Liz Giorgi got her feet wet bootstrapping her first company. After getting that business acquired she has gone on to launch a fast-growing venture-backed startup that has already raised tens of millions of dollars. Her latest company, Soona has attracted investment from top-tier financiers like Bain Capital Ventures, Union Square Ventures, Square Ventures, and Matchstick Ventures.
In this episode, you will learn:
- How to pick your team
- How Soona is beautifying the internet and providing access to creativity
- Liz Giorgi’s top advice when starting a business
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For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.
The Ultimate Guide To Pitch Decks
Moreover, I also provided a commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400 million (see it here).
Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
About Liz Giorgi:
Elizabeth Giorgi is CEO & co-founder of Soona, a virtual photoshoot platform that makes it possible for brands to get professional photos and videos online and delivered in 24 hours. Giorgi is a two-time media entrepreneur, Emmy award winner, and a passionate advocate for women in business.
Liz is a Tory Burch Foundation Fellow and a Board member at Women Who Startup and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council NextGen.
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Connect with Liz Giorgi:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
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Alejandro: Alrighty hello everyone and welcome to the deal maker show. So I think that today we’re gonna be really really excited here with the founder that we have because she’s been through it. She’s been through it not once but multiple times and I think that we’re gonna be learning quite a bit on what has been. Her journey on building scaling financing exiting I mean she’s done it all and and I think that her story is quite inspiring so without further ado. Let’s welcome our guest today Liz Yorgi welcome to the show. So originally from minnesota.
Liz Giorgi: Thank you so much for having me I’m excited to be here.
Alejandro: I mean obviously the roots are from italy you know backing you know all the way to italy but but from Minnesota how was give us a walk through memory lane. How was life growing up.
Liz Giorgi: Yes.
Liz Giorgi: I had a very idyllic childhood my grandparents and my father immigrated from italy to the United States when my dad was young and my wonderful father met my wonderful mother in Northern Minnesota of all the crazy places. So i’m. 50% italian 50% norwegian although I obviously look much more italian than I to norwegian ah, and my last name is much more italian than norwegian but ah, beautifully my my family had a canoe outfitter for 25 years called La Croix’s Canoe Outfitters and we had the awesome experience of having a tourism business. A family owned business small business that provided canoe expeditions to folks who wanted to visit the boundary waters Canoe area. My family was such an instrumental part of ah, a small town a small community gave me that introduction. Into entrepreneurship really showed me the power of building community and culture around a business you know and really appealing to customers. How do you get people to have positive feelings about your business. How do you get them to come back year after year. How do you get them to you know, talk about your business with their friends and family. Of course all pre-internet this is in the 80 s right so this was a totally different set of skills but to this day I think often about the experience of being a kid in that store meeting so many of the patrons meeting so many of the employees. And the ways that it shaped how I thought about building my business now and in 2 in the twenty twenty s ah, but of course naturally I decided that I didn’t want to follow in my family’s footsteps right away I had to be a little bit of an anarchist initially so I went to school for broadcast journalism. But is how I got into creativity and production I had a really me andering career after college working from show to show and program to program. But I feel really lucky that I got to get that taste of creativity because now I’ve brought together these two things I’ve I’ve been able to bring together the entrepreneurial roots and the creative. Passions that I so deeply love spending time on.
Alejandro: So now when you’re thinking about the journalism. How do you think that storytelling has helped you as you have approached your entrepreneurial journey.
Liz Giorgi: Storytelling is a superpower in business if you are really positive at super at storytelling if. You’re really capable of telling great stories. It gives you an edge. It gives you an edge and talking to customers. It gives you an edge and attracting great employees. It gives you an edge and. Bringing in partnerships and of course if you go down the path of building a venture back business. It’s hugely essential to building a venture back business I think that having a background in storytelling actually has made me really capable in areas that I would have never imagined. It would would be important but to give you 1 essential example. You know, bringing in really high quality executives to my business. They want to be sold on the business just as much as a customer does right? and so having those storytelling skills has really put me in a position to be able to I say punch above my weight class even though I didn’t go to business school and I use them every single day.
