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Joseph Zhang Diversity/Culture, Stories, Uncategorized certifications, Corporate training, Diversity, Diversity and Inclusion, Events, feature, Felicia Jadczak, Networking, Rachel Murray, Self care, She Geeks Out, Startup 0
Click. The lights flashed on. Although seemingly ordinary, the constant darkness of the women’s restroom served as a reminder for Felicia Jadczak that she was only one of two women on her entire floor. In fact, in the whole office of 180+ people, there were twenty to thirty women total.
Wanting to provide a sense of solidarity for the female engineers in the company, her boss, Julia Austin, asked her to start and run an employee resource group. Felicia was perfect for the job. She had worked in tech for five years before starting at VMWare, graduated with an MBA two years prior, and wanted to do something more with her life, so it was perfect that she had the chance to run a group that she would learn to have a lot in common with.
Looking for a partner to work with, Felicia connected with Rachel Murray who was also in the tech industry and ran a group called Boston Girl Geek Dinners. They combined their knowledge and decided to host a sponsored event for women in tech in the Boston area where there would be female panel speakers and networking opportunities.
Despite logistical challenges with hosting similar events in the past, Rachel and Felicia pulled it off. Eighty women attended, mingled together, and shared stories of their lives. Felicia had discovered her community. They were laid-back and talked about everything from hobbies to exciting things they were doing. “From that first event, many women kept on coming up to us and saying ‘this is so great, when is the next one?’” Felicia said, “and it was really clear that there was a need and a desire to have a more formalized community.”
As demand increased, Felicia and Rachel formalized their partnership and began doing more events, and within a year, completely rebranded. They changed the group’s name to She Geeks Out to represent the various career women who attended each get-together and opened a bank account. She Geeks Out had exploded onto the scene, but for Felicia, taking the big step to quit her job hadn’t entered the picture yet. She “hadn’t given [herself] permission to think about doing it,” with the “it” meaning taking a turn into the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.
Soon enough, she had a chance. Two career paths opened up at Felicia’s job. Tasked with making a difficult decision, Felicia called up her previous boss and now mentor, Julia Austin, for advice. Surprisingly, Julia pointed out a third option: quitting and focusing on She Geeks Out, her true passion, full-time. Felicia was taken aback, having never considered leaving the land of stable income and predictability for running a startup, but the idea wasn’t foreign.
As a child, she had been exposed to the benefits of entrepreneurship. Her parents had run several small businesses, and her dad had always remarked that it was “better to be your own boss than to work for anyone else.” Having an entrepreneurial family’s backing and a strong support system made the move much easier.
The process of quitting wasn’t perfect though; she had a well paying job and enjoyed the work. In contrast, pursuing her own company would probably mean less pay, more uncertainty, and significantly harder work. But when she finally did the deed, the transition wasn’t as bad as she had expected.
However, dramatic changes often bring new difficulties. Originally, she had planned on taking a part time job at the gym to get health insurance and a steady income, but things began to pick up fast. “I still remember saying to myself, ‘This week’s pretty busy but next week will be a little calmer'” she said while laughing, but each week was harder than the one before. In the beginning, Rachel had also been splitting attention between She Geeks Out and another startup but joined full time after duties began to pile up. Having both founders at the wheel with a single-minded focus was crucial to driving the company into the future.
She Geeks Out initially focused on expanding the breadth of their community events, staying true to their roots. To be sustainable though, they realized a more consistent income stream would be necessary, so shortly after going full time, they piloted their first diversity and inclusion (D&I) training program. Nevertheless, when they started these training programs, some confusion arose because they were known more for being community/event based rather than corporate.
They used the initial confusion as an opportunity to show why their business model was so unique. She Geeks Out covered all sides of the diversity and inclusion sphere, doing both community work and corporate training. The corporate training aspect didn’t only look at women, but diversity in a broad sense from socioeconomic status to disabilities and veterans. By having a foothold on the two important sides of the industry, She Geeks Out could gain insights into how companies thought about issues and how communities were viewing those efforts. With a voice in both these groups, the company could improve communication and gaining a competitive advantage against competitors.
Advocating for corporate training proved to be harder than they initially thought. People questioned their credibility as they didn’t have a background in the field, and many businesses weren’t initially interested in topics like diversity training and community building. But once they got their first customer, they started building momentum. By working with connections in the community, running popular sessions, and maintaining long term relationships with businesses, She Geeks Out developed one of the most sought after business tools: word of mouth. They would develop relationships with someone at Amazon, and when that person changed companies to somewhere like Facebook, they would bring She Geeks Out there too.
For those who still questioned the company’s credibility, Felicia completed a strategic diversity and inclusion management certification with Georgetown University to strengthen her knowledge. “It’s been very helpful in the sense of giving people that sense of trust,” she said, “and it’s not just that we have experience in this, but we’ve also got some educational work on the topic.”
All of these strategies tie back into the core idea that pushed SGO forward: long-term viability. She explained, “We’re not looking to grow really quickly and make an exit. We’re really looking to grow a solid company that we can be with for a long time and that can do meaningful things.” That’s why developing strong relationships with corporate partners has been crucial; these connections help extend their influence over time and provide continuous value. As they’ve grown, the line between the community and corporate pillars have blurred. Some corporate clients start out as sponsors for events but move to the training side while others start with the training but shift to helping out for sponsorships. Rachel and Felicia had found their prime spot.
Sponsor money from events and training has been important because since the beginning, She Geeks Out has never obtained any outside investor/VC funding. On the other hand, Felicia points out that they’ve never needed it; they’ve been profitable from the start. Because of this, one of their biggest challenges has been to figure out how to support that sustainable growth and make sure events are funded while growing revenue at the same time.
Things like building credibility, running a startup without venture capital, and figuring out how to expand your business can quickly add up to a large list of problems on your plate. “Running a startup is not easy…It’s the work and feeling burnt out and overwhelmed, fearing failure or that people won’t like what we’re doing. When we first launched our training, we weren’t sure how we were going to go and there was a real fear there that it would fail,” Felicia said. It’s stressful.
Juggling all these different tasks has taught Felicia what to focus on. After going full time, Felicia and Rachel realized that scaling on the community side wouldn’t be as feasible or impactful as building the business on their corporate training. If they built revenue there, they would be able to get brand recognition and expand into other areas, all without losing the essence of their original vision.
Felicia’s not in a rush. She sees She Geeks Out as a long term project of hers. She knows that in five or ten years, the problems in the industry may be different. Diversity may well be redefined by then and the political climate may change. Felicia’s not fazed, putting it simply: “it’s really about creating a solid company with good values and delivering a good service.”
“Go for it because I know that was something that I really struggled with where I was really afraid of failure. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it was. Especially for female entrepreneurs and founders, a lot of the times we get really scared of this failure, or we think that we have to have everything set up to go before we quit that job or take that leap, but sometimes it’s just about doing it, trying, and seeing what happens. And if this doesn’t work out for some reason, it will be an amazing experience that [you] can leverage for a million different things elsewhere. So my advice is just go for it. And I touched on this really briefly but I didn’t really believe in self-care before becoming an entrepreneur, but now I’m a huge believer and proponent of it because it is so important to have that balance. So carving out that time to give you some time off to destress is OK.”
Marketing the Company
She Geeks Out made it their goal to become well known everywhere. In fact, the way I met Felicia was through a D&I panel at Hubspot where she talked about her experiences in the industry and the need for more accepting work cultures. Besides speaking on panels though, Felicia focuses on showcasing her brand’s unique voice through blog posts, podcasts, and traditional social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Bootstrapping and Expansion
Considering the fact that they don’t receive large cash infusions, there is little room for error. For example, limited resources made expanding to New York difficult. SGO is based in Boston, so when the two founders first looked outwards for strategic growth, they focused on tier 2 cities which weren’t saturated with competition. At the time though, Felicia’s mentor, Julia Austin, had wanted the team to host an event in New York. It went great, but after that, it didn’t pick up. Analyzing the situation, they realized there were some key hurdles. 1. They didn’t have a physical presence in the region to help them run their community events 2. They didn’t have enough connections in New York to build momentum. So although they had a small group of eager supporters, it wasn’t nearly as large as Boston. Fortunately, like most small startups, they hadn’t tied up all their resources in one place and decided to pivot out of the region temporarily while they figured out a solution. After looking around, they found a city organizer who was willing to help them build up the events and grow their base.
Out of everything, one of the biggest lessons Felicia has been able to pick up has been self-care. At her previous job, there was a clear delineation in her work-life balance, but when she moved to running a startup, that division wasn’t as clear as before. Knowing how to balance intense workloads with relaxation was crucial to making life more bearable.
Everyone has a different life story. Things happen rapidly for someone, and things move slowly for others.Barun Sobti
So we decided to add a new section to the website that covers a bit more than just your standard “Business Knowledge” or “Story” post. We wanted you to see a little bit more into our lives here at Businesses With Stories, how we create each of our articles, and some of the other tidbits that we’re interested in sharing whether that be a post that we found interesting or an anecdote that we wanted to explore.
This new section is our blog.
As the title suggests, today I will be talking about why we started with stories. This is going to be the first part in a longer installment about how I got started with this website and my journey as well as an explanation for my fascination with the concept of storytelling. I would like to start with a short explanation for why I personally find stories so interesting.
I grew up reading fairytales.
In fact most children probably grew up reading or hearing some variation of Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Rapunzel, and almost everyone reminisces at those stories fondly as if they were old pictures stored in a time capsule nestled in our past. Because I loved these stories so much, I began to read more and more of them, graduating on to fantasy literature, realistic fiction, young adult novels, and more. As my love for these intricate stories grew, I also began to write when I could.
Whenever I had an idea, I would put it down on my list of story ideas to write about and I was always working through the list. There was something just so visceral about stories. They could capture our attention, hooking us in and making us care as much about the characters and their highs-and-lows as we did ourselves. In other words, stories creating a powerful outlet for the creativity within while also inspiring.
And that’s why I decided to focus on stories. Sure, I care about how companies are run. I care about the product development cycles. I care about how to obtain venture capital funding. But most of all, I care about the character traits that make great entrepreneurs, well, great.
And I’ve always wanted to share that.
Shortly after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2005, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky moved to San Francisco to pursue their careers in design. Like most recent graduates, they were on a tight budget and had to meet each month’s rent. To meet these payments, Joe and Brian were constantly looking for creative ways to pay the rent. They knew that a design conference that was taking place in October had left all the hotels fully booked, leaving some attendees with no place to stay. And soon enough, an idea arose: home-sharing. Unlike traditional hotels, the concept of home-sharing involved offering what you have (the fundamental principle of the “gig-economy”). Joe and Brian decided to offer 3 attendees to the conference air mattresses in their apartment. And thus Airbnb was born.
