4 Tips from Former Founding Engineer at Mint, Founder of BizeeBee and Femgineer: Poornima Vijayashanker

Poornima

Poornima Vijayashanker was the inital engineer at Mint.com and was pinnacle in building out the product from scratch that eventually lead to the acquisition for $170M by Intuit. She decided to leave Mint and launch her own startup, BizeeBee, helping membership based businesses across the world grow their business. Recently she was awarded Inc Magazine’s 10 Women to Watch in Tech in 2013.

This week we talked to Poornima and she shared with us 4 amazing tips about:

  • the biggest challenges in building product and marketing
  • key advice that helped her startup BizeeBee
  • the most important question when it comes to Lean Product Development
  • the components of building a remote team

1. Can you tell us the biggest challenge you faced when building Mint.com from the ground up? How did you go about solving it?

I wish there had been just one BIG challenge, but really it was a combination of half marketing and half product challenges.

On the marketing side we really had to focus on building trust with users. We were asking people to believe in a startup started by people in their mid-20s, and to allow us access to their sensitive financial data. The other marketing challenge was to figure out a way to distribute a product that wasn’t particularly “viral”. In an era where Facebook and Twitter were taking off, we were building a solution that was personal, not social, but it’s after all personal finance. We were building a brand and that takes time!

So while we initially used Google AdWords to build up our invite list, within 6 months we implemented a second longer term strategy of building up a content network, and leveraging SEO techniques to attract users. Mint was also at the forefront of tools like Digg and StumbleUpon, and the other big catalyst at the time: infographics! We paid a designer to produce high quality and thought provoking infographics for us.

Aside from these web marketing techniques, we invested heavily in PR. I think Aaron told me that he, just before the acquisition, had conducted 600 interviews!

On the other hand, the product challenges were to provide users peace of mind knowing that their data would be secure, an accurate representation of their finances, and easy enough to digest requiring any work on their end.

This required our team to have engineering and design acumen, which we developed in stages.

For example, Aaron built a very simple prototype, then recruited Matt and me to build upon it, then David Michaels came on board as the VP of Engineering to secure the whole app before our alpha!

Of course as we grew, we faced additional challenges like scaling. When we got to that stage we hired a software architect.

2. Following the acquisition of Mint.com you decided to bootstrap your funds to startup Bizeebee. What advice helped you make that decision and who was it from?

I wasn’t quite sure about the direction for BizeeBee when I got started, and I had been fortunate enough to build up a good support network of mentors and advisors. They advised me to hold off raising capital until I had a firmer vision and knew where I was headed.

I had also met a number of entrepreneurs like the founder of Olark, who had pretty much bootstrapped their entire way to profitability. I was inspired by their success, and learned a lot of lessons from how they built their product and team out over time.

3. Alongside running BizeeBee you have a another startup Femgineer, which offers an online course on Lean Product Development. What is the most FAQ about building a minimum viable product and what’s your answer?

Where can I find a technical co-founder?

Everyone seems to think that once they’ve got their technical co-founder they can build a product. But in my course, I actually emphasize taking the time to nail down who the early adopter is and what the value proposition is by creating a concierge MVP.

A concierge MVP is an experience not a product.

There have been a number of successful startups that began with concierge MVPs. Take for instance AirBnB, they just put a bunch of airbeds in a room, and charged people to stay. I think Clarity might also have began as a concierge MVP. I’ve heard Dan Martell tell the story of Clarity, where he talks about just taking a bunch of calls from people who wanted to talk to an expert!

4. At Bizeebee you’ve setup a remote team and done so successfully. What are the key aspects that startups should consider when they are setting up a remote team?

One key aspect is to hire people who are self-starters, and are capable of managing their own time, workload, and speaking up when they get stuck. If they expect to be managed or receive orders daily, then they won’t thrive in a remote setting.

The other is to have built in checks. It took us awhile to nail down the process of having built in checks for coding and non-coding projects, but we got there through some experimentation, a lot of trial and error, and having frequent postmortems where we could each freely express what was and wasn’t working. Communication even on a remote team is the key to success. But you cannot do everything via email, you still wanna pick up the phone or do a video chat for the pressing issues.

Despite being remote you can still have a lot of interruptions. So we actually setup some standards for communication, and signaling one another. For example at Bizeebee:

  • chats would be answered asynchronously, but by the end of the day
  • if people had their chat status set to red then they weren’t to be disturbed
  • emails were a not-so-pressing channel
  • if you sent a text, something better be on fire!

We transitioned from being a full-time in person team, to a part-time remote team. It took about 6 months to complete the transition. Most of the success can be attributed to my co-founder Alex Notov, who is just pushy about process! He had some very concrete methods that worked well over time.

Some of the tools that we use to manage our remote team included:

  • Campfire from 37signals for chat. We’d all be available from 9am-5pm PST on chat daily
  • We used Pivotal Tracker to keep track of product progress
  • And for all other projects we’d use Basecamp from 37signals
  • Aside from chat we’d try to have as much face time during meetings as possible by using GoTo Meeting

Talk to Poornima Vijayashanker about product development, building a remote team, and bootstrapping for your business on Clarity.

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