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According to the Zerno Ventures study, only 17% of Russian startups have a female co-founder. It is therefore exciting to see a startup that has been founded by 3 women. Intimatica is not only trying to bring sex education among teens and their parents out of the gray zone, but also challenge the stereotype that the tech sphere is a men’s world by setting an example. We talked to all three co-founders about getting started, what they are striving for and what they face along the way.
Sasha Svirid (СЕО, Intimatica): I have been working in IT for 6 years, after working as a financial consultant for a long time. But although I liked the work I was doing, in 2018 I got the idea of setting up my own company, since I felt like I couldn’t grow as an employee anymore.
I had several ideas for a startup, from a new video production format to a beauty calendar. And then I accidentally met Masha who told me about the sex education prototype app she had created, but she wasn’t sure about developing it further. Then I invited her to take part in the women's online hackathon “She’s Next” Empowered by Visa, which neither of us took seriously at first. However, after a very talented designer Ulyana joined the project, things got pretty serious.
So three talented adult girls who have achieved a lot in their profession and realised they want something more than just a good job.
I asked them back then: Do you realise we'll perhaps be broke for the next couple of years?
Because a start-uper at the initial stage is basically broke as they invest all their resources into a startup. But since I am a financier, we approached developing the startup very carefully. We did everything step by step, upon request, did not rush, did not quit our main jobs. But it became clear at one point that someone had to be 150% involved, and I committed to the project fully.
Masha Kopylova: I watched the British TV series Sex education at some point that tells about the intimate problems of high school students in an English town. At first I was very surprised: How come they were even allowed to shoot it? Why are they talking about problems so openly and honestly? But then another thought came up: why keep it all silent, if absolutely every teenager is faced with these problems. And they are afraid to talk to anyone. They are afraid to discuss it with adults.
It happened that I had to come up with a theme for my graduation project for a course in interface design at that very moment. It literally dawned on me: I have to make an interface for a sex education app aimed at teenagers! Besides, I have not heard of anyone doing anything similar before. Such an app could help young people understand this topic, understand what is normal and what is not. How to learn to defend your boundaries, properly protect yourself, and much more.
I ended up abandoning the ready-made application, deciding that this would never be accepted in our society. But then I was lucky to meet Sasha, my future friend and co-founder who said: "Let's do it!" after I shared my story about the idea of a sex education app.This is how it all started.
I did not expect getting started to be so easy. We filmed the first episode of the series about teenage problems #ЭтоНеПроблема six months later.
Sasha: As I already said, we started with taking part in She’s next, found like-minded people there, and it was generally a great experience. We got to the top ten, received a little support and started working. I joined the next competition of women's business ideas from the American embassy “Creathon” alone, and it was then that people began to reach out to us and show interest in the project. So we decided to actively work on the MVP, the ecosystem motivated us to speed up.
This spring we took part in the largest social projects competition Social Weekend to speed up. We saw a lot of interest in our project and got a lot of questions. Although I must say we did not have a social project, but rather a social business: we already had an MVP, and the next goal was to make test groups. We were very scared to contact parents as any conversation about children always involves discussions and tension, and a product for teens drives people nervous.
Masha: Our immediate goal is to conquer the Russian-speaking market, to understand the proportion of people who are ready to learn new things, especially in such a delicate area. For this, in the near future we will be holding webinars for parents. After receiving positive results and good statistics, we will be ready to bring this information to investors and funds in order to prove that the product is in demand.
The end goal is to create a unified system of sex education for teens that can be safely used in different countries.
All the materials that we use in our project were prepared by the child and teen psychologist Olga Drilo, who is our main consultant. And now we are working on expanding the base of specialists not only at the expense of psychologists, but also doctors and teachers.
Sasha: We had an interesting situation at Social Weekend when we had a tense chat with a local cleric. He then said that he talked to his child and studied literature himself, and he could not imagine and did not understand what we would say to the children. In his opinion, each parent is able to prepare for such conversations themselves. At the end of Social Weekend, he himself offered to write an article for us about God and sex.
That is, joint work and communication helped us move from rather cold communication to potential cooperation.Wey explained to him what we are doing, proposed to consider our product in more detail, and thanked him for all the comments and opinions. We also avoid aggression. We do not act like we are the smartest ones in the room, but rather offer a way. It doesn't suit everyone, and that's okay.
When we were just getting started with the project, one person from the ecosystem said: "If someone invests in this, I will laugh at them".
There were others who criticised the project. But actually 80% of the audience supports the initiative that we are promoting, it's just that they tend to not talk much. Meanwhile, 10% of haters stimulate this audience to get active and talk, because there is another 10% who strongly support the project and actively talk about it. Having haters is more of a plus than a minus.
Sasha: It so happened that there are three female co-founders in our team. I used to think you can do business with girls, I had prejudices. I've seen a lot of women who are afraid to be cool for some reason. So when I met Masha, I was surprised at her approach to business and a rather tough stance on basic issues. And it was with her that I decided to give it a try. It is very interesting to discuss something grandiose with guys, but, unfortunately, very few people are really ready to go all-in.
I asked her: "Are you ready to quit your job for this project?" She said yes, and this was a very clear answer.
Masha: We have never faced gender discrimination. Everyone takes us seriously and expects just as much as they would from men.
I can't say that there are some hidden problems because all three founders are girls. For me personally, the myth that girls tend to be strongly affected by emotions has only been confirmed. Sometimes it causes discomfort, but we learned how to deal with it. Having a psychologist in the project was a huge plus for the team.
Sasha: In the environment where I worked before, they did not hire girls, because girls were considered difficult. And now I see the opposite logic: we work with girls, because girls are easier. The world is starting to perceive women as equal to men, women are beginning to assert themselves, behave more confidently and not be ashamed of being women.
