Nandini Jammi (Check My Ads, formerly Sleeping Giants)
Maria (name changed for anonymity)
We spoke with two female founders—Nandini Jammi and Maria, whose name we changed for anonymity reasons—about their experiences. While the range of different stories and experiences is endless, we take what Nadini and Maria tell us about co-founder betrayal, bias, and dishonesty as exemplary—and possibly one of the biggest barriers—of bad role models keeping others from even considering joining the ecosystem.
Interviewed January 2021
Inequality and Betrayal in Co-Founding Relationships
Erika Brodnock (EB): Nandini and Maria, you both had a really tumultuous time with co-founding ventures in the past. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Maria: A couple of years ago, I co-founded a FinTech company. I was coming right out of school, and I met a co-founder who had a similar idea to mine. He was already working on the early version of it and asked if I wanted to be involved as a co-founder. It was in a space I was really passionate about as well, so I said yes. I turned down a job offer and took the riskier path of becoming an entrepreneur.
However, I was really new to everything with entrepreneurship; I did not know about cap tables, I didn’t really know about how to build co-founder relationships. I did not know what I should be looking for. It is interesting because sometimes I look back and blame myself and say, I was naive. That’s how I ended up in a less than ideal situation. But on the other hand, I think that in situations where we don’t know a lot, we hope that we can put trust in the people around us and in the systems in place working well enough, to protect us from getting into a more vulnerable position. Anyway, I digress. Essentially, we built this company over a multiple-year period, we scaled it to three or four countries, we had millions of dollars coming through our platform and were on a high.
Things started to change when we started raising our first official round of funding. Investors started saying, “Wait a second, the fact that you only own 2% of this company is a really bad thing.” By this point, I had come to learn what a cap table was and understood what fair compensation should resemble, and had realized this for myself too. In many companies, what I had was the equivalent of an early employee. I asked to shift things around, but my co-founder was not particularly keen on it.
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I also started to realize my voice was not really being heard either. I was very much in an environment where my co-founder had his vision for the company and saw me as an extra pair of hands to execute that vision. I did not actually really have a say in where things are going. That became more and more clear the larger we grew. I decided that I wanted to leave, and the final conversation I had with my co-founder was after we had met with a number of investors who started to say they would invest if the cap table changed. A few even said they would invest if we switched roles, and I became the CEO. For me, it was cool, because I had felt very small, but then these external investors, looking at the company, were validating that I had done a lot of the work to get us to where we were, which is what encouraged me to have the courage to move on.
Nandini Jammi (NJ): A lot of that sounds familiar. In November 2016, I was working as a marketing manager at a small tech company. A couple of weeks after the 2016 elections, I visited Breitbart.com, this website that I had been hearing about, that I knew was a vector of disinformation, but had never seen for myself.
The first thing I noticed as a marketer was that it was covered in ads—this is probably how they were making so much money and doing so well. They were publishing incendiary content, fake news basically, and then monetizing it through programmatic advertising. The first thing I did was write a piece on Medium explaining the relationship between Breitbart and their advertising revenues. I talked about how Breitbart, a right-wing media outlet, was being run by Steve Bannon, a white nationalist, and that he was now set to become chief advisor in the White House. I pointed out how important it was that we do not support this financially in any way. I noted that the only way that we could do that as a community was by adding Breitbart.com to our exclusion list in Google. I then urged marketers, particularly those in charge of running Google ad campaigns, to exclude the website from media buy. I included a help desk article from Google. Then I took a screenshot of an Old Navy ad on Breitbart, posted it on Twitter and tagged Old Navy in the post: “Old Navy, did you know your ads are on Breitbart?”
I just started this thing on my own. The very next day, an anonymous Twitter account called Sleeping Giants contacted me saying, “Oh my God, how cool that you’re doing the same thing that we’re doing.” That was how I learned that the Twitter account and I had basically the same idea, although he had started a week earlier than I had. Within a day, we were in touch over the phone. We had a lot in common, it turns out. We were both copywriters from Maryland. We both had a similar outlook, vision, and way of thinking. It felt very natural for us to team up and work on this thing together. He ran the Twitter account; I ran the Facebook page.
Together, we coordinated and worked on Breitbart. This campaign initially was just taking screenshots of ads on Breitbart ourselves and tweeting at the companies. As we grew, because it was such an accessible thing to do, people wanted to join us, and it quickly turned into a crowdsourced effort. Very soon, we had thousands of people contacting companies with screenshots they had taken while visiting Breitbart. Companies were coming back, sometimes within hours or even minutes, to say that the ad placements were unintentional, and they were taking steps to block the site from their media buys. We grew to several hundreds of thousands of followers.
During the time we were anonymous, he was the de facto leader to me, because the name Sleeping Giants was his idea. I felt that because I had joined “his” effort, that he was entitled to that leadership position and to have the final say. There were other factors at play: he was 15 years older than me, he had more experience than I did. I believed that was reason enough to defer to his judgment. Although we worked relatively independently, I would check in with him if I wanted to try something.
