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! Sometimes it will be very tempting to leave the path and build something you suspect might be an easier path, but if you don’t actually find it interesting, you won’t be setting yourself up for success. My passion for what I do is what keeps me going through the ups and downs, and this is also one of the most common pieces of advice I got from other founder friends of mine when I was starting out.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amelia Lin.
Amelia Lin is the CEO and founder of Saga, an app to stay close with family by voice recording answers to easy 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 joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I never really expected I would start a company. 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.
But what drew me to start Saga was a personal desire — 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. They’d always say they were flattered, but maybe when they retired, since after all, writing a book about their lives sounded like an awfully big project. I wanted to create something easy, fun, and that we could use even when we were apart. I didn’t see anything out there already, and for the first time I felt could create something new that would be better. That’s why I started Saga.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Throughout my journey building Saga I’ve had the honor to get to know some truly amazing storytellers through our app. It’s reminded me how incredible stories exist everywhere, even in the most everyday place. We partnered with a group Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages, and they’ve collected recordings from members 90+ who recalled being present at the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge — go join their channel! One of our earliest users was a woman Sue Stockdale, a polar explorer — she was the first British woman to ski to the North Pole! Absolutely incredible. We connected and even ended up joining her as a guest on her podcast.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My lowest low was three months in, when I was working on my own — I was lonely, missed having coworkers and a team, and honestly didn’t know how to tell whether I was crazy or not for leaving my job. It was really hard to tell. Is this a great idea or the dumbest idea in the world? I’d tried a lot of things by then. I remember driving past nice offices, and thinking, wow, I walked away from that. Am I an idiot?
Two weeks later, I had my highest high: a complete stranger found the website and asked to buy the product. So I went from the lowest low, to on top of the world. I can’t even tell you how exciting that was. I thought it was a joke, that it must be a friend on the site! That’s when things turned around. A real person wanted what I was building, and wanted to pay money for it. That became our first paid customer.
My lesson learned was I’m glad I kept holding on. I am a very stubborn person by nature, and if I decide I am going to try to do something, I will do everything I can to try and make it happen. And if I had quit when I was feeling low, I might not have known that two weeks around the corner, good news was just waiting for me. I think a lot of the founder journey is, really, can you hold on long enough for things to turn around–can you just keep holding on?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
We’re an app that helps you grow close with family by learning about each other and saving memories. The way it works is we send fun conversation starters, things like “What was the biggest trouble you got into when you were a kid?”, you voice record your responses, and your responses are shared with each other. It came from a personal need — I’d wanted for myself a way to collect memories from my own mom and dad, who live far away from me in Texas. I wanted something easy and fun for them to use, versus. something that felt like a chore. And especially right now with COVID, we’re all far apart and missing connection — especially now, we help families stay close even while apart.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re a pretty different social product. Unlike a lot of social media, we’re meant to be used with a small group of people you’re close to, like your family or close friends — Saga is meant to be intimate and private, not public. We don’t sell ads or sell your information to 3rd parties. And what also makes us different from other apps you might already use is that we’re about discovering, and preserving, each other’s memories and growing closer with the people you care about most.
A dad will use Saga to send a voice recording to his daughter of what it was like for him to become a father. Or a group of faraway friends from college will use Saga to share voice recordings of what jobs they wished they had when they were kids. Those memories are truly priceless and today, they aren’t saved anywhere else.
I remember when I heard one of my dad’s Saga recordings, on what went through his mind when he saw his child for the first time, I cried. I still do, listening to that recording. Some of his make me laugh, but some of them really touch me too.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! We are working on a special edition pack of conversation starters for Thanksgiving, to help families far apart this year stay close and do a meaningful activity together. We’d love to hear from anyone interested.
