Currently, only about 1 in 4 employees in the tech industry identifies as a woman. So what does it take to create a successful career as a woman in tech? In this interview series called Women in Tech, we spoke to successful leaders in the tech industry to share stories and insights about what they did to lead flourishing careers. We also discuss the steps needed to create a great tech product. As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zornitza Stefanova.
Zornitza is the Founder and CEO of BSPK, the leading SaaS clienteling solution built to convert sales. Zornitza is a serial entrepreneur and an accomplished builder, and leader of teams. She was among the first employees of Wired (acquired by Conde Nast), eGroups (acquired by Yahoo) as well as Six Apart, imeem, Prosper and other Silicon Valley technology innovators funded by Sequoia Capital, Benchmark and Accel, among others. Zornitza is a graduate of Stanford University (BA in International Relations) and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (MBA, Finance). Her passion is the quest for innovation and discovery at the cutting-edge of consumer technologies, content creation, and leveraged means of communicating and transacting in the mobile age.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the year I was preparing to apply to college, I got a part-time job at a startup company in Silicon Valley called SAVI Technology. SAVI was developing RFID tags for applications in the military, inventory management and transit systems. I was their fifth employee with the role of an office manager. Quickly, and because of my technical skills, I found myself working on everything from building RFID tag prototypes from Balsa wood for customer demonstrations to preparing investor presentations using design software.
I was thrilled to go to work and loved the energy and drive of the small team at SAVI. I knew nothing about the startup culture of Silicon Valley at the time and I fell in love with the experience. Working at SAVI was pivotal because it offered new possibilities. Up to that point, I had only considered medicine as a professional path because this was the background of my family. Working at SAVI changed this perspective. I started to think about the future differently. After I was accepted into Stanford, I went back to the office to say good-bye to the company founder who was also a Stanford graduate. I told him how much I learned working at his company and how I was not thinking about entrepreneurship. His parting words were indeed, “I think you might have a future in tech more than in medicine”. These words stayed with me. In retrospect they marked the beginning of my career in technology.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
An early mistake I made in the development of BSPK was to skip important steps in qualifying prospective clients. The transformative nature of BSPK is easy to demonstrate: prospective clients are always enthusiastic during the BSPK clienteling demo. In proof of concept trials, they say that BSPK is a game changer for their teams and clients. However, as in any sales process, our focus initially needed refinement. At the beginning, we wanted to close every sale and get our product out there. Over time, we learned that we needed to take more time ensuring potential clients understood our solution and there was a cost associated with an upgrade. Customers who we accommodated with an early price always wanted more but were not willing to pay for service; on the BSPK side, it hurt us financially trying to serve their needs. The lesson we learned is how to stay firm and confident in our value, which can sometimes result in short term losses. To build a viable business, we had to make some sacrifices that will result in long term success.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment? We’d love to hear the lead-up, what happened, and the impact it had on your life.
The career-defining moment for me was eGroups. I joined eGroups as its 12th employee and the first business person among a team of engineers. eGroups was funded by Sequoia Capital, the top venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. I joined the company after pitching Sequoia about a startup idea. Instead, the Sequoia partner redirected me to join eGroups. The company had an amazing team of very smart people, and a vision to change the way people communicate.
It was a career defining moment because it was my full blown immersion in the culture of the valley at the height of the dot-com boom. Within only 18 months, the company went from 12 to 350 people, completed a merger with another company, and was acquired by Yahoo.
Other than running my own current startup, eGroups was the most intense professional experience. It had two transformative impacts on me. First I learned how to manage a team. At eGroups, I was thrown into a senior management role, hiring and overseeing more than a dozen direct reports within months of starting my job. I made mistakes and had little time to correct them. This forced deep reflection after I left the company about how to be a better manager going forward.
Second, the experience at eGroups led me to decide to apply to business school. I always knew that I wanted to be a CEO, and I wanted to know more, and broaden my skills. I applied to and was accepted at Wharton where I earned a degree in Finance. Being a student at Wharton ten years into my career was an incredibly valuable experience. It helped me become a leader and it was instrumental for my ability to raise funding for BSPK, the company I founded and of which I am the CEO now.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There is more than one journey I can think of. I wrote about my career journey, and the next question is about my current company journey. In this question, I will write about my personal journey. This started when I left Bulgaria, my native country. I defected from Bulgaria alone, at the age of 17, while the country was still a Communist vassal state of the Soviet Union.
