Found In The Rockies

Liz Giorgi (soona) \\ Redefining Content Creation

February 09, 2022 Season 2 Episode 12
Found In The Rockies
Liz Giorgi (soona) \\ Redefining Content Creation
Show Notes Transcript

In today’s episode, I talk with Liz Giorgi, the CEO and co-founder of soona. We talk about how Liz 's journey began with a bootstrap company that works in content creation for large companies, and a pivot to a venture backed startup that created a novel and revolutionary solution for entrepreneurs and small businesses. We talk about the TechStars program. Liz shares her company’s growth from starting without even having a company name, to Demo Day, to her post-TechStars journey.  We also talk about why Liz created the Candor Clause. And what Liz thinks the next steps are to help close the gender gap in access to venture capital. Liz also shares some tips for founders and concrete things that investors can do to make progress in the right direction. Finally, she gives us some exciting things to look forward to this year for soona. 

Here’s a closer look at the episode:

  • Background and origin story 
  • Soona's founding moment
  • The prequel to TechStars 
  • TechStars Program 
  • Growth from Demo day 
  • Post-TechStars journey 
  • Did COVID affect the company's direction? 
  • Anything you would do differently going back? 
  • The Candor Clause 
  • Concrete things that investors can do to make progress in the right direction 
  • People that motivated Liz 
  • Tips for founders 
  • What's next for soona 


Resources:

Website: https://soona.co/

Liz’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/lizgiorgi

Liz’s Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elizabethgiorgi/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/soonastudios

Twitter: https://twitter.com/soonastudios

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/soonastudios/

Candor Clause: https://soona.co/candor-clause/


Liz 00:00

Let me just remind you, you have probably purchased something on the internet today or this week. And I promise you, you didn't purchase anything that didn't have a picture and you know when you think about just how much transactions are occurring online every day and how much those photos inspire those transactions. Having these amazing assets that really do get folks excited about purchasing your product is the difference maker between “add to cart” or not.


Les 00:33

This is Found in the Rockies, a podcast about the startup ecosystem and the Rocky Mountain region, the founders, funders and contributors and the stories of what they're building. I'm Les Craig from Next Frontier Capital. And on today's show, we have Liz Giorgi, the CEO and co-founder of soona. Today, we're talking about her path from the iron range of Minnesota to the front range of Colorado. It's an inspiring founder journey that began with a bootstraped company that worked content creation for large companies, that progressed to an exit, and a pivot to a venture backed startup that created a novel and revolutionary solution for entrepreneurs and small businesses. We also talk about why Liz created the Candor Clause. And what Liz thinks the next steps are to help close the gender gap in access to venture capital. We laugh, I cry. It's an episode you don't want to miss. Hi Liz, thank you so much for joining us today.


Liz 01:34

I'm so excited to be here Les. Thank you for having me.


Les 01:37

To start off, why don't you tell us the story of, of you, your story and what led to the founding of soona?


Liz 01:44

Absolutely. Well my story goes all the way back to northern Minnesota, my family lived on a place called the Iron Range, which is a very rural part of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. And we lived up there for really two reasons. The first is that my grandfather had a canoe outfitting business that he would provide canoe outfitting services and canoe rentals and kayak rentals to folks who are visiting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in the Vermillion National Park up in northern Minnesota. And the second reason was we had a lot of property, a lot of land and we sold Christmas trees in the winter. And so we were an entrepreneurial family, we had kind of a mixed entrepreneurship that floated the seasons, if you will. And I was really lucky to grow up in a family business. I think growing up in a family business is actually a really unique life experience, you get to see firsthand exactly how a business can actually build a community. You can build fans. And actually you can be a part of what's central to a particular area. You know, many people to this day, folks that I meet through the entrepreneurship community will tell me “Oh, my family, you know, took a canoe trip from your grandfather”, or I've even met entrepreneurs whose parents worked for my grandfather, and so you would be surprised how deep those roots go. But it also speaks to something that's near and dear to my heart, which is just the importance of building a business that really represents what you believe in and represents something that you're interested in. And so when I went to college, I actually studied journalism at the University of Minnesota. I was dying to be Barbara Walters, that was my life's ambition when I was 18. Of course I didn't become Barbara Walters. But I became deeply passionate through that experience with storytelling and being able to really articulate what you're doing clearly, make it compelling to people who just met you. And it actually became one of my superpowers as a founder as I think I've been able to really use those skills later in life. When I graduated, I had a very meandering career, I was a television editor for a few years, lucky enough to work on programs for big 10 network and PBS and apartment therapy and eventually was lucky enough to realize Oh, my goodness,


Les 03:56

I gotta I gotta tell you, this is this is it's intriguing to me to hear the the origins of your story as an entrepreneur, you are the second founder in a row that's been on this podcast that had this, like the journalist's background. That was like an entrepreneur, went to college, studied journalism. And it's fascinating to me, because this is something I've always thought of as a superpower of like, some of the best entrepreneurs, is the ability to communicate, and that's yours, that's yours as well.


