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How She Got There: Helen Grossman & Aliza Kelly Faragher, Co-Founders of Align

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Name: Helen Grossman

Age:  24

Job Title and Description: Co-Founder of Align

Website: www.align.la

Twitter Handle: @doyoualign/@helengross

 

Name: Aliza Kelly Faragher

Age: 25

Job Title and Description: Co-Founder of Align

Website:www.align.la

Twitter Handle: @doyoualign/@alizakelly

 

 

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

Helen Grossman: Being a co-founder of Align means that I wear many different hats and that I have to simultaneously consider the big picture goals and the pressing day-to-day tasks at hand. There’s no such thing as a “typical” day, although Aliza [Faragher, my co-founder] and I always begin the week assessing our priorities and delegating responsibilities accordingly. Our main focuses are broken into a few main buckets: managing the product side through communications with our development team, focusing on getting new customers and listening to their feedback through marketing and branding efforts and administering business needs with investors, pitches and long-term visioning.

Aliza Kelly Faragher: As a co-founder of Align, my current job entails looking good in as many hats as possible. Every Monday morning, Helen [Grossman, cofounder] and I review the week at large to get a general sense of priorities, deadlines and maintenance responsibilities. After identifying the overarching themes of the week, I work off a specific to do list each day (I have a lot of Virgo in my astrological chart, FYI), which includes tasks ranging from high-level calls with investors to resizing GIFs for our blog. Though there is no such things as a “typical” day, and it’s important to stay agile when it comes to task management; the system that Helen and I developed allows us to maintain big picture visioning while still addressing whatever may pop up throughout the week. When you’re building a company from the ground up, there are a gazillion things that needed to be done yesterday, so it’s of the utmost important to remain focused, work intelligently and be willing to get your hands dirty (i.e. resizing GIFs from time to time).

 

What is the best part of your job?

HG: This job is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. In addition to the joys of working with my best friend, I feel like I’m learning something new every day. Whether it’s about my industry, about programming, astrology or business in general, I love learning and this has been an insanely fulfilling challenge. The best part about having your own company is balancing the long-term visioning with razorsharp attention to detail. While balancing pressing needs like managing a development team, raising capital and developing content, we also have to forecast the future of our industry and where our product fits within that market. It’s intellectually and creatively exhilarating to plan for where Align will be next year, two years from now, five years from now.

AKF:  I’ve always found business to be extremely creative, so my favorite part of running a company is the opportunity to blend so many diverse skill sets. There are infinite possibilities when starting a business, ranging from equity structuring decisions to aesthetic choices, and all of those considerations need to seamlessly integrate. With a background in both finance and fine art, it’s been an incredible experience to watch those two worlds collide in very tangible ways (for instance, “form follows function” is an amazing modernist ideology that is extremely transferable to all aspects of business). I am a solutions-oriented person, so I love applying non-traditional approaches to solving problems in lean and effective ways.

 

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

HG: My first entry-level job in the startup world was Communications and Branding Associate at Hub LA. Hub LA is a collaborative community for social entrepreneurs, creatives and all-around interesting people who are using their work to drive social change in the world. When I came back to LA from college, the startup scene here was booming, and I realized that there were a ton of interesting opportunities in that space. I considered my strengths and interests, as well as my personal values to do work that betters the world, and just started cold emailing individuals and organizations that aligned. I found a woman who did work with large corporations and paired them with nonprofits for compelling content and marketing campaigns–just the kind of work I had been looking to do–and we got together for coffee. Although she didn’t have any positions open, she told me to check out Hub LA, where she sometimes went to do work. Having her name on my cover letter to the Hub made all the difference in the world and got my resume to the top of the pile. I started out as a “Fellow” (which, come on, we all know is just a fancy way of saying unpaid intern) there, but made it very clear that I wasn’t going anywhere, and they hired me about three months later. 

