From Freelance to Founder, with Adda Birnir
Episode 120: From Freelance to Founder, with Adda Birnir
After trying out variety of different jobs and markets, Adda Birnir, CEO & Founder of Skillcrush, taught herself how to code and design and decided to get into the tech world. What started out as her side project to find a better way to teach women technological skills turned into Skillcrush, her rapidly-growing company. This week, we talked to Adda about how she got started, finding long term opportunities, job stability within the entrepreneurship world and corporate world, as well as the importance of staying customer-focused. Adda also talks about her inspirations and what helped her stay on her feet when starting out as an entrepreneur along with how she took being laid off as a massive opportunity.
00:14 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera.
00:21 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy.
00:22 KW: Hi. So, we are currently sitting... If you're a regular listener of the Ellevate Podcast, you hear us talk a lot about our office and where we tape. Sometimes we are in a closet.
00:35 MH: Not anymore.
00:36 KW: Sometimes we're in a conference room, but we just moved to our brand-spanking-new new office.
00:43 MH: Yeah, it's so exciting. It's so big, there's so much space.
00:46 KW: Yes, we are really excited, it's great news for us because we are growing. And as we grow, particularly because we are such a mission-driven organization, our belief, or what we know, is that our influence is growing. We're helping more women get ahead, we're changing the culture of more businesses, and really elevating the conversation around equality in the workplace and in the world. This is really exciting and signifies so many wonderful things for us.
01:17 MH: It really is. It was nice yesterday 'cause we really, literally, just moved in yesterday.
01:23 KW: And the big decision is where do you sit.
01:25 MH: Well, I know you wanted to try out all the desks. I will be honest, I actually kinda did that the day when we were unpacking.
01:33 KW: I'm gonna move around a lot, but I just have my bag with all my stuff in it. I haven't even been to a desk. I've been in this conference room since I walked to the office this morning.
01:42 MH: Yeah, you've been taping all day or in meetings. But, that's also exciting. We're busy, we're doing a bunch of stuff because we are growing. And like you said, every time we grow, the more we grow, the more impact we can have, which is why we do what we do.
01:55 KW: Yeah.
01:56 MH: And today's actually... Today's guest... A lot of what I talked to her about is about scaling up and getting advices from her. I was trying to pick her brain as we talked on how she scaled her company. Our guest Adda is the founder and CEO of Skillcrush and she really has built a great platform to get people who are not necessarily technically inclined to actually become technical people and experts. And I love her take on what she's done, but I also love that she's a serial entrepreneur and she has a great passion for building her company from the ground up. So, a lot of what we talked about was all of these growing pains that we were facing at that moment.
02:40 KW: Yeah. And Adda, I have to recognize, was one the first Ellevate members that I met when I started working here and has been a real valuable member of our community, which has been great. At every stage in your career, whether you're start getting... Just getting started or running a business, scaling a business, just having people you can lean on is incredibly valuable. Yeah, Adda is a great inspiration.
03:10 MH: Yeah, she's pretty cool. Without further ado, let's go to my interview with Adda.
03:26 MH: You've been a lifeguard, a photo assistant, a radio producer, and now a tech founder. So, can you tell me a little bit about your journey?
03:34 Adda Birnir: Sure. So, I guess I'll start with after I graduated from college, 'cause I think all the other stuff is probably not as... It was just a lot of odd jobs. [chuckle] But basically I graduated with a degree in Fine Art and African American studies, both of which have actually served me very well, but don't necessarily have the most practical applications immediately out of school. So, I moved to New York City, and I was really just trying to find my way.
04:05 AB: I, for whatever combination of reasons, didn't feel like I had to figure it out ahead of time, so I figured that I could come to New York and just try a bunch of different things, and that's basically exactly what I did. I was freelancing and was working for artists, and was doing... I was trying my hand at writing and trying my hand at radio producing, and just different types of things, and then sort of relatively quickly was trying to cobble together an income, and this way, was really challenging. So I decided to look for full-time work, and that is how I ended up as a photo editor at an online magazine, and that was kind of my first entrée into all things digital and technology.
04:47 AB: And before that, I really, I didn't really know the first thing. I obviously used the Internet and loved the Internet, but I really had no understanding of how it was built and what all had to go into it, that was really where I got my first exposure to technology. And then from there it was kind of like a wild, bumpy ride. I mean, this was right about the 2008-2009, so...
05:09 MH: Interesting timing, for sure.
05:11 AB: Very much so, yes. So, it was definitely one of the things. I was working in New York. I was working at an online magazine, and I think media was kind of... It was the canary in the coal mine, it was one of the first things to go when the economy started to crumble. So yeah, it was just a really intense, intense time to be working. And all the crazy stuff was going on in the financial district, and that was only a mile or so south of where our office was, and our company wasn't doing well. And the news was really bleak and basically, I made an assessment of the situation, and decided that I needed to try to get a job at a company that I thought would be a little bit more stable.