Liz 04:27

Absolutely, I would take none of it back. I wouldn't even take back making $20,000 a year back in 2009. You know, I really am grateful for the fact that I think working in media, you get a sense very clearly of “how do I get rid of the fluff? How do I focus on what the core message should be? How do I make sure I understand what the audience wants to hear and really speak to who my audience is today”, because your audience changes all the time. And so I feel it was an amazing Bootcamp for being able to string together really strong narratives now as a founder. Of course, it was destined or ordained in the stars that I would eventually figure out, that I should become an entrepreneur. But when I became an entrepreneur, I really knew nothing about business. Despite working in a family business. I didn't know what a p&l was, I didn't know what a balance sheet was, I had no idea how to create a budget. And so I had to learn, you know, it really my business school is starting a business I had to learn on the fly. And I'm exceedingly grateful that it worked out. But my first business was actually bootstrap business. I started a production company in 2013, was very happy with that experience, because I was able to live that dream of building a million dollar multi-million dollar business in the course of seven years that served the biggest customers in the world. We made commercial work for Facebook, Microsoft, General Mills, Target, you know, you name it, we probably did something for them at some point. And it was also where I met my co-founder in this endeavor now. And that will always be part of my origin story is that Hayley actually worked for me. 


Les 06:00

Was that Mighteor, is that right? Yep. So that's where you, that's where the two of you met? Yeah. Oh, very cool.


Liz 06:09

Yes. And I always say to founders, the best way to find someone that you can work well together with is to work with them. So we worked together. It's, it was clear, we were magic together.


Les 06:21

It's funny, too, because I run into that a lot. You see these solo founders that are, you know, looking for advice on like, where do I find? Where do I find my co-founder, you know, and whether that other half of the of the skill set and it's like, well, it's probably somebody you've already known, right? For years, like you, I would hope. Yeah,


Liz 06:39

Exactly. And it's amazing too how having worked together for a few years, we learned what each other was really good at and what we can lean on each other to do. So. In 2018, we actually got the idea for soona, we were on a trip to get our vacation together, a vacation together in Palm Springs, actually. And we're on a hike and we were talking about what we thought the future of media was going to be. And we both kind of came to the conclusion that we thought it would be faster, we thought it would be more affordable. But the thing we're both really excited about was transparent photoshoots, which makes no sense to anyone who's not part of the production universe, but makes a ton of sense now and you think about how soona works, soona powers a virtual photoshoot experience. And our first idea was, how do we just make it possible for anyone anywhere to have a photoshoot wherever they are, and with whatever device they have. And that Genesis became really something we were obsessed with together. And yeah, I eventually convinced her she had no desire to be an entrepreneur. But I eventually convinced her, it took me a full year to convince her that we are going to sell Mighteor and we are going to apply to TechStars. And we're going to go for the go for a totally different journey on my second go around but 


Les 07:51

So, a year of convincing and then probably a month in she was like Liz, what in the world? Did you just do, right? Or was? Was there any of that? Like, is there any of those moments? early on?


Liz 08:01

I think sometimes still today there are moments like that.


Les 08:04

Of course I know. It's kind of a leading question. Yeah..


Liz 08:07

Yeah. It's funny. Hayley is an animator by trade and has a very different technical skill set than I do, but is so good at the technical pieces of our business, because animation is really a technical part of the production industry. And so I think what we really discovered over time was that, and this will always be part of our origin story. We are that unique combination, where one plus one equals the output of seven people. And we've all had colleagues like this, right? Sometimes one person works with another person, it creates two people's worth of work. And sometimes one person works with another person, it creates zero work, because it's just not a good collaboration. But in our case, we always found that we had outsized outcomes together. And that's what we tried to focus on in the beginning is how do we just make progress by contributing to each other and collaborating together in a way that allowed us to create technology that we really believed in and that we were willing to kind of bet big on and that's really how it came together. 


Les 09:03

Awesome. So what was the, what was sort of the journey from “we're gonna do after we're gonna do this?” We you sold Mighteor, and then it's like, then what? Like, how did you get started? How did you get going? I know you ended up at, I want to talk about TechStars for sure. But what was like, what was the prequel to TechStars?


Liz 09:21

It was a full year of trying to determine, can we actually make production a real time visible experience online? So the way that soona works, and this is still the underpinning, is that within five seconds of a photographer, taking a picture on a camera, can we deliver that to you on your device within five seconds, that was the goal, because our hypothesis was as if we could deliver those assets quickly and transparently. Then customers could interact with them. They could give real time feedback. Teams wouldn't have to fly across the country or even be in the same place in order to have a photoshoot and So we had this idea, it took us about 11 months of working with both folks we knew in our network, as well as with our own technology tools, testing and iterating, to come up with a minimum viable once after that 10 months, we had a minimum viable product. I actually was when I had the conviction that we should apply to TechStars. And so we applied to TechStars with this really bizarre photoshoot tech platform that had no brand, had no real name, had nothing but hey, Liz and Hayley invented cool thing. And we want to show you how cool it is. 


