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Interview with Lillian Pierson – CEO of Data-Mania on Getting Started in Tech and Entrepreneurism

Lillian Pierson
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You’re the founder and CEO of Data-Mania – a company you built that today supports students, professionals, and Fortune 500 companies with data strategy and training services in the areas of big data, data science, and data analytics. 

So I’m curious about the decision you made years ago to travel the world and become an entrepreneur who would eventually create and succeed with Data-Mania. Did you always feel like you were ready?


Was I ready? Yes. By the time I quit my job the only thing in the world that I was afraid of was that I would die before I was able to quit my job and actually do what I wanted to do. I was beyond ready. I was actually ready before I even knew I wanted to be a data scientist, I knew I was ready to be an entrepreneur and work for myself and travel the world. I always knew that.

 

About wanting to be an entrepreneur, I made that decision from the floor of a hostel in La Paz, Bolivia in 2011. I had been looking for a job in engineering and had put out 600 resumes and not getting anything. This was back during the economic decline.

 

Originally I didn’t have any social presence and I didn’t know how to do anything on social media. I had strong credentials as an engineer but the industry was just down then. I was getting paid $8 an hour working all day as a legal secretary and going home spending all night on job applications and I was not getting anything.

 

And so I realized when I was sitting in Bolivia that I was actually making more money per day not working – I had a house with a renter – chilling and travelling around in South America than I was making working full time in the United States. So I thought “fuck it. I’m going to work online!”

Once you’d decided to get into business for yourself, what was the experience like building up a company with clients?


I’ve always attracted clients. I did two jobs on Upwork when I first quit my job and moved to Thailand. But then I realized I was selling myself short by doing that because I was getting better opportunities attracting clients through my business Data-Mania, LLC.

You’ve offered me invaluable advice in regards to entrepreneurism. We actually met while I was travelling in Thailand and I came to visit you. So I’ve learned quite a bit about your success strategies. I think anyone wanting to learn how you scaled your business and built it into the success it is today can find a lot of insight from you on your Facebook Group The Entrepreneur Collective. Can you share some of those highlights in building a successful business?

I always looked from the very beginning at what was working and I used analytics on everything. I also looked at what was not working and I cut it. I started everything manually but as I was doing this I discovered ways to automate and spend time with my efforts doing something else. This really informed the way I did my work.

Can you share an experience that really impacted your perspectives on building a successful business as an entrepreneur?

 

One of the things that happened is that I wrote a book. Before I even started my data business I wrote a book on travel. I learned the lesson of supply and demand. I learned the lesson of barriers to entry. Travel is a very low barrier of entry and there is demand, but supply is saturated. So I wrote this book, but it didn’t get me anywhere. Just like my 600 job applications. I actually had to build a presence and then market my book. So I started a Twitter feed and started tracking the analytics on that.

 

Then I did some research and I found that big data was trending at that time and I was working in the data space. And so I thought “data is extremely hot, and I enjoy working on it. I’m an engineer and I need a business, so I’m going to make a business in this topic. I was dabbling in a lot of things.

 

People don’t use the power of social media like they could. I had already found automation tools. Once I started blogging about data and using social, it just picked up right away.

What would you tell someone starting out in the tech space and looking to create opportunities for themselves?


What I would say to anyone who is new – which I see a lot of people not doing – is to do that market research. Such as “where is the barrier of entry high, and where is it unsaturated?” A good example here is data science.

 

I see that this industry has developed so much! There are some badasses out there and there are advanced conversations happening allover the internet that are very hard. So it has gotten very mature. But when I was starting, machine learning was still sort of new. What I’m saying is that now is the time to look elsewhere. If I were to start a business today it would be somewhere more cutting edge.

How do you overcome that inertia of getting started and progressing in your own development?


You really just have to create the opportunities yourself. You just start doing it and then the opportunities come for you.   For example, with my courses now on LinkedIn Learning I had actually created this R course four years ago and I had no idea what I was doing in terms of pre-sales. I mean I wasted so much time on this thing! But when I put it out there, the guy from LinkedIn Learning saw it and said “Oh I want you do to produce these courses on LinkedIn Learning!” and I became a real trainer then. You just have to find what it is you want. But if it is not saturated.