Alejandro: And in your case I mean after you finish with school I mean you kind of like venture into into the world into the employment world and. I’m wondering like and especially for our listeners. What was that sequence of events that needed to happen in order for you to really bring your first day company mightier to to life.
Liz Giorgi: I needed to fail gloriously at being an employee I think is what I needed to do so many entrepreneurs I think try to you know, go get a job learn from others try to you know, try out different career paths before diving into entrepreneurship and in my case. You know I tried a lot of different media jobs whether it was working at apartment therapy media and providing the work that was being done around photo shoots for our virtual tours of spaces or working at Pbs on different programs and all those roles were really wonderful in terms of teaching me collaboration. Honing my storytelling skills flexing my creative muscle. But most importantly, it taught me that boy I really don’t like working inside of sort of the antiquated structures of quote unquote business today that we know it you know everything from thinking about how we would set up. Deadlines to how many meetings we would have all the time and the funny thing is is that if you build a really successful business eventually, you have to put all those structures into place but I couldn’t really see myself climbing a corporate ladder if you will and so in 2013 I had spent some time. Ah, building Youtube channels for some different partners and I had learned very quickly that Youtube was going to be a really successful place for brands to continue to tell their story and so I took a massive leap and decided to start my first company mightier based on 1 simple idea we were going to be the best in the world at creating professional quality ads for the internet. And that’s what we did that’s what we did for six and a half years I’m really proud of the work that we did there but it definitely took me being a horrible employee to figure out that I wanted to start a business. Yeah, so we were a service-based business and you know we would get a contract with a brand say brands like Wells Fargo or Microsoft.
Alejandro: Very cool and and what was the business model there. How were you guys making money.
Liz Giorgi: They’d want to produce a thirty second or sixty second spot on a various product or service and we would ideate plan produce and then deliver their spots to be used on Youtube Facebook Instagram anywhere that they were serving up internet ads. And it was an hourly based business. So however, many hours our team was working on their products or they’re working on their services ads we would build them for those hours and you know taught me so much about how you use your time how you use your team’s time. How you think about the value of what you’re creating for a customer and that was a really instructive ah business for me because I had no idea what a p and l was I had no idea what gross margin was I didn’t know anything about just the basics of the financials of a business until I had to run this business. In fact I like to tell people I got I got my first company my ear to a million dollars in sales before I finally sat myself down and said what the hell is a p and l and that’s ah you know that’s ah that was a foolish mistake. So. Really had to learn all the basics of business but my first company really helped me figure that out so that I could be more successful now in what I’m doing it soon. Ah.
Alejandro: And obviously with a mightier you completely bootstrap the operation I mean you’re you’re doing it completely different now with Soona but but now you know that you’re able to reflect back I Mean how do you see the whole experience of bootstrapping a company.
Liz Giorgi: Bootstrapping is something that does not get nearly enough credit in our media ecosystem around entrepreneurship we glorify venture-backed businesses. But the truth is is building a bootstrap business where you can only grow as fast as money is coming in. You can only grow as fast as customers are. Joining your business that is hard hard work that requires really strong commitment to your customers or really intense commitment to your your profit margin and so I have so much respect for bootstrap businesses. One of the things I loved about running a bootstrap business is I always knew. Exactly how much money we were making and exactly how much it costs us to make that money because you had to see the money go in and out all the time you had to manage your books really really closely but not only that I do feel that the risk profile of starting a booster at business is much higher than that of starting a venture back business. Yes. It is harder to raise venture dollars than it is to just go out and find a customer but the thing about it is when I was building a boosttrap business. My house was collateral on all of our lines of credit my credit score was associated with all those lines of credit and so. I had a lot more on the line as the entrepreneur I had so much more to lose in a bootstrap business than you really do with a venture back business and so I think Bootstrap businesses are the lifeblood of this country. They are the lifeblood of innovation in this country and we need to celebrate them even more than we do.
