Startup journey: 6 leaders reflect on how their companies have evolved

by Joyce Famakinwa
August 15, 2018

Recognizing growth is an important part of any journey. Where did you start? Where have you ended up? What lessons, personally or professionally, have you learned along the way? After all, a lot can happen in a year or two or ten.

LA is booming with companies that have gone the distance, so we asked six tech leaders to reflect on how their companies have evolved — and what’s stayed true throughout the years.

 

PatientPop
Photo via PatientPop

If any company knows the scaling process inside out, it’s PatientPop. The company offers a marketing platform that helps medical practices scale operations. PatientPop provides content marketing strategies, SEO services and solutions to improve web presence because healthcare practices have enough to worry about — like making sure patients get better. Founder and co-CEO Luke Kervin gave us insight into how PatientPop went from a scrappy startup to a maturing company.

 

Talk to us about the early days at your company. When did you know you were on to something?

Thankfully, our co-CEO Travis Schneider and I discovered a demand for our services before launching the company. We had brought an idea to physicians that fell completely flat; however, during our conversations with these doctors, they all expressed concern about how they would survive as independent healthcare providers. To be successful, they needed to do well online — and that was something in our wheelhouse from previous ventures. We quickly created collateral and business cards and met with nine doctors to explain what we would deliver to meet that need. All nine signed up on the spot. That’s when we knew we had something special that could really work — and really help healthcare providers.

With all the change that growth demands, it’s important to hold on to the core values you start with.”

How has your company evolved since the year it was founded?

We’ve made that tricky transition from scrappy startup to stable, maturing company. One of the most exciting aspects of that evolution is a steady rate of growth — not just headcount and office space, but also the way we do things as a company. We’ve kept a close eye on ensuring the right steps, professionally and culturally, to support our growth and maturity. As we’ve scaled, our teams have focused on how efficient we can be and adjusted our structure along the way to get there. We’ve formalized processes, created specialized roles, and made sure to hire experts that can continue getting us to the next level.

 

What has stayed the same about your company?

With all the change that growth demands, it’s important to hold on to the core values you start with. For us, that means being true to our purpose: to make a measurable difference each day for healthcare providers and their patients. It means earning our customers’ satisfaction. It means placing enormous value on our employees, with a focus on hiring and promoting from within. Travis, the other company leaders, and I have always felt it’s important to get teams excited for the journey and reward them well for great work. If I’m doing my job, I’ve conveyed that to our staff from the beginning, and continue to today.

 

Powster
photo via Powster

Creative services studio Powster aims to be a one-stop shop for the music and film industries. The company helps other companies engage with audiences by providing everything from a marketing platform to interactive video technology. The company has worked with six major studios to create sites for their films. Ste Thompson, Powster’s CEO and creative director, talked to us about the early days of the company.

 

Talk to us about the early days at your company. When did you know you were on to something?

The early days of Powster were focused on discovery and exploration. We’d be looking for new products and ideas that would work well to draw attention to music artists. The concepts varied from live streaming a music artist’s house which could be controlled by people watching online to projecting tweets onto the houses of parliament.

We’d have music labels calling to pitch their artists and asking for concepts and ideas on new releases coming out. We’d be tasked with finding exciting ways to use digital to get the attention of new audiences and build the reputation of the artist.

The music industry is a fast-paced, we-need-this-yesterday style environment, and we had to work crazy hours to keep up, but it was worth it.

We’re still a bunch of friends working together and the company culture has stayed aimed at empowering people to contribute to the journey.”

How has your company evolved since the year it was founded?

The clients who moved to the movie industry brought us over with them. They’d get Powster in to add that spark to their marketing campaign.

We had great successes with our movie industry launches and got a reputation as a studio that understood content/digital marketing, and we were hiring for the entire slate of movies at a major movie studio. As we developed concepts for each movie, we ran into some winner formulas and products, some of which are now extremely large businesses in the movie industry. Our showtimes platform had 477 million visitors last year, and over 110 movie studios use it now worldwide.

Powster now has a few substantial products. We’ve constantly evolved since the early days, transitioning to mobile first and looking at integrations into key apps rather than relying on the web as the access point.

 

What has stayed the same about your company?

