She bootstrapped her first tech company while still a student at Cornell. Another company, GitLinks, won a business plan competition, eventually resulting in acquisition. An innovator’s insights on her startup journey.
Amanda: Hi, I’m Amanda Edwards and this is HXTV, championing Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs, brought to you by PKF Texas, CPAs and Advisors serving Houston’s community for over 15 years. My guest today is Nwamaka Imasogie, and today I want to welcome you to HXTV. How are you?
Nwamaka: Thank you, Amanda. Thanks for having me, I’m doing great. How are you?
Amanda: Great. You and I have spoken at length about your journey in tech and innovation, but I was so inspired by your journey that I thought it was something worth sharing with others. Can you tell us a little bit about your background here in Houston and then how you reached success in the tech space?
Nwamaka: I’m a native Houstonian and I spent most of my life in Houston. I went to the University of Houston for my undergrad, I studied electrical engineering, so I got my bachelor’s in that and immediately out of school I started my career at Chevron. I was building software internally, electromagnetic analysis tools, and managing engineers as well. At the same time, I had started another startup, my own personal startup that I bootstrapped called EasyWeave, and it connected Asian manufacturers to buyers all over the world, and that ran for about six years.
Amanda: Wait, so you were working, you had your full time job and then on the side you started your tech business?
Nwamaka: That’s right.
Amanda: And then how did you even think to get into that space? What made you say, this is a business that I want to start?
Nwamaka: Sure. I had taken a trip to China and I realized that a lot of the goods they were putting out there were just being brought to the United States, and then marked up, and then sold to the consumer, so if there is a way you can get ahead of that, you can go directly to the consumer and it reduces the cost. I did that, it ran for a few years, and I was a solo founder on that so it was really taxing. I think one of the lessons I learned was I want to build a strong team and I really want to delve into tech even further, and so I decided that I was going to go to grad school. When I was looking at all the different graduate schools, I decided on Cornell because they had a brand new program called Cornell Tech. It was focused on technology, entrepreneurship, it was top ranked in computer science in the nation, but they had a competition where you could pitch and they would actually fund six figures into your startup if you won. I went there, I did my master’s in computer science, and I teamed up with an MBA guy. So, I was doing computer science, he was doing MBA, so that was beautiful collaboration of him doing business, me handling all the technology, and we pitched and we won. Cornell was our first investor, they gave us our first six figure investment, and from there it was on. We started GitLinks—
Amanda: You’re not the first Cornell grad that we’ve had on HXTV. You also know Wilson Pulling, don’t you?
Nwamaka: I do, yeah. We schooled together at Cornell and we both did our master’s in computer science. He’s a brilliant guy and he also spun out his startup directly after Cornell, as well. So, I am a big champion of Cornell and Cornell Tech. I think when a school puts their money where their mouth is, that helps a lot because there’s that crucial time period after you graduate where you’re trying to decide: should you go get a job? Should you do your startup? And if you do have funding behind you it makes the decision so much easier.
Amanda: So, you got the money from Cornell and that’s a great start, but I know that didn’t seed or fund all of your business needs. How else were you able to raise the money?
Nwamaka: We did a few different things. Cornell was our first investor but we also participated in a few other accelerators and the accelerators weren’t just space and mentorship, they also wrote checks to back us. We also had some other investors that weren’t accelerators or anything that also backed us. It was just a matter of connections and introductions, and warm introductions are especially helpful. We get out there, we pitch, and just have a conversation about what our business is and try to get folks excited. We show them metrics, show them growth, show them, especially, the team that I keep talking about and harping on. A lot of times that’s enough for them to get excited and get behind your business, as they’re checking out do these—they really want to know, if I put my money in, does this team have the ability to execute and eventually provide a return?
Amanda: Yes. So, what was the business concept?
Nwamaka: Sure. GitLinks was an application security platform. It was a SaaS tool that basically automates the detection of vulnerabilities and licenses within open sourced software. Companies want to know, what are my engineers using, are there any vulnerabilities, and how do we fix that and how do we detect that automatically? And so, that’s what GitLinks did.
Amanda: What inspired that idea for your company?
Nwamaka: A very common thing in tech is basically starting with an idea and then pivoting a bunch. That end idea that I just told you about was not how we started. We started with, ok, well, how do engineers find the best open sourced software? We’re looking at community support; we’re looking at is it funded or is it just a one guy or one-woman operation that could go under tomorrow; we’re looking at stability; we’re looking at longevity; there’s a bunch of different factors so how do we pick the best? It turns out that once we started hitting the streets and talking to a bunch of companies, interviewing who we believed our end user was at the time, we decided to pivot. We went through about three or four pivots before we finally landed on what it was today. That’s one thing that Cornell was really big on, is don’t just put your head down and build. Once you have an idea, get to your end user as soon as possible, put it in front of them even if you have to wire frame it or put together designs or high fidelity wire frames. Put it in front of their face and get their feedback. That’s what we did and we did several user research interviews before we finally landed on what GitLinks was and the actual product that got acquired.
