Special thanks to University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Technology Management MBA program, more specifically: Colleen O’Brien, Samuel Affolter, Debmalya Chandra, Parker Keegan, and Rahul Tulsyan for your powerful summary of our Jan 2016 entrepreneurship interview.
"We recently interviewed Lisa Abdilova, Colleen’s friend and former colleague, and the founder of Well Connected now (WCN). WCN (wellconnectednow.com) is a service that personally matches professionals to mentors, coaches, and therapists. Lisa has been working on the venture for about year and a half now, and spoke candidly to us about everything from the hunt for her co-founder, to revenue milestones, to the support system who helped her take the plunge.
Growing up in the Bay Area and attending Stanford University as an undergraduate, Lisa grew up in a hotbed of entrepreneurship: “I think like a lot of twenty- and thirty-somethings do these days, I wanted to be involved with starting a business from the ground up. I wanted to create a household brand,” she said.
Both of Lisa’s parents worked in the technology space in San Francisco, and laid some initial groundwork for Lisa’s entrepreneurial pursuit. “I distinctly remember my parents coming home from work…frustrated…and [saying] ‘you need to be your own boss one day,’” she said.
In addition to her parents, a former manager at Bling — a mobile payments company — really inspired Lisa to consider her own venture. This role model, who helped launch E*TRADE, spoke about the valuable experiences she gained in the entrepreneurial process: learning rapidly, and working with people who shared the same passion. “Those were all things that I wanted,” said Lisa. “[And] it was with her stamp of approval and encouragement that I went for it [with WCN]. I went all-in.”
She does admit that “all-in” didn’t mean a full-time pursuit until a meeting with another advisor, Nate Rodland, the COO of Robinhood.
“Nate said to me, ‘There’s no f*cking way you can build a high-growth startup while working another job full-time,’” she explained.
So, in November of 2014, Lisa left her role as a Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft to pursue WCN full-time. Without a steady salary, Lisa realized that she’d need to find support via other means. “I got a really small loan from friends and family,” she said. “You really don’t need much.”
Lisa had already been thinking about the concept of WCN for about a year. “It was a long-time in the making. I just saw too many people who had been struggling, and I know how effective therapy can be for people,” she said. “I also know that therapists and coaches can give a lot of priceless knowledge and encouragement to people in tough times.
“I wish that there was more of a resource that people could call when their manager isn’t treating them right or they just got a bad review. I want people to have a place that they can call and get trustworthy support, wherever they are on the spectrum of dissatisfaction — whether that’s them wanting a new role or wanting to get their life together, or whether it’s getting a little darker than that.”
At Microsoft, Lisa found avenues to explore these passions, coaching mentees from the Microsoft Academy of College Hires, but wanted to pursue the problem of mental health more aggressively. “It didn’t feel like enough,” she said. “70% of people struggling with depression and anxiety don’t seek treatment today. My dream is that one day, that percentage will be significantly lower, and that we can say that WCN had a direct impact in lowering that number.”
Lisa graduated with a degree in Psychology and Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford in 2011. She relies a great deal on her degree in building out partnerships for her venture: “As I schmooze with all of these therapists, it really helps that I can walk the walk and quote different studies and recognize the big-name therapists,” she said. However, Science, Technology, and Society is not a degree in Computer Science, which accounted for a skill gap in Lisa’s plan to run her business through an online storefront. “They always tell you to find a partner,” she said. “Any tech blog or any accelerator will encourage you to have a co-founder, especially if you’re not a developer.”
While conducting the search for a co-founder, Lisa enrolled in a web design course through General Assembly to keep her plan in motion. And despite searching for a partner for six months, had trouble landing the perfect co-founder. Lisa recollected Nate’s assessment of her search: “At this point, we’re over six months in. The idea is running. The website’s up. You have clients in…
“You’re a solo founder whether you like it or not.”
Although there have been some technical hurdles for Lisa, she feels confident in her role as a solo founder, particularly when thinking about company ownership. Having dedicated over a year of her life to this project, the concept of handing significant equity to someone who hasn’t been along for the journey feels backwards. “It’s not about credit, it’s about the mission,” she said. “[But] it’s not fair if one person is doing significantly more work than the other.”
We dug into this more toward the end of our interview. When posed with the question “if you had to do it all over again, what would you change?” Lisa’s response pivoted around getting the right people invested and onboard before taking the plunge: “I would gather my team first, and leave all together. It’s hard being the first person to start a company, and it’s really hard to be the second person to decide to join.”
Truth be told, Lisa is not completely solo in her venture. She is supported by a team of six advisors with whom she has formalized contracts and advising terms. “The goal was for each advisor to supplement my skill set,” she said. Her mix of advisors ranges from former employers (“They know what you’re capable of.”), to more seasoned entrepreneurs (“They just know exactly what you need to know and how to do it.”), to technical and telehealth professionals. Lisa shared a piece of advice that someone had formerly given her when figuring out who to team up with:
“With investors and advisors, if they called you, would you want to pick up?” In addition to leveraging her advisors’ knowledge, Lisa explained that she’s learning on her own at an incredibly rapid pace. “[The reality of the entrepreneurial experience is that] something comes up that you have to figure out. And you have the opportunity — because you dictate your own time — to spend the next day reading everything you possibly can about it,” she said. “And then you get to put what you learn into motion. Or you find people to help you fill in the gaps or clarify the things you don’t understand. You really do learn a ridiculous amount.”