Alejandro: And and in this case for miter the acquisition. How did the acquisition come about.
Liz Giorgi: Yes I did something that I highly recommend any business owner does if they want to sell their business I started preparing the business to be taken over by someone else. So initially. I thought okay maybe I won’t sell it. Maybe I’ll just hire and a new president to sort of take over the business and so I started you know writing a handbook of how do we run this business. How do we make money. What is our service menu. What’s our most popular service item least popular. So I really tried to build the book of the business if you will. And I went about the process of trying to hire a president I interviewed people I even brought someone in for a test project I realized very very quickly that our customers had come to really love working with the team had come to really love working with. Myself and and my director of Animation Haley who’s now my co-founder at Suna and we realized that it just wasn’t going to work with a new president coming in who wasn’t part of the business and when we looked at the current team at the business. There was no one who was really a business minded individual who could take it over and so building that book. Though, allowed us to hire a broker so we then went and hired a business broker who helped sell businesses and that process was extremely informative as well. It took them about nine months to sell the business but they kind of advertised the business share its benefits. Share some of the things it might be able to offer to the world might be able to offer to another business if they were to combine forces and collaborate in services and so our broker had gotten us essentially a few offers to consider. We looked at those offers and ultimately decided to sign a letter of intent with standard broadcasting. And eventually then closed within about ah about 100 twenty days with with standard broadcasting and that’s a perfect example of how you know it takes a while but there’s also a lot of new interesting formats coming up for selling a small business. Ah there’s a new platform called micro acquire which I really recommend people check out. For bootstrap businesses where you know if you’re less than $100,000,000 in revenue they help find matches for you. So we’re even getting smarter over time I think as an industry about how to help these small businesses find potential acquirers.
Alejandro: And so how how was in this case, the transition to Sona like like what what needed to happen there because I mean as they say once an entrepreneur entrepreneurs. Always an entrepreneur entrepreneur. So what was that the shift or that transition to the new chapter.
Liz Giorgi: I did just about the stupidest thing a person could do I took no time off in between selling the business and then running with suna. You know I took a big portion of the proceeds from the sale and I used those dollars to finance. The first mvp of what would eventually be the software platform that runs the suna backend I knew I wanted to start a technology company that helped make creativity more accessible to all brands and so if you think about what I was doing with my first business I was working with the biggest brands in the world on very expensive creative. Suna I wanted to work with all the brands of the world to help them be able to afford the creative and so that was really the impetus for why I wanted to start this business and it’s so funny because I took no time off I dove right into helping get the Mvp off the ground. We applied to tech stars which is a ah technology accelerator program that helps businesses get ready if they want to go into the Vc path got into tech stars and then immediately started that thirteen week program and so it was an intense process. It was an intense evolution for me for sure. Ah. And you know I think the thing is is I have no regrets I truly sometimes I talk to entrepreneurs about how emotional it is to sell your business. It is hard. It’s definitely a transition It’s definitely something that um each individual person has to really wrestle with before they decide to do it. But for me I’ve always felt like sometimes you have to evolve what you’re doing and really check in with yourself on. Why is it that I was attracted to this business in the first place and is there something else I want to do next that maybe will have a different impact that I’ve learned something from and so. Transition tip for me was really a joyful transition. It felt like closing one really important chapter in my career and and opening the next sure.
Alejandro: So I’ll talk about Shuna how did you then go about the the building the team around you with sunna.
