Building a broad base of happy customers is a necessary condition to building a scalable business over the long term. A business model that aligns business incentives with user’s needs.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Wejchert.
Victoria is an entrepreneur, investor, anthropologist, and founder and CEO of Kinship Systems. Prior to leading Kinship, she successfully founded, scaled and exited a healthy, fast-food chain, and acquired, restructured and exited two significant European healthcare businesses. Her early career experiences included a stint working at UBS in London in investment banking; being an operations manager in a fast-food chain; and two years as director of sales for a Christmas tree company. Victoria’s passion is working to reinvent industries by creating or investing in businesses that have a positive social impact, improve customer experience, and enable personal growth.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I grew up watching my parents run successful businesses. Over time, I noticed how a key component of that success was their ability to build strong relationships with people. My mother has an amazing ability to not just remember people’s names, but also the things that matter to them. No matter how busy she might have been, she always made a point to stop and engage with everyone. My mother always managed to turn weak ties with fringe characters in our story, into people who felt cared for and, in turn, cared for us. A taxi driver was a friend in waiting, or at least a focus group to be listened to and learned from. On social occasions my mother would appear beside my father as he encountered someone and offer a little insight into the person, enabling him to elevate the conversation from small talk to a thoughtful dialogue that built trust and even friendship, sometimes.
All of these things were invaluable not only in making our lives fuller — surrounded as we were by trusted friends and confidantes — but also in building the family business. The connections my mother made frequently became employees, business partners and allies. My mother showed me that personal and professional success is built on relationships.
As a networker and entrepreneur, I was always looking at ways that would help me be like my mother and find a way to keep track of the people I met but also the context of those meetings, why we connected and who they were as a person. I wanted a tool that would help me to build meaningful, long term relationships without taking away from our interpersonal interactions or distracting me. I wanted to listen, be in the moment, but also recount important details over the long term. One of my first jobs was as a sales rep for a Christmas farm and, as I travelled from trade fair to trade fair, I would staple potential clients’ business cards into a notebook and write down details I learned about them — Italian, car broke down, kids’ names etc. That way, when I got back to Poland, I could follow up with them and personalize my emails with them. In addition, I wanted to remember these details because in any business, and even more so in one where it takes time to grow the product, you want to build relationships for decades to come. I usually copied these notes into excel (CRM seemed too much about pushing clients through a pipeline and mass marketing, rather than building a real relationship), but this wasn’t useful when I was traveling or in the fields of Christmas trees. So, while the fancy notes apps did not have enough functionality, I decided to create Kinship.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Yes. My parents have both played an important part in my entrepreneurial spirit — both have run and owned many successful businesses. My mother has an innate ability to relate to others, build meaningful relationships and make friends. It has always been easy for her to remember relevant details about the people she meets and make them feel special. This inspired me to create a tool that would allow users to connect with the people around them, build meaningful relationships, and thrive in their personal and professional lives.
Whenever I ran into challenges and difficulties in my businesses, I would hear my parents’ reminding me to review the numbers (numbers never lie), remember that everything takes time (and a lot of blood, sweat and tears), and, no matter what, never compromise on my values and ethics.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Almost every app or platform these days aspires to keep you there with little tricks and gamification to hold or win back your attention. Kinship is diametrically opposed to this approach — we focus on making it so easy to get information into or out of the app that we’d minimize the time users spend on it, allowing them to instead be present with others and build relationships.
Kinship is designed for the relationship reality, where relationships are built on multiple connections between two people who demonstrate knowledge of, understanding and caring for one another that then can lead to a level of trust as needed when buying a house or handing over personal assets for management. There is another category: ‘personal CRM’ — this is not only off putting to some potential users, but also creates a poor mental framework for building a tool that helps build stronger relationships. CRM software is designed to enable one-to-many marketing automation, too focused on quantity over quality.
It is hard to provide just one example of a user and how they have benefited from Kinship. One of the things I love most about creating Kinship is hearing all the wonderful stories of how people are using the app and how amazingly thoughtful they are. Of the examples, the first come to mind are:
- The Rabbi who uses Kinship to remember and stay in touch with over 23,000 people including but not limited to: grandchildrens’ names, wedding anniversaries, illnesses, etc.
