Compiled by Claire Topalian and Lauren Sauser.
Natalia Petraszczuk and Stephanie Dionne are the founders behind Visionboards.co, the startup idea that lead them to become the champions of the 2013 Global Startup Battle’s “Innovation Circle” and the winners of Startup Weekend Detroit (November 2013). Since then, Visionboards has become much more than a concept: the two founders have met with mentors, high profile advisors, gone to LAUNCH festival in San Francisco, and have intrigued potential investors along the way. We decided to catch up with Natalia and Stephanie amidst the chaos of their newfound entrepreneurial lifestyles to learn about the highs, lows, and learning experiences of their journey.
Share a bit about your company and some of the highs/lows associated with your entrepreneurial journey — biggest learning curve?
Natalia: After brewing the idea of Visionboards.co in my mind and on paper for over 6 months, I decided to pitch the idea at Detroit Startup weekend. I happened to catch a local news story about Startup weekend, and realized it was an opportunity to make this concept a true reality. At some point, you need to take the plunge.
Stephanie: As it happened, I had been setting the groundwork for several months prior to open an Ann Arbor-based marketing agency focused on (surprise, surprise) helping technology startups define their brand, develop a business plan, and take their product to market. November 15 was my last day at my former employer, and I left my office and drove straight to downtown Detroit to participate in Startup Weekend as a potential networking opportunity. Out of 50 pitches, Natalia’s concept immediately resonated with me because of my background as a sports coach and a huge proponent of visualization techniques. With two other people, we formed a team that worked 54 straight hours to bring the idea to fruition, then went on to take first place.
Natalia: Through winning the competition, we were connected to support from local Detroit organizations like Grand Circus (a Google Tech hub) which gave us 2 months of co-working space, branding consultation from Lowe Campbell Ewald, and a meeting with the Director of the Michigan Women’s Foundation – who also serves as a managing director for a local VC firm. Other forms of mentorship and support have followed, and it’s truly been a significant help in this process. We also went on to compete and win the Up Global “Innovators Circle” Start Up championship, beating out over 200 cities worldwide. We were the only US City to win one of the global contests (awww yeah, Detroit!).
Since Nov. 15, 2013 (Startup Weekend), we formally founded and established a C-Corp and are poised to go-to market by April 2014 with over 1,000 people registered for our beta product line. Furthermore, we have cultivated a variety of prospects for a first round of seed funding – ranging from the First Step Fund in Detroit, to heavyweight Angel investors and VC firms. Finally, we have garnered a variety of endorsements and testimonials from all market segments we intend to approach – most notably, NBC’s Biggest Loser – Pete Thomas, and NFL Wide Receiver, Glen Earl.
The highs from their journey:
- Winning Detroit Startup Weekend / The .Co Circle for Global Startup Battle ‘14
- Making Crain’s News (twice) and a variety of other press
- Winning a .Co sponsored trip to Launch Fest and being able to showcase our Alpha website to the public with great response.
- Speaking to Mark Cuban at Launch festival, who gave Visionboards.co invaluable insight on our business model and expressed an interest in investing.
- Meeting a slew of new people that are committed to entrepreneurship in America – and offering to help Visionboards.co succeed.
- Being able to follow through on my personal vision and watch it actualize.
- Meeting my Co-Founder, who’s my new partner in crime and life-long friend.
- Feeling – for the first time in my life – I’m truly living to my fullest potential (which might just be as good as it gets).
- Having such a passion for my work – and a belief in my product, that 12 hour work days don’t even phase me. Knowing that my product is meant to – and will – inspire and uplift the world.
Beside the Detroit Startup Weekend/Global Startup Battle wins —
- Being selected to represent .CO as one of its top up-and-coming startups at LAUNCH Festival – we scrambled to finish key updates to our alpha product, which were deployed right around the time the demo floor opened so we didn’t even have time to test it before the first visitors came by (thankfully, no issues!).
- Becoming a part of the fabric of the Detroit entrepreneur community and being able to participate in what I think is the most exciting story in startups. It’s almost unbelievable what has been accomplished here in just a few short years, and we’re committed to contributing as much as we can to making southeast Michigan a global growth and innovation center.
- Walking up to Mark Cuban to introduce myself and realizing I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous because I was so thoroughly confident he would “get” our concept immediately. (He did, but not without wanting to see at least 20 changes. :P)
- My 8-year-old son was the very first tester of our alpha product! Watching his face light up as he browsed through the photos and started to verbalize his dreams (“I want to be president! Is there a picture of a president?”) – that was the exact moment that I realized the true potential VisionBoards has to make a global impact on human potential.