We also had that dynamic when it came to speaking to the press. Early on, he asked that I give him all of the press requests, just so that we could “stay on message.” I agreed to that, believing that it did not really matter because we were anonymous.
Then in July 2018, we were outed. The Daily Caller identified him as the founder of Sleeping Giants. Knowing this was coming, he contacted a New York Times reporter to get ahead of the story and asked me if I’d like to also join him in that. I said yes, because I was ready to come out. I wanted to do more advocacy work around adtech but had really been hamstrung by our anonymity. In the article, we had two pictures side by side, as equals, and it did not quite identify us by any titles. There was a bit of nebulousness to that.
After we came out, we had a lot of attention coming our way. The next few days and weeks, I found that he was taking interviews on his own without giving me a heads-up, and he would take interviews as the founder of Sleeping Giants. At first, I did not think it was a big deal, because I did not necessarily want the attention, nor did I feel as though I needed it. But as these interviews kept appearing, I realized that the way that I was being portrayed, the way that he was talking about me was like an assistant, or as a helper in the relationship. I was really uncomfortable with that.
I called a meeting with him to discuss it, and I said, “I need a title too, and we need to find some ways to make this situation work for me, because I don’t want to look like your helper.” I outlined the things that I wanted, and he said, “Yes, sure, we’ll make sure you get all the credit you deserve.” Shortly after this conversation, we agreed that I would take on the title “founding organizer.” It was a silly title, but it was the best thing I could come up with that was not “co-founder,” which he had explicitly rejected.
Days and weeks passed, and nothing changed. He continued taking interviews on his own. We had a few follow-up calls where I would bring up concerns that I was being shut out of vital communications and left out of major media opportunities. I was also helping sell SG merchandise and had no insight into how that money was being spent. During each call, he would make vague commitments and never follow up with my asks. In the meantime, he was able to build an entire profile for himself through Sleeping Giants, which he was able to translate into real-world influence—speaking at the big conferences, having a seat at the table. People would contact him first and not me. Because why would they? I was not seen as a leader in this effort … or seen at all.
Exactly one year later, he went to Cannes [Lions International Festival of Creativity] and sent me a picture of himself accepting a Gold Lion, the media and communication industry’s biggest award! I had no idea he was going. I had no idea we were even nominated for a Gold Lion. I was obviously not there and I feel I was kept out of it purposefully.
This was a really difficult time for me, both personally and professionally. I was still trying to find my footing career-wise. Sleeping Giants took up so much of my time and paid nothing, it was a volunteer gig. I was working as a freelancer, but it was really hard to build a career in the same industry you’re openly and vocally critical of. So I had been working on trying to build my profile as an activist. I wanted to try and support my work through speaking engagements and consulting.
So for me to be left out of the industry’s biggest award was an enormous betrayal to me. Not just personally, but on a professional level. That event would have created a significant opportunity for me to network with the right people and get my foot in the door. My career matters too. I should have been there. I no longer trusted him at all.
That was the moment I decided I needed to change something or leave. But I wasn’t willing to leave my own campaign, particularly because I would never be able to pursue my career aspirations without it. So instead, I went rogue. I changed my title to co-founder and started taking on all press requests that did not specifically ask for him. I started to take some influence back, write under my own name more often, and claim my own wins rather than feed them to him to post as Sleeping Giants. Then in the summer of 2020, I left Sleeping Giants and started my own new venture.
Experiencing Explicit and Implicit Bias
Johannes Lenhard (JL): How much of your experience do you think was shaped by the fact that you are female? Or that you are not the white male founder and investor archetype?
NJ: To me, it is pretty clear that the fact that I was not white and male completely changed my trajectory when we came out to the public in the New York Times. The pictures were equal in size right next to each other, and it is clear that people saw one of them to be a leader and the other wasn’t, and that was me. In the following months, it became clear that my experience was completely different from my partner’s. I was not being approached for interviews. Nobody was asking for me at all. To me, it is clear that my co-founder fit the archetype of “white savior.” It was almost as though they were looking for that person. They were looking for someone to fill that role … and they found it in him.
JL: We see that in the numbers. That’s what this whole world is made up of, right? White men supporting their own kind.
NJ: White men supporting the campaign against bigotry and sexism being led by a white male. They somehow managed to center even a story like that around a white male.
Maria: Me being a woman definitely impacted how my co-founder perceived me, how investors, at least in the beginning, perceived me. What was interesting was that by the end, the investors, as I mentioned, were starting to see me as the person who could lead the company.
In my own experience, my being a woman definitely shaped the dynamics with my co-founder. Actually, I saw this with all the women who joined our team, there was this really toxic dynamic where the men could always make executive decisions. Even at a more junior level. If a man was speaking, that was the voice the room listened to. The other women in the team were initially just in customer service, which my co-founder saw as the lowest rank, and in meetings would yell at them, verbally, raising his voice, and calling them out in front of the team for doing something “stupid” rather than giving valuable feedback one on one, or creating a constructive environment.