During their stay, Joe and Brian had a great experience getting to know each of their 3 guests on a personal level. This experience was so amazing, not just because they were able to make money, but because they were able to build invaluable connections and share new experiences with new faces. Both Joe and Brian did not want the fun to end there, so they decided to do it again. Only this time, they would do it full time. Soon after this decision, Nathan Blecharczyk was added to the team, bringing the tech skills that Joe and Brian lacked. However, starting starting Airbnb was going to be more difficult that anyone of them had originally thought.
“I think what’s interesting about airbnb that people don’t realize is that it was not this huge success from the beginning. It actually had a very long path becoming that huge success”
-Liz DeBold Fusco
As they were starting up, they ran into the problem of gaining momentum. AirBed and Breakfast, as it was once called, did not get a strong response from the public. In fact, it was quite the opposite. People were doubting the level of safety that comes with sharing their homes with a stranger. Aside from this, the company only had two bookings on its website after a year of operation. People were not willing to use the platform because no homes were being offered, and homeowners were not willing to use the platform because no guests were booking nights, creating a “chicken or egg” scenario. This new venture landed the founders in debt, so they were strapped for cash. Their future could not have looked worse.
However, instead of giving up, the founders pressed on. They completely redesigned the website to attract more attention and increase bookings. They ignored the doubters and addressed the issue of financing which was needed to keep the company afloat. The problem with funding was the timing of it. The company had just so happened to be starting at the same time as the 2008 financial crisis.
“2008 was really the first year when they were fully up and running, but you know, [in] some of their soft launches earlier on, it wasn’t immediately clear that it was going to be successful”
-Liz DeBold Fusco
Because of the onset of the Great Recession, not many people were willing to invest in “riskier” tech startups. This forced Joe, Brian, and Nate to look for other avenues of financing to allow Airbnb to scale and operate. Since their name was AirBed and Breakfast, the founders wanted to live up to the “breakfast” part of their name. They knew that the Democratic National Convention was being hosted in Denver, and wanted to provide attendees with breakfast during their stays. But instead of perishable foods like eggs, they came up with cereal.
The founders came up with two cereals, Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains. They tried to sell the idea through big names like General Mills and Kellogg’s. They said no. So then they tried their luck with local cereal, also to no avail. Eventually, they found someone who was willing to print out cereal boxes, but the founders would have to perform the assembling themselves. After lots of hard work, the group was able to sell enough cereal boxes to bring in $30,000, becoming true cereal entrepreneurs.
As successful as their cereal boxes were, Airbnb looked to other sources of funding. After a handful of rejections and misfortune, they tried their luck with the accelerator, Y-Combinator. Throughout the entire pitch, Y-Combinator was “not so impressed, but then when they heard about the cereal boxes, they were like, ‘Oh, all right, actually, nevermind. We are very interested in you guys.’ They were interested in the cereal boxes” (Liz DeBold Fusco). As the pitch was coming to a close, one of the founders showed the group of investors their cereal boxes, and that was the main selling point that got Y-Combinator on board. If the founders were able to think outside the box like this, then Y-Combinator believed they were more than capable of leading Airbnb to success. In the end, they ended up with $20,000 in funding.
As word spread about Airbnb after the convention and with the aid of their new partner, Y-Combinator, the group wanted to get feedback directly from their users as well as meet the community that made them successful. They flew to New York to meet their largest market. There, they noticed that many of the hosts were not getting many bookings because they did not have “professional pictures” taken of their homes. So the founders bought a camera and went host to host offering to retake pictures of their homes to increase their bookings. While there, the founders and hosts built a close relationship with each other, which is something that still continues into today. From there on, Airbnb scaled and scaled, eventually transforming into how we know it today.
Today, the Airbnb that we know still has the same ethos of creativity and determination that could be seen 10 years ago. In fact, many hosts will continue sharing their homes to get that same experience that Joe and Brian shared with their first 3 guests in their San Francisco apartment. Hosts may initially accomodate guests for economic opportunity, but many will continue to remain a part of the community due to the experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. This sense of initiative and empowerment that today’s users feel can be traced back to the origin story of Airbnb.
Many community members also share the same sense of determination and entrepreneurship. If you look at those who decide to become hosts on Airbnb, you will realize that they are also entrepreneurs in some way. They be small business owners, tech startup founders, or just regular people looking to make a difference in our world. The primary reason that so many hosts become/are entrepreneurs is due to the economic empowerment and ethos of determination and creativity ingrained in the Airbnb story. Also, entrepreneurs love to interact and network with people, and there is no better way to experience such a thing than by becoming involved in Airbnb.
Whether or not Joe, Brian, and Nate had planned on Airbnb being as big as it is today, the results speak for itself. Now, the company has become a cultural phenomenon to the point where it is ingrained in the vernacular to the likes of Google or Uber. As of now, the company offers locations in thousands of cities all across the globe and has a valuation in the billions. Without a doubt, Airbnb has come a long way from the apartment in San Francisco.
If you want to learn more about Airbnb, see their website here. To see our interview with FutureFuel click here. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page. If you want to stay up to date with the most recent BWS news, follow us on Instagram!
By Joseph Zhang and Andrew Yang
When most people think of groundbreaking startups, they think of revolutionary companies like Amazon and Google that have created massive new industries, changing the world. However, Colin Weston took a different approach with TidyChoice, a company that matches domestic service providers like housekeepers to customers, to try to see what he could do with traditional institutions like domestic services, bringing them to the digital age.
Colin spent much of his early working life around commerce, starting out as a Chartered Accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, then moving into banking at large firms like JP Morgan and BNP Paribas. He later moved into corporate finance advisory, focusing on mergers and acquisitions at Duff and Phelps. Even though he had worked many different jobs at many different companies, the common denominator was always numbers and finance, not building a business, which both hurt him and helped him in the long run.
He was first brought into the industry after his friend Ana Andres had tried and failed to create a solution. Ana would later become the co-founder of TidyChoice, which proved to be a godsend for the company. He and Ana both benefitted from their relationship, where he provided the business know-how and she brought the technical background. Ana had a Ph.D. in software engineering and had done product development at companies such as Accenture for 10 years, so she had experience in the tech field while he had built his strengths from his finance background.
They began to wonder if they could take the same problem and solve it properly and successfully. They had closely studied big-names that were already in the industry, like Homejoy and Helpling and tried to identify and learn from their successes and mistakes. From this, they decided to go after a pure marketplace approach, which had seen great success in other fields. Like Amazon and Airbnb, TidyChoice was designed as a middleman that would connect the product to the customer, making it easier for the customer to find the goods they wanted.
First, they conducted market research to see how people would react to their product, and from that, gained a clear idea of how they were going to approach the market and how the product would work. It was clear that a large number of competitors, many of which had received over $100 million in funding, would be a significant obstacle that they would need to overcome, but they believed that they could provide something new with their unique approach.
Unlike most other startups, TidyChoice was completely self-funded, and still to this day has not taken in any external funding. Colin attributes his company’s healthy growth to this, as he has noticed many VC funded startups aggressively advertising and giving away their service in a desire to rapidly expand and satisfy their investors, which had led to the death of Homejoy. (Learn more about the downsides of scaling too fast here) He compared his company’s growth to that of the tortoise in the famous story of the tortoise and hare: a slower approach that he hopes will eventually prevail. They did not intend to grow slowly– it was more of a consequence of his goal to stay cash flow neutral/positive at all times. He did not want to take out loans and introduce risk when what he was already doing was working.
After starting, Colin began to quickly learn a lot of different parts about running a startup. Building a new company was a new experience for him, so he was doing many things for the first time. He recalled that he used to be shocked by the difference in attitude, as he was sometimes yelled at for things going wrong, which was much different from the more professional business relationship with his clients that he was used to.
Their new life was also rather unglamorous when compared to their past, where they were surrounded by large organizations and had a support network built around them. Now, they were working at their kitchen tables, learning things that they never had much experience with like marketing and worrying about if their vision would take off. For most people, that would be a huge downgrade, but Colin was driven to see his company succeed.
He attributes much of their success to his co-founder, who could code entire platforms from scratch because of her tech background. Ana, who had worked at Accenture for over 10 years, was busy building the platform, which she programmed about 98% of. The rest of their software work was done in-house by their team of 5 developers, unlike many companies, who outsourced their work. (Learn more about outsourcing your work in our interview with Gigster here)
Because the technical side was taken care of, Colin could focus on the business side. His prior experience and understanding of the business world was unusual in an industry dominated by tech graduates fresh out of college. His expertise in the field allowed him to cruise through the financial parts with ease and use his time to focus on other important areas like marketing.
As the first few months came and went, growth proved to be slower than they hoped and he began to wonder if the product was good enough. Soon though, things turned around. As customer inflow increased, everything began to click into place, and they could finally say that their approach worked. It was more difficult than they had hoped because as an online website, some form of advertising is necessary, but their limited budget meant they had to wait a long time to gain momentum. Once momentum picked up, they were then able to collect feedback and improve the service.
The unique nature of the industry also requires a sense of trust, as people tend to be much more protective of who comes into their house, especially if they aren’t present. This has made it especially difficult for his company to scale, since they have to spend lots of effort in vetting the services listed on his website to ensure customer satisfaction and reduce risks.
Despite this, he believes that his company has been popular with service providers because of the way they approach the business. Unlike many of their competitors, TidyChoice allows cleaners to pick their own rates, times and areas, without taking a percentage of their earnings or requiring a sign-up fee. TidyChoice makes money by charging a small commission that they add to the cost of the service, and a “finders fee” that cleaners pay once per regular customer to offset the cost of marketing their service. In addition, they have focused on a balanced approach to complaints, understanding that their service providers are professionals that do their work for a living, which he believes benefits both the worker and customer.
One of the largest problems with many companies in their sector is the leakage from people leaving the network and going directly to the consumer, damaging the company that helped cultivate the relationship. Colin believes that the flexibility in pricing that TidyChoice gives to both sides prevents unnecessary losses and helps keep retention rates high. Customer retention is crucial to his business, since they make money from people who come back to purchase services from their website, an example of the 80/20 rule – a few people contribute to the vast majority of the market.
