Start-up as a Lifestyle
Julia Krysztofiak-Szopa—with her sister Amelia established start-up Wellfitting. Earlier she was a director of California accelerator Blackbox. She is the mother of little Rysio.
She studied philosophy at the Warsaw University. Recipient of Erasmus program in Belgium. For three years she lived in Silicon Valley where she “switched” to the Californian mindset. She lived in Zurich. Presently she lives in Poland, CEO of Start-up Poland.
Passionate about artificial intelligence, design, and bras.
Amelia Krysztofiak—studied Mediterranean culture at the Warsaw University. Was part of Erasmus student exchange program at the University of Lisbon. Her stay in Portugal changed her life: she learned to overcome barriers in personal communication and learned to speak Portuguese. The people she met in Portugal are still the source of her business contacts.
Amelia worked as a receptionist, bra-fitter, developed the Polish section of Yelp, cooperated with Geek Girls Carrots. During several months of her stay in Silicon Valley with sister Julia established and developed Wellfitting start-up. She lives in Warsaw and works as a UX designer. Recently she also became a mom.
A trip to Silicon Valley is also important for young Europeans as Silicon Valley has no ethnic bias. Newly arriving Europeans usually have some dose of chauvinism, which they need to quickly discard, otherwise they will not get any support in Silicon Valley, neither social nor substantive.
Regardless where I am and what challenges I encounter I can be productive, getting lots of satisfaction from life and taking advantage of what the challenge brings.
We are the each other’s closest persons. We know each other well. We cooperate well. When I need assistance it is obvious that first I turn to my closest family.
During our first interview Julia lived in Zurich and Amelia was there for a visit. The three of us talked on Skype.
I asked Julia to tell me about her experience working at Blackbox accelerator in Silicon Valley and also about the milestone in her life that was becoming a mom. Julia and Amelia told me also about running their start-up Wellfitting.
Lobby of the Well Endowed
My start-up adventure started with bras. I was looking for an Internet store where I could get my size brassiere. I have ample bosom and finding the right lingerie has always been a challenge. Finally, at gazeta.pl forum I found a women’s community “Lobby of the well-endowed.” The group had about 200 participants sharing tips on where to shop for bras. It turned out the women from the “Lobby of the well-endowed” order bras in the UK.
First Polish Start-up—AdTaily
Intrigued by this situation I started a blog where I began describing my quest for bras. It was called Balkonetka.pl, which created a community of bra-geeks.
As the result of Balkonetka’s success I got a job at the first Polish start-up AdTaily founded by Jakub Krzych and Marcin Ekiert. My job title was Community Manager partly because being a blogger myself I understood other bloggers’ problems. AdTaily was selling advertising for blogs and small publishers.
I also worked for another start-up InFlavo—which at that time was a social media branch of Rafał Brzoska’s Inpost company and remotely for California start-up GinzaMetrics.
In the meantime Balkonetka community was growing. I decided to develop the blog format and add additional functions. I started with creating a bra catalogue. I suggested that women post pictures of bras they got online and write comments. My husband programmed the back-end of the portal, I designed the front-end.
Balkonetks.pl was gaining popularity so Polish lingerie manufacturers who noticed Internet-based social networks in the segment of large size bras turned to me with questions. They asked to present their brand or review their products.
In 2010, I met Anna Matczak from Łódź, owner of COMEXIM lingerie company. She helped us a lot. She also sent us some bras for review.
I always treated Balkonetka as a hobby and it never became my source of income. Today Balkonetka is a popular forum with over 70,000 registered users.
Into the Unknown—Mountain View
In 2012, my husband got an offer from Google to work in Mountain View, in Silicon Valley. We decided to move to the United States. We made a quick decision, reversing our earlier plans. We left for Mountain View in October after having moved to our own apartment in Warsaw just a few months earlier, in mid-August. So we decided to give up settling down in Poland and explore the unknown in California.
Painful Reality Check
We started in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley. We were shocked by real estate prices and high cost of living. Even though everything was high quality but the price was awfully steep. Everyday expenses consumed the majority of our budget. It was a painful reality check.
Because of the visa restrictions I was not allowed to get a regular job in the United States. My decision from a few years ago not to finish my degree turned out to be problematic for the immigration authority since people with “no education” we had trouble with getting working visas and waiting for a green card takes years.
Julia: Blackbox Accelerator
A That Time Blackbox Was Still a Start-up
Thanks to many contacts provided by Piotr Wilam I ended up in Blackbox accelerator. The founder, Fadi Bishara, was looking for a person with whom he could start and run that enterprise. At that time Blackbox was still a start-up. Since I was looking forward to new challenges and wanted to build my network in a new environment I was happy to accept the proposal to join in. In 2012, I started as a volunteer at Blackbox accelerator. Initially there were just the two of us—Fadi Bishara and I. When a company has just two employees you have to do everything. This was our case.
Soon we were joined by a third person, Jenny Jung and within a few months we were able to start the first two-week educational-training program for start-ups from outside the United States. The goal was to prepare the start-ups for the first investment round in Silicon Valley.
Important Accelerator in Silicon Valley
At the time the headquarters of Blackbox was a mansion with swimming pool and a giant garden. Fadi’s idea was to create an accelerator for international start-ups. Blackbox had a few guest rooms so acted as a hostel. Program participants could live there, work and spend leisure time. We organized many meetings and events to which we invited celebrities of Silicon Valley.
I ran three accelerator programs. Those first two-week long programs established Blackbox’s reputation as an important Silicon Valley accelerator.
To the best alumni Blackbox team offered long-term consulting and assistance in raising investment rounds and building a team in the United States.
“Think globally” —What Does It Mean?
Start-ups applying for Blackbox are in various stages of development. Some founders who just begin to develop their idea are convinced that their project will change the world—very often they think very highly of themselves.
We also cooperated with companies who were already operating on their local markets and sometimes got funding in their countries. We had such companies, among others, from Latvia and Argentina. Such founders who had investors back home and applying for financing in Silicon Valley had to figure out how to manage those investments. We had to work together to create strategies to enter new markets.
What all those start-ups had in common was the wish to put their products on the global market. For the early stage start-ups with just an idea it was important to think globally from the very beginning. The question was, what did it really mean?
