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We tried to establish a connection via Zoom — it didn’t work out. Then we called through the messenger, but the conversation was not recorded. In general, there were several reasons for this interview to miss out. But Liz Maslakova patiently passed this quest. And when everything didn’t go according to plan, she offered other options. Unwillingness to give up, as well as patience, drive, perseverance help Liz and her team, create a digital trainer Wojo. Thanks to this product, people change their careers and, importantly, they are convinced by their own example: even 15 minutes of concentrated work is sometimes enough to improve their lives.
We talk to startups and investors, you get the value.
— I read that you met your partner, Anya Epishcheva, the co-founder of Wojo, at a party. Why did you decide to cooperate together?
— Yes, Anya and I are from Russia, but we met at a dumpling party in London. We got into conversation and realized that both are in the process of big career changes. At that time, I wanted to work as a product manager in a growing startup. Anya wanted to change the role of a technical consultant at Amazon to a position with more product-related tasks. We decided to meet regularly to maintain the rhythm of moving towards our goals and opened these meetings to other people on the platform Meetup.com. Our community began to have an audience. The requests only grew during the Covid. We realized that our meetings give good support to people, but without structured work, they create a feeling of false progress. Therefore, using our expertise in coaching and digital products, we launched a digital career coach.
Registration in the product begins with a short questionnaire:
— Where is the user in their career now?
— What is their goal (if it is known)?
— What is the main barrier on the way to the goal?
The algorithm handles the answers. It needs to understand two things:
1. What is the distance of the user to the goal. Depending on this, one may need to break the goal into intermediate stages, plus stock up on resources: time, money and motivation;
2. What is the main limiting belief that prevents progress — this is what the coach’s work is focused on at every moment. The purpose of finding an answer is so that our client can continue moving forward.
Based on these input data, the algorithm understands at what stage the user is moving towards the goal, and offers them tasks that will help them take the next step. Each exercise takes no more than 30 minutes, which makes it possible to get a dose of dopamine to continue the path.
The exercises and stages are based on the coaching methodology 5A:
— Awareness: understanding one’s own professional identity.
— Ambition: expanding horizons, activating ambitions and formulating goals.
— Alignment: building a roadmap from the current situation to the goal.
— Action: performing actions and tasks from the roadmap.
— Appreciation: reflection on the process, evaluation of results and recording of progress.
— The tasks are based on other coaching frameworks. Together with academic psychologists, we are currently working on creating our own methodology. All stages of interaction with the product are automated. By the way, the Wojo team consists of two experienced certified career coaches from the Neuroscience Leadership Institute and the Co-Active Training Institute. These are advanced educational institutions for training coaches on the international market.
Our specialists monitor user insights and behaviour. For example, after each task, we ask the user to evaluate the effort and usefulness of the exercise and write down key insights.
Based on this data, we are constantly adding new tasks and improving the algorithm of their recommendations.
— Has your product changed significantly since its launch?
— The first version of Wojo consisted of a questionnaire that the user filled out. We looked at the questionnaire and collected an email with recommendations for the first steps using a template.
Two things became clear very quickly:
1) The questionnaire was too long — about 40 questions. We have reduced it to the 8 most important ones.
2) Compiling emails manually is difficult to scale. Therefore, in January 2021, we launched a web application in which the algorithm communicated with the user directly for us.
A weekly “check-in function” has also been added to track progress. The user evaluates their energy level, their sense of progress, and the third metric of their choice. Reflecting on these figures, they can set achievable goals for the next seven days — and grow these metrics until the next “check-in”.
— To change one’s life, people go to a psychologist for years and work out the settings. On the website of a digital career coach, you offer to perform exercises at least 15 minutes a week. Do you think this is enough to achieve the goal?
— Statistically, a big career change takes an average of 11 months. This is a very inclusive average — for apples, oranges and everything. In each case it depends both on the distance of the transition, and on the pace at which the person is moving.
At the same time, the value of coaching is to speed up to the goal — to spend less energy and time where the result is less likely and vice versa. From this point of view, even 15 minutes a week, removed by focused reflection, can give significant results. After all, the work in coaching, as well as in therapy, is not limited to these 15 minutes: it is just being launched in them. A person gets an insight, a new point of view on the problem and new tools. They begin to use all this after the session in their usual life. And here real big changes are already happening.
— How did the name Wojo appear?
— We had many iterations, including very unsuccessful ones. For example, one of the first contained the word “wannabe” — translated from English as “aspiring to be”.
We found that for native speakers, this reduction has a negative connotation — “an impostor / impersonating someone who is pretending to be someone else”. It was important to us that the title reflected the feeling of drive, energy from work — so that it was about the state of balance and constant movement forward, and not about a one-time result. So it turned out to be “Wojo” = work + mojo, where mojo is translated as a quality that makes you attractive to others, successful and full of energy.
— Where did the first customers come from?
— The first clients came from the community of events that we organized for people changing their careers. People from our personal contacts also came. And after the article in the magazine about Russian life in the UK, Russian-speaking expats began to contact us. Now we have several hundred clients, 50% of our audience are young professionals aged 18–34 years. Some of them want to change their career, some want to grow, and some are looking for a job in connection with relocation.
It is pleasant that existing customers recommend us to new ones. Users also come through a blog, social networks and partnerships. We focus on partnerships with services that are aimed at employability — these are career fairs, aggregators of hard skills courses, universities.
Attracting one user costs us an average of $9. The number of customers is growing by an average of 27% per month, about 10% of users are converted to the paid version.
— By the way, about the paid version. What guided you when developing prices?
— We asked 30 users about their budget for career development. We liked that they gave an estimate in dinners — 1–2 dinners per month. This is how our rates appeared: $39 (this includes 1 task every week for a month) and $84 (3 tasks per week and a workshop). So far, these prices show good results: we launched a paid subscription in April of this year, and in May we already earned $1 500. The average check is now $79. We are still experimenting with pricing for various products and segments.
