Paul Burke – Co-founder and CEO of Guru

As I mentioned earlier, I wake up everyday at 5 am (sometimes earlier). Being able to pack almost half a day’s uninterrupted work in before everyone else starts their day really enhances my productivity.

Guru CEO and co-founder, Paul Burke, has years of experience in investing, trading and entrepreneurship, but nothing could have prepared him for the experience of museum hopping with teenagers, or the idea that sprung from it.

Treating his 19-year-old niece and 17-year-old nephew to spring break in Rome, Burke noticed that both teenagers refused the museum audio tours, expressing that they were boring and even a little gross since strangers used them as well. He could understand their reasoning well enough, but when he continuously found them checking their phones throughout museums, he began to get annoyed. Confronting them on this issue, he soon discovered they were not texting or checking social media, but instead Googling information about the items they were looking at. That exact moment is when Burke’s flame for Guru was ignited. This, combined with Guru co-founder Hilary Srole’s ‘aha!’ moment while touring a new city with friends, really got the fire burning.

Realizing that his own love for history, travel and culture was rooted in the stories and experiences of the places he visited, Burke knew he had to bridge the gap between the broadest possible audience and museum content. Guru would make the cultural experience fun, educational and accessible for all ages. His own passion for history and learning could be passed on to others through mobile technology.

Burke’s passion for entrepreneurship and the markets was evident from a young age. At seventeen he founded his first business, and after graduating with a degree in Economics and Philosophy, worked as a trading clerk before moving up to trader for Chicago and New York based firms. An entrepreneur at heart, Burke left professional trading and has spent the past several years in the startup arena as an investor, adviser, and principal.

The youngest of eight children in a Navy family, Burke has traveled extensively and lived all over the country including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Diego. His traveling adventures as a child and an adult have helped cultivate a deep love for history and museums. That love, combined with his financial knowledge and business acumen, has paved a natural path to Guru. In his spare time, Burke loves to travel and to participate in anything sports related. Although living in San Diego, he remains a loyal Chicago fan and attends Chicago sporting events whenever possible.

Where did the idea for Guru come from?

There were two real inspirations for Guru. The first was when I took my niece and nephew (20 and 18) on a trip to Rome for their spring break. We spent 7-8 hours every day seeing the sites and experiencing the museums. I was shocked at how little they would interact with the information provided by the museum. They refused to take the audio tours because they thought using devices that millions of other people touched was disgusting. At one point I got mad at them for being on their phones while going through the Coliseum, they turned to show me that they were actually using the internet to find more relevant information about their surroundings and the stories and the history.

A few months later, my girlfriend (who is also a co-founder and was our first project manager) returned from a trip to Toronto. On her final day, one of her friends took her on a short driving tour of the City and my girlfriend came home to tell me that it would be great if there were some sort of App that you could download that would guide you through a city with GPS and tell you fun and interesting facts and stories about what is around you. Hearing that my entrepreneurial instincts kicked in and the seed for Guru was planted.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I generally wake up around 5 am and go through emails I received through the night. I then look through my calendar for the day and plan my day out. I spend the next several hours doing actual uninterrupted “work.” The hours between 5 and 8 am are typically some of my most productive because they are uninterrupted. Once the actual business day begins I have accomplished most of my tasks for the day so when things pop up during the day and the unexpected happens (which always does), it is not as much of a disruption for me.

