“Inspirations come from all over the place…we’re just listening and observing” – Nat Turner
Nat Turner, an entrepreneur and designer at heart, is the Co-Founder of Flatiron Health. Before Flatiron Health, he has been an entrepreneur since a very early age, founding everything from a reptile breeding company to an Ad technology company later acquired by Google. He is also a fellow Wharton Alumni and spoke at commencement in 2017. Through this interview, the Penn Innovators in Business Network asked Nat to share some of the lessons he learned through his path of entrepreneurship and also lend his advice for undergraduates today…
Many have said that for startups to succeed, timing is key. When founding Invite Media and Flatiron Health, how did you time these startups so they entered the market at a time when the investor community and the public were ready for them?
“To be honest, Invite Media and Flatiron were not intentionally timed the way they were. We had a lot of startup ideas. We were prototyping, trying and failing at a bunch of different things. And the things that stuck just so happen to be those two companies. You’re not going to really know until you start building the product and selling it. For Flatiron, it was actually probably two years too early so we had to be really capital efficient in that period.
My advice would be to have “strong opinions, loosely held”. Always be pitching with confidence and be prototyping. Build your product, pitch your product, try to get it out. But also be willing to pivot, shut something down or start something new. It could be the timing was wrong. It could be that it was a bad idea. It could be you need a better co-founder. It could be yourself. But if you’re persistent enough and you’re trying things and pitching customers, timing will work itself out.”
What’s you philosophy in brainstorming new business ideas?
“It’s not rocket science. It’s just, when you see something in the world, like a problem you experience or a customer that needs help or something that you’re challenged by that you want it to be easier, you should write it down. Inspirations come from all over the place. It’s not, like we’re smarter or anything like that, we’re just listening and observing.”
Paint the rosiest picture of the field of startups. Then paint the grimmest picture of start-ups.
“It’s easy to draw the grim picture. In start-up land, you can have times when there is only two more weeks of cash left in the bank. You’ve had investors say no, 50 times. Your product isn’t growing sales wise. You turned down a job and gave up the chance for a stable income. You have people on your team who have families who are depending on you payroll wise. Most importantly, you are having to keep everyone convinced and motivated and rowing in the same direction, because if you have a division, the whole thing will break.
You have to keep everyone inspired. And there’s a line in there, like you can’t commit fraud but you also can’t say “ we only have two weeks of cash left and we’re all going to be on the street.’ And that’s really grim. We had to lay off half the company at Invite Media, albeit they all had rosy outcomes.
On the flip side for the rosiest view, I’ve also been at Flatiron. In the third or fourth year, I show up to work and I have a team that just constantly delivers, with a hundred percent year over year sales growth and doesn’t even need you in customer meetings. But even for Flatiron, for the first three years, I was in sales meetings and it would take a six to nine months sales cycle and most of the time people said no.
I look back and it seems like college. College sucks when you’re in it. But then when you look back 10 years later, you would think it was so much fun and I want to go back in time. Startups are the same way. When it is really stressful and grim, your back’s against the wall. But six years, seven years, ten years later, I look back at it and think – “Wow. I didn’t realize how good I had it”. So no matter if the times are bad or good, you ride with it and you make it happen when you’re in it.”
What do you hope we can take away from this interview?
“When you’re in college you don’t realize how good you have it as far as your ability to take risks. Of course, not everybody’s in the same position. Some people need to support their family and get a job. But eventually, whatever it takes, work your way to the point of either joining an early stage company or starting one. When you’re young, you just have an ability to take risks that you won’t be able to when you get older, when you have kids, a mortgage, a career and you want to get the promotion. For example, I’m really bad at going to the gym. I have to go in the morning. If I go to work, I get tired, and as the day goes by, the chances of my going to the gym goes from like 90% in the morning to like 2%.
It’s the same with starting a company. When you’re in college, you should have your risk tolerance at like 90%. You can fail, you have time, you hopefully still have your parents supporting you. There are all these safety nets. You can sleep on a couch and not be mad about it. You have all these things you can do and then as you get older it just gets harder and harder. So, take the risk.”