Many accelerators have been created in recent years all over the world, not just in the United States. Y Combinator is considered the most prestigious one in the world and many institutions dealing in incubation of young companies try to emulate it.
There are accelerators for young companies less than a year old. They can be admitted to such an accelerator only if they don’t yet have an investor.
Some accelerators accept both advanced start-ups with investors as well as complete beginners. From the accelerator’s point of view cooperation with the founder makes sense if the start-up is likely to increase its value in near future. Incubating institutions usually have shares in companies that they look after. Those shares become valuable only at the beginning of the investment round or at the exit, meaning the sale of the company. That’s why accelerators will always work toward getting funding for the start-up.
Considering a start-up for their program, accelerators take into account several factors. Priority is for the start-ups who have a better chance of getting the financing round.
Investors, not just those in Silicon Valley, follow trends currently dominant on the market. If a key Valley investor has invested in a new technology it is likely that others will want to add this technology segment to their portfolio. For instance in our industry three most important “bra start-ups” got financing at roughly the same time. Later things cooled down and we don’t hear of new start-ups at this particular market.
On the other hand, unfortunately, there is a catch. If investors take interest in a new segment as a fad and in the next few years the fad doesn’t bring spectacular results another company in that segment will have a hard time to enter the market. Investors usually think in stereotypes and draw quick conclusions. That’s why start-ups looking for financing should study the trends on the market of financial rounds. It is worthwhile to get on the trend bandwagon with the right idea.
Julia: Start-ups in Silicon Valley
Who Stays in America, Who Goes Back Home?
Most start-ups go back to their home countries. The decision to go back is a part of a strategy. We had an entrepreneur from Argentina who decided to expand into the whole Latin America. It is an enormous market and that decision was his global strategy. So although he got U.S. financing, he went back to Argentina. He now develops his product in South America and comes to Silicon Valley as needed.
Physical presence in the United States is not a necessity. You can think globally from any place in the world. Investors, of course, want to pour their resources into people who are present in the Valley. It they want to talk with a CEO from their portfolio company they prefer direct contact, not Skype. If a start-up begins to move in the wrong direction you need to ask the founder for explanation. After all when you put hundreds of thousand or even millions of dollars into somebody’s pocket it is obvious you want to feel secure and be able to meet and talk.
Silicon Valley “Stamp”
Silicon Valley is a very good brand worldwide, especially in Poland. I learned that when I worked in Blackbox. I was inundated by e-mails and invitations to connect on LinkedIn or Facebook. Many people asked me for an introduction, assistance, support, and advice. I had never experienced such an avalanche of contact requests. I also was asked to write short articles. When I moved back to Europe my personal brand significantly decreased. I saw how unstable and short-lived is such “demand.” When my signature no longer carries the “stamp” of Silicon Valley I am no longer attractive for the industry and people lose interest in me since they feel that knowing me or being in contact with me they can get ahead.
Within my means I always try to help but I was physically unable to answer every e-mail, request, or invitation. Where I could and believed my support would make sense I tried to lend a hand. It also felt good when I could offer advice.
Reform the Thinking Process
In Blackbox I cooperated with people from all over the world. Some European start-ups come to Silicon Valley convinced they know everything and they just need money to keep growing. Their want to act according to their internal plan and don’t take any, even constructive feedback. Unfortunately such attitude of newbie European start-ups stands in negative contrast to the established Silicon Valley start-ups.
The success of newly arriving start-ups depends on whether they manage to reform their thinking process and accept assistance from people who think differently and are open to the world.
Success of the Seed Round
Many foreign start-ups define success as raising the seed fund. This misjudged approach to success has always shocked me. The goal of many start-ups coming to Silicon Valley is asking for money. And there is nothing wrong with it. The question is, if those start-ups actually have an idea how to grow. There are start-ups that ended their existence with getting funding and nothing more came out of it. Although it might happen at some point…
Many times I witnessed a situation where start-up founders did not acknowledge reality and denied having made any mistakes. They try to put the blame on other co-founders and accuse them of misunderstanding the product and the chosen strategy. This is the model of denial combined with scapegoating. We’ve seen the denial mechanism among all start-uppers regardless of the country the come from or level of experience.
When we face failure we try to explain to ourselves and to others that it was not our failure. It is a very universal, human behavior.
More on Failure
We need to talk about failures, we need to help one another and share our experiences. In Silicon Valley failures are glorified, there is even a cult of failure. Some young people would like to experience a spectacular failure to tell stories about it later. We should now define what we mean by failure and what it means to avoid it at any cost. Young entrepreneurs in Europe fear failure more than their colleagues across the ocean that’s why they often choose safe strategies and want to preempt negative consequences. In Silicon Valley, on the other hand, people think that if something doesn’t work out, so much for that, they have to keep going.
For me failure is a breakup of a start-up or a project for personal reasons, for instance when the founders have a falling out. We do not have this problem, as we are sisters. I would be scared of such failure.
Polish Tech Competence
A giant advantage of Polish start-ups, which often lacks in those from Western Europe or North America is technological competence. In the United States, tech competence is often outsourced to teams in Asia or Eastern Europe. Start-ups from Poland and from Eastern Europe have excellent programmers so they don’t need to look for them abroad and even if they do decide to outsource they can find people in the same country. It is a very competitive potential compared to the challenges facing start-ups in the United States. Programmers recruited in Silicon Valley compete in their salaries with programmers from such giants as Google, Facebook, or Apple which of course creates a great financial burden for start-ups.
Julia: On Start-ups
When Do You Start Thinking Globally?
From the very beginning. This is a more effective strategy than focusing on your own market with the goal of globalizing the product in the next phase of development. You have to remember, however, that the markets differ from one another. A product that sells well on the Polish market might not work on the German or American one. For instance in the United States, there are many applications that simplify the use of personal checks, as the checks are still a popular form of payment. In Poland or Germany practically no one uses them. That’s why a check-reading product for your phone has no chance on those markets.
There are many ideas that work only for a particular market. This refers mostly to products related to insurance and Internet payments.
My advice would be to start thinking about the global market from the very beginning, when the idea gets born. In the next phase of operation you should adjust the product to particular demands of smaller markets. It is much easier to have great ambitions if you are thinking of yourself as a global start-up. And this is a natural way of thinking. If you think you are a Polish start-up that will soon become, or is becoming, a global hit this reflects smaller ambition.
