A (Virtual)sit-down with Andrea Chang and her brainchild BrainGig
Most entrepreneurs go into business for the incredible experience or with aspirations of financial freedom - but very few go into it with a benevolent agenda like Andrea Chang. OK, quasi-benevolent. The technology/idea Andrea invented, BrainGig, helps connect individuals and teams with much-needed funding opportunities.
When Andrea saw the disconnect between existing funding opportunities and individuals working on under-funded projects she took the 'Steve Job's'-style approach - "I have an app for that." For the last year her website has been helping individuals studying and working in the arts, sciences and humanities by connecting them with grants, fellowships and residencies.
Like many individuals breaking into the entrepreneurial business Andrea has an eclectic background; one that includes an education at the Harvard Business School, the University of California and Georgetown, in addition to real-world work experience in business development and as a financial analyst.
We recently got the opportunity to (virtually) sit down with Andrea to pick her brain about why she felt the urge to become an entrepreneur and what that experience has been like:
Can you give me the quick, elevator pitch for BrainGig?
BrainGig helps individuals find grants, fellowships, and residencies in the arts, sciences and humanities.
What is your educational and work background?
Both of us attended graduate school for business, and Andrea for environmental science as well, so we've been through the pain of constantly trying to find funding. This was one of the primary reasons that motivated us to start BrainGig.
We think we have complementary skills -- Bora has a strong background in finance from her time at Goldman and Lazard. And I was in charge of grant-funding while she was managing the environmental and energy programs at Paul Allen's company and Vulcan Inc. And, we both have experience working in business strategy and product development at several start-ups and small businesses in New York and San Francisco.
What are your biggest challenges as an entrepreneur?
Since we are bootstrapping our company, the biggest challenge has been resource constraints -- both in terms of money and manpower. Also, while we see ourselves as more of a data company than a tech company, getting the technology in place to develop our product and services has been more challenging than if we had a dedicated tech team member.
What are your plans, hopes and marketing ideas for the future of BrainGig?
Our medium-term vision for BrainGig is to create a marketplace where grant seekers and grant funders can interact more efficiently. For individuals looking for grants and fellowships, we want to help them find and apply to those opportunities more easily. For funders, we want to help them find more qualified applicants and raise their profiles within their target communities.
Ultimately, our long-term plans include expanding up the application chain (e.g., by providing a common application to ease the paperwork burden of small foundations), or expanding to helping non-profits look for funding.
What are some of the mistakes and/or failures that you learned from while starting up?
Since we have strong backgrounds in business, we were comfortable with the strategic aspects of assessing our potential market, talking to our users, etc. Our main problems have been centered around getting our beta product to market. It took much longer than we expected since we were simultaneously pursuing several different avenues of development. We initially asked a techie friend to help us during his free time (but he ended up having less time than he anticipated), and we designed the front end before the back end was fully operational, which ultimately led to our inability to use our first front end design.
We learned that it is better to start small and make incremental improvements. This helps to prevent potentially costly mistakes as running a start-up is a constant learning experience.
What were and are the challenges that you face(d) starting up?
Our main challenge starting up is that we are always bumping up against our resource constraints -- in terms of both money and manpower. The upside of bootstrapping is that we have the luxury of deciding our own unique vision for the company and trying to execute it. The trade-off is that we can't just snap our fingers and implement the features on our wish-list right away… it takes much more planning to pursue a certain strategic objective.
How have you personally changed since you started?
We both are pretty tenacious people and have had to become even more so as a result of our experience. We really hate giving up! Also, we've had to learn how to become much better communicators with each other….which is why I think we have been able to remain close friends and still work effectively together.
What has been the biggest surprise been as an entrepreneur and business owner?
The biggest surprise has been just how little revenue will make us happy! Also, it's been surprising just how addictive it is when users engage with our site…and how depressing it is when they stop!
What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plans and how have your plans changed in response?
While giving people a taste of our product is a great way to attract paying subscribers, there's a fine balance between giving enough of a sample for potential buyers to get a decent sense of the product and giving away the "milk" for free. We initially launched on a quasi-freemium model, but have now changed to a more conventional pay-for-service model.
Which do you think is most important and why: the right market, the right product, or the right team?
The right team is definitely the most important. Having people who complement each other's skills and also trust each other means that, as a team, we can attack pretty much any product or market.
How did you lure your first customers?
Our product is geared to individuals in general. However, to start out, we decided to use our existing strong network of school affiliations and focus our marketing efforts on students through a combination of direct outreach and social media channels. We reached out at first to these networks to let them know about BrainGig and establish a base of interested parties. We are currently expanding into the "official" channels at the schools by reaching out to university officials.
If your company tanked tomorrow, would the experience have been worth it?
What made you first think that starting a company is right for you?
Although we both have worked at other startups and had great experiences, it ultimately came down to feeling the urge to create and grow a company "our way" and with an idea we were both emotionally invested in.
Was there anyone/anything who inspired your managerial style and defined the culture of your company?
We have been inspired by how the 37signals founders started and grew their company. In particular, we liked how they forged their own operating path - they bootstrapped for many years before taking on outside investment, they never moved to Silicon Valley, and they have remained small and flexible (even though their impact is huge!).