Work on something you care about. There’s too much else that’s tough about starting a product and business from scratch to make it worthwhile if you don’t actually care about what you’re building! I had one founder friend share this advice with me early on. He had founded, and run, a fintech startup that fit all the right trends at the time, but that he didn’t actually care about. As he put it, “I was miserable going to work every day.”
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amelia Lin.
Amelia Lin is the CEO and founder of Saga, an app to save your family’s memories by voice recording answers to conversation starters. Answer and send fun prompts like “What’s the biggest trouble you got into as a kid?” and grow closer — it’s like getting your own personal private family podcast. Saga is proud to be backed by Bling Capital and DCM and is the winner of the 2020 Innovator Award from End Well sponsored by the AARP.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I actually studied physics for my undergrad degree at Harvard — I worked in science research labs and always thought I’d become a professor. So business was absolutely nowhere on the radar for me! But I love building things, and that drew me to the tech startup scene here in Silicon Valley. Once I was here, I was hooked.
What drew me to start Saga was a personal desire — I wanted something for my own family. I’d begged my own parents for about 10 years to record these incredible stories for me that they used to tell me and my sister when we were growing up. I wanted to create something easy, fun, and that we could use even when we were apart. At the same time, I’ve never really been into traditional social media — they didn’t want to post their stories on Facebook, and I wanted something more intimate for our family to use. That’s why I started Saga.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
We think traditional social media is failing at the job of actually keeping us close with the people we care about most. Broadcasting your life to thousands of strangers has made newsfeeds meaningless, and it’s not how humans were built to interact.
We’re building a new kind of social network. It’s intimate and meant to be used with the people you’re closest to, like your family. It’s about growing closer and learning things about each other. The kinds of memories families save, and share, with each other on Saga are things they wouldn’t post on Facebook or Instagram, because they aren’t meant to be shared with the world. But they’re also creating new, one-of-a-kind content that would otherwise not have been saved anywhere.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, it was only me but I’d pretend we had a team. When we found our first paying customer, I didn’t actually have a payment system set up yet! So, I told her I’d send the invoice tomorrow. I spent the night setting up an online payment system, and customizing the branding, and adding our logo, etc. I was very pleased with myself, I thought it looked quite professional and like a real invoice! The next morning, I very proudly sent it to her. An hour later, she wrote back to me saying, “It’s the oddest thing, I was trying to submit the payment but, it keeps saying this is a test account.” I’d forgotten to actually activate the account. Naturally, I told her that I would let our team know right away. Then I fixed it, wrote her back, and said the team had let me know they’d fixed it.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Probably my mom and dad — our product is a family product, in every sense of the word! Not only were they completely supportive when I made the decision to take the big leap, and helped me believe that I could, they were literally my very first testers. After all, the reason I started Saga was to save their memories. Once we had our first customers, before we raised funding and built a team, they even helped me keep things running — my mom used to help me manage our support inbox, and their photo is even on our website. In many ways, I started this product and company truly for them.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I once read a series of essays voicing concerns about a new disruptive media technology — the authors saw that this new technology, which was rapidly being adopted, resulted in people’s attention spans declining and a tendency to take shortcuts for immediacy versus appreciation and skill-building. Sounds like something from today, right? Turns out the essays were taken from different points in history. One was voicing concerns about the invention of the calculator replacing mental math, and the other was about the spread of a radical idea calling writing, which at the time was replacing oral recitation.
The world changes and moves forward, without us or not, and I think that as humans, we’re generally predisposed to be wary of change, understandably so. If I’m honest, I’m of the opinion that any system is worth testing and questioning, perhaps especially the ones that are old — I think that’s how we get better. We may try new things and they fail — but I think the greater danger is becoming complacent.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1) Work on something you care about. There’s too much else that’s tough about starting a product and business from scratch to make it worthwhile if you don’t actually care about what you’re building! I had one founder friend share this advice with me early on. He had founded, and run, a fintech startup that fit all the right trends at the time, but that he didn’t actually care about. As he put it, “I was miserable going to work every day.”
2) Lean on others and ask for help, it’s a strength, not a weakness. I know for me I can feel like asking for help is a sign of weakness, and that it’s my responsibility to do it all. It took a friend of mine to remind me that it was okay to not be able to do it all, and to recognize that and empower others to take on responsibility. He explained that he’d always thought in his startup he had to do it all himself, and it overall ended up holding the team back.
3) Sometimes it’s 1000 lead bullets, not a silver bullet. I have had to learn how to do a lot of new things in this journey, and sometimes you have to fail and be bad at things before you get good at them. I remember being so discouraged the first time I tried to put together a pitch deck for fundraising — it looked, and was, pretty terrible. I thought maybe I was just hopeless. Then a friend of mine explained that the version of his pitch deck that I’d seen was version 60 — he’d had to revise it at least a dozen times before it got to be any good, he said. I realized I just needed to go through a lot more iterations, and got to work on that.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
COVID has isolated us even more and people are looking for new ways to connect in a more meaningful way — we’re excited to see how people use Saga in ways we might not have even expected. For example, we’ve seen college friends using it to stay in touch across continents, or organizations using it to help their far flung communities connect, or people using it to collect birthday messages for someone special in lieu of an in-person gathering.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
One of my favorite books is Founders at Work, which I received a copy of when I was in college. It’s a series of interviews with founders about their personal journeys, the “behind the scenes” while they were building their companies. It’s very honest, and real, about the messiness and the failures and how many twists and turns there really are in the path of even very successful companies. That really spoke to me. It made startups, for me, something human and relatable and something I could see myself being a part of.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The short version is “Live without regrets.”
The long version is that I have this thought experiment that I like to use. I imagine that I’m at the end of my life, surrounded by my loved ones, and I’m telling them the story of my life. And the measure of whether I’ve lived a good life or not is: is it a story I’m proud to tell? When I’m considering a decision that feels big or scary or difficult, I imagine whether it’s a story I’ll be proud to tell at the end of my life, and I think this thought experiment has guided me true. It’s enabled me to take leaps that feel scary, and turn down opportunities that didn’t feel true to myself, and to give it my all when I’m not sure how it will work out, and invest in the relationships outside of work that are most important to me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
To believe that most people are good at heart. I’ve been told that I have a lot of trust in people, perhaps a naive amount of trust. But I truly believe that everyone, and I mean everyone, has an interesting story to tell, and that there’s something worth getting to know underneath the layers. I suppose it’s not such a surprise that I started a company about capturing and saving the stories of everyday people!
I think that a lot of true connection comes from being the first to extend curiosity and empathy and trust, and that you can disagree, even disagree deeply, with someone else and still understand and empathize with them as a human. And while it’s true you can get burned extending that kind of trust and vulnerability, I’m quite convinced that on the whole I’ve reaped enormously positive rewards for going out on that limb and refusing to give up believing in the basic goodness of people.
How can our readers follow you online?
And, go check out Saga free in the App Store!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!