Grata

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Taking a different route throughout his life, Andrew Schorr ended up in China and started several businesses.

What’s your story?
I moved to China after I graduated from college in 2004. English teaching was the easiest way to get there, so I looked on a map and picked a small town in Hubei, because it looked to be more or less in the middle of China. I was the only foreigner there.

Back then, everything was about the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, so I moved to the capital after my year of teaching. Pretty soon after arriving, I met the co-founder for all three of my companies. We decided to start a company together the first day we met. He has now moved back to the US and builds flight software at SpaceX.

Our first company, an online city guide, was re-purposed into our second company, GuestOps, a web concierge platform. We sold GuestOps to most of the major international hotel brands in China and still operate it. The genesis of our latest company, Grata came from looking at the intersection of hotels and WeChat in 2012, when WeChat was just starting to blow up. Grata expanded from hotels into a live-agent customer service console.

What excites you most about your industry?
Our thesis with Grata has always been that what is happening with WeChat in China is the future of messaging platforms globally, and as an international team building on WeChat, we would be well-placed to capitalize on that trend. It’s taken longer than we expected for the industry (and us, for that matter) to get there, but finally, we’re starting to see messaging as a platform to get better traction in other markets.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. I grew up in Texas, where all my friends studied Spanish in school. I studied German for no reason in particular. I took a similar path in college: Chinese and Japanese seemed like languages that not a lot of people who look like me studied. I was one of only two students in my third-year Chinese class.

Concur conference in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (Photo by Paul Sakuma, Paul Sakuma Photography) www.paulsakuma.com

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Shanghai. I should live there, but Beijing has been home for so long. I take the night train down to Shanghai every two-three weeks to meet with clients. Domestic flights are way too unreliable here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t plan too far ahead; otherwise, you plan yourself out of good opportunities.

Who inspires you?
Has anyone said “Elon Musk” yet? Barack Obama would be another.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The gravitational waves recently detected from neutron stars colliding, were so subtle as to only affect the distance from earth to our closest star, Alpha Centauri (4.24 light years away) by the width of a human hair. Perhaps in another life or in the future, I’ll be an astronomer, but a telescope doesn’t do me much good in Beijing.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
When I give advice to students looking to get into entrepreneurship, I advise them to work for a post-Series A startup first and learn from a company that’s already doing things well. I learnt everything on my own, which is slower and you pay for your own education. If you work for a startup that’s small in the beginning, you risk learning bad habits.

How do you unwind?
I Hash! The Hash is a drinking club with a running problem. The Hash attracts good people from all walks of life and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a great way to meet fun-loving people all over the world. It’s also how I met my co-founder, our first lawyer, and my girlfriend.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia. A fantastic beach and where I first learned to scuba dive.

Everyone in business should read this book:
For business in China, Tim Clissold’s, Mr. China.

Shameless plug for your business:
Grata does WeChat contact centers for many top-tier brands in luxury retail, travel, financial services and hospitality. We started developing on WeChat before they even had an open platform. Grata provides the most value for large enterprises with complex routing and content demands for their contact centers.

How can people connect with you?
Check out www.grata.co or email me: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
My personal handle is @andrew_schorr and we tweet about messaging from the company handle @grata_co.

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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