Authenticity and purpose in networking and branding with Mike Del Ponte of JoinStudio

Authenticity and purpose in networking and branding with Mike Del Ponte of JoinStudio

People are trading their time for not just money; but for something purposeful“.

Join today’s guest, Mike Del Ponte, who is the Co-Founder of Studio.  Mike has been an advisor for several multi-billion-dollar companies including Solugen and Wilder World. Mike shares his journey to building a robust network and becoming a serial entrepreneur. He advises on the importance of authenticity and purpose in branding for early-stage startups and candidates within a competitive job market.

You can find Mike’s company at www.joinstudio.com or at Studio HQ on all the social networks.  Mike can be found @Mikedelponte on all the social networks.

Photo of Mike Del Ponte
Mike Del Ponte

The Co-founder of Studio, an advisor to several multimillion-dollar startups, consultant, executive, and investor.

Resources and Referenced Links

Maren Kate: All right, welcome to Talent and Tech today's guest, is a good friend and colleague of mine that I’ve worked with and has advised me over the years we originally met in San Francisco almost a decade ago. I’m super happy to have Mike Del Ponte on the show. Mike is currently the Co-founder of Studio and previously started and sold Soma water, which I still use and love. He's an advisor to several multimillion-dollar startups including Solugen, which I probably just slaughtered the name of, and Wilder World, which is super interesting and really on the forefront, so Mike, welcome to the show.

Mike Del Ponte: Always great to talk to you Maren.

Maren Kate: Great. So, my first question, I love asking people this, what was your first job?

Mike Del Ponte: Well, I think my first job to make money was mowing my neighbor's lawn, which I don't even know if that's legal anymore because you know, I was probably like 11 years old. I was like this little guy pushing this big death machine and I’m sure I only got paid, you know pennies per hour, but I think that's the first thing I did to make money. The first thing that probably was legal - in high school I had two jobs one was as a lifeguard, which is the best because you're just sitting by a pool getting paid in good California weather, and then the other is the complete opposite. I was actually a janitor, which is very humbling. We had a family friend who was nice enough to pay me to clean his office once a week, and so I would go there on like a Sunday night with my mom, I don't even think I could drive at that point, and I would clean this office. I had a lot of very humbling jobs, you know earlier in my life, which I think is great for anyone to roll up their sleeves and do some things that humble you.

Maren Kate: I like that. And then, so how did you get into tech and where you are now?

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah so it's definitely an interesting and nonlinear route. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. I went to Boston College, which is a Catholic school, for my undergraduate and actually right when I got there I decided I wanted to become a Catholic priest, and so, not the typical freshman experience of partying. I was still very social, but I was really considering the priesthood. I had a wonderful time, you know, four years studying, one year abroad. And then I ended up going to divinity school at Yale and got my master's degree there and I was really considering ministry for my whole life.

While I was in graduate school, I actually started a nonprofit which helped college-age social entrepreneurs launch their ventures, their businesses, or their nonprofits. So I was kind of doing some entrepreneurial things while I was getting my master's degree. I was in New Haven Connecticut taking the train down to New York meeting with all these entrepreneurs. I ended up finishing my degree moving back to Silicon Valley in 2008 at the height of the recession and I have this nonprofit. And so here I am, it's kind of funny I probably wouldn't recommend this to anyone, but now I have like an Ivy League degree and I’m at home, no money, no network, working three jobs, and working seven days a week, but I had this little entrepreneurial venture. I ended up building that and through that process built out this great network of people, mostly entrepreneurs in San Francisco. And two years later, then after that, I went to a startup. I merged my nonprofit with another one, and I have my first startup job in 2010.

Maren Kate: And what company was that?

Mike Del Ponte: That was BranchOut.

Maren Kate: And you merge the nonprofit with BranchOut?

