Giving Props When Props Are Due: Adam Kearney on Entrepreneurship and Giving Before Taking

By Martin Freeman and Katie Ellman

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Adam Kearney is “really, really comfortable with the unknown.” Without any experience in the HR space, he founded Props, a peer recognition startup that uses office TVs to amplify companies’ superstars. Martin Freeman from Bard’s MBA in Sustainability sat down with Adam last month to dive into his successes and failures, and to get his advice on becoming a serial entrepreneur.

Adam Kearney is the Founder and CEO of the peer recognition startup, Propsboard. Prior to Props, he was the CEO of Connectome, now acquired, a music intelligence company that specialized in search, discovery, and recommendations. He is also the co-founder of Philly Startup Leaders, a flagship program featuring a fully integrated Startup Bootcamp and Accelerator that helps up-and-coming entrepreneurs with strategy, vision, and execution.

The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s December 2nd Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Podbean.

BARD MBA: How does one become a serial entrepreneur?

For me, there’s the personal side, which is that I just really love to build things. Even before this I was a woodworker, so getting my hands dirty and building things. I love puzzles—I like solving things, actual problems, and trying to help people.

And then there’re a couple of attributes you need to carry you through. You need to be relentless about everything you’re doing. When you’re running into problems or failures, you just need to keep going. You also need to be really, really comfortable with the unknown. This would be where most people pause at the dividing line. If you’re not comfortable with things that you don’t know, or whatever’s around the bend, being an entrepreneur is probably not for you. If you’re really curious what’s behind that next wall, even though it might knock you out, you’re probably well suited to be an entrepreneur. And then the last thing is just willingness to fail a lot. I have dyslexia but didn’t know until I was twenty-one, so I was never the smartest kid in the classroom. I don’t care about screwing up and learning from that really quickly and publicly, which I’ve done over and over again.

And then there’s a tactical side to becoming a serial entrepreneur. The best tactical way to get into anything is to figure out a way of building a network that will become reusable. The way, I think, to do that is always to give before taking. The first boot camp at Philly Startup Leaders—I volunteered. Every mentor who was a part of it was a volunteer. It was, “Let’s give to the community and then something might come back.” And in that process a lot of the companies in Philly benefitted. And then that came back and worked well for me, because those CEOs were happy that they were getting really good employees. From that I was able to build relationships in Philly that now extend all the way up here into New York and Silicon Valley. The angle is to work harder and give away your time and money and hope it comes back.

BARD MBA: One of the most important things you mentioned was being comfortable with failure. To us, you seem very successful. When was the last time you failed at something?

A big recent failure was with my current company, Props. We inherited the product, so I inherited its problems, and I had also never worked in the HR space. The product was primarily an employee recognition platform. We would broadcast the recognition that occurred in the platform up to everyone’s office TVs, so recognition would be visible inside of an organization. It causes network effects and reminds people to be positive and to show appreciation for their fellow employees and teammates.

But there were a bunch of problems, and the biggest one was that HR is a checkbox industry. What I mean by that is that they’re like, “Okay we gave balloons to somebody for doing a good job this year—check.” That’s it, that’s all they had to do. It’s not an industry that’s looking at an ROI of, “Here’s how we could be innovative to get 10% more recognition this year than we got last year.” So it’s very, very difficult to sell into these organizations, because basically they would have one product from the past that they would still be using because the check box is filled. They just weren’t looking.

We tried so many traction angles to get into these companies. And the ones that we did get into we took off. We completely swept the company, our engagement was insane. So we were thinking, “Oh, we just have to figure out traction.” But we spent way too much time thinking about that, and in the end money was getting tight, and I thought, “Okay I’ve got to figure this out.”

What we learned out of all these failed missions was that the TVs are really important to the engagement. I just made the TVs our product, and then I went out to all our competitors’ other recognition services and said, “I know that 60-90 days in, your engagement drops and people forget to recognize people. We’ll build an integration of your product into our service and we’ll broadcast it up to their company’s office TVs, so you’ll get better engagement and a high deployment strategy.” We flipped our distribution problem upside down.

I don’t really have to do much selling, because the organizations themselves are contacting their current customers and saying, “Would you like this?” Now we have partnerships with some of the world’s largest recognition services. We have very little competition because we’re working with our competitors, and in this particular strategy we’re the only company doing it.

Often, you don’t really realize you’re failing until you’re actually failing. It probably took us six months to see that problem, that it was even a problem. You have to take that step back and really be critical with yourself, and what things are working and why they are, and why they aren’t, and talk to people and learn as much as you can as fast as possible. Then implement a change, rather than giving up, because it’s pretty easy to just give up when you have to radically change your entire process and product.

BARD MBA: What advice do you have about selecting and finding co-founders?

Finding a co-founder is really important but incredibly difficult. Getting back to that network, most co-founders are found via networking and just hustling. Try to build things, join a hackathon, make sure to get to know people you’re working with. You never know when things are going to come back around. Just be open minded, try to say yes to doing small projects. Figuring out, “Can I work with this person?” Testing it out and going from there.

My co-founder of the Connect Dome, I came across him from a friend—he was a friend of a friend—and then we kind of hit it off, but there’s a lot of courting. It probably took me eight months. I was the hated guy in the tech world: the guy who had an idea, couldn’t build it himself, had no money, didn’t know anyone who was willing to jump in on the project with him. So I had to separate myself from pretty much an absolute cliché. I just did a bunch of little things to prove that I was serious, and through that I courted him, and we started working more and more together. In the end I probably spent just as much time, if not more with him, than with my girlfriend now wife.

A particular question I always ask of potential co-founders is, “Tell me about the shittiest job you’ve ever had.” I don’t really care what the answer is. It’s more to read where they come from, how have they pushed themselves, and what’s their outlook.

BARD MBA: Are there any courses you would recommend to someone looking to get into the tech world?

I would encourage everybody to learn how to code. Self-driving cars will be here in three to five years. Just being able to understand how those systems work, and what could go wrong or right, is going to become part of a political conversation. So if you’re going to be a good citizen you should understand coding, because it’s more and more entwined with our life.

From a career standpoint, you should definitely learn how to code, just at least to be able to work with developers. And if you also want to go start a new company, or you want to run a nonprofit or do some kind of project, it’s incredibly valuable to know a baseline. I would recommend that people learn Ruby on Rails. Ruby on Rails is a really easy, clean, elegant language. There’re pluses and minuses, but websites like the New York Times, Twitter originally, Hulu—they’re all Ruby on Rails.

For example, I was doing a community course in Philly and this kid came in. He was nineteen, couldn’t afford to go to college, one of many kids. And he was just so ambitious. Anything I gave him, he devoured it. So, he finished the One Month Ruby on Rails course in a day or two, and then took on the next thing and the next thing, and by week three he was integrating payment services into a fake website that he built. That morning, he started a company.

They did a million dollars in revenue last year. They’re doing organic beef bone broth that’s shelf stable, and then they’re recycling the bones they use by selling them at low cost to dog bone companies. He got really lucky, but he had these basic skill sets that he learned very quickly and was able to utilize them to control his situation.

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