By Stan Linhorst Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Elisa Miller-Out, currently COO of Women 2.0 and co-founder of PollQ, a chatbot startup. Miller-Out says her focus is on how to engage more women across all aspects of technology leadership and investing leadership.
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.
In 2006, Elisa Miller-Out co-founded Singlebrook.com, a custom web-software development firm in Ithaca that serves businesses from startups to Fortune 500 companies. She was CEO and saw the company's growth explode.
Last year, she sold the content-management division of Singlebrook to a Minneapolis company.
With a smaller Singlebrook taking less time, she turned her attention to new ventures.
She joined Women 2.0 in a leadership role as Kate Brodock moved it from Silicon Valley to Central New York.
Miller-Out co-founded PollQ, which uses Facebook Messenger to conduct polls, keep an audience or customers engaged, and create a new kind of social media channel. Finally, she co-founded Chloe Capital, a venture capital fund focused on early stage technology ventures.
Question: Tell me about growing up and early influences.
Answer: I grew up in the smoky barrooms of New Orleans, with a piano-player father (Amasa Miller). I literally grew up sleeping underneath pianos in bars. It was a cool, crazy way to grow up.
He's the piano player with some well-known bands. One you might have heard of is the Charmaine Neville Band. He's played a lot with the Neville family.
My mom (Mirella Augusto) is also in New Orleans. She's from Rome, Italy, originally. She works at Tulane University and manages public health projects in Africa. She gets to work on pretty cool stuff. She's an incredible photographer.
Then I also have a step-mother down there who is a clay sculptor, so I have a lot of artists in the family.
I went off to college in New York City, Columbia University, and graduated in 1997 with a bachelor of arts in theater. Because I grew up in this family of artists in this artistic city with a rich cultural background, I thought for sure I was going to be some kind of artist.
I didn't think I was going to become an entrepreneur -- I didn't even know the word.
Question: Tell me about your path into entrepreneurship.
Answer: Even before college I always had little hustles going on the side.
My first business was started right out college with a college friend. It was a theater production company, Night and Day Productions. I started out as an actor, but I gravitated quickly to directing and producing.
I moved from the artistic side to the business side. We published an independent theater magazine. I was very proud of it. It was a beautiful thing. The editor of my theater magazine is now an editor at TimeOut New York and became a big deal.
So, I had amazing talent working on that project right from the start.
Question: What did you learn from running a business so early?
Answer: With theater, you have to be scrappy and resourceful. You're often working with bootstrapped budgets and stuff, but you have to create something out of it. You have to manage big teams of people, who often are pretty unruly. And you have big teams of volunteers in theater.
I learned a lot of good business skills -- including management and leadership.
I learned about managing those big groups of people, managing all different types of personalities. I learned how to deal with something that has so many elements to it, so many different moving parts, where you have to figure out all the pieces, and then kind of weave it all together in something coherent. I developed a lot of leadership skills during that time.
Oh, and I was working at an invention company at that time. I worked for the person (Marc Segan) who created the musical greeting card for Hallmark. The inventor of the chip that's in every musical greeting card. We developed licensed products, and I worked with companies like Warner Bros. and Disney on licensing.
The products we were creating were really fun. We were creating a whole new class of products for these licenses. Marc and Francine Segan were a husband-wife team. They were early mentors. They gave me a huge amount of responsibility early on.
They were good leaders in that they gave me a lot of room to grow early in my career. A good leader does do that -- provides growth paths for people in their team.
Question: What's your advice for anyone moving into a leadership or aspiring to take on that responsibility?
Answer: There's so much that goes into making a good leader. It's an art form that I'll be studying for my entire life and never perfect. But I do get better at it every minute that I'm working on it.
There is always this balancing act between what roles you take on yourself as a leader, especially in a startup environment versus in a more established company. And what roles do you delegate to other people? And how do you balance and juggle that art form?
The leader has to figure out each person's strengths, what their natural talents are, what their natural abilities are, what they bring to the table, what their desires are, what their path for advancement is. And then match that to the organization's business needs.
Being able to match those things up is a complicated Tetris puzzle in a way.
Figuring out what things you need to do as a leader and what things you need to delegate is different at every stage of an organization. Leading a startup is very different than leading a mature organization. Things change quite a bit over time. Leadership is a moving target -- constantly changing. That's certainly one piece of it.
Question: Anything else?
Answer: We could talk about leadership for months and not be done talking about it. (Laughs)
It's a lot about setting a vision for an organization. Setting a mission. Engaging people.
Most people don't want to just work for a job. People want to have a strong mission that they believe in, that they feel passionate about, that there's a reason to be excited to come to work every day.
If the leader finds the person's individual strengths and makes sure the job is aligned with that as much as you can, it will make them happier to come to work. People working in their strength zone are usually happier.
Having a mission, having sense of purpose is tremendously important.
Question: How about your advice for an entrepreneur, someone in startup mode?
Answer: It's simple: Just do it.
Entrepreneurs are people who just go out and do things.
There are people who sit and think about things and talk about things and there are people who just go out and do things.
Entrepreneurs are driven to do something, to create something in the world that wasn't there before, that meets an unmet need, that solves a problem for somebody.
An entrepreneur is the one who sees a need and just says: I'm going to do it.
Question: How do you figure out what to do?
Answer: There are whole methodologies around this now, which is pretty cool. There is the lean startup and all kinds of methods of approaching this.
Usually what I do is develop an early prototype to solve a problem. So, in the example of PollQ, we have a prototype out. That's the stage we're at now with the product. We've got what is called a minimum viable product, that we've been testing and getting feedback on with customers. We think it solves this problem, but that's part of what we're testing. Does this solve the problem or not?