The 30 Under 30 Woman Behind Clara Labs Pushes The Boundaries On The Digital Personal Assistant

November 29, 2016
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Peter High

10/11/2016

I first learned of Clara Labs co-founder and CEO Maran Nelson when she was among those noted as a Forbes 30 Under 30 Pioneering Woman:Forbes 30 under 30 Pioneering Woman. When a member of her extended communications team named Justin suggested I meet her, I told him that I would be in San Francisco – where Clara Labs is based – on a certain date. The next email I received was from Clara, herself. The message read,

Hi Justin, Thanks! I’ll get this set up with Peter.

Hi Peter, Happy to help get a meeting on the calendar for you and Maran.

Can you meet at Stable Cafe (2128 Folsom Street, San Francisco) on Friday (Sep 23) at 10am or Monday (Sep 26) at 11am PDT?

Also, what’s the best number for Maran to reach you? I’ll add it to the calendar event description for reference.

Best,

Clara

I wrote Clara back thanking her for her help, confirming the time slot at one of the locations, while working out some other details. It took me a moment to remember that Clara is the AI. Our back and forth, which included further confirmation of details was remarkably lifelike.

Clara Labs was a Y Combinator company that now boasts the likes of Sequoia Capital as investors.

There is a lot written about the paucity of women founders of Silicon Valley companies, for good reason. I was interested in learning more about what drew Nelson to entrepreneurship, why she focused on a digital personal assistant platform, and how she sees the offering evolving. We covered all of that in more in this interview.

Peter High: Maran, I thought we would begin with how the idea for Clara Labs came about. What was the need you saw that was not being met? Also, I am curious as to how much of what exists now was in your vision during the early stages.

Maran Nelson: Clara was conceived of when I first had to interact with email at a high volume. I thought I was going to be great at this professional stuff, and in the vast majority of cases I was. I started out trying to sell my product for a startup I previously had. I went right into Y Combinator right after earning my undergraduate degree. Every time we got on the phone, we were able to sell them our product. I remember looking back at the end of this very stressful, intense summer and thinking, “Where could I have been better? Where was I failing?” My intuition said – and my research confirmed – it was in the number of times I dropped the ball just on forgetting to send a calendar invitation, or did not follow up, or mis-converted a time zone. All of that was a huge cost to me, just over a few months of work. Outside of the time that I spent trying to build this new startup, get this thing off the ground, and invent something, the amount of that time that I spent coordinating was huge as well.

That stuck with me as an initial, deep frustration. Most business people at some point just accept it as part of doing business. That probably would have happened for me as well had it not been for an early introduction into entrepreneurship with that mindset, and my co-founder, who has been my longtime best friend, coming on and encouraging me in my obsession over several months with solving the scheduling problem.

High: Were you an aspiring entrepreneur from a young age? Was it the idea that sparked the entrepreneurial spirit, or were you an aspiring entrepreneur seeking an idea?

Nelson: My mother named a company right after me when I was born because I pulled her out of the workforce. She called it “Maran Made Me,” because Maran made her stay at home. Both my parents are pretty entrepreneurial. [My co-founder] Michael [Akilian]’s family, though, is especially entrepreneurial. His dad has been building businesses since Michael was little. Michael and I both looked at our parents in this act of self-creation. It is a lot like writing where you get to take this empty space and a lot of you gets imprinted in that space – a lot of values. It was a model that we were lucky to get to watch. In our early relationship at 15 or 16, we were already pitching crappy startup ideas to Michael’s dad, who usually told us that reality did not work the way that we thought it did. But it was definitely core to both of us.

High: Why did you study psychology and neuroscience?

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