Lead(H)er - Katie Bickford, Vice President of Sales and Customer Success at Starry
“If I go back down through the jobs I’ve had, I’ve picked missions, I’ve picked technologies, and I’ve picked inspiring ideas. As a result of that, my career has shaped itself. What drew me to Starry was the energy. It got me incredibly excited to be a part of building this company and working with inspiring people, ” said Katie Bickford, Vice President of Sales and Customer Success of Starry.
Katie grew up in New Hampshire and went to Keene State College where she majored in both biology and chemistry. In addition to classes, Katie held multiple jobs and leadership positions in school organizations.
“I put myself through college 100%. I worked multiple jobs: I was a property manager, I drove a truck, I drove a bus, and I managed a bar. I did a lot of different things and was always hustling to make ends meet and keep everything going.”
In between supporting herself financially and studying for midterms, Katie also found time to act as the biology club’s president. Not only did she dedicate her time to fulfilling the usual requirements of the position, she also raised money and organized a club trip down to Sanibel Island in Florida to tour marine biology research facilities and work on a volunteer project.
“As the president of the biology club, I had thought the club was sort of benign and didn’t serve much of a function other than people meeting occasionally to talk about biology classes and eat pizza. So, I came up with the idea of a marine biology research trip. I did all the fundraising to bring fourteen students down to Florida to tour marine research facilities. I wanted to engage people more deeply in the popular aspect of biology that wasn’t available to us in New Hampshire.”
Katie ended up sitting next to a recruiter on her flight home from Florida. He learned about her background and went on to set her up for interviews at all the major pharma companies.
Right after graduation, Katie moved to Boston and went through training with Eli Lilly. Soon after starting, she was one of the top sales reps.
“It was a bit of a fast track; from being moved to Boston, to be trained and to get all of these great resources at a Fortune 100 company, I was really lucky to get that opportunity. One of the things that made me really successful in that role, as I had used the data differently for targeting and strategy. I invented campaigns to work with the challenges that existed in my territory that did not necessarily fall within the standard marching orders. As a result, I was really successful.”
Although she was a top performer, Katie felt a bit out of place and she realized that a bigger organization might not be the best fit.
“I’d worked so hard to put myself through college and to get myself in this position. I knew all the stuff I was doing was cool and in many cases, being adopted nationally but there was a weird cultural sense that it was disruptive. Being young, it didn’t feel good to not be totally embraced for succeeding,” Katie explained.
This was the turning point where Katie decided to go to a smaller company. After two-and-a-half years at Eli Lilly, Katie took a job at a smaller pharmaceutical company.
“My next iteration was going to a smaller company that was a bit more innovative and scrappy. The next job after that, I went to an early stage medical device company. This company would eventually be acquired by Covidian. In this role, I learned a lot but I think the trend that I followed was going where there needed to be creation and innovation. I liked going to companies where I could exercise my ability to solve problems and build stuff that I found challenging and interesting.”
While she was in medical device sales at Aspect Medical Systems, one of her coworkers, the wife of the CEO of EnerNOC, recommended she apply to the early-stage energy tech company.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m really ready to be part of a company before it becomes something.’ I joined Eli Lilly right before the patent for Prozac was about to run out. Every company I’d been at had sort of already realized this peak level of potential and was either trying to hang on to that or stay rolling to a certain extent. The idea of going into something that was so new and risky excited me.”
EnerNOC turned out to be the beginning of Katie’s management career. She went into the energy technology company with a clean slate and built out the sales organization and a strategy that was ultimately scaled out to cover the entire national and international company.
“I did well there but once the team was super highly functional, it became challenging for me to just maintain something. I was always itching to make it better, fine tune or optimize things. I think it would have been a really practical move to just sit and enjoy the fruits of all of that labor. But because I had the need to be building and driving forward, I had to move on.”
Katie took her next role as the Director of Sales for Europe, Middle East, and Africa at Acquia. It involved moving to Europe and building out seven international markets. She found it to be a pretty challenging experience.
“One of the things that were challenging about that role was it became very administrative after a certain point. I guess that’s one of the things about leadership—the higher you get, the more time you spend in meetings. I started to feel that I really wanted to be working with people, that’s the aspect of management and leadership that I enjoyed, that hands-on aspect.”
Deciding to make her next move, Katie took a role at the Startup Institute as the Vice President of Admissions with the goal of supporting people in developing their careers.
