EXCLUSIVE : STARTUP U Scoop: Interview With Carly Martinetti

Jumping in with both feet and eyes wide-open into the entrepreneurial world of start-up funding and kickstarting a business is young businesswoman Carly Martinetti, one of the ten specially-selected entrepreneurs for ABC Family’s docudrama series STARTUP U.  Taking an inside-look into the Silicon Valley school for those with the vision and spirit to enroll in Draper University, STARTUP U puts under the microscope those willing who are putting their creative talents and dreams on the line in hope of walking away with a significant prize: funding of their business venture.  

Fortunately, Draper University and STARTUP U is more than just offering young capitalists a chance to pursue their dream — they are providing the tools and education to make it a reality.  For Carly Martinetti, that is exactly what she was seeking when she joined ABC Family’s STARTUP U — she had the vision, the idea, and the savvy to know that it would take more than just a dream to make her business of “Pretty Litter” an actual real product that the world would buy.  It is a product Carly knows that pet owners everywhere need and would actually use if just given the chance — after all, it is about keeping cats healthy and providing an early warning system if disease or illness strikes.

In an exclusive interview, Carly Martinetti talked about the genesis of “Pretty Litter” and the experience of pitching it and bringing it to life through her experience on STARTUP U and at Draper University.

How did you find out about STARTUP U and what made you want to be a part of it?
CARLY:  I actually came across it on the internet.  I was reading an article on entrepreneurship and it happened to be one of the articles on the website.  I thought it was pretty cool, but I didn’t know much about it.  I had never heard of Draper University before, so I did a little research and looked into Tim Draper.  I thought it was interesting, to say the least.  I always wanted to start my own company and I had this idea in the back of my mind for awhile now.  So it just seemed like a really cool opportunity and I figured, “why not?”  

What did you hope to get out of the experience?  What were your expectations?
CARLY:  I had very low expectations.  That’s just how I roll.  But really it was the fact that I wanted to learn from the best in the business in terms of how to get around when you are starting a business and really get familiar with the concept of a “start up” in general.  I had known the basics, but I did not know exactly what it took in order to start one myself.  So it seemed like if you were going to learn from anyone, you might as well learn from a billionaire.  [Laughs] That was kind of the thought-process behind that.

Now that you have concluded the program, do you think you have accomplished that?  Do you think that you are much more knowledgable about how it all works?
CARLY:   I do. I really do.  I feel like I can actually have a legitimate conversation with people who are in start-ups and who are in Silicon Valley.  I know what they are talking about when they saying that they are looking for “seed funding” or “Round A” or “Series B.”  All the technical terminology that seemed like Greek to me at the beginning is now pretty much standard when I’m dealing with people.  So that is pretty cool.  It’s almost like getting into a secret society when you reach the Silicon Valley people.  So I definitely feel like it has strengthened me.  In terms of “Pretty Litter,” I definitely would not have been able to get this concept off the ground so quickly had I not been in such a fast-paced environment where everyone was like-minded about starting your own business.

So what about “Pretty Litter”?  What is the genesis behind that idea?
CARLY:   It really evolved and you can see that on the show.  It started out just because I have two cats and I was always just super depressed changing their litter.  I thought it was the nastiest.  Just gray, depressing.  I call it “litter depression” whenever I would get in there to do the scoops.  So I wanted to there to be some sort of fun additive, if you will, that would make the experience a little bit better.  I thought it was colorful that would make it a little interesting.  But after doing some market research and talking with people, they would always say to me, “Well, what does it do after it changes colors?”  And I thought to myself, “That’s a good point.  It would be nice if something did happen.”  That is when I remembered that my cat actually had a really bad bladder infection one time and the vet had told me that had I been watching her litter for blood, I could have caught the disease at an earlier stage and the vet would have been able to treat her for a lost less than it ended up costing.  That’s when I kind of put two-and-two together and I thought maybe the color change could indicate if there is a problem with your cat through urinary detection.  So that is what the idea ultimately transformed into and now it is really this unique product that can detect all sorts of common illnesses, just by having the cat use the litter box the way it normally would.

