by Frances Rossini
photography: Sebastian Smith
During the ‘.com boom’ in the mid-to late nineties, an innovative entrepreneurial spirit was sparked that would one day change the standard in how businesses receive feedback from their customers online. Her name is Kelsey Falter, and today she has a mere 24 years of age under her belt, but has managed to—quite—successfully head two technology start-ups with the idea of refining ‘loose’ online feedback for businesses. We’ve all seen it before: enter your name here, check the boxes that apply to you, rate this one to ten; Then there’s always the ‘open comment’ box, and, as it has inevitably crossed your mind that anything you enter into this box is in vain, she has created an algorithm that actually refines this free-form feedback into a matter that companies can effectively use. Brilliant for business, right?
We had the pleasure of catching up with the lovely Kelsey at Drift Studios in NYC, where she gave us insight into how this entrepreneurial drive came about in her childhood, her dedication to technological innovation, and the effects hard work and success have had on her personal life.
Being very successful at young age seems to be something the media world finds rather fascinating about Kelsey. Rightfully so—it seems unusual that someone in his or her early 20s is already at such a lucrative point in their career, but this is until you learn about Kelsey’s extensive entrepreneurial family history that it becomes clear she’s naturally in this position: “My grandparents were all entrepreneurs. One of them created a chemical substance that strips paint from furniture. One of them, I think that his company held the patent for the flip top box.”
The most influential entrepreneur in her family, though, was her mother that was involved in the ‘.com boom’ mentioned earlier—a time when the World Wide Web experienced extensive growth of internet-based companies. This exposed Kelsey not just to the business aspect of starting a company, but also to the technology field and “how un-sexy start-ups were” with programmers and engineers always in her basement.
Take these influences and fast-forward to her college years when she began working at companies like Coca-Cola, and noticed that, “executives truly wanted to understand what the crowd wanted, what their customers wanted. But there was no easy way of doing that. Combined with my passion for how people get ideas, I started to do research into how ideas transfer within a network, how do they get critical mass, how do concepts become popular.”
With this curiosity, Kelsey worked with a team to create three different feedback products, one of them becoming her first major start-up, PopTip. “It was essentially a social survey to all that allowed for companies like ESPN and CNN to ask questions of their audience, their customers, and our algorithms analyzed the unstructured conversations to figure out what was the crowds opinion about a certain topic that may have been going on. What was the critical mass, so to speak… or finding consensus within phrases of text.”
While being passionate about ensuring PopTip’s technology utilized the most up-to-date algorithms in the space, it was in the name of making sure companies were utilizing all of the information that was available to them. With so much information being created by humans around the world, “Their bogged down [companies], how much volume, how many sources on the ground there are. There’s just so much information to make sense of that I think, in our experience, they’ve been ready for something like what we’re creating. They’re ready for something that will analyze everything in real time and make sense of it for them. Because it’s not a job for humans anymore, it’s a job for computers.”
Kelsey taking this innovation and running with it and, in turn, it becoming an enterprise—all while she’s just old enough to buy alcohol—we had to ask what effects this has all had on her personal life: “you have to make a lot of sacrifices. A lot of sacrifices. You know, I think in college I didn’t go to a single football game my senior year. And I went to Notre Dame, and that is a football school.”
“You need to be willing to walk away from a lot of things. I left [college] a few credits shy of graduating to pursue this. And from a friendship perspective, I know my best friend, who was one of my maids of honor at my wedding, got mad at me constantly for being a negligent friend.”
Despite having to veer away from the societal norms of graduating college (which, yes, her mother brings up from time to time) or doing much of anything traditionally, Kelsey has managed to find true love in it all, and married her husband—who is in the entrepreneurial space, as well—just this year. “I think the incredible part of our relationship is that he understands the ups and downs, he understands the drive that someone has, because that is him [too].”
Her husband, the founder of GroupMe and most recently Splice, having the same chaotic pace of life as she does makes their relationship symbiotic in a way that she explains as, “I think one thing that we’ve learned is if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity for your personal life against the chaos, then there is going to be constant fluctuation. Whereas, if you recognize that life is just chaos—that there is never a good time—therefore it’s always a good time.”
Founding a company, getting married—sounds like Kelsey is already an old soul of sorts, but she will beg to differ as getting too comfortable is one of her biggest fears. She believes that when you get too comfortable, you lose, “you no longer have the power of being uncomfortable.” This complex, she believes, is that when you’re uncomfortable, you want something different. “When you are comfortable, you are relaxing and you are taking it in, and you are not striving for something different.”
Kelsey relates not getting comfortable and business with this advice to other young entrepreneurs: “you have to operate with a graceful ruthlessness. You have to understand that nobody else is going to do it for you. And what you don’t do today, someone else will. So [it’s important] to always have that pessimism, it’s a really important thing. “