E010 Building a Startup as a PhD: the Life of a Founder in the Cosmetics Industry

July 12th 2020

Dr. Maria Otworowska holds a PhD degree in the Computational Cognitive Science awarded by the Radboud University Nijmegen. Before her PhD program, she completed her Master’s degree in Cognitive Science at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. She also spent one year at Università Degli Studi Di Catania as an Erasmus student. During her PhD she, like many others before her and undoubtedly many after her, tried to explain how the brain works, with a focus on learning and decision making. 

Towards the end of her PhD, she made one of the most difficult decisions in her life and she decided to leave academia and try her luck in “the real world”. Uncertain what to do, she randomly moved to Barcelona without knowing the language or anybody there, where she entered the corporate world as a data scientist at King, an independent unit of Activision Blizzard Inc. (Nasdaq: ATVI), an entertainment company producing games. 

As life experiences go, most of them are to a certain degree useful and educational, some may also be motivating, and such was this one. She quickly realized that the corporate world was not her life path, and it gave her all the courage and motivation needed to believe in her an original startup idea hat she got meanwhile, and pursue it full time. 

She quickly got sucked into the app dev world and her first “side project,” after many additional adventures, became her current life path. She went from cognitive science to… skincare and chemistry (but with a healthy dose of AI as well). Now she is a proud founder of Skin Bliss and was awarded a place in one of the most important accelerators in the beauty industry—Sephora Accelerate—where she has been receiving mentoring and guidance on her business. 

Maria’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/maria-otworowska/

Skin Bliss’ LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/company/skin-bliss-app/

Skin Bliss’ Instagram profile: https://www.instagram.com/skinbliss.app/

Skin Bliss’ website: https://getskinbliss.com/Ontology Of Value 1f525 Career Development Strategies E010 Building a Startup as a PhD: The Life of a Founder in the Cosmetics Industry Career Talks PhD Careers In Industry PhDs With a Business

The episode was recorded on March 6th, 2021. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the views of their current or former employer(s).

Natalia 00:10 Hello, everyone. This is yet another episode of career talks by welcome solutions. In these meetings, we talk with professionals who have interesting career paths and who are willing to share their life hacks with us. Today, I have a great pleasure to introduce Dr. Maria Otworowska, who is my friend from grad school, from the Donders Institute. We know each other for years now. I’m so happy that I can talk to her about her incredible career story here today on this platform.

Dr. Maria Otworowska holds a PhD degree in computational cognitive neuroscience awarded by the Radboud University Nijmegen. During her PhD, she studied mechanisms underlying learning and decision making. Towards the end of her PhD, she decided to leave academia and try her luck in the real world. She moved to Barcelona and entered the corporate world, as a data science of King, an independent unit of Activision Blizzard, an entertainment company producing games. She quickly realized that the corporate world was not her life path. It gave her the courage to come up with an original startup idea, and pursue it full time.

She went from cognitive science to skincare and chemistry. Now, she’s the founder of Skin Bliss and was awarded a place in one of the most influential accelerators in the beauty industry. She has been receiving mentoring and guidance on her business. Welcome, Maria. I’m so happy to see you. And I’m excited to hear your story. Tell from your perspective.

Maria 01:53 Thank you very much for having me here. I’m very excited to talk to you and to share my weird past life path. I started my adult life thinking that I would be a scientist forever and ever. I graduated in cognitive science in Poland and then I went to do my PhD in the Netherlands. Along the way, I realized that academia is not the right place for me. If you for your whole life thinking that something is the right place and it turns out not to be, then you are sort of left with the feeling of being completely lost, not knowing what to do with life, which was, on one hand, terrifying, but also pretty exciting.

Because, you know, I could be anything I wanted to be, maybe not a rocket scientist, but the majority of occupations I could do. I was always more or less into tech not by profession, but by interest. And then I sort of looked around, what are the cool things people do these days. It turns out that science is new and everybody wants to be a data scientist. That’s the best you can do basically in life. I applied for this position at King. They liked me enough to employ me and it was an interesting experience. I learned a lot about corporate life that I had no clue about before.

That was something worth learning. I realized that it might be interesting but it’s not something that I want to do for the rest of my life. Also, I didn’t enjoy being just a part of this big corporate machine, like this little gear in the whole system. I thought what else can one do in life? And yes, you can have sort of your own business and have your own startup. That’s another cool thing that is happening these days. I thought, Okay, why not give this a try. I’ve already had a little alpha version of an app to scan cosmetic ingredients. This version received a lot of positive feedback. A lot of people were interested in it. I thought, why not try to develop this into an actual product? I wanted to use some of the professional skills that I’ve developed over my life. I like to take a full AI focus on skincare. This is how we started with Skin Bliss.