Mike Del Ponte: No, no, I merged the nonprofit with another nonprofit and I met Rick Marini at a dinner that I hosted and Rick Marini is the founder of BranchOut, serial entrepreneur, and investor and I had a meeting with him and I basically said “hey you know” - well he told me what he was doing BranchOut, and I said, “actually, I think I could help” and he said “come to the office” and like a few days later I had a job. So, you know, that's really when I got into venture-backed startups – 2010. Great education, learning about them, I knew I wanted to be a founder myself and, and so, two years later I started Soma, and Soma still exists. I sold in 2017 and we make hydration products, water filters, water bottles, coffee and tea products, etc, all around sustainability and charity. And so that was my first time really being a venture back CEO - built that company, raised $10 million, sold the product all around the world, and then 2017 after selling it, I was kind of “Okay, what do I do next?”, and so I started advising companies. And then last year I started another company which is Studio so here I am today.

Maren Kate: Yeah I feel like most of the people. When I think when we met, 2010 or 2011, I thought I was unique, so I was like “oh my background is not really tech and I dropped out of college” and I just kind of like, you know, fumbled my way to San Francisco and everything but it's like the more people I talked to that almost seems to be the more standard path is that nonlinear very circuitous kind of path versus. You know entrepreneurship is actually a degree and there's a lot of people that do that. That obviously wasn't an option when you and I went to school. The range that it gives you, you have such depth of knowledge, but also like a wide range of different things you can tap into. Yeah, it's interesting. And I think it's so funny when you said when you moved back to the bay area how you had no network because, I mean, I think of you as one of less than five people I can count on one hand, like most connected people I know. And when I say connected I don't just mean people that know a lot of people, but like people that know a lot of people, but are also respected by a lot of people. You are hands down one of those few people that knows everyone but also is well respected by everyone so I’m really curious, how did you go from no network to having the incredibly robust network you have now?

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah well thanks for that compliment that's really nice of you to say. I think my naivete actually was a huge asset early on. So, like I said I moved back to Silicon Valley in 2008, didn't know anyone, didn't know anything. I had no business experience, no business education, and I would just take these meetings. And I must have read a book that said, like at the end of every call or meeting asked, “who are the three people I should speak with?” and so I had this little network effect. And so I would meet with these people, I’m sure I mean God bless these people, I must have been a mess. I was like 25 years old, didn't know anything, and for some reason, they took these meetings. And so I was driving my little Honda Civic from my mom's house in the east bay San Francisco to like Palo Alto meeting with these powerful VCs. I probably didn't even know what a VC was back then, to be honest, but I was so passionate.

Maren Kate: I remember those days too. VC what does VC stand for?

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah and you know they’re probably like “oh that guy's a billionaire and he's meeting with some random kid who doesn't know anything”. But I would have these meetings, and I would just ask them, “who else I should be speaking with?” and then I started hosting events. I always tell people I put on these dinners and the first one since I had no money, would be like a crappy Chinese restaurant on a Wednesday night and everyone had to pay. And then, over time, it would be like these really incredible over-the-top events where we would pay for people to come and they felt like they got really hooked up. But you know when you start and you don't have anything you just got to start somewhere, and I think my persistence and politeness paid off. Being really polite and thankful for people and complimenting them and letting them know that you admire them and you're grateful for them. I think that when that was all I had, I didn't really have anything else, no status or money or anything like that, and so I did that and then also you know the connections thing, of course. Over time, another asset I had was my network, and so I started introducing people. And so that was really valuable because, even though I wasn't that impressive at that time, I hadn’t really accomplished anything, I started to know all these people, because I was having so many meetings so I’d say, “oh so and so, you should meet Maren”.

Maren Kate: And you could connect the two, which is so valuable.

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah, and always being very respectful. I would never make an introduction that was only valuable for one person, I wanted to be thoughtful and make sure it's a big win, win. So I started having that as a little bit of a social currency and then when I started hosting the events, even though I was kind of like the least impressive person in the room at the beginning because I was the person who brought other people together that also had some social currency. It's kind of like that Ted Talk, I’ve actually never seen it, but it's always in your YouTube feed of the guy who trades like a paperclip to buy a house.

Maren Kate: yeah.

Mike Del Ponte: I feel like that was my story of coming to Silicon Valley with absolutely nothing, and then you know diligently working my way up, and I would go to networking events like once or twice a day you. I’d have lunch with someone every day. I read that book Never Eat Alone. And you know when you're in your mid-20s you don't have a family and you just have time, you can do that, and so I really was grinding out from like 2008 to like 2012 and then started my company, and in fact, just kept doing something similar thereafter.

