In September 2019, the MIT Alumni Club of Northern California launched MIT Catalysts, a podcast featuring in-depth conversations with entrepreneurs. Host Julia Yoo ’10, MBA ’14 works with producer Irena Fischer-Hwang ’11, MEng ’12 to create each episode. Yoo got on the phone with Slice of MIT to talk about her experience of hosting the podcast so far.
“This isn’t my day job, but it’s such a breath of fresh air,” Yoo says. “I feel like I’m a detective in a way, just learning and listening and uncovering different fun facts and truths about our guest speakers.”
Yoo is a Global Sales Strategy manager at Autodesk, a software company based out of San Francisco. As an avid podcast listener, she was inspired to try out hosting one of her own.
Many of the guests featured so far on MIT Catalysts have been MIT alumni, including tech startup founders Gary Marcus PhD ’93 (Robust.AI), Shishir Mehrotra ’00 (Coda), and John Whaley ’99, MEng ’99 (UnifyID), as well as MIT Alumni Association president R. Erich Caulfield SM ’01, PhD ’06.
Listen to this episode of the Slice of MIT podcast to hear Yoo’s interview with Whaley—along with her advice for other MIT alumni clubs that might want to start their own podcast.
You’re listening to the Slice of MIT podcast, a production of the MIT Alumni Association.
Brielle Domings: OK…sitting here in my makeshift recording studio here in my closet…gonna give Julia a call and we will try this out.
Julia Yoo: Hello!
Domings: Hi Julia. How are you?
Yoo: Good, how are you? How was your week?
Domings: Oh, pretty good… [conversation fades into the background]
Domings: That’s MIT alumna Julia Yoo, undergraduate class of 2010 and Sloan MBA class of 2014. I’m Brielle Domings, the multimedia producer and editor for the MIT Alumni Association. Julia and I recently spoke remotely, safely ensconced in our respective DIY recording studios on opposite US coasts. As of this recording, we’re both working remotely due to the current impacts of the Covid-19 crisis. Julia is the host of the podcast MIT Catalysts, a production of the MIT Alumni Club of Northern California. The podcast launched in September of 2019. She sat down with Slice of MIT to talk about her experience with hosting the podcast so far.
Yoo: This was a brand-new world to me. This isn’t my day job, but it’s such a breath of fresh air, and I feel like I’m a detective in a way just learning and listening and uncovering different fun facts and truths about our guest speakers. So it’s been a blast.
Domings: Julia works on the podcast with producer and fellow MIT alumna Irena Fischer-Hwang, undergraduate class of 2011 and Master of Engineering in 2012. Each episode features in-depth conversations with entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, many of whom are MIT alumni.
Today on the Slice of MIT podcast, we’re excited to share a recent episode from MIT Catalysts. Julia interviews John Whaley, a member of the MIT Class of 1999 and founder of the tech company UnifyID. But before we get into the episode, we’ll talk with Julia about how she went from a podcast aficionado to hosting one. She’ll also share advice for other MIT alumni clubs that might want to start a podcast of their own.
Domings: Welcome, Julia. Thank you so much for being on the Slice of MIT podcast. We’re so excited to be featuring one of the MIT Catalysts podcast episodes and talking to you about your work.
Yoo: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Domings: Can you just tell me a little bit about what is the MIT Catalysts podcast?
Yoo: Sure. So, MIT Catalysts is all about showcasing innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders who are MIT alumni, faculty, and affiliates in the Bay Area. And our goal is really to get a glimpse into the lives of some of these amazing people and walk away with some connection and inspiration.
Domings: That’s great. How did the idea for this podcast come about?
Yoo: You know, I am an avid podcast listener, and when I moved to the Bay Area five, six years ago, I found myself having really interesting and awesome conversations with the MIT alumni and community base here.
I just thought, “Hey, I would love to share some of these conversations and showcase some of the people that I’m meeting here.” That was really the impetus behind the podcast, to really showcase our alumni and have our listeners feel as if they are part of a conversation and get a glimpse into the lives particularly of those entrepreneurs and innovators who are really making a better world out here.
Domings: What is your favorite part of hosting this podcast?
Yoo: You know, I think it’s really listening to everyone’s story, and even if a guest we have has been in the same industry and function as a previous guest speaker, everyone’s story is so different. And I just love uncovering the hidden talents and fun facts about each of our speakers that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere on the internet or just from reading about somebody.
Domings: If another MIT alumni club wanted to start a podcast, what would be three pieces of advice that you could give them?
