5 Questions with Elle Bruno

October 7th, 2020

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Elle Bruno is the Managing Director of the Techstars & Western Union Accelerator. Elle has been a founder and startup operator for 19 years. In 2004 she started her first company, an eBay ancillary marketplace, and since then she has been involved in building three venture-backed startups, most notably Trunk Club. Her expertise is in consumer tech, specifically revenue and growth. Elle has been an angel investor and advisor since 2015, with a focus on investing in female founded companies, and was an EIR in the 2020 Techstars & Western Union program. In her free time, Elle enjoys working on her social goods site and contributing to charitable causes such as race education, scholarships for DREAMers, and closing the socioeconomic gap.She resides in Denver with her husband Tim, and three children George, Zoa, and Louise.

01. What are you looking for in startups for the Techstars & Western Union Accelerator?

With early stage startups, much of the grade is weighted on the founders themselves. I agree with this notion, but I always start by first evaluating the problem that the startup is addressing. Is this a problem that needs solving? Is there an existing solution in the marketplace? Can I recognize quickly that this solution is better OR “packaged” better?

The founder traits we seek are dynamic. First, founders must be willing to show vulnerability. Through my experiences working with founders over the years, it's become clear that the most successful are those who overtly recognize their strengths and blind spots, and find great people to cover said blind spots. Along with that comes EQ, grit, communication effectiveness, and their motives for participating in the accelerator. We want to be confident it is a mutually beneficial fit.

As global platforms serving a global economy, we (Techstars and Western Union) seek companies and founders from around the world to join our program. There are significant fintech trends right now in emerging markets that we find interesting. That said, the fintech space is bursting with opportunity due to the swift movement in consumer and commercial behaviors as a result of COVID-19. It’s an exciting space to be in, and we look forward to welcoming all applicants! 

02. What are some of the biggest learnings from your career and entrepreneurial journey that you bring to being a Techstars MD?

I’ve learned a lot of things the hard way. Over the last ten years I’ve worked for three hyper-growth companies, starting with as few as 10 employees and building to 1000+. It has not been easy, but I’m grateful to have learned so much along the way. Here are 3 of 3000 things I’ve learned:

  1. Focus on capital efficiency - Historically, we’ve had VC pressure to focus on top line growth so much that we’ve pushed profitability to the side, and with that comes additional pressure to go out and fundraise. It’s a vicious cycle. The startup space has seen a recent shift towards a focus on capital efficiency, which I believe will ultimately bring stronger long-term outcomes.

  2. Work with people who make you laugh - The lows can get really low when you are building a company. It’s the teams who remain optimistic and are able to laugh through some of the hard stuff that persevere. Make sure your partners share that mindset.

  3. Be passionate about the problem - If you are genuinely passionate about the problem you are solving, it will reflect positively across all functions of the business — recruiting, fundraising, vendor partnerships, and culture.

03. Why is supporting women entrepreneurs important to you?

“Feminism [is the] notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents and not be held back by man made barriers." — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I’ve experienced gender inequities my entire career, and I’ve witnessed many female friends and colleagues encounter the same. So, where I can support a woman, whether it’s in investing, advising, or cheerleading, I do.

Gender inequity is a tricky topic because it is so deeply rooted in our society. Unfortunately, that means the solutions are complicated. I greatly appreciate when companies make commitments to hire female team members and board members, but pledges like these only scratch the surface. Men and women alike need to outgrow gender stereotypes; we need to agree to allow women to be confident and outspoken without calling them overly aggressive; male partners need to be responsible for 50% of the household tasks; a woman should not be considered weak because she talks about her family… to name just a few examples.

Beyond what we need to do day-to-day, there is an exorbitant amount of data that points to women founders having strong exits, all the while being underfunded. During my time as EIR working closely with Ethan Austin, the previous MD for this program, one of my favorite things he says is: "The tie goes to the runner". We’ve been the runners for a long time now.

04. What is your favorite thing about the Denver and Colorado startup scene?

The people. I moved here a year ago from Chicago, and after 17 years there I wasn’t sure what to expect from a new city. I recall attending Denver Startup Week my first month in town and being blown away by both the attendance and the energy. Coloradans are authentic and intellectually curious. They don’t ask: "what can you do for me?” but "what can I do for you?”. With that DNA comes thoughtfully built companies, a committed approach to investing, and a collaborative startup scene. Denver is on the startup map, and with the influx of millennials and now Gen Z, it’s going to be incredible to see what happens here in the next 10 years.

05. What does our partner Western Union bring to the accelerator?

Western Union brings years of experience across the global fintech space and great energy around innovation. When I first met with the Western Union team, it was obvious how excited they were by the ideas of the startup ecosystem and its founders.

In turn, I know the founders from the 2020 program have greatly appreciated the mentorship the Western Union team has given them, and have tangible takeaways from these relationships. The synergy between Western Union, a group with deep knowledge and understanding of fintech, and these eager and innovative startups is quite powerful. It’s a recipe for intelligent innovation.

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