What Happens When a Female Mathematician has a Creative WAVE
This article was originally published on February 14, 2020 at https://gritdaily.com/women-in-tech-kate-skavish-wave-video/
We’ve all heard the expression that “content is king.” Or queen, as it is in this case. Video has transformed how marketers and members of society communicate with each other. Kate Skavish, chief visionary officer of WAVE.video, is a mathematician and graduate of the esteemed Saint Petersburg University. She not only appreciates the value of the statistics below – she founded her video-creation software solution and company based on them.
Analysis of TechCrunch awards reveals that there is tremendous success by founders aged 29-31. However, founders of the 0.1% most successful startups are, on average, 45 years of age, which busts the myth that the only successful entrepreneurs are recent graduates. In a parallel theme to this story, YouTube has more than 1.3 Billion active users. Every minute, more than 300 hours of video are uploaded to the platform. Daily, viewers consume about 5 Billion videos. From a demographics perspective, more than 80% of people aged 18-49 watch videos on YouTube. Clearly, video is a medium that consumers want to consume and an opportunity for innovation. Grit Daily caught up with Skavish to learn more about her company.
Grit Daily: Thanks for taking some time with us today, Kate. Your path to entrepreneurship is not what we typically see. Tell us about it.
Kate Skavish: The myth that only young graduates can be successful entrepreneurs prevails despite the statistics. Another aspect to this story that is rarely covered in publications discussing startups, founders and their paths to entrepreneurialism is the topic of what people did with their personal and professional lives for the 20 or even 30 years before they started a company. This can be particularly sensitive for women who are already competing in a male-dominated field where many people, both male and female, don’t understand that a woman may have made a conscious choice to raise a family before she focused on herself and her own career. Life unfolds differently for everyone yet how it unfolds for others is often disrespected if it has unfolded outside the “norms.” I’m very proud of my children and deeply grateful for the years that I invested raising them. Now, they are independent, and I have an opportunity to be an entrepreneur, dig in, learn new things and be motivated by the desire to learn more and do more.
GD: You got your start in Russia in mathematics. How did you evolve to becoming the CVO of your own company?
KS: It all evolved quite naturally and everything thus far, from having and raising children in a traditional life path to being one of the women-in-tech founders has brought me tremendous joy. I began my life as a mathematician. But, like so many people, I realized that I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing yet I was conflicted because I loved research, data and analytics. The latter of which, of course, is critical to any business so that you can track your KPIs and measure performance. To do so, you need to understand the data, where it comes from and what it means so I directed my career towards the more technical side of marketing. I’ve always been fascinated by people, commerce, capitalism and marketing which, as you’d expect, weren’t within reach in the period that I lived in Russia. In the US, this has all been broadly available to everyone for decades and that lured me here.
GD: Was it tough to move, leave Russia and how did your children react to all this change?
KS: Although I am an advanced mathematician and one of the women-in-tech, I am a traditional woman with traditional values who puts the emphasis on children and family first. True, I’m raising my children to be independent, but they still need love and support and I will always be there to give it to them. When I felt that I was ready to embark on a tech career path and begin working full-time, my 20-year old daughter, who was 13 at the time, was supportive of the idea but my 7-year old (who is now 14) was anything but. Since we left our families behind in Russia, we didn’t have the built-in infrastructure to rely on which added to the challenge of my son having special needs. He had a very tough time adjusting to all the changes. This is part of the daily struggle that you don’t hear about much yet it’s real! You’re a woman; raising children and trying to manage all that guilt that you feel as you leave your crying child in the care of an au pair. Yet you’re also highly technical, inspired by challenges and motivated to create something with impact. It’s a more than just a life-work balancing act, there is a whole other dimension related to the emotional complexity of it all. Where you draw the lines is part of the struggle and what makes the story more interesting. It also connects us as female entrepreneurs as we all deal with the same struggle. You doubt yourself; you question your logic and you have a wave of highs and lows.
GD: What drove you to pivot from math to marketing to running your own tech startup?
KS: The marketing person that we had at Animatron left which meant that his responsibilities were now mine. And that’s how I learned how to do marketing. How did I learn? Like everyone else, I went to “YouTube U.” I listened to the top people in their respective fields, subscribed to the feeds of the legends and luminaries then got inspired by Facebook’s launch of video. That helped me make the leap once I recognized how little difference there was in tech between video and animation. That’s how it started. I wanted to be a co-founder, so we reset, relaunched Animatron as WAVE.video, revamped our whole solution and put the focus on content marketers instead of web designers.
GD: You launched WAVE.video in 2017, then launched the Open API version in December 2019 to make integration into other products and platforms as simple as a click of a button. To promote your new Open API version, you did a brilliant promo featuring a cat face overlay. Where did you get that idea; is that part of the magic of your CMO /marketing background? KS: As a marketer, you must be different. That includes your image. If you launch with a plain video, nobody will notice. Some people may decide that you’re not serious, but you will stick in their minds and be remembered, which is the goal as you can’t be bothered by all the negative thoughts that others may have. The cat video is now stuck in people’s heads and showcases the product.
GD: What is your work philosophy?
KS: I graduated from one of the best colleges in Russia which spurred a lifetime of always doing the best and striving to be the best. It takes a lot of work. And you need a team; you can’t do it alone. But you must be brave enough to go for it, figure it out, then just do it.