Liz Giorgi: Well first and foremost I was really lucky to convince my director of animation at mightier Haley Anderson to come join me as my co-founder at Suna and I really approach her with. 2 simple things like we were both deeply deeply invested in this idea of making creativity accessible. It was something that we both shared ah but 1 of the best pieces of business advice I can give people is who you do things with is more important than what you do and what I mean by that is in the case of working with Haley Haley and I were this unusual combination where any project we worked on together. It felt like magic work was fun work was easy. The outcomes were amazing. Everyone felt really excited to be surrounded by those projects and so I knew that was soon. Ah I wanted to co-found the business with her and work with her. So. We ended up co-founding the business together and then we knew we needed to find other software programmers to balance out our skill set. So 1 of the first hires we made was our cto cal bathoon who joined us from a career at best buy and. Helped us get the first couple prototypes of of camera to cloud which runs the suna software off the ground and then you know we very quickly started looking at how do we hire more technologists people who are experts at technology and. That’s where storytelling comes into play getting engineers to quit their lucrative jobs at technology companies to join a creative company was all about storytelling painting the picture of of what your business can be and what they can be a part of if they decide to join what we.
Alejandro: So we suna how are you guys making money.
Liz Giorgi: Money by selling photos and video clips on our platform. So soon as a virtual photoshoot platform we make it possible for brands to plan a photo shoot have their photo shoot and get their assets entirely online brands play $39 per photo $93 per video clip. And we deliver them within 24 hours of your photo shoot. So we believe it’s the fastest and most affordable way to create professional assets for your ecommerce store your marketing. Ah, we have about 10000 merchants on the platform today. And that’s that’s how we make our money is merchants coming to the platform building photo shoots having photo shoots and then buying their fabulous assets to promote their products and services.
Alejandro: Now in this case, you chose a different route you went after ah Vc money. So why did you decide to go after raising money this time around.
Liz Giorgi: Um, the hope. Raising venture money was not a decision I came to easily but there were 2 things that really made it the obvious choice of over bootstrapping the first was I got a taste of how expensive it was to build technology. You know having spent about a half a million dollars of my own money. To get the first version of our software built showed me very very quickly that you know I wasn’t going to be able to afford this into forever I was going to need additional financial support and the second was I just had a vision for how big this business could be There’s not a single thing that any of us buy on the internet that doesn’t have a photo. And I thought well somebody’s going to own the visual layer of our internet but who and that could be sooner so I wanted to go after a level of ambition that was considerably larger than what I had in mind for my first business I always knew with my first business that I was going to be satisfied at a few million dollars a year ah, but with Suna I wanted to build a company that could make one hundred million two hundred million dollars a year and so to do that you do need venture dollars to go faster to be able to scale more quickly to build your technology more quickly and so all those things really came into the consideration. Point and then actually being able to raise venture was also true I mean at the end of the day if you can’t raise those venture dollars. You’re not going to be a venture back company so going through tech stars and then successfully raising our first one point five million coming out of the class. Ah, really gave me the confidence that we could continue down that path and continue to be successful down that path to date. We’ve raised 51,000,000.
Alejandro: Because how much capital have you guys raised today you got it were you able to? um you know now there’s a lot of initiatives which are fantastic. That support female founders new funds that are specifically allocated for female founders. Do you think that you know like you were able to capitalize on on that great momentum to really support women.
Liz Giorgi: Not really to be honest I think the vast majority of the venture dollars that have been invested in tasuna come from traditional venture funds. So if you look at. For example, our series b financing which we close at the end of 2021 that was raised from Bain Capital Ventures which is a legacy fund that has been around for decades our series a was raised by union square ventures which is ah another legacy really technology investor. So. I haven’t necessarily seen a direct benefit because I’m a female founder. What I would say though is that there’s certainly a lot more conversations happening around female founders raising capital and that helps get get female founders connected with the venture ecosystem. But 1 of the disappointing facts is is that despite a lot of those things that you’ve pointed out and I’ve pointed out ah female founders are still raising about the same amount of money that we did in the last ten years in fact last year we raised less than we did in 20202019 so we’re not necessarily seeing a seismic shift there I’m hoping it’s an area where we will continue to see progress as the markets sort of rebalance themselves as we’re seeing right now.
