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While working at Stord, an Atlanta-based supply chain software startup, Elle Smyth’s position as a product manager on the warehouse management system team exposed her to industry challenges.

“[Warehouse workers] were having to reference these very cumbersome shipping requirement manuals that might be 100 pages long,” she explained. “I couldn’t believe that a huge part of our economy was based on these huge paper manuals.”

It was also at Stord that Elle met her future co-founder, Sarah Hamer, and they quickly grew close—“as you do if you’re in a warehouse with someone for fifteen hours a day,” Elle said wryly.

Elle and Sarah co-founded RetailReady, a fulfillment compliance engine that helps warehouse workers more easily and quickly ensure they’re adhering to major retailers’ shipping requirements, saving time and preventing financial penalties. RetailReady was accepted into the Spring 2024 cohort for Y Combinator, an elite tech startup accelerator and venture capital firm that’s helped launch more than 4,000 companies.

In conversation with Duke I&E, Elle shared insights on her founder’s journey, her time in Y Combinator, and how Duke helped prepare her for life leading a startup.

Elle Smyth '20 wearing a baseball cap and clapping at Y Combinator

Tell us about your founder’s journey.

I’ve always wanted to found a company. I did Girls Who Code in high school, and at Duke I did the I&E Certificate and Duke in Silicon Valley. That was great exposure and solidified that this was what I wanted to do. I felt like [the founders] I talked to were so passionate about what they were doing, and I just wanted to be surrounded like people like that. A lot of people say they want to be their own boss, but I've loved all my bosses! I love building. I love creating. I love working on things I'm passionate about, and I didn’t want my job to feel like a job.

But I thought I would take the classic path—go into finance after graduation, go get my MBA, meet my co-founders, and start a company. But after a year in finance, I thought, if I want to be in a startup, I may as well just go to one now and get that experience. When I met Sarah, we realized we both had aspirations to start a company. Before we got into YC, we would spend hours after work and on weekends just ideating and trying to generate different startup ideas—we went through probably five different business ideas. Then when we got to this one, and we said, this feels good. I think this is something we could go to an accelerator with.

How has the Duke I&E Network supported you on your startup path?

At various points in my career trajectory, like when I was thinking about leaving my job in finance, or thinking about doing Y Combinator, I reached out to mentors from Duke I&E and from my mechanical engineering degree. They’ve been there at every step helping me figure out what’s best for me, which has been extremely helpful. When I was interviewing for YC, [Duke I&E Deputy Director] Kevin Hoch put me in touch with someone who went through the program, which was so helpful to mock interview and prepare. For fundraising, we’ve been connected with Duke angels and the Duke Angel Network, and we’ve gone to really great Duke alumni events in Atlanta. The community has been great and very impactful for me, and we always say we wouldn’t be here without the relationships we’ve made.

What has your Y Combinator experience been like?

Y Combinator has been awesome. It has completely exceeded expectations. There's about 230 companies—almost 600 founders—and you’re separated into four different sections, with groups of about 8-10 companies you see in office hours every other week together, so you get really close with that group. We meet every week with group partners Jared Friedman and Nate Smith, who are absolutely unbelievable. They really believe in you, which is sometimes most of what you need at this stage where you’re just getting your business off the ground. It’s been neat to be in an environment where everyone is passionate about what they’re building and can relate to exactly what you’re going through.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a founder, and how do you deal with it?

There are endless decisions you can make, and it’s easy to second guess yourself. At some point you just have to commit and figure out if a decision is working quickly. Having conviction in your own idea and in yourself is really key to balance, because you’re going to get input from a lot of people—other founders, partners, potential investors, different mentors. Everyone is going to say something different, and it’s hard not to drive yourself crazy just trying to take it all in. At the end of the day, you’re the person who knows your business best, and most importantly you’re the one who knows your customers best. The main thing that helps me with that frustration is my co-founder, Sarah. I personally don't know how people are solo founders. I would not recommend it. Being able to have that person to talk through scenarios with, and restore my confidence, and to do that for them as well, is really important.

What were your biggest takeaways from the Duke I&E programs you mentioned, and what advice would you give aspiring founders?

I never felt lectured at. You have to actually do things in those programs. You have to try to build a startup, you have to be collaborative with people, and that's the best way to learn. You just have to figure it out by doing it. There are so many different ways of doing things, and I appreciated the opportunity to test things out and build resilience.

If you want to do it, you can't just think about doing it. At some point, you need to stop planning and just get out there and do it. I’m very happy about the Duke I&E Certificate and what it's encouraging students to do career-wise. I always thought the classic consulting or finance route was my route—and that is one route, but if you want to be a founder, you have to take the steps to get there and gain credibility. If you actually try building things throughout your time in school, and take risks, you gain experience and have some actions to back up your goals. It’s scary and hard, but that’s why school is the best time to do it—to have side projects, work on something, and have that great testing ground to see if this is what you want to do.