GD: I’m always interested in how people come up with the names for their company, why did you go with WAVE.video?
KS: WAVE doesn’t mean anything specific, but we thought about it as beautiful in every form from its significance in physics to its power in its natural form. A wave can transport you to a different place or a new level, it can change form, the sea and water is somehow regarded as somewhat feminine which infers beauty, and it conforms to the environment which was exactly the visual that we wanted.
GD: Have you made other pivots in your business, aside from the math to marketing to tech founder career pivots?
KS: You nailed the problem! When we began the company, we were opposed to pivots. Now, we embrace them because we learn so much from each pivot and then make tremendous gains with every change. Sometimes we gain users, other times it’s data or revenues that are the reward for the pivot. The road is made out of pivots: if you go over a pivot, you can flatten it out or you can look at a curve and find a way to straighten it out to move forward and advance down the road. We’ve probably pivoted at least five times to date! Like the wave that symbolizes our company, we always must be prepared to change form. We tried a freemium model which didn’t really work for us; we gained a few thousand additional users, but it didn’t drive revenues. We then launched a new version with a video button that brings our software into 3rd party products which appears to be successful given the positive uptake so far. We assessed the industry with a growing number of competitors, so we’ve thought a lot about how to adjust our business model knowing that subscriptions aren’t generally long-lived. So, now we have a new product to support marketers with a bunch of services for video marketers, including password-protected videos that can be customized for each client.
GD: What’s the greatest obstacle that you have overcome to date?
KS: The family values versus interest in solving technical challenges has been an ongoing challenge to manage. However, the main obstacle that we’ve faced is balancing cash flow and ambition. There is a constant friction between how fast you want to grow versus how fast you can grow. Related to that, another obstacle is optimizing your sales funnel which takes a lot of work and thought.
GD: You’ve had a unique combination of business roles from alliances, marketing, operations and finance to analyst. Do you think that’s the secret sauce behind your ability to lead a startup?
KS: Sure, that has helped, but I think it’s a combination of being fearless of diving into something new. You must be willing to take risks. Many entrepreneurs say that if they knew now what they didn’t know, they probably wouldn’t have done it. And having all these roles helped to understand the business holistically. You can’t give up. You must have tenacity!
GD: What has surprised you about starting up WAVE.video?
KS: In the beginning, it grew quickly and was very well received by various customer communities. The solution garnered a lot of positive feedback then the growth flattened. When you see that flattening of the curve, it’s time to pivot and do something different to begin the next phase of growth. I’ve had many people comment that starting a business quickly takes you to retirement and sipping drinks on the beach. Not so! The reality is that you need to work twice as hard as you did or you do when you’re working for somebody else’s company and it will be a very, very long time until you are relaxing on a beach.
GD: In all your years of working for others, how is it different working for yourself at your own company?
KS: Working for yourself is addictive. You think that if you put a few more hours in, it will make a big difference in your business. That’s a different mindset versus working for someone else where your goal is to meet your KPIs. Period.
GD: Can you think of an example of “I-wish-I-knew” that you could share with our readers.
KS: The hours and hours and hours and all the responsibilities. When you think about how much you need to grow your team and mitigate the risks for the business, it can be overwhelming. You are now responsible for their income, their livelihood and that of their families. This is a heavy burden. The pressure is enormous and far greater than I expected. There is also the fallacy that the pressure will relax a bit once you achieve the goal, but it never does because there is always another goal. And everyone still needs to get paid.
GD: Many people struggle with presenting and engaging with their audiences. What tips do you want to share?
KS: The best way to connect with your audience is to understand them; talk to them 1:1, give them time to understand you and time for you to understand them. It’s important to share your vulnerabilities to open the conversation on a different level but you can’t be too vulnerable: there is a blurry line here. If people ask for feedback, that’s the time to get involved and give them a hand when they need it most. People need encouragement when they start. They need a hand; they need coaching tips and you must be there when they need you. So, I always make the time for my staff.
GD: Since this is an article dedicated to entrepreneurial insights, perhaps you could share your advice. What would you tell other founders to be mindful of?
KS: I want to tell all female founders, it’s never too late! Also, to remind you that the average age of a female entrepreneur is around 51, not 21. So, you can have your cake and eat it, too! Mature founders have learned from their past experiences and can create an informed business strategy that is likely more sustainable longer-term. We see all these young people pitching, which is a great experience for them, and many have incredible ideas, but pitching good ideas doesn’t always equate with viable businesses. It typically takes additional experience and years of wisdom, along with a lot of wrinkles and learning!
GD: How do you think age and gender affect entrepreneurial success?
KS: There’s really no difference as I see it. It’s more about men who tend to focus for success in specific fields like tech for example. In other fields, like yoga, cosmetics or lifestyle, you tend to see more female founders. What’s most important here is that everyone can contribute and that we each have a unique perspective to bring to our business and our category. What gender you are isn’t important. It’s all about where your interests lie and finding a path to channel them.
GD: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
KS: I routinely tell my team to “get out of your comfort zone” because nothing innovative happens there! Community is also critical. Yes, you want to stand out from the crowd, but you also must be a contributing member of the community before you can benefit from it through the guidance of others. You should never be afraid: talk to others who share your ideas so that your path as founder won’t be such a lonely road. Co-founders will likely become your friends and a vital part of your journey so choose them wisely.
You can follow Kate on Twitter @wave_video