Yoo: Oh boy. All right, well, only three. I think the first one would be to understand your purpose and really understand what your mission and goal of the podcast is. And for us, we experimented with different things and we ultimately landed on, hey, we really wanted to have an entrepreneurship and innovative bent to our podcast.
But I think that’s really important to know, because that will just ground the foundations of the whole program and who you want to showcase, how you want to go about the questions. Understanding your purpose is number one.
And then the second is the logistics, right? Invest in the right equipment and talent. Nobody wants to listen to a podcast that’s fuzzy and subpar audio quality. So really do your research, invest in the right equipment.
The third advice would be for the host. I would say, just make sure to have good active listening skills, and if the goal is to have one-to-one interviews, make sure you do your research beforehand, think about the types of questions you want to ask them. But at the same time, don’t have it be so scripted, right? Because every conversation is going to go differently, and you want to have that flexibility for it to feel organic and to go in the direction that it leads.
Domings: So what has been the most surprising outcome of this podcast for you?
Yoo: I think it’s the third thing I just touched on, which is, initially we had a very rigid set of questions and then we quickly found that, hey, it doesn’t always go that way and it wasn’t so fun just following a script. Along the way you just learn some really just fun and surprising things. I think that’s been the biggest surprise is just how different and interesting each episode has been.
Domings: I know that currently, obviously, you’re not able to interview your guests because of the current situation with Covid-19, so what’s going on for you guys right now in terms of navigating this tricky climate?
Yoo: Yeah. Obviously, all in-person meetings have been off the table, and we’re all trying to figure out how to do this remote recording at home and hiding in our closets or wherever to get good audio.
I think the bigger impact that this pandemic has had is it just truly recalibrated our priorities, and everything that seemed urgent and important last month has suddenly been thrown out the window. I think now more than ever we need to band together as a community, get past our differences, and just help each other in any way we can, even if we’re not a health care worker on the front lines, which by the way, we hope to interview some great alumni who are doctors and are on the front lines in future episodes. Even if we’re not that, just staying home, not hoarding toilet paper, helping groceries for an elder. There’s a million ways we can help each other. I think that overall, obviously this has been very scary and unprecedented for everybody, but the silver lining is, I’ve seen just so much goodness and community building already come out of this.
Domings: How do you think that this podcast can make at least the MIT alumni community feel more connected in this time?
Yoo: I hope that this podcast is one of the vehicles to make those feel connected and know that the community is here for you and, you know, people are being creative, right? I’ve heard of virtual Zoom happy hours. I’ve heard of people having dinners over Zoom together. It’s certainly not conventional, but I think that we are a community of problem solvers and thinking on our feet, and I hope that this podcast is one of the ways that people can feel connected to MIT and the broader Bay Area.
Domings: So I was wondering if you could give us a little background on the episode we’re about to hear with John Whaley, who is the MIT Class of 1999. Could you just give us a little background and explain to our listeners what we’re about to hear?
Yoo: Sure. John was super fun to interview. He has an interesting background transitioning from academia to entrepreneurship, and obviously you’re going to hear that in the episode. But you hear both the technical and the academic and entrepreneurial side of him shining in the interview. I thought he gave very honest and open advice and feedback about his journey thus far, having founded two companies. He gives very actionable advice for anyone who’s thinking about or already running a company today. I’m not going to spoil the episode further, but I would just encourage everyone with an interest in startups to listen to this episode.
Domings: You can find more info on the MIT Catalysts podcast by visiting the MIT Alumni Club of Northern California’s website at mitcnc.org/podcasts. Now, here’s the MIT Catalysts episode with John Whaley, MIT Class of 1999.
Irena Fischer-Hwang: Welcome to the MIT Catalyst, a podcast series by the MIT Club of Northern California. Each episode, host Julia Yoo interviews MIT alumni, faculty, and affiliates who are movers and shakers in the Bay Area.
Julia Yoo: Hi, everybody. I have here John Whaley, who is an entrepreneur, CEO, and founder of UnifyID, with us today. Could you tell us a little bit more about your ventures?
John Whaley: Sure, I started one company out of Stanford. I was a PhD student there. And then we started one company. Eventually that one got acquired. And then started my second company, which is my current company. UnifyID.
Yoo: Can you tell us more about UnifyID?
Whaley: Yeah, so we do authentication. We can authenticate people based on passive factors, the way that they walk or their unique behavior. It’s called behavioral biometrics. And it’s much more convenient than using passwords or other traditional forms of authentication.
Yoo: Great. So, starting UnifyID and being a second-time entrepreneur, what did you do differently? What did you learn from the first one?
