Tuesday, 13 November 2012 Written by Puneet Lakhi
Exclusive interview with Tom Copeman who just launched his latest startup: NaraTom Copeman is a creative visionary and serial entrepreneur who has helped build brands such as lululemon athletica, BodyGlide, and now Nara, a start-up that looks to solve the problem of web search by crafting a more personalized and liberating Web with a next-generation personal internet platform. In addition to his life as an entrepreneur, Tom has worked in the Internet sector in roles ranging from principal investor and analyst for both private and publicly held companies, to corporate development for a national web developer and consultancy.
Nara is available on the web at Nara.me and for free in the App Store and on Google Play. Both the web platform and the app provide personalized restaurant recommendations in 25 U.S. and Canadian cities from New York City to San Francisco to Toronto. Much like how Pandora's app learns your music tastes as you use it, Nara actively learns your restaurant preferences and creates a unique Digital DNATM for you with which it intelligently recommends other restaurants you are pretty sure to like as well. Nara raised $4 million in series A funding, backed by Peter de Roetth and other angel investers. After living in stealth mode since its inception in 2010, Nara finally launched today, November 13th.
We spoke with Tom about the launch, how he balances his personal life and work life, and why he chose to move to Cambridge to start-up Nara.
What made you want to become an entrepreneur and how did you fund your first business?
I decided I wanted to become an entrepreneur after I realized that working in a conventional and corporate environment really was not me. Ever since my childhood, I have always been challenging the status quo with creative possibilities. I always try to imagine how we could take something ordinary and make it extraordinary.
For BodyGlide, I was begging and borrowing from anyone I could and wasn’t afraid to quit my conventional job and take the big plunge – a plunge that many people see as risky, but that I see as more stimulating and rewarding.
What inspired you and motivated you to create your numerous startups, and now Nara?
Ever an eternal optimist, I have a drive to make the world better and people’s lives brighter. I have always had a deep drive to turn my visions into the world’s reality.
I’ve always had a passion for building brands and products that create new categories, challenge existing boundaries, and improve your life so that’s what inspired me to create BodyGlide, bring lululemon athletica to Australia/New Zealand, and now launch Nara.
I originally had the idea for Nara in the late ’90s when I was traveling frequently for business and wanted to maximize my experiences in each destination. I became fascinated with the idea of the human condition and self-awareness, how people spend their time, and how they ultimately get to the decisions they make. At the same time, I realized that I didn’t enjoy my relationship with technology, and I wanted to do something to change that.
I wanted to build a system of technology that shifted back the powers of control by making it work for me, rather than against me. Around five years ago, in the midst of the tech and Internet boom, all of these ideas became much clearer to me and I realized that I needed to act on them. I finally saw an opportunity to pursue the idea in 2010 when I was exiting my position at lululemon as co-founder and executive director of Australia/New Zealand and trying to figure out my next move.
What made you move from LA to Cambridge to start up Nara?
In general, you want to go where the market opportunity lies and where the best talent is located. For example, with BodyGlide (athletic driven product) it made a lot of sense to position the brand in California which has a highly athletic driven culture; lululemon athletica – the market opportunity was wide open to build the brand in AUS/NZ; with Nara – it’s all about the brain trust and resources that are available in Cambridge.
For Nara I wanted to be near the center of innovation, the very best breed of neuroscientists, physicists, and computer scientists who specialize in artificial intelligence and we believe those people are in Cambridge at MIT. Once I knew I wanted to set up shop in Cambridge, I was introduced to Dr. Nathan Wilson who holds a doctorate in brain and cognitive sciences from MIT and a master’s in engineering with an emphasis in computer science and artificial intelligence from Cornell University. Soon after, I packed up my family in sunny southern California and moved the clan to Boston to launch Nara with Nathan.
How did you get others to take you seriously as a young entrepreneur when first starting out?