As the Oarsmen in the Boat
It is important that team members are in synch. We waste a lot of time if we keep going over and over the same issues with various people in the group. The core team needs to share a common understanding of what they do, where they go, what are the company’s values.
A good team works without much talk. It’s kind of like oarsmen in a boat—they don’t need to say things like: you need to use the left oar, while I use the right one. They just keep rowing.
Division of Competence
Another important feature of a successful team is dividing competence. It is dangerous when the founders’ competences overlap.
In Blackbox, we organized meetings called co-founder dinners. Those were match-making events attended by founders looking for co-founders. The majority of participants were from the business side, only occasionally they represented the tech side. It means there is great demand for programmers, techy co-founders.
Leadership and the ability to engage people who will work for nothing or for long hours are very important characteristics of a leader. If a start-up wants to attract specialists with unique or rare skills it should look for ways to encourage those people to join in. That’s why the founder should be charismatic, should be able to motivate and lead.
Start-up that lacks the division of competence, or strong leadership can, of course secure financing, as anyone can do that, but it has much less chance for long-term success.
In our team we never fought about division of competence. Our activities are coordinated and it is always clear what is Amelia’s job, what is Julia’s job.
What Makes Start-up Work Attractive
People who decide to work for start-ups want to have impact on what goes on in their work environment. They want to be able to independently determine the results of their work, take responsibility for their decisions, and feel that the result is entirely up to them.
People working for corporations, on the other hand, often feel comfortable being a cog in a larger machine. They prefer the shared responsibility of a team as in this way responsibility gets somewhat blurred. It puts their minds at ease.
What is attractive and unique in working for a start-up is the possibility of developing the product, of putting one’s own ideas into practice. Start-ups don’t have the typical organizational structure of large companies. There are no managers to whom you need to report. This is a most attractive element of start-up work.
The Myth of Working Around the Clock Is True
A harder element of a start-up job is work around the clock.
Work for a start-up goes on 24/7, 365 days a year and sometimes it is hard to find time for yourself. Many will not decide to establish their own start-up for this very reason. Many people in Silicon Valley have extreme work habits. We have friends who get up at 7 a.m., sit at their computer at 8 and get up at 2 a.m. They code nonstop and this is all they do. Sometimes they will go to an industry meetup. You hear about people with no personal life because they run a company. The myth of people working 20 hours a day is actually true.
In spite of 20-hour workday the awareness of mental hygiene in Silicon Valley is very high. A popular way to recharge internally is meditation.
Neglecting mental hygiene can have negative impact, especially if our body is depleted—we can have trouble dealing with stressful situations and in building positive interpersonal relations. There is a whole spectrum of problems, which we tackle better if we are at peace with ourselves.
In Europe caring for mental hygiene is still considered “luxury” or means that we have psychological or psychiatric problems. Of course this keeps changing, although the number of meditating CEOs is much smaller in Europe than in California.
In the United States, people use many mobile applications that help meditate. I think that investing in mental hygiene is one of the many factors that make the Bay Area stand out compared to many other places in the world.
Julia: On Inspiration and Science
When I started working at Blackbox accelerator I was impressed by people who arrived there. They inspired me greatly.
I was inspired by those who were not scared to admit that they did not know something, that something didn’t work out, that they struggled, that they were sensitive. They were very successful but they also reached out for help to others.
I was inspired by entrepreneurs who came to Silicon Valley with their novel ideas, with their minds open to the world, with the expectation to go an extra mile to achieve the most.
I Learned Not To Be Afraid
My stay in Silicon Valley changed me a lot. I became open to others, to not knowing things, to asking for help and—last but not least—I learned not to fear. Not to fear that someone would hurt me, judge me. I learned not to be afraid to trust people.
Before coming to California I was very distrustful with overblown ambitions and wanted to be better at everything.
Taking into account all the limitations, in my opinion I used my time in California very effectively.
My work at Blackbox accelerator and the decision to have a child had perfect timing and fueled my development. The contacts I made at Blackbox are with me even today; I learned a ton of things and got greatly inspired. I don’t regret one moment of that stay, although it was a tough experience, especially when it turned out our “American dream” was not exactly what we imagined…
Relationships with Entrepreneurs Are Knowledge
Building relations with successful entrepreneurs is an energizing and important element in the process of creating a start-up. I was greatly inspired by Marcin Treder. We need to build relations with all kinds of businessmen, with people who are active, not just with start-up founders. You should also know the operating mode of a “traditional” business. We learned a lot from Ms. Anna Matczak, who’s been running textile companies for many years. Her advice and intuitions work also in tech business. You have to learn from all people with experience.
In Poland it is difficult to find companies where family traditions were passed from generation to generation. It is harder to learn from role models that are simply not present in Poland. So to establish business relations you need to travel to more advanced “ecosystems.”
Open Up to Others
The phenomenon of Silicon Valley consists in having access to people from whom you can learn. For people coming from Poland this is an amazing experience. At any gathering you can meet leaders of the greatest technological companies.
In Silicon Valley there is no mental–financial barrier. People who are today very rich and are entrepreneurs or investors 20 years ago were the same as us—they were building their start-up. Being open to others is the foundation of today’s Silicon Valley.
How Silicon Valley Stands Out
First—the sunshine… The weather is among the key elements why people in California are so optimistic and friendly toward others.
In California everyone wants to be helpful. In Poland, while working with start-ups, I often encounter this attitude: I have an idea but I will not tell you, as it is a secret. This is very European thinking. I experienced this kind of mentality also in Switzerland. Many people in the start-up community will not tell you what they work on, as they are scared someone will steal their idea.
Meanwhile it is not the idea that counts but its execution. To realize an idea is the key to success. In Silicon Valley everyone talks about their ideas.
Spreading the Pool of Goodness in the World
Many people in Silicon Valley are newcomers and typical self-made men who have already achieved a lot and put the bar high. Comparing Silicon Valley to Switzerland you can see the difference in priorities among people with thick wallets. European industry private equity investors’ meetings have the subtext of How to grow and protect your wealth, since they are mostly interested in “increasing their riches.” In Silicon Valley the main motivation is different—investors want to learn how to use their money to make the world a better place, how to form the next generation of investors and entrepreneurs, how to make VC industry assist innovation more effectively. The business community in Silicon Valley is interested in spreading the pool of goodness in the world with the available funds, while entrepreneurs in Switzerland (and the rest of Europe) are interested in growing their private bank accounts.