Whaley: Gosh, I mean, I think the first time around we probably made just about every mistake that you could. One big lesson is learning when you’re raising money about who to raise money from and making sure you’re well aligned with your investors. You know, I think that was the biggest single lesson from the first time around that we really incorporated the second time around.
Yoo: Great. Any other surprises?
Whaley: Yeah, I mean, so the first time I was a founder and CTO, which was quite different than the CEO role. The CEO role as I have discovered this time around, it’s been a lot more comprehensive. And you know, when I was a CTO, at the end of the day, I can always go home and then feel like I had accomplished something or that I’d made a significant dent in what needed to get done.
When you’re the CEO, everything eventually just falls up to you. And so regardless of how hard you work or how much you do, you feel like you’ve never actually done enough. And so that was one big difference. I mean, the other difference is that in a CEO role, it’s really much more about people management and about recruiting and retaining and keeping that team motivated. And so it was much more about helping other people to be effective than me being effective myself.
Yoo: Do you like being a CEO?
Whaley: Yes, I mean, I didn’t realize that I would enjoy entrepreneurship so much. But now I’ve done it. And this is my second time around. I think however this one ends up, I think I’ll be back for more. I think there’s a natural type of person that is naturally a builder and likes to build things and can’t stay away. I’ve discovered that’s my personality as well. So I think regardless of what happens here, I think I’ll be back for more regardless of whenever it happens.
Yoo: When did you catch the entrepreneurship bug? Was it at MIT? Or was it during your PhD program? Did you always know that you would have a startup?
Whaley: I didn’t know... I mean, I kind of fell into it. I originally was planning to be a professor. I had gone to Stanford. I’d done my PhD. I actually interviewed at MIT and a few other places as well. You know, I had my sights set high for that faculty position.
I didn’t get my faculty offer from MIT. So I took that opportunity to think about what was really important in my life and why I had been striving to try to be a professor and a faculty member. And for me, it was always about impact and wanting to have a big impact. And originally, I was thinking that would be an impact in terms of being a professor, doing great research, having great students.
But then I realized that you can have an impact in different ways. And so the opportunity came along to actually join a company of the very earliest stages. And that was my first company, Moka5.
And effectively what it was is there was a research project that was going on. We met with Vinod Khosla, who is founder of Khosla Ventures. And founder of Sun. And he basically said, here’s $3 million, go build something cool.
And so I thought, that was a really interesting opportunity. I was at this crossroads in my life. So then I decided to move forward with that. And I haven’t looked back. And meanwhile, I was able to go back. I became a visiting lecturer at Stanford. So I was able to, still able to get some of that, interact with students and go and teach classes and such. But it turned out very well.
Yoo: So you get the best of both worlds. You still get to be a builder, but you also still get to be a professor. So you get to see both the academia and the industry side of things.
Whaley: Yeah, and I think my background is maybe a little bit atypical, especially for a startup CEO. Many CEOs come more from the business background, the sales background. Mine was much more of a technical background and again doing my PhD and such. And rather than kind of shy away from that and try to pretend I was somebody I wasn’t. I just fully embraced it.
You know, I kept my PhD on my business cards. I would attend academic conferences and then go and talk about machine learning or security or these type of things, which has actually paid off really well on my current company. Because not all CEOs are able to do that, right?
And so the fact that I was able to then go and talk with people like at their level. And then it was great for credibility in terms we now have what are 15 peer-reviewed publications in this space. So that’s really a differentiator in terms of on the technology side when you look at some other companies trying to do similar things.
And also for recruiting, these are the type of places where the type of people that we want to recruit would typically congregate. And the fact I was able to go there and not have a career fair booth and try to attract people like that but go and have a keynote speech or a technical presentation and then engage with people, technical people on their level, then that certainly has helped a lot.
So my biggest advice for anyone who is trying to do this is, don’t try to pretend to be someone else. Just really embrace who you are and what you’re good at. And then people will more naturally want to follow you and naturally gravitate to you. And then you’ll end up having more success than if you try to pretend that you are something that you’re not.
Yoo: Great advice. So when you recruit a team, one thing that we hear over and over again is getting the people, right? What type of people do you look for? Is there a certain persona, or do you have a certain framework for this?
Whaley: Yeah, this is something that we put a lot of thought into, especially this being the second time around. I learned a lot of lessons the first time around. You know, you really want to have the right DNA and the right gene pool in the company when you’re early on. Because that really determines the future of the company, and the success or failure of your company is largely determined by those early employees, right?
And you think about it, almost in terms of biology as well. If you have too much of a monoculture, it’s too many of the same type of people, then that leads to problems down the road. You know, because if there’s not enough diversity in your gene pool, then all traits get accentuated, like whether positive or negative.
