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Success is not one-size-fits-all: Dr. Laura Mather’s advice for finding your path in Silicon Valley

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Dr. Laura Mather is a cybersecurity executive and entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in the technology field. Since 2003, she’s been a Silicon Valley leader in fraud protection and data privacy. She recently visited Signifyd to share her perspectives on success in Silicon Valley and how to find the right fit for each individual’s work-life balance. 

This is part one of a two-part series based on Dr. Mather’s fireside chat at the Signifyd main office in June 2019. Part two will be published later this summer. 

Starting out in Silicon Valley

When Dr. Mather started her career in computer science, she quickly learned a key lesson that would resurface at different parts of her career: the value of a market—and how sometimes the market isn’t there when you need it. Her career at eBay investigating what came to be known as “phishing” began thanks to her unique mix of expertise and education in computer science, text mining and web traffic analytics.

“It was very new in 2003,” she said. “When I started, they didn’t have a name for it yet. We called it spoofing at the time. With my NSA experience and online experience, I might have been the only person in the world with the background eBay needed.”

As Dr. Mather went deeper into the phishing rabbit hole, she found that most of the phishing activity targeted eBay and PayPal. She helped eBay become more equipped to fight this kind of fraud, which forced scammers to spread out across the internet to attack other internet giants like Bank of America and Microsoft. With eBay in better shape to prevent fraud attacks, Dr. Mather knew it was time to move on.

She teamed up with her husband Mike to start their own company to help big brands fight phishing in 2008. “Silver Tail Systems was the ninth name of the company,” she said. “One of the hardest things you’ll do when starting your own company is figuring out a name. You think about the things to budget time for as an entrepreneur, but you’re never prepared to spend 80 percent of your time just working on the name.”

Picking the right name was only the beginning of an uphill battle for Dr. Mather’s shift to entrepreneurship. Even as she and Mike had extremely rare and valuable knowledge and a ready-made market, starting a business was a brand new world filled with invisible pitfalls. Dr. Mather got a secondary education through surviving many startup ordeals.

Venture capital wins and losses

Dr. Mather raised $2 million at first for Silver Tail Systems. Her company went through many ups and downs over the next four years, marked by big changes like hiring a CEO in 2010 who helped guide the company with a stronger vision for sales success. When their Series B funding round came up, Silver Tail earned $22 million from a top Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Silver Tail System’s success story was shaped by a lot of strife along the way. “We got 42 no’s from VC’s before we got one yes,” Dr. Mather said. “Startups are a roller coaster with huge lulls between the wins. As time goes on, the wins can get bigger and the tough periods can get shorter. As the founder, I had to protect the rest of the company from the roller coaster. They don’t need to hear about every single no, but they need to know about all the times someone says yes to us.”

Dr. Mather’s big win came in 2012, when Silver Tail received a $250 million acquisition offer from a company that previously approached Dr. Mather’s team in 2010. Silver Tail had 112 employees when Dr. Mather accepted the acquisition offer, and 17 people at the company became millionaires on that day alone. She decided to part ways with the company she founded after the acquisition to start something new: a service to anonymize resumes based on proven science on how to hire for diversity.

Talent Sonar had everything right: a much needed market, an amazing team, interest from high-profile clients like Genentech and Nike and $10 million in initial funding. With Dr. Mather’s expanded experience as an entrepreneur, this new business seemed like a slam dunk.

“We couldn’t get it over the finish line,” she said. “These companies said they believed in diversity but they weren’t willing to change the way they hired.”

It was a big blow to the venture, enough to force Dr. Mather to close Talent Sonar in January 2018. “Shutting down a company is awful,” she said. “But it made me realize where these companies really stand on diversity. They’re willing to say the right things. They want to put out a press release and think they’re done. At least this let me know where things really stand.”

She may have lost Talent Sonar, but the abrupt change in plans allowed her to open a new door for advising aspiring entrepreneurs with a focus on addressing issues and questions in diversity in Silicon Valley. As with everything, success in her new role comes from the foundational lessons learned early in her career.

Hiring for diversity—for real

Dr. Mather’s goal to help companies hire for diversity came from her background in staffing her engineering team at Silver Tail Systems. She admits that they were all outwardly the same: middle-aged white men, but their life experiences prove how valuable it is to have different voices in the room.

“One was a linguist, one was a physicist, one hadn’t graduated high school, one was a mechanical engineer,” she said. “My husband was our CTO. He was the only one on the team with a computer science degree. When these people came together, we had a team of people who had been trained to solve problems very differently. A linguist, a physicist and a computer scientist each look at the world differently. This team could solve interesting problems because of that diversity.”