People who join Silicon Valley community must learn to respect the “Valley values” and culture of openness. When a visiting investor from Europe says he is mainly interested in growing and protecting his wealth no one in Silicon Valley will treat him seriously.
European societies have evolved from a class and feudal system. There were peasants and feudal lords, powerful aristocratic families, and royal dynasties. Interclass migration was practically impossible. A peasant woman could not become a duchess. It would never happen.
And since feudalism has been gone for a few centuries, fiefdoms and serfdom no longer exist, European societies are still weary of cross-class migration, especially of the upward mobility from the poorer to the richer strata. It is especially striking in the affluent European states. In Poland this phenomenon is not so obvious since 50 years of Communist rule destroyed class divisions. Yet in countries like Switzerland you have upper and lower class neighborhoods where upward migration is impossible or very difficult.
In the United States, cross-class migration is also difficult but there is permission to dream about it. This lacks in Europe. In Poland a grotesque symbol of breaking into the upper class is the character of Nikodem Dyzma.
The United States is a country of immigrants. In the 19th century when someone came to America being even a descendant of someone “important” in Europe, in the New World his background was irrelevant. What mattered were the “primal skills” and the ability to manage in new and difficult circumstances.
My Advice for Newcomers to Silicon Valley
First of all, you have to open your mind. You should not come to Silicon Valley just to raise money. You come here for mental transformation. Don’t be afraid to aim high. Sometimes we avoid being too ambitious because small ambitions seem to have a better chance of success than the large ones. With big ambitions it is easier to fail. But you should not be scared to fail. Failures are temporary.
I would also recommend having realistic expectations about coming to Silicon Valley. I met many Polish start-ups that came to the Valley convinced that within two weeks they would raise money. They have read things, heard stories… Young start-uppers seem to think that raising a financial round in Silicon Valley takes just a few days since the legal system favors entrepreneurship and investors make their decisions quickly. Sometimes you can get funding in a short period of time. We know of such cases. However, Silicon Valley investing community and ecosystem is a self-regulating mechanism. What matters is trust, reputation, and track record.
People who come to Silicon Valley and are completely unknown, don’t have any business relationships will not be able to raise the investment round within two weeks.
That’s why my advice to the young Polish start-uppers is to be open to others and start building long-term relations, not always focused on direct profit. You should build relationships that will prove rewarding in due time.
What Are the Prerequisites for a Start-up Coming to Silicon Valley?
None. You can, or even should, come to Silicon Valley with an idea and take advantage of your stay. You can also come when you have an established position on your local market. There are absolutely no stiff rules.
Julia: Globally and Locally
They Begin to Think Globally
Even if a start-up comes to California planning to get financing but is not successful it leaves Silicon Valley enriched with priceless experience. The mental transformation is essential since these people begin to think globally.
American start-ups automatically start at the global market since the whole world speaks English. Even if initially they offer their services just on the American market people in other countries will be able to access those services. This is what usually happens.
Meanwhile when a start-up offers services on the Polish market the chance that someone outside of Poland will be able to use that service is very slim.
That’s why opening to the global market and understanding that the market is within arm’s reach is the greatest value that practically everyone takes home from Silicon Valley.
The Polish Complex
Another key issue concerns self-esteem. Successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who first raise the seed round and then A, B, and C rounds, whose start-ups are no longer start-ups and begin employing hundreds of people are, in essence, no different from us.
In Poland, on the other hand, and in other post-Communist countries we tend to think of ourselves as of “village poor.” Our self-esteem is low. Polish start-uppers introducing their products to the American market often asked me questions coming from our Polish mentality steeped in inferiority complex.
They asked me if on their website they should say that the start-up came from Poland. Should they give their surname, or only given name in the e-mail address since the surname sounds Polish and the Americans will have trouble pronouncing it.
To be clear: yes, they should write they are from Poland! Yes, they should put their Polish-sounding name in the e-mail address.
Such questions and the fear of being associated with Poland come from our national complexes.
There are many foreigners in Silicon Valley whose names are difficult to pronounce and write but those foreigners are not afraid to be ostracized for not being called John Smith.
At the same time we, Poles, are often afraid or even ashamed of who we are and where we come from. We fear that we will get a “Polish stamp” and it will weaken our brand and image.
In Silicon Valley no one cares if we are from Poland or some other place in the world. Our origin does not determine whether we will be successful or not. No one looks at us differently because we came from Poland. Feeling and realizing that we, Poles, do not stand out in any negative way helps Polish start-ups in Silicon Valley a lot.
Leaving for Silicon Valley is important for young Europeans also because there are no ethnic prejudices here. And sometimes newly arrived Europeans display a great dose of chauvinism that they need to discard, otherwise they will not find any support in the Valley, neither in substance nor socially.
What Matters Are the Merits of Enterprise
In Poland we have a tendency to judge people. When we talk about our project we are met with doubt, ridicule, negation. Young Poles coming to Silicon Valley are often afraid their idea or project will be laughed at.
In Silicon Valley no one will laugh at even the most niche project. Investors might decide that they are not interested in that segment or that they are not interested in a certain market or they might say they invest from five million upwards. In Silicon Valley what matters is the merit of the enterprise. In Poland blind criticism overshadows essential discussion.
Who Is to Blame?
Silicon Valley has a culture of action and optimistic outlook.
In Poland we are versed in the culture of complaint, we look for problems, obstacles, and the guilty party. In Poland there always is someone to blame. The law is to blame because it does not support enterprise; we blame a bad employee, low salaries, high taxes… It goes on and on.
At the same time we mythologize the West. Because in the West it is “different and better”…
Our Polish Generation Gap
In the United States, we met many Americans who say: “I have a start-up but you should see my dad’s company! And my great-grandfather had the first department store in town…”
How many young people in Poland can say: “You should have seen my dad’s company! And my great-grandfather…”
For the last 50 years there was no private business in Poland. Our generation gap comes from the fact that we have a whole generation of people who don’t have any model of entrepreneurship whatsoever in their surroundings. Sometimes the only model of “enterprise” was an uncle growing flowers or an aunt trading sheepskin coats from Turkey…
Our mom in the early 1990s would drive her minuscule Fiat 126 to a fair in Bielsko-Biała and sell cheap tchotchkes. This is the kind of business tradition people of my generation had. Of course there was a small group of people who were businessmen but it was not common. In our circle of friends no one comes from a family of entrepreneurs.