Efficiency has been a key theme throughout the business. They have a small number of employees behind the scenes relative to their size, allowing them to keep costs low. Their relatively small budget for marketing meant that they had to be creative and efficient with their approach. They focused on individual postcodes in London, and would match their weekly marketing spending with the hours available they had in that area. They didn’t see a need to market in places where they didn’t have a presence, so they simply didn’t.
Looking back, he believes that the hardest thing that he had to deal with was the anxiety that came with leaving a well-paying stable job for a much more unstable one which may not have even worked. Even though both founders were familiar with stress from their work in the corporate world, creating a business from scratch and waiting to see if the business model was going to work proved to be a huge emotional obstacle.
To cope with all the stress, Colin said that he would always try to stay optimistic, and to try new things, not getting caught up on the failures. Even then, there were times where he considered quitting and going back to a “normal” job if they didn’t make it to a certain goal, but he didn’t let that stop him. Instead, he used his fear of not having a job as a motivation to move forward.
Colin sees a bright future for TidyChoice. He currently has a target to double the cleaning and housekeeping traffic within 12 months and also expand into the childcare sector. He also wants to look outward to other European cities within the next few years, where he sees a huge opportunity. He has even been approached by tutoring services and people in other nations that have seen the potential and want to use the platform.
“I think you need to do something you enjoy and are good at, to do well at, and not everyone is cut out for it. I think if you’re starting out, then you have to accept that you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and learn lots of things and what really separates people is how quickly you can do that and how effectively you can learn those things.”
If you want to learn more about TidyChoice, see their website here. To see our interview with Parsec click here. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page.
More than a decade ago, before everything got crazy for Roger Dickey, before the billion-dollar game, before the angel investing, and before the startup that would be the darling of Silicon Valley, there was Curiosoft. In 2007, Facebook had released their application platform. Many companies were jumping on the opportunity to build something that would go viral. Microsoft, Amazon, Red Bull, The Washington Post, and the like all flocked to the platform in hopes of releasing the next big thing.
Roger had just left a conference that Facebook had hosted. He was talking with a friend who had built a zoo game using basic HTML that ran on the platform, and he was making around $1000 a day. Thinking about the potential opportunities there, he quit his job in Texas and with that friend, started his first company Curiosoft, a testing bed for all of his new ideas that he would build and release. It turned out that games and dating apps would eventually become the most popular uses of the platform, but at the time, it was a period of mass experimentation. Roger’s own process boiled down to two areas.
First, he had a personal promise to not copy any of his competitors and make something wholly original; it was against his ethical code to steal others’ work. With that philosophy, he had to do a lot more experimentation to see what would work.
Because of that, he started a process called rapid prototyping where he built and delivered a functional prototype/minimum viable product every three days to test out the market. Curiosoft ended up building nineteen apps over the course of three-and-a-half months.
One of the games they created, Mafia Wars, turned out to be a smashing success, bringing in one billion dollars in revenue and enjoying 100 million active users at its peak. It was so successful that Roger was able to sell it to Zynga for all equity and become an executive. While he worked there, he learned a lot of lessons that would prove useful later in his career as an entrepreneur once again. He observed that the people there “were very user-experience minded, and they understood user behavior very well.”
Even though Zynga had all these great things going for them, something about their business model rubbed him the wrong way: the games were free to play. The problem there was that 98% of the customers didn’t pay any money, and the model was only able to work because of the massive scale. If there had been less users, it would have been less sustainable. In contrast to that, Roger wanted to start a business where every customer paid for the service that he provided.
After around three years, Zynga’s stock had grown substantially and they went public. Roger used the equity that he had received when he sold his game and became an angel investor so he could learn about other industries outside of gaming. He made over eighty angel investments and learned a lot through the process; the way some founders ran their companies and the ideas that they were chasing gave him examples of what did and didn’t work. Crucially, he found out that many of the companies were having trouble getting great engineering talent, and by working with them, he got a feel for how his future customers would think.
Eventually, Roger started Liquid Labs LLC, parent company that was similar in structure to Curiosoft, where the aggregate of his past experiences and lessons would come together to help him build Gigster. Rapid prototyping came into use again, and this time the idea was to build and deliver products that would explore ways to use technology and disrupt lucrative industries like marketplaces and artificial intelligence.
His experience working with the small businesses that he had invested in came back again in the form of an opportunity. It was echoed by many others around him as well at the time. He observed, “everybody in Silicon Valley and outside of Silicon Valley talks about how hard it is to hire engineers. This is a pretty common refrain. There are supposedly around six job opening for engineers to every one engineer that exists. So the demand is six times the supply.” He pointed out that despite the ineffectiveness of existing “solutions” within the marketplace, they were all generating millions in revenue: another sign that there was incredible demand.
He also observed several key problems with those other services. First, they were open marketplaces, so it would be hard to distinguish between a good or bad engineer. What made that problem worse was that some companies like Odesk had reverse bidding, meaning that the user would have to decide who was best as freelancers aimed to undercut each other by lowering their prices. Some developers would even give customers discounts for a five-star rating, so it became impossible to trust the system.
Because there wasn’t a central oversight, all these hired engineers were independent actors, free to develop the software in their own ways. Sometimes a customer would hire what they thought was a great engineer, only to have that person give it to their B team or subcontract out the project. Other times, they might even hold the code hostage until the user paid more money for all the “extra time” they put into developing the software.
The market was ripe for change. All Roger needed to do was figure out how.
The team at Liquid Labs turned the problem over in their heads and came up with what they called at the time “a button that you could push to hire a great engineering team.” It would be incredibly simple to use. You drag the slider for how many people you need, submit your project, press the button, and get a quality hand-vetted team at the other end who would build and deliver your project like magic. They knew at that point that the idea was gold: anyone who had an idea worth chasing would want to use it. Now the goal was to make the button work.
They first fleshed out the idea so it would fix many of the aforementioned problems. They set the price to get rid of bidding, hand picked high-quality engineers to do the job in order to maintain quality, sat in the middle of transactions to oversee that the project was being done as specified, and guaranteed anonymity for some of the freelance engineers who might also be working at another company like Google or Microsoft.
A year and a half after starting Liquid Labs, they launched the first version of Gigster and went live on Hacker News and Product Times. Within two days, they had three million dollars worth of business submitted to the website, so they dropped all the other prototypes and went into full scaling mode for Gigster.
One of the first things they had to do was learn to position the company and sell the idea to potential investors and customers. For investors, the opportunity was in taking control of a market with a tremendous amount of demand. Custom software created by outsourcing firms was a $132 billion market and the amount that companies spent on engineering talent was over two trillion dollars globally. If they could come in, aggregate a lot of supply, take demand from competitors, and eat up a portion of that market share, they would be an extremely profitable venture. The icing on top of the cake would be that as they managed more projects, they would be able to find commonalities between different areas of work and become more efficient.
For customers, it was easy to see the differences. They saw that a Silicon Valley-based firm was going to manage their project. Gigster would take full responsibility for the finished project. They were guaranteeing the price, the quality, the top tier talent, and a team of engineers, not just an individual. To top it all off, they were backed by sound investors.
The first step was scaling and getting engineers so that when the customer clicked the button to get their team, there would be people on the other end. Roger outlined the process,
We started with 100 people we knew well and expanded out from there through referrals and some nice supply-side PR. My co-founder was doing about 40 interviews a day to build the early supply network and controlling quality very carefully to make sure we had the right foundation of people to build on.
They had a successful launch, but then things slowed down a little bit, and revenue growth eventually stalled. Roger then turned to hire salespeople. He explained, “we came up with a structure where we wanted to have contract salespeople. We built this whole system where the contract salespeople could take chats with customers, they could close deals online, and there was a certain commission that we gave them for that.” It was interesting for Roger to finally learn about sales, and he and his cofounder gradually worked their way around to a model that worked.
By late 2015, they had figured it out and growth exploded. Over the course of the next year, Gigster went from $90,000 to $600,000 to one million and finally to 1.2 million dollars a month. Every month was at least double the previous month before slowly tapering off and growing at more regular speeds.
Although growth was fast, one problem area was that many of the early customers were small businesses, and that posed a challenge for the Gigster team. “We had a tendency to promise a lot because we really wanted to take care of our customers and not charge a lot,” Roger remarked, “and this was pretty bad for us because we lost money on most of our early projects.”
The issue was, by signing a services contract, they were making a commitment, and they were signing a lot of contracts. This overload became apparent when they were preparing for their presentation for Y Combinator demo day.
They had made a commitment to closing 100 projects in five weeks to make for a compelling presentation. That amounted to roughly four projects a day. Renting out a house in Sunnyvale, California, the whole company moved down there, and every day that they closed four projects, everyone would jump into the pool at the back of the house to celebrate. They ended up closing 120 projects in the five-week period, but the consequence to that was that now they had to deliver on all those contracts. Roger explained the situation, “my co-founder was flipping out because he was happy, but he was also scared. So he kind of went off into a cave and figured out how to deliver all those projects.” In the meantime, many of the small businesses came back and threatened to sue them if they didn’t deliver exactly what they promised, which was often more than they could have possibly done. From that experience, Roger decided to pivot towards enterprise where the customers were much more predictable and realistic with both the project and the pay.
As Gigster’s growth exploded through their enhanced sales strategy and pivot to enterprise, they quickly became one of the best spots for turning one’s dreams into software. Roger quickly learned a lesson though. He said, “We should have hired executives earlier. We scaled too fast and didn’t always have enough senior talent to help us maintain that growth rate at the delivery quality bar we needed to be at.”
Most importantly, as Gigster has grown, the company atmosphere has changed. In the early days, they were working with many entrepreneurial people, testing out their concepts, and moving fast. Once they became a mid-sized company, they had to start thinking about things like management, culture, values, hiring, and communicating the same vision and goals to everyone. At 100 employees, the focus turned to customers, growth, senior leadership, company financials, and investor relations.
These days, Gigster is rapidly expanding their client portfolio and distinguishing itself from the gig economy. A year ago, they helped finish a Christmas project for IBM to publicize Watson’s artificial intelligence tools. They’ve also set up a Gigster fund which is almost like a savings account for freelancers on Gigster.
At the end of the day, Roger is confident in the model that he has built. With a laser focus on software, they’re slowly changing the norms of hiring engineers.
If you want to learn more about Gigster, you can find their website here. To read our last article with Ring click this link. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page.