Maren Kate: Yeah it's I think the authenticity. I think you're right about the naivete and the authenticity. I did something similar, where I would email or find people and I’d be like “Hi I’m living in a hostel I’m here in Silicon Valley starting my company Zirtual. I would love to buy you a coffee” and people were always very generous with their time. And I think you know, my naivete, but then also the authenticity of wanting to learn and being grateful it definitely made an impact. There are people even to this day, where I’m so incredibly grateful I would bend over backward for them because they bought me lunch when I was super poor and struggling and they gave me a good piece of advice. There are people, even today, where I’ll just be like, I owe such a debt of gratitude to you. And then you pay it forward when someone who's in their early 20s comes to me and says, “hey can I talk to you?” I’m like “sure absolutely” and I think the reciprocity there is awesome.

A weird side note, do you use any tools to track your network? I know our mutual friend Stu showed me he has a really robust kind of online Rolodex that he actually uses to track birthdays and things and I thought that was brilliant, but like I always try to but then I forget about it so do you do that? Is that something I should be doing?

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah I think Stu uses Copper one of these CRMs. No, I have a spreadsheet because I send out an update like two to four times a year or send an email blast. The way I built that spreadsheet, I don't know if you can even do it anymore, but I used to be able to go and export all of your LinkedIn connections with emails.

Maren Kate: mail merge - You can’t do it anymore.

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah I don't think you can. Even though they say that they respect our privacy and our data is ours.

Maren Kate: But they won’t give us our data.

Mike Del Ponte: But so anyway, I remember one year I went and I exported my 5000 LinkedIn connections and my 4000 Facebook friends and literally went one by one, like “will this person want to hear from me?”. And so I have a spreadsheet and then I do this practice, I call it the Top 50, and basically, I go through the list. I just sit down and write like who are the 50 people in my life who I really want to cultivate a deeper relationship with this year. You've been on that list a few years, Maren. I don't know if I’ve ever told you that. It's just people I’m like, “man I feel like I could be friends with this person for life”. I got to a point where I knew so many people, but you know you can only manage so many. There's like Dunbar's Law that I think they say 50 is actually from like deep personal relationships you can manage. Then once a year, I’ll do it now because it's December and I do it at the end of the year, I make my list. And then what I do is I save them as my favorites in my phone.

Maren Kate: I love that

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah and so when I’m bored or when I used to travel and I was sitting in an airport, I would just pull out my favorites list, and I would basically text people and just be like “hey thinking of you, how are you doing, what's new” and that was my thing. And then I also had a rule, it's like if anyone who is on my top 50 ever called me or asked me for a favor I would pick up the call and do the favor. And so that was my way of kind of reining in this large network and putting some specificity on it.

Maren Kate: I really like that. I’m going to try that for 2022. That's a great idea. Okay so pivoting a little bit in terms of thinking about talent and technology specifically for companies or anyone who is, whether you're a founder, whether you're heading up a talent team, hiring your early-stage employees, how have you seen branding done really well when it comes to hiring your first 50 people? I feel like all your companies you've started, the companies you've worked with, you've always been really good around creating that consistent brand and I think that actually is super vital for hiring in a tight market because so many times with early-stage startups like, especially if you're doing outbound sourcing or outbound recruiting people haven't heard of you so they're going to go online and try to figure out what is this company so like. What are your top suggestions for early-stage founders, early-stage talent teams in creating a brand that will help them hire in 2022?

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah so it's so important to think about that brand. And what I think some people call it, talent marketing or recruiting marketing, is because, as a start-up, you just don't have the resources to fight against like a Google or Facebook. So you're not going to be able to put together a comp package that is going to beat one of these bigger wealthier companies. So it's like what do you have at your disposal? And a big part of that is culture. So I think, for me, over the years being at these different companies and being really involved with the brand and the culture we think about what would the person we're trying to recruit really care about. It's as simple as making a list. Of course money, equity, benefits, you know they're like the things there. But are they the type of person, back when people traveled more they wanted flexible vacation, and so that was a big thing it was like “hey look, we have flexible vacation. You can literally travel anytime you want and we're not going to tell you, you have to track your days. You are good to go. And that was a big thing, especially for millennials who a big part of their life was traveling. Values - really understanding the values of the types of people that you want to recruit and make sure that they’re respected. If people want to spend time with their families, letting them know you're a family-friendly company. Some of these unique perks. Instead of having to do things that are really expensive, are there things that you can do that are really cool? At Soma, one of the perks - we had this thing called ‘work from anywhere week’, which is now funny because everyone works from wherever they want these days. But back then people didn't. They went to an office five days a week their entire life and we would say, once a quarter there's a week where you can literally work wherever you want. Go sit on a beach if you want to, go to Japan, you want to go visit your family, you want to work from that café in your neighborhood that you love, you could do that. So we often thought of these perks that we thought our ideal hires would want and that we can afford to offer. Really getting in the mind of the person that you're recruiting and coming up with something that's authentic to your company that makes them attracted to you.

