• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

Let Ideas Sneak Up on You

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This week’s Founder Friday Boston speaker explains how she found the idea for her latest venture in an unexpected place. 

By Beth Marcus (CEO & Founder, Playrific, Inc.)

One of the most important things I tell entrepreneurs is to be as open as you can be to your next great idea, understanding that one person’s momentary need can be another’s sustaining motivation.

One of the key ideas behind Playrific came about when parents and MIT grad students Isaac and Geraldine struggled to entertain their young son. Like most toddlers and preschoolers, he loved online videos, games, stories and activities, but was too young to browse the Internet safely without direct supervision. Some seemingly-appropriate sites required more advanced mouse, navigational or reading skills than a toddler might have, and others sites auto-transitioned to more mature content, or had in-app ads that sought to capture him. Great parents, Isaac and Geraldine refused to park their child in front of mindless television.

Be Open to Surprising Ideas

When they couldn’t find what they wanted for their child online, they began building it themselves, assembling a fun, save and super-easy digital playground of preselected videos, games and websites, which they offered to my then five-year-old daughter. She hadn’t really enjoyed the Internet independently at that point. Whenever she accidentally quit the browser, she’d say: “Mommy, it’s talking computer to me!” Playrific was different, and when she said “Mommy, can I keep it?” I knew I’d found a piece of my next innovation puzzle.

I was presenting at Dust or Magic — showing other developers how we had quickly and cost-effectively created multiple topic-based apps using a common code base. Carol Hadley of Computer Explorers asked if we could re-skin our publishing platform for their brand and community of 33K kids attending their afterschool technology platform. In that eureka moment, I realized that we can reach a larger audience by actually mobilizing other companies brands for the kids’ community. Playrific’s B2B Mobilize Your Content platform was born. Three weeks later we signed a contract with Computer Explorers and have been growing ever since.

Now, my previous experience ranged from the design and development of medical products, implants and advanced robotics technologies for ADL, to designing an anthropomorphic robotic hand for NASA’s extravehicular space suit. I wasn’t focused on either kids (except for my own and my friends’) or creating digital marketing strategies and touchpoint pathways. But sometimes a good new approach or idea presents itself from the side.

Look Beyond Professional Investors

My advice to new entrepreneurs is probably obvious. Look beyond the venture community of professional investors. I pitched Playrific to probably 300 angel investors, and to the super angels as well. In the end, we raised our first $1.2 million from about 30 angels, some of whom were seasoned investors and some who were brand new to this type of investing. After that they were joined in the next round by Angel Fund Golden Seeds as the lead or our second round.

Venture capital companies will fund some very young companies and write much bigger checks, but angels will roll up their sleeves and help and often have been in the shoes of the entrepreneur. Their advice and funding costs a larger ownership stake, they are more controlling, and they expect you to shoot for the stars and provide an exit in a fixed time frame.

Also, about mentors. It’s important to find many, in many different areas. In marketing, distribution and channel issues as well as in your core product and industry sector. Surround yourself with as many sources of seasoned advice as possible, and within your own zone of core competency, offer it to others in return. I’ll boil down my advice into a few challenges I encountered and mistakes I made.

Challenges:

  • Raising enough in funding without giving away too much equity; and

  • Finding the right people early in the company’s lifecycle without over-compensating them

Mistakes:

  • Not firing people soon enough; and

  • Getting involved in a low margin business (apparel) prior to founding Playrific.

Want to hear more from experienced founders like Beth? Join us for Founder Friday in your city.

0422227About the guest blogger: Beth Marcus is the CEO and Founder of Playrific, Inc., developers of apps for premium kid-facing consumer brands. A tech-veteran, Marcus sold her first company, EXOS, to Microsoft, and also founded four other companies. Marcus has more than 30 patents to her credit, is extensively published, and has helped guide the growth of more than 20 startups.