• Tue, Nov 6 2012

Executive Suite: CEO Alison Johnston Says Launching A Startup Is Like Being A Pioneer

This 25 year old CEO of the one-year old tech start-up InstaEDU says she has a long way to go to achieve her dream. But we’d say she’s done more than most women have in a lifetime.

Alison Johnston started the San Francisco-based company where students can get high-quality, one-on-one academic help instantly online whenever they need it. Getting its first $1.1 million round of funding in May, Johnston and her co-founders (who all went to Stanford University , including her brother Dan Johnston and pal Joey Shurtleff) were able to provide the solution to the problem she spotted while previously running an in-home tutoring company called Cardinal Scholars.

She realized there was a gap in the market. Students have ever-changing schedules and learning preferences and she wanted to give them choices in who tutors them, along with flexible time options. And so, InstaEDU was born.

Johnston sat down to talk to The Grindstone about putting the skills learned at technology companies Box, Aardvark and Google to the ultimate test by launching her own. Sharing a cheat sheet of swift start-up success, she lets us in on what it’s really like to be a CEO, how being a girl in the boy-dominated industry isn’t all that bad and how her personal life has changed from being a new grad to boss with eight full-time employees.

What’s it really like working for Google? Is it as much fun as everyone says?

It is a lot of fun. But, it’s a lot of work too. It’s by no means a nine-to-five job. People tend to think  that because it’s so creative and flat, then it must be easy. That’s not the case. The company very  much has an entrepreneurial spirit. I was very fortunate for the experience, which just kind of happened. I was working for Aardvark  when it was bought by Google.

Working there means you have an amazing group of people to network with. In fact, people who have worked for Google and left have started a sort of alumni relationship, asking fellow “alums” to partner with them on new ventures and startups.

What does it take to work at a startup?

Startups are for people who want to make an impact and learn to do a million different things instead of just working in one department –from everything from PR and design to accounting.

There are huge advantages for working at a startup, but those come later as the result of very hard work. The day-to-day is not glamorous. You have to be resourceful because you don’t have people who have been there, done that and have guidelines on best practices and lists of answers. Everything you’ll be doing in a startup will be a brand new learning experience. It’s like being a pioneer. You’ll go through the fundraising phase, how to pitch, how much to ask for. You learn things you would never do working for established companies. Because of this experience, you’ll always be an asset and invaluable employee, and one day, a business owner.

Is being a CEO as glamorous as it sounds?

CEO means more of an emotional roller coaster than being an employee because you care so much about the growth and the product. Your job is to do whatever you need to do. So, that means you’re not just a CEO, you’re also the janitor. I do everything from plugging in things in the database to taking my fair share of work coverage on weekends. It’s tough, but it is so rewarding.

Why aren’t more women interested in tech?

There are lots of great CEOs in tech that are men, but I don’t think that the lack of female interest in tech is the necessary problem we should focus on, just like people aren’t worried about men not wanting to be event planners. I feel like more and more women are becoming interested and becoming integral parts of the business. I think time will bring more diversity, but it’s not something that should be of huge scrutiny or concern.

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