Maren Kate: I think, again, the authenticity is so important and I think the other aspect is, as much as you want to turn on the small amount of people that will be a great fit for your company, you also want to turn off the ones that won't. So if you're a very family-friendly company or maybe a better example is if you're a company that you really expect someone to grind, them to be up all night, them to be working on the weekends, and you're like “hey we're gonna have this great payout in four years” then it's actually better to share that and be like “hey you know if you want work-life balance we aren't the company for you”. It's controversial but it's better to put that out there.

Mike Del Ponte: yeah

Maren Kate: And then the inverse would be like, our company Avra is fully remote first, and every company I’ve started has been. There are definitely people that thrive better in an in-office environment. There are people that are going to thrive better with having a boss that says “here's what you do this week - here's what you do this day”. And we try to communicate that this is for someone who loves the flexibility, who wants to be remote, who is really good at managing themselves and their calendar and actually would hate working in an office. Versus painting with a broad brush and being like this is for everyone. This is just a version of product marketing and sales, right. The classic young founder mistake, which I’ve made multiple times, is that we’re everything for everyone versus being like “we're super specific - this is our positioning”. You want to do the exact same thing when it comes to hiring.

Mike Del Ponte: Yes, yeah 100%. One thing that I actually learned from working with you and Avra, because you've helped out companies where I’ve been involved and I’ve been able to refer Avra to a bunch of my founder friends who have loved it, is at the top of the job descriptions that you do there's always a short pitch. You know job descriptions are just so horrible because it's all these bullet points and paragraphs no one reads, but at the top, it's what I call the promise and it's like “do you want to work at the fastest growing startup in Austin Texas, with a super flexible work culture and incredibly smart people you know and like”. There will be a percentage of people who say “yes, I want that more than anything” like “I’m a yes from that promise”. I think it's really important for companies and founders and hiring managers to be able to say in one sentence what their pitch is - what their promise is to candidates. Not like “you will report to so and so, and you will get health benefits”, but like what is the thing, the core?

Maren Kate: What’s the pitch?

Mike Del Ponte: And so distilling that down and, as you mentioned, excluding a lot of things. You can't say that we have work-life balance and we grind out 80 hours a week. You got to pick one. So I think it's all about really understanding who you're trying to hire and getting into their psychology and figuring out what's most important to them and then, so long as that's authentic to your company, making sure that you're conveying that to them.

Maren Kate: I love that. So staying on the company part for a second then we'll swap to individuals who will also get a lot of benefit from this. How do we use this? How have you been recruiting in a really tight market?

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah, well the one thing that I’ve realized, and I typically am hiring millennials, (maybe some gen Z, sometimes some older folks, but just based off of my network and also being involved in earlier stage startups who are a lot of times the earliest employees are let's say like 45 and younger), and for that demographic in particular, purpose is always the most important thing. And going back to what I said earlier, I can't compete on comp but I can compete on purpose. I think that's the most important thing. And a lot of times companies haven’t really thought about that. It can be very transactional like “hey here's your job. Here's your compensation package. Are you in? Are you out?” But most people want to know that they're trading their time, not just for money, but for something purposeful. Something that's making a difference in other people's lives. So that's always been my competitive advantage is pitching what we're doing - how it's changing the world and how that person if they joined the company, will play an important role in the impact that we're going to have.