My level of demonstrated focus, commitment, passion, and conviction in my idea helped them take me seriously. It’s also important to concisely express the market opportunity, the problem you’re solving, any competitive differentiators, why it will be successful, and why they can’t afford not to invest. In short form, investors are always looking for innovative, value adding and proprietary ideas.
What challenges and fears did you have to face in the first year of starting your first business and how did you overcome them and motivate yourself to keep going?
When I started my first company, BodyGlide, my biggest fear was failure. In the early days of building a company, one fear is that you’ll run out of money before the business begins to cash flow. One way to stave off this fear is to be a very strong custodian of capital by maximizing all of your available resources. Never give up. What kept me motivated through it all was that I knew going back to work in a corporate environment was just not an option for me.
What has been your most successful approach to marketing your businesses and building a following for them?
Grassroots, viral, and community!
With Bodyglide it was all about local field marketing at athletic events and competitions. Lululemon does an extraordinary job of building local communities for the brand, and at Nara we are leveraging PR, social media, and viral community marketing to build our brand.
What's been your philosophy for new hires for your companies? What qualities do you look for in a new hire?
My philosophy has always been hiring passionate, optimistic, curious, confident, and high-energy individuals with a strong work ethic and moral code. It’s also important that they are intuitive, creative, and are self-motivated. At Nara, for example, we have hired an amazing brain trust of creative artists, neuroscientists, physicists, computer scientists, and technology and internet industry veterans. At the end of the day, we are looking for people who are ready to have fun because we want to spend our days with people we enjoy being around.
What have been your most rewarding experiences as an entrepreneur?
It has to be taking something all the way from ideation to commercialization. It’s always rewarding to see strangers use products you’ve built. I really enjoy watching people grow inside a company and develop their own sense of self and accomplishment. Building a culture is everything. Great companies are a by-product of a great culture.
How have you best managed to balance the demands of your business with your home life?
It’s all-inclusive. While family and work can tend to blur together, it’s integral to look at these various parts of your life as distinct entities, giving them each the proper time and attention that it deserves. I have two daughters and if I miss dinner with my kids, I make sure to have breakfast with them in the morning. I also try to give my children a perspective of my days at work by having them visit the office from time to time. Unplugging is important - we make sure to enjoy time together as a family whether we are skiing, out on the beach, or just at home watching a movie.
It’s a double edged sword, you get to work for yourself but work can also always be on your mind. I find myself able to detach somewhat on the weekends when I’m out at my daughters’ sports activities or exercising myself. A startup environment in general is very time intensive and demanding. So it’s very important to love what you’re doing and to have the support you need from home. If you don’t have the support you need from home, your business will not be successful.
What's your educational background like and what aspect has been the most beneficial to you as an entrepreneur and start up CEO?
I have a BA from the University of Southern California in marketing and finance, have started and sold two companies: lululemon athletica Australia and Body Glide, and have 10+ years of Internet sector experience ranging from principal investor and analyst for both private and publicly held companies. Marketing and finance have served me well as it relates to building consumer brands and fostering their growth and financial success. I think my educational background coupled with my own self-awareness that I view the world uniquely has been most beneficial to me as an entrepreneur and startup CEO.
What have you learned on your journey that you wish you knew when you were first starting out as an entrepreneur?
Over the years I’ve learned the importance of staying true to my visions and beliefs. And most importantly, you want to surround yourself with very strong and confident people that can add to and believe in your vision.
Finally, what overall advice would you offer young entrepreneurs who are hoping to emulate your success?
Once you have something, whether it’s a thought or an established startup, pour every ounce of passion, enthusiasm, and commitment to see it through. Don’t be swayed by group think – think for yourself, remain independent and true to your vision. And most importantly, get up every morning and tell yourself “I’m gonna kill it.”
Nara's fantastic mobile app is available for download for free through Apple's App Store and Android's Play Store starting today, November 13th. Download it today to start discovering great new restaurants across the US and Canada.