Basic Financial Security
For the majority of young people in Poland the priority is finding a steady job to get basic financial security. There’s nothing unusual about it. I remember well the time when my husband and I started working and make money. Such situation brings psychological calm, takes the burden off the shoulders. I remember the moment when financial insecurity disappeared.
Meanwhile living with constant uncertainty, wondering if we will be able to pay off the car loan, afford the kid’s school tuition makes it hard for us to think about other, bigger things. That’s why among young generation very few think of starting their own business or start-up. Although it has been slowly changing.
Julia: On Private and Professional Decisions
In 2013, we decided to expand our family and have a baby. I also decided to start my own company.
A Bra that Fits
While in the United States, I kept my interest in the lingerie industry, especially in bras for women with large breasts. I discovered that in American Internet, in the segment of nonstandard sizes brassieres, the situation was similar to that in Poland five years earlier. Women were creating communities and placed group orders for bras. To my surprise I found out that women in America ordered bras from Poland. In the United States, it is practically impossible to get extra large size bras, so the women from the “bra community” use Google Translate to buy bras at COMEXIM company in Łódź or from the studio of Ewa Michalak, also in Łódź.
At Reddit.com the most active community of bra geeks is called “A bra that fits.”
I know the Łódź textile industry very well. I decided to consolidate my knowledge with the niche existing on the American market and connect Polish bra-lingerie manufacturing with the American demand. This is how the idea for Wellfitting originated.
We started Wellfitting with my sister a month before the birth of little Ryszard Jr.
Amelia: About Wellfitting
Initially Wellfitting was going to be the American version of Balkonetka.pl. We wanted to create an influential bra forum for American and global clients. However, we were not able to quickly program the whole application ourselves and we would need to pay someone for the complete project. When Wellfitting took off, the company account was at 200 dollars. We did not have larger capital. To get money we decided to bootstrap selling bras from Poland to the United States. It turned out to be a good idea. The bras began to sell.
Why didn’t we apply for financing? Maybe the stereotype about women was at fault. I was afraid that the investors would be more interested in our numbers and how the sales were growing rather than in our start-up.
In addition to that we had a baby on board, which consists a certain limitation. We would not have been able to show investor any aggressive growth of the company. We treated Ryszard Jr. very seriously; after all he was our “youngest board member.”
We also had doubts about our ability to invest and well spend those hundreds of thousands of dollars from financing. We both dislike waste. We did not want to squander money. This way of thinking is certainly very limiting. Still, at this point we cannot tell if our course of action is right or not. For now we are happy with how Wellfitting is performing.
For Julia the fact that we did not decide on financial backing from the very start is a kind of personal failure but for me starting a business with your own means, without any outside money was a no-brainer.
In Wellfitting we want to give choices to women who so far have none. Maybe we are idealists and we are idealistic about our mission.
But it is true that the offer of standard chain stores for women with extra-large breasts is very limited. In regular stores bra sizes end at size D or DD.
In Wellfitting we offer cup sizes all the way to R. Our chest sizes are 26 to 44 inches, compared to Victoria’s Secret they start at 32 and end at 40.
Wellfitting is also for girls who are very slim. Among our clients there are many women with Asian names and Asian women often have slender build. They write us thank-you notes saying we are a godsend since for years they could not find the right bra.
Forty percent of our clients return and the number is growing. We have clients from North America, Australia, China, Korea, and Europe, mainly Spain, Sweden, and the UK.
In the United States, the structure of our sales is very specific. Many of our clients live in little towns, mostly in the middle states. We also have clients in big cities, quite a few in California.
A large contingent of women needs to buy online as there is no lingerie store in their area.
All our orders are shipped from Poland. We don’t have a warehouse since every product is custom made. We fulfill basically every product wish of our clients. At the same time we offer a hundred days for return or exchange and unlimited number of exchanges which somewhat slims down our income but brings more returning clients. If a girl exchanges her bra a few times she will most likely stay with us.
At present our greatest challenge is developing a product that women will want to keep buying over many years. We want to create a new product and we are going to invest in it.
We face strong competition. But it motivates us! Our ambition is to raise the self-esteem of women who have larger breasts or larger/smaller body. We want women to always feel good about their bodies. In Wellfitting we don’t just sell bras—we also sell self-confidence.
And although we have a competitive advantage of a wider range of bra sizes in this industry we are competing with all stores with lingerie sections. The clients of Victoria’s Secret will not get a bra in 32K size so they will buy something smaller or larger. The fit will not be comfortable, but it will have to do. Our mission is showing women that there is an alternative for the mass market.
A $200 Bra
While in the United States, I decided to conduct an experiment—I went to various lingerie stores and asked to have a bra fitted for me. I went to large department stores and boutiques. Unfortunately, I could not find anything that worked. I could either get an ill-fitting bra or a bra that was incredibly expensive. In Palo Alto there is a store importing French and German lingerie; among others they carry Triumph, a brand that is popular in Poland. In that store the assistant fitted me the right bra but I would need to pay almost $200 for it!
Competing Bra Start-ups
In recent years three bra start-ups appeared on the market: “Third Love” and “True & Co” from San Francisco, both of which received funding in the Bay Area, and Israeli start-up “Brayola” which got financing in New York.
Initially the technology used by “Third Love” was very modern—there was a mobile application that let you anonymously measure your bra size. Today “Third Love” is a standard Internet store offering limited sizes, styles, and patterns.
There are also Internet boutiques selling specialized lingerie lines. We are also competing with eBay and Amazon.
Our Measure of Success
Our measure of success is the number of returning clients and their loyalty.
Lingerie brands are often segmented and attached to women’s age. Victoria’s Secret is targeting women that are younger and in their 30s. For mature women there are specialized luxury brands and no-name brands sold in chain stores. There is no brand name lingerie market for older persons.
Our ambition is serving women in all stages of life.
