ABOUT TODAY’S GUEST | PETE BORUM
Pete Borum is the Founder and Managing Partner of Squint Labs LLC, a venture fund and start-up accelerator investing in companies, teams and products that help combat “fake news” and media manipulation. Prior to starting Squint Labs, Pete was the Co-Founder and CEO of Reelio, a data-driven influencer marketing platform connecting advertisers to social media influencers, which he sold to AT&T Warner Media. Originally from a small farm town in Kentucky, Pete graduated from Stanford University in 2007, and later got his MBA in Finance from the Wharton School. He was selected by his Stanford peers as Class Co-President and by the administration at Wharton as a member of their “40 Under 40” list in 2018.
Q&A WITH PETE BORUM
Q: Let’s talk about your personal background to start
- I was raised in Kentucky, literally in the middle of the woods, outside of Louisville.
- I had 6 siblings. We didn’t have much money or many nice things. But we had a lot of love in my family.
- We were able to keep ourselves entertained with things you could do in the country.
- That was ultimately a good thing because it helped me avoid trouble. I was able to get good grades and that led me to Stanford.
Q: How did Cutco come into the picture for you?
- I had been working as a lifeguard for a few summers in high school going into college.
- Stanford’s schedule was a bit weird in that they don’t let out for summer until the middle of June. By that time, it was too late for me to be a lifeguard.
- I was looking for a job and saw an ad in the paper by a company called Vector Marketing.
- I had no idea what that was. I showed up and was expecting everything but knife selling presentations. Still, I was impressed as it was a high-quality product. It worked out really well.
Q: Tell us some of your experiences selling Cutco. What were some of the things you learned?
- Cutco was an awesome experience. I learned so much.
- I’ve been in business since then, and still apply things I learned at Cutco.
- It’s so much fundamentals. This idea of identifying the problems of the customer, building rapport, learning how to handle rejection and overcome objections.
- Basically, I wanted to be one of the top reps in Cutco and ended up been the top rep in Kentucky.
- There were a lot of experiences, a lot of skills. I became a field sales manager and started earning more money than I’d ever had at that point.
Q: Tell us about your time in Stanford. What was impactful there?
- I had grown up in rural Kentucky. To go from Kentucky to the Bay Area, there are a lot of differences in those 2 places.
- For me, there was a big difference being around different people including different ethnic backgrounds. Stanford was very, very different.
- I was immersed into different perspectives that undermined and challenged a lot of things which I held to be deep and dear.
- I was able to learn a lot of things and open my mind to new things.
- Also, growing up in a small town, getting to Stanford was quite an experience. I was the best at a lot of things during high school and wasn’t the best in anything at Stanford.
- As a result, I went through hard times. I ended up being suspended for a year because my grades we so poor.
- During that time, I was still living in the Bay Area, was still hanging out with Stanford kids. I didn’t want anyone back at home to know I was suspended. I felt like such a failure.
- However, it gave me the break I didn’t want, but needed to reevaluate, re-prioritize and shift this idea that I was only valuable if I can be better than other people.
- That re-framing of priorities and values was something essential and something I’ve maintained ever since that moment.
Q: You graduated from Stanford in 2007. How did your career begin evolving in those few first years after school?
- Cutco was very instrumental in my first years at school, in that it helped me make sure I had enough money to pay the bills, eat and survive.
- I then got a job at a newspaper (the Stanford Daily), where I was selling subscriptions and then selling ads.
- My mom was a music teacher and my dad a science teacher. I grew up interested in the way the brain thinks, and how that applied to advertising sales.
- You really need to study the data to understand the audience. People don’t respond to analyst numbers, they respond to emotionally compelling stories, images and videos. That requires right brain activity and creativity.
- I got into advertising and thought it was a cool place. I moved to New York. I got jobs in multiple ad companies for a couple of years selling ads.
- I moved back to Kentucky for a year and a half when a company asked me to come on and take over branding and communications for their business.
- I was 26 and they had 18 firms in 6 different locations. My job was to make them all look the same and sound the same. That challenge was too interesting for me to refuse.
Q: What made you make the decision to go back to school for your MBA?
- At this company I was working for, I was in conversations in which I was the youngest employee. They were having conversations like our manufacturing supply chain from China is intersecting with our supply chain in the US. They talked about gross margins and a whole new vocabulary I couldn’t understand.
- I realized this was a great opportunity that I can’t fully take advantage of because I don’t have the tools to do so. I started looking for an MBA program.
- Wharton had a really strong MBA program that I applied to. I told my boss, hey I’m interested in going to business school on the weekends. He had offered to pay for me to go to Ohio State, but when I got into Wharton, he encouraged and help me to enroll there instead.
Q: You ultimately founded Reelio. Tell us about that. You built your own company. What were some of the challenges you faced at that time?