- The realtor who uses Kinship to take a note of a client’s refrigerator model to send them the water filter when it needs replacing and that why making sure he stays in touch.
- The son who speaks with his mother every Sunday because she lives across the pond and uses Kinship to take notes of all the things happening in her and her friends’ lives as well as her plans for the week to remember to ask about it the following Sunday.
- The Investor who’s father passed away a year ago and has stored all the messages, emails, photos, videos and more in Kinship to have it all in one safe place to look back on.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
From the perspective of contributing to society, I’ve always felt Kinships is something that could benefit all. Technology that was meant to lead us to being more connected has, in fact, led to feelings of greater disconnectedness and isolation. We are lonelier, and our society is more fractured than before. We built a tool that put a focus on real, meaningful, personal relationships; this was an idea whose time had come.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Tenacity. I think most entrepreneurs would say this, and I know I learnt it from my mother and father. As entrepreneurs, you must be strong and willing to stay the course.
Curiosity. I have always wanted to know what makes people tick, why they do the things they do. That’s what led me to anthropology, and it is probably what led me to Kinship because I realized I never wanted to forget what I’d learned about people, partly because I realized that remembering what I’d learned was a door to picking up the next conversation where I’d left off and then learning more.
Sociability. This might be an extension of curiosity, but I think it bears saying that being sociable is a valuable trait for most entrepreneurs. I’ve met most of my team, several of my investors, and a lot of my friends, simply by always being open to a conversation.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I was making an investment into a company and during the negotiations process I didn’t like how my future business partners were behaving and reacting to various conversations. I was advised to ignore it, that it is only their lack of experience and emotions soaring during the transaction process, but that once all is settled, they will be great partners. The deal took place, we became business partners and, unfortunately, nothing changed. All the characteristics I saw and disliked remained. It was a very difficult collaboration and excessive stress that could have been avoided.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The most difficult times were at the start of the pandemic, and we were just rolling out our pilot groups with real estate companies. The team was in a start of panic, like the rest of the world, trying to adjust to work from home. Immediately following, we had a need to fundraise all the while when networking seemed impossible and in-person meetings were not occurring. VCs and angel investors were first focused on preserving capital for the companies they already invested in and then they need time to adjust to meeting founders virtually. It was quite the ride for our investors, clients, and us, but we are grateful it all worked out, although everything took longer than expected.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
The drive comes from two places — (1) believing and being passionate about the project and (2) hearing from users how much they need and love Kinship. Almost every time when we were facing difficulties, I would be telling someone about Kinship and hear “Oh, I need that!” or “I’ve been using it, I can’t believe no one created this before. I love it!”
The strategy I most often employ when faced with challenges is turning to others for advice. By simply speaking out loud about a challenge, I find solutions will come to mind. Sometimes you just need someone else to listen to you and you may just find the solution on your own. At other times, my friends, investors, colleagues and even a stranger may ask me a question or point me in the right direction. It is this external perspective of those that are not in the trenches with you daily that may be priceless.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Relationships Matter. That is one of the key lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur. The meaningful relationships that I’ve built have been key to getting to where I am today. Kinship is not only intended to help people build meaningful relationships, but is also based on relationships between its co-founders, investors, and employees. The long-term relationships between Kinship’s team are one of the main reasons behind its success. Building and taking care of professional and personal relationships is key to success as an entrepreneur. It’s the meaningful relationships that I’ve built over time that continue to inspire and motivate me. These relationships also are crucial in overcoming setbacks and failures.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
It is worth recognizing that the most popular financing method for startup costs is personal funds (friends & family). One in four businesses in the U.S. are not able to receive the funding they require. Although venture capital funding reached a decade-high of $155 billion in 2017, less than 6% of all new businesses started in the United States were funded by venture capital. Individual venture capital firms receive more than 1,000 proposals every year, and companies raise nearly three rounds before they get to Series A funding. Although it’s certainly doable, it’s worth remembering that fundraising is extremely difficult. Ultimately, whether bootstrapping or seeking venture capital, entrepreneurs need to be determined and persevere. It’s likely that at different stages founders will want to rely on either bootstrapping or venture capital, or a combination of both. In the end, the most important factor for success is building a good team and persevering through ups and downs.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
Build a great team. From co-founders to investors to employees. Working with the right people to achieve your goals is one of the single most important factors that will determine whether a startup succeeds. It is also important to create the right atmosphere that will allow everyone to use their talents and keep each other accountable and motivated through ups and downs. You want to be surrounded by the smartest people that you can find; ones that are never too scared to share their opinion. You don’t want people agreeing with you constantly.