05:55 AB: So, I actually applied for a job in late 2008 at a digital agency. At that point, I was still working on the production side of the house, so not actually on the technical side. I got a new job, started that new job in early 2009, and only lasted seven weeks before they laid off a third of the company.
06:13 MH: Oh my God.
06:13 AB: And then at that point, I'd been working in digital media for about... I was going on two years and what I had really seen over the course of that time was that if you were interested in working in the space, and it felt like a very even given the circumstances, it felt like a very interesting space, and there was gonna be a lot of opportunity long-term, it really sort of was incumbent upon you to develop some technical skill. That was really what I saw in the process of watching all these layoffs was that if you were working on the less technical side of the house, which is what I was doing. First photo editing and then producing, you really were expendable, unfortunately. So, I sort of took that as a kick in the ass to go ahead and... Took being laid off, honestly, as sort of my opportunity to get myself some skills. So that's how it all began.
07:05 MH: It's interesting that you talk about being a freelancer and then going to a company... Wanting to go to a company that was more stable after the company you joined first, but then ended up becoming a founder, which is, I would say, stable-ish, but not really.
07:25 AB: It's complicated, 'cause I think that, yes, I totally agree with you. Listen, being a founder is unbelievably stressful and crazy and all those things, but I also think it's... On one hand, I think working at a company is stable and on the other hand, it's like least... Maybe stability isn't the right thing but I guess it's the most risky in a way, and that's what I learned very quickly, is that just getting a full-time job and having someone say they're gonna pay your paycheck, that doesn't mean they're gonna do it and then when they all of a sudden out of nowhere stop paying it, then you're kind of in a very vulnerable position. So I think that with that, this process of being like, "Oh, I want stability. Let me seek it out," and then get it and then goes through all these layoffs.
08:07 AB: And I was just like... It disabused me of the idea that working for somebody is actually very stable. And so I think that kind of helped, ironically, that kinda helped me because it just was like, "Well actually, if I work freelance and learn how to pay my own way... Pay for my... Sort put together my own salary, that's actually very powerful and actually gives me a lot more control over my situation, than I have when I'm just getting a paycheck from one person.
08:35 MH: I think it's a great way of viewing things and it's a great way to actually realize that, that it doesn't necessarily mean that because you're working in a company, for someone else, it's gonna be stable or it's gonna be the best path forward for you. Did you think you were gonna start a company at some point?
08:53 AB: Absolutely not.
08:56 AB: No, in fact, I'm not even joking when I say this, I was probably five months into running my first company when it sort of dawned on me that that's what I was doing. Yeah, no, I really... Basically, what happened after I became a developer. So basically, I got laid off, I took that time that I was laid off, I was unemployed for probably, I think, four months or so. During that time, I did some freelance work, but also just kind of took the opportunity to learn a skill and started to learn how to code, and then started to add, building websites as part of the freelancing, the suite of freelancing services I was doing, which is really just like anything I could to make money and pay rent.
09:40 AB: And then started working as increasingly technical producer, and then continued to build out my freelance business as a developer. And effectively what happened is that I ended up at a long-term freelance position, and then had the opportunity to go full-time there and just really didn't wanna do it. And I had a friend at the time, who was a designer, and she had run her own sort of LLC, sole proprietor-type business.
10:06 AB: And she sort of pitched me the idea of why don't we work together where we'll get projects together and I'll do the design, you'll do the development, and that way we'll be able to get bigger projects and charge more for them and be able to provide soup to nuts, which is just a good package. And I was like, "Sure, that sounds good, why not?" But in my imagination, or in my fantasy world, this is still gonna be two people freelancing. And we were in... I just did not conceive of it as a company, I think I just didn't understand what that was honestly at the time. So, we started doing that and relatively quickly, I realized that we were in fact a company, and we needed to do things like get an LLC and hire some people and figure all that stuff out. So, it definitely was something that I feel like I kind of backed my way into and then all of a sudden found myself an employer and all these crazy things.
11:00 MH: That's actually awesome that you started, kind of in a partnership like that. So, how did you come up with the idea of Skillcrush?
11:07 AB: Yeah. So, basically we ran what was effectively like a consulting web design development shop for a couple of years, and this was right around, at this point, it was probably it was 2012 and I feel like it was one big wave of tech start-ups. And I think there's a certain extent to which when you're like... When you're a techy person and you're in that culture, it's sort of like... And I don't know if it's the gold rush but you're, sort of like, "If not me, who?" Everyone is kind of like, "Okay, let's see, there's so much opportunity here, what can we do with it?" So, we were kind of looking around and wanting to try do, try our own... A hand at our own startup, where instead of working with clients, and work for hire, we would actually sort of create a product and develop it over time.
