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25 Years, 25 Profiles-Aruni Gunasegaram

It’s been 25 years since the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) launched as the first business incubator in Austin.  Over the years we’ve worked with hundreds of companies and thousands of individuals that have helped transform Austin into one of the most respected technology communities in the world.  We’d like to share some of the stories from past directors, community partners, member companies and even former associates in a series called “25 Years, 25 Profiles.

Aruni Gunasegaram is a seasoned entrepreneur with deep roots in Austin’s startup scene.  She cofounded a well-funded tech startup while still a student, worked for ATI, taught entrepreneurship at UT-Austin, runs a consulting firm, and recently helped launch an education-based startup, Querium.

She was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to share some of the insights she’s picked up over the years.

Can you talk a little about your time at Isochron.  You were the founding CEO, helped raise $15m in equity financing, and closed the first $1m in revenue.  What were some of the lessons you learned along the way?

I cofounded Isochron when I was getting my MBA at UT-Austin.  I was young and didn’t know much about starting a high tech, venture-backed company.   I learned the hard way about many things including term sheets, venture capitalists, growing a business, hiring people, firing people, and releasing software & hardware products.

As a leader, always keep your hand in-and eye on-the market and industry you are targeting.  The market and customer can be fickle so you want to try to stay one step ahead of the market turns and trends.  This is very hard to do while at the same time executing against your goals and managing/growing your team.

It’s important to surround yourself with people who support and honor you.  Trust the people who tell it to you straight and have your back.  Trust your instincts and always seek advice from those who’ve been down the startup road before you.  It’s a rocky road, full of hazards.  Make sure your team can communicate openly & honestly about what is going on in their respective worlds.

Startups are very personal and it’s not easy to hide what’s going on with you or your team.  You have to be willing to share the good, bad, and ugly.  Allow people to be open and honest.  Those who feel safe will function better at work and stick with you during the hard times.

You taught entrepreneurship at UT and headed operations at ATI for some time–what do you think is special about ATI and what value does it provide to startups? 

The ATI model at the time of Isochron was different than it was when I worked for ATI.  Both models were good, but in different ways.  As the landscape of incubators has evolved over the last 25 years, ATI evolved successfully to be a leader of the pack.  The ATI of today is much more strategic in its endeavors to assist entrepreneurs.  In addition to the space and general guidance it offered in the past, ATI now offers structured strategic advice, relevant funding connections, access to talent, and deep connections with the City.

I enjoyed my time teaching entrepreneurship to the undergrads at UT McCombs’ School of Business.  Often, people think it’s impossible to teach entrepreneurship. In some ways it’s like teaching a philosophy class.  To me, starting a technology business is like telling a great story:  you hope in the end everyone lives happily ever after, but usually there is much drama, and in most cases there is not a big exit.  There are many times you wish you had decided to sell sea shells by the sea shore instead!  So you have to enjoy that harrowing, nail biting journey. That’s what you try to convey to students who think they are interested in starting their own business one day.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently the VP of Operations & Client Services and do business development for a startup called Querium, focused on the education market.  We are planning to disrupt the test prep market with our smart, mobile, personalized, and engaging applications built on a patent pending platform that includes artificial intelligence, step-by-step analysis, and something known as juiciness.  Querium helps teen and adult learners master life’s high-stakes tests so they can achieve their career ambitions. Our products are designed for digital native students living connected lives.  Our mobile learning platform delivers personalized short-form lessons and practice tests in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects like Math and Science.

I also continue to be involved with UT’s business school as an MBA+ Program project coach.