Les 10:33

LizandHayleycoolthing.com was the URL? Like, what was the name of the company? What was it?


Liz 10:40

Well, at the time, it was literally just called our CDC technology. It was quite pathetic. But that was as far as we got. 


Les 10:49

This is what's amazing is like it was it was maybe that that, you know, unbaked but you got in. I mean,  TechStars is one of the most selective programs in the country. TechStars Boulder, what was the process like?


Liz 11:04

I think this really, I was gonna say, this really speaks to be able to string together a really good story, because I basically was able to say, you know, to Natty and Julia, like, Okay, let me show you how amazing this real time photoshoot is gonna be, you're gonna be able to see every single thing as we create it. And by the way, there's not a single thing that we do on the internet that doesn't involve a photo. So has anyone solved for photoshoots at scale? Has anyone solved for photo creation at scale? No, we're going to be the brand to do that. But we have to, you know, continue to make progress on this really, you know, abstract technology that we've built so far. And so we had, we had at least figured out here's our studio space, here's how we're going to deliver it. Here's the technology that's going to run it and you know, look, I'm this person who has a business that at the time was $3 million in annual revenue. And I'm willing to sell this business to go start this business. That's how much I believe in what I'm doing. And so I think I just really sold the fact that I,


Les 12:05

Did you demo the product to them? Like, did they try, try it out, or something? Or what did they do? If you can say,


Liz 12:11

Yeah, so I actually, this is of course pre-COVID time, so I actually had them come to Denver meet me and one of our facilities, and I actually showed them, okay, here, here's the product, here's the application on an iPad, you're gonna go stand in the other room and hold this iPad, and I'm going to show you that I'm going to be taking pictures over here, and you're gonna see every single thing I'm doing in real time. And you're gonna be able to give me feedback. And then I'm going to make changes. And so we literally just sat across two sides of a wall, 


Les 12:40

virtual virtual. Wow, that’s so cool. 


Liz 12:41

Yeah, yeah. But it was really powerful. And for me, it really speaks to, you know, how fantastic TechStars is because the mix of businesses can be things that are already in market and have you know, that have a lot of revenue, or it can be things that are real, just technology innovations that are trying to get from MVP to public launch. And that was really what we use TechStars to do. And that was how I pitched it to Julia and Natty. Hey, you're going to help me by the end of this program, when I am standing on Demo Day, we will have launched this technology to the world. 


Les 13:16

And that is so cool. You know, believe it or not, I was looking through our episodes today, you're actually the first TechStars company on the podcast. I mean, granted, we've only it's like our 24th episode, but but given that I would love to hear for you know, certainly a lot of our listeners or founders in the Rockies, just just some advice to folks that may be considering TechStars and just some some thoughts on your experience of you know, the value of the programming.


Liz 13:41

TechStars is a really special experience in that it is designed to allow businesses to take a year's worth of work and compress it into 13 weeks. And there's not many things in your career where you're going to get the coaching, the support,the resources, to actually make time go faster in that way. But really, that to me was the promise that they delivered on they told me we would do more faster. And we did, we did more faster. When I think about getting into the program, I really would hone in on on two key things. First is what is the size of the opportunity you're going after? And two, Why are you the right team to go after this opportunity? When you think about the companies that are really successful in the program, whether you see alumni like ClassPass, or Digital Ocean, these are brands that have really honed in on that. There's this huge opportunity, no one's tapping into it. And we’re the founding teams to go after this for these right reasons. And reflecting on myself, that is exactly why I got into the program. You know, I had clearly articulated the opportunity around visual assets and I had proven myself as an entrepreneur in the space in an alternative, you know mode, but certainly adjacent to what we're doing now. And so that is what I would really focus on. The other piece of this is, keep applying So many people that were part of my program, were folks who had applied 2, 3, 4 times, and had just been trying to get it right. And so just because you don't get it right the first time doesn't mean give up and don't keep going for the program, you know, continue to apply and continue to make that effort. And then once you get in the program, you know, the things you're going to get access to, are going to be really profound, you're going to get access to mentorship, you're going to get access to ways of doing and measuring your work that allow you to make better decisions more quickly. You're going to get access to free, free resources, things as silly as AWS credits, that stuff adds up, you're going to get access to the, the alumni network to help you formulate a sales strategy and you’re going to get access to investors. And so understand also, are these things you need, like take those five things I just described, and really assess, are these the things my business needs right now to move forward? And if they are, this is really a great way to get that access. 