On Beauty Standards
The female image used by clothing brands is extreme and unrealistic. Women have to conform to certain standards of beauty, looks, and age. Fashion companies do not want to represent women in their 50s, sometimes even forties. And what about women in their 70s? Is there a fashion company representing an older generation? There are no 70-year-old models.
We would like our brand to serve women of various ages—from the moment when a young girl buys her first bra to the time when being a mature woman, maybe even retired, she wants to feel comfortable and at the same time look good, not necessarily sexy but elegant and luxurious.
Maybe we will grow old with our company and maybe we will keep modeling for it.
Two Actual Persons
I was the first Wellfitting model. Our newest lines we model together. Some people accuse us of wanting to show “tits on the Internet.” We are personally involved in our company and I have an impression that it helps our communication with the clients. When our clients talk to us, when they write about us on Internet forums, share their observations, give feedback or criticize us they criticize two actual persons—Julia and Amelia. There is no feeling of anonymity in Wellfitting.
Our dream is building a strong client community around Wellfitting. We would like to involve them in promotions and let them become our models.
Julia: On Breakthrough Moments
A Breakthrough Moment: A Bra Fitting Party
When I lived in California I organized a bra fitting party in a friend’s garden in Palo Alto. We invited several women aged 40 to 50. To create and easy mood we started with a glass of champagne and appetizers. Then I made a short presentation of our bras. I explained why it was important to have a well-fitting bra and we talked about places we bought our lingerie.
In the upstairs room I prepared a few dozens of bras in various sizes and styles. The participants could ask my advice I also helped them to choose the right bra. Then every lady could place an order for the chosen product.
After the party I received a lot of positive comments on Facebook and thank-you e-mails. I realized then that the women who came to the party were anonymous clients of no-name mass brands and our mission and Wellfitting mission is to serve those women, our clients, all their life.
Social Support Network
During the bra fitting party women asked me how they could become consultants and sell lingerie at similar events.
I realized then I had a product that was ideally suited to direct sale during intimate parties in people’s private homes. Personal contact with a trusted person who can offer advice, hand in the product, and make the client at ease is very important. Personalized and well-planned direct sale is one of the avenues we want to pursue in Wellfitting. We want to build confidence and create a network of social support.
Personal success is made of balancing a happy family life and professional fulfillment. By professional fulfillment I mean working a job that I like, that I am good at, that makes me feel that I am making the world a better place that I make someone’s life easier, while at the same time earning a living. This is my simplified definition of self-realization. The material aspect is the least important. If we fulfill the key conditions—meaning we do something well and it really has a positive impact on other people’s lives, the money will follow.
Every Day Is a Success
My personal as well as professional success it the market debut of our first product.
We were able to put the first product on the market within two months of starting the company. The two of us were the only employees. We started from scratch. Amelia came to California in July and on September 21 I gave birth to my son. In such a short time, between Amelia’s arrival and the child’s birth we started a company and created the first product.
This is the success I’m really proud off. Is this my greatest success, I don’t know. I think, in a way, every day is a success.
My Life Success
My next individual success is the ability to adapt to various conditions. It is not a success tied to a specific event. It is my life success.
Regardless of where I am and what circumstances I encounter I can function well drawing great satisfaction from life and taking advantage of what those circumstances bring.
You Should Blossom Where You’ve Been Planted…
Why we are in Zurich? It’s a pragmatic story.
As young parents we wanted to raise the standard of living of our family. In Silicon Valley we could not afford it, especially, since we depended only on my husband’s income. We decided to move back to Europe and Google offered my husband a position in Zurich.
This is the whole story.
It turned out that Zurich had many financial advantages—first of all the salaries are high and the taxes are low; real estate is not expensive, especially compared to rental prices in Silicon Valley.
All my life I cherished the notion that “you should blossom where you’ve been planted.” This time I also followed that motto. After all our start-up is global and can be run from any place on Earth.
For Amelia our decision to come back to Europe was a critical moment. We were supposed to raise financing and suddenly it turned out we were not staying in Silicon Valley and leaving for Zurich.
A Family Company
In California we employ a representative responsible for logistics and sales. In Warsaw it is our mom that helps with the shipping—we are a family firm. In addition to the fact that as a family we understand each other perfectly—and mutual understanding is critical for start-ups—we also have complementary skills.
Amelia is a designer. She deals with logistics and products. She supervises shipping. She is in charge of customer support. She is in contact with the COMEXIM manufacturer. She also designs the website.
My field is marketing, developing company strategy, and sometimes coding for our website.
My Work as a Lifestyle
After coming to Zurich I wanted to better connect with the local community so I started working part time for a start-up developing financial technologies for private equity firms. My salary covers the daycare cost for my son. Since I don’t have to take care of my son all day long I am less tired in the evening. Daycare is a great solution and make mothers’ lives easier. When I get my second child I will also send him or her to daycare maybe even earlier than Richard Jr. I was very tired by the world of diapers and being confined to the four walls. Now, after coming home I take care of my child. When my son goes to sleep I work for Wellfitting.
Our start-up is my lifestyle. Had I devoted 50 hours a week to it the firm might be growing faster but in my current situation I work as much as I can. And I feel good about it.
Our Own Reality
We are definitely courageous and we are not afraid of other people’s opinions. In this way we might be functioning in our own reality.
Develop Your Start-up Where Life Sent You…
My lifestyle was developed in particular circumstances, by the need to cope with the fact that I live here and I want to take best advantage of it. Moves are always stressful. You need to find an apartment, get organized. Beginning with the hardest things and ending with the everyday concerns—where will I live, how to commute to work?
When my husband and lived in Belgium for one-year during the Erasmus program it was easy. When we came to the United States, what we discovered on arrival was completely different from our expectations. It was incredibly stressful. Particularly the astronomical cost of living and the obstacles in obtaining working visas…
Geographically I see myself in the United States. Mainly because I would like to be closer to the American client. I don’t want to move to America for good but I would like to be there a few months a year.
Julia and Amelia: Women in IT World
Nature made it so that women have a lot more duties connected with motherhood. Many women are just tired, they don’t have the energy and the drive to combine their role as a mother with a career.
Before becoming a mom I had lots of time for self-promotion. Today it is the last item on my to-do list. I just don’t have time. But when you look at the demographics of start-ups I dare say that the most people in this group have not yet started a family and don’t have kids. In this situation saying that women don’t have time for promoting themselves seems illogical. Although of course not all women are into self-promotion.