Alejandro: Yeah I mean as the father of 3 girls you know I can’t wait. You know to see that shift. But I think that there’s been a shift you know lowly mentality there is more female partners at some of those Vc firms and great initiatives that are going so I’m I’m excited. You know for. For the future to keep being brighter and brighter for female founders. So.
Liz Giorgi: I Sure hope so I hope for your daughters and I hope for everyone’s daughters that you know we start to put our money where our mouth is.
Alejandro: Ah, hundred percent 100% so I guess in terms of you know for you for the business now as as now is more like corporateish you know structure with bringing the Vc money because obviously with the Vc money. There is expectation 2 building your board. So how does it feel now to run. You know, a really well-structured ah corporateing you know type of of venture course.
Liz Giorgi: It’s certainly been an adjustment for me. You know I definitely feel that I’ve had a alerting curve on. How do you go from? you know in January of 2020 there are 13 employees at Suna Today. two years later there are over one ah hundred and thirty employees at suna. So.
Alejandro: Wow. Okay.
Liz Giorgi: The organization has certainly gotten a lot larger but I’ve also just learned so much about how do you build a culture and part of how you build a culture is that you make it really easy for people to join your organization navigate your organization and feel supported in your organization and so. Bringing in you know, an Hr department and a finance department and all these places where you really bring in structure and support. It helps you to be able to focus on what is it exactly that you want to achieve I found that not having to spend as much time worrying about hr issues. For example. Allows me to actually think about how do I want people to feel when they work as soono. What are the things that we want to be hallmarks of our value system and also I have a lot more opportunity to really grow in my own leadership style and think about what messages I want to share with the team and so. It frees you up in a lot of ways to to think about your leadership think about your culture. It also can make your organization feel a lot more slow and a lot more dragged down by process. You’ve got to figure out how to balance those things and I think I’m always trying to figure out how to balance those things even now.
Alejandro: And I find that the culture starts with you right? you the the the founder So In this case I mean how did you think about culture. How did you want people to to feel when they were in suna and how have you gone about really. Bringing that so that it takes a life of its own and then it’s embraced by everyone else that is joining the organization moving forward. So.
Liz Giorgi: Certainly I agree with you culture starts with the folks who start the company and one of the things that Haley and I really wanted to instill in the business from day one was just this idea that everyone is allowed to be creative so many jobs now we are. Really locked in boxes of what our job descriptions are or maybe aren’t invited to think outside those boxes and so we have our first cultural value here at suna is everyone is creative if you work in hr you get creative if you work in finance, you’re creative if you work in engineering you’re creative and so. Really inviting people to express themselves express their ideas and think differently from how they’ve thought in other roles and I think that’s exceptionally important but the second big piece of our culture that I think is ah near and dear to me and near and dear to the people who are at suna. Is that we really pride ourselves on being an equitable and transparent organization and what that means is doing things like always publishing pay raises for what a job is so that there aren’t gaps in pay between a man and a woman holding the same job. You know, really working hard to ensure that. Our company looks like the world that we’re representative of our communities and spending time recruiting people to join our organization that have the backgrounds that maybe aren’t my backgrounds. You know we don’t want a company that is exclusively. You know, white women and white men and so working very hard to invite and. And grow people to this organization who are from ah, black and brown backgrounds or immigrant backgrounds and so really working hard on those things and being transparent about how hard we work to make that a reality and then finally you know we try to make sure that everyone understands that failure is welcome at suna. Ah, you have to be working towards big ambitious goals all the time if you want to be a successful startup and if you’re playing it safe so you’ll always succeed. You’ll never actually achieve those big ambitious goals. So we really try to instill the idea that we fail all the time I fail all the time. But. Failing is learning and failing is part of the process of succeeding and not punishing people for making mistakes but really coaching them through the process of learning from those mistakes.
Alejandro: And if let me ask you this if you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision of sunai is fully realized what does that world look like.