To supplement her background in marketing, Lisa enrolled in a program that matches entrepreneurs with Stanford business school students, who help build out business plans and advise on fundraising strategy. After three months of meetings, Lisa had a 20-page plan, complete with financial models, which she sent along to her advisors. Her advisors thought the document was comical — no one reads 20-page documents anymore — and suggested that she turn the information into a pitch deck and an executive summary (code for a well-designed flier, which Lisa later learned). A marketing intern also helped Lisa perform SWOT analysis, and identify different competitors in the space. Indirect competitors (who are getting the largest amount of funding) are establishing business-to-business telehealth offerings, setting up deals with insurance companies or employer assistance programs.
“We’re really focused on direct-to-consumer,” Lisa explained. “Our clients are ones that don’t want this to have anything to do with their company. In a lot of cases, they don’t want this to have anything to do with their insurance company. They could lose their jobs if [use of this type of mental health assistance] ever got out.” Putting this rigor around her business plan was really important to Lisa. “So many startups are just smoke and mirrors. They’re not actually making money,” she said. “So many startups are operating at such huge losses and really high valuations. I’m very committed to building WCN out in a real business sense.” She also realizes that running a service means continuously acting on end user data to optimize her profitability. “I’m going back into [my business plan] now that we have a year’s worth of real revenue and real cost data,” she explained, “to figure out where we can make some tweaks to make the largest impact without affecting the quality of service to our clients or the specialists that we partner with.”
In Lisa’s last role at Microsoft, she sponsored meet-ups in the Seattle and San Francisco tech scenes. As a newly-minted entrepreneur, she returned to these meet-ups to drive awareness of WCN: “You might remember me — I left Microsoft to start a company!” Lisa explained that these brief presentations prompted attendees to approach her to learn more. “That’s where a lot of our first clients came from,” she explained. “We made our first match about two months after [I left Microsoft to start the company].” To acquire more users and build up word-of-mouth potential, Lisa offered first 100 matches for free.
Lisa matched those first 100 clients manually, by learning about each client, really understanding his or her needs, and then providing a white glove handoff to a coach, therapist, or mentor. The manual validation was the quickest way to set WCN in motion, but Lisa admits that searching for specialists was (and still is) a time suck. She’s in the process of building all of her acquired matching knowledge into an algorithm with a directory of specialists to avoid the pain point moving forward. In the meantime, she’s finding ways to cut corners and make the most of precious hours — even if it’s just copy/pasting email templates.
“Anything I was doing repeatedly…I tried to find a way to automate it,” she explained “Everything gets faster every time.” Driven by a mission, Lisa explained that the concept of WCN has stayed very constant since kickoff in November 2014. “We’re doing the same thing that we were doing from the beginning. I would say that our scope has gotten a little tighter,” she explained. According to Lisa, her pilot phase was an exercise in market segmentation. “Originally, when there were free matches, a lot of people were reaching out to [have introductions made]. [Those introductions] weren’t tied into the mission of helping people with real challenges. Those people were just looking for transactional things — a job, things like that,” she said.
“Our mission is to rebrand mental health and to make trustworthy support more accessible. [WCN] is not meant to just facilitate introductions; it’s much more than that.” There has been one interesting pivot that Lisa called out in her venture to date: “In the beginning, I thought that [telehealth] would be a big part of [WCN]. We were going to build the best technology for therapists to do teletherapy,” she said. However, at the urging of one of her advisors, Lisa decided to leave the means of communication open to end users, and surveyed her initial clients. “We found that over 90% of our clients prefer meeting in-person. That’s something that our competitors don’t realize yet. [Telehealth] is a cool idea, but people prefer meeting therapists and mentors in-person,” she said. This realization proved to be a key learning from a strategic and investment perspective. “What that pivot meant is that we’re not going to invest in building our own video chat technology,” said Lisa. “There’s a number of companies that do that, and they’ll take care of all of these complexities that now we don’t need to touch because we realize that it’s not actually core to the business.”
Lisa’s most recent #SideWalkTalk in downtown San Francisco #FightTheStigma
With just over a year of WCN under her belt, there have already been a few celebratory milestones for Lisa and her team. “I distinctly remember emailing my advisors at three different points: our first transaction, the first big transaction, and when we broke $1000 in revenue,” she said. “That felt like real money to me. It didn’t feel like real money to me when I was managing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a marketing budget at Microsoft. But now, I’m going to start running my paid marketing campaigns, and I can barely part with $25.”
For Lisa, there’s no acquisition play or get-rich-quick plan when it comes to WCN. She relayed her vision for what long-term success would look like:
“WCN [would be] the go-to resource for 20- and 30-something professionals to consult throughout their careers… We would have this great office in the tech hub in Seattle and San Francisco and have the best set of pre-screened therapists and coaches and mentoring programs. Expansion, continued personal involvement and control, and freedom to test her ideas are the markers of a true payoff for Lisa in this venture.”
— Well Connected Now personally matches professionals to mentors, coaches, and therapists — letstalkaboutanything.com