Les 16:02

It’s just, it's really a gem. Right? I mean, it's such it's such an amazing program that we have in region, for sure. It is, in fact, yeah. So I was at the demo day that you presented at, and I, there was it was a it was I remember that cohort in particular had some very unique companies like not your traditional TechStars, typical, like they weren't all b2b SaaS companies. And for me, that was, that was it was very eye opening. In fact, you know, coming from a more traditional, you know, cybersecurity enterprise SaaS background, I have to admit, I missed, I missed some some big ones that day, and you're in soona was certainly one of them, because it's been unbelievable to me to see the growth that's happened since you pitched at Demo Day. Talk to us about that.


Liz 16:49

Well, it's no surprise then that I think we have a class that is really outperforming in many, many ways. And it is because it was a really diverse class, it was a really interesting set of businesses, there was also a really special piece of it, where many of us were founding teams that were second time founders, we had maybe done something and failed or done something and decided to move on. And so there was a lot of learning that came from just saying, I remember one time the founders of Veho, and the fact that they were, we were sharing all the mistakes we made the first time around that we weren't gonna make the second time around. And there is also something to be said for that, you know, a lot of folks, I think don't quite realize how much value there is in messing up and making mistakes. And that was a group of folks who I think had made a lot of mistakes and had chosen to learn from them and do it differently next time. 


Les 17:41

Yeah,for sure. And so talk, tell us a little bit about coming out of that program, where soona was, and kind of what what ensued after, after that.


Liz 17:51

Well, we had a bumpy first year after TechStars. I don't know if everybody totally realizes it. But we launched the product. And we launched the, people could actually make appointments for photo shoots at Demo Day, we started doing our very first photo shoots in May of 2019. And we were chugging along, we were doing great. I think we had gotten to about $100,000 in monthly revenue by the end of that year, which we felt really good about. And of course our you know, attracted investors, we were able to do around with Matchstick Ventures and Starting Line Ventures out of Chicago. But then COVID, of course happened in 2020, and we had to completely re-envision our business, we had to actually determine how could we build soona without physical space, and use the network effects of our photographer network to actually expand how we delivered photoshoots. Allow photographers to shoot from their homes, their spare bedrooms, their garages, how can we actually put soona inside of someone else's facility, put it inside of a warehouse or put it inside of some kind of co-working space. And so we've tried, tried a lot of different modalities, because it turned out that having massive infrastructure was a huge risk of exposure in COVID. And so we completely rebuilt the foundation of soona, and actually in April 2020, I spent two weeks locked in my CTOs house with my co-founder. And we completely re-envisioned how we're going to deliver our services, and how we're going to work with our teams. And we launched the product in June of 2020, upon launching the product, we are now an entirely virtual photoshoot platform, that is essentially functions like a manage marketplace. So we have people sign up to do a variety of things, everything from being a photographer to being a stylist to being a pet model or a human model. You can actually sign up to do all kinds of different things on the marketplace now.


Les 19:46

I don't think I could do the human model thing, but I might be able to pass as a some sort of pet of some sort. Maybe I'll maybe I'll sign up.


Liz 19:53

Or you can be, you can be a hand model, we have lots of hand models.


Les 19:56

A hand model hand model even better. Yeah, there we go.


Liz 19:59

And our customers now book a photoshoot entirely online, they then ship us their product. Once the product arrives in our warehouse facility, we distribute it to the appropriate order match. They then join their photo shoot in the browser, they see every single photo and video clip as it's created in real time. And they purchase their assets entirely ala carte, they pay $39 per photo $93 per video clip, I think the thing that blows everyone's mind is from June in 2020, to where we will end this year, you will end at about $9 million run rate at the end of this year, which is pretty explosive growth in 18 months from a complete rebuilt process.


Les 20:37

I was going to say, I think “explosive” is probably a little underselling, that growth. I mean, it's unbelievable.


Liz 20:42

It’s been exhausting and awesome at the same time.


Les 20:45

So, so what do you I think… I I've been, I've been so intrigued to watch businesses react to COVID. You know, and I feel like it's had a very, very binary effect, right? It's either um, sadly, some businesses it’s just killed. And I don't know, maybe it's because they, they haven't been willing to innovate. But for you, it sounds like your company embraced the challenges of COVID as an opportunity to and it really set it in a totally different direction, or not totally but but somewhat of a somewhat of a pivot, do you think that would have happened outside of COVID? Would you've gone in that direction, at any point in the future?


