Cooper Harris spoke about how Hackathons helped her switch careers, how an important lesson in acting helped her in business, and who taught her “stick-to-itiveness”.
You were an actress, sneaking off to Hackathons and you taught yourself to code. In retrospect, were you looking to build something? Were you looking to prove something? What drove it?
A lot of it was curiosity and also a little bit was wanting self-authorship over my destiny. When you’re an actor, you are very much at the whim of everyone else. People decide when you book roles and when you don’t. Nothing is in your control. Even when you do book roles, oftentimes they aren’t really broaching subjects you think are important or sending the messages you feel need to be in the world.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve booked horror films that I ended up not doing and turning down because they were grotesque … really like violence porn.
I was luckier than most and got a number of awesome gigs that certainly made me one of the only consistently-working actresses I knew. But it wasn’t everything I wanted. For context, my dad is a serial entrepreneur and my brother is a computer scientist. Maybe because of their influence, I kept feeling there had to be something more interesting and engaging and impactful than acting. I kept wondering, what can I do that has real, tangible impact? And gradually, with my work in Hackathons, I realized that everything in this world is moving into the digital space. And so, my interest was piqued.
Were you specifically looking to build something?
The Hackathons were always one-offs. I just wanted to get in the space, to get familiar with technology, figure out how it worked. It’s a whole different way of thinking about problem-solving.
It was so much fun to get involved and get my hands on stuff. I helped start the first-ever Hackathon at Sundance. It happened to be a social impact Hackathon. We got together well-known celebrities and paired them with engineers to build an own app or platform. Each of the apps we developed targeted or helped fix a world-issue they were passionate about.
And then we had Waka Flocka Flame, a well-known rapper from Atlanta. He was really passionate about improving access to technology in underserved, underprivileged neighborhoods. He built Ra Ra’s tech truck, named after his brother who’d been killed the past year. This truck drove around underserved communities and helped people sign up for banking accounts and get credit cards. Teaching about how to build credit. Things I realized I took for granted.
You have given a number of great tips for entrepreneurs in the past. Give me an example of an important learning in acting that you have applied in entrepreneurship.
The most obvious one is storytelling. I’ve spoken about it in the past, but it definitely holds true. Storytelling is very important when it comes to building a technology-based company. We’re now bridging the gap better than we used to, but three years ago, the storytelling, human element wasn’t part of tech companies’ typical repertoire. People would ask, “What does your tech company do?” The response would be some incredibly jargon-ified, unintelligible, technical answer. How are you ever going to get consumers interested in this product when no human could understand what you’re talking about? Now, however, things are changing for the better, with the dawn of technical storytelling mediums like VR and AR.
Here’s another learning — I’ve actually have never thought of this before — but using your imagination (or your power of belief) to manifest something is incredibly powerful. I was classically trained as an actress — from Method acting to Italian Commedia. These very cool techniques are all intended to solidify a state of being, a character, a set of circumstances, and drivers.
As a new founder, manifesting yourself into that reality of having a company — making it happen — is a huge part of the battle. I felt I had practice ‘living into the reality” of a circumstance. If you can’t get into character, so to speak, and you cannot imagine yourself or see yourself as the founder of a company, you will never be able to start. For me, the acting training helped build an internal and external reality that created the possibility of a quick transition to entrepreneur.
What has been a surprising learning for you founding Klickly?
I’ve been surprised about two things.
This isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory, but I’ve been surprised at my resilience. By that I mean: the skills you learn in entertainment are often very specific to acting, very self-centering, and very narrow. They don’t particularly make you a holisticly-competent and self-reliant human in the world-at-large.
I had no idea what would happen when sh*t hit the fan. I mean, here I was: I had a company and other people’s money that I was responsible for — what would happen when stuff went badly?
Given my prior instinct as an actress, I was worried I’d want to run away and curl up into a ball. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I didn’t run, rather, I dug in my heels and got gritty! [Laughs.]
I discovered when you believe so much in what you’re doing, and you also have a lot of responsibility for other people — for their money and for their stake in your vision — that weighs on you in a good way and keeps you true to your path. You just battle it out, you know?
Here’s another thing that’s been fun and surprising. I get better as I get older. This is different to in entertainment, where stereotypically, aging is a death knell for women. You really do have a shelf life. But in entrepreneurship and innovation, I am in an industry where the older I get, the more I’m taken seriously and gutsier I can be … that’s really fun.
In every company, there are moments where you go, “Well, this is it, I’m done.” Give me an example of when that happened and what you did to overcome that hurdle.
Yeah, one example would be that very early on I raised only a very small amount of money to build a prototype of my product. I ran out of money. It was kind of that moment where I thought, “How can I keep this going? I don’t want to have built a product and have nothing happen with it!”