We started the project with Masha and many talented people joined us along the way, but they didn’t stay long. And I can understand them. It is very difficult to work on pure enthusiasm. Our psychologist Olga surprised me with an incredible desire to embark on this difficult path with us, and she did not disappoint us.
Ulyana, the third co-founder, joined the project just a couple of months after the start and we were registering the company together. It is very cool when a person, despite having a job and a large number of personal affairs, finds the power to invest all her creativity into the project at a very early stage.
We weren't friends when we started working on the startup. But time has shown that, as John Rockefeller said: ”A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship”.
Ulyana Spirkova: When Masha first shared her idea od a sex education project, I thought it might really be useful for teenagers now. At one time, I myself faced the problem of lack of information on this topic.
Today, people have access to information in all possible forms, but, unfortunately, there is little structured, proven and interestingly presented information collected in one place. Yes, you can talk to parents, but not all parents are ready to discuss this, not even because they do not want to, but because they themselves may lack knowledge or experience.
You can talk to a friend or girlfriend, but you cannot always rely on the experience of peers. In addition, the Internet is full of myths and horror stories, which in the long run can cause lifetime trauma, both physical and emotional.
I believe that the project will be useful, as it takes care of your health and the health of the people around you. When you have someone to share and discuss your problems with, you do not feel lonely. In fact, it’s no wonder I joined the project. I feel like the time has come to find my fulfillment, and it seems to me that everyone can relate to the topic of sex education, because everyone goes through puberty.
Sasha: In the universe of Intimatica products, there are several types of content: articles, real stories from children and adults, which are commented by a psychologist, questions from children and parents, which are also answered by specialists. There are also cartoons that Amaze gave us free access to. In the future, we want to release our own audio podcasts to give teens access to information, including without a visual component.
But most importantly, this is a course for teenagers and a webinar for parents "Children and Parents: A Conversation About It". A Basic course with basic information on the topic is ready. We included information starting from what gender is, and ending with personal boundaries and the rule of active consent. The second product is for parents, covering at what age and how to answer uncomfortable questions.
It is good that people get used to trusting the processes to experts, and the “I know everything best” paradigm is shifting. Thus, the request to make a course for parents came from parents themselves.
Several adults, having watched the course, said that they learned a lot - and this is frightening, because we only included the basics.
We do not engage in propaganda. All information presented during the training corresponds to the WHO recommendations, but due to the way it’s presented it is easier to perceive. We say: look, there are such things in the world and they work like this. We’re not concluding what is good and what is bad. We are like a Discovery channel with a different focus: we talk, but we do not call for anything.
Ulyana: Among other things, we are currently developing our own application. The guys from Bamboo Apps help us a lot with this as they agreed to take over the technical part. I am very grateful to them for this.
In the application, we want to collect basic information about growing up in one place, check it and give access to any teenager aged 16 and older. Even in the first iteration, the user will be able to share their story anonymously and receive an answer from a certified psychologist.
Sasha: When we raised funding and entered the startup community, some people told us the idea is great, but we should rather talk to those who have already done similar things for adults and did not succeed. We did not win money at Social Weekend, but we received legal support. And more importantly, as a result of the competition, three secret investors were ready to give us large sums. A Belarusian IT entrepreneur has even already invested. We won’t share his name yet as we will talk about him a little later. In general, we have already raised an estimate of $ 500,000 in the Pre-seed round, now preparing for the next one.
When we started to talk publicly about our team, people got interested. We shared where we are from, why we decided to join the project and how the internal processes are arranged. It would’ve been different if we just said "We want to make the world a better place, give us money." But instead, we said we want to do a large project for a large audience, but to do so we need to produce paid content to guarantee people take part, so we need investment.
We also got a mentor — he helped us legalize our activities and tracked our project so we could work more systematically and productively. This not only helps you look at familiar processes from a new angle, but also increases everyone’s sense of responsibility.
Masha: I’d say our project is half EdTech, half Health and Mental Care. We are sure there are prospects for monetization, because society is actually changing, it has begun to realize how important sexuality education is (according to UNICEF research on the markets of Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and mobile devices, as well as the growing demand for access to such information, the technology market in this segment will grow exponentially in the near future - Startup Jedi). Our aim is to convince people, to convey that sex education means, first of all, the safety of children. What parent would sacrifice child safety?
We do not quite understand people saying “a mom knows better”. You need to have relevant experience and education (both medical and psychological) to know all the nuances. When our kids are sick, we take them to a doctor, not try to cure them at home.
Sasha: Our mission is to make sex education simple, fun and rewarding, and finally bring it out of the gray zone. To help people understand some things through various available formats. Bloggers often go overboard or give opinions that are not quite expert, but we present expert information in an interesting form.
I think we can create a progressive community one day. Intimatica is a place where progressive parents gather to make their lives better. In order to live an interesting and fun life and not just survive, to constantly improve the quality of the life they are living. We need to help the first generation grow up and survive puberty. And chances are we'll succeed with the new generation Z!
Ulyana: It is quite difficult to invest time and effort in a project on a voluntary basis if you do not feel that you are benefitting. But when you realize you can help someone in the future, it becomes easier to motivate yourself to work on the weekends.
In our case, I see that we can really benefit the children by giving them reliable information about growing up, sharing where to find help, and where to go in case they are faced with violence. We help them not feel alone. Thus, in the application that we are developing, there will be a section where you can anonymously share your story or read someone else's. I’m turning 31 soon, but I’m just starting to feel that my problems may not be as fatal as they seem if you look at the experiences of other people.