Be focused — focus has been drilled into us through our advisors and directors. It’s hard to pick “just one thing” or “just one user” you are going to build for. We find it helpful to remember that focus doesn’t mean everything else is a “no,” it’s just a “not yet.”
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pocketed’s CEO and CTO, Brianna Blaney and Aria Hahn.
Pocketed is co-founded by experienced entrepreneurs, Brianna Blaney (CEO & Co-Founder) and Dr. Aria Hahn (CTO & Co-Founder). Brianna has successfully scaled an HR and recruitment services company across Canada, Envol Solutions Inc., including securing grants for clients, with annual revenue over 1M dollars. With a PhD in Metagenomics and Bioinformatics, Aria is experienced in developing algorithms and data solutions for complex problems, successfully building a bioinformatics service company, Koonkie Cloud Services. Brianna and Aria have a shared passion for developing scalable businesses and powering economic growth by democratizing access to non-dilutive capital.
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?
Aria: I used to say I fell into entrepreneurship — and then my brother heard me say that and pointed out that I come from a long line of entrepreneurs and probably shouldn’t take credit for my choice. So, I guess I saw a lot people around me running businesses and so after finishing my PhD, it was the natural choice. I did feel strongly about having a solid skillset going in — hence being a career student.
Brianna: The best businesses are built to solve problems. In 2016, I was frustrated by the lack of solutions available to help small businesses solve their people problems, so I launched my first business, Envol Solutions Inc. I have spent the past 5 years successfully scaling it across Canada. Entrepreneurship often feels like a privilege. Inequitable access to funding plays a big role in this. Aria and I experienced this firsthand while we were building our first software company, a predictive hiring and retention platform for restaurants and retailers. COVID-19 forced a major pivot, with many of our customers drastically impacted by the pandemic. In reflecting on our experience, it was clear that grant funding had played a big role in our ability to build — but it was frustrating, painful, and inefficient to access. Hundreds of conversations with founders across North America validated that we weren’t alone in our frustrations. The idea for Pocketed was born!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Aria: Pocketed continues to surprise me. So many times we start something and users want it! The uptake, adoption, and need has constantly shocked me. When we oversubscribed alpha and then beta, I knew we hit something exciting
Brianna: From idea to validation and product launch in 14 weeks, Pocketed has moved like a rocket since day one! Compounding the chaos, I found out that I was pregnant the same week we oversubscribed our Alpha launch by more than 500%!
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? I’m sure we are still making them
Brianna: One mistake?! Mistakes are a regular part of the entrepreneurial journey, especially when you’re committed to moving fast and a culture of experimentation. Mistakes are also constructive, playing an important role in helping us grow. I recall in the early days of building Pocketed, we had developed a big, complex roadmap of features that we thought our users would want in the platform. I distinctly remember our first “Ask Me Anything” session with our Alpha users — it was eye-opening! We heard clearly from our users that while the flashy features were cool, they’d prefer to see a few much simpler tweaks and small features that would improve their experience using Pocketed. By making space for people to share feedback, our users saved us from months of building features that it turned out nobody really cared about, regardless of how ‘cool’ they were! This experience reiterated the importance of staying close to our users to understand their pains, regularly asking for feedback, and always focusing on adding value to everything we do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Brianna: Great companies are built by great teams. I fundamentally disagree with the notion of “self-made.” From my parents working hard to provide me with choice and opportunities to the committed people who contribute to building Pocketed every day, I’m grateful to so many people.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Brianna: Access to funding continues to be a leading barrier to entrepreneurship. The research shows that across the board, with all types of funding, this disproportionately impacts women and other underrepresented founder groups. With billions of dollars in grants, tax credits, and other non-dilutive funding available to business owners in North America every year, we saw an opportunity to help solve this problem. We built Pocketed with a vision to give entrepreneurs the power to create and build businesses, without financial barriers. As part of our commitment to creating impact as we grow, we actively target underrepresented founder groups through strategic partnerships. To date, we’re proud that 52% of our users identify as a female founder and 22% identify as a visible minority.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Brianna: I’d like to see society move beyond adding qualifiers like “woman” or “female” to descriptors related to entrepreneurship — entrepreneur, CEO, leader. To me, adding these qualifiers is a tangible indicator of how much progress we have yet to make. I recognize that in our pursuit of equity, the pendulum may have to swing to the extreme. But I look forward to a day when we move past “woman founder” and “female leader” to simply “founder” and “leader.”