My journey led me through West Germany where I applied for asylum in the United States. I found myself in Silicon Valley, in the heart of California, three years later. There were many difficult moments along the way: I would describe my life at the time as consisting of work and school only, and nothing else. Looking back on those years, I think of them as the hardest and loneliest time in my life but also the most inspiring. I never thought of giving up. I was on a mission to succeed and fulfill my dream to live a free life in the United States. The most difficult challenge of that time was being alone and away from my family. Despite the obstacles, I believed in the future and the opportunities ahead to learn, and create, and I never thought of giving up.
What is the pain point that your company is helping to address? How does your company help people?
My company helps sales people convert their sales. We do this by providing a way for the sales person to personalize and humanize the client relationship. So much of commerce today is about mass marketing that the value of human trust and connection in important purchasing decisions is almost entirely forgotten.
Customers want one-click-buy buttons and robotic convenience for the things they need daily; for the things they want – those with emotional value – human interaction and trust are critical to close the sale and build lasting loyalty. BSPK helps bring the human back in the shopping experience delighting customers and sales people. We are a SaaS service with a mobile app for sales advisors and a cloud platform for global that connects the dots in the customer journey.
If someone wants to lead a great company and create great products, what is the most important quality (for example, “determination” or “eye for detail”) that person should have, and what habits or behaviors would you suggest for honing that particular quality?
I would suggest that the answer is clarity of purpose. A leader of a company creating great products must be able to answer the question about why the company’s product or service is needed. How will it make a difference? On any given day as a leader, a person is analyzing market opportunities, competition, marketing strategy, product capabilities or the skills of people who need to be hired. Clarity of purpose helps make many choices and it also informs the choices to avoid.
Next, let’s talk about teams. What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?
The framework I find most useful in product development for a technology company is Agile. At BSPK we hire full stack development teams allowing us to prioritize our work in weekly sprints based on goals. Our engineers work on product features in order of priority allowing each member of the team to develop their skills while sharing in the knowledge of the group. We avoid knowledge silos because they most often lead to bottlenecks. This framework of collaboration and sharing of responsibility is something we also carry over to other parts of the organization. As a growing company we need to be agile; our process is a reflection of that need.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together, and can you recall an anecdote that illustrates the dynamic?
The strongest team I’ve ever worked with is the team of my current company. It is not easy to build a great team and it may require letting certain people go, while going through the challenge of wearing many hats at the same time. An anecdote I can share is that in the early days of BSPK when we presented our first demonstrations to prospective clients, I recall entering the building of a prospective customer while still testing a feature that we built just for them, and just for that demo! The expression, “hot off the press” could not have been more accurate. The code had been checked into our production environment quite literally an hour before I got off the plane to go and provide a demonstration which wowed the audience and also gave us the opportunity to close the deal.
If you had only one software tool in your arsenal, what would it be, why, and what other tools (software or tangible items) do you consider to be mission-critical?
My most important tool is Apple Notes. It was a game changer when I started using it. Other essential tools I use include Slack, Messages, Google Cloud.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
My daily ritual is a walk. I walk every morning. It allows me to clear my thoughts and prepare for the day.
Thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1. Put yourself in the shoes of the customer.
To build a great product you need to understand your market. And to understand your market, you need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the customer. In fact, ideally — you are that customer. Knowledge of the customer allows a tech company to understand the incentives for a product to be compelling. Technology is an enabler to fulfill a goal or to have an experience. This is true in B2C or B2B. For example I started BSPK because I had a great shopping experience with a sales person who personalized that experience for me. I thought to myself, why doesn’t every sales person do this? I went back to the brand store and spent a whole day with the team learning about how they do their work. I did similar research with more of the brands we targeted. After we launched our first version of BSPK, I even went to a store for six weeks to help (for free) with sales in order to understand the challenges we were looking to solve for our customers. There are many examples of founders starting companies and building amazing products because they had a personal need. As humans, we want to build things that make life more inspiring, richer, easier or fun. This is how great products can be built.
