Early startup learnings from a student founder

Isabelle Zhou
4 min readJan 7, 2022


In 2020, I joined the founding team of Nooks, a startup that seeks to humanize the remote work experience through video-based collaboration. Since then, we’ve launched multiple iterations of our product, onboarded thousands of early users, and raised $5M in venture capital funding.

It’s been a fun journey building a company out of college. As I move on to my next adventure investing with the incredible team at Floodgate, I’m hoping to share my biggest personal learnings from Nooks.

On a personal level, I’ve learned how to embrace risk and decision-making.

Silicon Valley culture often glamorizes young dropout founders who go all-in on their startups and then go on to build billion dollar companies. Yet there is a flip side few talk about: uncertainty, loneliness, and the mental discipline that comes with weathering the rapid highs and lows of a startup.

Before taking the leap of faith to leave grad school and join Nooks, I had to dig deeply into myself to truly understand why I was taking on a startup, and ask honest questions about if I had enough mental stamina and conviction in the company to do the really hard things.

I wrote down 5 simple questions for myself:

  • Is this the right path for me? And more than that, can I motivate others on this path?
  • How will I measure personal success, decoupled from business outcomes?
  • In an unstructured environment without formal mentorship, what type of growth happens? How can I seek out this growth?
  • Am I mentally prepared to tackle the inevitable existential crises that come with building a startup in a competitive market?
  • Outside of work, how can I build intentionality into my personal life?

Truth be told, if I didn’t have good answers to any of these, I’d have had a much harder time embracing the uncertainties of an early startup. I also structured parts of my week around practicing gratefulness and separating my moods from the highs and lows of Nooks. For example, I set aside every Saturday to be a “self care” day, where I didn’t touch work, didn’t see anyone in a work-related context, and instead spent the day reflecting and recharging. I also started seeing an executive coach and startup-focused therapist who I met with each week to help clear my mind.

With these support structures in place, I didn’t have a single regret about taking the risk to leave grad school and give up other full-time job offers to join Nooks’s founding team. If anything, I’ve learned two things: it’s better to take on calculated risk while early in my career, and decisions that seem big in the moment don’t actually matter that much.

On a people level, I’ve learned that culture & the intangibles matter.

Startups can get lonely. When I graduated from college, most of my friends took “traditional” industry jobs: big tech, consulting, and finance. They started their jobs with a cohort of other new grads, which meant built-in social groups and easy access to peers going through the same experience. More often than not, these large companies also had formal mentorship programs and a clear-cut promotion path.

At an early startup, team is everything. At Nooks, I was one of 7 full-time people, all mostly around my age. We leaned heavily on each other for support, and got closer with other young founders for community. Unfortunately the tech industry’s diversity gap meant I could count on my fingers the number of other women of color I knew starting early companies out of college.

I learned to celebrate even small successes and cheer others on to do the same. At a company our size, it felt impossible to roadmap goals for years into the future, but it was possible to track small milestones that work towards a larger vision. These little successes made all the difference and helped us generate a feeling of momentum.

Early stage products change all the time, but the people who support your vision won’t. From my time at Nooks, I learned that being intentional about team relationships, seeking out my own support communities, and celebrating small successes can make all the difference in helping the startup journey feel joyous.

On a company level, I discovered the importance of vision, organization, and nimbleness above all else.

I get asked a lot about “product-market fit” and knowing when to focus on product versus growth. During college, I took classes on design thinking, customer research, and lean prototyping, yet nothing could have prepared me to navigate the tension between product development and growth that is unique to each company. In fact, my first learnings from leading operations & growth at Nooks felt like a series of oxymorons: Expand product distribution, but don’t grow too early. Put your customers first, but don’t be afraid to pivot away from them if you have to. Focus on your company’s own moat and edge, but also nimbly react to the market and competitors.

While I can’t claim to know the secrets yet to finding product-market fit and growing sustainably, I’ve learned that time, customer obsession, and a solid set of principles for navigating difficult decisions will often pay off. After a pivot and a slew of tough customer decisions, we’ve established a set of metrics to run experiments around product and distribution, define our “superusers”, and iterate aggressively towards our north star of user love and organic growth.

Thank you Nooks for the unforgettable ride. I’m excited to bring these learnings forward with me to my next adventure, and to learn and grow alongside the amazing team at Floodgate.



Isabelle Zhou

Formerly investor @Floodgate, founding team @Nooks AI, cs @Stanford.