Lessons: Don’t be afraid to send cold emails. Always ask for tips from people in your industry on where you should look for opportunities. Don’t put yourself in a box!

AKF: I believe that entrepreneurialism is in your blood, so technically my first job as an entrepreneur was when I was five years old. I didn’t realize that acronyms were abbreviations for words, so I picked three arbitrary letters that I liked and founded the BYC Club, which was a members-only group offering custom membership cards (very important) and weekly playdates. Think Soho House for kindergarteners; it was very chic.

After college, I formed two more “lucrative,” businesses: The Iconic Order (an arts production company based in NYC), and OUTLET Fine Art (a fine art gallery in Brooklyn). Not to sound trite, but being an entrepreneur feels more like a calling than a choice, so even though I was steadily employed since I was sixteen, I always seized opportunities to start something amazing. Co-founding Align with Helen has certainly been the most exciting and inspiring venture to date.

 

What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?

HG: Before I started Align I assumed that the technology industry was very closed off and every man (or, rarely, woman) for himself or herself. Now it’s very clear to me that it would be impossible to succeed in business without collaboration, openness and asking for advice from people who have gone through it themselves. There’s no shortage of resources, it’s just about being able to locate them and ask for input when you need it from people who are the right people to give it. At the same time, it was important for me to learn through this process that you have to pick your advisors and mentors wisely. Everyone has ideas for how you should run your company or create your product, and it took a hot sec to realize which ideas are worthy of my time and consideration and which ones to nod politely to and say “Cool, I appreciate your feedback.”

AKF: It is no surprise that the tech industry is male-dominated, but I didn’t know the impact of such a skewed gender ratio until I experienced it firsthand. Although I’m extremely feminine in my personal life (I would be delighted to talk about skin regimens for hours), when it comes to business, I don’t feel gendered: I am not making decisions as a woman; I am making decisions as a businessperson. Of course, running an astrology dating app opens the door to a lot of gendered conversations, so we’ve learned how to address questions such as “oh, so are you into this stuff?”

I am proud to be a female entrepreneur and think it’s of the utmost importance for women to openly discuss their experiences raising capital, engaging with other executives and what it’s like to succeed as a female business owner in 2015.

 

Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?

HG: Aliza Kelly Faragher, my best friend and business partner at Align, has taught me so much. She continually challenges me to work harder and better and smarter. It can be tough working with your best friend, but Aliza and I have learned so much along the way about communication, supporting each other’s strengths, helping each other grow and always having a sense of humor even when things can seem bleak. She has made the project of Align a constantly intellectually stimulating, creative and giggly one.

Additionally, a colleague of mine took me under her wing a few years ago and became a true professional mentor for me as well as a friend for life. From her, I learned the invaluable lesson to me that being a leader comes from making those around you feel genuinely appreciated.

AKF: My best friend, co-founder, and fellow lioness, Helen Grossman. Helen is an unbelievable individual, and from our college days playing (winning) beer pong, to our journey building a company from the ground up, Helen continues to inspire me through her incredible wisdom, ethics and humor. I am beyond #blessed (in the most genuine usage of that hashtag) to be working with such a brilliant and thoughtful person.

It takes a village to raise a child, so I would also like to take this opportunity to s/o some mentors whose invaluable support has truly shaped my professional life: Lallie Jones, Roger Gold, Lyor Cohen, and James Morel. Thank you.

 

What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?

HG: My guilty pleasure is reading commencement speeches (And chocolate, but that’s diff). One of my favorites ever was short story writer and essayist George Saunders’ 2013 address to Syracuse University about living a kind life. The speech in its entirety is a superb read, but what hit home is how Saunders talks about the cyclical nature of success. You do well in high school to get into a good college and you do well in college to get a good job, and “success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it.” Do “all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers,” he says, but always “err on the side of kindness.” And I try to always think about that–what does any of this mean if we’re not loving the people around us and operating through a lens of openness rather than selfishness?

