Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Brett Martin, CEO of the hot geo-based mobile application Sonar. Take a look at our conversation, as we dive into several topics including: becoming an entrepreneur in the New York City startup scene, hiring for a startup, and experiences along the journey…
What has been your experience as a startup in New York City? What are some of the great things about it, and what are some of the challenges?
Every day is a new challenge. As a startup, you start from scratch where nothing exists, and everything needs to be looked after and fixed daily. New York is an amazing place with a small community where everyone is very supportive, and you can get advice from anyone. Sometimes the beginning of the startup process can feel isolating, but here in NY…there’s a whole community doing the same thing. Everyone is in it together.
What was the transition like coming out of the incubator?
Sonar was started out of the incubator, Appfund, which I helped set up. When we got off the ground and got funded by a west coast VC, that’s when Sonar became its own company. Today we are still tightly connected to the incubator, and share an office with another company that’s also part of Appfund. It’s a collaborative environment and Sonar is tuned in with “sharing the knowledge.” We occasionally pull people out from other teams to help get stuff done.
Mayor Bloomberg is proactively trying to make NYC the biggest tech hub. Have you seen any changes yet from your perspective?
The NY startup scene is not this “top-down” mandate from the government wanting a bigger startup scene. Quite the opposite – it emerged organically, because New York City is a perfect petri dish for mobile innovation. The high density of users–everyone’s on their cell phones, everyone’s trying to find stuff, and your friends are almost always nearby–that’s why Foursquare works, and Gilt Groupe works because all the fashion companies are here, and Etsy because there’s a cool DIY culture. So I wouldn’t say the startup scene is taking cues from the government, but the government is wisely looking and seeing what’s happening, then doing their best to accelerate and facilitate it.
It seems like you’ve had the entrepreneurial spirit for a long time. At what age did you start thinking about becoming an entrepreneur?
For me it was pretty early. Growing up in Ocean City Maryland off the beach, I would sell sea shells to my sister at a high cost to earn a few bucks. I always liked the idea of side hustles, and seeing the opportunity to make a quick buck and then capitalizing on it. Building companies has a much longer term view. Over the next few years, everyone is going to become increasingly networked with everyone else around them. We’re going to be socially networked just on the basis of proximity and location. That’s all Sonar is…this is how we’re going to position ourselves to take advantage of it.
I see that you were very active in sports in high school and led your teams as captain…would you say that being involved in sports was a major catalyst for your drive today?
Absolutely, but I think it’s the teamwork part of it that can’t be underestimated. Some people can come into the workforce without experience in a coordinated disciplined effort. Like we are all going to get to practice on time and run laps… because if you’re not there, the rest of the team can’t get started practicing. Similar to people who are only used to working individually–they don’t understand the need to follow a time table, because they have little experience with someone counting on it. But in a startup, everyone counts on everyone else, and if any one person stops, then everything falls apart. Understanding the need for and the power of teamwork is probably the biggest gift sports gave to me.
Who has been your role model to help guide you in the startup process?
I always wished I had a mentor or a role model, but my dad was an entrepreneur always building his own things. For me, it was more of solving my own problems…I just wanted to connect with people where ever I go, and Sonar is the tool that helps you do just that.
At the NYU Startup Week Panel, you mentioned that when you look at someone’s resume, you look to see if they’ve developed anything on their own. Aside from that, what is the biggest hiring attribute you look for: a hard skill or a soft skill, to hire in a startup?
Do they care about my startup? Are they interested in it? Have they downloaded and tried the app before walking into the door? Are they self-starters? Have they already come up with ideas for what they’re going to do here? I’m not in here in the business of telling people what to do….everyone I hire needs to be able to figure it out, what they need to do to make the product better. I am hiring them to figure out the problem, not just to do the work. Everyone is doing their best, so if I pull someone in, I expect them to make it better than what we’ve done by ourselves. The ability to come in with ideas and a plan for what you’re going to do the moment you walk through the door–that’s what you need to be successful at a startup. Big companies already have the processes in place and only need the human capital. Startups don’t have any processes, so there’s nothing in place to ensure there’s a uniform output and no system to make sure they got it done. I look for people that will build their own processes to help themselves excel.
Your career page on your website is very unique and different from the standard job page, listing all its perks, focusing on company culture. Is the company culture something that evolved naturally?
We thought, “what would the person we would love to hire like?” Then we thought about some of the cool things we’d want to do and just threw them all up on the site. So it’s basically a reflection of what the team thought was cool and what we thought would interest people that we’d like to work with. It’s more like a wish list: if you come here, we’ll give you all of this.
The word “entrepreneur,” sounds like a very lonely word every time I hear it. After my talk with Brett, I realized just how much deeper it can be interpreted, based from his experiences. An entrepreneur intertwines their ideas within the startup community to help develop better processes…then hires the right people who can execute the idea beyond the entrepreneur’s wildest expectations. In the end, it all comes down to teamwork, dedication, and communication for a startup to persevere.
Brett Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Sonar. Prior to founding Sonar, Brett conceived of and built game-changing mobile technology companies as the Director of K2 Media in NYC. Prior to K2, he and a college friend moved to Austin, taught themselves how to code, and built the Data Owl, the world’s first automated social media monitoring service for small businesses. Before that, he researched start-ups as a Fulbright Fellow in Milano, Italia.
In his previous lives, Brett has worked at VBS.tv as an Internet marketing associate and on Wall Street as an equity research associate. Other things he is proud of include getting published by Harvard Business, founding a rock band, starting a non-profit, earning a B.A. in economics from Dartmouth College, and sailing thousands of miles from Maine to Dominica in a 30ft ketch.
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