2 . Have the right team.
Building great products takes great people. They need to have passion and skill, and the right experience to build from scratch. Building a new technology product is very different from iterating on an existing one. The people developing from the ground up have ability to empathize with the customer, tolerance for risk and an ability to recover from failure quickly. They need resilience because building a new product is continuous testing of hypotheses. It’s like jumping into the pool repeatedly to see if you can nail that perfect dive! Initially there is discomfort which hopefully turns into a challenge, followed by success, and leading to more fun.
3 . Have the right process.
Building new technology products requires experimentation. Which requires a process of development that is flexible. Much has been written about agile development compared to waterfall development, and I will only touch upon this in two ways: 1) agile gives teams the needed flexibility and it also enables accurate prioritization. 2) MPV - or minimum viable product is a core topic in the practice of agile development. I continue to meet founders and teams who misunderstand MVP as something you throw together quickly to have something minimal. In fact, depending on what you build, MVP can be both difficult and time consuming. The goal of MVP is to prove a hypothesis, to test your founding assumption that people need or want your product. So the first question in building the right technology product is “why would my customers want it or need it”? And then work backwards from there for what is needed. This is true for whole products or features. The iPhone is an example. It was neither fast, cheap or easy MVP. In fact it was very expensive to build. The first phones were criticized for not being very good phones to begin with. But the first iPhone proved that people wanted more than just to make phone calls. It had capabilities that no other phone possessed - ability to take and share photos, listen to music, download apps, or read books. You could message someone easily. The iPhone was a game changer.
4 . Understand the connection between time, money and resources.
Customers often ask “can something be built”. The answer is, yes, with enough time, money and resources pretty much anything can be built using software. An important consideration in building a new technology product is how much time, money and resources do you have at your disposal? What’s your runway? This is what makes the development of any new technology product so exciting. As a product strategist you need to consider the big picture and also the details. At BSPK we always look to the end user’s needs. We validate requests by observing what our customers do, and what features they use before we decide to add a capability. We test, learn and evolve features with very deep consideration about how they add value to the sales person’s needs and experience.
5 . Be inspired.
This sounds vague, I know. But in terms of importance, I would put it on par with “put yourself in the shoes of the customer”. Inspired products engage people, they have a personality, a DNA. Even decades after the founding of a company, the personality of the founders, their original vision or mission hopefully carries through. It is that vision and passion to build something from scratch that keeps people engaged with a product: the iPhone, Amazon, LinkedIn, Instagram, Slack - these are mature products that were first launched years ago, and yet, the original vision of their founders is evident. I know people at these companies who were in their jobs in the early stages of product development, and they speak about how hard the journey was, and the many trials and errors that lead to a great product outcome. Inspiration helps a team to face the challenges as well as overcome setbacks.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I am not satisfied with the status quo. There has been some progress, but it only takes a quick look at the representation of women in the top tiers of leadership, the amounts of capital raised by women founders, or the number of company exits (private or public) to realize that the pace of change continues to be glacial.
The two changes I believe are necessary is that women in tech, and everywhere else, are be paid the same amount as their male partners. Motherhood, for example, is often cited as the main reason women quit their profession. It is not. The main reason is that women earn less. The logical choice for any family is that the person earning more keeps working, while the person earning less stays at home to take care of the family. For women also, the advancement opportunities are slower, riskier and harder.
The second change (tied to the first) is that there have to be more powerful female role models in technology. Sadly, there are still very few. A few prominent female tech leaders could have changed the conversation but failed in my opinion because they went the route to talk about how women should talk to men or how to deal with kids and family. As I wrote, I disagree with the “motherhood is an obstacle” perspective. I have two teenage daughters and when I listen to their conversations, I know that they are aware of how women are treated differently in terms of leadership, voice, ability or skill. Across the board, we need more female leaders to set the best example.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
I would like to have breakfast or lunch with Serena Williams. I am curious about her experience. She put women’s tennis on the map, in addition to being exceptional. I often think that we see more exceptional women shine in areas where it’s hard to argue with the score, as in tennis. Or in the arts also. I would love to meet Serena.
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