An equitable future looks like fewer themed days/months and increased recognition of accomplishments as leaders, CEOs, founders instead of “female leaders,” “female CEOs” and “female founders.” Being responsible and having a diverse board and team, that’s just leadership.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Aria: We know that diversity in leadership leads to good things for many people — but ultimately it’s reason enough to lead simply because you want to. It’s about removing barriers so that everyone is equally able to make choices about what they would like to do.
Brianna: Few things are more powerful than choice. And having choice is a privilege. Our hope is that by removing funding as a barrier, more would-be entrepreneurs can make the choice to start and build their business.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Brianna: One of the greatest myths about being a founder is that you need to have all the answers. The most successful founders I know recognize their own limitations, humbly acknowledge when they don’t have the answer (or strengths) and surround themselves with people who have complementary strengths. As leaders, or more specifically founders, it’s our responsibility to hire smart, capable people, set them up for success, and then get the heck out of their way!
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Brianna: Entrepreneurship is a daily lesson in humility. As a founder, you have to make the best decision you can with the information you have available. While we don’t celebrate failure, we absolutely celebrate experimentation. I’ve learned that disproving a hypothesis and getting to a fast “no” is a valuable part of the process when you’re building a business. Moving fast and experimenting with a minimum viable product to validate whether you’re on the right track, and pivoting quickly when you’re not, is critical to finding product-market fit and building a successful business. Starting with a clear understanding of the problem you’re solving, and who you’re solving it for, makes a big difference.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
Well, these probably apply to male and non-binary founders too, but….
1. Be curious — entrepreneurship is a daily lesson in humility. You get it wrong often. Staying curious helps you stay agile and responsive. Experiment and move quickly.
2. Be a little (or maybe even a lot) obsessive — I don’t think there is another way to stick to entrepreneurship if you are not thinking about it almost all the time. Find a problem that you’re genuinely passionate about solving. It will help to keep you going through the long days, late nights, stress, and uncertainty.
3. Be the dumbest in the room by design — we intentionally hire, work with, and speak to people who know more than us, have better ideas than us, and provide their experienced opinions all day, every day.
4. Be lucky — entrepreneurship is a privilege. It involves risks and sacrifices many people simply cannot make. There is a huge element of being fortunate enough to have the option to even try building something. Access to funding plays a role in this. Our vision is for Pocketed to help level the playing field by giving entrepreneurs the power to create and build businesses without financial barriers.
5. Be focused — focus has been drilled into us through our advisors and directors. It’s hard to pick “just one thing” or “just one user” you are going to build for. We find it helpful to remember that focus doesn’t mean everything else is a “no,” it’s just a “not yet.”
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Aria: Baby steps. We’re in the business of getting money into the hands of a diverse group of people. We try to create meaningful employment opportunities and a healthy company culture within our business. We are trying to create environments and bring to life ideas that we wish existed. Baby steps to a better overall.
Brianna: We believe that we have a responsibility to create impact as we continue to build and scale Pocketed. That’s why we made Pocketed free to use. We actively target underrepresented founder groups, including women, to help overcome financial barriers to entrepreneurship. In general, my goal is to always give more than I take.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Brianna: Language has a major impact on how we perceive social issues. I’d like to see society re-frame things around the cause vs. the effect. Instead of talking about how “women only receive X% of VC funding,” let’s talk about how “only X% of VCs funding is invested in women.”
Aria: In all honesty, I am most worried about the impending climate crisis, so it’d likely be centered around that.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Aria: Joanna Griffiths. That woman is a powerhouse. Her product is great and I bet she has some great stories to tell. We’d sure learn a lot.
Brianna: MacKenzie Scott. MacKenzie Scott is an incredible example of using power and money to create massive impact.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.