And so ultimately, what you want to try to build is a company that can incorporate a lot of different and diverse viewpoints and experience and to do that in a way where you can still be productive. So you want to have shared values. But then not have everyone be exactly the same in terms of experience and background.
And so when you look for people, I mean, one natural thing when you’re looking for people you want to start up is, you don’t want to find somebody who’s just interested in doing one particular thing, or is good at one particular thing. Because chances are, six months from now, whatever you hired them for, they’re going to have to do something else. So you want people who are going to be like autodidactic, just quick learners and be able to learn by themselves and be able to jump into a new area and then do really well.
You also want to find people who they may not be there right now. But you feel like that they have the potential to be the future leaders of the company. Because the people that you have early, the best-case scenario is that the people that you have earlier are the people that are going to be able to grow with the company. And then they’re going to be able to have those future leadership roles.
Now, that’s not always the case. Sometimes you have people that they’re very good for one particular phase of the company. And then as the company grows or matures, then they may not be the appropriate people. But it’s always good to look for people that you feel like have that type of potential. And many, many times, people are looking for that type of opportunity.
I mean, if you could join a large company, it’s a long road to be able to reach up to leadership ranks and something like that. Whereas if you’re joining a smaller company, it’s really at the ground floor. And there’s much more of an opportunity to prove yourself and then have that leadership role in the future.
Yoo: So who is your inspiration as an entrepreneur?
Whaley: Gosh, there’s so many people, especially in Silicon Valley. And we look at─yeah, it’s hard to name just one. Yeah, I’d have to think about that a little bit. But if you look at really the ethos in Silicon Valley, and this was somewhat true when I was in MIT.
I mean, I graduated in 1999. But I think it’s becoming more and more true at MIT as well. There is like this a little bit of a culture of entrepreneurship that’s especially true at Stanford and Silicon Valley as well. And the fact that there’s not only those individuals there who just can’t help themselves but go and start companies.
But also all the people around them, the entire supporting cast. You know, there are venture capitalists. There are lawyers. There are office managers. There’s an entire ecosystem as well that really makes something like that possible. And so I think a lot of the success stories that have happened in Silicon Valley are due to much of the entire ecosystem that is there.
Yoo: Great. And another theme that comes up with entrepreneurs is perseverance. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs when they are kind of at that precipice of, what do I do next? Do I keep going? Do I shut down? Do I pivot?
Whaley: This is a tricky problem. Because absolutely anything that’s worth doing is going to require perseverance. And it’s going to require–there will be a lot of hard times, like periods. There’ll be times where it could be financial hardships. It could be hardships based on customers or products. Or a lot of things that can and will happen. You fully expect them to happen, right? And in order to be successful, you have to be able to work your way through all of those, right?
But on the flip side, if you look around just in Silicon Valley especially, there’s a lot of startups that are not great. I mean, their products are not great and because there’s a lot of capital around. And it’s not that hard to be able to find somebody who will just give you some money. And then especially, if it’s a software startup, you don’t really need like a huge amount of capital. And so you can kind of keep going and keep going.
And so it’s a little bit frustrating on the recruiting side, where it’s like, well, we have a great company and a great idea and growing traction and all of this. And then a lot of the talent ends up being locked up in companies where─OK, maybe if fundraising was not quite as free flowing, then those ones would naturally die. And then the people that are locked up in there would then be able to then go on to do better and greater things.
So I think ultimately, these will have to come from within yourself. Realize that there absolutely will be hard times. And you don’t have to back down like when you do have hard times, whether it’s running out of money, or a customer contract blows up, or something else happens really negative, you lose a key member of your staff, things like that.
All those things will happen. And you just have to be able to roll with the punches and keep going. But at some point, then if you do say that, if you’re able to take an honest look at it, and then say, OK, this isn’t working out. Now’s the time to throw in a towel. Or more commonly is to pivot and then decide, let’s try a different tack, right?
And when you’re in the middle of it, it’s really, really hard to do that because you can’t really see the forest from the trees. But it’s really good to have people that you really trust that you can talk to and who will tell you things honestly. They say, why are you doing this? This isn’t going to work.
You know, it’s very valuable to have those type of people. You know, they are kind of called the kitchen cabinets. These are the people who it’s like, you may have cabinet positions that are official positions. These are people who you implicitly trust and will go to and try to get advice. And they’ll give you very honest advice.
And so, many times having conversations with those type of people, then you’ll be able to take a step back and then look at the whole thing from a wider lens and a wider perspective, and then determine, OK, should I keep persevering? Or should I then pivot and try something new?
