Deena Varshavskaya is an alumni of Cornell University and has been a chronic serial entrepreneur since college. She has founder credits that include ReelACT.com and Dynamik Interactive and has helped other companies get started through her efforts with the incubator Lotus Interworks, Inc. She is an expert in user experience design and has helped companies like Nickelodeon, MySpace.com, and Disney, create their Web presence. Her latest project Wanelo (short for Want, Need, Love) is a community platform for shopping that enables people to find and collect the most unique products from anywhere online. Wanelo recently made Entrepreneur magazine’s list of the most brilliant companies in 2011, which highlights the brightest ideas and most insightful innovators each year. She also maintains a personal blog at siberianfruit.com and can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/siberianfruit.
Here are my 5 questions with Deena and her answers:
1) One of your fortes is user experience design, and you have used this set of skills quite successfully to create website architecture for some of the biggest websites on the Internet. Similar to how a great mechanic hates to work on their own car, did you find your expertise in website design ever got in the way of actual development and deployment?
The challenge has been to wear two hats and to avoid driving our engineers crazy. On the one hand, I love designing interfaces and there’s nothing more fun than coming up with the bells and whistles for Wanelo. On the other hand, as a start-up you need to be pretty brutal about managing your limited resources. For someone who loves innovation and features it’s very easy to get carried away. I’d say that we’ve made plenty of mistakes early on and learned a lot along the way.
2) Although there seemed to be a growing number of opportunities for female entrepreneurs at this year’s 2011 Los Angeles Twiistup, Wanelo was the only company led by a female to present. Is there any advice and/or resources that you can share with budding female entrepreneurs that have helped you along the way?
“Boys are doctors. Girls are nurses.” Here’s a page from a 1970s children’s book that provides a nice breakdown of gender roles:
The modern day version of this is “Boys are CEOs. Girls are VPs of Marketing.” Personally, I do wish that I had more ridiculously awesome female entrepreneurs to look up to. I don’t. I mostly look up to, work with and read about male entrepreneurs. And that’s the challenge for women. Role models do matter and they shape our perception of what’s possible.
However, I’m a huge believer that you create your own life. My advice for women entrepreneurs is, don’t put up imaginary barriers for yourself. You either have excuses and reasons or you have results. Choose results! The truth is that you can be a man, but believe that you are unfit to be an entrepreneur for whatever reason. Age is a good example of this. Some people feel too young, others feel too old, and there’s just no winning. So forget the excuses, choose what you want to be and do it and make it happen. Making it happen means going way outside of your comfort zone (all the time!), allowing yourself to make mistakes and learning from the experience.
As a side note, a woman entrepreneur does have the advantage of standing out in a tech crowd which is largely-male dominated. And that can be a great position to be in.
3) You have sidelined a successful service business to develop a platform that is primarily focused on products. How have you had to adapt your skill set from a livelihood that depended on making clients happy, to one that is reliant on making an audience happy?
Having a consumer audience is just like having thousands of clients :-). Joking aside, in our user experience design consulting practice we mostly worked on consumer web properties, so that is in my blood. My main motivation behind working in consumer Web is based in solving my own problems, so that has always been there as well. Selfish, I know.
4) Within the last year what has excited you the most about social shopping? And, what has disappointed you? How will these developments influence you as you evolve Wanelo going forward?
Honestly, I don’t think shopping is really social yet, at least the way I envision. In the last year, I’ve discovered that a couple of start-ups are trying to tackle a similar set of problems. But all of us are just scratching the surface. Social shopping is a gigantic opportunity with no current leader. It’s an exciting space to be!
5) On Quora (follow Deena Varshavskaya on Quora here), you indicated the single most illuminating question you can ask a person is, “What challenges are you currently dealing with?” So… with regards to operating a start-up, what challenges are you currently dealing with?
The overall challenge is managing complexity. The amount of prioritizing and digesting of all sorts of information one needs to do in a start-up is startling. It’s very easy to get sidetracked or spend your limited resources on something that won’t truly move you forward. It’s a highly personal thing as well. There’s no other way to succeed but to bring all of yourself into it. We’re about to kick off the fund-raising conversations, so that will be interesting and a whole new challenge for me.
On a more personal side, I’ve been doing a lot of work to remove my personal barriers. I wrote about this on my blog siberianfruit.com. The basic idea is that I’ve realized that I’ve unknowingly held on to some beliefs about what I may not be good at as an entrepreneur. I’ve been working with a great life coach who’s helped me see that those beliefs were made up and unsupported by facts. Doing this kind of personal growth work is really empowering and I now feel a lot more prepared to deal with unforeseen challenges as they come up.