The rest of my day is generally filled with meetings both within Guru and with people outside of Guru. I also spend a lot of time responding to emails, I do my best to end every day with nothing left in my inbox. If I don’t have a lunch meeting I will try to get to the gym and workout or play basketball. I try to leave the office around 4 pm to beat traffic and to give my brain a short break, I will then work from home until 9 pm our so.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I wish I could say that I bring my ideas to life. The truth is I have an unbelievable team. I have a lot of ideas about how to make our products better, but our team actually executes and makes those ideas a reality. Our CTO, Clay Shinn has grown very patient with me when I come to him with something “revolutionary” that I need done tomorrow. Our Chief Creative Guru, Paul Shockley is the creative force behind Guru. He is an unbelievably talented individual and always pushes Guru to be better and find ways to improve, especially on the creative and content side. Our writers are really the heart of Guru. Our technology is unbelievably cool, but I tell them all of the time that we would be the Tin Man without them.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The museum space is changing quite a bit. Most people don’t realize how many different departments there are within a museum and how many people have to collaborate to do something as seemingly simple as hanging art on the walls. Most of these institutions are 50 to 100 years old and change is not easy. But they are starting to realize that if they want to connect with the next generations they need to do so in a different way. I talk about technology as a language and as a tool. It is the language most people under 40 want to communicate in. People don’t even like having to call a restaurant or hair salon to book an appointment, they want to communicate by tapping a screen. Instead of fighting this change museums really seem to be beginning to embrace it and trying to strike the balance between appealing to a wider audience and enhancing their visitor experience and still focusing on the art or history instead of gimmicks.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

As I mentioned earlier, I wake up everyday at 5 am (sometimes earlier). Being able to pack almost half a day’s uninterrupted work in before everyone else starts their day really enhances my productivity.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I was a host at one of the busiest and top grossing single location restaurants in the United States. I learned that the service industry is incredibly hard work and a few lessons my Father taught me were reinforced. For example, treating everyone with the same respect regardless of their position in life and always keeping in mind that you have no idea who you are talking to, never judge a book by its cover.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I have been very lucky with Guru, there is not a lot that I would about the last 8 months. I wish I could have been a better leader and handled certain situations differently, but I know that both Guru and I have only gotten stronger from dealing with difficult situations.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Stay laser focused. Stay laser focused. Stay laser focused. I have invested in and advised quite a few start-ups. One common problem I see is people straying from what their mission or competency is. The technology Guru is implementing right now has uses in a lot of different sectors and we have been approached by some of them to do work. It is never easy turning work down when you are in this phase, but our sole focus now is on Museums and Cultural Institutions. It is challenging enough to navigate this space and deal with all the different types of museums. Art museums are very different from Natural History Museums and Zoos and Science Centers, etc. Stay focused, execute your business plan, give it time to succeed and if you find that some of your hypotheses were wrong, then you can pivot. But give yourself a chance to succeed and stay focused.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Betting on Guru to deliver. Being a startup and in a new space is challenging and getting people to put their careers on the line and trusting you is the biggest hurdle we face. People love our product and what we are doing, but they can still be paralyzed by the potential risk. We have a unique business model where we shoulder nearly all of the upfront risk. We make the risk for our partners very palatable and they buy into us because we are putting our money, time, energy, everything where are mouth is. This is already beginning to change as we are constantly adding more partners to our roster, but this was key to gain traction.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I have had a lot of failures. I started my first business when I was 16. About 10 years later I saw 3 companies that were the same idea all have $500m+ IPO’s or outright sales. Although I had long since moved on, that stung, but you can’t be scared of failure as an entrepreneur, you should embrace it. If you aren’t failing at all, you aren’t trying. How many times did Thomas Edison fail before he successfully invented the light bulb? When I was distraught at 17 that my first business was a failure, one of my best friends very wisely pointed out that, “It doesn’t matter how many fail, you only need 1 to be a success.”

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think the Augmented Reality space is really interesting right now. It has come a long way, but the technology and its implementation are still in the infancy stage. We are using it at Guru and we are considering acquiring AR firms right now. But I think there is a lot of opportunity in that space.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

The first bonus check (which was a bit more than $100) to our first two (non-founder) employees at Guru was the most satisfying money I have ever spent. Everyone at Guru still makes less than they deserve and being able to reward their hard work was fantastic.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Google Docs was game changing. The fact that it is basically free and everyone can collaborate and stay organized is key. We use it internally and with our partners to review content. It makes us much more efficient.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. I am a lover of history and it is an exceptionally fun read while being thought provoking and teaching about history.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I have people that inspire me and I try to learn from ranging from my Father to Michael Jordan, Jay-Z , Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, General Patton and Napoleon. But I don’t have anyone whose words I consider Gospel. The people around me influence me the most. Aside from that I try to always be a student of history and challenge myself to learn from as many different people as possible.


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