A Conversation with Ariel Seidman, Founder of Gigwalk
Yi Han is a senior applied math concentrator at Harvard College who loves to think about disruptive technology and innovative business models. While doing an internship at Google this summer, he had the opportunity to meet a number of accomplished leaders in the Silicon Valley technology space, and interview them about their experiences and advice for Harvard students. These conversations are written up in this and subsequent posts, and may be helpful for Harvard students considering careers in technology.
My first interview was with Ariel Seidman, founder of Gigwalk. Ariel chatted with me candidly about his experience as a founder and former product manager, and offered his perspective on what Silicon Valley and entrepreneurship are all about.
One of the most successful crowdsourced marketplaces, Gigwalk connects businesses to a mobile workforce who get paid to use their iPhones to collect, capture and report real-world data while going about their day to day activities. Prior to founding Gigwalk, Ariel was a director of product management at Yahoo. Colleagues praise Ariel as a brilliant, passionate leader and a hard driving product visionary who executes effectively.
As the founder of Gigwalk, how would you describe the culture of the team that you’ve built?
I think the culture of a team really comes down to the type of people you hire, and there are two things I look for in people I consider for my team. First, I look to surround myself with people who are very vocal and who have strong opinions about a range of things. Building a team is similar to having dinner with a bunch of people - if they all know similar things and aren’t very vocal, the dinner conversation can be dull. Second, I look for people who can roll up their sleeves and get stuff done. At Gigwalk, I tried to engender the sense that everybody needs to build, and you can’t just delegate tasks to other people, and I think that’s true for all startups. In my opinion, not everyone is a cultural fit for working at a startup. For example, some people may be more interested in managing and hiring a team than putting their heads down and creating something, and there you have a cultural mismatch between the skill set they have to bring and what a startup needs.
How did your experience in product management at Siebel Systems and Yahoo help set you up for founding your own company?
The great thing about product management is that you’re never doing the same thing, and being in the role gives you great exposure to the engineering, PR, marketing and other worlds. The role gives you a great vantage point into a lot of aspects of a business, and there exist many different dimensions to the job that need to be balanced. On the same day you may be articulating a vision to engineering executives, motivating a team, presenting to a large audience, and then talk to several smaller audiences of designers and prototypers.
For product managers interested in entrepreneurship, I would offer the caution that good product management is not just about feature prioritization and task allocation. I sometimes see product managers focus too narrowly on allocating features to engineers that their role becomes more project-oriented and less product-oriented. A great product manager should be asking the important questions regarding whether a product needs to be built, why it needs to be built, and manage the process of delivering a delightful experience to customers. By doing so product managers can set themselves up to quickly learn the skills crucial to founding a tech startup.
Product management roles also differ from company to company. For example, in the enterprise software world, some companies tend to succeed by having very strong sales and distribution channels, and so the number one focus for such companies may not be building the most outstanding product, and working there could limit the impact of a really creative product manager.
What’s the most interesting task that’s been posted on Gigwalk lately?
We had a request asking people to take pictures of college students at their graduation ceremonies. The requester wanted hundreds of these photos. I think the request came from a company that sells caps and gowns that wanted to have some candid photos of graduates.
What advice would you offer Harvard students looking to start their career in Silicon Valley or transition into the tech world? Are there pitfalls that one should be aware of?
I’m glad you asked that because I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I think it’s important for someone thinking seriously about a career in tech entrepreneurship to discern what it is that they’re after. With billion dollar exits like Instagram, it’s tempting to think that the valley is flooded with money. But the truth is if you’re after the money, there are far easier ways to make money than entrepreneurship.
We shouldn’t lose focus that entrepreneurs do what we do because we want to build something that can positively impact people’s lives. To me, the unique thing about getting involved in entrepreneurship is the opportunity to connect people in new ways and impact the world in a positive way.
Do you think that financial metrics such as valuation and amount raised, coupled with the feeling among young entrepreneurs to prove themselves, can detract from that goal of building something great?
Financial metrics certainly contribute to an entrepreneur’s reputation. After all, good entrepreneurs tend to deliver value to their investors. However, when a good entrepreneur looks back years after founding a successful company, it is the impact that their product had on customers and the team they built it with that they’ll remember. There is probably more pressure today for an entrepreneur to go out, raise a round, and get their name out there, and for some, getting venture money has become the end instead of the means of entrepreneurship. It’s important to remember that a startup’s customers are the true investors in the business.