Being an entrepreneur isn’t always about building something from the ground up. For Soraya Darabi, it’s been more about utilizing her passions and expertise in innovative ways. Darabi is co-founder of Foodspotting, a website and mobile app that lets users share photos of their favorite restaurant dishes, creating a visual recommendation guide to the world of food. Darabi spoke recently to OPEN Forum about her attraction to entrepreneurship, being a woman in the tech world and using her massive social media following to help build her business.
Q: You recently joined Foodspotting as a co-founder, but your path to entrepreneurship was not a typical one. How did you get involved with Foodspotting?
A: I was working at The New York Times managing digital partnerships and social media. I knew I wanted to work in the startup world but I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly. One day I was having brunch with my friend Randy Reddig who is the co-founder of Square and very involved in the entrepreneurial tech scene. I was telling him about my aspirations to work for a startup that was innovative and connected my love of food, travel and technology. He immediately said I had to meet his good friend Ted Grubb, who was a developer at Satisfaction, and was building a new website called Foodspotting with Alexa Andrzejewski.
I flew out to San Francisco to meet with Alexa and Ted and we were brainstorming how they could market themselves. I started with Foodspotting as an adviser in October 2009, and was there for the beta launch at SXSW last year. After we raised our first round of seed funding in August 2010, I joined the company full-time as co-founder and we officially incorporated. My path to co-founder really started because I was a fan first.
Q: You’ve had several high-profile roles in marketing for big media companies. How do you think your previous work experience prepared you for the role of co-founder?
A: When I was at The New York Times, I did a lot with digital partnerships and my job was to find interesting ways to partner with other companies that would build our social media presence. When I left The Times in December 2009, I went to Drop.io where I worked on product development until I joined Foodspotting full-time in September 2010. A lot of what I do at Foodspotting is leveraging my marketing experience, which includes product marketing. I work closely with the business development associate at Foodspotting and am very involved with new partnerships.
Q: You have a large social media following (400,000-plus Twitter followers) and were named by The Daily Beast in 2010 as one of the Women Who Rule the Web. How do you use that following to your advantage as an entrepreneur and at Foodspotting?
A: For us, what’s happening on social media is crucial to the way we build our product. Ultimately it’s our users who are shaping how the company develops. We listen to everything they say on our Facebook page, and the feedback we get, and as a result we’ve developed new features and evolved the user experience. For example, we are integrating now with Tumblr and Instagram because a lot of social media users were asking to interact with our site using those programs.
In terms of how I use my own Web following in my role at Foodspotting, the mission of the company is very true to what I am passionate about, and so I use social media to talk about my love of food and travel. I engage with others in that community and talk to them about their passions and interests. Eventually, these are people who become advocates for your brand.
I also use something called TwitterSheep, which lets you type in your Twitter handle and then it generates a word cloud based on your followers’ bios. From that I discovered that a lot of my followers are interested in music. I love talking about music, so I started to tweet more about that topic. All of these communities overlap, and it helps to be aware of how and when they do.
Q: What has your experience been as a woman in the tech community? Have you found your gender to be a positive or negative factor, and why?
A: I've enjoyed being a woman in this space, and yet, I know it isn't easy for women just starting out in technology or entrepreneurship. I look up to women like Caterina Fake of Flickr! and Alexandra W. Wilson of Gilt who are paving—or bulldozing really—roads for young female entrepreneurs looking to build successful companies from scratch themselves. And in turn, I'm an active supporter of groups encouraging young women to participate in tech-related classes and after-school programs.
My dream is for the consumer tech business world to seem cool to my little cousins in school in Minnesota. I really feel we are on the brink of another technological revolution and I'll do my part to make sure my younger female counterparts aren't left out of it.
Q: What do you think is the most challenging part of entrepreneurship?
A: Inventing the game as you go along is pretty challenging. At a small company, things are ever changing and nimble and so you always have to stay on your toes. There’s not a moment that goes by that I’m not alert about something that could affect our company. But, the best thing about entrepreneurship for me is that it doesn’t feel like a job; it feels like a lifestyle.
Q: Since becoming co-founder at Foodspotting, what’s the most important thing you've learned about running a business?
A: I’ve learned how essential it is to constantly communicate with your team, and to find the right tools—whether it be project tools or chatting tools—to facilitate internal communications. You want to know exactly what everyone in the company is saying and thinking so you can grow together. I’ve also learned that in the startup world, you want to be so optimistic that nothing can faze you. Unlike when I was at the New York Times and had a pillar brand behind me, we’re now coming in as the underdog, and our job as a startup is to prove that we can be everything our market wants and more.
Photo Credit: Elk Studios
Tamara Schweitzer Raben is a freelance business journalist in New York with a focus on social enterprise and sustainability in business. She is a contributing writer at AOL Small Business and Dowser.org, and has covered startups and small business as a former staff reporter at Inc. Magazine.