Maren Kate: Yeah I love that. That makes so much sense. So the flip side of the coin for individuals, whether you're a freelancer, whether you want to get a full-time job in tech, how are you coaching or guiding friends, family on positioning themselves? If someone came to you and said “hey Mike, I want to get a job in tech. I want to do xyz”? It's such a competitive market for companies hiring people. But, at the same time, we hear from a lot of candidates that it's really hard to get noticed.

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah, so before that aspect of getting noticed and what I would call marketing oneself you actually have to do a little soul searching, I remember there was a period actually before I joined BranchOut, it was kind of funny, I had this nonprofit and I was merging it with another nonprofit and I was kind of making this move of “Okay, I want to get out of the nonprofit world, I want to get in the startup world” and someone told me to write down everything that's important to you. Literally spend like 10 minutes with a blank sheet of paper and write down like, do I want to go to an office? If so, what would it look like? Who would I want to work for? What kind of mentor and boss would I want? How much money do I want to make? What are the benefits that are important to me at this stage in my life? How much vacation do I want? Literally, just write it all down and close your eyes and picture it. Once you know what's important to you it's a lot easier for you to not only market yourself authentically and effectively, but also to pinpoint who you would like to work with, and who you would not like to work with. I think you want to do that kind of soul searching just to understand what you want. What are your values? I can tell you, at this point in my life, family is so high, my wife and my son. I value them so much and I just want to have as much time with them as possible. Now 10 years ago, that was not the case. I didn't have a family so that wasn't one of my values. See you really need to first know what you want. The second thing is, you need to know your unique value proposition. You and I talked about this Maren. It's not good enough to say “I’m a photographer in Austin Texas”. You have to talk about why you are unique in the marketplace. “I’m a photographer that gets people to just be themselves, and so I can capture these moments that no one else can, where they're joyful, where they're crying, where they're connecting with other people. My unique ability is not just clicking a button on my camera. It's actually connecting with people and bringing out emotional states”. That is so much more interesting than just saying “I’m a photographer in Austin Texas”.

Maren Kate: It’s storytelling. But to be able to tell the story you really have to understand who you are, what you want, and what makes you different. I think another thing that we find all the time is people will apply for roles and they'll talk to the hiring manager in the application or whatever about themselves versus how they're solving a pain point for the hiring manager. It's like, at the end of the day, I’m hiring someone because there's a pain I need them to fix or something.

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah one of my favorite sayings is, ‘when you're listening you're selling’.

Maren Kate: I like that.

Mike Del Ponte: And we often do the exact opposite. I’ve got a job interview. I’m going to go and talk about myself. You haven't even asked them some questions like, What's your biggest pain point? What are your objectives? What are you looking for in this role? What are you not looking for in this role? And so, I think, once you have the call or the meeting, if you're the candidate, you want to go in there with a bunch of questions and we call that discovery. You got to discover what's most important to the person on the other side of the table and then you can tailor your answers authentically to them. I don't mean lying or changing your answer. I just mean that if you have three things you're really exceptional at and three things that, in your experience, you've done really well and they keep talking about one of them, of course, you're going to highlight that one more. But if you don't ask the questions you're not going to really know what that one is. And so a lot of times, people are talking past one another because they're not asking questions and listening.

Maren Kate: What do you see the best candidates doing right now that most others are overlooking?

Mike Del Ponte: Well, you know it's funny because I go back and forth on this whole social media thing. Obviously, it's important to get yourself out there and you do hear these stories of like “oh I started tweeting” you know. Ryan Graves at Uber is like “tweeting with the founder of Uber and then I built a company and you know made all this money” is like “thank you Twitter”. For some personalities that's great. If that's inauthentic to you I wouldn't do that. So there is kind of like an online networking piece that, again, I think it really goes back to “who are you?”. If you're the type of person who loves being online and connecting with people, great. If you're the type of person who wants to go to events and cafes and restaurants and bars and meet people face to face, that's great. If you're the type of person who's super thoughtful and you want to write an email that’s almost like a letter and you're pouring your heart out and it's 10 paragraphs or whatever it is, that's great too. I think it goes back to, who are you? What are your superpowers and are you leveraging them? That would be the first thing. The second thing is what I mentioned. I know you need a job so you're really thinking about yourself. But you need to pause that and think about the company you want to work for and what matters to them. Make sure that you're listening and asking questions. And then the last thing I think is you’ve got to have some boldness and you gotta be willing to walk away. In my experience, having interviewed hundreds of people and hired many dozens of people, you can kind of sniff the candidate who feels a little needy and is just trying to close any job and the person who really knows who they are and they're like sitting back and almost interviewing you and it's like you would feel lucky to hire them. That's a superpower.

