How Former Actress Cooper Harris Founded Klickly
Cooper Harris wanted to be a lot of things when she grew up – an ice skater, an archaeologist, and a spy, just to name a few – but she didn’t plan on being an entrepreneur. After a career in acting (she landed a gig on The Young and The Restless right out of college), she found herself sneaking off to hackathons and making friends with engineers. How exactly does an actress go from auditioning for the lead role to creating the lead role? I recently sat down with Harris to learn how she started her business, Klickly, and grew it into a successful AI-powered advertising platform.
From Actress to CEO
Growing up with a serial entrepreneur for a father, Harris thought it was pretty normal to start a new business every four to eight years, and watching her father taught her just how hard the journey would be.
“I watched him work really, really hard, and I think that informed my world view,” she said during our interview. “I believe that to build a company you have to be very dedicated and work very hard. I think someone who’s just jumping into it might not have that association.”
At the time, though, Harris was more interested in performing than founding. She thought that as an actress she could be everything she wanted. After graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, she landed an agent and a television show. Years later, after coming to Los Angeles for a movie role, Harris found herself in the middle of a technology boom. She started spending her weekends at hackathons, eventually winning at the events and recruiting talented engineers to be on her teams. Her acting skills made her strong at pitching, something a lot of engineers weren’t good at doing.
Armed with the network and tenacity she needed to start a business, Harris founded Klickly in 2014. Klickly is the first commissions-based, AI-powered advertising platform that enables purchases and engagements directly within marketing messages, and the company only gets paid when it’s making sales for its customers. With that kind of business model, things like cash flow, funding, and data became crucial to the company.
At the time, Harris found it was difficult to fund a tech business as a woman, and doing it as a former actress didn’t always help. “I think that they [investors] humored me because they liked me,” Harris said. “I even had a well known VC ask me if I ever considered pivoting my platform such that it doesn’t depend on AI and machine learning and it really just ends up being a marketplace direct-to-consumer for shoes and jewelry,” Harris said. “No one took me seriously at first.”
Finding Funding Against All Odds
Despite those perceptions during Klickly’s first round of funding, the next round would go much differently. Google took notice of what Harris was accomplishing, and the company has since received investments from not just Google executives but the CTO of Stripe and executives at Adobe.
Her advice to women entrepreneurs? “Don’t focus on the adversity – focus on the success,” Harris advised. “Being a woman in tech right now is way more powerful than being a dude.”
When Harris started Klickly, the tech space was fairly devoid of women and she felt like any man in her position would have had an easier time getting funded. Specifically, she had successfully landed Eminem as a client, and the platform was used to raise $50,000 in just two weeks for the rapper’s campaign. Not realizing how long it would take to raise more capital, Harris actually ran out of money early on.
“I was just so confident in the idea that I wasn’t worried about it, but we were making money much slower than we were spending it,” she said. “I had an extra suite in my house, and I started [renting] it out. It did so well that I could support myself on it, so then I rented the apartment next door and ran that the first year of my startup."
Now, the company has a strong cash flow model and doesn’t have to worry about where the money will come from. But for other small business owners – in any space, not just technology – one of Harris’s biggest pieces of advice is to have a strong cash flow model.
For technology entrepreneurs specifically, Harris has a checklist for starting a small business and being successful:
Cooper Harris’s Checklist for Startup Success
- Don’t just go out with an idea and pitch – vet it against every expert you can find.
- Next, vet it against target consumers and make sure it’s something they really want. (Spend about three months vetting your idea.)
- Get Letters of Intent (LOIs) to verify your idea has legs. (LOIs are usually brief, nonbinding agreements that lay out the general terms of a sales agreement. These can help you determine how serious clients are about using your product once you’re ready to launch and can help impress investors.)
- Get a bare-bones prototype built in a short amount of time. (“If you don’t have engineers who believe in your product enough to spend two weekends on it, it’s not good enough,” Harris said.)
- Seek investments from family, friends, and angels – people who are strategic and can help you.
- Automate anything you can (Klickly only has two sales people).
- If you find something that makes you money nine times out of 10, kill everything else and focus on that.
Author’s Notes: Los Angeles–based Klickly is host to over 600 ecommerce-enabled brands serving millions of consumers. CEO and founder Cooper Harris calls Santa Monica home, and her only acting gig today is playing the role of successful female entrepreneur.