Dr. Mather noted that the discussion of hiring for diversity started to heat up around 2012. In 2015, she started to see the problems that would eventually doom Talent Sonar. “Intel said they would put $300 million towards diversity,” she said. “How often does a big company say they’re putting $300 million towards something: spreadsheets, or even AI? Google and Apple both made major financial commitments to improving diversity.”

Commitments and big numbers tend to obfuscate the real problems. Silicon Valley does not lack diversity. The problem is that founders and other executives tend to not care about hiring for diversity. Dr. Mather recalls her recent discussion with a startup founder. “He said he only wanted people in the room who agree with him,” she said. “We were at a Fortune brainstorm event when he said this, and it hit me: this is what I’m up against.”

In the end, what she identified as a ripe market in desperate need of disruption simply never happened. In part 2 of this series on Dr. Mather’s visit to Signifyd, you can read her advice on what companies can do more than just pay lip service to hiring for diversity.

Entrepreneurship perspectives

Dr. Mather walked a hard road: nurturing a startup business to success, then watching another company fail. She’s taking the lessons she learned through trial and error to help other entrepreneurs understand how to navigate Silicon Valley’s challenging VC scene.

Her experience is much more down to earth than the typical startup profile. She had to work nights and weekends to launch Silver Tail Systems, on top of putting in time at her day job. She was out there raising money for herself—a perilous choice for women in the Valley. “I have a much better understanding of the difference of raising money as a woman now than I did in 2008,” she said. “I had no idea it was different.”

She learned the unwritten rules of the VC world through pitching on her own. “I thought VC’s would look at something and decide to fund it,” she said. “But they don’t think that way. Even at the seed level, you’re expected to have $80,000 to $100,000 in revenue. It’s really important to talk to the VCs before pitching and understand the metrics they’re looking for. They’re happy to have a 15 minute call with you instead of an hour long meeting that would waste their time.”’

Dr. Mather’s startups couldn’t have been more different from one another, and neither had clear-cut indicators that one would succeed over the other. “We didn’t have a product for Silver Tail Systems when we pitched to VCs and we found somebody who was willing to invest in us,” she said. “We had a product with Talent Sonar but we didn’t have any traction. The biggest question for startups is, is there a there there?”

Even working with VC lawyers is different in this world. Dr. Mather had to pitch to lawyers to get them to take her on as a client. “It’s essentially a practice of your VC pitch,” she said. “If you find the right venture lawyer and pass the pitch, they will represent you for free until you raise money. The right VC lawyer is key to your success. They see everything: what the terms are, how much people get paid, why companies fail and how they succeed. They are a wealth of information.”

Allyship and the evolving culture of work-life balance

Dr. Mather’s work supports more than just diversity in hiring. She also works to open up more opportunities for anyone who wants to start a business. She urges everyone to recognize the challenges that start even before you launch your company: lacking money, support and time.

“How are you supposed to raise money or gather resources to launch, especially if you have a family or a job,” she asks. “I believe that discriminates against the people who can’t live in their parents basement for a while.”

“It’s also hard if your partner or spouse isn’t in it with you,” she said. “Empathy is so critical. It’s totally different from working at a job where the paychecks are steadily coming in.”

Priorities also must shift for entrepreneurs, at any stage of their business’ lifecycle. “Put the important things first,” she said. “Everything else will find its place. Also, control your calendar. I block off time on my calendar just to work. You have to find what fits for you. Nothing is one size fits all.”

Dr. Mather asks all of us working in Silicon Valley to acknowledge that the culture that built our region’s success can be toxic, and then confront damaging expectations to create the right work-life balance for everyone. “We live in this horrifyingly dysfunctional culture, where you’re expected to respond to emails at 3 am,” she said. “I decided that I wanted to get ahead, so I would log in at 9:30 pm and send a few emails, so it looked like I was working.”

Everyone working in the Valley can set an example for others. Dr. Mather’s expectations for men working in the field is to share their power and become allies for positive change. “When Silver Tail Systems was still a very small company with just nine employees, the first person to ask for flex time was a white man,” she said. “And we gave it to him. It opened up permission for others to ask. Somehow it’s a problem when a woman is the one to ask first. The more white men ask for these things the more it helps everyone else. We need allies in this.”

Dr. Mather shared a ton of valuable lessons in her visit to Signifyd. The biggest one: Be an ally. Set an example. “It’s something everyone can do,” she said.

Chris Martinez

Chris Martinez

Chris is a content strategist at Signifyd.