Skin Bliss is currently a mobile app that offers personalized recommendations depending on the person’s skin type, skin concerns, and skin conditions. We’ve developed proprietary algorithms to understand skincare formulation, on one hand, so we not only look at sort of the label of the product but actually what’s going inside of it and what the formulation is. We try to guess the formulation. On the other hand, we also work with dermatologists and skin therapists to better understand skin problems and skin concerns. We combine it all. We have our little app. The current version of the app is in the limited version like pre MVP. The actual MVP is coming out in like two weeks.

Natalia 06:18 That sounds very exciting. I think it’s the most exciting stage of development. I’ll ask you more questions about that later on. But my first question would be, how did it happen that you transferred from cognitive neuroscience to skincare? Is your interest in skincare? Did it stem from your private interest in this topic? Where did you take inspiration from?

Maria 06:48 It’s a very good question. I keep asking myself this every day. I have zero interest in skincare. Before doing it, my skincare routine was non-existing. I didn’t care at all. And why I went into it was because it was sort of a personal intellectual challenge. I’ve developed some skin problems, and I couldn’t solve them. I would go to a dermatologist, skin therapist, aesthetician, and all of these people would advise me something but the advice never worked.

I sort of took it personally like it can’t be that difficult. I can’t figure it out. I took it as a personal challenge to understand how it works. I quickly realized that the whole beauty industry is a mess. There’s a lot of misinformation. It’s really difficult to distill the facts because if you Google something, you have two opposing posts or two opposing articles for each topic. As a user of that consumer, I left completely stuck in deciding what actually can work and what won’t work for me.

Natalia 08:15 That reminds me of cognitive neuroscience a lot. Because whatever brain part you Google, and whatever cognitive process you go through, you will find that this one study reported the involvement of this brain part in this process. We have so many false-positive studies that you can’t build any new hypothesis reliably anymore. There are so many false positives in public studies that whatever you build up on top of that, it’s like you can never be sure that you have good grounds in the first place.

It’s extremely hard to progress with building any know-how anymore. But I get you. The perception of the beauty industry is like big corporations that do stuff behind closed doors, and we as consumers don’t know much about what they do. We can only rely on media. But it’s not necessarily reliable. Let me ask a question from the audience right now. The question is from Gaia. Hi Maria, I was wondering how your background in cognitive science was helpful? What do you do now? And the second question is, what do you do now? What were the challenges that you’ve encountered while starting a new business without being an expert in the field? What made you confident enough to still do it?

Maria 10:26 Okay, thank you very much for the questions. The answer to the first question that’s about my background is my research topic was not related to skincare. In the end, what I’m doing is just another basic PhD project in a new field. I definitely can transfer some of the skills I already collected during my PhD into this project. A part of my PhD research was on decision making which can be applied to understanding how consumers make decisions about buying cosmetics.

That’s something that I do not use again, like one-to-one. I can sort employ it into analyzing the market better and understanding the consumer better. There were challenges.

Natalia 11:42 The other question is, what made you still there to start a business in the fields that you’re not an expert in? How did you find courage?

Maria 11:54 By a lot of lying to myself, and a lot of delusional thoughts and just wanting to do it. It was easy to pitch the project as an AI project. In the end, what we do is try to come up with the algorithm. Then I could always tell myself, well, I might not be a skincare expert but I know a thing or two about AI. That’s sort of my entry point. Then over time, I was part of an accelerator that finished a couple of months ago. During this time, I also learned more about the industry which gave me additional confidence in what I’m doing.

But still, I think it’s just a healthy dose of dealing with being delusional and being naive. I might think I know something but probably, I don’t know anything about the industry but it still doesn’t stop me from doing it. You just have to try.

Natalia 13:02 I get this dilemma. Because I think, to start the company, you have to be in this healthy, like in this middle between someone who is entirely rational. Because if you’re entirely rational, you will never start a company. You can always get a corporate job and have a safe paycheck and good benefits, and just enjoy life. You don’t have to work for pretty much anything for years risking if there will be any payoff in the end or not. If you don’t have that madness element to your personality, you will never make the decision, because why would you?

If you’re a math person, like you have no oil in your head, like you just jump on whatever you find exciting without thinking about strategy, then you will never become successful anyway. You have to somehow be in the middle between the two extremes.