At its heart, Powster is still a destination for ideas; it’s not a singular business model. Powster still values creative thinking and innovation. Our products give us unparalleled access, but it’s the new concepts and constantly evolving work that keeps us current.

We’re also still a bunch of friends working together, and the company culture has stayed laid back and aimed at empowering people to contribute to the journey. 

 

ZestFinance
photo via ZestFinance

The data scientists at ZestFinance want to shake up the way credit decisions are made. The fintech company uses machine learning algorithms for credit underwriting, aiming to provide fair and transparent credit to everyone. Sonya Merrill, ZestFinance’s co-founder, told us that despite the evolution of the company, their culture has remained a constant.

 

Talk to us about the early days at your company. When did you know you were on to something?

We started ZestFinance in 2009 with the mission to make fair and transparent credit available to everyone. Our idea was to use AI and machine learning technology to dramatically improve and transform credit underwriting, allowing us to find creditworthy borrowers that ordinary banks were overlooking. We knew we were on to something real after we built and launched our first machine learning underwriting product that showed a 30 percent performance improvement over traditional methods of scoring borrowers. That's transformational stuff.

We value diversity a lot and foster an environment where everybody can bring their full selves to work.”

How has your company evolved since the year it was founded?

Well, it's grown from about four people to just under a hundred people, and we're now in our fifth office space (but always in Hollywood!). The biggest change is that ZestFinance is no longer in the consumer lending business. About two years ago, we decided to become a technology company that sells a product called ZAML (Zest Automated Machine Learning) to lenders who want to build machine learning models and put them into production to drive massive impact on their bottom line. ZAML software and our professional services will help us achieve our original mission on an even bigger scale. ZAML is now powering better lending across the globe, from China to Europe and the U.S.

 

What has stayed the same about your company?

One thing that definitely has not changed is our culture. We maintain an incredibly high bar for talent. We value diversity a lot and foster an environment where everybody can bring their full selves to work. We thrive on people voicing their ideas. People oftentimes describe our culture as collaborative, fun, and maybe even a bit quirky.

 

Cie Digital Labs
photo via Cie Digital Labs

Tech studio Cie Digital Labs is an innovation accelerator that partners with global brands like Toyota and Petco, as well as growth-stage startups. CEO Anderee Berengian filled us in on how the company has stayed nimble throughout the years.

 

Talk to us about the early days at your company. When did you know you were on to something?

Cie Digital Labs initially started as a web development agency looking to provide effective solutions for our startup clients. Our pivotal point was when we realized we could apply our startup tools to find swift, effective and innovative solutions for large businesses as well. We evolved from servicing only startups to applying our learnings and experience to provide unique solutions to enterprises as well.

Soon after, we recognized the potential and opportunity to build our own startups. We were working with Fortune 2000 companies, who were interested in the expansive range of products we had to offer. We were able to apply that gained knowledge to the startups we built from bare bones. We were undertaking complex projects and were confident that the ecosystem we had built was as innovative as our solutions. This further fueled our efforts at creating and nurturing startups to scalable, profitable ventures.

We operate like a family, with strong engagement and energetic collaboration between team members and execs.”

How has your company evolved since the year it was founded?

CDL has evolved from building only web and digital solutions to offering a much more expansive range of services. We leveraged our foundational skills to innovate across tech, product and strategy and started playing an integral role with the startup community.

As CDL has grown, we’ve also become more discerning about working with ventures and enterprises that have a bigger impact on the community. This way we are assured that whatever we build for them adds greater value and provides solutions to real-world problems.

Our work with a wide range of companies has expanded our perspective and as a result, we’re now better equipped to identify startups that align with these goals. The high caliber of talent CDL has been attracting and the success of CDL’s varied startups is a testament to our ethos.

 

What has stayed the same about your company?

Our work and team culture have been a constant since we started. It is a collaborative, employee-focused work culture, where teamwork is highly valued. We operate like a family, with strong engagement and energetic collaboration between team members and execs.

For us, innovation is the highest and most integral priority and we’re always focused on providing disruptive solutions.

 

FabFitFun
photo via FabFitFun

E-commerce company FabFitFun aims to be the go-to brand for women who want to discover lifestyle products by providing a quarterly subscription box filled with fashion, beauty, wellness and fitness goodies. Katie Rosen Kitchens, FabFitFun’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, talked to us about how investing in people has catapulted the company forward.