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Anne Wojcicki started her professional career at a firm on Wall Street, a job which she found randomly at a job fair. For ten years, she worked on all types of projects within the company, focusing on healthcare research and investing. Soon enough, she began to notice a startling trend within the healthcare industry: it was more prepared to monetize the process of treating illnesses instead of preventing the illness. For example, a patient with diabetes or any other condition may be swarmed by hospitals that want to treat them, since their emphasis was on the services that they could easily monetize. Work spent on prevention was simply not as important because it wasn’t as profitable. Her determination to fix this hole in the industry was integral for the founding of her company 23andMe.
She finally determined that the world needed her company after she saw the huge opportunity stemming from the, at the time, recent sequencing of the human genome. Wojcicki had always been interested in genetics and took her chances. She likes to call it her “first and last investment” because she thought that if her company could empower everyone with their own genetic information, then they could change healthcare. Wojcicki realized that if she could crowdsource this data for research, she could also help cure diseases because of the wealth of new information.
Although 23andMe was not the first company in the industry, it was the first to create and market its product in a way that caught the eye of the average consumer. Since their founding, a plethora of new companies have entered the market, and in many ways they have adopted many of the unique marketing and technological innovations that 23andMe pioneered. When asked about what 23andMe’s biggest differentiator is, Andy Kill, senior communications professional at the company, said, “We’re the only direct-to-consumer genetic test that offers health information, that is our primary differentiator. You don’t need a prescription for 23andMe, unlike all other health-related genetic testing.” While other companies have also been providing ancestry information, 23andMe has also notably incorporated its unique health services to the mix – a service usually reserved for specialized medical DNA testing. He further explained, “We feel strongly about giving people direct access to their genetic information without any gating factors.”
Even with these unique features, they still faced a significant uphill battle like other companies seeking to create and build up their own industries. Although direct-to-consumer DNA testing is much more well known today, when 23andMe launched in 2006, DNA testing was still a novel concept that a select few people knew about and was often more expensive than people were willing to pay for because of the costly process to interpret the results. In response, 23andMe focused on expanding consumer knowledge about DNA testing, and informing people about how they could interpret their results. 23andMe’s initial high cost barrier also began to come down considerably once they developed a more cost efficient testing method, bringing the price down by a factor of 10 from $999 in 2007 to today’s price of $99.
23andMe also employed creative marketing techniques to push its brand and product to the general public. The company made headlines on publications such as The New York Times back in 2008 for its “spit parties”, which were events that celebrities and other influencers were invited to test out their product and spit into 23andMe test tubes. They also worked closely together with large, mainstream consumer events like the World Cup in 2018, where customers could “find” the countries that they could root for through their ancestry- especially good timing as the US team was eliminated and many were left without a team to support. This year, they also conducted a pop up experience where both the media and the everyday person could come to learn about 23andMe and its products- specifically its relatively lesser known health products.
When I asked if they ever considered giving up on their products, Kill replied with an emphatic “No!” explaining, “there have been challenges, of course, but I’ve realized the importance of persistence. We have a mission that we strongly believe in, we have a drive, and we know where we’re going.” Their persistence has shown. They grew from roughly 100,000 customers in 2011 to over 5 million today, a fifty fold increase!
23andMe also has some interesting scientific work that goes on “behind the scenes”. Starting in 2008, the company began to collect valuable survey data about their health and wellness. This data was then compared with de-identified genetic results to try to further enhance genetics research. Four million customers and counting have contributed over 1.5 billion survey questions, leading to 110 peer-reviewed studies.
Even with the landscape of genetic testing constantly shifting, the company’s focus and vision of disrupting healthcare and accelerating research has not changed much from its inception. Kill said, “The goal has always been to disrupt the healthcare system by giving people direct access to their genetic information so that they’ll be incentivized to take better care of themselves and be more proactive about their health”, and I think they’ve achieved that goal quite well. I hear all types of people around me now becoming more interested in their ancestry and the health consequences of their genetic code because of 23andMe, reaching from the elderly to students like myself.
Entrepreneurs like Anne Wojcicki have demystified complex science like genetics down to an easy to follow format, not only benefitting the individuals who are looking for their ancestral roots but also scientists that are using their data to create the next scientific breakthroughs: fighting diseases and opening our eyes to new discoveries that may change the way we see the world. 23andMe’s work has the potential to not only change its industry, but also the face of biotech itself, making it more personable without losing the core intricacies.
If you want to learn more about 23andMe, you can find their website here. To read our last article with Infinite Flight go to this link. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page.
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Recently, we were able to interview Laura Laban, co-founder and developer of Infinite Flight
What made you want to create Infinite Flight? In other words, what is the story behind it?
It’s pretty simple, I was an engineering student, fan of flight simulation (Microsoft Flight Simulator, Flight Unlimited 2/3 were the ones I used at the time), and I always wanted to write my own one day. In 2004, I started writing one for fun in my spare time. After a few years of working on it, then moving to California to work for NVIDIA, a friend and I decided to join forces and make this hobby an actual product. 2 years later, Infinite Flight was out on Windows Phone, and one year later on iOS.
Flight simulators with such realism are rare on mobile. Why was Infinite Flight able to do what others could not?
One key aspect is that I and other devs are users of the product. It started as something I developed for myself and that I’m passionate about, that’s a prerequisite to a successful business. If you like what you do, and do it also for you, mountains are easier to climb. I don’t think others couldn’t do what we do, we just timed things right and listened to our community.
Before big updates, I usually see that people put lots of pressure on the team. How do you deal with such pressure from the community?
Keep our heads down, carry on fixing bugs and try not to take things too personally.
With such a large community, how do you make sure that everyone is satisfied? Why is it important to engage with the community?
We can’t satisfy everyone. We try to balance features and progress as much as we can to make it fair for all our categories of users. Engaging with the community is key in this endeavor, to know where to steer the ship.
What has been the biggest hurdle that you had to clear while running/starting Infinite Flight? What lessons have you learned from it?
Jumping from a safe career into a startup environment is tough. Though it’s gotten a lot better lately, app store submission process is high on that list too
I know there are 3rd party apps for Infinite Flight. Have these developers had any impact on Infinite Flight? If so, how?
It’s hard to measure, but I think they have an impact yes. Closed flight sims never survived long as the developers constantly had to keep them alive with new versions. And historically, those iterations couldn’t come as quickly as what we can do on mobile devices today. What third party devs provide is an extension of what we do, they allow users to enjoy things we haven’t had time or thought of implementing.
Being a company on app stores, how has this changed Infinite Flight’s business model, as opposed to a flight simulator like X-Plane, where they have access to the computer world? What marketing techniques have you found successful (that you would like to share) for mobile app based companies?
Mobile is different than PC. It’s more of an instant world, quicker sessions, faster play, etc… Historically too, mobile games were cheap, either free or $0.99 so users perceive them as inferior, cheap and not as well polished. It’s changing now with bigger companies coming into this market. Many of our friends who were in the gaming business back in 2012 are no longer there because of this drive to make their app free, riddle them with ads and try shady tactics to make their users pay.
Our approach is more honest, we have set a price, it’s not free, it works, there’s developers, artists behind it that want to keep this project going for many years. We want our users to know we’re not here for a quick buck and our history shows that.
In terms of marketing technique, we haven’t really done much outside of social media and making a good product people enjoy and talk to their friends about.
Since Infinite Flight has been a team effort, what qualities do you look for in a person when choosing whether or not to add them to the team?
Maturity, entrepreneurial spirit, independence, humility, ability to debate their opinion and a passion for what we do
Where do you see Infinite Flight in a couple years from now?
Closer to reality
And lastly, what advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Learn to context switch. Don’t waste the downtime you have, one hour here and there add up at the end of the week, month, year and your project will keep advancing. Also, starting a business for the sake of making money isn’t the right mindset. It’s too fragile of a goal. Find what you’re passionate about, try to start slow and don’t raise money if you don’t have to.
If you want to learn more about Infinite Flight, you can find their website here. To read our last article with QMS Consulting go to this link. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page.
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Isabelle Murphy got herself through college by doing product demonstrations at the Macy’s in Herald Square at New York. It was her first chance to try out something different from the typical office job, something that would help her to sharpen her sales and people skills. When she first started, she was replacing a man who had a reputation for being incredibly good at the product demonstrations. He was an actor. Everytime he got up to show off one of the products he was selling, there would be a throng of people watching the demo. So when he had to go to do an off-Broadway show, Isabelle came to replace him as a temporary sales person – just a “warm body there.”
Isabelle remembered, “My style was very different. I talked to each of the customers who came up and watched and I asked questions about what they were looking for, what were their interests, and what kinds of things they were doing. And then what I would do, based on that information, was talk to them about the different products that I was selling and how it would help them.” It was solution selling at its best. Focusing on each individual person, Isabelle threw the idea of a large show out the window.
For instance, one time, a man came up to her looking for a present for his wife. Isabelle suggested a fry pan. The man was confused. Why would he want to give a fry pan as a gift to his wife? She suggested that the fry pan was a symbol that he and the boys wanted to make life easier for her and step up their duties in the house. She then told him to buy some perfume as a second gift to represent how beautiful she is. He bought the fry pan, and Isabelle went off to another customer. A week later, the man came back, complimented the fry pan that she suggested, and then bought the whole set!
It turns out, after the original salesman came back from his off-Broadway show, Isabelle had sold just as much as he had, even though she didn’t have the crowds of excited people waiting for demonstrations. It was a transformative experience. The lessons that she learned from stepping back, taking time to understand where people came from, and then using that information to come up with sales suggestions would stay with her for the years to come.
It was in her thirteenth year working for Kodak when she found her original sales skill set kick in in a different way. She had been doing sales management, and corporate had created a new business division that she and several others moved to. After she got trained and subsequent groups were coming on, they asked for somebody to help do training for these people, so she stepped up to the job and began.
It became apparent that she was well suited for running these training programs. The training revolved around solution selling for customers, through active listening and questions, matching them up to a product that fit their needs. These programs were run on a tight, set curriculum, and as time went on Isabelle realized that the key to actually helping these people was not just providing them with a set of basic skills to use, but a real awareness for how to use them. She quit her job. Shifting her focus, she wanted to run her own development programs that would concentrate more on the attitude and behavioral changes that helped people become not only better sales people, but better leaders.
She observed that the traits people looked for in leaders were also present in successful salespeople: understanding the customer and what is important to them, how to meet needs, what the company wants, and how to present it. So she decided to focus more on leadership and team development, pivoting away from her previous work in sales.
She started part-time, taking care of her young children at home and running the programs on the side. As her both her kids and business grew, she began to delve into her company more and it turned consulting into a fulltime job.
