We’re excited to launch the new series “ATX Women to Watch” spotlighting top female entrepreneurs in Austin. We hope you’ll enjoy their journeys as we cross-pollinate ideas and learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. We hope you’ll liberally share these stories with your own network, as together we help accelerate the success of high-growth female entrepreneurship in Austin.
Our first interview is with Jen Grogono, CEO & Founder of uStudio. Jen is one of Austin’s leading innovators in digital video. In earlier roles of strategic marketing and communications, Jen saw gaps in the market and decided to fill them. She and her team are now pioneering advances in digital video distribution and management, enabling enterprises to do more with video. She shares her advice here for female entrepreneurs on how to become a leader and succeed despite obstacles.
Q: Did you have an ‘aha’ moment in wanting to start uStudio?
It’s hard to boil uStudio down to a single aha moment. Rather, I had a series of moments over the course of a few years. In 2006, I started working with a partner on a new digital media business which today would be called a Multi-Channel Network. You have to remember that this was before the iPhone and before Google bought YouTube, so pervasive video across digital networks and platforms was still a relatively new concept. I was continuously struck by how few technologies were available to media companies to compete in this new digital world. Modern technology to handle things like digital video distribution, compression, metadata, and audience measurement barely existed, and yet all are required to run a successful, future-forward media business. And, like any industry disrupted by technology, it became clear that the success of businesses and certainly profit margins were going to depend heavily on these technologies. Every corporate marketing department was going to look like a media business and every media business was going to need to transform its operations. The opportunity was big, and in short, too interesting to not pursue.
Q: What customer problems are you solving at uStudio?
Video is one of the most powerful communications tools businesses can use to improve marketing, sales, training, customer service and employee productivity. It’s one thing to post a video on YouTube or your website. It’s much more challenging to fully integrate video capabilities – upload, search, publish, distribute and track – across business operations. And, it’s even more challenging to embed videos inside of a business’ existing systems, networks, relevant media platforms and growing mobile applications in a way that allows audiences to interact and engage with that video. uStudio’s platform not only handles the heavy-lifting of video management (most people don’t want to know about things like codecs and bitrates, and shouldn’t have to!) but it also turns video into 2-way conversations through our pioneering interactive framework. We tie all of that to a rich analytics system that helps businesses understand where and how videos are being viewed. Ultimately this creates a ‘big video’ data set that informs smarter business operations.
Q: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in launching the company?
Just as obstacles are part of life, they’re part of every business. I experienced my fair share launching uStudio. These ranged from self-funding the company and borrowing from friends to get it up and running, to not being taken seriously as a woman in B2B software, facing plenty of rejection along the way from the traditional VC community. Above all, however, the hardest and most important decision I had to make was choosing the right investment partner and the right co-founder. This required a lot of thinking and a ton of faith. I’m happy to report that on both counts I’ve never looked back. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some of the smartest, most supportive people I’ve ever worked with. Challenges, “forks in the road,” obstacles – they can be gifts. They’re the fuel for strength and resilience, and they often spur one’s best creative thinking – all critical skills for growing a new business.
Q: Besides money, what are your favorite ways to compensate people?
You mean beyond free snacks and getting to work with some of the coolest people and customers in the world?! In all seriousness, I think respect and relationships are probably the most underrated currencies in business. People stay at jobs because they are given the freedom to earn more responsibility, the ability to do more, to collaborate productively with those around them, ultimately because their contributions are respected by the organization and their team. That doesn’t mean everyone gets their way. It just means that smart businesses gives people a chance to flourish. This requires your time, mentorship, and faith in allowing employees to take a risk and sometimes even pursue a related professional ambition.
Q: What were some of the biggest lessons that have impacted the way that you work?
Years ago, the board of directors of a company I ran decided to sell the company – a decision that I struggled to support as a founder because of my strong commitment to the business and my belief in its future. As CEO, one’s job is to ultimately support the Board’s decisions and determination of shareholder value. While we ended up selling the business, I learned a lot about myself through that process. Through complex and difficult conversations with a complicated set of stakeholders, I found a path that was satisfactory to all involved. Empathy and thoughtfulness was key to getting through this process with integrity. To this day, I draw on the muscle (and little bit of scar tissue:) I gained from this experience.
Q: How do you conquer those moments of doubt that so often stifle or stop many entrepreneurs with great ideas…what pushes you through?
I do a lot of yoga! Seriously though, it’s one of the hardest things about starting a company. A good friend once told me that self-doubt is the cheapest thing you can buy and that I shouldn’t spend a penny on it. He was so right! It’s easy to lose faith in yourself. And those feelings can really hamper your progress. One way to mitigate those feelings is to simply recognize that you’re not alone. Spending time with other entrepreneurs is a great way to remind yourself that everyone running a start-up business, most certainly in the very beginning but often even after the first $1m in revenue, has thoughts of complete success and complete failure sometimes in the same day and almost certainly in the same week. It can be quite a mental roller coaster! Draw strength and comfort from others, while continuing to trust your instincts. So much about starting a business rounds off to managing your psychology – acknowledging and accepting our fears, yet not allowing them to paralyze you into inaction or even a position that plays it too safe.
Q: If you could have given yourself a piece of knowledge or advice when you started what would that be?
Perhaps the most important is to surround yourself with smart people and acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. It’s always easier to drink your own Kool-Aid than to have to taste someone else’s:) That said, don’t lose trust in your own ideas and your gut. It’s a powerful thing. It’s what gets most entrepreneurs where they are. Related to that is to make sure you find time to think and write. Both can be incredibly arduous especially when you’re busy solving challenging problems. When we avoid hard thinking and we avoid writing down our thoughts, we put progress and success at risk.