I thought, “Well, do I want to shut it down?” But, because I have this stubbornness, I was like, I can’t. It literally wasn’t an option. So I rented out one of my rooms on Airbnb and got another apartment, rented that out too, and boot-strapped back to a point to where then I got a team, raised another small round, and got to a much better place.
That early time is so tenuous. It is you and your decisions that are the company. I could have easily said, “I’m tired.” And the company would’ve ceased to exist. I think companies that succeed are just companies that didn’t give up early.
Give me an example where I would come across the Klickly. Who are your customers?
There’s a bunch of different places that you can see Klickly action buttons. Directly in an ad or a post in social media. Habitat for Humanity, for example, had a call-to-action, in the form of a donation, in a campaign we did for Giving Tuesday. Rather than going back to their page, having that page load, going through multiple steps to donate, Klickly enables you to very quickly scan your payment method and complete the transaction. From then on, say you’re on Huffington Post, we can show you an ad for a political campaign: donate to the ACLU or even for a product you might like to buy. You can confirm your transaction in a simple touch.
If I sign up for the one donation or purchase, I am registered with the program. Everywhere I navigate where other organizations have Klickly-powered ads, it will remember me?
Exactly. A lot of great organizations have shied away from doing any type of ad-buying. Because it’s inefficient and you want to make your budget count. But having less visibility also puts these organizations at a disadvantage comparative to everyone else who’s buying millions of dollars worth of ads every month.
With our model, companies and organizations will be much more empowered to compete, and stand right up there with the biggest organizations. Our ads allow people to donate (among other actions) directly within the ads, and the data and funds gathered pay for the campaign.
What’s next for the company? What’s next for you?
We’re excited to be named a “Favorite Thought Leader” at Cannes Lions 2017 later in June. This honor, given by Adobe, Wunderman, and Cannes Lions — was also given to the likes of Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel, WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, and Will.I.Am.
It’s a huge deal for us. Basically, Cannes it the Oscars of creativity/advertising. And Adobe and Wunderman are such innovators in the space. We’re also doubly excited because we will be speaking and moderating their discovery stage. If any readers will be there, feel free to set up time to meet at www.Klickly.com!
Tell me about your team.
We as a company are very technical. We recently hired the Vice President (VP) of Engineering from a well-known LA startup that raised $40+ million. Our VP of Design just came to us from the largest pet startup in LA. We also have a strong core engineering team of course. Our VP of Business Development was a key player at Evolve Media and Innovid. And of course, the linch-pin of everything we do is our COO. After a prolific career in academia — a masters and PhD research in organizational growth — he did growth strategy for Fortune 50 companies at Bain & Co., so he’s core to our day-to-day functioning and our longer-term growth strategy.
They were with stellar companies before moving to Klickly. What do you think drove that?
Some people are really excited about startups and smaller, more agile teams. Once a company gets really big, people’s roles are not as hands-on anymore. By having more staff, you have to become more structured, more corporate.
Also, another driver for attracting great talent is that we are a technology company, not a delivery, retail, or marketing play. There’s a massive engineering challenge! We’re trying to enable payments in all these different spaces — recognize people on over 6 million different websites – it’s a challenge. For people who are really technical, that challenge is super exciting.
Your father is a serial entrepreneur — in what industry?
Renewables and recycling — he had one of the most established recycling companies in the early 90s, before it was a thing. He dealt in massive scale post-industrial polymers.
After that, he started a solar company that built modular solar disaster-relief units that could be deployed by NGOs in various third world countries or disaster-ridden areas. They had a module for water, to make it drinkable; a refrigeration unit for vaccines; and solar panels that could power moderate electricity in a village.
More recently, he started working on the East Coast again, employing folks who wouldn’t otherwise be employable. People who have been previously convicted, whom no one will hire. His philosophy is that if he can employ these folks, he can get them back on their feet, thus ending that cycle. He rehabilitates them and teaches them job and life skills in the two companies that he runs.
He is a serious social entrepreneur. What did you learn from him that you bring to your job every day?
First, grit! Like, “stick-to-itiveness,” if that’s a thing! He was one of the forerunners of recycling. If he’d been wishy-washy or not strong in his vision and dedication, he would never have made it. I watched him exhibit incredible tenacity and stubbornness. I learned from that.
Second, I learned if you’re going to do something, do it with a purpose. “Don’t just do it to make money,” that was a tenet I absorbed from him. The idea was, you’re going to have to work so hard to make anything really “take”. If it means something and is impactful, and you believe in it, then — regardless of whether you make money — it’s always going to be a win.