Liz 21:19

We had always imagined that we would expand our platform to be possible to be used in a variety of different modalities. But COVID did two things. One, it made our opportunity way more pertinent and way more urgent, because every single company was now trying to start their ecommerce store. And just to put this in, like stark contrast, when we started the pandemic there were 7 million online retailers selling products online. Today, in just a little over a year, we've now got about 13 million retailers that are online. And so the volume of E-commerce stores just was growing so rapidly. And we knew we had to take advantage of that change in velocity, right. But also, we knew that people getting together in a studio environment to take pictures was simply not going to happen in a pandemic. And so we thought, okay, can we take what we had hoped we could accomplish in two to three years, accelerate it forward? It's not going to be perfect. And you know, I often say in my team progress over perfection, how do we make progress towards what we're trying to achieve, and really focus on the things that allow us to take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of us? I think what happened is that a bunch of folks from the Midwest, which my co-founder, my CTO, myself, are all from the Midwest; sat in a room and said, “We will not let this die, we're going to take advantage of this moment. And we're going to make it our moment.” And that mentality is a choice. Of course, a lot of luck played into this too. You know, we had to we had to be able to make it happen at the right time. And certainly the pandemic has not been a good thing overall. But it's, it was a forcing factor in our business and in the industry at large that did service us in a pretty major way.


Les 23:03

Yeah, I would imagine there's also other small, small to medium sized business in the Midwest or really anywhere that you have been a total lifeline for right? I mean, it helps them survive as well through your innovation.


Liz 23:18

100% I receive emails and Instagram messages every single day from people who said “I just had my first soona photo shoot” or “I just had my fifth soona photo shoot and you know, I'm I, I'm so excited because our first product sold out after we posted these images” or, you know, I got laid off I remember a story there's a company called Shield+Heal, which is a brand of a mom and a daughter both got laid off from their jobs in the pandemic. They decided, forget it, we're going to finally start the Shopify store, we always want to start they created a brand called Shield+Heal. They use soona to create their images. And they did $50,000 in the sales in their first month with those images. And you know, they could have never imagined that kind of outcome, you know, had soona not existed for them. And I always tell people, there is so much room for our business to not just change the big e-commerce retailers ability to create beautiful images, but actually to help someone have hope that they can start an e-commerce store in the first place.


Les 24:18

Yeah, and for any of our listeners out there, what Liz is referring to right now if you go to soona.co and see just the quality I mean it is it's it's it's better than any of the big brands, or just as good if just as good if not better. I love by the way, I gotta I gotta nerd out for one second. I love the stop motion stuff. Oh, that's nice. Thank you. It's like I am, I don't know why I've always been drawn like I watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer at least for four or five times a year. Sometimes not even during Christmas. I just I love stop motion. And that's one thing I get drawn to with some of the sort of effects that you your team does.


Liz 24:57

That's amazing. No, I mean that's what's so I like to say to folks, if you don't understand how great this opportunity is, let me just remind you, you have probably purchased something on the internet today or this week. And I promise you, you didn't purchase anything that didn't have a picture, and how about just much transactions are occurring online every day and how much those photos inspire those transactions, having these amazing assets that really do get folks excited about purchasing your product is the difference maker between “add to cart” or not. And so it's really conviction have high conviction about that.


Les 25:35

It's such a such a differentiator, if you were to if you were to do it all over again, anything, you would change anything you would do differently kind of along the journey as you launched this?


Liz 25:46

I don't like to have regrets. Because regrets are sort of, you know, it's almost like robbing yourself of your opportunities to learn. And I think all my mistakes were really good opportunities to learn. But probably one mistake that I made. And one thing that I would go back in retrospect and change is, I really did not understand how important it was going to be to get a COO into our organization, and really have someone who understood, you know, with a managed marketplace, the operational complexity of our business is profound. And I probably waited too long to get that person into the business. Now, the COO I ended up bringing into the business as an absolute rockstar, and, you know, I am so honored that I get to work with Dae Mellencamp who's our COO. And she was the former president, CEO of Vimeo for almost four years and has just brought such a level of intentional thoughtfulness to what we're doing operationally that it blows my mind. But I like to say I took too long, but at least when I finally did find the one, it was somebody who really could make a major difference.


Les 26:47

I'm so glad you said that. Because I know of a bunch of founders out there that could use that advice. It's hard, though, until it's like until, you until you experience it. It's hard to realize, you know how impactful that those those critical senior level hires can be like a COO, thank you for sharing.


Liz 27:04

So much trust. I mean, a lot of, yeah, I remember someone saying to me, like, “I can't believe you're hiring a former CEO, as your COO.” And I literally looked at them and said, “Why would I hire anyone less impressive?” That it to me, it's all about trusting yourself, trusting your relationships, and really investing in those relationships so that they can bring about the best possible outcomes.


Les 27:28

I always, my one of my favorite sayings is, you know, like, hire the people that you want to work that you know, you would want to work for, like, better than you are in some way. Yeah. I love that.


Liz 27:39

That's good. I'm gonna steal that advice and give that to some other members of my team.