We are also partnering with Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages to collect some incredible recordings from members 90+, including one who recalled being present at the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge! You can join their channel to listen, or to add your own.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I’m not, though I am pleased with the progress and changes that I’ve seen even over the last ten years working in Silicon Valley. Still a long way to go, but also glad for the progress. On what changes I’d recommend, I’m a big fan of mentorship programs ever since reading What Works by Iris Bohnet. It’s not as well known as some other books, but I highly recommend it to anyone seriously interested in gender equality — it’s one of the very few books I have found that not only proposes changes, but has actually rigorously measured their real effectiveness, and one of the few changes that work are mentorship programs.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
As a female founder, especially in Silicon Valley, there’s definitely some challenges you face when fundraising typically is a process that is very dependent on networking, and the vast majority of investors are male. We were lucky to have had a very positive experience fundraising, and I always felt I was treated professionally and taken seriously, but I think that’s more the exception than the rule, unfortunately. I don’t know a single other female founder who doesn’t have a story from fundraising of experiencing something unpleasant during the process that had to do with their gender. The longer term solution would be of course to see more women rise through the ranks in venture capital — and for that, I highly recommend the book What Works by Iris Bohnet for reading — but for me as a founder navigating the process, if I had to speculate what helped me, it may be that I leaned heavily especially on women in my network to help make friendly introductions to investors, which may have helped me avoid bad interactions and be taken seriously.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
We’ve only been on the market for two years, so no grand wisdom I have here I’m afraid!
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
I don’t have as much personal experience with this one; I’m probably not the best to comment on this one as we are a consumer social product, unfortunately!
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
We depend a lot on word of mouth for our product, especially as a social product. People often hear about us from family, friends, or coworkers, and invite each other.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
1) Use your product yourself. I am a strong believer that you need to experience what your customers are going through — if there’s bugs, then you’re suffering through them right alongside them.
2) Connect with customers personally, and tell them who you are. We’ve built some surprising relationships with our users over time just by personally reaching out and introducing ourselves as the creators of the app. I think customers, especially everyday people like the people who use Saga, respond to human-ness. And sometimes people find it really cool to open up an email in their inbox and see, “Hi, I’m the CEO and founder of this app you’ve been using”!
3) Pay attention to what your users do, not just what they say. It’s important to listen to your users, but it’s just as important to be able to read in between the lines and see what they’re trying to do with your product that they never even asked for, or that you intended.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
We track which users were active users of the app and then dropped off, and will reach out to people and ask why. Sometimes, even the expression of curiosity piques their interest enough to revisit the app.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
Here’s my five, for anyone who is founding a technology startup, and especially if you are a first time founder like I was.
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! Sometimes it will be very tempting to leave the path and build something you suspect might be an easier path, but if you don’t actually find it interesting, you won’t be setting yourself up for success. My passion for what I do is what keeps me going through the ups and downs, and this is also one of the most common pieces of advice I got from other founder friends of mine when I was starting out.
2) Expect the ups and downs. I always heard from others that there were a lot of emotional ups and downs. One of my friends even said to me, “Expect to lose hope about every three months.” It’s funny, but it’s also somewhat comforting to know that it’s not abnormal, especially when you’re the one going through it!
3) Start trying to explain your product to other people immediately. Some founders believe in keeping your idea secret, or “stealth” — I’m of the belief that you should start trying to learn immediately and you can only do that by bouncing your idea off of others. Every time you explain your idea to someone else, you’re learning how to pitch better, what resonates, what doesn’t resonate, etc.
4) Be ready to be terrible at a lot of things before you become good at them. Every day, and I really mean every day, I find myself working on something I’ve never done before. Your job will be to learn how to do things quickly that you’ve never done before — get comfortable with that, and good at it. If you start out bad at whatever new skill you’re trying to pick up, that’s okay, just keep going and get better at it. Repetition won’t do anything but help you!
5) Be honest about where you need help, and ask. I know for me it was hard to recognize there were areas of the business where we needed support, and I was no longer the best person for it no matter how hard I tried. Being able to 1) let go of your pride enough to recognize where you need support, and 2) putting your ego aside enough to go ask for that help, I think are key for your ability to scale your business and team.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. Especially in today’s world where our country feels increasingly divided, I would like to see us all spend a little bit more time trying to see and understand the person on the other side.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Of all the products and companies and organizations that have been started in my lifetime, if I had to pick one that I thought would truly endure not just for years but for centuries, and have the single greatest impact on humanity, it would be Wikipedia. I have a lot of respect and admiration for that. I hope he does see this!
Mark Rober, he’s a big YouTuber who posts creative videos about science. When I was a kid, Bill Nye was my hero and had what I considered to be my dream job, inspiring excitement for science in kids. I think Mark is Bill Nye for the modern day and his work is incredible. He lives close by to me in the South Bay, so I’ve always hoped somehow we’d bump into each other — getting a coffee with him is definitely a dream of mine.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!