Starting the business, her sales experience from the past had suddenly become incredibly useful, but selling a program to businesses was different from selling to consumers. For starters, it was much more complex. Isabelle observed that “the level of complexity triples based on the number of people who are involved because of the individual personalities.” Moreover, the biggest obstacle she had to overcome was gaining credibility.
She pointed out that a lot of other firms could make an “ego sell”, leveraging their ethos and big name to get clients. It was hard to compete against those types of people, but Isabelle found out that if she could get past the initial bias and demonstrate how valuable her service was, it made the process of closing a sale much easier.
It also helped that she knew how to use powerful questions to get them to buy her programs. She explained that through asking questions in places where people least expect, they are forced to think about it in a different perspective and are more likely to come to an understanding with you.
Besides making these big sales, she was also able to build a huge references and referrals list. By starting off small, she would finish each one of her gigs and ask if she could use their name as a reference for future sales. As her list grew, her credibility grew and it became easier and easier to close deals. She articulated that the reason that this works so well is because “the client is already feeling a sense of value because somebody that they trusted has made this recommendation.”
Through learning to navigate the complex world of B2B sales and building a strong list of references and referrals, she has been able to build and scale her business quite well. And even though she has relied on previous successful programs to make her case, that doesn’t mean that each program that she runs is the same; they’re customized towards the needs of each company. For instance, she had an incredible program with Oracle, and she would use that as an example of a big client that was satisfied with how she did her work, but the way she might structure the program would be different for PBS or some other company. Her programs are also less focused on a set curriculum but molding it to the individual personalities in the room, building soft skills and introducing leadership and organizational models. She said it best, “ I can’t teach anybody anything, all I can do is help them think.”
That strategy has largely worked. One of her programs, Empower – which is designed for people who have been deemed to have high potential – is focused much more on the participants’ objectives. She starts by explaining what the program is and how it’s going to help them improve areas such as “how they interact with other people, how flexible they are in terms of looking at different needs, and how comfortable they are with changing things.” The program is also based on what the participant wants to get out of it and what their long-term goals are. Then, based on what they say, she comes up with a contract for how they are going to work together for the next few days. After that, she works on using models to help them develop their skills in various areas from soft skills to technical spots.
Even though her programs had been successful, things could still get incredibly tough. For example, she had been contracting at a company for a while at that point, and she was well-known and trusted there. She had been running the training from the corporate offices, and she was on her way to start at the satellite offices. When she got there, one of the managers at the satellite office kept on taking people out during the training to inform them of non-urgent things. Afterwards, Isabelle felt a bit uncomfortable and talked to the manager about it. The manager got incredibly angry and called corporate to get the programs cut. It turns out, corporate did cut the programs. And even though she had been doing them for a while there, it made her realize that she had to rely on herself, not the company, whenever she was running her programs.
That’s ultimately been the biggest lesson that she’s learned: to count on herself, not the client. Things will change. Many variables will be out of your control, but you can definitely control what you do and what attitude you use to face it.
That’s been one of the toughest parts. In times when Isabelle has had a tough time getting business, it seems so much easier to just give up and get a job with a steady paycheck and benefits. On the flip side, when her business had gotten a lot of clients, she missed a lot of important moments in her children’s lives and that also made her question her career choice.
There’s something in her that keeps her going though. As she explains, “I really love what I do. I have always said when it gets to the point where I don’t like what I’m doing, then I’m going to change it up again. And if I can walk out of a session and a couple of people are thinking in a new way they hadn’t thought of before, then I think I’ve done something really of value.”
That measure of value has shifted over the years. She started with sales training, then team development, and now, it’s diversity and inclusion training. As she grows the business, she continues to pursue a meaningful change in every corporate culture she goes to.
“If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, make sure you’re doing it around something that you really enjoy and you really believe in.”
If you want to learn more about QMS Consulting, you can find their website here. To read our last article with Mark Cuban, go to this link. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page.
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Recently, we got the opportunity to interview multi billionaire investor and businessman Mark Cuban!
1. In a previous interview, you talked about how you most admire your father, and he influenced you to have fun at every age and to treat people with respect. What are some examples of how these lessons have impacted your business decision-making?
2. What is one interesting fact that is not well known about your business career?
3. When you started your first business, MicroSolutions, how did you learn/figure out how to structure your day and how has it been optimized through the years?
4. You mention “sales cures all” a lot. What steps can entrepreneurs take to practice their sales skills and gain valuable insights into how to get better?
5. If you were the sole employee at your company and you only had enough money to hire three people, what would they be doing and why?
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When Amanda Zuckerman first visited Washington University at St. Louis, she noticed that near where all the freshmen and sophomores lived, there was a building with a bunch of student run businesses operating inside. There was a laundry service, t-shirt printing, water cooler renting, and even a store called UTrucking that delivered dorm sized refrigerators, microwaves, and safes.
Before she visited, she was planning to double major in graphic design and marketing, then graduate and work at her parents’ advertising agency, but seeing the businesses sparked something in her mind and opened up another possible career path. The inspiration for her own startup would materialize during a frustrating dorm shopping experience, paving the way for the years to come.
Before school started, one day was allotted for dorm shopping. As the oldest child in her family, the first problem she encountered was a lack of knowledge with the moving in process. She explained, “I really had no idea about anything having to do with a dorm room, going to college, or just any sort of advice or tips I might need going into this huge pivotal life moment.” Even worse, when she went out to shop, she couldn’t find any bedding in the twin XL size that was suitable for college students and dorm rooms. Sifting through bed-in-a-bag’s, all Amanda and her mom could find were children’s sheets or items that were not of the right price range and quality. Even when they did find something that looked like it could work, Amanda didn’t have any stylistic freedom with the product.
After a long day of shopping, she eventually put together a sophisticated aesthetic that attracted everybody on her floor. Mixing and matching different patterns and using subtle design techniques to rearrange items in the room, Amanda was able to turn a boring dorm into what was affectionately called “The Hotel Suite”. It could have been replicated, but to do so would have meant going through the same long and arduous process that she had experienced.
Even with the reactions of her classmates, she couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there should have been an easier process for her and other university students in the world to design their own unique, stylish dorm.
With disbelief that there was such a big hole in the market, Amanda and her mom talked about the prospect of designing their own bedding line. It wouldn’t be infeasible to run it as a student either; quite a few classmates were working in the on campus businesses.
She let the idea marinate throughout her freshman year as she was getting into the flow of college life before, in 2010, setting up a blog and a brand ambassador program called Style Advisors. “We had friends of mine writing content for the blog and then they would get friends of theirs to write content, and the network just kind of grew organically,” she said.
Amanda explained that the blog was just a way to get the name out there and simultaneously generate content while she and her mom were figuring how to manufacture the textiles overseas and build a website. While her blog was gaining traction and turning into one of her biggest branding tools, Amanda was incubating the startup in her parents’ agency, using their developers and designers to help Dormify’s brand quickly establish a look and feel.
When drawing up the elements for Dormify, they wanted to be a lifestyle brand dedicated to dorm decor, providing commerce and content for the average university student to help make the process of transitioning to college more comfortable and fashionable. Unlike many large retailers, Dormify could afford to be more personal, acting as a big sister to many of their customers. Speaking authentically to college age students was their main branding strategy, and they could relate well to the demographics seeing as most of the business’s team were in their 20s and early 30s. Crucially, Dormify would treat commerce and content equally. For example, besides selling items for dorms, they’ve also released a comprehensive freshman guide that covers everything from moving into joining sororities.
In 2011, two years into Amanda’s college experience, they released their first product line, accentuated by on-demand printed posters to fill up inventory while their merchandise was being produced. That first selling season was incredibly useful in helping to establish what worked and what didn’t work for the company. Amanda pointed out that “we were a bunch of graphic designers creating textiles. We made the patterns very ‘designery’, and that’s just not what our aesthetic is now because that’s not what our audience wants.”
In the process of building their company from the ground up and figuring out how to navigate the complex world of textiles, Amanda had to learn a lot. For starters, she and her mom had to master the process of textiles manufacturing. Amanda tells the story,
We landed our first partner by going to one of the textile buildings in Manhattan and just knocking on the doors of every manufacturer in the building to try to get them to work with us. We didn’t have a website. We didn’t even have a business card. There was someone that actually believed in what we were trying to do, our vision, and us as people, so they said, “all right we’ll do some hand-holding, and we’ll help you get started.” They showed us the ropes.
Even after they learned the ins and outs of manufacturing, they still needed to account for some other factors. For example, holding inventory. As mentioned before, in their first selling season, they used posters as a low-cost method to boost inventory, but they also had to raise money to meet textile minimums so that they would have things to sell.
In order to use up the minimum purchase requirements, Amanda got creative. Instead of using the fabrics they purchased to make a couple hundred duvet covers, they repurposed them. For instance, if they had bought a few thousand yards of butterfly print, they would not only use that to make covers, but also sheets, shower curtains, bed skirts, window panels, or anything else that could suit that fabric and pattern. They also created reversible duvet covers to use more of the material as well.
Obtaining money to set up the inventory was a challenge in and of itself. In 2012 and 2013, they did their first two round of funding from friends and family. A lot of the people that invested were friends that had a kid who was either going to college or was around that age. Because the early investors could relate to the problem Dormify was trying to solve, they also believed in the cause much more.
Venture capitalists were a tougher sell. Amanda explained that the VCs would “challenge us on a lot of aspects of the business.” They were looking for the right time and the right person to run the company. But as she talked to more and more funds, she got to have a better understanding of what they were looking for, what to focus on, and what to not focus on. Every investor was different, so she said that “you kind of have to be smart about how you twist the story a little bit or focus on the things that might be most attractive to that investor.”
The rapid ups and downs from starting the company in college to obtaining large checks from venture capitalists were tough on Amanda Zuckerman. She mentioned that sometimes she thinks about how life would be much easier if she didn’t have to run her company. But the fundamental reason why she continues to do it and the rewarding aspects outweigh the hardships and frustration that she has to face.
As with an expanding brand, marketing is key to maintaining explosive growth. In the beginning, Amanda used her brand ambassador program as the main way to get the word about Dormify out there. While she was in school, she also had a focus group of college students at her fingertips that she could use to test out new ideas. Having a group of people around the demographic she was selling to was crucial to developing the brand and getting feedback on what did and didn’t work.
Something else Dormify did in the beginning a lot was reach out to the press. They would set up meetings and have appointments with magazines like Seventeen and Teen Vogue. Having the credit from a major publication helped increase their legitimacy. No amount of press beat Dormify’s content marketing. From the beginning, providing tips and relatable blog posts for college students was one of the best ways to drive revenue.