“Originally, I was courted into the role with the proposition of building the admissions process for the organization. Really what ended up happening was, the organization was a lot smaller and the state of it was a bit different than originally presented. For me what was interesting about it was adjusting to becoming what the organization needed as opposed to coming in as a builder and a manager. A lot of my function there was very much as an individual contributor. Sometimes I was doing 12-to-14 back to back interviews with candidates a day. The role also gave me the opportunity to work with and be mentored by Diane Hessan.”
A few years into Startup Institute, Katie was introduced to a company called Starry Internet by a former colleague from EnerNOC. She wasn’t necessarily seeking out a new role but found the team and the company very exciting.
“I met all these amazing people in the company who’d already accomplished such incredible things but still had incredible energy and motivation to build something extraordinary with Starry. They wanted to build something disruptive to the status quo. They wanted to make a dent in the universe. I was just so energized by this. It didn’t even feel like it was a choice, it felt more like destiny more than anything else,” Katie smiled.
Starry is an Internet service that’s focused on delight in every single aspect of its operation and delivery. Starry’s mission is to expand this delight across the globe and make high-speed internet accessible to everyone both nationally and globally.
“It’s more of a consumer experience as opposed to a utility,” she explained. “It brings satisfaction and delight and solves for all of the issues that we see in the marketplace as a consumer—aspects of pricing, customer service and the device.”
As Starry’s Vice President of Sales and Customer Success, Katie is on a mission to build teams that support property owners and managers to provide an amenity to their real estate that gives their residents choice in internet provider. Starry is putting the “service” into “internet service” by providing one-touch immediate customer support, transparent pricing ($50/mo) with no contracts, and beautiful technology that residents and buildings want to show off. The speeds on download are eight to ten times faster than standard residential cable Internet and up to forty times faster on upload. This makes working from home on video calling and streaming, uploading files, and connecting dozens of devices easy and enjoyable.
Rapid Fire Questions
BS: What do you like to do in your free time?
KB: I have a daily ashtanga yoga practice that I do in the morning. I wake up at 5 AM, I go practice for a few hours, and then I go to work. It’s a really central activity in my life.
BS: How do you manage stress?
KB: My daily practice is essential. Doing something where I’m only focusing on breath and movement. It’s like taking a mental shower every day. A lot of the stuff that’s churning in my mind is cleared out and I have a fresh outlook moving forward. I also think it helps me have the capacity to support people at a greater level and take on situations that have a lot of complexity and intensity. It’s good to have a place to clean myself out so that I’m starting the day fresh, open, and in a good place.
BS: How many cups of coffee do you typically drink in a day?
KB: I actually drink Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee. I’m a super fan. If you come near me, I may force you to try it, which is ridiculous because it’s like $2 a packet. It’s a vice and I overdo it. I drink about three to four cups of that a day. It has lion’s mane mushroom extract which has been scientifically proven to improve memory, focus, and concentration.
BS: Where is your favorite spot in the Boston area?
KB: I like walking along the Charles and in the Arnold Arboretum. JP and Cambridge are two of my favorite areas in Boston, I feel have more of a sense of international culture and diversity than the Back Bay where I currently live. I also enjoy spending time on the North Shore, especially Salem where I have a condo.
BS: If you had to choose one thing other than family, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
KB: Being happy is not a default, it’s hard work. It requires making choices. Incorporating long-term thinking at times and at other times enjoying being irresponsible. I’m proud of my choices. These choices are available because of the women that came before us blazing a trail and opening up opportunities for unprecedented freedom and opportunity. I embrace this by doing things like studying yoga in India, learning Thai massage in Thailand, hiking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, surf school in Africa, herding sheep in Scotland, cycling Vietnam, and living in Bali. I also embrace this by taking responsibility for doing my best to represent myself and support other women. My greatest accomplishment is my ability to live a life on my terms, which is ultimately an accomplishment that has been passed down to me by the women (and men) before me who made it possible.
BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?
KB: No. I don’t think I would have known that I could be this happy.
BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?
KB: Pick your first job wisely. I know that there’s a lot of grief that’s given to millennials for not taking whatever job they can get. I actually think what I’ve seen in the upcoming generation is the desire to find work that matters and find work that they care about. I really admire that. My feeling about the first job you take out of college is you actually start to find a groove. If you just take a job in insurance even though you don’t care about it, once you’ve been there for a year or two, that’s where people see you fitting in. That’s where you’ve built experience, that’s where you’ve built a network, that’s where you have value in the marketplace. I think that you should take the time to find something that you’re inspired by.