Female Tech Entrepreneur Shares Lessons Learned in Co-Founding Silicon Valley Startup

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    Last month I wrote a post about Brienne Ghafourifar, a remarkable tech entrepreneur who, among other distinctions, became the youngest college graduate to raise $1 million in venture funding—she was 17 at the time. In that post, I focused on Ghafourifar’s experience as a female tech entrepreneur, and the contributions she has already made in the effort to attract more girls and young women to the STEM professions. But there’s a lot more to her story—notably, the company she co-founded in 2012 with her brother, Alston.

    That company is Entefy, a Palo Alto-based startup that says it’s “rewriting the code of digital interaction” by “introducing the first technology to give you seamless access to all of your conversations and connections, across any smart device.” I began this portion of the interview by raising an observation I had made with respect to Ghafourifar’s presence on Twitter. Given what Entefy is all about, I had expected her to be quite active on Twitter, yet I was surprised to see that the last time she had tweeted anything was way back in early March. When I asked her about that apparent disconnect, Ghafourifar said the simple fact is that they haven’t had a lot of time to be active on social media or in the press:

    I definitely think we’ll become more active with social media over time—especially now, when we’re preparing for launch. With Entefy, essentially we’re building one place for all of your digital communications and interactions to come into that one application. Social media will be phase two of that—we’re focusing right now on the basics of email, text, and IMing.

    I was equally intrigued by another observation: that Ghafourifar’s dad works for the company that she and her brother co-founded. While media coverage of Ghafourifar and Entefy has focused largely on the sibling duo, I hadn’t seen any coverage of the third family member in the company. Her dad, Mehdi Ghafourifar, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur in his own right, is listed on Entefy’s website as a member of the company’s “Growth Force,” so I asked Ghafourifar for the back story there. That she’s a very proud daughter was evident in her response:

    My dad is a real entrepreneur. One of the things that we’ve always loved about him is that we can really learn from his expertise. He’s very good at what he does, so when we were starting Entefy, he was one of our most active advisors—he was an amazing resource, with connections, advice, planning, and all that. At some point, Alston and I said, ‘Hey, Dad, you should join the team if you love this so much.’ And so he did—he quit everything he was doing, and he joined Entefy.

    I asked Ghafourifar what role her dad and his connections played in raising venture capital for the company. She said they had a “bunch of advisors” who introduced her and her brother to people:

    That’s just the start of it. First, you’ve got to get in front of people, and then you have to close the deal. For us, we had several advisors—my dad was one of them—that would introduce us to various people throughout the community who may be helpful in raising capital, getting new advisors, helping to form the team, or whatever. It’s just amazing the way it’s come together. … It’s definitely a group effort. I think Alston and I make a very good team—we have very different ways of thinking, and I think that’s what makes us powerful together. So we’re a duo—we love working together, we work really well together. Initially, before we had a team or anything else, the investors invested in us and the vision. You can imagine how difficult it is at an early stage to articulate a world-changing technology without being able to show anything. It was very much a chemistry fit—finding people who wanted to see what we were building come to life, so that they could use it first. As of today, we’ve raised almost $10 million.

    Ghafourifar is the first to acknowledge that none of this is easy. More than once during the course of the interview she said, “Business and technology are hard.” In fact, it was a lot harder than they had anticipated. The original expectation was to release Entefy for private testing at the end of 2013, but the target for that now is the end of this year or Q1 of next year—a good two years later. Ghafourifar explained the challenge they confronted with an interesting analogy:

    We’re kind of building a flying car—this is the closest analogy I’ve been able to give. You can’t just take a car and put wings on it, and expect it to just go fly, and be stable and not have any malfunctions. With Entefy, we’re essentially building something that doesn’t exist—it’s something we can’t model on anything, it’s something we can’t look on Google for. It’s a challenge to build, and that’s why we’re growing the team to get to scalable production quickly. We plan to have our early betas at the end of this year to the beginning of next year—Q1, approximately. We’re innovating at such a fast pace, and we’re building to keep up with it. … Today what we’re building is a little bit different from what we were building before—it’s bigger than what we were building before. After we had done our initial build, we realized that what we had been working on, there was a much bigger impact we could be making out there. We’ve essentially brought in a totally new element, something that will really grab people’s attention. So we’ve spent two years building this unbelievable platform that allows us to add services or utilities to it in a matter of a couple of days, vs. having to spend months of engineering time to bring that stuff together. That’s because of the power of the platform—it’s extremely strong, and it’s beautiful, the way it’s come together.

    Ghafourifar said that a full launch is now slated for Q3 2016, “if not sooner.” She explained the plan for getting there this way:

    When we do our private betas, we’ll be reaching out to people in our target verticals for testing. It’s going to be a smaller group, and very specific in terms of who we reach out to and which verticals we target. Then we’ll be pinging [people who signed up on the Entefy website] to test it out, and we’ll be getting highly specific metrics to see what works and what doesn’t, how we can improve, what we can add and take out—all of that stuff to see if the impact is where we need it to be. … We’ll likely stay in private beta for about six to eight months to get our highly specific metrics, and then we’ll be going out to the public to get a broader reach—for a public release, we’re targeting half a million to a million users.

    I asked Ghafourifar if she could have one do-over as co-founder of Entefy, what it would it be. It’s a question I ask almost all company founders and CEOs I speak with. She contemplated the question for a moment, and provided one of the most insightful responses I’ve heard:

    I think it would probably have to be really honing in and getting the hiring process right. For us, we’ve been so fortunate—we have such an incredible team. But these are all things that you learn over time. Becoming really specific and clear about the hiring criteria, what it takes to bring someone on board, what the chemistry fit is like—all of these things are things that we learned along the way, and it’s proven to be extremely successful. But we can always get better at that—making sure that we hire the right people for the right jobs, who really want to stick with it for the long term, and people we can really work with.

    Ghafourifar wrapped up the conversation by offering some advice for young entrepreneurs in general and young female entrepreneurs in particular:

    A supportive ecosystem is extremely important. That has become an incredible asset for us—so who you put in there obviously makes a big difference. It’s also thinking about the impact you’re making first, because if impact drives you, then everything will come. By putting the user at the heart of their digital world, I as a co-founder and a female in tech wanted to help women do the same thing—to help women put themselves at the center of their world, and at the center of their careers. To take charge of whatever they want to do, and to become successful at it—that’s what matters. We’ve got to do what we love. There’s not enough time in our lifespan to do otherwise.

    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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