Stick to core values. The journey to founding and leading a startup is long and difficult, which means it can be easy to get lost along the way. It is important for entrepreneurs to identify their company’s core values and stick to them despite what other people may say or think. In our case, we have always been adamant that data privacy and security are fundamental pillars of Kinship, and we have been and still are unwilling to compromise on these values. We will never sell users’ data. We believe only users should determine when, how, and to what extent their personal information is shared or communicated to others.
The right balance of belief in your idea and willingness to change. It is not possible to shift with every bit of feedback, but sometimes it is necessary to. As important as it is to have a concise plan, startups also need to remain flexible and adapt quickly. When starting a business very few things go exactly as planned, and although it’s important to stick to a plan, sometimes arriving at the ultimate destination requires detours. That’s why entrepreneurs need to remain flexible, find alternative solutions to emerging problems, and readjust their approach as needed.
Be consistent. Building a business from scratch is difficult and it takes a lot of hard work and determination. Success won’t come out of one or two quarters of high revenue, but out of building a sustainable business — and that takes consistency. Entrepreneurs need to stay consistent along the way, and that’s not always easy. As Anthony Robbins said: “It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.”
Provide great service and be obsessed with creating real value for users. Most people that start a new business are trying to solve a problem for themselves, their friends, and others. Entrepreneurs are problem solvers, and so much of what we do is solve problems and help others solve their problems. Yet sometimes people forget why they got into business in the first place — to satisfy people’s needs. That’s why a strong commitment to test and learn- even when what we learn isn’t what we wanted to hear — is essential to creating a successful business and providing clients with the product they want and need. Building a broad base of happy customers is a necessary condition to building a scalable business over the long term. A business model that aligns business incentives with user’s needs.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I am a big believer in building a business that can make money. I know that sounds odd, but isn’t it what everyone believes? I think the success of a few unicorn businesses that have just amassed massive audiences and then figured out how to monetize them later has led a lot of startup founders to forget about business fundamentals. I’m all for being brave, and going big, but — at least when I’m investing — I look for businesses with a clear, feasible, path to profitability.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I have always enjoyed playing sports — I’m a keen off-piste skier, a former polo player, and love nothing more than a kick ass workout — so I do think it’s important to carve out time for your body to do the hard work instead of your brain. It’ll also help to offset the negative physical effects of startup life, such as the hours, the caffeine, the quickly grabbed and often not totally healthy food. From a mental perspective, I’d say the most important thing is to surround yourself with friends, on the team and in your personal life, who you can be yourself with. You don’t want to always have to put on a brave face, even when you’re not feeling brave at all, you need to be able to get real.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
Improving and providing excellent primary school education on a global level. I think high quality education — not only writing, reading, but also hygiene, nutrition etc. from the earliest days to provide children with a strong foundation and values to analyze situations and make informed decisions. Children are the future leaders, and we need to provide them with the tools to not only succeed in their own lives, but as part of the community.
We are 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
As I worked with real estate agents and realtors across the country over the past year, I’ve been extremely impressed how they pushed on and persevered through the pandemic. Barbara Corcoran has been at the forefront of the industry for several decades and has without a doubt observed change in the industry.
Barbara was recently quoted: “I had 22 bosses before I started my own business. I loved all my jobs, but I never liked my boss! When you’re the boss, you can make your job whatever you want it to be.” Barbara set a goal for herself, and though it took time to achieve, she overcame the challenges. That is key, and I would love to hear from her how she got there, and maybe how she’d evaluate herself as a boss!?
Oh, and I might just take the opportunity to pitch her on everything Kinship could do to help her brokers build the same powerful relationships that she has built. (Sorry, I just couldn’t quite help myself).
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!