Les 27:43

Yeah. All right. So shifting gears a little, one of the things we always love to explore on the podcast is is you know, just trailblazers in our region. And folks that are really pushing on and doing things that matter. And being courageous, I would love for you to tell us a little bit about the Candor Clause, and kind of some of the background and when, when and when, why you created it.


Liz 28:05

Perfect. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share a little bit about the Candor Clause. So this all originated from learning about the fundraising process for founders who are maybe new in the journey, they will be shocked to find out that there is so much research done on founders, so much research done on businesses, so many questions that you're going to answer to investors about your business. And there's actually very few formats or processes for founders to do diligence on investors. In fact, I was amazed that it was even considered unusual for me to ask questions about the fund, you know learning about the learning about the whole psychology of a fundraising process. But once I figured that out, once I realized, wow, there really isn't a great formula for founders to learn about these investors. And I had had a really negative experience with a particular investor, I decided that I want to go to my legal team and say, Hey, what could something that what is something that we can do to really create protections for founders to say, Listen, if you are turn out to be someone different than who you represented yourself, and we have the opportunity as a as a company, to buy a lot of our business. And so that's exactly what the Candor Clause does. The Candor Clause is an open source legal disclosure, it goes into the representation and warranty section of a financing agreement. And it basically outlines that funds are required to disclose if they've had any history or issues with sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and now we've actually expanded it to include issues around racial discrimination, LGBTQ discrimination and other rights areas. And if they fail to disclose any issues around these problems, we actually are able to buy those investors out at a later date at the price they paid during the initial financing and that's a really important hole to close. Because what you find out from founders, especially those who maybe have had issues with harassment from their investors, is that they make money on getting purchased out of those businesses. In fact, when a business does what it's supposed to do, and it grows, they end up getting a return on being a bad actor and maybe not having uh, good behavior. And so we want to create an environment where everyone's being honest with each other, everyone is really incentivized to behave in a way that is productive for both the relationship but also for the business's growth. And to put founders in a position of having a little slice of protection in a process that is otherwise mostly geared towards helping investors have more power in the relationship.


Les 30:44

Yeah, it's really, really amazing that you've you've gone to gone to, you know, take taking the lead on this. And what's it what are you what are some of the reactions, you're hearing founders, investors? What are they thinking about it?


Liz 30:55

Lawyers hate it.


Les 30:58

Don’t they hate everything, though? Anything, not standard. They don't like


Liz 31:03

Yeah, lawyers hate it. It's really interesting and either does one of two things, it either immediately raises red flags for for investors of who I don't think I want to work with somebody who's you know, so, quote, unquote, I've been told I'm obsessed with, with these issues. And I can quickly realize then that maybe we're not going to be a great culture fit, we're not going to have maybe the same values about the business. But it's also helped me realize who's going to be an even better fit for our business, you know, when you are having a great process with an investor, you realize that there is a great fit in terms of strategy, but also in terms of vision, and then you get to this conversation about, hey, I want to include the Candor Clause in my financing, and they read it and go, “Hey, this is awesome, like I can 100% support this”, that, for me is a really good signal that we're going to have a productive relationship, we're going to be able to talk about the hard things and the easy things. And we're probably going to have the same values about how the business grows and how we treat each other in the relationship. And that's been a really awesome plus one for us as as a founding team.


Les 32:12

Yeah, it makes total sense in terms of alignment of values, and how important that is. Because I think, you know, as a first time founder, I didn't, I didn't realize any of those things. I mean, similarly, I, I didn't ask questions, I just thought, Oh, the VC is the person that writes the check. And I'm the person that runs the business. And we go our separate ways, but it is so so much more than that, right? And aligning those values is critical.


Liz 32:36

And it's a complicated relationship, at times. When things are going well. It's a very easy relationship, when things are maybe not going well. It's a really hard relationship. And as much as I would like to say that, you know, the current fundraising markets have helped give founders a little more power. And you know, the fact that there is more capital in the market means that founders do have a little bit more say, they're still, the data is still clear, you know, female founders still are not raising as much as they probably should be. Black and brown founders still are not raising as much as they probably should be. And so the opportunities might be increasing, but they're not proportionately increasing with the dynamics of who's starting businesses. And so we have to be able to be honest about that if we can't have candor. And that's why I called it the Candor Clause, if we can't have candor about the fact that the issues that I'm going to face as a female founder might look a little bit different than other founders in the portfolio, we probably are going to have a really hard time having candor about maybe you need to fire someone, or have a really hard time having candor about a partnership opportunity. That maybe I don't want to do but the investors do want to do, right. And so you've got to be able to have hard conversations and in a strage sort of way. This is the hardest conversation of all to have. So let's just dive right in and see how it goes.


Les 33:58

Yeah, yeah, it's awesome. I love the name too, by the way, I think it is very fitting, it's perfect. Anyway, if you want to if folks want to read more about the Candor Clause they could probably, can they find out anything you


Liz 34:09

If they want to read about it, or even download it and bring it to their legal counsel and use it in their financing, they can just go to candorclause.com and download it right from there.


