Persona co-founder Rob Simmelkjaer has been a senior executive and on-air contributor at ESPN, ABC News and NBC Sports. While serving as a senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures from 2011 to 2019, Rob also anchored NBC’s coverage of three Olympic Games (London, Rio and PyeongChang). Through years of conducting hundreds of TV and radio interviews, Rob realized the power of a great conversation. In 2019 he left NBC to launch Persona so that anyone can create and discover great interviews with people and subjects they care about. Rob is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, and lives in Westport, CT.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
RS: To me, an entrepreneur is someone with two things: vision and courage. A vision for something that they think should exist in the world but doesn’t yet, and the courage to take the risks necessary to turn that vision into a reality.
How did your company come to be?
RS: For fifteen years, I was an unusual person in the world of corporate media: an executive who also frequently worked on-air. As an on-air “talent” I got to interview a lot of interesting people. Then one day about two years ago a cousin sent me an old photograph of my late grandfather Carl Simmelkjaer as a young man. I was fascinated by it, and I really wanted to hear his voice. I realized that I wished I had interviewed him. That’s when I had the idea to create a platform focused on creating, discovering and preserving interviews of all types.
How has your business changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
RS: We launched our MVP mobile platform just as the crisis was starting. It’s an interesting time for a business like Persona. People have more time to engage with media content, and they’re looking for trusted information from authorities like Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose interviews we often feature. We have pinned Covid-19 to the top of the topic list. It’s also a great time for people to connect with family and create personal interview content, which is a big part of Persona’s value proposition.
What is your proudest and darkest moment so far? Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can.
- Proudest moment: the successful launch of our MVP in the Apple App-store (Android coming soon). It took a lot of work to get there, and it felt great to put this idea into the world. But, of course, it’s just the beginning.
- Darkest moment: I’ve been fortunate to have some great investors, but it’s always tough to hear a pass.
How is your company changing the landscape?
RS: Question and answer conversations (aka interviews) have been an important part of human communication since the days of Socrates’ dialogues. They’ve been one of the most enduring and ubiquitous forms of media content across print, radio, television and digital. But no one has ever built a digital destination focused on interviews. That’s what we are building. We think a place where you can discover the day’s best conversations — and create your own — can be a meaningful addition to the social media landscape.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
RS: Building a product is hard and always takes longer than planned. I’ve always had a big vision, but I wish I had started by trying to do less at the start.
What advice/credo do you live by as you grow the business / what is your professional and personal mission statement?
RS: In business I’ve always lived by the credo “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Build something good and don’t worry about the imperfections. I also like the saying “there’s no such thing as good writing … only good editing.” Building a business — especially a new business model — is all about iteration.
Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
RS: When I need inspiration, I try to find a great interview with a person I admire. Someone who has done something hard talking about all the bumps in the road they experienced along the way. It reminds me that I’m going through the same things, and that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel.
What does “success” look like for you? What do you think will help you achieve it?
RS: Success for me is the day I myself start discovering new and unexpected interview content — posted by total strangers — on the platform we’ve built.
Has personal or professional “success” changed for you since the COVID-19 pandemic?
RS: No, because my goal for persona has always been to bring people together around great conversations. That goal is even more important than ever at a time when we’re all physically separated, and when people whose lives are being tragically lost need to have their stories told for future generations.
What’s it like to work alone or with your partners? What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
RS: It’s the hardest and most crucial part of success. People working together will always have differences — on strategy, tactics or work style. What they must have in common however is basic values, or things will fall apart.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day? How has it changed in recent months?
RS: I have a personal saying: “Win the morning, win the day.” To me, winning the morning means getting my workout, shower and breakfast done before my team’s morning call at 8:00a. I also need to make a to-do list for each day the night before, so I don’t spend the rest of the morning meandering without a plan. Things come up that derail plans, but without a plan you’ll never get on the rails in the first place.
What keeps you motivated during this time?
RS: Legendary football coach Hank Stram told his team to “matriculate the ball down the field” during Super Bowl IV. I’m motivated to move the ball — yard by yard — a little closer to the goal line every day. Any day with positive yardage — even just a little — is motivation to get up and do it again the next day.
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as, as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
RS: I want to be an inspiration to founders of color and mid-career founders — two groups that (let’s face it) don’t get a lot of love from investors — that they too can make their dreams a reality.
To see more Rob Simmelkjaer’s video interview or ask him your own questions, look him up on the Persona interviews app. You can download it from http://personatalks.com/.
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