Welcome to CG Interviews – a collection of interviews where I pick out successful people that inspire me and find out what they do, why they do it and how they define success.
I’ve been cyber stalking my next victim, sorry, interviewee for a while, since I read an interview she did with Inc.com last year. Meet my first American entrepreneur Liz Wessel – Co-Founder and CEO of WayUp.
WayUp is the largest online marketplace exclusively for U.S. college students looking for part-time jobs, summer internships, virtual gigs and full-time jobs upon graduation. After launching with a staff of two, within a year they had expanded their staff to a team of 33+ and now have an office in New York City, with big ambitions to be the #1 place for college students around the world to find a job.
With a seriously impressive resume including Product Marketing Manager at Google (when applying she told the interviewer she would only be there for two years as she wanted to launch a startup) and recently listed in both Forbes’ Top 30 Under 30 Young Entrepreneurs and the Silicon Valley 100 in 2015, Liz Wessel is an definite entrepreneurial inspiration and I couldn’t wait to find out more about what drives her passion for business.
CLARE: Hi Liz! Thank you so much for agreeing to be part of CG Interviews! I’d love to start by finding out more about your inspiration for setting up WayUp – did you feel there was a gap in the market? What were your initial ambitions for the business – did you anticipate the success that it would evolve into?
LIZ: Throughout college, and our first year in the “real-world”, my co-founder (J.J. Fliegelman) and I realized that there was a huge disconnect in the way that students were looking for jobs and the way that companies were hiring them. I wanted to solve this problem and I wanted to create a space where all students could find awesome opportunities during the school year and where businesses wouldn’t lose their minds trying to hire those students.
Our initial ambition was to build a marketplace that worked. One that would service both sides of the equation. We had no clue if it would work or not, but once we started to see the initial traction, we were sure we had a good thing going. Now, our ambition is to get every college student their first job and/or internship.
CLARE: You met your WayUp business partner J.J. Fliegelman after you ‘hacked’ into a database at UPenn and found his resume of impressive programming skills. This, I LOVE! I’m putting together an initiative to encourage young people to get involved with coding – how important has having the personal technical expertise behind your business been to you?
LIZ: To be clear: I “hacked” my way into the backend of the form… less in an illegal way, and involving no coding (just instead clicking a ton of buttons)… So I just wanted to make that clear! In fact, I had barely any background in coding before starting WayUp. What I did have, though, was a background in product and design, which was incredibly helpful, as I had done all the wireframes and mocks for the first few versions of the business (and still often do some, to this day).
Meanwhile, JJ built the initial product on his own. He’s a self-taught engineer, which is especially impressive, given that he was our only back-end engineer for the first 5 months of our existence. While this lead to little sleep on his end, we were able to come up with endless iterations to our product by talking things out between the two of us.
CLARE: Are there any blogs, forums or sources of advice you have found useful as you have built the business?
LIZ: Read as much as possible. It can be hard to find the time, so it’s become part of my morning ritual to read up on what’s going on in the ed/tech space.
CLARE: That’s actually something I’ve been trying to work into my schedule as well – especially working in social media where every day there’s a new app or network or an emerging trend that everyone is jumping on!
LIZ: Every day, I read Mattermark, Term Sheet, AVC, and my Twitter feed (mainly consisting of entrepreneurs, product people, and investors). These places have been great for advice and finding interesting people to reach out to.
CLARE: Are there any entrepreneurs that you look up to or that have inspired you in your career? Or do you have a mentor?
LIZ: Absolutely. I believe it’s so important to find a mentor who not only inspires you, but also challenges you and encourages you to think in new ways. Some mentors fall in your lap, and others you have to seek out. A little secret from our company is that I encourage every single person on our team to find a leader in the industry/someone they admire and cold email them asking to pick their brain. I consider myself extremely lucky to have so many brilliant people in my life at this time.
David Tisch is the investor who I look to for the most “WTF should I do?” advice. He seems to always know what to say. I also rely heavily on my board (Spencer Lazar and Adam Valkin from General Catalyst). Outside of investors, I have a few entrepreneurs who I feel act as mentors to me (including Jeff Leventhal, who is one of the coolest and smartest entrepreneurs I’ve ever met, and Padma Warrior, who is always a brilliant sounding board), along with some of the official Advisors to WayUp.
CLARE: What importance would you put on networking for business growth?
LIZ: I hate the word “networking”. I like meeting people if they can help me, if I can help them, or if we would just get along. It’s less about having the “right” connections, and more about the ability to learn from different people across all industries. Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had about my business have come from meeting new people with completely different perspectives.
CLARE: What were some of the biggest lessons that have impacted the way that you work?
LIZ: I’ve learned a LOT in the past year and half about building a business. However, I think that one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is that you have to have passion behind your platform. I always knew that I wanted to start a company, but only if it was going to make a real impact. What I’ve learned by watching the team grow from a few founding team members, to a team of 33+ is that there is a real magic in knowing that you’re working towards a common goal that isn’t just about building a successful company, but about building a product that touches people’s lives in a positive way. That is what makes the 4AM nights worth it
CLARE: How do you deal with setbacks/rejection? Do you have any regrets or is there anything you wished you had done differently?
LIZ: I’m a strong believer that failure leads to success, as cliche as that may be. We’re a young start-up that is chartering a relatively untouched space. That means that we are going to have a LOT of bumps along the way, and will constantly have to re-route. The best way to deal with setbacks is to assess what went wrong and understand what you can do better next time. Then, come up with a quick recovery plan, and move forward. Definitely no regrets, except that I didn’t start a company that added more time to the day, since I never feel like there is enough!
CLARE: Do you think it’s harder for women to get ahead in business, or is it possible to have the best of both worlds (something I definitely believe)? What’s been your experience?
LIZ: This is a hot topic, but I can only speak from my personal experience. I don’t feel that it’s necessarily been harder or easier for me to build a business because I’m a woman.
CLARE: Yes, I’d agree with this – that’s been my experience as well.
LIZ: It can be tough when you walk into an investor meeting or summit because it can definitely feel like a bit of a boys club, but I’ve never felt “less-than” in these situations. That being said, I have heard horror stories from women, so I’m very aware that the bias against women exists.
CLARE: So, Liz Wessel, what are your ambitions for the next 10 years? (personal and business!) Where do you see yourself?
LIZ: I see myself as happy.
CLARE: I love that answer!
LIZ: I see myself looking back on WayUp and feeling extremely proud of WayUp, all the team members, and what we’ve accomplished. 10 years is a long time from now and in terms of my personal life, I see myself married and with a family. However, not gonna lie so much has happened in the past year alone – it’s very weird to think that far in advance!
CLARE: Finally, something I ask every interviewee – what is your definition of success?
LIZ: I actually answered this in an interview where the writer wanted to get the dictionary definition changed! What I wrote was:
How do I define “success”? Success is more of a feeling. You can’t prove you’re successful — personal success is based on your own opinion and your own feelings.
So I would start with the feeling that you have accomplished much of what you want to accomplish, and that you’re happy. I would not say success is accomplishing everything you ever wanted because then no one would truly reach success … because people who are ambitious will always have more things they want to accomplish. At the end of the day: success is accomplishing personal goals and finding happiness.