Les 34:18

There it is, you got the URL. All right. Great. What a similar topic, you know, as as I think we all are well aware of some of the challenges, you know, related to the gender gap and some of the racial gaps and discrepancies in financing and numbers. But what do you think? If for the investors in the audience are listening, what are some of the concrete things that investors can do to continue to make progress in the right direction here?


Liz 34:47

Yeah, I always tell. I tell investors a couple different things. The first thing I tell investors is really look at who you're getting your deal flow from. Does your deal flow look like you or does your deal flow look differently from you. So if you don't have folks in your network who maybe represent different backgrounds, you're probably just going to get a lot of the same. And so you want to create a diverse network, you want to have people around you who are sending you deal flow that looks different from you. The second thing I always point out is that you can't count on folks just coming to you to get those deals, you've got to be willing to go outside your comfort zone and, you know, go visit TechStars programs in other parts of the country. There are things happening that are not just on the coasts of this country. And so go, be part


Les 35:36

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for that plug. Yes, that's our whole strategy. Yeah, sorry. Sorry to interrupt. 


Liz 35:45

No, it's perfectly important, like get outside of the zones of where you've normally been and see what other what other geographies have to offer. Because actually, not only if you just thinking about San Francisco as the perfect example, if you are not from a particular type of means the likelihood that you have the means to start a company in San Francisco is low. If you're in St. Louis, the it requires far few means to start a company in that geography and so just be thoughtful about those sorts of realities. And the third and final thing that I always say is, I really want to encourage folks to just assess whether or not they have really given some of the other founders that they've met a fair shake, you know, you do meet that female founder, and maybe she's not as boisterous or as braggadocious, as maybe the the male founders that you've met, maybe just ask the why. And be really curious about whether or not that's a requirement for being successful, the presentation skills that I'm going to have might look slightly different than the skills of another founder that is maybe gone to the same school as me as the same background as me, but our gender alone can just create a different outcome for how we present ourselves. And so give folks the benefit of the doubt on some of those qualities. And really be thoughtful about whether or not you are artificially biasing against things that maybe women are technically punished for, you know, if I'm overly braggadocious, or overly sort of boisterous, I can be perceived as very arrogant, very rude, very unkind, and it's not anyone's fault. It's just how culture has really evolved over time. We're getting better, we're getting smarter. We're all evolving. Evolution, number one starts in our own minds. And so just what goes on in your own mind.


Les 37:37

Got to break those millions of years of biases, or maybe 10s of 1000s of years, whatever it is, but that's great advice. That's great advice. Liz. Shifting gears a little bit, I always like to kind of ask founders about kind of what where they get their inspiration from in particular, if there are people in your life looking back looking now, you know, looking, you know, recent history, like, who are some of the people that have motivated you or encouraged you and been an inspiration to you.


Liz 38:03

The first one that comes to mind as being just so important to me was Barbara Walters as as unusual as that might sound. I really admired her when I was young, you know, I was a kid of the 80s. I watched television all through the 90s. And Barbara was one of the only women I had ever seen go toe to toe with presidents go toe to toe with CEOs go toe to toe with politicians. And so I thought, wow, that's an impressive person. I want to be that powerful someday. And so Barbara Walters was like the catalyst for so many of my decisions from life.


Les 38:34

I remember her as a child too, on 2020. I mean, it was like she was such a force. It was yeah, it was pretty amazing.


Liz 38:41

It's hard not so realize was how big of a deal it is. You know, another person that I admire hugely in terms of the entrepreneurial world and who motivates me a lot is Ava DuVernay. She's a person who worked in media much like me, but then ultimately started a production company, and has been unbelievably successful winning every award a person could possibly win. But what I love about her, what I love about what she's doing is, you know, one of the things of growing a business growing a company is the talent pool that you're building. And Ava has built schools and programs and training programs to help build a pipeline of talent to her company that I just find so admirable. I think all the time about how the next generation of companies are going to have to think beyond just here's a job, and actually think about, here's the here's the path towards a career at this organization. And so I'm hugely inspired and motivated by that. And then I would be absolutely remiss if I didn't point out that I just had amazing men in my life as well. My grandfather was an entrepreneur, was the first person to teach me feminism was. I was his only granddaughter and so he was very convicted that I understood that I could do anything that my cousins could do or that my brother could do. And you know, it's top of mind for me as well, but you know my father passed away recently and my father was a profound person in the sense that he was an artist, he was he wore his artistic creativity on his sleeve, and for a man of his generation, the best gift that he gave me was he always told me how much he loved me. He always told me how proud he was of me. And he always encouraged me to do the thing that I believe was the right thing for me to do. And it didn't matter that it was completely insane for me to start a business with no business school background. He said, “Go do it, if that's what you want to do.” And, you know, I think as children, I think about myself, you know, in the future, as a parent, I hope I can be that brave to allow my children to really go after the things that they believe in.


