Startup Q&A with Sonar Founder, Brett Martin

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.

The Art of Simplicity

"Keep it Simple"

In business and in life I think we sometimes make a process harder than it has to be. I for one don’t like to reinvent the wheel – I am constantly looking around for ideas or suggestions on how to make a situation or process easier. But there is something I think we have lost with all our cool technology and how we have evolved through commercialization and getting the best deal etc… We have lost sight of the fundamentals and keeping things simple.

We built our house seven years ago. And, of course, all our appliances are starting to get the seven year inch. We bought them at a “Big Box” store which will remain nameless, and when our washing machine and dryer started to go they would not come out and fix it.  Now we bought the appliances there because their price was right (cheap) and they offered extras like not having to pay for a year, no interest, and 10% coupon off for building a house… I could go on and on… But after the transaction was completed, you no longer mattered …It felt a little like “see ya later and good luck with all this stuff you bought!”

Back to the future seven years later; a lot of these appliances have decided that they are not so interested in working properly. I should mention now that my hubby and I are not the handiest of folks. You will not come to my door and have my husband answer it with a wrench in his hand!  I am talking with my Dad about the issues we were having with the appliances and he tells me to call the “guy” on Main Street, and he can probably fix it.

Sure enough after six months of having a leaky washing machine the local store fixed it.

I decided to go pay the repair bill in person. The store has not been updated probably since the 60’s. It was a hand written receipt. There were no fancy promotions or gadgets in the store… You have to pay for the product up front…(with the cost of appliances these days is not easy for everyone). But do you know what they do have? He has been in business for over 50 years, he wears a tie to work every day, he knows his products inside and out, along with what the big chains are selling. He was responsive, he showed up when he said he was going to…and by the way, he fixed our problem that no one else cared to fix!

The guy keeps his process simple…He develops and thrives on customer loyalty. He wants to earn your business and wants you to be a repeat customer. He used to be one of the only games in town for years, but he has been able to survive the “Big Box” invasion because of his ability to focus on his fundamentals and never forget that a delighted customer is a customer for life!

So the lesson here to my fellow business owners is: look for the simplicity in business. Sometimes we make it harder for ourselves than we need to…

Discounts are cool …gadgets are fun…but to me, true fundamentals don’t change!!

 

New York Tech Meetup Afterthoughts

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NYTM organizer, Nate Westheimer, welcomes the audience on July 5, 2011

With my second journey down to New York City for the New York Tech Meetup (NYTM), I was once again very impressed with what the presenters had to offer on-stage. With about nine tech startup demos, how can I choose a favorite?!

With the increase in popularity and evolution in mobile technology and social networks, there were trends in the demos along with a really neat surprise…break dancing!

What really stood out to me was Sonar.me. They built an application that can pull all of your social networks contact information and further connections, and also pull those people in your precise network of expertise at a particular networking event or area. I think this tool has the potential to bring great value at events and conferences for any individual.

SnapGoods created a great tool that recruiters and sourcers can play around with. Their site can pull all of your contacts from Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and simultaneously extract a particular keyword from all three networks. Super convenient and a huge time saver!

What really wowed the crowd was a tool that anyone can use to have the same experience as a doctor viewing every layer of the human body. It took BioDigital Human about seven years to create this interactive, HTML-based application… the first of its kind. Technology at its finest!

Lastly, presenters from SkillSlate went to a whole new level of “demoing,” and presented their results by searching a skillset from their site and brought the search results to NYTM. What did they search for in the city? Breakdancers! So the audience at NYTM got an awesome treat!

Overall, it was a great group of enjoyable demos, eye-openers, and several oohs, aahs, and cool moves. I’m thrilled to see what NYTM will bring to the stage next time. This leaves me thinking “What will people think of next?!”

Post written by Julie Skowronek, Assistant Marketing Manager at Whiting Consulting.

I remember like it was yesterday…

Royal Wedding, Prince WilliamI remember it like it was yesterday.  It was July 29, 1981.  I slept downstairs on the pull out couch in the family room with my Mom.  At that time, it was the only room in the house with a television set.  We woke up a 5am that morning to watch the Royal Wedding.  I am a huge Princess Diana fan, something passed down to by my Father’s mother, who loved the Royal Family.  To this day, this is one of my most cherished childhood memories.  In 24 hours I get to share that experience with my own daughter.

I distinctly remember that afternoon waiting on our big front porch for the afternoon paper to gather the first images of this historic day for my scrapbook some 10 plus hours after the event. Can you image that today? Having to wait 10 hours to capture an image from a live event?  It seems unthinkable today for that is what technology has brought us.  In the age of internet and smart phones it seems unacceptable to not have any image or any answer to a question, NOW. In 1981, I still had to rely on the newspaper for my fix on what was happening to the Royal Family.

Times have changed. Even me, a huge fan of the upcoming nuptials, is on information overload. Everywhere I turn I can access what is going on.  I think the most amazing thing is watching how one of the most established brands in the world has changed with the times. The Royal Family, traditionally a very private entity, has gone digital. They have done an amazing job rebranding themselves for today’s consumers of information. They have websites, Facebook pages with daily updates; create twitter handles letting people know where they will be and what they have been up to. They are adding to the buzz and excitement of the upcoming event as opposed to how they have shared info in the past.

I saw an article yesterday on Mashable that there is so much news about the Royal Wedding (about 7 million per day) on Friday that they cannot even measure the volume.

If you think about the power technology holds it is rather amazing.  One of the oldest, most conservative establishments on the planet changed due to realizing that power.  It has the ability to impact everyone’s brand, from the largest and oldest organizations to the smallest of us.
So tomorrow I will be enjoying this historic day with my daughter and hope in 30 years she can share the same experience with her daughter.  Of course, with advances in technology, by that time she should be able to teleport instantly to London and watch the event live.

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