Diva Tech Talk hosted creative entrepreneur, Natalia Petraszczuk, founder/CEO of the new tech-empowered human-enhancement venture, VizBe (www.vizbe.com). Natalia calls herself “a product of the Ukrainian community” in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan. “When you see hardworking immigrant family members bend over backwards to give the next generation opportunities, you begin to appreciate all the sacrifices and efforts made,” she exclaimed in homage to her grandparents and parents.
Focused initially on political science, Natalia’s undergraduate degree, from Michigan State University, was in International Relations. Along the way, she worked with lobbying groups, on behalf of nonprofit organizations. Then “the political arena shifted a lot for me. I became less and less interested in that line of work,” she said. In college, she took some basic computer skills courses, “because I wanted to stay competent” but “in a million years did not foresee myself in technology,” she said. “All the business skills that I learned had to be ‘on-the-job’ training.”
Natalia fed her own entrepreneurial urge through observation: “As I got older, I began to see more and more examples of people taking the plunge,” she said. “It appealed to me. My father always said: ‘When it comes to capitalism, you have to find a need and fill it’. So, I kept my eyes open for opportunities.” For the decade spanning her mid-twenties to mid-thirties, Natalia became “really passionate about self-development work --- learning skills and best practices that help you be the best version of yourself.” What she realized from that intensive period was that “there was a big gap with technology as it related to self-development work.”
Since she is an expert in personal development, Natalia shared three progressive lessons:
“The answer is always within you.” (Ignore external validation.) “Center yourself; look within.”
“You (your mind) are your biggest obstacle. Our brains are constantly on ‘overdrive.’ You have to consciously stop, and become aware of where you are focusing yourself. At least half the time, it’s negative or protective. That is usually not serving you. Create a habit of focusing on the positive.”
Then “Take time to truly connect with the best version of yourself.”
Natalia endorses meditation, and envisioning a future ideal. She recommends journaling, and creating a vision board, to focus on long-time goals, as practical tools in this endeavor. Taking those steps further, Natalia used them to establish VizBe. “VizBe has pivoted a few times,” she said, “which is totally normal in the startup space.”
Initially focused on consumer-oriented solutions, Natalia observed people manually crafting vision boards, and thought “why aren’t people using technology?” to build them. VizBe’s first product concepts were Web-based and mobile applications to facilitate vision board creation. By extension, Natalia conceived an eCommerce extension “where you could print the vision board to a whole host of products --- like your coffee mug, or your journal cover.” She also foresaw a person “having a regular engagement with that image.” This would eliminate the issue of forgetting about the vision you created, and maintaining the discipline to use it, consistently, for self-motivation.
Based on market research, Natalia eventually determined her best primary audience for these products was not the individual consumer but companies and organizations, who could use VizBe solutions to enhance the lives of their staff members/employees. So VizBe launched as a “software and services company that helps engage employees through a goal setting program.” The company also offers account management services and coaching support to ensure goal achievement and measurable self-improvement for an organization’s team members.
As the non-technical founder, of a technology-centered company, Natalia had some revelations. “All technology’s not the same, all coding and development is not the same. There is a big difference between ‘back-end’ and ‘front-end’ development,” for example. And “the biggest challenge with technology is that it is always changing.” She is encouraged by the fact that “there’s a lot of resources, now; even boot camps that non-technical founders can take.” First using a single coding expert to develop its prototype applications, VizBe eventually outsourced development to bigger firms to scale solutions to meet the needs of the B-to-B market. Natalia also engaged in constant competitive analysis.
VizBe’s solutions are applicable to all vertical markets, according to Natalia. “We work with employers to have their employees set goals for the next 10 years of their lives --- not just professional goals, but goals for their ‘whole selves’. The platform helps draw out their answers, and helps create action plans and accountability within the workplace. It creates relationship-building; it creates loyalty to the company, because you are treating the employee as a whole person. When you shift that conversation, it results in tremendous loyalty, and retention, as well as higher productivity.”
In summing up VizBe’s value proposition, “ultimately what it comes down to is truly adding value to people’s lives,” she said, “helping them get clarity on their future; helping them stay connected to that. A lot of us set those New Year’s resolutions, have goals inside our hearts and minds. But what happens is we get really distracted. “ Moving forward, Natalia’s goal is for VizBe to be acquired by a bigger entity, in the future. “We’ve been bootstrapping. And I have gotten some investors,” she said. “But it’s been really scrappy. I would love to see us expand nationally. We also have intentions to pursue the B-to-C market for the consumer.”
She commented on being a woman in the startup world. “It’s clear that there’s a ‘gender gap’,” in the entrepreneurial community,” according to Natalia. “I end up working with mostly men.” As a woman start-up owner, she said that “there are times it opens up doors. But people are used to being comfortable --- whatever the norm is for them. Obviously, we know that male business leadership is the norm that most people have grown up with. Sometimes people shy away,” she said, referring to female leaders. “I try not to take it, personally. I choose to focus on what’s important to me and just persevere.”
To nourish women-led startups, Natalia recommended regional programs for budding women entrepreneurs, including those offered by Inforum (https://inforummichigan.org/), and The Michigan Women’s Foundation (www.miwf.org). Natalia’s advice for other women leaders is “keeping focused and simplifying is a key part of success.” And remember to persist. “There are days you are not going to want to get out of bed, but there will be other days when it will be the best day of your life! It will an emotional rollercoaster if you follow the entrepreneurial path, but you are not alone.”
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