MassLight Mentor Spotlight: Alex Willingham, Engineering

Hometown: Nyack, NY

Desert island game: Starcraft

Six-word life story: Listen to people. First, be kind.

What is your role at MassLight?

I’m the lead engineer and manager of the Build-for-Equity team. I work a little on every Build-for-Equity project most days.

How did you find your way into venture capital funding and software engineering?

I was working as a developer at MassLight before we started the Build-for-Equity program.  In those days, we had a go at building a few of our own startups; they kept failing “for every reason except the tech.”  I sort of felt OK about that for a while, since I was only responsible for the tech.  At the end of the day, however, you really want to work on projects that make a difference.  You can have the coolest app in the world, but if you can’t make the sale, nobody will see it.  Now I take a holistic approach and try to put my finger on whatever I think is the greatest risk for a startup; that’s where I start, every day.

Startup Engineering Equity Mentor
Mountaineering in The Bugaboos, British Columbia (2018)

What excites you the most about MassLight’s Build-for-Equity program?

There are lots of awesome people with great ideas - who would make great entrepreneurs - but they can’t find a CTO for their business.  I love being the springboard that makes it possible for these companies to take their next big step.

What’s the best part of working with startups?

Working on startups is super exciting; every task you do can have an outsized influence on the company’s trajectory.  I like doing work where I can look back at the end of the day and know the effort was impactful.

You’ve been hard at work all morning; time for some fresh air.  Where do you take a break?

The garden! I like to grow vegetables and some flowers every year. Especially lettuces, tomatoes, kales, and Swiss chard. Occasionally, when I am on a call where I know I won’t need my computer, I’ll be weeding or watering the garden while I’m on the call.  Don’t tell my boss.

Startup Engineering Equity Mentor
With my family in the pumpkin patch (2021)

Name a surprising skill or experience that influences your passion for mentoring small businesses.

Failure! I’ve seen a lot of it.  Most startups fail, of course–at least in their first iteration. With lots of individual, successful founders, you hear success stories that aren’t controlled for luck. I like to use my broad experience working with - and watching - dozens of startups to advise others on how best to succeed.

What qualities in partner startups do you look for?

More and more, I’m looking for a founding team with relevant sales experience–or experience leading day-to-day execution on a previous project.  We’ve grown our Build-for-Equity team so that we can provide far more than just the engineering expertise.  We can assist with a range of areas from design to marketing–but we just can’t do your sales.  I know everyone doesn’t necessarily want to do sales, but pretty much all startup founders need to do it if they want to succeed.

If you could meet any fictional character, who would you meet (and why?)

Kirby. I’d like to know what power he would get if he ate me.

Startup Engineering Equity Mentor
Cuddling with Cola (2021)

What’s a piece of advice you would give early-stage founders (or aspiring entrepreneurs?)

Validate as early as possible. Find a way to prove that there are customers.  Prove that you know they will pay.  Substantiate that they need what you are building. The “MVP” for lots of products and services should be spreadsheets and duct tape.

One book you think everyone should read:

My sister, Katie Willingham, wrote a book of poems called Unlikely Designs. She’s a creative genius and I find new inspiration in this collection all the time.

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Started in 2000 in Washington DC, Masslight has served the DMV for 18+ years. We serve enterprises and startups with full-stack development and long-term project management services.

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