What would you tell someone starting out in the tech space and looking to create opportunities for themselves?


What I would say to anyone who is new – which I see a lot of people not doing – is to do that market research. Such as “where is the barrier of entry high, and where is it unsaturated?” A good example here is data science.

 

I see that this industry has developed so much! There are some badasses out there and there are advanced conversations happening allover the internet that are very hard. So it has gotten very mature. But when I was starting, machine learning was still sort of new. What I’m saying is that now is the time to look elsewhere. If I were to start a business today it would be somewhere more cutting edge.

I want to ask more personally how you approach your challenges and opportunities?


I do have self-doubt and we are all going to have self-doubt. The more expert you become, the more that voice will say “there is always someone better than you, what if you make a mistake? Blah, blah, blah…”

 

When I do something, I do it because it is meaningful to me and I’m passionate about it. I think this is the thing about being a woman. And also I just do what I want to do, you know? That’s the nice thing about living in Thailand. I didn’t need anyone’s feedback here. If I want to become a data scientist I’ll become a data scientist.

 

And so for example, writing that 450 page book on data science was freakin’ hard. But I’ve learned to do my morning route. I wake up. I pray. I meditate. I do journalling. Now I don’t do all the work by myself. I’ve learned these things. I’ve learned to rely on my team.

Can you speak to your experiences working remotely and having the opportunity to travel while also managing the development of your own business?


I’m a bit of a workaholic and I was single so I didn’t have much else to do but work and travel the world. But I’ll tell you something. That was not satisfying to me. People say this thing about becoming a freelancer and getting to travel the world… That’s great but when you’re working 80 hours a week serving your clients and not even making what you would as an employee it’s very hard. Sure you get to travel but you’re working yourself into the ground and you’re lonely. It looses its appeal.

 

Anywhere in the world that I went, there was nothing that was ever going to make it change to make it better. I was still on Planet Earth. I also think I wasn’t taking care of myself at that point I was just working all the time. At a certain point I almost went back to the United States to get a job. There were a few really cool opportunities that came up

Statistics as recent as 2018 show a serious equity disparity between men and women in Silicon Valley. This is really a cue to a much larger trend in the tech world where women are underrepresented and lesser-compensated. Can you share some of your thoughts on this?


There is one thing happening in the high-tech space right now and with investors and with men in general. I’m part of these groups and its all men in there. The conversations are very shop-talky. It’s all about people impressing one another and there is this huge ego game. I refuse to play that game.

 

I’ve also been treated really badly by men in the middle east who have disrespected me. I’ve also had men blow me off. I’ve had men tell me that “this may actually have to do with you being a woman” etc… I also get plenty of men thinking that I am naive. But you know some women are just as bad.

 

Here’s the deal about all of that. The inner circle. The showing off. The disrespect. The lower rate of pay. They can all f*** off. I don’t accept work that pays less than I know I am worth. And, if I get a wonky vibe from someone during our preliminary discussions – I won’t work with them. I do what I need to in order to preserve my boundaries.

 

Since I’ve moved to Thailand I didn’t have to accept work that didn’t treat me correctly. The good thing is I don’t have anyone standing between me and my progress. I live in Thailand and so I can have so many other professions. I am attached to inner peace. There are infinite ways to attract money. The money is just the byproduct of the right living. The money will keep coming if you keep showing up and do the right thing. And so the industries can keep changing.

What would you tell to other young women wanting to become leaders in their career or otherwise find meaningful employment in technology?


You have to get into what you want. When I first started I took this course and there was some market research involved. I knew then that I wanted to do training because I like talking to people and I liked writing. I already knew these things about myself.

 

I think there is even more value in this. For example, programmers do very, very well. But the people who can actually communicate and understand business value and know how to use technology to generate business value can also do very well. You have to do whatever it is that is your strong point. Having that technical competence is of course important too.

 

The unlimited resources that we get access to comes from overcoming the obstacles. The best things that will ever happen to you are usually the result of the worst thing that every happen to you and how you overcame that. The trick is overcoming the bullshit.

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