Tereza Nemessanyi is the CEO and Co-Founder of Honestly Now. You can follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/honestlynow and twitter at @terezan.
The inspiration to create my startup, Honestly Now, came at a dark moment. My mother had just died, and I stood in front of the mirror, getting dressed to deliver her eulogy.
Mom had been my best friend, biggest fan, and she was always the one to tell me the truth when I needed to hear it. Trying on her red blouse, I instinctively turned to ask her, “Is it okay to wear red for a funeral?” In that moment, I realized, I wouldn’t ever hear her advice, or feel her warm hug, ever again. My father had recently died as well, and as a new mom myself, I felt deeply alone – like the last one standing, with people who needed me but not sure how I’d step forward.
I learned that many women lack a support structure when they need it most. So I set out to build the beta for Honestly Now — a digital platform to help people get honest feedback from their friends — delivering the advice, affirmation and warm hug I used to get from my mom. Like the question I’d yearned to ask my mom that day, we designed Honestly Now to help on questions about our personal appearance – you post a picture, and your friends and experts vote. Am I a vanity case? Maybe, maybe not. I did see women frequently confounded with how to present themselves to the world, especially through transitions such as parenting, divorce, health issues and aging. I wanted to give them confidence by affirming them, and connecting them to people who could help. Just as importantly, though, my MBA-brain could define and describe this market, size it, and engineer a way to turn it into a business. I had a coherent, cohesive business plan. I raised some seed capital from former business colleagues.
As I described the vision of Honestly Now to people, some “got it”, but some clearly didn’t. A confident group, venture capitalists tend not to be the type to reconsider their decisions once made. One prominent VC had difficulty grasping the concept of “local aesthetic services”. Too broad, he said. Pick one vertical and one geography and roll it out that way — such as New Yorkers’ hair. For me, this was a tough pill to swallow. It felt much too far away from that moment in front of the mirror. Perhaps the world needed a “hair app” – but I didn’t feel I was the one to bring it forth.
In his book on Lean Startups, Eric Ries describes that what people say and what they actually are often very different things. As we launched Honestly Now, this quickly turned out to be true for us as well. We seeded our beta with my friends, women like me. What immediately emerged was that they cared only a small amount about their appearance every day – and then rapidly moved on to a whole host of other thorny life questions.
Tania pitched out a question about thank you notes: is it okay to send your son’s thank you notes via cubby mail at school? Erin asked about the expensive mohair couch she was getting pressured into buying: should she pay the premium? Marla needed to know – should she use the picture of her scuba diving for her Match.com profile? Leigh asked us to help her choose the color of her new car. Going through a divorce, an anonymous asker discovered her husband had a fling with her best friend and neighbor, and their sons are best friends. Should she tell her son about what happened? All important. All real. All very engaging.
Interestingly, by cracking the code on the tricky Aesthetics problem, we’d actually enabled a much larger set of topics to flow in a really interesting way. Not only did we not need to focus on hair; we could set our sights on a bigger market with a much more interesting proposition.
So, we pivoted, and decided to be non-prescriptive around what our users should ask. We decided — if it’s an important decision in your life, it’s important for us. We’ll find you advice for it.
And interestingly enough, this broadening of scope in fact nudged us far closer to that seminal moment years before. When I’d wanted to ask mom if I looked okay in her blouse, I didn’t really care about the blouse. I wanted to connect, to know I wasn’t alone. I wanted validation and I wanted to feel confident. Women instinctively do this when we’re making decisions – we float it out to our friends to collect their views and to be affirmed. We wanted to put that in your pocket, and have your friends and experts available to you anytime and anywhere.
I also found that many women had expert-caliber advice to give, but lacked the courage to label themselves ‘experts’. Could we become a platform, the toe in the water, for them to get known and grow their own businesses? It can be tough to originate a blog post or a tweet, but these were people who, when asked a question, had golden advice.
All these insights led to further thinking around our product. With our seed funding, we’d be operating on a very low monthly burn rate and at that pace could go for another year. The marketplace was moving quickly, though, and based on what we learned, it seemed if all we did was build social hooks on top of this decent product, it wouldn’t be enough. We made the bold move to do a bottom-up redesign with an upgraded team based on all the new insight – to really kill on the need we now saw. It was scary but we really believed this was the right move. Interestingly, it positioned us to have different types of discussions with investors. Positive ones.
Last week, we relaunched Honestly Now 2.0 and announced a round of funding (here, here and here). Lots more to do, constant changes afoot based on what we continue to learn. But we’re incredibly energized by the potential of Honestly Now, and the value – better decisions – our users are already making from it. And finding it’s addictively fun, too.
Emboldened by what I saw, I announced a challenge: to make the world better by together creating one billion ‘honest moments’ – one billion honest questions and answers, wrapped in respect and affirmation. That’s something I can stand behind.
Would you like to join me?
Honestly Now is recruiting experts across a wide range of fields to help answer users’ questions. What’s your superpower? We welcome friends of Dare to Dream to apply to become an Honestly Now Expert here.
As an FYI, Tereza will be pitching her business in at Ignite NYC on October 10. She doesn't know that I'm posting this here, but if you live in NY, why not go — and cheer her on. You can sign up here.
I just wrote my honest moment: if my memory serves me correctly, I've never put this in public print before. And upon reflection, my honest moment came out of Tereza sharing hers — as often happens.
If you think you aren't expert, think again — especially if you have a blog or small business that you are trying to build. This is a great way to gain streed cred.
One thing I love about Tereza's story is the reminder that for 90% of all successful new ventures, the strategy that leads to success is not the one initially pursued. What inspiration has come out of your darkest moment?