Office Hours: From Machine Learning PhD to Solo Startup Founder. I'm the founder of Sparrow – Deborah HanusFeatured

Hi Elpha! I’m the CEO & Founder of Sparrow, a software-based service that manages the deadlines, endorsements, and files all the paperwork associated with managing extended employee leave (i.e. family, medical, etc.). With early customers like CircleCI, Scale AI, and Pilot, we’re helping companies implement robust and efficient paid leave programs, while saving them time (20-40 hours per leave), money (up to $20K per leave), and headache. Before founding Sparrow, I graduated MIT with three degrees (a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and a double-Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Brain & Cognitive Science), worked as an early software engineer at a startup, lived in Cambodia as a Fulbright Scholar, and started (and left) a machine learning PhD at Harvard (full story on my blog). Ask me about career transitions, going solo on a startup, fundraising, building a team, joining our team (we’re hiring 😁), implementing a robust paid leave program (at companies of any size), or anything else!
Thanks so much for joining us, Deborah!Please share your questions for Deborah here before Thursday (July 18th). She may not have time to answer all of them, so upvote the ones you're most interested in.
Thank you for inviting me!
what an amazing journey! It would be interesting to hear how you have raised funding as a solo founder and what advice you would give to others.
There are three main things that investors evaluate when deciding to give you 💵: - Idea 💡 - Traction 📈(e.g. sales, partnerships, users, etc.) - Team 💁To raise, you need to be able to tell a good story for why your company rocks on all three of these dimensions, but you definitely do not need full marks on all three. This means that if you have an all-star team and an idea that resonates with investors, you might be able to raise on just an idea. Similarly, if as a solo founder, you can convince people that you have a great idea with solid traction, and you can tell a story about why you’re qualified to attack this problem (or will be able to hire the right people), you’ll be well on your way to finding someone to invest 💰.
Your bio sounds likes my five year plan. I currently work in global development as a designer and transitioning to data science. I'm on a data science project (all women) in which we are slowly figuring out each other's specialties and personalities. I have gravitated towards a role of navigating the team toward storytelling with data. *How do you steer your team away from tunnel vision?*
It’s great that you’re honing your skills in storytelling! Storytelling is an incredibly important (and IMO sometimes undervalued) skill.Something that has been really helpful for our team was working with customers early in our product development, so that we can constantly listen to their feedback and iterating on the product, so that we’re always improving. If you’re able to set up a situation where you can get regular feedback from people who are not too caught up in the way things are now, that is really helpful for keeping the team agile and open-minded.
Right! You just made me realized something. As part of the bootcamp, the project we are making has no customer/client or even someone to play that role. Since most of the students are so focused on learning the technical skills that they are building products to their capacity, or the grading rubric.
The global optimization vs local regret minimization you explain in your blog post is such a helpful framework to think about life decisions!As a CS undergrad right now, I'm personally thinking (freaking out) a lot about my options after graduating; I'm thinking pretty seriously about getting a PhD, but it's also kind of a tossup between that and software engineering at a company I'd be excited about. How did you decide? -- both with regards to joining (and leaving) the startup, and why you wanted to apply to PhD programs in the first place?
As a new grad, I struggled with this decision, and it’s not clear that I ever really decided. 😆 Instead, I used breadth first search to determine what I wanted to do. I spent a few years doing computational cognitive science research as an undergrad/master’s student, a few years as a full stack software engineer, and a few years as a PhD student before founding a company. I’ve been really happy with my decision to “try everything.” I’ve gotten to know wonderful people in many communities, and I’m able to approach problems with a perspective that few people have. However, that said, once you try something, it is easy to get caught up in the momentum, and just keep going with the path of least resistance. To avoid this, I try to give myself periodic points in time where I evaluate my happiness and give myself permission to make whatever changes I want. YMMV. My way of thinking about this might not be right for you, and I wish you the best as you determine what you want to do next!
That makes a lot of sense -- thanks so much!!
I am a solo founder of a deep tech startup myself and your experiences can definitely help me. How did you manage to create your software and close your first client being solo?
I was fortunate in that our product development cycle enabled me to manage these processes in sequence at first. While Sparrow needs software to scale effectively, our most basic MVP used minimal software. This made it possible for me to start selling as soon as I put together a landing page and some marketing materials. Our first clients were mostly founders who were about to start parental leave -- so they experienced the pain from multiple angles: - They want to save their company money - The did not want to file painful paperwork required to save that money. Because our value proposition is making this usually painful process painless, I was able to find a few people in my network who trusted me enough to help them through the process. I charged them a nominal rate in exchange for their feedback, and listening carefully to that feedback helped me ensure that I was building a product that people want.
Thanks for sharing your story. It's very inspirational.
Thank you! 😊
My question for you is: what opportunities do you have today that were unexpected when you left your PhD? I love your blog post about trading in a PhD experience for a start-up founder experience: "One side-effect of undertaking something as unstructured as a PhD is that it provides some time for reflection, and with reflection, I realized something: opportunities do not last forever. Our lives provide these sort of sliding windows of opportunities. As people live, their desires and priorities change, meaning that if you want to work on a certain project or with certain people, they’re only available for a limited time." ... "And as I kept get better jobs and higher pay, it would just get harder and harder for me to try something new. In 10 years, I’d be wondering “What if” but my window of opportunity would have already closed." While I like your image of sliding windows of opportunity and am totally taking this method for my current life situation, I'd like to remind myself and everyone that in a decade the opportunities we have in front of us now may have passed, but we will have opportunities we can't see from here.
An excellent point, Clare! In my specific situation, I was able to identify that I was about to pass up an opportunity that I wanted to take advantage of right now. But I totally agree with your point that there is no use dwelling on past opportunities. While the sliding window closes on some opportunities, there will always be new opportunities. Thanks for bringing that up!
Curious to know what led you to start Sparrow? Did you see the gap/ inefficiencies in the processes from a far or experience them firsthand? What's been the the most rewarding part of starting Sparrow, for you?
In one six month period, six of my close friends had children. All of them had to go through the process of filing the associated paperwork. All of them struggled with it. Half of them messed things up, didn’t get paid properly, and ended up needing to file appeals. I started thinking, “If my friends -- who are mostly MIT and Harvard grads with amazing jobs in tech -- are struggling this much with this, chances are a lot of other people are too.” I began looking into how SMBs and startups were managing the process. It turned out that all of them struggle with it. Within a few months, we learned that much larger companies are struggling too. I have enjoyed so many aspects of founding Sparrow! I love that we’re solving a real problem and making workplaces better for everyone.
I LOVE THIS -- such an amazing idea. I'll definitely be bookmarking Sparrow for the day my team gets big enough. Whoo!
Thank you! 😀 I'll be looking forward to working with you!
What inspired you to start Sparrow?
All of my friends started having children, and I saw what a painful process this is for business owners, managers, and the people going out on leave. I gave a more detailed answer in response to whitneycaneel’s question. If you have any more questions, please reach out.
Hi @dhanus! Thanks for your time here. Really great stuff with Sparrow. Would love to hear your strategy when it came to finding product-market fit?