As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Valenzuela.
Jessica Valenzuela is a former early growth enterprise sales and marketing leader and current co-Founder and CEO of GoGoGuest, a subscription software company helping make restaurants smarter by connecting the dots between customer behavior patterns and sales performance without the need for a costly data scientist or engineer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been a curious and self-motivated woman, but my professional growth has often been a mix of my desire to create meaningful things and simply being in the right place at the right time.
My mother was very entrepreneurial, and she was always hustling to grow her restaurant. Food has always been a big part of how I socialize, so I followed in her footsteps and enrolled at the University of the Philippines in their Hospitality and Restaurant Management program. I came to the U.S. a few years later, and my entire life shifted. I saw how technology was shaping the world and wanted to learn more.
While studying at DePaul University in Chicago, I got a job in product marketing at Kaplan Inc., helping launch the first learning management system for the financial services industry. I worked there for four years, seeing first-hand how a traditional learning experience could move online and still be an effective educational tool.
Soon after, I left Chicago for New York, joining one of the pioneering digital teams for Y&R Rubicam. After helping brands share their stories online, I took what I learned from Y&R and applied it to my own life. Eventually, after starting my own digital agency which delivered for brands like Moet Chandon, Gwen Stefani and Coty Inc., (and successfully selling it) I left the busy city for Silicon Valley, which is a great place to get your hands dirty by building and creating the future of technology.
Once I landed in California, I joined Taptera to lead sales and partner programs, which eventually exited and was acquired by Showpad. From there, I dabbled building a few different mobile products, including ones for Logitech and Square POS.
My love of food never waned, and thanks to my years of tech experience I was able to stumble across my current venture during a moment of epiphany. The initial thesis behind GoGoGuest was to help coffee shops create more value from their storefronts, which is a part of the overall experience.
Square gave GoGoGuest the chance to test a wide range of use cases and even gave us a platform to connect with and reach potential customers who wanted to experiment with us. I started this company to change the world in a small way. After seeing how seamlessly connected data can tremendously improve efficiencies and revenue for restaurants, especially during the early days of the pandemic, I’m proud of what we’ve done.
Fast forward to today, and you wouldn’t believe how far we’ve come. GoGoGuest is building solutions that help restaurants understand their guests better than ever before and with that knowledge take the needed action to create operational efficiencies and an elevated customer experience in a repeatable and scalable way.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Building a company from scratch always has its crazy moments, from competitors trying to figure out our products to asking to acquire us at the first hint of success. For me, the most interesting story is about how we landed our earliest supporters.
When you’re building a company in Silicon Valley, there is no shortage of founders, other tech companies, angels, and investors. However, I was concerned about finding investors because I didn’t have a degree from Stanford or come from a unicorn company. My path to entrepreneurship is unique from your typical Silicon Valley success story.
That all changed pretty quickly. I had reached out to a former client to share my ideas for GoGoGuest and what problem I was attempting to solve. On the spot, he wrote us a check and even helped us attract other investors. Moments like those put you on Cloud 9 — they also prove that your network can work in ways that might surprise you.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure if I would call this a ‘funny’ mistake, nevertheless a memorable one for me and my co-founder, Chris. It cost us $20,000, which is a small number compared to some early-stage startups with millions of dollars at their disposal to deliver a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Oddly enough, the solution that paved the way for our success today only cost about two hours of our time. It was a basic HTML page and a free Cisco Meraki, because we didn’t have the money to buy our Meraki access point and cloud license at that time.
Looking back, we probably could have avoided it entirely if Chris had immediately joined GoGoGuest as my co-founder and product lead.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been blessed to have a lot of people who have been instrumental in getting me to where I am today. But one person I will call out is Chris, co-founder of GoGoGuest and my life partner. Chris was hesitant to join the company at first, but I knew he was the best person for the role.
There was never a doubt in my mind that Chris would be the perfect technical co-founder and the person I could rely on to help shape the future of our product. I worked with him at Taptera and saw how he tackled problems with creative flair, a willingness to do things well, and the charisma needed to attract good people. These are the qualities you need to be a solid product leader, and I wouldn’t be in this position without him.
The best part, our combined talent, skills and knowledge position us well to divide and conquer.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Before a high-stakes meeting, there are a few steps I go through to prepare — so I read and do my research. Part of my preparation includes talking to my co-founder so I can hear his perspective too.
When solving challenges, before I respond to anyone, I like to take a long walk, hot shower, or, when I can, squeeze in a mountain bike lap or snowboarding session. It gives me a chance to think and come up with ideas for how to best approach the problem. It’s never a good idea to reply to a question or respond to a situation when you’re emotional.
A week into the pandemic, we started receiving messages from customers who needed to pause their subscriptions since they were closing down. I didn’t reply to those messages immediately. Instead, the solution came to me after I took a few long walks.
