Happy New Year!
To kick off the amazing-ness that is sure to be 2013, I wanted to take a moment to say how grateful we are for all those who have supported the AirPR journey thus far.
In case you don’t know who you are, let me re-mix and re-serve it up: our investors (the foundation); our journalist friends who have told our story in a positive and compelling way; our PR community who make the Marketplace tick; and last but not least…the Clients we serve.
As Mark Suster recently alluded to in his blog post The Valuable Unsung Heroes of Startups, it’s easy to forget the multiple parties who truly make a startup crawl, walk, then run. Not for a moment do we want to take these folks for granted.
That being said, it’s also important to get to know the founders – the ones who have poured their lifeblood into something they believe in, make sacrifices most will never see, and take daily risks that propel the company in a forward motion.
So as we kick off 2013, let’s start there shall we…
First up, Co-Founder & CEO of AirPR, Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer, who (despite how snobby a hyphenated last name may appear) is a constant source of non-snobby inspiration and laughter to those around him.
What inspires you about entrepreneurship and innovation?
Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer: One of the most impressive things is the perseverance required to innovate and make industry shifts. I am continually in awe of an entrepreneur’s passion and drive.
Another thing is the ability to start a venture with little or no money, live off of nothing, find a way to raise money, make a deal, have it fail, get back up and do the same thing over again because he or she believes in the idea. Beyond that, entrepreneurs play multiple roles (CEO, COO, head of sales, product lead, coder, garbage man, designer and everything in between). Being that versatile in the face of catastrophic failure is impressive in its own right.
But the number one thing that inspires me is the ability for entrepreneurs to excel under pressure. This is a prerequisite that exists with athletes. Those who can out-innovate often times excel under pressure.
What got you started? In other words, when did you get “bitten” by the entrepreneurial bug?
SFM: Coming out of undergrad I was debating whether to play hockey full-time [Editor's note: He had a couple offers to go play in the NHL]. I knew I wanted to follow my passion – and unfortunately, it wasn’t hockey anymore. I received offers from the traditional large technology companies and a small startup, Appian. I chose to go with my gut feeling and the two things that stood out were that Appian consisted of a great team, and a disruptive industry vision.
At Appian I managed my own project for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: the first tracking system for complaints. This was a $5M project and eight years later is still used. Through this experience, I got to wear many different hats (coder to biz development, sales, HR, recruiting, managing a team), which in turn made me more well rounded and better prepared to handle the work life of a startup founder.
How is AirPR setting the stage to disrupt the PR industry?
SFM: PR is a unique industry that hasn’t had much innovation in the last couple of decades, which is especially surprising because it’s playing in a $10B industry. There are very few software companies in the PR space, which means it’s ripe for some “shaking up.”
Fortunately for us, not enough technologists want to solve the rampant problems in the PR space – in part because solving service problems via technology is much more complex than solving just a technology product problem. We want to increase performance through our technology platform – which in short means we want the PR industry to be better understood on a variety of levels by creating standardized systems and processes that haven’t been tackled. Technology is the driver to enable this vision.
In your opinion, where (what industry segments) are the most opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs?
SFM: I see five emerging and growing opportunities for those willing to put in the time and energy…
1. Big data analytics – there are multiple funds allocated just for this opportunity because the potential applications of it continue to multiply. And no wonder: with the massive amounts of information we now have access to the next logical step is the ability to actually use this data.
2. EdTech – software or mobile products that improve learning across the globe is a hard space because a massive percent of the sector goes to paying teacher salaries. It’s a hard space with slow cycles, but poised for continued innovation.
3. Healthcare – the system is archaic and backwards, and begging for innovation. Although it faces similar issues found in EdTech, companies and funds are starting to take note. It will be slow, but through continued “small steps” this space will eventually be modernized. Entrepreneurs will drive these changes.
4. Collaborative Consumption – also known as “social utilization”, this segment focuses on increasing the use of an existing asset. This idea goes after the transient demographic, which is rapidly growing because of the many behavioral shifts fueled by our economic downturn.
5. Interconnectedness of devices – everything in the future is going to be Internet enabled. The solutions here will be interesting.
When things get tough, what keeps you going? What are some of your tricks? In other words, how do you stay SANE?
SFM: I take a break from life by going for a run, playing hockey, and catching up with friends.
Who inspires you? Do you have any mentors that have been an integral part of your success?
SFM: I took an entrepreneur-focused class with Ed Zschau in college. While I was juggling hockey and job offers, he was extremely supportive of my decision to work for Appian. No one understood my choice in working for the small startup. This was a real turning point for me. He taught me to follow my passion because that will continue to drive you and make you successful.
What are some [surprising] things about you that most people don’t know?
SFM: I speak fluent Farsi and I love wakeboarding (sometimes barefoot water skiing). I spent most of my life playing hockey. Oh, and I love to cook, but not as much as I love to eat. That’s about as exciting as it gets!