This week our Female Founder is Ela Madej. YC Alum, Serial Entrepreneur, Investor, Part-time Partner at Innovation Nest and COO of Amicus. To say Ela's career journey has been impressive would be an understatement, it was fantastic to hear her story to understand how her perspective and ambitions have changed over time. From starting her first business to joining YC - her journey is inspiring from the start.
Let’s start with your background story, right from the beginning of Applicake
In 2006, I started Applicake with three of my good friends. One of my partners knew of a company in Sweden that he used to work with and who taught him Ruby and Rails. At the time Rails was a very new framework and technology -- there were hardly any Rails developers so they decided that they would work with us even though we were so inexperienced. Usually you start a company around some skill that you have; we started around the skill that we didn’t have but we knew we could learn. In the six years of Applicake, it grew from 4 to over 30 amazing people.
The first year was really challenging because we didn’t know how to sell or, really, what we were doing. When the first client project was done, we couldn’t find anymore. But somehow we just knew we wanted to continue; it wasn’t this huge idea that we want to build a company, we were just a bunch of people who liked working together.
We then decided to move to the US. We got work and travel visas, and worked in restaurants on Long Island for the summer to make enough money to keep Applicake afloat. It bought us enough time to get a proper office, find good clients, and work on cool projects. That first summer we were working from a beach house, and it was great.
Applicake & YCombinator
How did Applicake develop from there?
While we were running the software shop, we started working on different side projects. We experimented with a bunch of things, most of which never got anywhere, but we didn’t worry too much as it was mostly for fun and we had healthy cash flow as a company by then. One day we were approached by an entrepreneur from Israel, Uzi, and he asked us if we wanted to work on a project he had in mind in exchange for equity. We’d been offered equity arrangements before but chose not to do them. However, he was really persistent and his vision and resilience was really inspiring. So we started the conversation and eventually met up in Kraków where we decided to work together. That was how we co-founded PipeJump which is now Base CRM (getbase.com). Base is now 45 people based in Palo Alto, around 100 people in Poland and has raised over $22 million in funding. And it started as a side project.
Another side project led us to a Y-Combinator adventure -- Credictive. My two co-founders and I had a vision that all online content should be searchable by attribution. That way you could know not only who owns a file but who actually contributed to it -- think of closing credits in movies. It would allow you to find out who contributed to any type of work on the internet, so that the people behind that work can shine. The goal was to meta-tag as much online content as we could and create a fully transparent work marketplace on top of it. We were accepted into Y-Combinator (YC) with this product when we were really early on. YC partners were not crazy about this idea -- they liked our track record and they liked us as a team but not the idea. I think we went to YC too early; we should have focused on it a bit more and really figured out how we wanted to grow. Around the time of demo day we were talking to different investors, including Marc Andreessen from Andreessen Horowitz (AH). We exchanged a few emails and he said, ‘This is exactly what we have been waiting for!’ I think they liked it because AH understands the future of work. I believe that people will one day be able to track others by what they did online -- the small parts they contributed to something, just like in code. This will happen at some point but it was too early for the idea at the time. At the end of that summer, I decided that I didn’t want to raise a round of investment just because we could. I emailed all of the interested investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, telling them Credictive wouldn’t be going ahead. It was one of the toughest business decisions I’ve ever made.
How did you get to that decision to not raise? I imagine that the temptation was there when you had interested investors?
When you run a bootstrapped company for so long and know how to make money yourself, you just don’t get so excited about raising money. It’s money that one day you have to pay back in one form or another. We had Base, which was growing really fast, but there was some internal discussions around what our focus should be. We had limited human resources and it was time to decide what we should focus on.
I personally disagree with the motto of Silicon Valley that whenever somebody is giving you money, you should take it. Money comes with strings attached and raised money costs time. For us, it just wasn’t the right time. I also knew that whenever we were ready for investment in the future, those investors were going to respect that we didn’t try to bluff. You hear stories when somebody just pivoted two days before raising money on that new idea. That’s an impressive business skill but you do have to bullshit and that’s not my style. People make it seem that they have been working on that for two years. I would rather know what I am doing and know what the plan is before taking any kind of investment. It was a bit fuzzy then but it was a very tough decision, and certainly not a rushed one. There was disappointment, knowing that I could have raised from all those great investors. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe it was the best decision I ever made. You never know.
You just have to do what you feel you should be doing at the time. I was extremely conflicted with taking the money considering that I was still going on with Applicake and Base and I thought I don’t really have capacity for more and needed to focus on cleaning that up first.
After you had made that decision, what were your next steps?