Now that it’s 2018, through learning manufacturing, getting funding, and making their brand a part of the mainstream, Dormify has matured a lot. More recently, in 2015, they designed a collection in a partnership with Macy’s. From 2016 to the present, they’ve been working with American Eagle where they create exclusive styles for them. This year, they’ve also launched three pop-up shops and are in the midst of a fundraising round.
Looking back, it’s been a crazy decade. And through building the business through college and now into a major competitor to companies like Urban Outfitter and Bed Bath and Beyond, Amanda has learned two key things.
First, you have to stay focused. When she started Dormify with her mom, she was getting so many suggestions from others about spinoff brands they could start like apartmentify or campify. But as time went on, she figured out that you need to establish how much time you are spending doing certain things and budget it appropriately. In the beginning, when you are building a company, you don’t have time to stretch yourself thin.
The second lesson that she learned was hiring the right people. She explained, “people who really believe in the brand and want to work for the brand are really the most important thing that I look for rather than listening to their skills first because there’s a lot that you can teach, but work ethic and attitude is not something that you could teach.”
Dormify is taking the world by storm. And seeing as school’s starting for millions of students around the world, the only direction to go is up.
Networking really is so important. And networking goes beyond putting yourself out there in the world whether it’s on campus, in college, or in your young Professional Network. You can go to events and meet people, but it’s really about how you maintain those relationships and make something of them that will really contribute to your future because you never know how someone that you meet can help you later on in life. I think that at a young age having a mentality like this is really important whether it’s people like resources on campus that could serve as mentors or even in my case just being proactive about meeting other founders and people in the e-commerce world because your friends and your family aren’t necessarily going to be able to help in the ways that you need. You never know how they’re going to come back into your life to help you. I’ve had plenty of people from high school or just people that I’ve met in random parts of my life just come in to be really instrumental in helping fuel my business initiative.
If you want to learn more about Dormify, you can find their website here. To read our last article about the business Wanderu, go to this link. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page.
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Today we talked with CEO and co-founder of Wanderu, Polina Raygorodskaya, to learn the amazing story behind her business!
As we’re here trying to build a story, a tale, about your business, the reader might need some exposition. What is the prologue to your business, the smaller things that lead to Wanderu?
The idea for Wanderu was born out of my own frustration of not having one specific place online where I could find and compare all available bus and train options for traveling between any two points in the U.S.
There are more bus companies than airlines traveling between major cities and, up until only a couple years ago, I had to visit every carrier’s own website and manually compare options to find the one that best fit my schedule and budget. That’s when I realized I shouldn’t have to do all that every time I needed to go somewhere.
I teamed up with my co-founder, Igor Bratnikov, and we did a survey of hundreds of other bus travelers to see if this was something other people wanted, and it was! That’s how the idea was born and now, several years later, Wanderu has become the leading bus and train travel search in North America.
What was the turning point in your life when you realized that the world needed your service? When did you realize this?
The turning point came in the summer of 2011 when my now-business partner Igor Bratnikov and I joined a group of young professionals traveling across the country using only shared rides on a mission to raise awareness about national parks and forests.
During our trip, a driver who was supposed to take us to our next destination cancelled on us at the last moment which stranded us in the middle of rural Virginia. At the time, we had no way of knowing what buses or trains we could catch to continue our journey because there wasn’t a single go-to place online where I could find and compare all available bus or train options for traveling between any two points in the U.S. We had to go to all these different carriers’ websites and manually search to see if any of them served the area and check if there were any routes going to our next stop. It was very inconvenient and a big waste of our time.
It was then that we became determined to create Wanderu, a ground travel search engine that allows people to easily find and book the best deals on bus and train travel. With the help of Wanderu, travelers can easily find the most convenient and cheapest bus and train tickets from their location to thousands of cities across North America and Europe.
Over time, we have come to discover that a lot of people do prefer to take a bus or train over flying even for some longer distance trips. In fact, some of our most popular routes include Los Angeles to Las Vegas, New York to Chicago and New York to Atlanta.
Did your previous experiences or education affect your decision to start Wanderu?
Yes, they did, both directly and indirectly. I earned my undergraduate degree from Babson College which is one of the most prominent schools for entrepreneurship in the country, so I essentially knew from a very early point in my life that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. In fact, during my days at Babson, I started my first company, a fashion and lifestyle public relations firm, and after that experience I knew there was no way I could let go of the entrepreneurial spirit.
As my first company was based in New York and I am from Boston, I used to travel back and forth occasionally to visit my family or for business. I usually took the bus or train and that was my first encounter with the inefficiency of the ground travel industry. I would spend hours online going from one bus company site to another trying to decipher complicated PDF schedules and searching for the best deal. It was all the way back then that I first noticed the gap in the industry and the business opportunity it presented.
What was the biggest difference between your service from the competitors?
Wanderu is the only travel search platform in the world that allows you to look up and compare both bus and train travel options in North America and Europe and figure out how to get from point A to point B even if that means taking two buses or a bus and a train. We are currently adding more and more ferry options to our system, and we are working on integrating our flight options into our regular results. None of our competitors offer a truly multi-modal product.
We’ve also built a unique routing technology that automatically combines options from various carriers to build a customized trip itinerary to get you to your destination when there are no direct trips for the route you’re looking to take.
In addition to that, Wanderu has the largest coverage network in the United States and through Europe compared to other ground travel aggregators. And, unlike some of our competitors, we never charge any additional fees for booking a trip through Wanderu.
What were some of the biggest struggles/hurdles when you were first starting your business? Did you have any approach to overcome this obstacle?
The biggest challenge we have had to face was creating a digital platform that could easily integrate and work with the ticketing systems of the various ground travel providers. Unlike the airline industry, many bus and train companies operated using very old-school platforms and many of them didn’t even sell tickets online. Therefore, we had to figure out a way to factor in the specific elements of every single carrier’s ticketing platform and converge them into a universal system that is both reliable and user-friendly.
On a more personal side, I can’t even count the times that people in the ground travel industry have told me that Wanderu would not be successful and that it would be impossible to create a one-stop shop for bus and train travel. Instead of backing down, I worked harder and let the results speak for themselves. Wanderu is now the leading multimodal travel search in North America and Europe, and it’s one of the very few tech startups that has become profitable within just five years of existence.
As someone interested in marketing, were there any creative marketing techniques that you used?
Before I dedicated myself to Wanderu full-time, I had my own public relations company, so I’ve always been very well aware of the power of effective PR and media coverage. As a startup, we have very limited resources and we cannot afford to spend them on expensive marketing and advertising campaigns. That’s why we focused a large portion of our marketing efforts on earned media coverage and influencer campaigns to get the word out about Wanderu.
That proved to be quite a good strategy not just from an awareness perspective but from a purely business standpoint as well. One of the main channels from which any online business gets its traffic (if not the main one) is through search engines like Google, Yahoo!, Bing, etc. As it turns out, the more organic earned coverage you get, the higher you end up ranking in the search results, so PR has truly been the right way to go for us.
Was there ever a time when you felt you had to give up?
If you ever meet an entrepreneur who denies ever wanting to just throw everything to the side, move to a remote island and open a bar, you should know that they are lying to you.
When my co-founder Igor and I were laying the foundations for Wanderu, pretty much every single person from the travel industry whom we met told us that it was impossible to build a platform like ours. They said that many had tried and failed. Instead of detering us, that motivated us even more to prove them wrong, which we eventually did.
However, it certainly wasn’t easy. From people refusing to take us seriously because of our outsider status in the ground travel industry to almost running out of money in the early days of our startup, there were times when we would contemplate the journey we had embarked on. Fortunately, neither one of us is the type of person who would give up easily, so we persisted and were able to come out on top.
That’s how the entrepreneur life is, though. You have to be in it for the long run and be ready to deal with all the challenges that come your way. Besides, once you get your business off the ground, you’re no longer responsible just for yourself. You can’t just call it quits. You have your team, you have your investors, you have your customers – all of them are relying on you to make it work, and you have a duty to make their contributions to your original idea worth it. You can’t just quit.
What is one interesting thing that is not well known about your business?
Not many people realize that we are actually a very small team. There’s less than 25 of us, including software engineers, marketing team, product and business people, etc. However, since we get most of our projects done in-house (and we get a lot done for such a compact team), people seem to think that we are this huge company.
Has your focus changed from the beginning to now?
Not really. From the very beginning, we set out on building the best travel booking platform out there and we’re still focused on achieving just that. Obviously, it can’t all happen at once, so we set up different goals for each quarter, and for each year.
When we first launched Wanderu, for example, we only offered bus trips in the Northeast region of the U.S. and we focused on expanding to the entire country. Then, we set our minds to adding train options, and eventually bringing Wanderu across the pond.
Last year, our goal as a business was to become profitable and I’m really happy to share that we were able to achieve that. This year, we’re aiming at expanding the Wanderu brand across the European market.
As you can see, while our goals change depending on the business’ needs and priorities, the focus has remained the same throughout the years – we are slowly but surely building a true one-stop shop for travelers where they will be able to book any trip they want using any type of transportation they prefer.
What is your vision for the future?
We are going to continue expanding and adding new partners, routes and geographies. As we remain focused on building the ultimate travel brand, we are working on a number of strategies to turn Wanderu into more than just a place where people come to look for bus or train tickets. We want to inspire them to travel to different places and explore both local and distant destinations that they wouldn’t have considered otherwise, and we want to provide them with all the means necessary to achieve that.
Do you have a message for any aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Probably the best piece of advice I got when I was first starting out was to not be afraid of failure. Not everything you put your hands on is going to work right away. In fact, if you don’t make mistakes, there is no way you for you to learn, improve and grow and become a better entrepreneur.
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re going into the entrepreneurship world, you have to be in it for the long run and be ready to roll with the punches because things won’t always work out the way you expect them to. Be ready to fail at certain things but also learn from your experiences and improve.
Most importantly, though, make sure to invest heavily, yet smartly, in building an amazing team – people who are passionate about solving the problems you are working on. It sounds so much easier than it is, but taking the time to find the right people and build a team that actually enjoys working together is key if you want your venture to be successful.
In fifth grade, much to Brett Kopf’s disappointment, he was diagnosed with several learning disabilities. After spending years struggling through academics, Brett finally chanced upon a teacher called Ms. Whitefield. “She really just changed my life, and she had a big impact on my education… Ms. Whitefield really cared. She would talk with my mom every week on the phone, and she was extremely patient with me. And what ended up happening is she built soft skills like confidence or critical thinking, and that’s what really helped me,” he explained.