Maria 14:14 I don’t say that the thing that helped me was the positive feedback. I didn’t just do it. And nobody ever knew about this. I put up frequently different versions and talk to people. And everybody said that’s what we need. That was the thing encouraging. Maybe they were just nice to me, but maybe not so. The thing is, the positive feedback from people is sort of this validation to continue in the madness.

Natalia 14:42 It’s also true that you start talking about every idea that was shown to you at first. Now, I think after like two years of having a company, I’m much more skeptical towards new ideas and I can see the future straightaway much better than before. I’m quite a skeptic now. I’m much more critical of my friend’s ideas than I used to be. Initially, everything seems shiny, but after you see all these stories of failure and you start seeing those potential backlashes and potential pitfalls, then only you become a bit more skeptical in a healthy way.

It’s like, when you pitch to your family and friends, they’re usually very positive about it. I have a few friends who are, by nature, quite critical. I consciously keep in touch with them because I know that these are the voices of wisdom that are worth asking because my family will always say that everything is great. I have to keep in touch with people who are just very down to earth. It turns out good for your soul. After all those notes about the decision, I guess I can see you. I mean, I know that you’re happy about your life. I think this is eventually the best success. Let’s get back to the questions from the audience. Someone is asking. Would you recommend the use of skincare? I’m asking concerning someone who hasn’t used any sort of skincare? If yes, why?

Maria 16:47 Thank you for your question. Yes, a proper skincare routine is as important as a proper diet. If you just eat chips and some fried foods, you will live but it’s not the best for you and your body. The same goes for skincare. You can just use some random cream from the supermarket, sure it will not kill you. But it is not something that your skin likes or that your skin wants. Since skin is basically like the biggest organ in our body, we should take good care of it.

One should be careful not to go to extremes. I know there’s this huge trend in applying acid and layering your skin. A skincare routine is like a 20 step process and you like to use different acids. If you’re into it, I think is great. If you know what you’re doing, it’s also great. I also feel that this creates a lot of pressure on people who are just entering the skincare world, like if you Google something, and then you get suddenly 12 step routine, and you’re like, I don’t know, 12 steps and which one I should use.

There’s is no pressure in using 10 different products. It’s important also to understand what works for you and what doesn’t. Every person has defined skin types or skin concerns as every person is different. And every person may react differently to different ingredients. Getting this insight into what works for you and what doesn’t is difficult. And I hope that with the app, I can sort of facilitate this self getting to know. I would recommend understanding what you need and just applying something simple in the beginning. Your skill will thank you later when you get older.

Natalia 19:06 Maria previously taught me that sunscreen works well for your skin.

Maria 19:15 Sunscreen is a must. If you are to choose at least one step in your beauty routine, make it sunscreen. It’s really important not only for how the skin looks but also for your health because you develop potential health issues by being exposed to UV light.

Natalia 19:44 I usually talk about false beauty careers on this channel. But once in a while, there is some piece of wisdom that can change your life. I feel this is one of those little tricks because skincare is the same as diet. It doesn’t matter if you go to the best dermatologist just once and get all this complex treatment. If he does just once, it’s much better to take these small steps every single day, like using sunscreen or cleaning your skin.

I do a very simple routine. But if it’s repeated every day, for 20 years, you will see a difference. Thank you for that. I used sunscreen ever since you told me.

Maria 20:40 I feel happier. I already made a change.

Natalia 20:44 I even use it in winter. And my parents were like, What are you doing? You know, it’s December? But I know it from the experts in the field. Okay, coming back to how PhD influences your transfer success as an entrepreneur. I have to say that I’m on the same page with you that I also like the things I do right now. They have little to do with neuroscience. I think the only commonality is that I use a bit of my knowledge in neuroscience when they teach because I know a little bit about how the brain creates memories and how human memory works.
I use it to structure the class so that the important facts stick to the participant’s minds better.

Maria 21:51 I like this kind of advertisement. My techniques are based on neuroscience. And after one class, you’ll remember everything.

Natalia 21:59 I don’t advertise it like that because I feel I don’t have any research to back it up. It was not scientifically proven that this is a method that improves memory. I just use the tricks that I know will work and engage the audience. I use it in my practice. But that’s not what I advertise. I just wanted to say that this is the only commonality. I think what helps me the most is the professional ethic that we developed during PhD. This independence and the ability to work on your own and wait for gratification for a long time become useful when you have to develop a startup and a technical aptitude as well.

I think the Pareto Principle is not true in the 21st century when we have the internet. The Pareto principle is that you only have to do 20% of the effort because in 20% of the effort, you already get 80% of the results and you don’t have to care about the remaining 20%. It used to be one of the most popular principles in business that you just have to create an MVP, whatever that is just put it out and start selling as quickly as possible. But today, bad reviews spread so quickly through the internet that I think this principle is not true anymore.