Yoo: Could you tell us a little bit more about the types of people in your kitchen cabinet, people in your company, outside your company, investors, friends, family, your mix?
Whaley: Yeah, these are people who are not within the company, in fact, have no real vested interest in the company but have known through the years and really trust their judgment. And sometimes it’s people who were mentors or advisors in the past. Maybe these are people who had some type of success and then are continuing to engage with the community and give back, these types of things.
But I think it’s important when you’re talking about those types of people that these are actually different people and separate people than the people who are within the company or who are on your board or that kind of direct investors in the company or things like that. Because they’re going to have their own perspective that’s going to be colored by their involvement, existing involvement in your company.
Yoo: How do you find a cofounder? What is the secret sauce there?
Whaley: Yeah. This is a really difficult thing to find, a good cofounder. Because the number-one reason why startups fail, I mean, number one is they can’t raise money, like the first time around. The number two reason is basically founder-to-founder conflicts.
And so if you think about when you are going to start a company with someone, it’s almost like you’re getting married. I mean, you’re probably spending more time with your cofounder than you would with your actual spouse. So it is important to approach.
And if you just meet somebody and think, oh yeah, this person seems to be interested in the same kind of things, let's go start a company together. That may not work out well. I mean, you may end up not on speaking terms.
So the best results that I’ve seen is ones where people had worked together before. I mean, so something where maybe they worked at the same company. And they worked on similar projects. You know what it’s like to work together. You know, like it’s very important when you have cofounders that everyone knows what their role is.
If you have two people, for example, two people that are both highly technical, and there’s any kind of question around, oh, who should be in charge of engineering or technology or the architecture, and you have two people who are both very good, that’s not a good recipe for success.
Yoo: So what I’m hearing is it’s good to have cofounders who have complementary skills, not clones of each other?
Whaley: Yeah, complementary skills, we have to have a shared set of values. And then you have to have a very good understanding before you even get started of what is each person’s role and what is expected of them.
Yoo: What do you advise against friends starting companies together?
Whaley: Not necessarily, I mean, those can sometimes be people that you know very well. Somebody who is like you only know socially may seem like, oh, this person is really cool. And I feel like I can get along with him.
Starting a company is a totally different thing. So it’s much better to have an experience where you’ve actually worked together on something, where you’ve worked on the same team, or you’ve collaborated closely on something so you really understand what it’s like to work with him.
Because outside of not being able to raise that next round of funding, the cofounder issues are the number-one reason why startups end up failing. And it doesn’t really have to be that way. I mean, when you have people and personalities and egos get involved, then that’s where there’s a lot of potential landmines. So I’d just say, be careful if you’re going to start a company.
The other piece is, don’t be afraid. Like, if you have a great idea, and you don’t have another cofounder to do it with, don’t be afraid to just jump in and do it yourself. You don’t need to have multiple cofounders. In fact, things are often a lot easier if you’re just a solo founder.
And so, don’t be scared to go and jump in and do it. Don’t feel like, I have this idea so I need to find someone else. There are plenty of success stories of individual founders who have gone on to build great companies.
Yoo: What is your entrepreneurship secret sauce?
Whaley: So I think my entrepreneurship secret sauce is, like I mentioned before, is just be yourself and embrace who you are. Don’t try to be someone else. Like, you lean into your strengths. If you’re a technical person, be the best technical person that you can possibly be. If you’re on the business side or partnerships or sales, be the best that you can possibly be in those areas. And don’t try to pretend to be someone else, because people ultimately see through it. And then, it’s not going to be successful for you.
Yoo: Thank you so much, John Whaley.
Whaley: Great. Thanks for having me.
Fischer-Hwang: Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of the MIT Catalysts. This episode was hosted by Julia Yoo. And produced by me, Irena Fischer-Hwang. Special thanks to our guest, John Whaley, for taking the time to chat with us. Thanks also to the MIT Club of Northern California, which sponsors this podcast. Make sure to subscribe to Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher.
We hope you enjoyed our first MIT Catalysts episode of the new decade. And make sure to tune into our upcoming episodes. We’ve got a great slate of interviews lined up for 2020 that you won’t want to miss. Until next time, we are the MIT Catalysts.
Domings: Thanks to Julia Yoo, Irena Fischer-Hwang, and the MIT Alumni Club of Northern California for sharing this episode of the MIT Catalysts podcast with us. Tweet us your thoughts on this episode @mit_alumni. If you’d like to hear more stories from the MIT community, subscribe to the Slice of MIT podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate the podcast and leave us a review. Also check out our website at slice.mit.edu. Thanks for listening.