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From Siberia to Silicon Valley: Wanelo’s Deena Varshavskaya Shares Five Startup Lessons Learned

Deena+Varshavskaya

By Deena Varshavskaya (Founder & CEO, Wanelo)

I like to think that my entrepreneurial training started when I was born in the far east of Siberia, Russia — one of the coldest places on Earth where humans live (see #5 on this list). My family had been adventurous enough to willingly move to Siberia for the extra opportunities the region offered.

I moved to the US when I was 16. Right after college, I started working on my first startup — an online directory of actors on video. Like any other problem I’ve ever wanted to solve, this one was motivated by a personal pain. At the time, I produced and directed video projects and found casting for actors to be absurdly inefficient.

I started working with two engineers who were looking for a project. Ultimately, after some success, things didn’t work out for us as partners. I moved to Los Angeles, and for two years worked in product management and user experience design learning how to design a website.

Launching My Startup: Wanelo

The idea for Wanelo (from Want, Need, Love) came out of a conversation with a friend about the future of advertising. My main thought was that with users getting more and more control of what and how they consume, there’s no way that advertising will be the future (at least in its current form). So how will people find out about new relevant things? Through each other, of course!

Thus, Wanelo was born as a platform for friends to share products they like. I looked around for a technical co-founder and, although a few people were interested, I wasn’t able to find a partner who felt like a great fit. In the meantime, I had left my last full-time job and started consulting as a user experience designer.

I found myself really busy! The projects just kept on coming in. I started building a team and turning my consulting practice into a user experience design agency called Dynamik. Unexpectedly, I found myself in a position to simply pay for the development of Wanelo. At that point I had a real itch to see it built and, instead of buying a house, I started hired developers.

It was great to be able to work independently and to run my own show with Wanelo, but my progress was slowed down by having to work on both the consulting business and the startup. Earlier this year, I made a difficult decision to put my consulting company on hold in order to focus 100% (or 350%?) on Wanelo. At the same time, our lead engineer came on board as a co-founder.

Wanelo Has Been An Incredible Growing Experience.

We’ve made lots of mistakes and those were priceless. In our first couple of versions of the website, the response was lukewarm. We kept trying different things until we finally did user testing and noticed that people glossed over many of the features on the site. At that point, I sat down with a UX designer on my team and we started cutting out everything that we could possibly cut. It was shockingly liberating to do that. We kept cutting until we were left with a really simple product bookmarking and browsing experience.

We launched in October, and for the first time users responded with excitement. Since then we’ve seen steady growth, reaching 100k unique visitors in June.

Wanelo provides a continuous feed of unique products from all over the web entirely curated by our users. I’m excited about what’s going on, but we are just scratching the surface in terms of what’s possible. Our goal is to keep digging deeper and creating a lot more value for our users!

Startup Lesson #1: Read Less, Do More

Startup advice…. There’s so much of it to go around! It’s fun to read and it’s super fun to give it out. My first piece of advice, is: read less, do more! As an entrepreneur you absolutely have to make your own mistakes and reading is a far slower way of learning than doing. Not to mention that so much of the advice you’ll read will be conflicting. Results will come from doing. So set yourself up for continuous doing and be determined to make all the mistakes you need to make!

Startup Lesson #2: Be a Part of the Startup Community

Whether you’re working alone or with partners, you really want to be connected to other entrepreneurs. The startup community is incredible. People are generous with their time, with advice, with introductions and so on. Entrepreneurs know that they need to support each other, and most of the time we simply do it for the fun of it!

Startup Lesson #3: Focus on Your Limiting Step

The limiting step is that one thing that “limits” or determines the rate of your progress. It’s the one thing that, if accomplished, would make the most difference in moving your startup forward. It will change as your startup matures, but it’s always there. For example, when you’re in the very early stages of launching a product, your limiting step is product/market fit. You want to do everything possible to get to a place where you know that users want your product.

Once you know your limiting step, you know exactly where your biggest value lies. This can be really helpful because it’s really easy to be very busy in a startup, but you want to make sure thatyou work on things that make a difference.

Startup Lesson #4: Find Your Zen

This is a topic that really interests me and that I write about on my blog. If there’s anything certain about startups, it’s that they will provide you with endless uncertainty! It’s critical to develop a productive relationship with uncertainty when you’re working on a startup. One thing that can help when you’re just starting out, whether you’re starting your career or a new startup, is to focus on learning over some quantitative measure of success.

Startup Lesson #5: Work on Yourself

You are your biggest resource and your biggest obstacle. Your ability to deal with your challenges productively will determine your ability to succeed in the long run. Give yourself the tools to grow as a person. Consider working with a life or a professional coach (note: finding a good coach is really hard!) or attending a personal growth seminar. If you find something that works for, it will make a big difference for your business.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Deena Varshavskaya is the Founder and CEO of Wanelo. Prior to Wanelo, she created Dynamik Interactive, a user experience design agency that worked with Fortune 500 clients like Nickelodeon, Disney, Toyota and Fox. She blogs at siberianfruit.com and studied Psychology, Computer Science and Film Studies at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at @siberianfruit and her startup at @wanelo.

  • http://www.stickfiggy.com Jane

    especially appreciate #3, the limiting step which is so related to #5- yourself as resource/obstacle. here’s to Monday and BEING the best possible self-resouce and setting up quantitative measures of success w/out getting paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection!!!! thank you Deena~

  • Gerelee Howard

    This is why I love Women 2.0…
    I get put in touch with people I can totally relate too and get motivated by. Deena has very similar work experience to me and to see how that was enough for her to become an entrepreneur is very inspiring. Thanks!

  • Charles Knight

    I am very excited for WaNeLo b/c your UX will go through the roof when your simplified, photo rich site is available on the iPad. I imagine moving the products that I like around with my fingers, zooming and combining them, perhaps tucking them into a virtual filing cabinet or scrapbook. Can’t wait – or is their a limiting step? :-)

  • http://www.etsy.com/shop/Muza?ref=pr_shop_more Nataly

    Hi Deena!
    I like your Wanelo, its realy good idea and a lot of cool finds there.
    It is pleasure for me to know about your origin.

    Wish you the best!
    Nataly