In 2016, our East-European society is still raising girls to become wives and mothers. The smaller the town, the more rigid the traditions. If a young woman doesn’t get married or have kids right away, there must be something wrong with her. But I wonder how many women find themselves vexed simply because it never even crossed their mind that marriage and kids will not be enough to fulfill them.
I was one of the lucky ones. My mom and my adoptive father were both divorced and lived together for 7 years before getting re-married, so my matrimonial status was never a hot topic during family dinners. Since I was little, my parents constantly repeated to me that I have to become independent. Independence can translate into a lot of things, but they were talking mostly about financial independence. In 1997, they successfully transitioned from their daily jobs to running a small business. It had been my father’s dream for quite some time. In 2005, I did the same – me and two university colleagues, Ciprian Borodescu and Ionut Ardeleanu, started an outsourcing business, developing web-based projects for different clients across the world.
Our first steps were small and humble, but during the following years we increased our team, skills and portfolio and had a steady source of income. During those years, we started creating our own projects, like an e-learning platform that is still online today. Unfortunately, we had put little to no thought into the business side and focused only on what we knew to do best – developing.
Our wake up call came in 2010, when we were the first Romanian team ever selected to the first Startupbootcamp accelerator in Europe. So, we packed our bags and moved to Copenhagen for 3 months. I remember I was really happy with the change and I loved Copenhagen, although to be honest I had a very fuzzy notion about what exactly was a startup.
Startupbootcamp was more of a “oh, shit!” moment than an aha moment – a roller coaster of emotions, new information and a mix of valuable mentors that we didn’t know what to do with. After the program was over, we moved back to Romania, but by now everything had changed or was about to change.
For the next years, we tried to juggle with both our outsourcing business and growing our startup. It didn’t go well – we were not making any money from Appticles yet and often ended up pushing those tasks at the bottom of our priorities list.
At the same time, we were pitching to various seed funds and in January 2014, closed our first seed round with LAUNCHub – a CEE seed investment fund. This allowed us to quit the services industry and focus entirely on our startup. That’s when the real challenges begun.
In a way, having money in the bank acted as both a facilitator and an impediment. It allowed us to focus entirely on the startup, and at the same time, blinded us to the real problem at hand – which was making money before we ran out of runway.
I personally made a lot of mistakes along the way, sometimes not seeing the forest for the trees. We spent money when we shouldn’t have, hesitated to monetize the product and worked with people that didn’t belong in a startup.
Along this painful struggle, I realized that we were the ones who were pushing this business forward and knew best what had to be done. The advice we got from investors and mentors was often conflicting, so we started filtering their input and only acted on what we considered a good fit with our overall strategy.
This allowed us to bounce back at a time when the money was running out. We focused on what we should have from the beginning – selling what we were building. We started to very closely listening to the feedback we were getting from our users, monetizing more aggressively and growing our customers month by month. It was taxing, but it paid off and we are now ready to move to the next step.
My story would not be complete without mentioning my role as a female CTO and how it generally feels to play this part. From a personal perspective, I have never considered myself to be a victim of gender bias, either we are talking about the technology industry in general, or as a startup founder. That doesn’t mean that gender bias doesn’t exist, but there isn’t any vast conspiracy to keep women out of tech. Young girls today are being encouraged to learn programming and there are a lot of amazing opportunities at every corner.
In a similar manner, accelerators and investments funds all over the world are working on closing the gender gap by specifically targeting female entrepreneurs. At the end of 2015, we also applied and got selected to Prosper’s Women Accelerator from Saint Louis, United States. It is an awesome opportunity to establish a presence in the United States and, at the same time, it allowed me to evolve personally by putting the spotlight on me, as the sole female founder in the team.
Being your own boss is a lot more work than fun, but the growth opportunities and potential outcome are just too attractive for me to ignore. I realize I still have a ton of things to learn, and hopefully, this time next year, I will have other interesting stories to share.