The busy weeks of the accelerator might be over for Melanie, but the founder of Panion is far from being in a holiday mood. She tells me about meetings with investors while turning her buzzing phone silent and apologizing for her late reply: “You know I never thought I would be one of those people you would have to remind to reply to your email”.
Melanie’s startup is very much inspired by her own experiences when she moved to Sweden in 2014 and realized that making new friends, especially in Sweden, is not the easiest thing to do. Realizing that the globalized and technological lives we lead have not only brought forth convenience but also loneliness, she decided to build an app that helps people make new friends based on their common interests.
Melanie, why do we need Panion?
There are many reasons. Most importantly because we are moving around the world like never before and need to rebuild our social circles. Then there are also cultural differences to overcome. Swedes for example are very shy. Culturally you don’t really talk to strangers or make eye contact with people on the street, so there really is no spontaneous opportunity to make friends. Sober. (Laughter). Or very limited ones.
Another factor is time and emotional energy. Our target group is people between 25 and 34, people that maybe have started a family or a career. People who know exactly who they are and who they work well with. By offering a tool that studies and masters what actually does connect people, we speed up the process of finding that person one is more in tune with.
Let’s talk about your users. Can you already say who the average Panion user is?
I don’t know 100% but I think that we have a lot of people who have moved to a new place or who have traveled a lot and know how it is to be outside of their comfort zones. I also think that people who feel like they are living kind of out of the box, like our App as well. People who feel like it’s harder to find others they can relate to because they have a niche interest or have perspectives or values that are a little bit less common.
And that is the great thing with a platform like Panion, that it is user generated. You can request keywords, you can help us grow in the direction you want it to be growing. We are really trying to build a platform that is based on what people want and what they need. We hope that we can be a platform for all people and their different interests.
And how is it that going so far, to create such a user-generated product?
It has really been eye opening being on the other side of this dialogue, not being the user but the creator of the product. I recognize myself that when I download something and I don’t like it, I want to delete it immediately. I don’t think about the potential that it could have and that there is a team behind it, that cares about it and that is trying to improve it all the time. I want to challenge people to reconsider their way of interacting with products, to see Panion as a collective effort, growing something that is going to help everyone and that everyone can contribute to. But it is hard to get the word out about this kind of mentality.
What kind of feedback are you getting?
We are getting a lot of comments like: “Thank you! I have needed this” “Where was this when I moved to this place 5 years ago?” The problem is we don’t get so much feedback about the actual product. Like I would like people to tell me “I really like this, but this is missing”. Or “This doesn’t feel comfortable for me”. Obviously if something goes down or doesn’t work, people like to tell you it’s broken, but they don’t often give you constructive criticism on how to make things better.
I have gotten people angry about all kinds of things and I think if they knew what a small team we are and what resources we have, they would have reacted differently. We are not trying to hurt someone by not having an Android version, we would love to have an Android version but we need to be able to fund that development. I would like people to be kinder and consider how they can help make something grow rather than criticizing something that isn’t perfect. It would be great, to change the instant gratification attitude into a constructive criticism culture.
You are a solo founder. How do you think that has influenced your business?
I read a lot of articles about this topic. The top reason why startups fail is because of the conflict usually in the founding team. At the same time, there are a lot of investors that don’t want to invest in solo founders because they worry about what happens if someone suddenly becomes sick or gets hit by a truck or something.
I didn’t want to be a solo founder, I genuinely would like to be collaborating and share this responsibility but at the same time I need to have someone who can put in as much dedication, passion, effort, responsibility and accountability into everything as I do and that’s not easy to find. At the beginning, I was really looking for a co-founder, and then I realized it’s kind of a relationship, you can’t really force running a company with a person. So, it makes more sense to let it naturally happen by working and building a team. Then perhaps someone on your team shines and takes a lot of responsibility and that can become your co-founder. So that’s my new strategy.
Looking back on your founder journey, what would you do differently?
So many things (laughs). Going with my gut and being confident to follow through with it, is the biggest thing. Sometimes people give you advice and you think they know more than you because they have been in the industry longer. But you know your company better than they do and you know the values and the tone that you want to set. Since I have started trusting my guts about hiring people and what the best decision is, things are going a lot better.
Another thing is I am a perfectionist. But when you are creating something and you don’t know how people are reacting to it, you need more of a trial and error approach. You need to be comfortable with putting out something that’s not perfect, and then to try to adjust and perfect it once you’ve found the right formula that resonates with people. That’s something I am trying to learn. Try things out, let them not be perfect, add the perfection later.
When something isn’t perfect, you are afraid that your users will run away, but then I remind myself of these platforms that have a lot of people and those platforms sometimes look unattractive, with ads everywhere. But people are still there because there are no alternatives.
What would you advise all the female founders out there?
I have gotten a lot of value out of connecting with other female founders. I have gone to in-person events as well as Facebook groups and have gotten a lot of advice. There is some sort of vibe in a female founder type of community, where you generally just want to see each other grow and that has been really helpful. A lot of that has been very hard; trying to build a company in a country that I am not from. I also think that, if your passionate about what you are doing and it can really come through, that is very powerful. Don’t let anyone doubt you!