Meet Sarah Noderer, Philly’s First Entrepreneur in Residence

She’s fresh from Silicon Valley, and she has a plan to help startups here succeed.

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When Sarah Noderer isn’t brewing her own beer or tackling Philly Mag’s 50 Best Restaurants list, she’s imbuing the city’s innovators with the energy and insights they need to start and grow businesses.

As the city’s first entrepreneur in residence, a new position with Philly Startup Leaders (PSL), Noderer is the organization’s second full-time employee. She says no two days on the job are the same, with her schedule ebbing and flowing with the hustle and bustle of Philly’s burgeoning tech scene. And no pressure: Noderer, who recently moved here from Silicon Valley, will have until November to make her mark, at which point a new face will assume the short-term rotating position.

Here’s Noderer on her plan to give entrepreneurs the boost they need and how she’s already creating a path for future PSL entrepreneurs in residence.

You’re piloting PSL’s new entrepreneur in residence position. What brought you to entrepreneurship and tech in the first place?
My husband and I moved out to the Bay Area from Philadelphia a few years ago so he could go to graduate school there. I originally wanted to be a high school math teacher, but just like everyone else out there, I got pulled into and enraptured by tech. I ended up joining a startup called Box, an enterprise platform company that’s all about storing and collaborating on all of your important files.

What was your time at Box like?
Box did very well and grew through many rounds of funding. Went through an IPO in 2015, so it was a crazy ride but I loved it and learned a ton. With Box I ended up moving to London for one year to help build our international headquarters, which was a great opportunity that I couldn’t let pass by.

What brought you back to Philadelphia?
We relocated back to Philly for my husband’s job. I stayed with Box for a little while longer, then realized I was ready to explore the Philadelphia tech scene. I wanted to dig into a smaller company again. Box had grown really big, but I missed building. I missed working at a chaotic, tiny startup.

How did you hear about PSL and Philly’s tech scene in general? How’d you make your way in?
I grew up in South Jersey and my husband grew up in Lehigh Valley, so I have a lot of roots and friends and family here. And, honestly, I Googled “tech in Philadelphia.” I figured a good place to start was the internet. A search brought me to Technical.ly Philly and PSL. Those were the first two resources I had. Then I did my homework. I looked up every tech company in the city that I heard about on CrunchBase and LinkedIn to see what their stats were and to see if I had any mutual connections. PSL was a great way to get a pulse on the tech scene here because, in addition to putting together events, it also creates a very lively daily discussion of the tech scene for the community, by the community. From there, I learned about different events and meetups, such as Philly New Tech meetup, and ended up with some consulting and advising opportunities with Philly startups.

And how’d an opportunity with PSL come along?
I got connected to Yuval Yarden, PSL’s program director. After a few conversations, she pitched this role she was envisioning to help scale PSL. PSL is very lean, a huge volunteer network and a great board, but the execution was down to basically one person. The idea was to create an ambassador to the tech community, someone with a deep background in tech and building a startup and hopefully with a successful exit under his or her belt. And this person would be charged with meeting with entrepreneurs who had questions about resources and ways they can get involved. And to even meet with people who were thinking about taking the plunge and figure out ways to get involved in entrepreneurship. And the ambassador would also communicate with VCs who wanted to get a little more plugged in with the companies in the scene here.

What have been your core responsibilities thus far?
I would describe my role in three buckets. First, it’s about meeting with entrepreneurs and connecting them to resources, and a lot of this relies on the knowledge I picked up during my five years at Box. Second, I develop the curriculum for all of PSL’s programs. For example, we have the PSL Bootcamp coming up. And it’s for anyone looking to learn about building a business. There will be about 50 attendees who will work on an idea in teams for the 12 weeks of the program. I also work on curriculum for our accelerator, our Founder Factory event, and our program called “Start, Stay, Grow,” which helps college students find career options in tech here in Philly. And third, I’m trying to figure out what Philadelphia can do on the marketing side to elevate its visibility in the national tech scene.

When you sit down with a budding entrepreneur, what are some of the first steps or resources you recommend?
I’ve met with a range of people, everything from someone who’s still in a 9-to-5 job but has an idea for a company all the way down the spectrum to people who have an actual company and either have funding or are just about to close a round of funding. Or maybe they just need a key hire.

So for those who are very early on in the process, I’ll often suggest they sign up for our communications, the PSL newsletters, and I always share our new Philly Tech Guide. And then I can recommend the boot camp. Depending on where someone is with their business, I’ll get them to attend the accelerator geared toward teams that have a product we can play around with.

I also recommend books. The one I recommend the most is Venture Deals, by Brad Feld. It’s a quick read, but it’s a great primer for working with venture capitalists, which will be a part of a company at some stage. I also will usually connect entrepreneurs to each other.

Is there anything that strikes you about the entrepreneurs here?
Going back to when I first started, I was so surprised in a good way about how open and friendly everyone is. People are so willing to just go and chat and bounce ideas around. It’s not to say Silicon Valley wasn’t friendly. It’s just that Philly is consistently friendly, and people are always willing to make connections as well. They’re always ready to introduce you to like five more people, so my network just ballooned.

Is there something you saw out west that you’d like to bring here or a key lesson you learned at Box that people can really benefit from?
One of our mottos at Box was, “Get shit done, fail fast.” Moving really fast is important, and of course as a company scales you’re going to slow down a little bit. But in the early days, just don’t be scared, go for it and just really dig in. Commit to your idea. Get other people around you who believe in you, and if you’re going to fail, fail fast. Don’t draw it out. Don’t be afraid to try ten different ways of doing something — if four of them fail, then you’ve found six other ways of doing something.

A company’s commitment to people and culture is also important. I found that companies in the Bay Area really place high priority on hiring the right people, and that involves equal parts skills and culture. And I’ve heard folks talk about culture here, so I think we’re doing it, but we just need to keep channeling the notion that culture is extremely important. At a startup things will get tough. You have to have good people around you whom you respect, people you enjoy working with. It’s not enough to have the skills. You have to be a good person as well.

Is Philly prominent in the national tech scene?
I think we’re on the right track, and it’s just going to take some more years. I don’t know exactly why we’re not already there, but I do know that we really should be marketing ourselves better as a great place to live and set up a company.

It could also be a good approach for the city to not just focus on getting people to create companies here but also to get companies to set up satellite offices here. We need to amp up our marketing so that companies looking to expand can set up shop here, instead of placing their offshoots in Nashville, Denver, or Phoenix, for example.

How can people get in touch with you?
They can email me at sarah@phillystartupleaders.org. And anyone in transition who is interested in this role should reach out to PSL at engage@phillystartupleaders.org.

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