Most people probably want to ask Courtne Smith about her time spent as Drake’s personal assistant and member of his management team. Working closely with one of the biggest pop stars and successful businessmen as his friend and right hand probably yields some inspiring, lifelong knowledge (and we get to that). But the more interesting thing about Courtne Smith, the co-founder and CEO of the polling app NewNew, is her ability to evolve her businesses and fearlessly meet new challenges along the way.
It should be noted, this isn’t Smith’s first rodeo in business or tech. A serial entrepreneur, Smith previously launched the prize giveaway app Suprize in 2018. Users were given chances to win cool items, including concert tickets, Kylie cosmetics, and Nike sneakers. Then, Smith and her business partner Filip Diarra decided brands wouldn’t give away free goods forever, so they evolved Suprize into NewNew, which allows users to personalize polls around various topics using videos, popular memes, and GIFs.
“[Diarra and I] didn’t come from technical backgrounds, so we had to do a lot of research,” she said. “I’m very open to trying things that I’m not familiar with or things that I haven’t tried before. I like new challenges, which might sound crazy, but this is the time to try something and see where life takes me and kind of push myself to figure things out.”
AfroTech caught up with Smith to discuss her entry into tech, the biggest business lesson she learned from her former boss, and how she navigates being a Black woman in tech.
AfroTech: What went into your decision to pivot away from brands and prizes to focus on the sharing of content?
Courtne Smith: Inherently, we were always really obsessed with voting and ranking. It was almost a 50% element of how [Suprize] worked because users had to vote things up or down and that would determine what we would give away. We saw something there that was really interesting, and for our users, they really loved having the ability to use their voice in that way. Users love to tell you why they love something or why they hate it, so we’ve turned that. We really wanted to focus on using that metric, and that’s a really important tool for us now.
AfroTech: NewNew was included in Snapchat’s inaugural Yellow Collabs Program, and Snapchat is the primary social media app that NewNew users can share to directly.
Courtne Smith: Yeah in the app, Snapchat offers a login kit where you can essentially have your users log in with their Snapchat, which is protection for most users who are within our demographic. It reduces having to ask them a million questions before they get to use the app. We integrated that when we first launched, then Snap’s head of product randomly played around with our app and encouraged us to sign up for Yellow Collabs. There were thousands of people who applied and they chose us as one of nine tech companies around the world who they believed were at the intersection of innovation and technology.
AfroTech: So, how has that relationship developed?
Courtne Smith: They gave us access to so many people on their team, including their head of product, head of design, and engineering. We spoke with them openly, and in turn, they gave us advice, which I thought was really crazy for a company to do with our small startup. But everything that we learned from them was incredible. And they’ve been just so great in keeping the relationship alive with us since the program ended in December. However, they already want to integrate other features with us that we’re working on right now. It kind of feels like an extended family. It was really rare and unique but also a really fun experience.
AfroTech: You’re a serial entrepreneur who’s worked in music and fashion, so what drew you to tech?
Courtne Smith: I never really set out to go into any field specifically. I just found tech interesting because I saw that people were able to be very creative and touch a lot of people in a new and unique way, the same way music touches people in a different way. I always found that to be very interesting. It was similar to that with Suprize. It was just something we came up with, put it out, and waited to see what happened. That’s how I fell into it, but I never really had a goal of the impact or goal of being in a specific industry. Obviously, there are ups and downs, but I’m a person who thrives in new, challenging environments.
AfroTech: Since the launch of NewNew this past September, what are your day-to-day responsibilities?
Courtne Smith: No two days are alike. Fil and I are a 20-person team of two. We try to do as much as we can on our own, and we don’t believe in over hiring because that’s something that we’ve seen a lot. When companies our size raise funding, they’re really quick to hire as many people as possible but we kind of see that as a negative thing especially at this stage. We want to be in complete control of your business.
AfroTech: And understand every aspect of your business before handing it off.
Courtne Smith: Right. So for us, being on the ground level and getting our hands dirty is the only way that we’re going to figure out why things work and why they don’t. Every single thing we have to do ourselves, and of course, we could hire people to do that, but then we wouldn’t have a really good understanding of our own business. It kind of makes our lives a headache, but in the grand scheme, we know it’s worth it.
AfroTech: As a Black woman in tech, there are specific and nuanced roadblocks that you face. How have you navigated that?
Courtne Smith: Until I Googled it, I didn’t know that there were all these issues with Black women not being able to raise [capital]. We went in completely green, then we started to notice the disparities. So, when we met with people who just were either blatantly sexist or racist, we end conversations immediately. We don’t even entertain it. I think a lot more people need to do that. You’re not going to change how they think of you or how they look at you. And it’s just really up to you to be the bigger person and just walk away.
AfroTech: During your professional career, you’ve had a front-row seat to Drake, a successful entrepreneur. What have you learned most about business from him.
Courtne Smith: Being able to work with someone who is so driven and so dedicated, it really pushes me to want to do the best for myself and be the best version of myself; to fulfill my own purpose and my own destiny. That to me was always the biggest takeaway from being around him and watching him do what he does. That’s why he is the best at what he does: He pushes himself to push the envelope. He works harder than anybody else. You know, he’s never satisfied with where he is. Even if he’s number one in the world, he’s like, ‘OK, next.’ So, I always took from that and it always inspired me to apply that thinking to everything that I do. And not to say that I don’t appreciate what I’ve done or where I am. I do, but I know that there’s so much more I can do. And that’s also the way that he looks at what he does. So yeah, that’s the biggest takeaway that I’ve taken from him and working with him after all those years.
AfroTech: Well now that NewNew launched and is fully operating, who are some of your mentors that you turn to when you need advice as you’re going through the highs and lows of entrepreneurship and building a business?
Courtne Smith: I’m very fortunate to have my business partner, Fil, who is also my mentor in a way since we teach each other new things. He’s a very instrumental part of why I’m here and how I think about my business. It makes the whole journey less lonely, and it’s great to have him push me, challenge me, and also tell me when things don’t make sense. It’s one thing to have someone who’s in your corner, but it’s another thing to have someone who’s extremely honest with you, and not a lot of people have that. What works with us is there’s no bullshit. My co-founder and I can’t imagine not having anyone there after those lonely days or those bumpy periods. When times get rough, I know he’s there.