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Visitors from Silicon Valley urge students to participate in Velocity

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Alumnus Manu Sharma works on the Google Nest team as the Product Planner for the Nest thermostat, which, in 2019, was named the smart home product of the decade by CNET. He recently travelled from Silicon Valley to the University of Auckland for a visit, and alongside wife Briana Burgess, experienced biotechnologist and start-up leader, delivered a riveting talk about navigating career journeys to Velocity students at Unleash Space.

Since graduating with Bachelors in Commerce and Engineering, Manu has had a rollercoaster career. He moved to London in 2007 right as the global financial crisis hit, and ended up being unemployed for 8 months, then received four job offers in two days. Since then his life has been a blur with an MBA from MIT, consulting roles in companies like Bain and Mckinsey advising Fortune 500 clients, and being an early employee in a high growth start-up. While working at camera hardware start-up Light, Manu helped raise their series B, C and D rounds: $181M in total, from high-profile VCs like Google Ventures and Softbank.

After graduating with a Bachelors in Biomedical Engineering from Georgia Tech, Briana started her career in biotech manufacturing and process transfer with Amgen. Nearly six years later, Briana moved to Boston to complete her MBA from MIT including a foray into investment banking with JP Morgan. Since then, she worked at start-ups across various roles and stages of growth, most recently as Head of Revenue for Clara Labs (acquired by Twitter and Top Funnel in 2019). 

Manu says that many of the lessons he learnt early in his career have stayed with him. He recalled that the University of Auckland Business School’s Student Development and Engagement Manager Brendon Potter’s advice was to not let long term thoughts paralyse short term decisions. “Brendon said you should think of yourself as a frog looking for the next lily pad to jump to, instead of pre-planning your way across the pond, and he was so right. Everything is a 2-year gig, and then you reassess”.

His experience with the London recession taught him how to handle life when things don’t go your way. On transitioning from London to the US, Manu says that it’s important to adapt your style. In London he had to learn to find jobs through third-party recruiters, while in Silicon Valley the best jobs are found through networking.

Manu and Briana shared insights into the employment culture in Silicon Valley. Companies vary widely and it’s important to find the place that fits you: for example, bigger companies like Netflix and Google have well-established cultures and norms. Start-ups will have their own culture unofficially instilled by the founders from day one. Do they invest in team time? Do they get rid of talent that just isn’t working out, or move people around until they find the right roles? Finding out these key practices can help you find the place that aligns with your personal values, and therefore set you up for the best success.

Students in attendance asked about how to break into the world’s technology Mecca coming from a small country like New Zealand. Briana and Manu both talked about the importance of self-confidence and how often the hardest hurdles are the ones we put in front of ourselves. Manu said “Don’t count yourself out. Shoot for what you want to do, not what you think you’re capable of right now. People from small towns often tend to be successful because they haven’t grown up comparing themselves to the masses, so don’t mentally limit yourself”.

Manu also suggested that the same positive attitude was important when looking for funding for ventures: “If you have a really good idea, the money will come. Don’t get daunted by the numbers. There’s plenty of VC money out there. Investors are looking for good teams and good ideas – if you focus on those two, the funding solves itself.”

Briana pointed out that the hardest part of the process is the beginning. “It’s harder to go from zero to one than ten to a hundred. Start out by testing your hypothesis with the most minimal viable product you can. It’s ok if it’s a bit janky. Don’t invest a lot in your first prototype. You just want to show it can be done and that customers want it”.

Manu said that Velocity offers a perfect opportunity for students to get experience and learn valuable skills to develop a product or to start your own venture. “Just go ahead and enter – it doesn’t matter if it’s not a fantastic idea or one that you want to carry on forever with. Going through the process of building the business plan will show you what you need, so that in the future when you have the idea you’re really excited about, you know what to do with it”.

Associate Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Darsel Keane advised Velocity students “This is inspirational sign posting. Manu is only 13 years ahead of where you are now. He proves that the world is your oyster”.
Other advice from Briana and Manu:

  • Make sure you have a good team and know that getting into business together can impact relationships. Divorces amongst co-founders are unfortunately very common.
  • As a leader, be prepared to spend time dealing with human issues. It’s a reality that you’re going to have to spend time on things like team members being annoyed because there isn’t enough Red Bull in the fridge (and rightly so, if they’re spending late nights at the office).
  • Find your people – it might not be in the immediate team you are working in, but in other areas of the business or outside professional groups and networks. 
  • Keep your ego out of the process of creating. Be prepared to let go when it’s time. You might be the best person to take your product from 0 to 10, but not 10 to 100.
  • Know when to get outside help. And ALWAYS hire an expert if you can go to jail for getting something wrong (e.g. accounting).
  • It’s also okay to not join a start-up from day one, and instead learn entrepreneurial skills in other roles. For example, consulting gigs can teach you how to solve big problems and speak to people more senior than you.
James Hutchinson
James Hutchinson

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Alumnus Manu Sharma works on the Google Nest team as the Product Planner for the Nest thermostat, which, in 2019, was named the smart home product of the decade by CNET. He recently travelled from Silicon Valley to the University of Auckland for a visit, and alongside wife Briana Burgess, experienced biotechnologist and start-up leader, delivered a riveting talk about navigating career journeys to Velocity students at Unleash Space.