I went back to a conference we had been organizing at Applicake; the European Rails Conference Railsberry, a big developer event for around 550 people. I focused on that and my team built an event management software to help run it. It was a tough year trying to decide what I wanted to do. We were all working on the European Rails Conference, which was great, but after that there was a tough decision personally to just focus on one line of business, which was Base. It was decided that Base was going to acquire Applicake. For me, the acquisition ended this intellectually fulfilling period of experimentation -- playing with different things and focusing on different projects and products. The whole acquisition took a few months. Ex-post I can say that, wow, it’s a big task! That was when I decided that I needed a sabbatical.
Seven years into working over full time as a founder and a CEO I felt like I deserved some personal downtime. I went to New York with my two best friends and signed up for contemporary classes at one of the great dance schools and initially did that for three months. That was a really interesting experience - hours and hours of physically challenging classes every day. Dancing with professional dancers and hardly keeping up.
Taking time out
How was it to experience such a change in lifestyle and find a new passion?
I had danced a bit before and I had taken some classes in Poland. I also like skiing and snowboarding and I always had time for that. I’m the European type of founder - you know, we take time off every year :). Right now, living in New York, I see what they actually mean by working ALL the time. So I was good with taking time off but it was just nice to not have any of those labels for a while; not to be the CEO, not be the founder, just being a pretty bad contemporary dancer doing her best to survive each class. Learning new things is really good for your creativity and I felt like I needed it.
The Next Chapter
What did you go on to do after your sabbatical?
I went to Buenos Aires for another 6 weeks for some sun and yoga and then came back to New York. I told myself that I was ready for a new challenge. After the sabbatical I was considering going back to Base but I felt that I wanted a change. When you go on a sabbatical for that long you see that nothing happens; the world doesn’t collapse, and the company has enough processes to function without you. Everybody is doing just fine and I wanted to use that opportunity to try something new.
I joined Innovation Nest -- a great early stage investment fund based in Krakow. I’m still their part-time partner, helping them source potential investments here in New York. I have a lot of experience working with startups and I thought it would be an interesting challenge.
At the same time I started thinking about what else I could do, so I recently joined a company who were also in my YC batch because I missed the operational experience. The company is called Amicus and I am their COO. The company has a great mission, empowering various nonprofits and it’s a social good startup, which is the space that I wanted to transition to.
Between the sabbaticals and the acquisitions, my break from running a company and building new products was almost two years. For some time I was questioning if I could ever run a company again. You know - you put so much heart into something and then it’s over at some point. It’s heart-breaking. I talk to many entrepreneurs and the best ones put so much into what they are doing. Building a team is like building a family and people who build great things usually really care about them. That’s why my next company will be a 100-year company!
Are you still involved with Base?
I don’t have any operational role but I am in contact with my partners and I’m obviously still a stakeholder. I like the category of business software but really wanted to transition into social good and science tech at some point. I think at some point I started missing the purpose of why I work so hard; why I do what I do. The social impact component started to be increasingly important for me and that is probably what is going to be my focus for the remainder of my career. I am already combining my experience in running a company and investing and started advising social impact and science tech companies. I could definitely see myself investing in these more and more.
Women in Business
Do you think women could be better at communicating their value and achievements?
Yes, it is a huge problem. Women often undervalue themselves in a business context. It’s not just about communication, it’s about self-perception and how we think we cannot do something. We have to be brave. If you don’t think you are brave, trick your brain by telling yourself that ‘I am brave’. I do that every day. I am scared sometimes but I am brave.
Lessons learnt & Final thoughts
What have been the greatest lessons you have learned from your journey?
One of the lessons is that you should listen to people, listen to data, and then always listen to your intuition. There were times when I did not follow my gut feeling and I think those were the times that I made some of the biggest mistakes. This might be the less expected advice you’ll hear from an investor but you should take a lot of time to rest, sleep, meditate, and eat healthy. Don’t over-work yourself. For entrepreneurs the biggest asset we have is creativity and we don’t know how the world is going to look in ten years or what types of problems we are going to have to be solving. If you burnout and overuse your brain power then you are hurting yourself and your ability to think creatively about problems and solutions. Stress literally destroys neural connections in your brain. It’s really important.
Where do you see yourself doing over the next few years? What does the future hold for you?
Now I’m operationally involved with Amicus and I invest in technology companies. In the nearest future I am going to raise a fund focused on technology companies and science tech companies that are doing good for the world. Most recently, as a vegan, I’ve been really obsessed with the ethical food space so, who knows, maybe in a few years I will run a biotech company that takes intelligent and sentient beings out of the process of producing meat. If you know any in vitro meat people, send them my way!