Entrepreneurs: Your biggest weapon is self-awareness.

Phil Strazzulla (Stern '08) is the founder of NextWave Hire, a recruitment marketing software company based out of Cambridge, MA. NextWave Hire allows companies to showcase their culture through authentic employee testimonials that live on career pages, social media, and many other places job seekers research companies. Phil shares his journey behind founding the company, customer discovery process and lessons learned along the way.

How did you get started with the company and what was the motivation behind it?

phil-strazzulla-headshotI graduated from Stern in 2008 where I studied finance and international business.  I always thought I wanted to work on Wall Street (I’ve been trading stocks since 5th grade).  However, when I was a sophomore I interned at a non-tech startup on 23rd street and fell in love with the impact you can have at a real company (no offense to friends who are still in finance).  That’s when I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

After Stern, I worked in venture capital, and eventually went to get my MBA at Harvard Business School.  While there, I saw my classmates struggle as they looked to transition to new roles after school.  Every company they came across had generic job descriptions, career pages with very little on them, and essentially they were left with the anonymous reviews on Glassdoor to help them understand what a job was like.  I’ve always been very interested in sharing life knowledge (part of the reason why I started a blog), and was curious why companies weren’t doing a better job of telling the world what it’s like to work at their company.

When I talked to my friends in HR, they said they were just too busy trying to fill open job reqs to think about marketing the company as an employer.  They’d tried to partner with the marketing department who knew how to create interesting content, but marketing is too focused on revenues to care.

I had identified the problem and decided to solve it for companies and candidates through software, and partnered with a friend to do just that.

In a nutshell, what service does your business provide? 

We help companies build their employer brands through employee authored stories that showcase life at the company and live all over the internet in the various places talent researches employers.  We collect these stories through data driven surveys that know exactly what questions candidates care about.  We then drive ROI through increased applicants and awareness.

How did you do customer discovery & did your service change based on your findings?

Yes, our product has evolved a TON since we started due to customer feedback, and what we’re seeing in the marketplace.

To start with, we went to the people in our network who were in our customer space to do informational interviews on their problems, and specifically the problems we were thinking of solving.  You can’t ask “would this help you?” Because the answer will be “yes!!!”  You have to figure out how they are solving the problem currently.  What’s working, what’s still a pain, and how much pain is really here.  Nice to have products may get some early traction, but will eventually fizzle out.

Another key resource was influencers in the HR space.  For us, this means entrepreneurs, bloggers, consultants, and analysts.  These are the people who know everything that’s going on in the industry.

We knew very little about HR a few years ago, and are now considered thought leaders because we were sponges for so long.

Did the NYU's entrepreneurial eco-system play in your journey?

I’ve got several friends from NYU who’ve been through starting a company and so it was great to lean on them when various problems came up around fundraising, sales, hiring, etc.  I graduated too soon to take advantage of all the great resources now available!  I’m jealous.

What are some of the lessons you learned along the way that could be helpful to other entrepreneurs?

In no particular order:

  • There are many people in the ecosystem who prey on startups (consultants, advisors, marketers, freelancers, lawyers, etc). Just be weary of who you are dealing with, and think deeply about the value they will bring. If someone will put you in front of 5 Fortune 500 potential customers, that’s awesome!  And, if one coverts, it’s totally worth $10k!  But, don’t spend $10k on something like this until you are sure you have product/market fit and know your close rate is at least 10%.  If someone who seems legit asks you for 2% of your company to be an advisor, don’t give it to them!  Work with them for a month or two to make sure they are worth it, and then vest the stock (and give them .25%).
  • Get at the heart of bias quickly. Your bias, customer feedback, your investors, press, etc.  Look at their incentive, look at their past behavior, and then parse feedback/advice/etc accordingly.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep.  Exercise.  Have a life.
  • No one is perfect: not you, not your co-founder. Don’t have that expectation.
  • Be upfront about conflicts you have with your co-founder.
  • Be confident in your abilities and product, or else no one else will.
  • You can learn anything with Google and focus (coding, selling, content marketing, whatever).
  • Someone has probably solved the problem you’re facing this week. Go find their solution and use it as a baseline.
  • Learn from the best people out there – YC, Paul Graham, FirstRound, etc. There are a handful of really good blogs that you can basically take as truth.  However, be aware that the VAST majority of people in the startup ecosystem aren’t experts in what they are talking about and may be stroking their ego or building personal brands.
  • If you’re in school, enjoy it. You have your whole life to work on businesses.  You only get one chance to play Halo (do people still play Halo?? – I was Hayden champ, just sayin’) until 2 am with your roommates against the guys upstairs.  You also only get a few chances to go travel for a month at a time and stay in hostels (when you’re 30 it’s not cool anymore to hang out in hostels).
  • Stay focused. Focus on one thing at a time.  Maybe it’s marketing.  Maybe it’s your close rate.  But, don’t chase shiny objects every day.
  • Be honest with yourself. Are you not cut out for this (don’t worry, you probably are)?  Is this product not right?  What is the market (and the smart people around you who you trust) telling you?

In your perspective, what is the single most important trait for entrepreneurs?

Your biggest weapon is self awareness. I’ve seen friends who work crazy hard burn out, people who are too nice get screwed over, and engineers over-build an amazing app that no one wants. If you can regularly look at yourself from a third person perspective and coach yourself, you will be great.

You’ll realize what you’re doing right/wrong, and you’ll also realize that the customer you just lost isn’t the end of the world.

Good luck and enjoy the journey!