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Capital Efficient Entrepreneurship: Jeff Wilkins, CEO of Motili (Part 3)

Posted on Friday, Sep 6th 2019

Sramana Mitra: Was Sift a funded company or a bootstrapped company?

Jeff Wilkins: It was a funded company but by angel investors only. We had a pretty modest round. I think we raised less than $1.5 million for the business. We have investors like Eric Smith, Michael Harrison, and some of the Justice League of America in tech. 

We didn’t go the formal VC route. We were growing and profitable and just happened to be in the right place at the right time. 24/7 was similar to DoubleClick.

They cut their teeth in the display space. They wanted to do something different. They thought email might be one of the tools and technology that would be differentiated. We sold to 24/7 in March of 1999.

Sramana Mitra: What happens after this? Did you have to go work for 24/7?

Jeff Wilkins: Yes. I was there for about 18 months and going to New York every three weeks. My wife had seen this playbook before. This was starting to be one of those challenges where you’re spending your life on 32nd and Broadway and not being at home.

I ended up doing something radically different. We cashed out. We got kids who were approaching school age and didn’t think that the Bay Area was a particularly healthy place to raise a family. We went to Austin, Texas and ended up living there. In the third quarter of 2000, we ended up moving down to Texas and we were there until 2008.

Sramana Mitra: While you were at Texas, you were working 24/7?

Jeff Wilkins: I quit. I didn’t have a job. I had a stay-at-home job and was the only guy in the neighborhood who was there during working hours.

Sramana Mitra: What changed? When did you decide to get back into the game?

Jeff Wilkins: I met some colleagues who were doing some exciting things building data platforms. One of the challenges that I’ve seen is that they didn’t have a great data integration story. Email databases are siloed. Their call center data is siloed.

We built a platform to integrate, enhance, and leverage the data that they were collecting across disparate touchpoints. It involved a web portal that we created for access along with our own proprietary ETL tools and environments.

That was a company called MarketModels that we started in 2001. About a year after getting down to Texas, I got involved with MarketModels. We ran that for four years and sold that in November of 2005. 

Sramana Mitra: I’m trying to do your serial entrepreneur story in a very compressed way. I’m not really hitting much of the how because it’s so many steps.

Could you give me a little bit of the how of your entrepreneurial journey leading up to where we are today. We’ll go deeper with the founding of Motili since that’s the story that you’ve pitched.

What did you learn in terms of how you navigated your entrepreneur journey? What are some of the key takeaways? What are some of the major mistakes? What can we bring out in this story that are lessons from the trenches?

Jeff Wilkins: One of the big things I learned is that you have to test the market reality of your product idea as soon as possible and then iterate and refine. There is no product that survives the first contact with the customer.

What I have seen more commonly is, and not necessarily in my journey because I didn’t have the luxury of being cocooned with gazillions of VC dollars, I see a lot of companies that are overfunded that essentially divorce themselves from the market.

They’re going to build their own widget and they’re drinking their own bathwater. They come out and then present it to the client. The client says, “Why would I ever use that?” That’s never a good sign.

This segment is part 3 in the series : Capital Efficient Entrepreneurship: Jeff Wilkins, CEO of Motili
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