Kenan Saleh is the co-founder and CEO of Halo Cars, a company that provides smart LED advertisement screens on top of cars. Halo Cars was acquired by Lyft in 2019 only nine months after inception, which earned Kenan a spot in Forbes 30 Under 30. Today, Kenan works as Head and General Manager of Halo Cars (rebranded as Lyft Media). He is also a founding partner of Distributed Capital, a syndicate investing in fellow startup founders. Kenan graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019 with a B.S. in Economics.In today’s issue, Kenan shares his views on success, what it’s like to sell a company, and advice on starting a company with nothing:
🚗 What is Halo Cars? Halo Cars provides smart LED screens on top of vehicles for advertisement purposes. Their targeting algorithm accounts for location, time, and weather to ensure that ads are only shown to target audiences. They have one of NYC’s largest digital outdoor inventory footprints, scaling to over 1000 cars. Lyft drivers can earn additional income on top of their ride earnings with Halo monitors.
🪧 Starting Halo Cars: The idea for Halo Cars came when we thought about how advanced digital advertising had become juxtaposed with how little innovation has happened in the outdoor advertising space. Outdoor advertising looked the same as it did ten, twenty years ago. It wasn't a problem that we faced directly, but we saw it as an opportunity to bridge those two.
💡 When did you first want to build a startup? One summer, I interned at a VC fund in Indonesia. After seeing other startups, the lightbulb clicked that the founders weren't geniuses or superhuman. They're normal people. So I thought I could create a startup too. Halo started a couple of months after I came back to campus.
👬 Finding co-founders: There are two common ways to find co-founders: interest groups where people can self-select, and finding people and persuading them to join. Two of my co-founders were good friends from college. I convinced them to join because they were smart, and I wanted to work together. The other, I met at a Founders’ Club event. He came up to us after our pitch and said that he had experience in advertising and wanted to help.
📚 On balancing school: I didn’t balance school. I did the minimum amount of school I needed to not fail. I was working on the startup all day, then class, homework, then back on the startup, sleep at 2AM, wake up, and do it all over again. It was the hardest I'd ever worked my life. There was no other way around it.
💼 Getting acquired by Lyft: We were not looking to sell our company. We were getting ready for a seed round so we could expand to more markets. But competitors in your space will reach out, just to get to know you. Lyft and Uber had reached out, and our conversations were fairly normal, non-acquisition related stuff. Then, Lyft made us an offer out of the blue. We wanted somewhere to build this company out, and we felt that Lyft was the better fit.
🏢 Startup vs post-acquisition life: When you're just six people in a startup house, nobody knows who you are, no one cares. There are no rules, no documentation. It's like throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. When we joined Lyft, we had all sorts of rules around how we ship products, legal reviews, and how it lines up with the overall strategy of the company. As a founder, I prefer the startup environment, but eventually, a startup becomes what I'm describing anyway. It's more about the stage of your organization than it is about preference.
☀️ Day in the life: I’m the General Manager of Lyft Media, which is like the CEO. We basically operate like an independent startup with our own roadmap. My day-to-day is half management, half product development. We're almost at 20 people now.
✨ Most underrated characteristic in a founder: High conviction. Mathematically, startups are unsuccessful. So by definition, you're taking on something that, by any rational analysis, is unlikely to succeed. The only way you can do that is if you have almost illogical conviction in yourself and your product.I've seen people do something for six months or a year, get bored, and give up. The best founders will work on things for years and years before they are successful, or cool, or hot. There's usually two to five years where it looks like they're not getting anywhere, and it seems crazy to most people. Very few people can survive that, but successful founders will.
💸 Investing in other founders: At Distributed Capital, we invest in founders who we think are exceptional. That has been a tried and true tactic. We don't have really strong theses on what's going to succeed. We're sector and stage agnostic. We only look for two things: 1) People who are smart, hard working, and have high conviction, and 2) some amount of traction.
🏆 What is success to you? Waking up every day feeling 110%. It’s a good metric because it's very easy to tell if you feel excited or drained, and it’s repeatable. Money is a short-term form of happiness, but being excited about what you do everyday is long-term and sustainable.
🌎 Growing up Asian-American: I’m half Syrian, half Cuban, but I identify most with the American immigrant subculture. Regardless of which country they’re from, most immigrants feel some sort of chip on their shoulder. It's a good source of motivation to work hard and succeed. My parents immigrated here and went through a lot for me to have this opportunity. I want to make my parents proud, and I want to take advantage of the things they’ve sacrificed.
💡 Best advice for an aspiring founder? You can do the smallest thing possible to start. People think that a startup needs to be more legitimate or official than it actually needs to be. Usually, you can start working on it from day one. Everybody who wants to start a company should start with the minimum viable product (MVP): the scrappiest, fastest version of a product to test and iterate on. If you think about it, most companies can be boiled down into a one week product. For example, I know a home-cleaning on demand business that started off as just a text group chat, and they had paying customers from day one.
👨💼 What about for those without a tech background? There are usually much simpler ways to validate ideas than writing code. Even if you could write code, you probably want to validate first. You can use Google Forms, a no-code website builder, or just make a mockup in Figma. It’s really common to build a landing page showing what the product would be and create a waitlist before even having the product. If people sign up for it and interact with that mock up, it can be validation to go actually build the product. The barrier to entry is a lot lower than people make it out to be.tl;dr 1) Founders need high, almost illogical conviction and commitment (think 2-5 years) 2) Founders are not superhuman; they’re normal people. You can create a startup too. 3) Start something, and start small. You can build a testable product in a week. There’s no need to make it look legitimate or official from the start. No-code tools are your friend.
Learn more about Halo Cars here: lyft.com/media
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