Les 40:41

Liz, I'm so glad this is a podcast. Because you are making me tear up here, I've got two daughters, and so special, that you shared that about your dad. And so sorry to hear his passing, what a great group of diverse, diverse mentors that have clearly had a tremendous impact on your life. So thank you for sharing that.


Liz 40:59

I’ve been very lucky. You’ve been very lucky in life, if you can point to more than one person who sort of had an impact on you. And so be grateful for that.


Les 41:06

That is spot on. Couple more questions, you, you have seemed to really have built a phenomenal network, from what I've been able to gather, what tips would you have for founders, because often I think this is quite an important ingredient in being successful. And you seem to have done that, you know, tremendously well what advice on networking and building a network could you give.


Liz 41:27

You know, these are going to sound so silly, but they are my tried and true rules. The first is don't behave differently publicly than you behave privately, you know, that person should be the same person. So whoever I present myself to be in this podcast, I am the same exact person, if you and I are sitting and having a cup of coffee, and so that, you know, try to have the same exact values in your public life and your private life. The second is genuinely be nice to everyone at every stage of their career. I can tell you recently, I was having a meeting with an associate at a fairly large fund. And it was a first meeting. And there's so much advice in the world of startups like “never meet with associates, only meet with partners, blah, blah, blah.” And I met with this associate because I thought, you know what, they they're hungry. They want to achieve things in life, too. And that person had written me a really nice email, and I thought I can I can have a meeting with this person. And after the meeting, this individual said to me, “I have to tell you, you were the nicest founder. I've met all year.” And I said, Excuse me, the nicest. He said, “Well, first of all, he's like, you actually asked me about my job. You asked me about what why I reached out, you were curious about sharing things with me that were not just about the numbers. And I genuinely felt like you listened to me when I spoke.” And I just thought, boy, this is sad that this was the nicest meeting you had because I just had common courtesy. But the truth is, is that just be nice, be a nice person. Be, listen, when people talk, listen fully, don't be distracted by things that are not in your current window of opportunity. And then my final thing would just be before you decide to be a founder, I think it's really important that you know what your values are, so that you can live your values. Because if you live your values, you'll actually attract a network to you that represents those values, it will it's actually like a magnet. I think that founders who have their values in alignment, all the good, good stuff that is attracted to that magnet is palpable. And so as a second time founder, I can totally tell the difference between what I was like when I didn't totally know what my values were when I started my first company to how things are today. And let me tell you it is an outsized impact in terms of your community, in terms of the amount of conviction that your community has about what you're doing. And in terms of the amount of support that you're going to get from that community.


Les 44:10

That's, that's brilliant advice. I mean, I, I distill that down to you know, I think, unfortunately, sometimes people seek out mentors and seek out a network of people who look like them or think like them, but if you if you think about what is truly most valuable it is people that have the same values as you not those other things. That's the essence of it, right? Because then you can you get diversity with a common ground and a common bond of something much more, much more important and relevant. So brilliant, brilliant advice. Let's see. What about kind of to wrap up the last thing, last question, what's next for you? What's next for sooona? What are you getting excited about? Any exciting news to share about what's what's to come for the company?


Liz 45:01

Well, 2022 is going to be a fantastic year for soona, we have a lot of really huge expansion plans. We'll have a very exciting new financing to be able to announce to the world. And I'm beyond thrilled to be able to say that we're actually going to be going into some new geographies and offering up our platform to photographers and creatives in new cities. And so the platform will now be launching in Seattle, Los Angeles and Atlanta next year. So we're really excited to be expanding. We hope folks will join us on the platform next year.


Les 45:35

Well, we'll be sure to get help you get the word out hopefully when this episode drops, thank you so much for being on the show really such a great episode. And could you please tell our audience a little bit about where they can find you and soona online?


Liz 45:47

Absolutely. You can learn more about soona at soona.co That's s-o-o-n-a.co. You can always follow us on all the social medias at soona studios. And if you want to learn more about me or just get general advice about how to be a founder and survive every single thing that this this journey throws at us. You can follow me on social media at Liz Giorgi. 


Les 46:13

thank you so much less really a pleasure.


Liz 46:15

Wonderful. Thank you Les.


Les 46:25

Thank you for listening to this week's episode of found in the Rockies. You can find links in the show notes or go to our podcast page at NextFrontierCapital.com to get links in contact information for today's guests. If you like what you heard and want more, please rate review and subscribe to get notified as our new episodes drop. We'll see you next time.

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

founders, business, soona, techstars, investors, photoshoot, folks, create, person, people, opportunity, company, building, financing, candor, year, podcast, life, thought, entrepreneur, soona