Rather than pause their subscriptions, we reduced our monthly fee and showed them how GoGoGuest could extend their in-store service to their digital channels. GoGoGuest acted as a customer data platform (CDP) and customer engagement delivery channel for our restaurant customers, making it easy for them to reach their customer bases effectively. Looking back at that day, I’m proud of how we handled that situation as a team.
Our brains can flex themselves in many ways. Sometimes all it takes is a long walk and some fresh air!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I’m very thankful for the mentors and managers who gave me the opportunity to lead projects and programs that opened to bigger responsibilities leading to a seat at the table. Diversity of age, race and background brings an abundance of unique perspectives that can produce better results.
Race, diversity and inclusion can be an emotional conversation for many. I believe that when the smartest people in the room with good intentions genuinely come together, a recalibration is possible.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
In Fall 2020, The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center included me as part of its cohort for its 3-month Nasdaq Milestone Makers program. Participating and graduating from the program allowed me to hear from a diverse audience about what challenges and successes they faced while growing their businesses.
The Milestone Makers program was key to helping me focus on what we needed to address as we accelerated our growth and attracted key customers and institutional investors. Being part of that program is paying off as I keep finding more opportunities to grow my company.
When opportunities are extended to hard-working people making a difference, they’re multiplied 10 times over. It helps create a network effect that takes on a life of its own.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Depending on the stage of your company, being a CEO or executive comes with different responsibilities.
I’m constantly talking with and listening to our customers to learn about their problems, and I serve as a conduit between them and our product team. That often means translating what we learned into quick and easy-to-build proofs of concept. Once we know they work, we productize.
As the CEO and co-founder, I’m also responsible for fundraising for our next round and supporting continued growth. I’m building relationships with venture capitalists (VCs), angel investors, and prominent leaders in the restaurant technology space. It’s a lot of networking, relationship building, and transforming what we learn into product ideas, customer success improvements, and continued growth opportunities.
As I’ve grown into my role, one important thing I’ve learned is to be a sponge and absorb everything I can. It’s also ok to not be the smartest person in the room!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Alex Lieberman, the co-founder of Morning Brew, noted that there are two phases every startup CEO goes through. Phase 1 is Doer in Chief, when you’re obsessed with building a product. Phase 2 is when you become the Delegator in Chief, and you’re obsessed with building a company. Both phases are needed in every business, but sometimes it can be tough to move from one phase to the next.
It’s also a myth that extroverted, charismatic people make better leaders. There is a balance between putting yourself out there constantly because you gain energy by interacting with others while also having the space and time to digest what you learn. Both are key to developing good C-level skills.
Being the CEO and co-founder of a growing company like GoGoGuest is about setting the vision, hiring the right team to help execute your company’s vision, and removing barriers for them when possible.
You have to consider everything, all while still having an ear to the ground. It also means knowing how to recognize when a person or company is not a good fit for our business. Saying no isn’t easy, but it’s a powerful word that can keep you steady and focused.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I constantly joke that when I walk into a room to pitch GoGoGuest to a room of VCs, I’ve already got three strikes against me. First, I’m a brown, first-generation immigrant. Secondly, I’m a woman without a degree from Stanford or MIT, and, lastly, I don’t have a former unicorn employer. I don’t even have to speak and there is immediate bias. I’m always aware of it because the people in the room are very transparent about their feelings. Unfortunately, the world we live in continues to be challenged by our differences.
According to the Harvard Business Review, in 2020, only 2.3% of all VC investment went to women-led companies. It’s a small amount of the total pie, but what’s worse is that it is only about .5% below the all-time investment high seen in 2019. Women have faced an incredible number of challenges in the workplace, especially coming out of the pandemic. But there is hope, and I want to help open doors for other women. All it takes is one person to show others how to be successful. That, in turn, creates a blueprint others can look to for future companies.
These biases have only made me stronger and more focused on solving problems in the restaurant industry. It also helps to have mentorship programs like the Nasdaq Milestone Makers Program and the support of key advisors who genuinely believe in our work. I’m very fortunate and grateful to have had the chance to meet so many experienced technology startup founders with successful exits. They were gracious enough to give me some of their time to help guide GoGoGuest’s successful trajectory.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I’m motivated by the freedom and space to create, design, and build solutions that solve a big problem in the restaurant industry. Restaurants struggle with disconnected data, which forms the crux of issues they face with customer lifecycle, cost-management, revenue management, and supply chain problems.
At this point, I’m using what I have learned on my journey to inspire other women to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams and make them happen. It takes a certain level of determination, resilience, and devil-may-care attitude to persevere. But when you have the motivation to solve a problem you know can make lives better, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel.
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Anyone can be an executive if they want to be. How you get there often shapes your leadership style and the people you inspire and motivate. Some people are motivated by success and the fear of failure. Others are motivated by knowing they are moving the needle and solving a problem.