Ms. Whitefield changed his life. Ever since he discovered he had learning disabilities, he had felt so insecure about school, but she turned that around. And so, from that year in high school, the idea of a Ms. Whitefield, at scale, for every student in America began to emerge in Brett’s head. To replicate his own academic awakening, he wanted to be able to remove the relationship and communication barrier that existed between teachers, students, and parents to help engage people in the education system more.
A couple years later, when Brett went to college, he created the first version of Remind, albeit one that would later be shut down. With some coding knowledge, his brother scrapped together an Excel-based system that would send reminders for exam dates, and Brett signed people up to the service. At one point, over 2000 students were using it. This prototype gave Brett his first taste of building a useful product. He explains, “there’s no greater feeling or high in the world when you build something that people actually use, like, and continue to use.”
That first version of Remind wasn’t perfect though. For two years, they ran the company and were failing. They didn’t have a concrete idea of where they were heading, what their mission was, or how to run a startup, so they quickly became stuck. Even then, Brett still felt like there was still a future for his fledgling company. From a deep place of fixing his insecurities that came from childhood struggles with learning disabilities and a drive to build something that mattered, he felt like he needed to keep going.
With that in mind, Brett moved out to Silicon Valley and got into an incubator to learn the ins and outs of running a startup. He learned two key lessons that would stay with him for the rest of his career.
The first lesson was to run the company with a framework, a way to make decisions and operate. The framework rested on the importance of speaking to the customer, learning about their problem, and creating a product that solves just one problem.
The second lesson was discovering what Remind’s purpose in the world was. And that would only come about through talking to hundreds of teachers. To contact them, Brett googled a list of teachers that used Twitter and emailed every single one of them personally. He would start off by explaining who he was and what he was building to potentially solve their problem. Closing the email, he would ask to have a fifteen minute Skype call to talk. For eight to ten weeks, he spoke to hundreds of teachers across the United States, built connections with them, and remembered each one by name. As he went, he began to learn more and more about the biggest problem these teachers faced and how his service was a perfect way to solve it.
Brett Kopf figured out,
The biggest problem was they [the teachers] had really important information to convey but they did not feel safe from a liability perspective in communicating that way because they didn’t want to get sued or fired if they messaged their student on Facebook or texted them. And the other end was because the kids were not responding to the communication methods that the teachers were using, and it hurt their education because of that.
Educators were having a hard time notifying students of what was going on, and it wasn’t helping anyone. So when Brett explained the solution he was thinking about to them, they would get so excited. With that information, Brett realized he could repurpose his college prototype of Remind to serve all the communication needs of these teachers whether that was homework, tests, parent-teacher conferences, short motivational messages, or surveys. To better serve these teachers and fully realize his childhood dream, he was finally creating a seamless communication platform for families, teachers, and administrators.
He had one problem, and he wanted to use one simple solution to solve it. That’s what made Remind so unique. Many other companies at the time were building feature-laden products, but all these teachers wanted was a safe and easy way to get their message delivered from A to B. And even though the basic mechanisms of the software looked like they were easy to copy, Remind put a lot of data science and work behind the product to make it truly distinct and hard to compete with.
Brett had figured out his market fit and had a great solution in the making to fix the problem that he saw, but now he had to deal with the struggles of a business that was scaling fast. Even though they didn’t do any marketing, all the teachers that Brett had talked to jumped onto the platform, and they were telling all their friends to use it too. It was exponential growth. But he revealed, “in the beginning, the application would fail a lot. We were growing so fast. The first few months we were adding 5000 users a week which at the time was an enormous amount, and we wouldn’t be able to deliver on messages.”
Brett also set some goals that were both unreasonably high for the company and not backed on solid data. Sometimes, the team would miss these goals and it would demoralize everybody. That was one of the hardest lessons that he’s learned. As his company grew, he began to use the quantitative user data that the app collected to better set goals and benchmarks for the future.
His biggest challenge along the way was building the emotional capacity to handle the ups and downs of running a startup. “It was really hard,” Brett said. “I didn’t understand at such an early stage how to comprehend the pressure and stress, or understand how to focus on what was most important.”
He found out that sticking it through and persisting even when things got incredibly tough was the key to building the mental resilience to face even the hardest of circumstances. It also helped that he was building the company with his brother David, someone who had a similar value system to him and would always be there when he needed him.
There were many mornings where he woke up at 4 o’clock to help out teachers on the east coast with their questions about his product, using that customer service as one of Remind’s competitive advantages. He wanted to make sure that every teacher was able to talk with a person on the other end of the phone to discuss their needs and get help using the app.
Before they knew it, their product had blown up. They got over $50 million funding, and at one point in 2014, they added over 400,000 users in a single day – hitting number one in the app store – all without any marketing gimmicks. Brett explained his thought process:
At the core of it, you should build a product that solves a huge problem for your customer, and they should share the products. If they are using the product and sharing it, then you found a product market fit. And then your job becomes making it really simple for them to share a link, tweet it out, or send it out on Facebook.
He elaborates that through solving a problem well and finding users who like the product, getting the word out there becomes a lot easier. Furthermore, as a product focused founder, he has concentrated on building a platform that has the highest retention rates possible, using the data infrastructure to understand what is going on and why customers may be staying or leaving. At the end of the day, if the product is truly something that is needed, it will sell itself.
As a company scales, sometimes the founder can lose sight of what they originally started the company for, but Brett still sees the same vision that he did a decade ago. Now in 2018, Remind has not only focused on explosive growth but monetization as well. They’ve turned to a freemium model where the premium version will have added features like longer messages and voice calls. Partnering with companies like Quizlet, they’ve also been moving towards more functionality and support on their platform. Even then, he still uses that same ambition that had been building ever since he was a child to drive the company forward and provide an easy way for everybody involved in the school system to communicate.
Right now Remind is at 27 million unique users and is the number one education software on the Apple app store, but Brett is always looking for more. With a world full of billions of people in the education system, he sees the endless potential that his product can bring to the world – one teacher, one student, and one parent at a time.
“I think it’s important to work on something that you really care about and are really passionate about. The underlying reason to that is because it’s so hard to scale a company to some level of modest success. There are so many walls that will be put up in your way or so many people are gonna think your an idiot, and there’s gonna be so many times when you’re going to fail and things are going to go wrong. And if there isn’t a deeper reason why you are doing what you are doing, or why this thing exists, it will be hard to succeed. Focus on something that you really really care about.”
After Apple bought Lark’s first Bluetooth sleep band, the wave came. Julia Hu found herself signing deals with Best Buy, Walmart, Target, RadioShack and more. Each company ordered tens of thousands of devices, and Julia began to see her dreams come true. All the products were built and shipped to the stores, but then things changed. It turns out, what may seem so normal today, was not well known in the early 2010s. Bluetooth devices and the Internet of Things hadn’t entered the mainstream yet, and many of these companies ended up over-ordering the devices. What Julia didn’t realize was without properly marketing and educating the market, these businesses didn’t know how to sell these products, and they were being shipped back in hordes. Hu explains, “I didn’t read the fine print in the contract that these large companies could return your product in any condition at any time when they don’t want it. And I literally had thousands of Larks just coming back in bad conditions.”
It was, what she called, her “million dollar mistake”. So how did this happen? To understand, we have to rewind back to the beginning of Lark. Julia had been going to MIT for graduate school after she started her first two companies, and she thought she was going to start another cleantech startup, but she decided to pivot and start Lark because she wasn’t sleeping well at MIT, and she was interested in trying to do something tangible to help her sleep better.
That was the beginning of Lark: a sleep band. You would wear it at night and it would track a variety of metrics and then an AI coach that was created in conjunction with a Stanford sleep expert would use those data to coach you and help you sleep better. Launching at the TechCrunch conference, she got over 500 preorders during her presentation and raised $1 million in funding. Through that one sleep band, she began to see the potential to broaden her platform to help people who were struggling with all types of health problems.
From the start, Lark was always about improving one’s health, and most of all, helping those with chronic conditions lead normal lives. The topic was close to Julia Hu’s heart.
Julia had a chronic disease that went undiagnosed for about twenty-five years, and so when she was a kid, she would have these incredibly painful attacks that lasted seven to eight hours at a time, seemingly randomly. It felt lonely. She struggled emotionally and healthwise for such a long time, and her dad took her around to dozens of specialists who couldn’t solve the problem and figure out what was wrong.
Her dad kept looking. Luckily, they found a pediatrician who worked with Julia every week or so for twelve years helping her manage pain, stress, sleep, diet, and exercise. Even though he didn’t completely understand what was wrong, he was able to get rid of 90% of the attacks. From her experience with that doctor, the idea of a 24/7 team to help someone with their conditions and their health struggles began to materialize, and she wanted to find a way to give that to the world.
Several years after Julia found that doctor, she entered Stanford University to major in environmental engineering. While there, she interned at seven startups that had been started by former students, and she discovered how much she loved them. Through working there, she figured out what she liked to do (marketing and strategy) and what she didn’t like (finance models). Building something from nothing fascinated her, and she had to do a lot of fast learning on the job. Most importantly, Julia learned the importance of solving the big problems in the world around her, a lesson that would stick with her for the years to come.
It turns out, startups were the perfect calling for her. As she observed, “I liked so many different things. I liked science, I liked art, I liked design, and I liked behavior change”. Even though her many pursuits made her feel indecisive about possible job paths when she was younger, they paved the way for Lark. Through exploring these multifaceted interests, she was able to internalize the different skills and use them when she started her own company, and she discovered some key traits that both she and many other entrepreneurs possessed. She was stubborn, resilient, idealistic, and she didn’t adhere to the rules.
With her interests stoked, she started a few cleantech companies, which brings us back to MIT and the sleep band. After Julia’s experience with getting many of her devices being returned, she decided to pivot and focus on the AI software side of chronic condition management. She rationalized, “as a startup, you die if you don’t focus.”
She acknowledged that improving and almost recreating something that the company had already been working on wasn’t any easier. Sitting on top of 120 devices connected to the Internet of Things, the AI nurse, Lark, would act as a conversational artificial intelligence layer that serves the hourly needs of those with chronic diseases. For instance, if one were to have type 2 Diabetes, Lark would try to find ways to get that person to exercise more and lose weight, eat their medication on time, watch for their glucose levels, get help if needed, and cope with stress and anxiety that many times comes with having a disease.