Liz Giorgi: It means that every single time that you and I log onto the internet you’re having a beautiful experience that is visually designed for you and visually designed for your maximal enjoyment and so you know we. Ah, Soona Want to make the internet a more beautiful place and part of making the internet a more beautiful place is making it more personalized more customized and making creativity as accessible as humanly possible.
Alejandro: And where do you think the market is is going as a whole.
Liz Giorgi: Oh The market is definitely a volatile place right now I think the market is showing us that outlandish priority on valuation on ideas is no longer going to be okay and that. What’s real and what’s tangible is where the value is in a business and so I really think for startups especially being focused on your customers being focused on retention being focused on customer value right now is so much more important than being focused on what investors value your company to be.
Alejandro: And so imagine I mean it’s it’s been a tremendous run for you. You know as an entrepreneur now the second company and 1 thing that comes to mind is imagine if I was to put you into a time machine.
Liz Giorgi: Okay.
Alejandro: Bring you back in time I bring you back in time to that moment where you were thinking about starting a business and you are able to have a sit down with your younger self that younger li and you’re able to give that younger list 1 piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why given what you know now.
Liz Giorgi: Well first I would say good good guess what? it’s all going to be fabulous. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be fabulous. You know I feel very lucky that my career has transformed in the way that it has and I’ve been able to have the experiences and the relationships and the outcomes that I’ve had. It’s it’s the promise of you know what? my family came to this country for but then the second thing that I would say is you know pick the people in your circle wisely I have been so fortunate to work with people whether it’s my cofounder Haley or my co o at my company now de mellingcamp. Who have just absolutely changed my life in terms of empowering me to be the best leader I can be helping me see the potential in what we’re doing and just constantly inspiring me and motivating me and so pick those people in your circle very wisely because they will be the most important thing. In terms of the outcomes you achieve.
Alejandro: And when it comes to picking people list because there’s probably a lot of founders that they right now are listening to us that are either thinking about picking a co-founder picking a team member or an investor. How or what have you learned that maybe has helped you.
Liz Giorgi: The.
Alejandro: You know down the line on making sure that you’re picking the right individual.
Liz Giorgi: There’s two things I think really illuminate whether or not, you’re going to have a great relationship with someone 2 things you can do 2 tests you can run. The first is you can have dinner with someone see how that dinner conversation goes see how naturally you’re able to. Talk about both your ambitions. But also your fears and really ask each other those hard questions and see if that person will go there with you be vulnerable with you watch how they treat weight staff. You know that’s an important one for me if they treat everyone with respect then I really believe that we’re going to have a lot of the same values and so I always. Try to have dinner with someone before they come join my executive team or before they join my cap table as an investor. The second thing I try to always do is I try to create a scenario where we’re able to do a project together or do a test idea together. So a really good example of this and. You know Haley and i’s case was we had worked on many many ads together me as the writer and the director and her as the lead animator and art director and so we would navigate these projects together. We would see how we navigated conflict how we navigated agreement how we came to conclusions or collaboration together. And how we compromise together and having that test project actually allowed us to see the best and the worst in each other and really see how we responded to that and had grace and space for that. You know one of the things I think about oftentimes is we’ve all had working relationships where. Us plus another person created the outcomes of 7 people. We are more productive more creative more excited more motivated and we’ve had working relationships where us plus another person created no outcome where it was a disaster and it was absolutely nothing good that came out of it. Check for that. You want that first scenario you want the scenario where one plus one equals the output of 7 people and if you’ve got that with someone oh man run with that as far as you can.
Alejandro: I Love it so list for the people that are listening. What is the best way for them to reach out and say hi.
Liz Giorgi: Oh well, you can always connect with me on Twitter I’m a Twitter freak. So at Liz George G L I Z G I o r g I or you can follow usuna on Instagram at Suna Studios we are telling stories all day every day I think you’ll find it to be a lot of fun.
Alejandro: Amazing. Well lis. Thank you so so much for being on the dealmakerr show today.
Liz Giorgi: I enjoyed it so much. Thank you so much.
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