Since graduating with Bachelors in Commerce and Engineering, Manu has had a rollercoaster career. He moved to London in 2007 right as the global financial crisis hit, and ended up being unemployed for 8 months, then received four job offers in two days. Since then his life has been a blur with an MBA from MIT, consulting roles in companies like Bain and Mckinsey advising Fortune 500 clients, and being an early employee in a high growth start-up. While working at camera hardware start-up Light, Manu helped raise their series B, C and D rounds: $181M in total, from high-profile VCs like Google Ventures and Softbank.

After graduating with a Bachelors in Biomedical Engineering from Georgia Tech, Briana started her career in biotech manufacturing and process transfer with Amgen. Nearly six years later, Briana moved to Boston to complete her MBA from MIT including a foray into investment banking with JP Morgan. Since then, she worked at start-ups across various roles and stages of growth, most recently as Head of Revenue for Clara Labs (acquired by Twitter and Top Funnel in 2019).

Manu says that many of the lessons he learnt early in his career have stayed with him. He recalled that the University of Auckland Business School’s Student Development and Engagement Manager Brendon Potter’s advice was to not let long term thoughts paralyse short term decisions. “Brendon said you should think of yourself as a frog looking for the next lily pad to jump to, instead of pre-planning your way across the pond, and he was so right. Everything is a 2-year gig, and then you reassess”.

His experience with the London recession taught him how to handle life when things don’t go your way. On transitioning from London to the US, Manu says that it’s important to adapt your style. In London he had to learn to find jobs through third-party recruiters, while in Silicon Valley the best jobs are found through networking.

Manu and Briana shared insights into the employment culture in Silicon Valley. Companies vary widely and it’s important to find the place that fits you: for example, bigger companies like Netflix and Google have well-established cultures and norms. Start-ups will have their own culture unofficially instilled by the founders from day one. Do they invest in team time? Do they get rid of talent that just isn’t working out, or move people around until they find the right roles? Finding out these key practices can help you find the place that aligns with your personal values, and therefore set you up for the best success.

Students in attendance asked about how to break into the world’s technology Mecca coming from a small country like New Zealand. Briana and Manu both talked about the importance of self-confidence and how often the hardest hurdles are the ones we put in front of ourselves. Manu said “Don’t count yourself out. Shoot for what you want to do, not what you think you’re capable of right now. People from small towns often tend to be successful because they haven’t grown up comparing themselves to the masses, so don’t mentally limit yourself”.

Manu also suggested that the same positive attitude was important when looking for funding for ventures: “If you have a really good idea, the money will come. Don’t get daunted by the numbers. There’s plenty of VC money out there. Investors are looking for good teams and good ideas – if you focus on those two, the funding solves itself.”

Briana pointed out that the hardest part of the process is the beginning. “It’s harder to go from zero to one than ten to a hundred. Start out by testing your hypothesis with the most minimal viable product you can. It’s ok if it’s a bit janky. Don’t invest a lot in your first prototype. You just want to show it can be done and that customers want it”.

Manu said that Velocity offers a perfect opportunity for students to get experience and learn valuable skills to develop a product or to start your own venture. “Just go ahead and enter – it doesn’t matter if it’s not a fantastic idea or one that you want to carry on forever with. Going through the process of building the business plan will show you what you need, so that in the future when you have the idea you’re really excited about, you know what to do with it”.

Associate Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Darsel Keane advised Velocity students “This is inspirational sign posting. Manu is only 13 years ahead of where you are now. He proves that the world is your oyster”.
Other advice from Briana and Manu:

  • Make sure you have a good team and know that getting into business together can impact relationships. Divorces amongst co-founders are unfortunately very common.
  • As a leader, be prepared to spend time dealing with human issues. It’s a reality that you’re going to have to spend time on things like team members being annoyed because there isn’t enough Red Bull in the fridge (and rightly so, if they’re spending late nights at the office).
  • Find your people – it might not be in the immediate team you are working in, but in other areas of the business or outside professional groups and networks.
  • Keep your ego out of the process of creating. Be prepared to let go when it’s time. You might be the best person to take your product from 0 to 10, but not 10 to 100.
  • Know when to get outside help. And ALWAYS hire an expert if you can go to jail for getting something wrong (e.g. accounting).
  • It’s also okay to not join a start-up from day one, and instead learn entrepreneurial skills in other roles. For example, consulting gigs can teach you how to solve big problems and speak to people more senior than you.

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