An average day would like this. In the morning, when you wake up, you chat with Lark, and if you didn’t sleep well, she would have figured that out through one of your Bluetooth devices and preemptively give you some suggestions for how to lead your day based on that. During the day, Lark also does things like counting calories and macronutrient intake so that she can give diet suggestions. Furthermore, Lark is always tracking present and past data to show if you have improved or what could be done better. Based on how your day goes, you will get your own unique conversation with Lark.
As a small business with less money than comfortable, developing a complicated artificial intelligence interface, she had to get creative with building the product and getting the word out there. Her first challenge came in the form of finding a team to help her develop the A.I. coach. For Julia, the hardest part of getting these people to work at Lark was the fact that they would have to be paid a fraction of what they could normally make. Julia found that there were still perks to be offered. For example, she pointed out “one of the nice things about startups is that if you come and join early you get a lot of equity in the company, so if it does well, you get to own part of that company.”
With a team working on the project, the Lark AI nurse looked like it was finally going to be turned from dream to reality, except it took a lot longer than anybody expected. For three years, it was tough for Julia Hu and her coworkers. Sometimes it felt like everything was going against her and the pressure became so high that she thought about giving up, “Half of the hardness of a startup is just managing your own emotions and your own psychology; it’s such a rollercoaster,” she explained. At some points, she was pulling eighteen hour days consistently, and it started to drain her.
She still found tactics to keep her going during these hard times. For starters, she had a CEO coach/therapist that helped her build resilience and find concrete ways to be ready for the next obstacle ahead. Furthermore, she found that when things began to exhaust her, taking a rest was a great way to recharge and approach the problem from a different angle. Most importantly, she said that knowing that you are doing something that truly matters can help you get through hard times. By addressing why she was doing what she was doing, Hu reaffirmed her path and her goals.
Fortunately, she stuck through it and was rewarded. Lark got a million patients and people onto the coaching service quickly becoming the world’s largest A.I healthcare provider, and they were able to train the AI nurse using machine learning to become smarter. They debuted to a huge success, being named in “Business Insiders’s Top 10 Most Innovative Apps” among other companies like Uber and Airbnb and making it onto the list of “Top 10 Apps of the Year” on the app store out of 2 million in 2015. Finally, in late 2016, they were able to show that their AI nurse was as good clinically as the gold standard live healthcare professional.
These days, Lark works with many of the largest health insurance companies in the world to help manage their patients who are suffering from diabetes, prediabetes, hypertension, anxiety, and more. And as Lark has slowly sharpened their product and made it more intelligent, Julia has focused on growing the team and making herself irrelevant. For each new hire, she has one less task to do and one more way to be more efficient with her time. As for her pivot, Julia is confident that the Lark AI coach will be here to stay. She describes her vision of the future, “I want to provide personal, compassionate healthcare to anyone in the world struggling with a chronic disease. With billions of people struggling with chronic conditions, I hope that we can provide 24/7 care for as many of those people as we can.”
“Don’t settle, and dream big. Don’t be shy that your dreams are so big that they sound and feel impossible because that is what will get you through the hard times and keep you going.”
Joseph Zhang Learning, Stories, Uncategorized Better learning experiences, College, First generation students, International Students, Jackson Boyar, James Morrissey, Mentor Collective, Mentors, University 3
Jackson Boyar speaks incredibly fluent Chinese; he holds up a conversation as easily as if he was speaking English, having the confidence with the language and culture that one only gets from years of living in the nation. And he did live there for a collective three years starting from high school, an experience that kick-started his journey to start Mentor Collective. Before his fateful trip to China though, Jackson’s entrepreneurial tendencies were already being stoked.
The story starts with his childhood. He went to a Waldorf School where the arts and creative thinking were integrated into the curriculum, and his dad ran a law firm in New York City that exclusively worked with entrepreneurs. Boyar attested, my dad “really encouraged me to think about ways to be my own boss someday.”
When eleventh grade came, Jackson decided that he wanted to spend the year studying abroad in China. Beforehand, he had never studied Mandarin and never lived away from home. Arriving in China, he was greeted with quite the culture shock. On his second day, he remembers,
My host parents didn’t speak any English, so when I first met them we couldn’t even communicate beyond leafing through a dictionary and kind of finding random words and trying to communicate… so one thing that was very powerful to me was when I first met my host dad, he said, in English, “we one family”. He looked that up in the dictionary and he taught himself how to say that, and it was very powerful to me.
The whole experience was transformative. He saw and appreciated the different culture around him, and when he came back to the United States, he felt completely changed. This epoch in his life showed him how much one could learn if they were supported and guided through a transition to a new life and culture. He would end up going back to China every summer thereafter for five years, but that’s a story that Jackson can tell you about.
Two years later, when Jackson went to college, he made friends with many international students and first-generation college attendees, but he didn’t see his wonderful experience abroad reflected in them. For example, his international friends didn’t understand many of the American cultural cues or values; language, humor, and pastimes all differed. For his low-income and first-generation friends, they lacked the support network around them because many times, they were the first in their family to go to college. It didn’t help that sometimes, they might not have had the money to go out with their friends. For these students, they felt like outsiders.
This problem sat with Jackson after he graduated, and so he and his co-founder James Morrissey quit their full-time jobs at a management consulting firm to fix this issue and make these students feel like they were a part of the school community by using mentorship. Now there are obvious benefits to having a mentor. For instance, Mentor Collective conducted a study that found that students with mentors were 150% less likely to go on academic probation than those in a control group. Furthermore, when the company matches mentors with mentees, the focus is on creating a strong, long-term relationship that can help students develop their sense of belonging.
When they started, there weren’t many competitors in the college mentorship space. As a matter of a fact, the biggest competitors were the schools themselves. Seeing this, Jackson and his co-founder took note of a couple of problems that these schools were facing while trying to implement mentorship. He first observed that these schools were having a hard time operating at scale because they didn’t have enough staff for all the students and they couldn’t keep track of whether mentees were still meeting up with their mentors. That’s not even considering the fact that the school mentorship programs couldn’t serve every demographic in a personalized way, thus not solving the problem of isolation.
With these problems in mind, Jackson Boyar and James Morrissey set out with the goal of helping these students and decreasing the national dropout rate. Problematically, after quitting their jobs in 2014, they hit their first wall. Because schools held such long decision-making cycles, the company went over a year without any income. Jackson explained “I went roughly 18 months without a paycheck. I spent all my savings and downgraded my lifestyle. There were a lot of bleak moments for both my co-founder and I.”
Renting a car, Jackson and James drove to every school that was willing to talk about the prospect of using their service. Many of those schools said no, and as the weeks went by, Jackson began to doubt himself. None of the other people in his social network were in startups, and he didn’t have any feedback on whether or not he was running his company correctly.
Patience saved Mentor Collective. After a year and a half, both co-founders were a couple of months away from giving up, and the only thing keeping them going was the belief in their mission to help underserved and international students. Finally, on a stark February day, Jackson Boyar received his first contract for $10,000. And no, this wouldn’t be his biggest contract, but it felt like a validation of both him and his cofounder’s hard work.
Receiving that first check was just the beginning. Boyar quickly learned how important it was to focus on one thing and to do it well. He acknowledged that when they first started, they lacked a cohesive plan to move forward. At first, they were helping Chinese parents with their children’s college applications. At the same time, they were also talking to different high schools in New England and California, as well as colleges. Jackson pointed out, “we didn’t really know what to say no to in the beginning. It’s very easy as an eager entrepreneur when somebody is willing to pay you money for service to just go chase that opportunity.” And that lack of focus put a bad taste in their mouths.
In the beginning, they partnered with a Chinese educational consulting company that helped families apply to American universities. The consulting business ended up taking Mentor Collective’s mentors and turning them into marketing collateral for themselves. Jackson said that it was so far removed from what they had originally envisioned that they had to terminate the contract and reevaluate their goals.
Taking a step back to look at what truly mattered helped Jackson Boyar learn to say no and focus on what he cared about. He rationalized, “The reason why we started the company was because we had friends and personal experiences of being different and not fitting in in college…And when we really understood that to be the thing we wanted to solve, we began working more closely with universities because they saw this problem first hand in a way that parents did not”.
Shifting their business’s focus on putting mentors in universities, they had to figure out how to sell to them. As mentioned before, colleges had incredibly long decision-making cycles, making it hard to close a sale. But Jackson figured out a couple of strategies to help onboard these schools.
First, he observed that universities tended to be much more collaborative than corporations were. For example, if one were to sell to Coca-cola and Pepsi, the two companies would probably never talk to each other about their decisions. On the other hand, the higher education market cooperated more. Many schools would share best practices or what they are doing because they all have one goal: helping students be successful. With that in mind, Jackson put his energy into finding ways to give his customers a voice so they can share what Mentor Collective is doing.
For instance, Jackson attends many conferences, visits campus frequently, and utilizes webinars as a way to spread the word. With webinars, he finds schools who want to talk about what they are doing, especially in concerns to mentoring, and give them a platform to share their practices with their peers. In that case, Mentor Collective would find schools that are similar to the one that is giving the webinar because they would be the most receptive.
What’s so special about their marketing strategy is that it is focused on creating a chain effect. When one university jumps on to their platform and starts talking to their peers, those other universities are more incentivized to use the service as well.
And through all of this, Jackson admits that “starting a company really humbles you because there are so many challenges that you face every day, and it requires you to reflect quite a bit on what you’re good and bad at.” From marketing and sales to operations, Jackson has learned his biggest lesson. Running a startup has revealed where his strengths lie, and what he lacks. And for what he lacks, he explains that he found it important to surround himself with people who complement his skills and fill in the gaps.
Knowing this and all the other lessons he has learned through the process of starting a company, Jackson feels confident that his mission will eventually broaden to not just helping certain subgroups of students, but all students be more successful. Ultimately, he envisions Mentor Collective as becoming an important part in an epoch of someone’s life, maximizing their success in school, helping to prepare them for future careers, and giving them a lasting relationship with a mentor.
From a serendipitous year in China, Jackson Boyar has come a long way.
“Invest in yourself, and invest in a growth mindset. Understand that it’s very normal to fail a hundred times before you succeed in many cases. And if there’s one thing that I wish I thought of every morning when I woke up, it would be to enjoy the journey. Starting a company is one of the most energizing and demoralizing experiences that you might have in your life. And if you can find a way to enjoy the most challenging and painful moments of that experience like getting in a fight with your co-founder or losing a big customer, you can see them as learning opportunities and find ways to see the growth and potential in those setbacks. I think that there is just something very magical about starting something from nothing, and many people get discouraged along the way because they fail multiple times. I think it’s the people who know that failure is an opportunity to grow and learn that are truly successful.”