"Don't give in to stereotypes," says Knotch CTO and co-founder Stephanie Volftsun. By Jessica Stillman (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
Anda Gansca and Stephanie Volftsun, the young entrepreneurs behind Knotch, chat with Women 2.0 about their big plans for their newly launched opinion-sharing app (Wired says it's "like Yelp, but for everything"), their experience at Stanford's StartX, and why they're thrilled to be part of an all-female founding team.
Plus, what have they learned so far as female founders that other women starting up can put to use? Forget those fake glasses for starters.
Women 2.0: Tell me a bit about your background and how you came up with the idea for Knotch. Anda: I grew up in Romania and came to the United States to study at Stanford. Throughout my life, I started a lot of non-profit initiatives, and so I knew that I had a passion for starting things. After I graduated, I worked in venture capital for a year, and then I had this realization as a really frustrated social media user that I didn't have a good outlet for my opinions. I didn't have a way to add my two cents or really gauge how my network felt about a topic.
Women 2.0: Are either of you technical? Steph: I'm technical. I studied computer science starting in high school. I was just a very hacker-ish kid - always loved computers, was building my own computers, doing web stuff on my own. When Anda found me, I was working as an engineer at another startup. We connected through a mutual friend because she wanted someone technical. The two of us just sort of fell in love the first time me met. I wasn't necessarily planning on starting my own thing at that time but I became crazy about Anda and the idea. April 1st was our first day working full-time. We both left our jobs.
Women 2.0: Why did you decide to quit your jobs straight off rather than work on Knotch as a side project at first? Steph: We actually tried working on it on the side for a few months and it just really wasn't going anywhere.
Anda: I think it's really important where the drive to start a company comes from because you could very well start import-export or something like that if you're doing it for the money on the side, but if you're doing something because you're passionate about it, it's very difficult to think about anything else. So I think it was emotionally challenging to do both as well.
Women 2.0: You guys came out of Stanford's accelerator StartX. Did you find that useful and, if so, in what way? Anda: We felt it was immensely helpful. The way the program is structured, at the beginning it pushes you as founders to see the potential problems between you and really discuss them early on. Then they move into more of a product phase where they try to challenge all of your assumptions about the product that you're building. We went through a mini-pivot during StartX. We switched from a web app to a mobile app, and then as we developed this mobile app, they helped us realize how we could do testing, what good metrics may be and then finally getting funded.
Women 2.0: When you say they helped with fundraising, was that simply a matter of plugging you into the right network? Anda: It was more exposure. We got the opportunity to pitch in front of pretty large audiences of very important people at least twice. I think Steph listened to my pitch 100 times.
Anda: Because before every event, we had to craft our pitch and cater to the audience and so we practiced the shit out of that pitch.
Women 2.0: Let's talk a bit about the product itself. There doesn't seem to be any lack of ways to express your opinions online. What sets Knotch apart? Steph: Where the differentiation starts is the means of expression. We're not just a different forum or community to share opinions, we have created a new way to share opinions. Knotch is centered around this heat map of blue to red colors, cold to hot. If I just saw Argo and I thought it was the best movie ever, I'm going to take my temperature and say hot, red, and kind of give a pithy statement. When you compare our way of "reviewing" things to the five-start review or liking, it's definitely much better. It evokes an emotion in you, and in the time you would write a Tweet, you could Knotch five things.
Women 2.0: So is this just a faster, more accurate way to review things like you would on, say, Yelp? Steph: When you Yelp about something, the affected party is the entity that you're Yelping about. The restaurant is boosted or torn down a little bit. The incentive is to affect the opinion of the entity. Knotch kind of flips that paradigm on its head and makes the act of sharing your opinion about you, about building your identity, connecting with people. Knotching is much more social than reviewing and that's why our network has people Knotching about Starbucks, but it also has people Knotching about 'texting on the toilet.' They're Knotching for themselves, to map out their interests, their likes, their dislikes and communicate that with other people.
Women 2.0: What's your vision for Knotch going forward? Anda: In the long run, we don't just see Knotch as a tool to rate things. We see the color spectrum being at the epicenter of how you define your identity, how you connect with friends based on how similar your true colors are. We see it as a way for you to influence what ads and recommendations are targeted to you. We have a great vision for how our little color spectrum could really power the internet to cater to you, but in the early stages we realized we really need to cater the product to the early adopter/ content creators. So right now the app is super centered around the act of just Knotching.
Women 2.0: Do you pay much attention to your status as an all-female founding team — how has the experience of being two women felt? Steph: In that first meeting that Anda and I had when, as I told you, we sort of fell in love, we looked at each other and were like: 'We're never working for a man again.'
Women 2.0: Why is working with another woman so much better for you personally? Anda: I think both Steph and I came from intensely male backgrounds. VC is 150% male, and Steph worked at a company that was predominately male, so we were much more accustomed to this really intense dynamic between men and women and how one needs to prove oneself in front of the other. The fact that we didn't really have to worry at all about that weird dynamic was a huge relief.
Women 2.0: What one nugget of wisdom that you've gained so far would you pass along to aspiring female founders? Anda: This world is incredibly intimidating for any person to join. This idea of starting something of your own is terrifying and then you actually go ahead and do it and it's even more terrifying, but to start it as a woman entrepreneur is even more difficult. So I'd cross that bridge when you get there. If you have a huge passion for something, just start it and don't think about the million and one things that might and will go wrong in the future because there's no point. You'll solve everything as you go through it.
Steph: Don't give in to stereotypes. That applies in so many ways. For me as an engineer, I've gotten advice telling me I should dress a certain way or put on glasses to make myself look a certain way. It's the engineering stereotype, but I don't need to do that. Another thing is the stereotypical entrepreneur lifestyle, sleeping underneath your desk and living off Ramen noodles, is more of a turnoff to a lot of women than men, but Anda and I don't live that life. I treat myself to a manicure every once in a while. It's not about fitting the stereotype of what everyone thinks an entrepreneur should be. Anda and I are being ourselves every step of the way, and I think that's just super important, especially for women.
Women 2.0 readers: Are you worried about the "Series A Crunch"?
About the writer: Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.