In Conversation with Dia Barman-Griffin & Amy Caplan of Sezwe
Describe your business in a few words?
Amy/Dia: The social media landscape is littered with sometimes misleading and confusing content, often from dubious sources. Sezwe hopes to change that. Our video answering video format organically promotes transparency and civility.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
Amy: I could write pages about this, but the short answer is political frustration, the pandemic, fear for our children’s future, our country’s future and the future of our planet. I suppose I’m a bit of an enigma. I have no social media accounts (unless Pinterest counts?), I’m intensely private and naturally shy away from public confrontation but during quarantine I began viewing the social media pages of some of my favorite authors, comedians and pundits. The sheer volume of lies, vitriol, threats of violence, and bullying was even more rampant than I expected. Dia and I spoke often about our concerns and we worried and puzzled over our country’s deep divisions and how we communicate with each other. Where was a “clean space” where the millions of responsible people could connect, debate and share? A safe space where misinformation, baseless conspiracy theories, and hate were not welcome. When we couldn’t find that space, we decided to create it ourselves!
Dia: During the pandemic Amy and I would often talk on the phone, discussing our kids, family, politics and other world events. With no place to go and a lack of physical human interaction, our only source of information was the numerous media outlets: TV and internet. Politics and the virus engulfed us all and we were being inundated with information. There seemed to be a lack of accountability. Reading through comments of different posts it seemed people were quick to criticize and judge others . Outlandish theories were published, and it was easier done by hiding behind anonymity. Somewhere along the way we lost the human touch, lost the ability to interact with humanity. Written words can be misconstrued. We needed to really ‘see’ the people behind the comments in an effort to better understand the sentiment behind their words and to avoid it being lost in translation. We wanted to put a face to the text.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
Amy: Before I had kids, I ran a small cable company in New York City and stayed on as a consultant for several years while I was raising my children. When their needs demanded most of my time, I left the workforce to focus on being a mom. Surprisingly I had no involvement in the app industry before coming up with the idea for Sezwe. Thankfully my co-founder and dear friend Dia had tons of experience and the right connections to help make this app a reality.
Dia: I have spent over 25 years in technology. Almost all of it is working on PeopleSoft/Oracle software.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Amy: Absolutely! Right after college my best friend and I had a little business called Merry Bobbins. We made high-end baby accessories and character towels that we sold in local stores. Over the years I’ve also been involved in buying, rehabbing and selling real estate. I love building things!
Dia: Oftentimes, while in a restaurant with friends and/or family, sitting at a bar, riding the subway I would see things or hear things that would trigger a thought process where I would think of innovative ideas that I felt I could turn into something concrete. I would start my research and then the daily grind would catch up, and reality would set in and I almost always lost focus until now. Reusable straws, restaurant menus that came with reading glasses in case you forgot yours, wine bars that were art galleries were some ideas that I had.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
At first like all startups we reached out to friends and family, but we quickly realized that we needed a lot more or a public presence to make this successful, so we hired a public relations firm.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
Working remotely. Our team has never been together in the same room. The dynamic of sitting around a conference table discussing strategy, bantering ideas etc. has been replaced by zoom calls. Being interrupted by kids, animals and bad connections and not having instant access to each other requires an extra level of discipline and infinite patience. You learn to adapt in this new normal. Be a little more fluid in expectations. Understand that in today’s environment the motto is expect the unexpected. If you miss a deadline, don’t panic. Things change so rapidly these days, it’s imperative to adapt and adjust quickly even if it means letting go of ingrained ideas. Deciding what works and what does not take time. Be open to changing specifications but don’t rewrite them and always remember what your original idea was and don’t lose focus of that.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Our aggressive timeline. We released a social app from start to finish in about four months.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
In a strange way COVID-19 was the catalyst that triggered the idea of starting our business in the first place. The extra few hours of the day that we had from not being able to go anywhere and the time spent on watching the internet and TV grew exponentially along with our frustration.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
With news changing daily our goal is always to stay up to date incorporating headline news. Topics ranging from politics, the financial market to holiday highlights and fun, our goal is to continue to add more features to make posting videos easier and more fun. We will be adding filters, effects and text including features to invite friends, creating private groups and the ability to share posts. In a continuously changing environment both in technology and socially we continue to explore new ways in making this app viable in today’s market.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
An infinite amount of patience. Stay focused and be ready to change your course of action if what the direction you are going is not working out. Being decisive, work through issues with precision and don’t lose sight of your goals.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
When you are creating apps that rely on other apps, be prepared that any minor policy change of a dependent app can vastly affect how your own app functions. Buffering time into a project timeline for the unexpected. We were extremely bullish on our project deliverables and left very little wiggle room. It doesn’t always work out as planned. Finally, starting a business during a pandemic may wear on the social aspect of team building. Not being able to be physically in a room together can be a challenge.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
Amy: Grounded? Is anyone grounded these days?
Dia: I took up meditation. Having a drink every few days. Especially this year it has been a tough uphill battle to stay grounded. Binge watching feel good movies gives me a break from the otherwise tragic stream of news that seems to be all we encounter.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
Absolutely. We are two women firmly dedicated to our families. This app has been a project of love in addition to the numerous things that we are involved with. A lot of our conversations have been at “off hours” with the hopes of being uninterrupted. Should our families need us we have not hesitated in rescheduling to tend to them first. Being firm on expectations of each other and our team and being transparent on the importance of our life outside work for all involved helps increase productivity. We have not hesitated in taking time out to meet for a quick bite. We make sure we schedule the “me time” and “playtime” so we don’t lose track of having some fun.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
Dia: For a couple of months I took up sky diving as a hobby, but I never graduated from going tandem on sky dives.
Amy: I love to travel! I’ve been to over 50 countries and my life-long dream is to visit every country in the world.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
- Working out every morning even if it’s for half an hour.
- I spend the first half hour of the day looking at my daily calendar and prioritizing. To-Do lists are extremely important for me. The only way I can add a modicum of sanity to a workday.
- Making sure I am not overextended in scheduling meetings and other commitments, business and personal. Leaving time in the day to deal with unexpected issues which are bound to happen.
- Working out throughout the day. I generally dislike exercise so every few hours I do a series of short workouts instead of one long one. This has been invaluable to me as it allows me to hit the “reset” button if I feel overwhelmed .
- I’m also a huge fan of “to do” lists. I have post it notes all over my desk!
- Having music on in the background always calms me when I feel stressed.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
This has been a labor of love for the two of us. Two women who are passionate about the future of our children, the country and the world. Making sure that we have a safe haven to express our views with total transparency and the courage to be able to own what you say! We wanted to control the narrative, and this was the best way we felt we could make a difference.