12:00 AB: And actually we were trying different things, and the ironic part was that Skillcrush at the time was totally the side project and it was really inspired just by... Myself and my business partner, we're both women and we just felt like there just wasn't anything out there, that was sort of talking about technology in a manner that spoke to us, either that I feel like represented the experience that we had as people who had gone from being non-technical to technical, which is to say that people's impression, including my impression ahead of time was, "Oh, technology is so boring and dry and technical, and it's not appealing."
12:44 AB: And then when I actually got into it, I was like, "Holy crap. It's so creative, it's creative in the most fundamentally creative way." It's literally you get this tool kit of coding and design and what have you. You literally can just sit down in your computer and be like, "Alright, what do I want to make? Let's get started."
13:03 AB: And it was just so interesting and it was so much about working with people and understanding how to communicate with people, it was just all these things, it was collaborative and interesting and social, and just really exciting in these ways that I felt like were not being represented in any sort of manner. I don't know, I just... You know what I mean? When I wanted to learn to code, I had to take myself to Barnes & Noble and buy this really boring-looking book and then slog through it. And I was like, "This could just be so much better, basically." And in particular, we felt like none of what was out there was really speaking to women. And I don't think that women necessarily... I don't think it's about dumbing it down or anything like that, but I think that you... I think, I don't know, I don't wanna make a lot of generalizations but I think that in general, women tend to be more interested in how... Why something is useful versus how it works, if that makes sense.
14:03 MH: Yeah, that makes sense to me.
14:05 AB: Yeah. So, that was basically what we were doing is we kinda had this side project for fun where we would try to write about technological topics in an interesting and creative and sort of accessible format. And basically what we were doing at the time was we were sort of testing out different ideas and seeing sort of if they had legs and it was one of those funny things where we would pitch our other products and nobody would care. And then we would talk to them about Skillcrush and they'd be like, "Oh, this is so interesting, tell me more."
14:34 AB: And so then we just sort of followed that it and I was very interested and continue to be very interested in this idea of customer-centered product design. So, I think really narrowing down who is your customer, what is their problem, and how are you gonna solve it rather than kind of ask them. There's a traditional mistake that people talk about in start-up community a lot which is people have a solution in search of a problem, so they basically come up with a solution that I think is really brilliant, but then there's kind of no market for it. There's nobody who really needs it. And I just really didn't wanna make that mistake, so yeah.
15:09 AB: So then from there, it was really just a series of increasingly small, to increasingly larger of what I would call experiments where we would test different assumptions that we had about whether our target demographic, which was very much women, were interested in learning tech skills, and then we just sort of built it up slowly and now it's six years later and I'm still doing it. [chuckle]
15:34 MH: I love that you talk about the approach of really understanding your customer and their problem before creating a solution and going backwards. So, I'm almost gonna wrap up with questions, 'cause this has been really, really fun to be honest. Who do you think were the people who pushed you to... Were there anyone who pushed you or supported you in a way that really made you see that this was possible, that this was something you could do and build a company like this one?
16:07 AB: Oh yeah, God. It's so funny. I feel like so much of what you need as an entrepreneur is emotional support. So, I definitely, I actually just got a business executive coach, and it is already changing my life. So, if you're thinking about entrepreneurship, really take seriously the emotional part of it, 'cause especially when you're first going, it's so hard and there's so much self-doubt. I can't tell you how long it took me to realize that it was working. I was so much doubting, it was so beyond working by the time I finally came around to, "Oh yeah, this is working."
16:41 AB: So, I had a really awesome... I had a co-founder who did leave relatively early in the process. Her name is Jennifer, but she was a really important part of realizing that Skillcrush could be... That this sort of side project of ours could actually have business legs. So, she was really, really important to that, and she continues to be a huge supporter of mine and somebody that I also went through, especially in the first couple of years, would go to a lot for support along the way.
17:12 AB: And I also am really lucky to have a mentor who is an entrepreneur, who actually is a family friend who was first a professor of computer science, and then became an entrepreneur himself and has been incredibly helpful to me all along the way. And really helps me look at the business, look at sort of the fundamental business KPIs and really understand, is this business working or is it not working? And it's funny because when... Back in 2013 in January, we had a really good month, and I sent him all this stuff, all the information about how much revenue we made and how it went. And I remember he looked at it and he was like, "Okay, this is working, this is gonna work." And I was like, "How do you know? I don't know, we just had one good month." And to the point I was saying earlier, I think it took me another eight months to be like, "Yeah, this is working."
18:01 AB: But it was really interesting, 'cause he was like, he totally looked at it and was like, "Yeah, this is gonna work. Don't worry, keep going." And that's a really good example of what you're talking about where he had perspective that I just obviously didn't, at that moment, able to sort of tell me to keep going, which was really, really helpful.
18:19 AB: Yeah. And then of course, my family and my husband and those people have all been really good to me all along the way, and when I was like, "I never see you and I don't make any money. Why am I doing this?" They were like, "No, no, keep going."
18:29 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget follow us on Twitter @ellevatentwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. And special thanks to our producer, Catherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger, thanks so much and join us next week.
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