In this entrepreneur interview, Laura talks about her Shark Tank pitch and shares what it was like to go film that episode. She opens up about how she deals with fear in high-stakes situations, and why you shouldn’t put people on a pedestal. She discusses the impact of COVID on her business, and why you shouldn’t always judge your success by what is happening at the moment. She touches on the lows and highs of her entrepreneurial journey, the impact of her academic background on her business, and finally, the one lesson she would share with new entrepreneurs.
Matt Vaadi is a serial entrepreneur. He’s the founder and CEO of ERG Payroll & HR, a company that helps small businesses streamline and automate their HR function. He’s also the founder and CEO of Grow by ERG, a digital marketing and SEO shop, as well as a founding member of GrowCo.
Laura Buccanfuso has a PhD in Engineering & Computer Science and is the founder and CEO of Van Robotics. Her flagship product, ABii, is a personal robot tutor for kids in grades K-5. With an interactive, socially-based learning model that meets national curriculum standards, ABii helps ignite a love for learning in young students. ABii was featured on Shark Tank earlier this year and it is now seeing widespread adoption by schools and learning centers across the country.
Watch the interview here.
Key entrepreneur interview takeaways:
1.Don’t wait for the fear to go away.
Laura has spent a lot of her entrepreneurial life in high-stakes situations. The Shark Tank entrepreneur interview is an obvious example, but Laura keeps a spreadsheet of every investor pitch she’s ever done—almost 100 at the last count—and she says the fear still hasn’t gone away.
When asked how to be fearless, she says she doesn’t know of any secret formula: “If somebody has any good advice on that, I’d love to hear it. I just push through it, I don’t give in to it.”
If you wait for the fear to go away, you’ll fall far short of your potential. No matter how you define success for yourself, there will come a time where you will have to face some fear.
“One of the big responsibilities we have to ourselves is to live the best life we can and not let other people convince you that you can’t regardless of who they are, their position, wealth, or where they come from.”
Laura believes one of the keys to living the best life you can is not allowing fear to hold you back. While she might seem calm and confident on the outside, she still deals with the emotions most people do when they have to put themselves out there. She has just decided she isn’t going to make decisions based on trying to avoid those feelings.
“I experience fear, but I don’t shy away from it.”
2.It’s not a level playing field. Do it anyway.
One of the darkest, most discouraging periods for Laura was when she was trying to raise her initial seed round of venture capital. There were months where she wondered if she was going to be able to continue on or if she’d have to shut down the business for good.
As other GrowCo entrepreneurs have noted, raising money is one of the hardest parts of starting a company, and Laura doesn’t beat around the bush:
“Fundraising sucks, especially for a female-run company. There is a reason only 2% of VC money goes to female-run companies.”
For Laura, an already notoriously difficult challenge—getting people to invest in a brand-new company with no track record—was compounded by something she couldn’t control. She is a woman, and the data shows that there still exists a real bias against women-led companies among VC investors.
No matter who you are, there will always be ways other people seem to have it easier than you do—whether because of their education, connections, gender, race, or any of a host of other factors. You can let that unfairness keep you from even trying, or you can decide that you’re going to do it anyway, in spite of the ways the deck might be stacked against you.
This doesn’t mean that inequality isn’t a real issue we need to address, but one of the best ways you can call attention to it is by achieving something in spite of it.
3.Validate your product yourself
During the entrepreneur interview, Laura explains that whenever you’re creating something—whether it’s a business, product, or piece of art—it’s natural to seek validation. You’re pouring your time, money, and energy into it, so you want to know if people like what you’re doing and think it will be successful.
When you’re growing a small business, however, that search for validation can be misleading. One of the earliest realizations Laura had was that all the people she looked up to in business weren’t that much different from her—and probably didn’t understand her business as well as she did.
“When you start out, you put people on a pedestal. You think they have more knowledge, experience, power, or influence, while you’re down here just asking for money or whatever,” she explains. “But I’ve learned that that is patently untrue. They aren’t on a pedestal. You know more about your company and product than anyone else does. Remind yourself of that.”
The fact that professionals are people just like you, and not superhumans, means you should take anything they say with a grain of salt. No matter what you do, you’ll have haters who think it’s a bad idea that’s never going to work, and cheerleaders who think it’s a great idea with no flaws. You shouldn’t listen to either of them too closely, Laura says.
“Don’t look for validation from investors or other entrepreneurs. Do your research, and prove it to yourself. Prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
You need to have a basis, in reality, you can use to measure praise and criticism. Don’t substitute people’s opinions for doing robust research. Understand your product and market inside out for yourself.
About Van Robotics
What started as a research problem during Laura’s PhD studies at Yale—How do we help children with developmental disabilities learn?—has turned into a product that is making learning more effective and fun for students from all backgrounds. ABii has been featured in Inc., The Financial Times, and Shark Tank, and has been adopted by schools and institutions in 22 states.
Of, by, and for founders, GrowCo is a collaborative partnership focused on sparking an explosion of entrepreneurial activity in Columbia, SC. GrowCo provides the community, mentorship, visibility, access to talent, and access to capital that high-impact, high-growth companies need to thrive and change the world. Our vision is simple: 10X the number of Inc 5000 companies in the next 10 years.
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