AKF: Right before I moved to Los Angeles, I had an exit interview with my very important and extremely impressive former boss. I asked him “how do I become you” (not an overwhelming question at all), and he responded with two very valuable pieces of advice: Always work with people you like, and understand every business deal. If you’re not able to explain a deal in layman’s terms to your grandparents, then be careful what you’re getting yourself into. I constantly consider these two pieces of advice, as they provide a solid rubric for decision making.

 

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?

HG: I try my best not to retroactively cast judgment on my choices as mistakes, because I think as a young entrepreneur everything is information to me. In my experience, even the most misinformed or misjudged action, however painful, has led me to become a more self-reflective, thoughtful person in my professional life as well as in my personal life.

I will say that the most valuable of these “mistakes” has been about boundary setting. In my first few jobs, I wasn’t confident enough to stand up for myself and for my value to the organization, which meant I was overworked and underpaid. I have a feeling that many women experience similar fears about not wanting to get fired for asking for what they think is “too much,” like not wanting to say no to bosses or colleagues when your plate is already full. I learned from my very hectic startup job that if you don’t set your boundaries and put your stake in the ground, no one will set them for you, and it’s really hard to recover from that once it’s clear how far you’re willing to go for your company. My journey has taught me that as an ambitious person, I love working all the time, but as a happy person, I also need to have the time and space to have a fulfilling life outside of my job. I have to set those rules and honor them. 

AKF: We were total sponges when we first started Align. We took tons of meetings, heard many different perspectives and wanted to absorb as much information as possible. Many early conversations proved to be extremely significant, opening up greater discussions and leading to major introductions, but along the way, we also learned the value of our time and energy. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a “good idea,” and everyone thinks they know the “right” way of doing something. While I encourage young entrepreneurs to start dialogues with many types of individuals, I also suggest setting a hard stop for first-time meetings. If someone is dangling a carrot (capital, advice, introductions), but the whole thing seems a bit fishy, it may be wise reconsider how much time you’re spending cultivating that relationship. Trust your instincts, and be careful who invite into your innercircle.

 

What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

HG: The most surreal moment of my career had to be the day Align launched. It felt like what I can only imagine it feels like to send your child to college–you’ve worked so hard and spent so much time preparing for it to be ready to send off into the world. Then the day finally arrives, and it’s the most exciting, scary, surreal feeling. But there’s also something so liberating about it, being able to log into my own app and knowing that it exists completely outside of myself. 

Similarly, hearing that people are going on Align dates always makes my heart aflutter.

AKF: The most surreal moment of my career was May 6, 2015, the day Align launched. After ten months and countless hours building our company and product, on that specific day, Align was finally a real thing for the public to download and enjoy. Helen and I went out for champagne (and karaoke whatever) later that night and tried to recount our journey. It was amazing to recall how much has happened, and to think that this is still just the beginning.

 

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

HG: Solid communication is key when working with a really small team like ours at Align. Startup life requires that you are ready and willing to lend a hand wherever necessary, whether that means handling social media accounts, coordinating events or organizing and collecting data. We’re looking for self-starters with a sense of humor and, most importantly, someone who is passionate about the vision for Align that we have.

AKF: We are a small but growing team, so when we hire, we look for individuals who are self-starters, reliable, and passionate about Align. A sense of humor is also a huge plus, since we’re total wackos. In fact, we are looking for a few more Summer 2015 interns, so feel free to hit us up for more information.

 

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

HG: Recognize your strengths and own them. Do what you need to do to sharpen those strengths–whether that’s continuing education, reaching out to a leader in your field or just giving yourself the platform and position necessary to shine. Never diminish the importance of doing the things that are important to you. I wouldn’t be able to get anything done ever if I didn’t take the time every day to exercise.

AKF: Don’t be afraid to break the rules. In fact, forget the rules and trailblaze. And, of course, it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. Kindness is key.

 

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