I’m invested in GoGoGuest because I see how much change can occur when restaurants of all sizes better understand their audiences, personalize their engagement channels, and grow their customer loyalty in ways that add value. It’s an easily scalable process when the right data is part of your business foundation.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
First, pick your team well — then share your vision and give them space to create and deliver. If you have the right team, the productivity level of everyone is phenomenal. When their contributions combine it’s like watching a Beethoven concerto live.
You’ll immediately know someone is a fit from their first reply or during the first conversation. I’ve seen it over and over, but there are times when I find myself stretching for a person and hoping they fit in. Then my initial gut reaction ends up being right all along.
Second, know that the company’s needs and your team’s needs will change as the focus turns toward building and growing the business alongside continuing to grow and innovate your product. It is easier said than done, but it feels like a CEO’s role is to recognize the change before it happens.
Third, lead the company and your team through the change. As GoGoGuest continues rapidly growing, we know we’ll need a leader who can guide us through that growth or through an IPO. When the day comes, Chris and I are prepared to find the right person to take GoGoGuest to the next level. We have a long march ahead of us before we reach that point, but as founders we’re clear-minded about the potential changes as we grow.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I truly hope we’re contributing to the greater good by offering simple solutions to complex problems.
By making time for things in my life I’m passionate about, I can appreciate the hard work we’ve done to grow GoGoGuest. I like to stop, pause, and reflect. For some, it means silent meditation, but for me, it could be a long walk in the city. Or a planned hike to the summit of Mt. St. Helen’s crater.
I don’t want to call it self-care, but that might be the best way to describe it. Perhaps this is a unique perspective from many founders who are working on their companies. To co-founders like me who are building products that will change the world, please take care of yourself and your well-being first. The journey is long and tiresome at times. Put yourself first. Without your passion and determination, the company you’re building will not exist.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Be prepared to go at it alone until you find your people. When I started GoGoGuest, friends I used to spend time with in the technology world looked at me like I was crazy. Some even went on to insult my idea, calling it something from the 90s. Once during a big tech conference, a journalist (now married to a VC), sarcastically said “consumers will love her idea,” followed by a massive eye roll.
As my focus, attention, and time naturally flowed into GoGoGuest and my personal interests, there was no time for anyone or anything else besides Beckham (my dog) and Chris. Be prepared to lose friends when starting a company.
Thankfully, you will find a new tribe, sometimes in the most unlikely places. I’m very fortunate to have found talented, creative, and kind people who love the work we’re doing at GoGoGuest. We love learning from and about each other.
Avoid recruiting advisors when you’re still proving your thesis. The best advisors are the ones who will bring value to your company on day 1. Our best advisors are those who spent time getting to know us first before getting more involved. They helped us narrow down our market, identify the problem, and clearly define how we’re solving it.
My advice is to work on your thesis first and gain traction. Once you have narrowed down your focus — industry, target market, and audience, find the best people to help you build upon your early milestones by 10X. A valuable advisor will put in time and effort to learn about your idea and help you get to the next milestone before asking for any form of company ownership or shares.
Don’t join an accelerator until you have some traction. In the first few months of deciding to start a company, Chris and I got accepted into an accelerator program in San Francisco, yet we decided to decline the offer. But why?
It meant giving up 26% of our company. This is not our first rodeo in the startup world and we knew we would rather keep our company shares close to our heart, even if it meant more risk for us.
Narrow your focus. You’ll often hear experienced fellow founders and VCs say, “Don’t boil the ocean. Narrow your focus.” You might know in your heart of hearts that the product you’re building is applicable for multiple industries and markets, but start with one, gain traction, and be successful there first.
First Principles Thinking. Don’t be afraid to ask why. Encourage your team and customers to ask why. A healthy dose of inquiry and diverse perspective is a good path for synthesizing our journey at GoGoGuest. As the co-founder and CEO, it’s up to me to distill all the information, shape our narrative, and take the steps necessary to move us forward.
There are many ways to practice First Principles thinking. It’s a blend of questioning, understanding, and listening to different perspectives. Beyond one person’s idea, I take the time to understand the person behind the idea. I believe that history, experiences, and learning contribute to how we interact with the world around us. Humans are amazing creatures that constantly learn things, but applying and accepting what you absorb are two different things.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I hope the product we’re building at GoGoGuest gives back to the restaurant industry in ways that reduce food waste and improve the predictability of managing resources and profitability.
When restaurant operators and owners have the information and insights needed to take the best action, they will be better prepared to drive growth and profitability, one traditional or virtual restaurant at a time.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest flower of them all.”
This quote is attributed by the ancient Chinese to the plum blossom, a flower that blooms during the harsh winter months. It is known for its longevity, resilience, and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Resilience is a much needed founder super power.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
There are so many very prominent names on my list! The two people I would love to meet and get to know are Alexis Ohanian and Amal Clooney. Both survived their own challenges, thrived, and are out there making the world a better place.