Vlada Bortnik of Marco Polo on creating an asynchronous video platform that helps people stay connected

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Describe your business in a few words?

Marco Polo is a popular social communications app that helps people stay in touch with friends and family through an asynchronous video platform. It’s more convenient than FaceTime or Zoom because you don’t have to be live to send a message – whether that’s a video, a text or photo. Marco Polo is more intentional and active, with no wasted time, social comparisons, or “like” culture that our society that other social networks promote.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

This purpose behind Marco Polo began to take form when we were starting our family. With new additions to our family, staying closely connected to loved ones felt more important than ever. We wanted the family to be part of our kid’s lives—many of whom live around the world. Coordinating different time zones was a challenge. It became like a barrier to feeling close, more like a chore. At the same time, we were researching happiness and learned that having meaningful connections is one of the key ingredients to feeling happy. I believe we are in an “epidemic of loneliness.” We wanted to speak about the need for healthy technology in a world feeling increasingly isolated due to its dependence on “likes” for social comparison. We built Marco Polo to integrate research-backed insights that will increase happiness and connection with users to foster authentic connection and conversation.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

My migration from the Soviet Union as a kid to become a CEO in Silicon Valley is one of determination and passion for building something that could make the world a happier one. I am a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in computer engineering. After five years at Microsoft, where I helped design and launch the first content publishing platform for Office Online, my husband and I, Michal, co-founded Bortnik Labs, a consulting firm specializing in startup strategy, product management, and design. In 2012 we founded Joya Communications, the parent company of Marco Polo, and combined our skills and experience to create a better way to help people feel close.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I knew I always wanted to use my work to make a difference in the world. As grateful as I am for my experience with Microsoft, I’ve always felt I could make the biggest difference creating, developing and sharing our ideas of making the world a more joyful place.

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?

The really beautiful thing about Marco Polo and our latest product, Marco Polo Channels, is that word of mouth and invites from your friends and family is the natural and organic growth of our products. We like to say that the best feature of our products are the people who use it with you.

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?

The most challenging time in business was the very beginning  when we were deciding where to invest our time and energy. We knew it was going to be something focused on bringing more happiness into the world, but it wasn’t immediately clear which direction to take.

I remember being a Mom of a toddler and another one on the way, pregnant and feeling frustrated that we haven’t yet settled on what we wanted to do. My practical yet visionary husband Michal said, “You never know, we might be just a day away from it.” A few days later, we were at the Happiness Institute and the quote “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive,” by Howard Thurman was on the front door. This changed everything for us. Within days we had our purpose and were prototyping ideas for what would become Marco Polo.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

I genuinely want to know what their dream job is. My hope is to be a place where dreams come true. And I have been known to connect people with their dreams jobs, whether that’s working with us or elsewhere in my network. I also start the interviews by telling candidates what we’re about, which includes telling them how much psychological safety means to me. If they aren’t ready to co-create that kind of environment this won’t be a good fit for them. This sets expectations right away.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

With the start of social distancing orders in March, consumers were looking for ways to connect with their families and loved ones in safe but impactful ways. During this time, Marco Polo became one of the most downloaded apps, reaching more than 10 million downloads. 

Celebrities like Kristen Bell, Sandra Bullock, Mandy Moore, Pink, Ice T, and Amy Poehler, who have been avid Marco Polo users from the start, have taken to social media to advocate for Marco Polo’s convenience during the pandemic as a way for socially isolated families to communicate and check in with older loved ones.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

As Marco Polo continues to move toward the goal of creating a fully sustainable business model while remaining true to our commitment to be ad-free, last year we piloted an exciting new product called Marco Polo Channels. It is a paid membership platform designed to help leaders, speakers, facilitators, creators, fitness instructors, and health and career coaches, etc. get paid for the time they spend doing what they love. 

In the absence of being able to meet with their network in-person, Channels fills a much needed void for independent entrepreneurs to connect with their community members authentically, and at scale; without dealing with changing algorithms or high production requirements. The asynchronous format of communicating on Marco Polo allows Channels leaders to be in touch with their audience when it is most convenient for them. Although in beta stage, Channels will further help Marco Polo achieve monetization and the mission to be a private, completely ad-free platform for our members.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

I’m lucky that I learned a lot from my previous companies, so all the big mistakes happened elsewhere. With Marco Polo, I wish I didn’t take on so much operationally when we started. I wish I outsourced some accounting and taxes stuff earlier, and I definitely wish I hired an executive assistant earlier. I’m just now realizing how valuable my time is.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

My approach to life as a busy mom and tech CEO is grounded in mindfulness and meditation, with a philosophy of working joyfully and purposefully integrating Marco Polo into my life.

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Make time for self-care, everyday. For me, that might be a quick mediation, going to yoga or a walk with my husband and business partner Michal. 
  • Be aware of your priorities and allocate your time accordingly. This includes knowing what to outsource and delegate to others. 
  • Be present. For example, when I travel for work I’m 100% focused on my travels and work priorities. But when I am home with my family, I’m 100% focused on them. 

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

It means being a model for my kids. I want to show them what it’s like to work on something meaningful, not just something that’s intellectually interesting or focused on a financial outcome. It means to work on something personally meaningful and something that makes a huge, positive impact in the world.

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