Amanda: Got acquired. Tell me how you got to that stage.
Nwamaka: Absolutely. We were in New York City and we were basically just approaching people the same way we would as a customer. We had approached one company, and one thing we actually noticed is, the market of cyber security, a lot of companies prefer to have it under the management of one big umbrella if you can. Rather than having little bits and pieces of one that does application security and maybe one thing that, you know, somebody that does a different aspect, or network security or penetration testing, if you can roll all of that up into one offering it’s easier to manage on the company side. It was definitely right for an acquisition, so as folks started approaching us, like, hey we want to acquire this and we want to bring it in house, we basically started fielding a bunch of offers and eventually landed on Infor. Infor is a global enterprise company and they purchased our intellectual property and so that’s how we exited.
Amanda: You were doing this all in New York and now you’re in Houston. Tell us how you made that leap from New York to Houston and why.
Nwamaka: Houston is home for me. Houston is wonderful. I tell people that Houston is God’s Country. It’s a beautiful place to live, it’s good for family, it’s very affordable, it’s just—it’s home. I have my support system here and I would love to explore opportunities in Houston, something that could anchor me to Houston. That’s like my ultimate goal.
Amanda: What were your thoughts when you learned that we were working on building this ecosystem here? I know we met over coffee and talked a lot about it but what were some of the thoughts you had, ways or ideas that you wanted to get involved in it?
Nwamaka: I think Houston, building out the ecosystem is amazing. I definitely agree that in order to have an ecosystem you do need physical space and you need that consolidation, you need that collision of ideas and resources and network. I am super excited for what Houston is doing and I think that’s going to be like a first step towards opening up the tech sector in Houston. I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends want to get into tech and the notion is always, you have to move out. You have to go east or west, East Coast or West Coast, and so the fact that Houston is expanding into tech, it makes me very happy because now we’ve got that much more economy and you don’t lose talent, wonderful talent, in the city with the young folks and all that. I’m very bullish on the future of Houston and technology.
Amanda: So, what’s next for you? Tell us what should we expect to come down the pipeline?
Nwamaka: I’m in talks with a lot of different opportunities at the moment and I’m always coding, I’m always into something to keep myself fresh in technology. I’m really just open to a bunch of different opportunities at this point. Yeah, just a bunch of opportunities. Nothing has stuck yet, nothing has landed yet, but I’m still open, taking it day by day and still just enjoying time with family.
Amanda: Any advice that you would give anyone who is thinking about either getting into tech or who is worried about the trajectory of tech or is thinking about coming to Houston to be involved in the tech community here?
Nwamaka: My biggest lessons learned and my journey through tech is that it basically boils down to people. I know that might be a surprise that it’s not the tech, but it’s twofold: it’s building a strong team, which again comes back to people. If you can execute, if you can—execute in terms of the technology and execute in terms of closing deals, you focus on building a really strong team. That’s going to take you far. Secondly, you do need to be in an environment, like an ecosystem, where you have a strong network so you can plug in, because the network is also going to take you far. Now you have the talent, you’ve got the product, you have the team, but you do need those connections to open doors and just knock on doors and get other opportunities. And those connections are going to be super valuable. My biggest advice to those that want to pursue this technology or business in general is strong team and network. Being surrounded in a place that’s very well connected and just having the right network.
Amanda: With being here in the technology space, what excites you most about being back in Houston?
Nwamaka: I’m excited to get involved with the City of Houston in any way that I can and lend my expertise and be able to help push technology forward in Houston, help grow the ecosystem. There’s a lot of exciting things happening right now and I’m excited to be a part of it.
Amanda: Nwamaka, this was so insightful and I want to thank you again for sharing your story. There are probably countless people who needed to hear someone have a story of success about how, from start to finish, they were able to start a company and exit successfully like you have. And then, of course, as it appears, the sky is the limit for you, so thank you for sharing that story.
Nwamaka: Thanks for having me, Amanda.
Amanda: Absolutely. And this wraps up my discussion with Nwamaka Imasogie, and again we are going to be profiling lots of entrepreneurs and innovators across our city, so we welcome you to join us again on HXTV.
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