Not a Single Application
When we started with the first edition of the educational program at Blackbox all application we received came from men. There was not a single female candidate.
Thanks to our efforts we managed to attract two women founders one from Denmark and a Polish woman living in the UK. They both received our scholarships and decided to come to the Valley and participate in the program. But we had to show great determination in finding women who would like to come to California.
During later editions we were getting gradually more and more applications from female founders but usually there were just a few for every group.
Recently Blackbox started a separate program females only: Blackbox Connect for female founders. In each edition several female leaders take part. It means that finally they managed to reach out to women and get them interested in the acceleration program, although initially it was really hard. Less women in the start-up community is also due to the fact that generally women like to play it save. You can tell by the way we both act and how we run Wellfitting—an excellent example of how women avoid a gamble.
Surplus of Demand over Supply
In the Silicon Valley start-up ecosystem the gender parity is very unbalanced. You might bluntly say that there is excessive demand and limited supply. Men who come from abroad, risking their careers and giving up their earlier life usually look for a partner or a way to deal with their libido. In social situations it shows as a primal need. I am not judging it. I don’t want to judge what is good and what is bad. This is just the way things are. I wouldn’t say women have a harder time with this. It is a known fact that men are more active in picking up women than the other way round. At the same time men are more aggressive in their behavior while trying to win a partner than women trying to attract a guy. That’s why women more often encounter unwanted advances especially in situations in which flirting or picking up is out of place. This distance should be controlled. For many women such situations are awkward and embarrassing.
I Have Never Been Patronized
IT industry in Silicon Valley is famous for mobbing females or even for sexual harassment and discrimination. Recently there was a notorious case of Ellen Pao. Women working in IT in the Valley are often not treated on a par with men, although personally none of us have been ever patronized.
When we were starting with Wellfitting we did get some humorous remarks or cynical smiles. But such situations happen to everyone. Many ideas bring out negative emotions. I would not blame our femininity for that.
“An Older Brother”
I’ve been married for many years. During both private and professional meetings where I am with my husband Ryszard men are less likely to “shorten the distance” and in a way they treat me with greater respect.
Apparently it is harder for women in Silicon Valley to get financing. Maybe this is a good idea to take along a man when you go to meet investors—a “pretend” older brother or husband to avoid awkward remarks from the gentlemen present and to be treated more seriously.
Amelia: Meetups for Women
Events addressed to women and organized by woman are becoming very popular and frequent. Such meetings usually get a lot of coverage in the media. This makes it easier to reach women who for various reasons are afraid to enter this community, traditionally perceived as masculine. This way even women who otherwise would not think of being a part of women environment get a chance to join in. For instance thanks to Geek Girl Carrots, for which I was a co-organizer, many girls begin to act with more confidence and learn to create professional connection on social platform. I know girls who started as participants and now organize Greek Girls Carrots events. They started coming to meetings because those gathering were created specifically for women.
Women-only meetings sometimes act as a springboard in the training of interpersonal skills. The meetings help women feel more at ease, more confident so that later they can function in mixed environment without unnecessary shyness.
Most Chores Fall on Women
In today’s world pro-female actions have become trendy. As a result they oftentimes isolate, at least in theory and language, one gender from another.
What I find funny in those campaigns is the fact that from the career and development point of view the difference between men and women are not due to mentality or IQ level but the fact that only women can bear children, something that no man, no matter how he tries, is able to do.
When a child gets born most chores fall on women. One might even say that 99 percent of duties rest on women. Especially in the first months of a baby’s life.
Just Being a Woman Doesn’t Change Much
Why do we keep stressing that we women in the IT world, in technologies, in entrepreneurship have it harder? Since we completely overlook the difference between the sexes.
We often fail to notice that mothers or generally parents—have it harder than non-parents. There are fathers who are also very much involved in raising children. For those fathers it is also much harder to build a start-up than for someone with no kids.
That division of difficulty does not go along male–female line but along the families and childless couples or people with family responsibilities and those without. The mere fact of being a woman and having breasts and other female secondary sex characteristics doesn’t change much, in my opinion.
Work or Kid?
When I gave birth the child took over the majority of my time and attention. At the same time there wasn’t a day that I would not think of Wellfitting. I wanted that project to continue, I did not want to abandon it or forget about it. My involvement in the company is extremely important for me.
Such situation might apply equally to women and men.
However, if someone doesn’t like their job or just puts up with it from nine to five and looks forward to the moment when they leave the office then regardless if it is a man or a woman they will always look forward to long vacations.
In Poland a paid maternal leave can last even a year. In the United States, there is no guaranteed maternal leave. Only some modern companies have introduced it—Facebook offers four months for both mothers and fathers. In Google a paid maternal leave lasts from 18 to 22 weeks. In Apple—18 weeks, including four weeks before giving birth.
My husband got eight weeks of paternal leave. During that time he took great care of the baby and was very excited about his new role. At the same time he always checked the company mail because he wanted to know what was going on in the team.
This shows the difference between people who are greatly involved in their work and those that treat it just as a coerced financial necessity.
That’s why my life goal is doing the work that I love and not just what I have to do.
“I am Sorry but I Do Not Have Kids”
One day I was taking part in a women’s meeting in San Francisco. The discussion focused on the popular Silicon Valley subjects of difficulties facing female entrepreneurs. There was also talk about how hard it is for women to get financing.
It was a few weeks after I had my baby. During the panel discussion I asked if the participants had any advice for a young mom-entrepreneur. I asked how to reconcile new reality that I was experiencing with the lifestyle of an entrepreneur.
There were five women on the panel and each of them answered: “I am sorry but I do not have kids.” None of them could give me the answer to that, apparently simple question. I found it very amusing at the time. They were all mature women in their forties—not students entering adult life. They were women who consciously chose not to have a family.
We Are Getting Ourselves a Ball and Chain…
The mistake that we women often make is to take on too many duties. We feel responsible for the family and don’t expect support from our partners. I mean psychological support and shared responsibility for what goes on in our home, for our child. For who takes the kids to preschool and who picks them up, who will stay home when they are sick. We women automatically become primary caregivers. We are raised like that; we’ve been trained for this. We tie a ball and chain to our leg and the ball slows us down in our everyday life. I can see it in my own life. I take on too many duties. It slows me down in other areas. It should change. You should get your partner involved in pulling that ball. It should be tied to two legs. It will be easier to pull.
