Our founder, Phoebe Yao, recently sat down (virtually of course!) with StartupTree to share her learnings on what it takes to kickstart a new venture as a first-time founder.
Would you mind starting off with your background and what led you to the path of starting your entrepreneurial journey?
I was born in China, in a town called Zhenjiang near Shanghai. When I was six, my mom and dad immigrated with me to St. Louis, Missouri, in the American Midwest. That was an extremely life-changing experience for many reasons, but one reason was that I got to really understand how difficult it is for people to navigate cultural barriers when it comes to global work. When I went to Stanford, I realized that we could actually build technology to help people connect across different backgrounds. I started studying human computer interaction and computer science and built my own major in Human-Centered Design and Engineering. I eventually took a gap year in 2018 and built systems for human behavior change at Microsoft Research in India. I also studied Human-Computer Interaction at Oxford’s internet Institute. During my gap year, I saw that many people lacked access to meaningful work opportunities. When I came back to school, I did some research and realized that entrepreneurs were wasting hundreds of hours each month on repetitive tasks. I decided to build Pareto as a tech-enabled system to empower people to deliver meaningful work while helping entrepreneurs save thousands of hours on busywork.
Before I jump into the next question, would you ever go back to St. Louis?
I'm going back on Monday to visit, but probably not to live there for an extended amount of time.
How long have you been working on Pareto and what is your mission statement?
Our mission statement is to create empowering economic opportunities for people all over the world while saving startup founders and small business owners thousands of hours on executing repetitive admin, sales, product, and operations processes. I've been working on Pareto since last June or July. We’ve had amazing traction in the past few weeks, and I left Stanford to work on Pareto full time this March.
Is this your first venture?
Yes, this is my first venture! When I was in St. Louis, I was focused on music and art. I was coming from a completely different background. When I began exploring entrepreneurship at Stanford, I became so excited about entrepreneurship and the impact that you could achieve by building a company. I think that I always knew I wanted to start something. I founded a music group in Saint Louis in High School, but I didn't really have the same community or support systems. I think support systems and networks really help to expand your perspective and see what's possible. It’s that whole infectious energy in the Silicon Valley that keeps people aspiring to change the world.
What compelled you to take your first step?
It started when I took my gap year, and I launched myself into the uncertainty of not knowing where I was going. It opened up a lot of opportunities that I wouldn't have had the time to consider if I'd remained a full time student. I definitely think that people should take gap years. I think school is best taken in blocks, and each chapter needs to have some kind of purpose. If you're just doing school for the sake of school, that's probably not the best reason to be in school. I'm actually happy to talk to anyone who's looking to take a gap year and share advice there.
Was it by chance that you started in March when COVID began or was that related?
COVID was actually just the right push for me to jump fully into my venture.
What does your current team look like?
I am very lucky to have an amazing team. We’re a young, close knit group of thoughtful, mission-driven engineers and operators. Everyone at Pareto cares deeply about the social impact of the systems we’re building, and we’re all incredibly excited to grow, learn, and build a great business together.
How did you go about recruiting them? They're from all over the map! What was your approach for bringing together this wonderful, talented team?
Student networks and friends of friends. One amazing community that’s supported us throughout our journey is Contrary Capital. They organized an incredible Slack group of a hundred university students which helped us build our initial team. Communities like that really help you meet and get to know incredible young people around the world.
What do you find yourself needing the most in terms of people or resources at this particular time?
Right now, it's really about growth. We're pushing sales and marketing plus experimenting with different growth hacks. The main challenge is building product fast enough to scale with quality service. It’s a good challenge to have!
Could you speak a little more about those you are upskilling and working with out in the Philippines?
I would say that, in the early days, it was my team in the Philippines that motivated me to stay resilient and keep building. I could see how much of an impact our work was having on our team members' personal and professional development. For example, we have a week-long onboarding bootcamp that we've mostly automated to train new recruits on virtual work styles, workplace habits, and communication etiquette. US work culture is very different from Philippines work culture so we build different kinds of processes to empower our team to be more communicative and more courageous. At the end of the day, we hope that the opportunities to work with startups and grow with a high-powered, female-led team is a lot more empowering, fulfilling, and humanizing than typical outsourcing roles. On the logistical side, a majority of our team are work-at-home moms who don’t have time to make the 2-hour long commute to work every day and still take care of their families. Many of our team members come to us seeking virtual work with flexible hours, and that's exactly what we've been able to deliver with fair wages and structured support.
How many people do you have working out there? Is it part-time or full-time?
We currently have 16 people ranging from part-time to full-time.
How did you get set up in the Philippines?
So actually before I started Pareto, I had been working on a DTC jewelry business with one of my best friends, Jasmine Wang. We had asked Camille, a friend in the Philippines, to help us with the initial setup and product-listing tasks. When I decided to launch Pareto, Camille joined me full-time as our Philippines Head of Operations and helped us reach amazing women in her communities. The team kind of just grew from there.
How do you go about building Pareto’s culture and what would you say are the top one or two things that you do to attract and retain such wonderful and talented people?
Well, I think the first thing any leader can do is listen. Speaking less and listening more is one of the best ways to help team members take action to lead and drive the company forward. Listening to others is ultimately so core to the entire culture of Pareto. We’re listening to customers, listening to team members, and listening to ourselves. Ultimately, the added empathy helps to untangle situations that might otherwise have been misunderstandings while keeping us aligned with our individual motives and not burnt out. This is really the culture I'm trying to create at Pareto.
How did you get your first customers and what is your business model?
Our first customers were my close friends. I knew many entrepreneurs at Stanford, so my network came in really handy when Pareto was first getting off the ground. I also love the entrepreneurial journey, and Pareto is the business it is today because I wanted to find a way to help early-stage founders.
If you have to start over, is there anything you would do differently?
I would have probably dropped out earlier.
What resources have you found to be particularly useful on your journey?
There are a ton of helpful frameworks and resources that helped me get off the ground. Lean Launchpad Methodology, Design Thinking, and Y-Combinator Startup School come to the top of my mind. I also love bouncing ideas off of friends and finding entrepreneurial communities to be a part of - to support as well as get support from other founders.
What advice would you have for a first-time founder?
Oftentimes when you begin a new venture, it's very uncertain how things will play out and you may doubt yourself. I doubted myself a lot during Pareto’s first year. I doubted my ability to make it work. The secret, however, is to be completely, unwaveringly confident in yourself. Trust in your innate abilities to make things happen. Of course, you still have to be open to feedback and be smart about how you work. But if you work smart, if you’re passionate, you will get things done.
What is one ask you have for the StartupTree Community?
If you need any help scaling your startup, give Pareto’s startup assistant a try! Check us out at pareto.ai or send me an email if you want to say hi! It’s firstname.lastname@example.org.