Have you tested it?  Does it actually work?  
CARLY:   (Laughs) Yeah, it does work.  We have a vet on board and he has used it with his patients and it 100% works.

I saw from your website that you are going to be putting together a Kickstarter for “Pretty Litter.”  When does that start?
CARLY:   We are actually “to be determined” on the date, but it is looking like it is going to be at the end of September.  We are looking for funding because we have this standard product already that tests for lots of common urinary problems, but we want to raise more money so we can expand into testing for fecal disorders.  If you have heard of the parasite: Toxoplasma Gondii — that is something that is transmitted through cat feces to humans.  So pregnant women are told that they cannot change the cat litter while they are pregnant out of fear of getting this parasite, which can cause severe birth defects.  So we want to look into some R&D there and figure out if there is a way to prevent Toxoplasma Gondii from even getting transmitted, like maybe putting a coating on something to prevent that.  So the Kickstarter money is going to go to ramping up our next product.  

How did you get connected to your business partners, Dr. Geoff DeWire and Daniel Rotman?
CARLY:   It’s funny.  I had known Daniel beforehand.  He was just someone I had known.  We had mutual friends and I always knew he was a really smart guy.  He had gone to Harvard Business School.  I had pitched the idea to him and asked him if he would be interested in working with me on it and we took it from there.  He was helping me while I was at Draper University.  We were doing it together and the vet came on board shortly after that. He is a friend of Daniel’s.  So it is all within the social circle.  Word just kind of spread and people were interested in getting involved.  

“Pretty Litter” does seem like a product that people would really want since pets are something people love and already spend a fortune on when they get sick. So it seems like “Pretty Litter” would be a natural product that would just take off.
CARLY:  That’s what we are hoping!  Fingers-crossed.  It is definitely something that I would use personally just because I have had the experience where I would never want my cat to get as sick as she got.  If there is any way of potentially preventing that, I would use that over the standard old, gray litter.  

What was the best part of the STARTUP U experience?
CARLY:   For me, it was meeting the rest of the students and really getting to see that there are more people out there, like me, who want to turn just an idea into a real business and make something happen.  It was refreshing to actually be around people day-in and day-out who share the go-getter mindset.  

What did you found you learned about yourself as you were learning all these different things and meeting these different people?
CARLY:   There’s going to be “survival week” coming up on STARTUP U and that is when Tim Draper had us basically live in the wilderness for a week, and I learned that I am not good at that and that I will never be an athlete in terms of hiking mountains and swimming vast distances.  So I think I’m going to stick to traditional business relationships. [Laughs] That is more my style.  

So the “great outdoors,” what was Tim Draper hoping everyone would learn from that experience?  It sounds a little counterintuitive, like he would want to keep you in an environment where you are learning business tools.
CARLY:   His idea was basically that you would be pushed to test your limits — and that will be the same in business — where you get to the point where you think you are going to break or are you actually going to?  And is it going to be something you can handle?  Like when you are faced with something that is not exactly what you are used to or comfortable doing, and how are you going to react.  That was his way of kind of putting the metaphor in there that “if you can do this, you can do that.”  

Was the physical endurance the hardest part or were there psychological aspects that were challenging as well?
CARLY:   I think for me, it was the physical part just because I wasn’t prepared for that level of intensity.  It got to where we were going 16 miles just walking. It was crazy.  But I think people definitely had problems with the psychological aspect.  They would get to a point where they didn’t know what they were going to do with their business, like if they wanted to pivot and make a change in how they were going to do it.  So I think it definitely got to some people.  I was fortunate in that I knew what my product was going in and I was confident in it.    So the psychological portion didn’t really come into play for me so much. 

