From Engineer to Entrepreneur: The Founder of Pickie Shares Her Business Secrets
4:00 pm, April 26th | by Sarah Devlin
Sonia Sahney Nagar has quite an impressive resumé — working for General Motors as an engineer, working for Amazon, and consulting for other businesses on eCommerce. She left it all behind, though, to form Pickie, a personalized shopping aid that just raised $1 million in venture capitalist funding. We got to talk to Sonia about how she made the leap from engineering to consulting to becoming a CEO, and her tips for women looking to follow in her footsteps.
1. What tipped the scales for you and made you feel that you absolutely had to act on this idea and become an entrepreneur?
Growing up in the Midwest, I always thought that I needed to work for a really long time to get experience, and then I would start a company. After studying engineering I worked as an engineer at a big company. Then I went to business school and went to work for Amazon. Then I moved to New York, and started consulting. While I was consulting I kept getting asked to provide my opinion for senior clients and partners as an “eCommerce expert.” I quickly realized that I had a lot of unique market insights about how commerce + technology work. It was through these conversations I realized I had plenty of “experience” and became confident that I could build something on my own. From a timing perspective, I felt (and still feel) like eCommerce still has a ton of room to grow and revolutionize industries — so I felt a sense of urgency to get started!
In hindsight, I don’t think you need a ton of experience to start a company. The best way to learn is to jump right in, or to work for a start-up. This is just the winding path I happened to take because I didn’t know any better!
2. What was the most challenging part of forming your own business?
Building the right team is definitely the hardest part of building a business. My advice to anyone who tells me they are interested in starting a company is that they should start building their recruiting pipeline long before they need to hire.
If you’re interested in building a technology start-up, that means being active in the start-up community. I’d recommend working on as many projects as possible to get to know who you work well with. Or start a meetup to bring smart people together in an area you’re interested in building a business in. Make time to maintain your relationships with good people (whether it’s coffee, or lunches), so when it comes time to hire you can hire people you know vs. starting cold.
3. How did your time working for a big corporation influence how you structured your company and your role as “the boss”?
Working at a start-up is so different than working at a big company — I had to learn many things anew. The best way to learn how to structure a start-up is really to work for a start-up. However, from my time in consulting I got really good at identifying opportunities and communicating my ideas. Part of my role as CEO is communicating our vision and our plan, and I definitely benefited from my consulting time. Philosophically, at Amazon I learned the importance of using data & testing to drive product decisions. That’s definitely one facet of product development we’re working to include in our product development process at Pickie.
4. The world of venture capitalist funding is very heavily male dominated — did you feel affected by that in the process of securing funding for Pickie?
I actually think my gender was an advantage for me while I was fundraising. My team is building a product that clearly targets women and is shopping-focused. I’m building a solution for a problem that I have. That made my pitch very authentic. I also had eCommerce credibility because I’d worked at Amazon, I had technology street cred from my engineering background, and business street cred from having gone to business school.
5. What would be your advice for other female entrepreneurs embarking on the process of getting VC funding for their businesses?
Rejection is part of the process. I was rejected a lot — it’s OK. If someone says no, try to understand why they said no. If they have legitimate business concerns, make sure you adjust your pitch to squash that concern before it crops up in your next VC conversation. Be prepared: sometimes you might get a “no” because the VC just isn’t that into you or isn’t into your idea. Try to save yourself time by understanding an investor’s thesis. If they ONLY invest in B2B and AdTech it’s probably not a good use of time to pitch your eCommerce start-up to them.
When you’re pitching your product or idea to a VC, you should be the expert in the room. If you don’t have a ton of experience, you can still be an “expert” by running experiments and gathering data that gives you unique market insights. For example, the founders of Rent the Runway didn’t have experience working in fashion. Before they raised their seed round they bought a bunch of dresses, went to a college campus and ran an experiment renting dresses. So when they went in to meet with VCs they could say they knew how people would react to the idea, and furthermore, had data on exactly how their users would react (VCs love data, so include as much unique experiment data as you can. Note: online research data is not unique!).
6. What would be your number one piece of advice for young women considering starting their own businesses?
I guess all my previous responses have been laden with advice, but for people who are in the consideration phase, I’d recommend working for a start-up. You’ll learn a lot (both what to do, and what not to do) and it will make you a better founder.