There was this negative culture in our team, and it sometimes felt very male versus female. It made me really curious how many early-stage startups have this dynamic, because I do think there is a general idea that women know less or are more soft-spoken, or more gentle, and don’t have things to bring to the table.
After leaving, I learned that one of the women on our team was actually sexually harassed by someone on our team. That was a shock and made me think, “I knew that environment was bad, but I had no idea how bad until after I left.” It really made me wonder how many early-stage startups have cases of sexual harassment or a toxic internal culture. At an early stage, you don’t have diversity and inclusion practices, you don’t have HR yet. In many ways, these could be the most dangerous environments for women to be in. Especially as there are no consequences if things do go wrong.
Creating and Maintaining a Safe Environment
EB: What specific things are important to think through when setting up your business? What do you think people could learn from some of the experiences you have just detailed?
Maria: One is thinking about discrimination and harassment policies from day one. At the new company I am now a part of, we are thinking about how we can create a really safe environment from the beginning. We have been doing a lot of reading, and it just seems like startups totally missed the boat on all the things HR policies, especially for women, whether that’s anything from maternity leave, to work-life balance, to actually the really important, challenging discrimination policies.
We have put those in place at the new company and are working hard to ensure we are an inclusive and safe place to work. If all of this had not been so poor at my last company, I would not have learned how important it is to do that. I am really proud of the safe culture that we are creating as a result of this challenging learning.
The second thing I would do is create really clear processes in general. For example, if we have a codified system of how to give feedback and what that looks like, then we could put that into practice more easily. That’s something I’ve really been trying to do in my new role, documenting all the processes, especially when it comes to culture, so that all new hires have guidelines for how to do things. That is something that was really missing at my last company. If we had best practices in writing, it could have really changed a lot of behavior. But then again, you also need a team that is willing to do that too.
Take Credit, Give Credit
NJ: The first thing I’ve learned is that when it comes to any new idea or concept (the way a lot of startups start), take credit and give credit, freely and generously. One thing that I wish that I did earlier was, and there wasn’t really a possibility to do it when we were anonymous, but I should have at least made a note of my own ideas and my own wins. That would have made negotiating later about what my job title or my role should be much easier. Taking that credit, as well as giving it, is one of the things that I do now.
The venture we are building now is very much a consultancy. Right now, it is me and my business partner, Claire, and we are very much invested in each other’s success. The way that we demonstrate that is by always elevating each other on social media. We take that extra time to elevate and promote, and it makes us both look more powerful and more unified.
Advice to Future Founders
JL: If you could give a piece of advice to your own 18-year-old self, what would it be?
NJ: I have two things I’d like to say. One is, I got lucky. My current business partner, we were friends first. We have an existing relationship and we have had a lot of upfront conversations about where we want to be and what our expectations are for ourselves, in our personal lives and our professional lives. We have asked each other whether we are on the same page as far as the longevity of the company and what it would take for us to sell out.
That has helped build and create trust because it is one thing to be friends, of course, but it is another thing to go into business together. Luckily, through these conversations and in working together, we have found that we have different and complementary core competencies. We have split our duties that way. The other thing is that we have different personal interests. That means that if there is something that she is better at, or an opportunity she is better suited for, that helps us decide who gets to take it.
Finally, we are really careful about who we work with and who we associate with. We have had people approach us for partnerships or to be our clients. If we feel that they don’t have the level of integrity we are looking for, we turn them down. This allows us to make time and space for people who are supportive of us, our mission, but also of women in general. We take the time to look at their social media profiles and to talk to others, and we use our whisper networks to see who is worth elevating and working with before we get involved with them.
Maria: One piece of advice is really practical, and it is to be a solo founder. At least be a solo founder until you find someone you are really sure about. The expectation of co-founders has been set by YC [Y Combinator], and a lot of early-stage incubators or programs. They say you need a co-founder to be able to build something successful. But often since the tech world is really dominated by men, and many men who tend to naturally flock toward working with other men, it is hard to find a co-founder in the first place. Then maintaining healthy relationships with them can be difficult.
I’ve heard a lot of other women with stories like mine, and Nandini is yet another, and I think: as women, we are strong and powerful. A lot of us have it in us to build something alone. That’s a really practical piece of advice I would give my younger self.
The second would be to surround yourself with the right people. I know that is easier said than done. But this is something, especially in building my company, that I have been super careful about. We really want to know the character of a candidate before working with them. We want to make sure they have the right skill sets, but knowing that they are a person of integrity, of trust, who is kind and willing to collaborate, is crucial. I haven’t been afraid both on hiring team members and on the investor side of things to say no to people who I don’t feel have that kind of culture-fit that we are looking for in these early stages.
The third piece of advice would be: I’m capable, I have good ideas. That is something that I really struggled with at my last company. I listened when my co-founder would say, “I’m the one to speak in the investor meetings.” I would have prepared everything and written all the notes and made the entire presentation, but I trusted that I did not know enough to be able to answer the questions. To my younger self, I would definitely say: “Your voice matters, and you have earned that seat at the table, so own it.”