My advice is that women should not be scared to be labeled as bad mothers for whom the career is more important than the child. They should not be afraid to shed some duties and delegate the responsibilities to their partners, who are, by the way, also parents.
It seems to me that women are more productive. You can see that especially in positions that require multitasking. It is difficult to multitask as a backhoe operator or working another typically male job.
In managerial and office positions, though, where you have to control many variables and where you interact on many levels—there, compared to men, women are more productive and effective.
Men can be more assertive and can say “no” or “I don’t know.” Women are in the habit of offering assistance. I have such a habit: “Of course, I can help you.” If I know how, I always help.
“I am Awesome and My Ideas Will Change the World”
What are the differences between women in Silicon Valley and in Poland?
Before coming to the United States I went to many conferences or start-up meetings devoted to women’s entrepreneurship. My feeling is that women running their own companies in the United States are much more assertive than women in Poland.
When I was meeting female entrepreneurs from 500 Start-ups or from Y Combinator or even women not necessarily directly involved in the start-up world they always struck me as very domineering, loud, projecting with diaphragmatic, trained voice, certain of their arguments and thinking that whatever they did was awesome and would change the world.
Women in Poland lack self-confidence and trust their abilities. Polish men, on the other hand, often feel that what they do is terrific and the best.
My Advice—Make the Logo Yourself!
I advocate self-study—teaching yourself what you need at a given time. My advice is not to become dependent on people with skills that we lack. In today’s world where you have so much educational resource available for free or at small cost becoming dependent on someone for finances or skills is a trap.
To women who plan to found their business but are afraid that they don’t know how to code, make graphic design, or create a logo, I suggest that they learn to code or design the logo themselves! Try creating something yourself. Only if you need an advanced product begin to look for help. We are able to learn many things ourselves, especially in the early stages of our business.
The Most Important Piece of Advice
This is not advice but more of a motto that you should follow:
There are always bumps on the road but you can always manage to get through them.
I always try to remember that, even if I keep failing at something. Everything is temporary, not just failures, also successes and you just have to learn to cope with that.
The piece of advice is short and I don’t remember who gave it to me.
Trust your gut feeling.
Short. Common sense. Helps making decisions.
The Interview Took Place on June 22 and 24, 2015.
I met again with Julia and Amelia in San Francisco in mid-November.
The girls had an interview for Y Combinator on Saturday November 14, 2015. Just being invited to an interview is a great achievement and testifies to the quality of the product and a novel strategy of a start-up. Although this time Wellfitting didn’t get a spot at the most prestigious accelerator in the world, Julia and Amelia are very happy about the interview. I asked them to tell me how the conversation with Y Combinator went and how they had prepared for it.
It was our second tryout. For the first time we applied to Y Combinator last year. But then we didn’t even get an interview. This time we got invited and the conversation went very well. It was a fast exchange: question—answer, like ping-pong. At the end of the day we already knew the answer. All applicants get the answer the same day.
Although the reply was negative we got very valuable feedback—Y Combinator got our idea. We also found out that we have a good team. Our weak suit is the suggested model of sale and distribution.
Accelerators try to optimize every edition of their programs so that after three months, at the end of the program, you can show gigantic growth of every participating start-up. And during Demo Day it is expected that the founders will get financing.
During the interview we were not able to convince Y Combinator that within three months we would be able to achieve the growth rate that would be attractive to investors. Maybe our strategy is still not scaled. We have to invent a better “growth mechanism,” prove that our concept works and in the summer we’ll be back to YC!
That was our experience with Y Combinator. Although we didn’t get in it was a very instructive experience.
We spent three days preparing.
We re-checked all the financial records of the company—we had a cheat-sheet with numbers regarding our business and the market. We wanted to feel confident during the interview.
We also had talks with people who had done interviews for Y Combinator. We received pointers from, among others, Jakub Krzych, Kate Scisel, or Fadi Bishara. They prepped us at a mock interview.
We Are Motivated by a Great Vision
If in the next months we improve our financial results then in the summer we will reapply.
In Wellfitting we have a broad vision. We want our message to reach the widest target group. We want women to believe in themselves and their self-worth. Our mission is not just selling bras—we could settle at selling just five hundred bras a month and it would be enough to make a living. But we are more ambitious than that. We want to change the stereotypes involved in women’s perception of their bodies. We want to change it not just in Poland, not just in Silicon Valley but all over the world. We want to create a movement of powerful women who believe in themselves. This is our global start-up vision that we follow and that is our hallmark.
In recent months we clarified our vision of distribution. We sell mostly via Internet and this kind of sale model works. Yet it is not fully scalable. We absorb quite high costs of returns, exchanges, and customer service. Getting ready for the interview with Y Combinator we invented another, additional system of selling our products. In a way it resembles the system of Avon. We calculated how many consultants (Wellfitters) we would have to recruit. They would visit our clients at home, take precise measurements, help choose the right style, the lace trim from catalogue. Then, within two weeks the client would get a custom size bra. It would be fully made to order. This type of sale we are now trying to develop.
At the same time doing marketing research we noticed there were many start-ups functioning this way, interestingly, mostly targeting men. The clients of these start-ups are men buying sophisticated clothes.
The growth in direct sales in the United States, is over 8 percent a year. It is a very interesting phenomenon, considering that for many people direct sale seems an outdated, bygone trend. Yet today’s direct sale works differently than even a few years ago.
Nowadays women look for more flexible types of employment and making income. In the United States there is no guaranteed maternal leave that’s why flexible forms of employment are so important. In our talks with Y Combinator we suggested that we not only wanted to offer bras but also a new quality of work for women.
Working in direct sales can turn out to be a very attractive solution for many women—mothers of young children, for students. At the same time a consultant selling specialized lingerie must be someone very professional, sensitive, and delicate. This work is very interesting, as it requires a personal connection with a client and advising her on many details. We are convinced that we will be able to realize our vision both in sales and in promoting our message of women’s power.
We want to come back to Y Combinator and prove that we have succeeded.
The Interview Took Place on November 17, 2015 in San Francisco