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Building a Cool Technology Company from Chicago: Narrative Science CEO Stuart Frankel (Part 1)

Posted on Monday, Mar 2nd 2015

Some of what you’ll read in this interview will seem like science fiction. But please read on!

Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your personal journey. Where are you from? Where were you born and raised, and in what kind of circumstances?

Stuart Frankel: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was the middle kid with a sister on each side. I went to public high schools and ultimately to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which is about an hour from Cincinnati. I started as an Economics major but ended up being an accounting major. Then, I moved to Chicago and became a CPA and worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers for the first few years of my career.

Sramana Mitra: In terms of chronology, what years are we talking?

Stuart Frankel: I graduated from college in 1987. I worked for PWC for three years. Then I actually went to law school. I went to Vanderbilt Law School from 1990 to 1993. I lived in Nashville for a few years. I graduated and became a corporate lawyer and moved back to Ohio. I practiced corporate law in a large law firm that was based in Ohio for a few years. That was going well and I actually enjoyed that work. I spent a lot of my time working with companies in bankruptcy or large financial institutions that had loans go bad because they had lent money to companies that ultimately filed for bankruptcy.

I enjoyed that work but I ultimately got recruited to go work for one of my clients, which was a publicly traded home building business. It was a difficult decision for me. I liked what I was doing in terms of practicing law but I ultimately felt like I wanted to get out of the professional service business. I had spent a few years as a CPA and a few years as a lawyer. While both of those experiences were terrific for me and I learned a lot, I knew I wanted to do something else. When I got recruited, it was an opportunity for me to work for a company. Because it was a home building business and a real estate development business, you’ll actually be involved in building something.

The company, at that time, was about 35 years old. It was publicly traded but was really controlled and run by a family that had started the company. I went over in a really interesting role. Even today, homes are built essentially the way they were built hundred of years ago. This company was really focused on trying to change that and trying to accelerate the growth of their business. They actually hired a bunch of people outside the home building business who had no experience but had other type of experiences to bring to the organization. They threw us together as a team and said, “Go figure out how to grow our business. Apply some creative thinking and some thinking outside the traditional home building business.”

Within about 30 days of me giving up my job as a lawyer and going over there to participate in this new venture, the Board of Directors canceled the entire project. I was sitting there and feeling like I had made the worst decision of my career. I actually had the opportunity to go back to my law firm. I had only been gone for a month or two at this point. I considered that but also felt that there was, potentially, a lot of opportunities to do what I ultimately wanted to do, which is run my own business. I actually stayed at this company and had a bunch of different roles.

It was the kind of company where if you met the CEO in the office on a Saturday and you started talking to him, you might walk away with a new job. That actually happened to me one time. I was in on the weekend. Our CEO came up to me and started talking to me about our IT function and the company’s use of technology. I had some really strong opinions on that. Mostly, that we were not invested enough. We didn’t have the right resources. We certainly weren’t thinking about how to improve the business through technology. Within about 30 minutes, he decided that I was going to be the company’s first Chief Information Officer. That, literally, was how the decision was made.

I spend the next year essentially getting up to speed on all the things that I needed to do and really implementing the company’s first core technology that would help the company grow and continue into the future. It was trial by fire where I was thrown into a situation that I had really no expertise at all for, but it was a really amazing experience. Following that, I also ran the real estate development company owned by that company. It was a wholly-owned subsidiary. It was really my first time to cut my teeth operationally and manage a group of people. It was an amazing experience. I was still at a relatively young age. I was probably 30 years old at this point.

Sramana Mitra: What year does that bring us up to?

Stuart Frankel: That was 1996 or 1997.

Sramana Mitra: What happens next?

Stuart Frankel: I was working there for a few years. I started to think about my career and the long-term potential. While I felt that I was getting terrific experience, I still wasn’t satisfied that I wasn’t necessarily in the industry that I wanted to be. I wasn’t necessarily looking around to leave, but I certainly was trying to figure out if this is a place to make my home for a while literally and figuratively. During the same time, I actually got a call from some people that I had previously worked with in Chicago. They let me know that there was an opportunity to go be the CFO and General Counsel of an Internet startup. I knew what the Internet was but clearly, the Internet hasn’t necessarily even made its way to Cincinnati at this point.

This company was rollingstone.com—the online business of Rolling Stone magazine. They were looking for people to build out their management team. I had a few years of accounting experience and a few years of operational experience. In 1997, that was probably enough to get a job as the CFO of a Goldman Sachs-backed company.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Building a Cool Technology Company from Chicago: Narrative Science CEO Stuart Frankel
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