Meet #VOZWOMAN Daniela Perdomo, founder of goTenna
Tell about your career trajectory to date?
I was a community organizer in college and my first job after college was as a writer at the L.A. Times, where I hoped to speak some truth to power. The combination of feeling super isolated in L.A. and frustrated by old media in a new media world drove me to a somewhat random job at a startup in San Francisco in 2008 and I've stayed in the industry ever since. I like working in tech in New York better than in the Bay Area — we’re far away from the culture of tech worship here. My closest friends in the city are architects, designers, teachers, musicians, writers — and I'm really glad to be the odd-woman out. Keeps me excited about my work, rather than subsumed and self-satisfied by it.
What is goTenna and what inspired you to create it?
goTenna is the tech startup I started working on almost three years ago. It's also the name of our team's first product — a gadget that pairs wirelessly to your iOS or Android device and allows you to send texts and share you location with anyone else who also has one even when you don't have service. It creates a totally autonomous, peer-to-peer network — no cell towers, wifi routers or even satellites — that's intelligent, reconfigurable. And it does all this via the smartphone you already have in your pocket.
My brother is my cofounder, and in the fall of 2012, we started talking about a solution to enable communication whenever we needed it — not just when it's available. My brother's inspiration came from attending big raves where cell towers are overloaded and you can't get in touch with your friends. Mine came from the experience of Hurricane Sandy when about a third of all cell towers went down — and power went out too, cutting people off from the normal modes of connectivity they usually rely on. Then we started to think of all the other times you need service but don't have it: hiking out of range, traveling abroad, a family on a cruise ship, rural communities. And this snowballed into thinking about the choice to want to be off-grid — due to privacy or cost, say — even when you can plug into the grid. The idea of creating a communications network powered by people as opposed to infrastructure started to feel exciting and almost obvious.
While we've only launched this first device, we're working on different iterations that build on the first to address different use-cases. Our goal with goTenna is to build a whole stack of technologies — hardware, software, firmware, networking protocols, a development platform — to power resilient, on-your-own-terms communications.
How has where you come from influenced your decision to take on this complex problem?
My interest in technology is sociocultural, even political. I grew up in São Paulo, which although cosmopolitan in many ways, is also very much stuck in the developing world. So I grew up hyper-aware of socio-economic divides, including technological ones.
I think technology becomes truly revolutionary when it's accessible to all kinds of people — not just people in Silicon Valley or New York City. While goTenna's first product is for people who can afford smartphones, I think our tech becomes truly important when it can reach people who live in wholly disconnected regions of the world and subsist on a dollar or less a day. Unfortunately, it's hard to start there, but my hope is that by 2017 we'll be tackling emerging markets. That larger vision is a big part of why I decided to focus on this.
I’d like goTenna to be providing connectivity not just to hikers in Colorado but to villagers in the far reaches of Africa. Communication is a right, but currently it’s a privilege. I think that needs to change.
What was the most challenging part of creating goTenna?
The lack of external — and sometimes internal — validation, especially at the start. We worked on goTenna for 18 months in stealth mode, and there were plenty of days where I'd second-guess the entire project, especially as my personal savings dwindled to fumes. But when we launched publicly last summer, and our story was told all over the planet, it was extremely validating. There were newspaper articles about us in Indian newspapers, we had renowned organizations like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF reaching out to work with us, and more than anything, I realized, 'Wow, we've built something people really want and need.'
All that being said, however, we’re still in such an early-stage of the company, and everything feels aspirational in spite of all we’ve accomplished. Fortunately, now that I’m nearly three years into it, I feel like I require less external validation, and have a better internal perspective, too, which really helps get through the rollercoaster of running an early-stage technology business.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to start their own business?
Trust your instincts, and be generous to and patient with yourself. Creating something out of nothing is literally the scariest and most rewarding thing you can do.
As far as I’m concerned, every entrepreneur should make time to see a therapist, exercise, sleep, meditate, volunteer or do whatever makes your mind and body feel healthy. Self-love is really important and unfortunately it’s the first thing to fly out the door for me when stress hits — which is always. I’ve not fully achieved an ideal balance yet, but I’m working on it.
What are your passions outside of work?
Recently — over the past six weeks or so, to be exact — I somewhat accidentally built a grassroots volunteer organization in support of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. This has been my "after-hours startup," and it's completely dominated my life outside of work. Two weeks ago we launched feelthebern.org, which lays out in the most clear and fact-sourced way, the entirety of Bernie's record on and policies proposed on all the major and minor issues affecting our communities, country, and planet today. The site's gone viral and the official campaign is hugely supportive of our work. Now that I've caught up on some sleep, I've kicked off our next few projects. You can't get the startup out of me! Even on my off-hours.
Otherwise, I keep a lot of lists and tackle them whenever I have time. I read a lot of psychology texts because I fantasize that someday, after goTenna, I’ll slow down and become a psychotherapist. I also have several notebooks filled with ideas for books, screenplays, and essays I want to write. I just turned thirty and feel imbued with a rad energy about nearly everything. No one told me turning thirty would be so awesome.
These photos were taken by Arturo Stanig at the Frida Kahlo exhibit in the New York Botanical Garden.