Female Tech CEO Sidesteps VCs with Crowdfunding Campaign

Don Tennant
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How to Be a Winner: 5 Keys to Achieving Big Goals

I recently had the opportunity to interview a highly successful female tech CEO and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was born and raised in China, and who is fond of quoting Gen. George S. Patton. I’m not making that up. That unicorn really does exist.

I’m referring to Helen Thomas, CEO of Touchjet, an interactive touch technology startup in San Francisco, who is fascinating for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that she was able to get Touchjet off the ground and into a speedy trajectory by crowdfunding it. Propelled by the Indiegogo crowdfunding engine, Touchjet has launched Touchjet Pond, a projector that enables you to create a touch  screen out of any flat surface; and Touchjet Wave, technology that turns TVs into giant tablets.

I opened my conversation with Thomas by noting we often hear that it’s very difficult for women to get VC funding in Silicon Valley, so I asked her if that’s why she opted to go the crowdfunding route. She said that’s part of the reason, but there’s more to it than that:

I’m very fortunate to have had mentors in Silicon Valley, and previous careers at Leap Frog and Livescribe. So to me, it’s not that hard to get in front of the VCs. We had pushback more on what was the big implication [of the technology]. Without naming any names, a great VC and mentor said, ‘Helen, I have no doubt you can build this into a $10 million business. The question is, can you build it into a $1billion business?’ So the VCs are looking for things that they think would have some kind of disruptive implication that would create a rock star. I totally respect their perspective. So within a very short period of time, I shifted the focus from the touch-screen projector to the TV market, which I think has a tremendous potential. We are really betting on three trends: One, touch-screen is getting bigger and bigger—everybody is investing in some kind of touch screen. Two, mobile has become mainstream with cloud computing—more and more work is done on your mobile device. The third is IoT—everything is connected. We’re sitting on top of all of this, and crowdfunding to me demonstrates that we’re building a brand here.

I asked Thomas what challenges or difficulties she’s faced in her career that she doesn’t think she would have faced if she had been male. I was intrigued by her response:

I believe that if I were male, with my background, I probably would have gotten more upfront support with some of the VCs—I wouldn’t say all of the VCs. Whether it’s an underlying stereotype or not, I believe in balance. The first week of our crowdfunding, I was in North Carolina for my son’s Team USA baseball tournament, and I was working on the phone while watching my son at bat. So I believe I would not be successful if I were not a good wife and a good mother. To some degree, I’m also much more down to earth in terms of execution. I’m very keen on giving my employees a satisfying and rewarding experience. My style is probably not so cut-throat. I really can’t tell you what would be different if I were a man, because I wouldn’t choose to be a man.

I asked Thomas how she thinks the culture of Touchjet would be different if the founder and CEO had been male. She indicated that a male CEO would probably be less hands-on than she is:

I worked for male CEOs in my previous career, and I learned a lot from them. Touchjet’s culture is very flat, hands-on, and bottom-line-driven. We could have raised more money, and spent more, compared to where we are. But my advice to all VCs and startups, especially around consumer products, is to adopt the crowdfunding model—get connected with a small community who are very tech-savvy, enthusiastic early adopters before you spend $50 million or $100 million on something you think will take off. I think you can learn a lot with $100,000 or $200,000, and avoid some of the things you would do only because you have the resources, and sometime later you find you need to change direction. We have backers from 80 countries--you could not have imagined that when I started at Leap Frog. So as a female, I think I am more hands-on—I’m involved in almost every detail of what we’re doing, down to the Indiegogo page that we put together, and the language we’re using in terms of fundraising. That’s different from what I’ve seen in the past—I don’t have a tiered or layered management team upfront. The other thing is I’m very transparent—I don’t have siloed conversations that aren’t shared. I’m also very direct in terms of what is not delivered, and we fix it very quickly.

Born and raised in China, Thomas came to the United States to get her MBA, and went on to become a U.S. citizen who has spent her career in U.S. companies. I asked her what impact that heritage has had on her success as a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur. Without hesitating, she spoke about fundamental math skills:

I always told my kids, ‘Whatever you do, get your basic math right,’ and I demanded that they be able to do it mentally. One thing I can’t get over is, when I go to a cash register, and the cashier can’t figure out simple math. So I would give a lot of credit to my heritage in terms of a strong foundation in fundamental math—not even algebra or high-level math. As Chinese, we’re trained in fundamental math early on. I’ve taken this on as a mission—we’re putting together a Touchjet multiplayer game, and I chose to have the math game as our first app, because that’s something I’d like to see Americans practice more. It’s mental math to sharpen your focus, and to be able to work things out in your head. I’m not saying we [in the United States] are not great at math—obviously, the U.S. is great at innovation, and we have the best talent. I’m just talking about mental math—being able to work things out in your head.

I asked Thomas if she could have one do-over as CEO of Touchjet, what it would be. She said she would have put an advisory board together earlier:

I was thrown into a lot of hands-on stuff. We had a lot of anxiety in terms of delivering the Pond—we had to understand that the projector market is a small market segment, and figure out how we shift the focus, and get a prototype for a second crowdfunding campaign. I demonstrated leadership and strategic vision, and I think our strategy was very successful, and I’m very well-connected with a lot of smart people. But if I had it to do all over again, I would have put together a three- to five-person advisory board upfront, with some kind of equity, to help me. I think that would have been tremendous—I’m still trying to figure out how I can get that done. That’s one of the things I’m trying to execute very quickly. I should have done it earlier—I believe we would have been even further ahead.

Finally, I asked Thomas what advice she might have for young women who aspire to be tech entrepreneurs. It was a question she didn’t need to ponder:

Do it. Absolutely do it. It doesn’t have to be a billion-dollar enterprise. Women should have the confidence to do it—we may approach things in a different way, but women can do just as much as men. Don’t just sit there thinking about it. George Patton said, ‘A good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week.’ That’s advice everyone should follow, especially women. Don’t just think about it over and over and over. Do it.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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