 

Talk to us about the early days at your company. When did you know you were on to something?

FabFitFun first came about as an online media brand where we wrote about everything women needed to feel good from the inside out. We realized we were writing about these really great products — wouldn’t it be interesting to put those products in people's hands? We launched our first box in Spring 2013. It was a departure from everything we had done, not to mention everything I had done in my past. We launched initially with 2,000 boxes and it was kind of anyone's guess as to what would happen next. We sold out within the first 48 hours. From the start, it was a clear indication that this was something women were going to get excited about.

We are probably best known for our subscription boxes, but what will always remain the same is that we are storytellers at heart.”

How has your company evolved since the year it was founded?

It has changed dramatically. I am happy to report that it’s only getting better! We ran the team lean for the first several years. It’s been the past two years where we spent a lot of time investing in people who have a tremendous amount of expertise and skill that have led to our major growth. Back then, you could count the amount of people on your hands, and now we have 200-plus people who are all passionate and dedicated — which is truly special. When we look at the evolution of the company, it has been a transformation from editorial to subscription box to a membership. FabFitFun is continuing to layer on incredible perks so our members are finding so much value in their membership.

 

What has stayed the same about your company?

We are probably best known for our subscription boxes, but what will always remain the same is that we are storytellers at heart. It’s not about just sending products in the box — it’s about the storytelling in our newsletters, videos and the magazine that comes inside each box. Content about how to use the products in the box, featuring the ingredients being used, stories from the founders who created the products — it’s what brings the box to life each season and what separates us from other subscription companies.

 

Tala
Photo via tala

Data science startup Tala is opening up emerging and underserved markets to the financial world. The company’s app determines a user’s financial reliability based on the data it collects on their device. Along with being popular in Kenya, Tala launched services in the Philippines, Tanzania and Mexico last year. Founder and CEO Shivani Siroya explained how a meeting with a user sharpened the company’s focus.

 

Talk to us about the early days at your company. When did you know you were on to something?

Our first product was a text message-based accounting and reporting tool called InSight. We would train small business owners on how to use InSight, and we relied on their self-reported data over several months to build alternative credit scores. The goal was to present these scores to banks and traditional financial institutions and advocate for our customers to receive the services they couldn’t typically qualify for. We wanted to connect our customers to the larger financial system, and the InSight credit score was our way of creating a pathway.

After an InSight training session in Kenya, a man named William seemed disappointed. He told us that InSight seemed great and all, but then asked a game-changing question: “Do you have an app for that?” As he proudly showed us his new Android smartphone, we realized that we had misjudged our customer base by overlooking the rapid adoption of smartphones in our markets and the opportunity they presented.

Shortly after, we piloted an Android app that allowed customers to provide daily life data, instantly scoring them without the manual information upload. We could now build credit scores in minutes – no training required. We took a step further and used this score to underwrite customers and offer microloans to them directly. We realized that our vision was greater than scoring and set out to fundamentally change the system, showing that the entire value chain of lending could be done better.

A consistent theme that has guided our growth is our belief in putting people first — both customers and team.”

How has your company evolved since the year it was founded?

We’ve expanded from Kenya and are fully operational in four additional markets including Tanzania, the Philippines, Mexico and India. We have significantly more full-time team members located across our global offices than in our Santa Monica Headquarters, with our 130 person-plus Nairobi office taking the lead! Also, with scale comes the need for specialization, so we’ve moved away from our team members having to wear multiple hats, instead providing the opportunity to deepen individual expertise by honing individual key focuses.

 

What has stayed the same about your company?

A consistent theme that has guided our growth is our belief in putting people first — both customers and team — and operating with a mission at the center. Here’s how that plays out:

We make decisions collaboratively. Our early days were filled with each of us wearing multiple hats and sitting around the same table, discussing ideas of what we could do to improve our customer experience. Today, that cross-pollination of ideas and company-level decision-making happens through cross-functional working groups called squads.

We spend time with customers to understand their lives. I got the idea for Tala’s product as a researcher conducting thousands of interviews across nine different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, spending time with small business owners as they ran their shops and took care of their families. Having visibility into their lives helped me build trust-centered relationships with each of the interviewees, and be proximate to the problems they were facing.

 

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