STARTUP SECRETS with JANELLE BENJAMIN

COMPENSATION CONVERSATION

Little girls have big dreams that direct their lives. Mine, for as long as I can remember, was to build and sell my own business. I never dreamt of my wedding, my love life, having kids. I dreamt of being a titan of industry, of having my name on a building. As much as I am a woman, I’m an entrepreneur. It wasn’t just a goal, but a burning calling. I made that dream come true, creating a startup with my husband that we sold to Nielsen in 2018. It was no fairytale--it required years of sacrifice and learning some hard lessons.


It was my husband’s idea. In 2010, Joost had just gotten his PhD. from Columbia in Video Games (yes, that’s a thing!) and had gone on a few interviews. I asked him, “What are you thinking?” He said, “I don’t want to take any of these jobs--what I’m thinking about that video games are soon going to be digitally distributed directly to consoles. Of course, Joost was right (hello, Fortnite). At the time though, the only measurements about what people were playing was through retail.


I had worked as a research director, and we figured we could provide market intelligence on digital games that were sold through mobile, online and consoles, and sell our data to gaming publishers like Electronic Arts and Microsoft, as well as investment banks like Citadel that advise companies where to put their money. We got to work, with Joost in charge of business development and marketing, while I headed up finance.


Startup secret #1: We didn’t worry about the competition. I thought Joost had a really good idea, and I wasn’t concerned about competitors rushing in. Typically, if something is a good idea, others will have it. A good idea is just that--a good idea. Great ideas are the ones that are executed-- with discipline, consistency and confidence, and very few people will follow through.


At the time, I’d been working on a start-up with friends, and it was struggling. We decided to disband, and Joost and I focused 100-percent on our company, which we called SuperData Research. Neither of us had a salary, and we didn’t have any savings. We did a small round of fundraising among our friends and family, and drew from that prudently. For the first three years, it was just Joost and me. It was like rubbing two sticks together to start a fire. We taught ourselves how to build databases. We bartered with friends. Starting a business is like learning to walk. At first, you’re wobbly, wonky. Our sales decks looked terrible, but we kept moving.


Start-up success secret #2: We had customer conversations. Long before we could offer a subscription service to gaming companies, we needed to learn exactly what metrics were important to them. We surveyed to learn what our potential clients were looking for. We got a couple clients right away, but rather than offer a service based on their needs, we served these clients in a custom way, and used our experience with them to refine our product.


While chatting with your potential customers is critical, getting a meeting with a decision maker at a company is hard, so we did that through conferences. Joost went to tons of video game conferences, reaching out to folks from gaming publishers for 15-minute meetings between workshops and asking mutual connections for an intro in advance. It’s easier to get a quick in-person meeting at a conference than to even get a phone call. After all, everyone is attending for several days straight. Gradually, through all those meetings, we learned what people would pay for. If one company was looking for 30 metrics, and another was looking for 30 metrics, we knew that the 10 that overlapped belonged in our dashboard.


Finally, more than two years in, we made our first hire: Albert, a research analyst. We clearly needed this person. Still, I was terrified. I was scared that we didn’t have enough runway to ensure a staffer could be paid consistently. At the time, Joost and I weren’t drawing a salary and would adjust what we paid ourselves based on that month’s expenses. I gathered the confidence to hire Albert by reasoning that the risk wasn’t all mine--Albert understood he was taking a chance, too. He still works at SuperData today.


Startup success secret #3: We invested in our business first. Money is the primary reason startups go out of business. If you’re going to succeed, you need to sacrifice. Given a choice between shopping and investing in something that generates revenue, invest! Book the train ticket to see the potential client, pay the conference fee. Early on, I was given this advice: Whenever you send a proposal, add $1,000. Nines times out of 10, you’ll get that fee. Invest it in your business.


By year five, SuperData had about 15 employees and we were making a few million a year. We grew very quickly, in part because we weren’t afraid to be bold. We’d make controversial predictions in the market. If we didn’t like a game, we’d say so! It got us attention.


Still even as we grew, for several years, Joost and I paid ourselves only what it took to run our household. Gradually, we took out more and paid ourselves a salary. It’s not a great look for the owners of a successful start up to barely pay themselves, because prospective buyers looking at your finances deduct those funds from your profit.


Startup success secret #4: We grew intentionally and with integrity. With each new hire, we were mindful to offer the opportunities that people come to a startup for. They want to make an impact, ramp up their responsibilities, and have the potential of a successful exit. We felt it was our duty to fulfill those needs. In fact, people will often accept slightly less pay if you can honor their deep desires and give them the responsibility they crave. The very early employees who help you build will have more equity than employee #50, but you owe it to every employee to understand their dreams and ideas.


From the beginning, we thought SuperData could be an interesting target for a larger company. As a start-up, you often have conversations with your competition, and Nielsen was in that set. They asked us about our growth, and asked us for meetings. It made sense that we’d be more powerful together. I could sense it was a possibility that they would offer to acquire us, but reminded myself that the chances were slim to none. But, it happened! In September 2018, we were purchased by Nielsen.


The money has been nice, but Joost and I are very simple people--we didn’t do all this for money. We did it because we thought we could, and we needed to see if we were right. Joost works at Nielsen now, while I’ve been on a break for the first time in my life, catching up on six years of sleep. But I think I have another start-up in me. Let’s talk again in a year!