…and the lows:
- Navigating the new realm of entrepreneurship quickly (particularly due to the contest winnings and press) and without a full understanding of “how to” execute a business.
- Having to deal with people that want to “cling” to your rising star, without adding value.
- Not having enough resources (human or capital) to move as quickly as you need/want.
- Figuring out when, how and with whom to raise our first round of seed funding, and develop the equity structure, vesting, dilution, etc. (YUK!)
- No longer having a balanced life – I barely work out anymore and I’m fairly stressed (though I’m not complaining).
- Regrettably, this success did compromise a couple personal relationships, which has saddened me deeply.
- As a mom, I can without a doubt say my low point was when I realized my kids felt my stress & absence much more keenly than they let on. In the early stages it was easy to convince myself that the chaotic pace was temporary, that “we’ll be able to come up for air as soon as [insert next big deadline].” What I soon realized is that achieving that next big deadline opened up doors to five more big deadlines, and so on – and in the meantime, my kids were lost in the mix. My biggest priority now is making sure that I’m available as much as possible between 5-8pm, even if just to help them with homework and schedule cuddle time. It helps us all to stay more centered as a family – even if it means I’m still up another 6 hours working.
- After years of being an independent consultant or managing corporate departments, it’s been a struggle to get used to the constant state of controlled chaos – including that unnerving “cart-before-the-horse” feeling that there are 100 things you should have done to prep for something but lacked the bandwidth or the resources.
- The 48 straight hours of no sleep preparing market data for a do-or-die deadline was not a high point.
Biggest learning curve?
Natalia: There is a lot of enthusiasm and support for entrepreneurship in America. There are many resources and programs available to help people succeed if their ideas and work ethic are intact. Many people are likely not aware of all of this momentum, I certainly was not.
Another big learning curve is just the ins and outs of setting up a company. C Corp vs. S Corp? Equity structures, shareholders, vesting – investor negotiations. Again, I feel lucky to have received good mentoring, but at the end of the day – you have to make your own decisions, which can feel daunting.
Stephanie: My biggest learning curve has most certainly been having to adapt my typical approach and methodology as a leader and strategist for the high-stakes game of tech entrepreneurship. Your strategy at 10am may very well not be what it is at 2pm and you have to get used to constantly modifying, refining, or full-on pivoting based on the opportunities & metrics that get thrown at you. Being a founder of a startup is not for the weak-willed or easily offended: you have to get used to failing – a lot, and in spectacular fashion – then moving on to the next decision before you even have a chance to dust yourself off.
Most exciting moment?
Natalia: Honestly, I can’t boil it down to just one moment – we have been on a roller coaster ride from the very moment we won Detroit Startup weekend and there have been many, many – mind numbingly exciting moments since (if I had to name a few):
- Walking into Grand Circus co-working space the Monday after winning Detroit Startup with a “Welcome Visionboards.co” sign
- Making the cover of Crain’s business along with other high profile press
- Getting the call that we won the .Co “Innovator’s Circle” for the Global Battle Championship
- Billionaire Dan Gilbert acknowledging our twitter we cc’d him on
- Billionaire Mark Cuban talking to us at Launch Fest with an expressed interest to invest
Stephanie: All the above, plus:
- Earlier this week we had the opportunity to spend several hours with one of our biggest supporters, Pete Thomas (most successful contestant of NBC’s Biggest Loser), filming footage for our upcoming Indiegogo campaign. Watching the production process from sidelines and hearing him talk about how he believes VisionBoards will help the individuals achieve even their boldest, most dream-worth goals – it was part out-of-body-experience, part validation that we’re on the right track.
When did you first self-identify as an entrepreneur?
Natalia: Honestly, I’m still getting used to the title. For the record, I’m extremely proud and pumped to be considered a tech Co-Founder. It might just be one of the best feelings in my entire life. I’ve always, always admired entrepreneurs. I was just invited to speak at my high school this week for career day, to inspire the kids to consider “entrepreneurship” as a career path. That helped solidify the self-identity.
Stephanie: I’ve considered myself an entrepreneur since I was 16 years old and I started my own side business teaching piano lessons. Since then, I’ve lived by the mantra that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day of your life. Even though this experience has been stressful and exhausting – I keep forgetting that this is not some fun side project but what I get to do now with the rest of my life.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in entrepreneurship?
Natalia: I actually think we have a leg up. There’s a huge commitment to closing the gender gap in tech entrepreneurship. If anything, I don’t want doors opened just because of my gender – one, of course, always wants to make headway due to the quality of the idea. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that more women need to know how much infrastructure and support exists to help them take the leap to entrepreneurship.