- Everything was a challenge. It was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
- I don’t think people know the effect starting a company has on your mind, body, soul and bank account. It’s just crushing in so many different ways.
- In the beginning, you don’t have anything and you need to get everything. The only thing you can do is convince people you’re capable of doing it.
- I don’t have a founding team, I’ve got to recruit them, I’ve got to pay them, I’ve got to get investors to put in money into the business. I don’t have a product or a team to build the product yet.
- It’s a lot like playing both sides of a chess game. Being honest, but also being creative. Saying to the founding team, I’m having conversations with the investors. They are interested in the idea, but they are only willing to invest if you guys are in it fulltime which is true. Talking to the investors, I’ve got this great team over here, but they are willing to jump in fulltime if you’re willing to invest which is true.
- Building confidence. Building a team that’s trusting you to pay them on a regular basis. Getting that team to stick with you. You never know when things are going to fall apart.
- You just know you have to be on the ball.
Q: What were some of the reasons you wanted to take on such a challenge?
- I’ve always been big on challenges.
- My personal philosophy of maximizing personal potential is to put yourself in situations in which you aren’t yet qualified to succeed. But then giving yourself no options except to grow through the challenge.
- For me, I always had this idea to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to maximize myself. In the beginning I wanted to make sure I didn’t let down my investors, my employees and my partners. That’s what kept me going.
Q: Can you speak about that pressure one feels leading a company?
- You can’t really be honest about how you’re feeling with anyone.
- You need a coach who is completely unrelated to you. Someone who can talk to you. Someone who’ll try to constantly instill confidence in people to give you something you need, but you can’t yet pay them back for.
- You can’t do that if you share with them all the worry and fear that are in your mind.
- It’s a very overwhelming path in life because you’re constantly trying to satisfy people. Keeping people apprised of what’s going on in a way they can understand the decision you’re making so you don’t seem like an idiot to them.
Q: Let’s talk about what you’re doing currently with your new company
- When I was working with Instagram and YouTube celebrities, I felt that wasn’t meaningful and impactful to society.
- So, I wanted to do something that could leverage my experiences, skills and network. But also totally aligned with my personal values.
- There’s this concept of ikigai. I was looking for my ikigai. The intersection of what I was good at aligned with what I could make money at and what the world needs and what I’d like to do.
- For me, what stood out was misinformation.
- We live in a world where we trust what we see. It’s very important. If the truth sets us free, what does it mean if we don’t know what is true anymore? How can we possibly be free?
- I came up with an approach where we invest in companies that are developing technology which can help inoculate people against misinformation.
- We want to help create content that counterbalances the misinformation. Leveraging on what we’ve learned in helping advertisers sell lipstick, we’re now working with scientists, engineers and non-profits who can provide talking points and facts.
Q: That sounds like a massive undertaking. How do you screen some of these people who you’re using to provide the truth. How do you know if an economist you’re talking to is providing truth vs. their perspective of the truth?
- Finding the absolute truth is a challenging endeavor.
- Rather than focusing on whether something is true or not, we focus on how strong the supportive evidence is.
- If you’ve got original footage of something that’s happened, you can prove that footage hasn’t been manipulated in some way. A lot of the technology we’re talking about is used to verify fact-checking. Like some basis that creates confidence for this person to be able to say this is the truth.
- We don’t encourage people to say this is the absolute truth. But it’s making sure the arguments are rooted in fact. That’s the most important thing for us.
Q: What do you feel the future holds for your company and for you?
- Nothing less than a society-wide coalition which could stand up and say the truth matters. We’re not going to tolerate misinformation; we’re not going to tolerate being lied to. Society should have a say in these decisions.
- For me, I’m focused on how do we not try to solve this problem ourselves, but how do we leverage people who are also seeking the truth.
- Misinformation is a problem I hope to work on in a meaningful way for the rest of my life.
Q: Any last advice you want to share for the young audience of Cutco reps, Cutco alumni?
- Follow the program. It always does work.
- Life is a series of doing the right thing over and over again. It doesn’t require any particular genius; it just requires you to wake up and do the right thing every day.
- Taking a thing you care about and focusing on being better at the thing than you were a day before.
- We underestimate what we can do in ten years and overestimate what we can do in a year. So, be patient and focus on step by step, and that will get you where you want to go.
- Pete grew up as a country kid in Kentucky and ended up going to Stanford University which provided him with exposure to a lot of new perspectives.
- I think at some level, anyone can relate to that, in that we do venture from one world to the other as we evolve through our lives. This is one of the reasons it’s important to be an open-minded person.
- It was interesting to hear Pete say his self-worth was really related to his performance in relation to others. It’s important to put ourselves in situations in which we aren’t the best, and give yourself the chance to step up to that.
Show Notes for this episode provided by Brian Njenga.
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