Maren Kate: Yeah, that is so true. That is so true. Funny, it's just like fundraising, isn't it?

Mike Del Ponte: yeah I was just thinking about that. There's this thing called the ‘fear to greed spectrum’ and when you're fundraising you know you want the investor to feel greedy, not fearful. Most investors always have fear because they're like “oh my God if I write this million dollar check, am I going to lose all my money from the startup that goes out of business”. So they're usually fearful. But if you can pitch correctly they actually start getting greedy and they're like “how do I give you a million dollars?”, and I think as a job candidate it's kind of that same thing too. You want to make sure that the person who's hiring is not having question marks like “I don't know. They're kind of impressive but are they going to fit in here? Are they going to get the job done?”. You want the person on the other side, the hiring manager, to be like “I need to hire this person”.

Maren Kate: Yeah like “I can't wait”. Exactly. I love that. So just a few final questions. What do you rely on, tools and like talent stack wise, when it comes to hiring for Studio?

Mike Del Ponte: Well, to be honest, I think you know working with you and hiring Avra over the years, I’ve actually found that it's really about having good external resources. So obviously internally, you can have certain things dialed whether that's as startup-y as just having everything in Google Docs or as professional as getting these HR tech platforms in place. But if you're the CEO of a company, you need to be really stellar at knowing how to brand your company, market it to candidates, and flush out talent. Be able to interview and understand, “are they going to do the job or not?”. But in terms of the other aspects of it, sourcing, immediate interviews like the first phone screens, process, having a candidate CRM, posting jobs, I actually think it's really good to have an external resource. Finding someone who could do all that is better than going through the learning curve of having to set all this up and do all that work.

Maren Kate: I agree. It's like “do you learn to try to learn to code yourself and build your first App or do you hire someone or partner with someone”.

Mike Del Ponte: Exactly

Maren Kate: What product or tool do you rely on the most to do your best work? And it could be anything.

Mike Del Ponte: Well I’m certainly still an Evernote power user and so everything goes in Evernote. I just got off a call with someone, and it was a group call, so I was taking notes in Evernote, and then I’ll put it in slack to share it with people and then put it into a G-Doc to collaborate with people so that's probably the one old school tool that I use. I’m not a big fan of a lot of the companies and software out there that are just like the behemoths. I use Google all day, every day, not a big fan of Google and their products aren't that great. Salesforce is the classic example of this clunky product that everyone uses but no one loves. I’m pretty simple, to be frank, on my own personal stack.

Maren Kate: Yeah yeah, I mean, mine too. You're a power user of Evernote - I’ve become, more and more, a power user of Notion. And then using Google for where you need to and things like that. Okay, another one, what is your favorite podcast or book from the last year?
Mike Del Ponte: You know I’ve been getting back into crypto and there's a podcast called Bankless which is really fantastic and two youngish guys that interview and they're just so eager and they get these incredible guests.

Maren Kate: Amazing

Mike Del Ponte: So if you want to learn more about crypto, FNTs, DFi. I think it's interesting for anyone because sometimes they have these guests and they just talk about the past, present, and future of the Internet. So even if you're not technical or you're not really into crypto it's really fascinating to understand where we've been and where we're going. My favorite episode from that podcast is an interview with Chris Dixon who's a VC and very prolific in the crypto space. So that's the one that, and I’m not really a big podcast person, but that's the one that, if I have to spend 30 minutes in my car driving somewhere I’m going to listen to Bankless.

Maren Kate: Okay that's great. Awesome. Mike, it was so great having you on the show. Quickly tell people how they can find more about you online and find Studio online.

Mike Del Ponte: Yeah, so we're joinstudio.com, Studio HQ on all the social networks. And for me, I’m @Mikedelponte on all the social networks as well.

Maren Kate: Awesome. Well, Thank you so much. This is a gold mine.

Mike Del Ponte: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. This was fun.

Maren Kate: Awesome.

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