Stephanie: Being involved in the technology sector has afforded me a unique perspective — At my last employer, I was the only woman to work for the company for the majority of my four years there. Even as far back as high school, I was the only girl in any of my programming classes and I remember my teacher offering me a transfer in case I felt uncomfortable. While the gender gap in STEM has closed somewhat, I still believe there’s a lot to go encourage girls and young woman to go into science and technology fields, that it shouldn’t be something they have to “brave.”
Have you had one particular mentor that inspired you or helped you get to where you are today?
Natalia: I was extremely lucky to have worked under Lana Pollack – former President of the Michigan Environmental Council, and State of Michigan Senator – right out of college. Lana is one of the strongest and most poised women I ever met. Her work ethic, determination, and lack of fear was mesmerizing to watch. She made time for me, and cultivated my skill sets. She would set large goals for our organization without batting an eye – and then developed strategy to move forward. It was a no nonsense approach to get things done. I also learned about the power of networking, and cultivating a strong team of leaders/partners to delegate work to achieve success. She’s undoubtable one of my heroes.
Stephanie: Without a doubt I can say my mother. Even from a young age, she always encouraged me to take every challenge head on and to explore every potential passion and curiosity to the fullest. When I graduated from Michigan and was selected as the commencement student speaker, that advice was the central pillar of my speech:
What have you read that has inspired you?
Natalia: If there’s one book every human should read, it’s “The Mastery of Love” by Don Miguel Ruiz. It’s not strictly about romantic love in any way. It’s based off of the ancient Mexican Toltec’s understanding of human nature, which they have passed down for thousands of years. It’s profound. It changed my life. It’s a short read – so you have no excuse.
Untether Soul by Michael Singer is another good read. Mr. Singer was the CEO of a fortune 500 company that hit a financial scandal. Though he was not involved, much of the blame was put on him unrightfully so until 6 years later when he was vindicated. The book speaks to his ability to “lean away from drama” and remember his soul in this worldly experience. It’s a deep, hard read and a mind altering book.
Finally, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich and The Master Key System by Charles Haanel – the original “law of attraction” books. Napoleon Hill was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie to discover how the “rich” think differently from everyone else… go figure, turns out they just have a clear “vision” for their success, and fully believe it will happen.
If you could offer one piece of advice to your younger self, or to other emerging female entrepreneurs, what would it be?
1) Know you are more powerful than you realize. The only thing that can get in your way of success is yourself.
2) Write down and visualize your goals. Make it a habit. Your thoughts and energy are much, much more powerful than you realize – not one human is exempt.
3) Life is meant to be happy. And happiness is a choice. You should not look outward for your happiness, it’s always within you. Find gratitude in every day. Choose to be happy. This can seem daunting at first, and it was for me. But with a little discipline, it becomes second nature – and then world… watch out.
Stephanie: It’s okay to fail. Actually, not only is it okay, but it’s absolutely essential to the process if you’re going to truly successful. The more time you spend looking backward at the mistakes or missteps you’ve made along the way, the less time you are looking forward at ways to innovate and stay ahead of your competition. Fail early, fail quickly, and take those lessons with you to the next set of challenges. That said, I’m still mortified that I got tongue-tied during one of our earlier radio interviews and it’ll take me a while to get over it.
More about the Co-Founders:
Natalia Petraszczuk – 35 years old. Born and raised in metro-Detroit. Of Ukrainian descent. Michigan State University (James Madison College), BA – International Relations 00’. Worked in Environmental non-profit arena for over 10 years – state lobbyist -major donor fundraiser – volunteer coordination. Free lance journalist, and on-air talent for local and online outlets. Passionate about self-awareness and self-improvement. Certified Life & Spiritual coach/ Motivational speaker. Creator and originator of Visionboards.co and newly established tech Co-Founder (hurray!). Loves the outdoors, being active, the arts, being social and learning about the power of your inner self.
Stephanie Dionne – 37 year old. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Canada; grew roots in the Detroit area after graduating from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor (B.S. ’01). At Michigan I was very involved in organizations working toward improving women’s health and ending domestic violence (led V-Day College Campaign, served in Americorps for 2 years). Went on to develop a career as a marketing & business strategy consultant for over 15 years, particularly in the technology & sports management spaces. I was also a student athlete at Michigan; after graduation I coached for ten years at the elite level in the much-maligned but highly competitive world of synchronized swimming (collegiate & junior national levels), leading clinics around the country where visualization and mental imagery was a key component of my approach. I’m a married mom of 2 beautiful kids (8 & 11); a recent obsession is participating in obstacle races such as Tough Mudder, and pushing myself to the limits of what I thought was impossible.