Of all your competitors in STARTUP U, who did you think “that’s the one I have to face-off with”?  Who had a strong idea that you felt was your biggest competition?
CARLY:   That’s hard.  I’m partial because Ana Marie was my roommate and her business was “Nailed It.”  I thought she was really headstrong.  She knew exactly what she wanted to do and she is a fighter.  So I knew she was probably going to be the one to beat.  She’s a great girl, so I was kind of rooting for her a little bit.  So I’d definitely have to say her.  And Erin Brady.  She was also really great with her “Romeo In a Box” idea.  So those two were the standouts for me.  

If you were to invest in somebody’s idea from the program, which one would it be?
CARLY:   I would probably go with “Nailed It” because I know that Ana really had the idea down pat.  She knew exactly where she wanted to take it and expand and what exactly she wanted to be doing with the entire idea — from start to finish.  Erin seemed a little bit uneasy about her idea at some points, but she definitely got it together towards the end.  But Ana was just steadfast. So that is my kind of horse that I like to bet on.

Do you think you are ready to face off in the business world with your competitors out there as well?
CARLY:   I think what we really are trying to do is create a product that can compete with every brand of big name kitty litter.  That is a really big challenge for us because we want to combine, of course, the diagnostic portion of the litter with the traditional capabilities, like dust-free, eco-friendly, and all those good things that your kitty comes with that we take for granted.  So we really feel like our best competitors are every competitor in that we have to prove that not only is “Pretty Litter” good in terms of the health benefits, but also just as a traditional litter.   

As viewers continue to watch the show, why should they be rooting for you?  What makes your idea the best one out there?
CARLY:   I don’t know if my idea is the best, but I can say I am the most passionate person you will ever meet when it comes to cat litter.  I think people will really find it cool to see someone who entering the Silicon Valley cut-throat business world with an idea that is more than your traditional tech start-up.  I think it is interesting that you can come in and you can still make a name for yourself if you really believe in what it is you are doing — and that is how I felt.  I felt like no matter what anyone told me, like “this idea sounds silly,” that I was going to prove it to them that it isn’t and you are actually going to want it in the end.

Have you ever thought about pitching your product to someone like Marcus Lemonis?  He is always trying to take hot, upcoming products and meld them into his current businesses and your product might be one that melds well.
CARLY:   [Laughs]  I haven’t actually looked into that.  Right now, we are so focused on revving up for the Kickstarter campaign that everything else is kind of a blur.  But that might be something we look forward to doing.

You seem very entrepreneurial and driven and I was thinking of who that reminded me of and Marcus’ name popped into my head.
CARLY:   It’s a great idea, actually.  I might have to reach out to him.  

What would be your advice to others wanting to do this kind of program?  What do they need to do to prepare for it?
CARLY:   They really need to understand what it is that they are trying to accomplish before they go into anything like Draper University, or an accelerator or an incubator program.  If you go in and you are not exactly the “winner” at the end of the day, what are you going to do about it?  Are you going to be as firmly behind your product as you were when you stepped in the door?  Because you need to be.  That is the only way you are ever going to get it anywhere if you and you alone believe in it.  So I think that is something people really need to ask themselves before they spend the money to be in a program like that or to take the risk and take off work and do all those things that you need to do in order to take the leap of faith.  That is just my two cents.  

Would you do it again?  Would you be up for doing this kind of program again?
CARLY:   I would definitely do it again.  If I could go back in time and were faced with the same decision, I would one-hundred and twenty million percent do it again.  

So what’s next?  What’s next on the agenda for you?
CARLY:  For me, it is really just getting this product out there.  I do public relations work and I’m really focused on getting the word out there and making sure that everyone understands what it is that we are doing with the product. The Kickstarter is going to be the first next step for us and then, of course, once we secure funding, we will focus on really just improving the product and seeing where we can take it.  

To find out what the next pivotal steps are in Carly’s journey to bringing “Pretty Litter” to life and how Draper University and STARTUP U aided in that quest, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of STARTUP U on Thursdays at 5:00 p.m. on ABC Family Channel.