— Most Wojo users are from the USA and the UK. Is your marketing communication different in these countries?
— We started mainly with Britain. Most of our first users were from here, and we improved our positioning based on their feedback. For example, the first positive reviews contained the words and phrases “motivation”, “overcoming burnout”, “self-confidence” and “beating procrastination”. We used them all on our landing page.
Now we are starting more large-scale tests on the US market. To do this, we conduct additional research — both on open data and through our own interviews. Judging by the former, more attention is paid to career development in the United States compared to the UK. And the coaching market is more mature. But how to successfully take this into account in communication, we still have to figure out.
— Only 16% of your customers are from Russia. What is the reason for this?
— The product is in English, so our users from Russia are those who are comfortable with it. We have no plans to translate the digital trainer into Russian yet, as there are no commercial prerequisites for this at the moment.
— What are the differences between building a career in Russia, the USA and the UK?
— Firstly, the so-called soft skills, especially communication skills, have a greater weight in Britain and the United States.
Secondly, the ability to network here is not an additional advantage, but an absolute necessity. The chances of getting to the interview stage when looking for a job become 85 times higher if you apply for vacancies through friends instead of cold-sending a resume (which does not cancel an honest and competitive selection process).
Thirdly, there is great variability in career growth in Britain and the United States. In Russia, almost the only way up is managerial positions. In the UK and US there is also a clear division into an individual contributor — a specialist/expert and a people-manager — an executive. You can be a very highly paid specialist and be responsible for important strategic decisions, but not have people subordinate to you. Conversely, you can have a team of several dozen people and at the same time perform a fairly operational function. For a manager, of course, it is important to be a good specialist, but it is not necessary to be a brilliant expert — it is much more important to have communication skills and leadership inclinations.
— Did you find out the opinions of investors about your product?
— We talked mainly with investors from Britain, Europe, and the USA. Everyone is now very interested in EdTech and coaching. By the way, coaching is growing quite actively, while there is a ceiling on the number of coaches and users they can serve.
Therefore, we chose a different model — a digital career coach, and not a coaching marketplace. Investors like that we are closing an empty niche and helping less well-off users in the labour market. Funds from the United States are much more inspired by the fact that our model is B2C, while British and European investors have historically preferred B2B businesses.
— When choosing between a coach, Wojo and similar services, why should a person give preference to you?
— We practically do not compete with ordinary coaches: we have a different price category and our users simply cannot afford $100 an hour, so they should not make such a choice.
We compete with books, blogs, online courses and content-based coaching services. But unlike the one-way consumption of content in them, a constant feedback loop is built into the Wojo algorithm. Everything that the user reads and does on the platform is applicable to their situation right now. The client can inform the digital trainer about their professional life — and get a sequence of activities that are even better adapted for them.
— What are the specialists in your team?
— From the first day, we were alone with my partner, Anya. Later a CTO with experience in mobile development, Misha Gasanov joined us. As necessary, we also involve designers, marketers, career coaches and lawyers for individual tasks. We cooperate on different conditions: a share option, fixed payment for the result or a combination of the two.
— Is it hard to work with a partner?
- A partnership in a startup is in many ways similar to marriage: in no other circumstances have I encountered such a relationship. Anya is responsible for all science — neuroscience and coaching frameworks, as well as for data and technical architecture. I am responsible for the product, the business model, relations with partners and investors. We are building a team together.
— And do disagreements happen?
— Of course. Not often, but I’m glad that they do. Otherwise, it would mean that one of us didn’t care anymore. We have a healthy conflict — “small-big”, because my experience is mainly in startups, and Anya’s is in corporations. I can throw in ideas that give short-term advantage, and Anya catches those that can “bite us in the ass” on the medium and long horizons.
We have a fairly clear division of responsibilities, and it is clear who has the last word and where. We follow the “disagree and commit” principle: even if one of us is still in favour of another decision, we make sure that everyone understands each other’s arguments, and together we strive to make the decision work as well as possible.
— What mistakes were made while working on the digital coach?
— We engaged a coaching adviser and did not agree with her on values and expectations. We planned to cooperate on the development of the framework and the algorithm together, but the adviser was mainly interested in client contacts for her personal practice. This taught us not to rush into choosing key people for the team and to pay as much attention to values as to expertise.
— What has been the most difficult thing for you since the launch of Wojo?
— Most of my career has been digital product management. This is a very entrepreneurial role in fact, so PMs often go from it to build their own business. It was surprising to me how small a part of the CEO’s role is product tasks and how much is building relationships with the team, partners, investors and the media. Of course, I knew about it, but I was still surprised by the scale.
— We focus on two big things that users suggested to us:
1. The importance of the community. It gives support to those who are travelling or have already traveled a similar path, and it is also “warm” networking. We are launching a test community in Slack and are planning to introduce it into the main product soon.
2. The value of micro-activities. Users are very positive about the 15-minute tasks that allow them to cope with procrastination. We want to make the product even more accessible — in transport, queues — and we will soon release a mobile application.
— Please give advice to entrepreneurs who also want to enter the US and UK markets. What should they take into account?
— We were given very good advice about the difference between the British and American markets in terms of attracting early investments.
If you attract an angel round, then in Britain, despite very early data on the validation of the idea, they look at your product as a serious financial investment and try to evaluate it according to the model.
In the United States, angel investments are allocated more on the principle of supporting young entrepreneurs, with the readiness that this money will not return, but will give a talented founder a good start.
One more piece of advice no matter how banal it may sound but knock on all doors. If you can’t do something the first time — try the second, the third. The main thing is not to stop!