And I think diligence in everything you do pays off. There is nothing worse than just creating this half-baked product and without thinking just putting it out into the market. I see it happening a lot but I think the fact that we are PhDs and we have a habit of finishing projects decently before we put them out for sale. I think it’s really helpful. I don’t know what your thoughts are on this.
Maria 24:17 On one hand, I agree. But on the other hand, I also like being part of the startup community and sort of going through different approaches, like all the successful startups went through. I do see a certain benefit of just putting whatever out there because it also depends on how you handle it, then maybe not to sell it but you just shared with people, and you sort of making your users in charge of your product. This is not working super much. I think it creates a very perfect tool for community building and people feel important in sharing their feedback and then seeing the feedback that is implemented.

I think it’s something pretty cool. I could consider my current app sort of not a sellable product but it’s out there. And people talk about this and use it. I also have a feedback form in the app, so people can share their thoughts. It’s very popular. I get a lot of messages from all over the world, with people sharing what they want next in the app. And most of the things will be implemented now in this version. I hope that they will also feel that.

Natalia 25:37 That’s a great piece of advice. I see that too actually. If you communicate with your audience through social media and put updates out there, and then they see the progress, they see how you’re developing, then they started getting interested. I myself also get a lot of comments and ideas. That’s a positive surprise. I mean I hoped that there won’t be much hate. But I didn’t anticipate that there will be so much help from people who I barely know, or I don’t know at all.

It also requires communication skills. I’m happy that I developed my writing skills more than my coding skills. Because if you have a little business, you have to communicate and write the whole day pretty much everything from blogs through like website content to social media posts. It’s rewarding indeed.

Maria 26:53 Unfortunately, I’m very bad at it. My whole team is very bad at it. It’s really hard to find that we are behind Skin Bliss. We have an Instagram account where we share useful tips for the producers about skincare. We recently started working with the freelancer on it. That’s helpful to sort of offload it. I know it’s important. They know that they want to improve it. But it’s just also like there’s only that much you can do within 24 hours of the day. Usually, these things sort of go into a lower priority if you see that you have a stack of things that you have to do.

But I do feel that it’s very important about the positive feedback. Yesterday, we discovered that our app is very popular on one of the Facebook groups in Mexico about skincare. These groups are for skincare enthusiasts who sort of share different skincare products or ask for advice. They would say, this’s my skin concern and this is a product and I’m considering what your committee thinks. And a lot of these posts are now replying with the advertisement of our app.

A person is asking, what do you think about this product? And then somebody comments Skin Bliss. It’s super positive. And actually, we posted yesterday an official post in the group thanking them for using our app and asking for their feedback on what they wanted. What I find very difficult is to find these groups. I have statistics. We did see a spike in downloads from Mexico. But we couldn’t attribute it to the source. We couldn’t find exactly where it comes from. I had like 2000 visits on the website from Poland last week. I just couldn’t find the source because I just got the keywords.

Somebody was googling Skin Bliss from Poland, but why were they googling it? I just couldn’t find the source. It’s very frustrating because I would love to sort of jump on it. If they talk about the app, I would love to go there and engage with them. If somebody has an advisable tool that does it, then please share because I would be happy to pay for it just to understand and find these sources of people talking about the app.

Natalia 29:58 I got it. Maybe, someone mentioned your app in an article or something like that. But I have no idea. I just learn about Google Analytics. Indeed, there’s so much information you just can’t get from there. My question for you would be, how did it all happen? How did you start? Did you have an investor early on? Or how did you start a startup? Can you tell us a little bit more about the team? because I know that it’s not just you. It’s also your partner in the startup. And recently, there’s also another person, I guess. Could you tell us a little bit more about the story of how the team was assembled? And how did you launch your company?

Maria 30:58 Basically, we went full time. My partner and I went full-time last February, just before pandemics happened. We do not have an external investor. We sort of bootstraps with some help from triple F which is friend familiar force. They may choose who they want to be friends with from your force. Along the way, how the team was built further is people just approached us so we didn’t look for it. In the beginning, we try to sort of find some advisors or to collaborate with somebody, and then we would reach out to people. It was never successful. We did talk to some people. We thought we had some agreement, but it didn’t fly in the end.

We got a bit discouraged. And we said, okay, we can just do it ourselves. But along the way, sort of more and more people started contacting us and asking to join our team. We thought that was great. That works pretty well. Now, it’s the two of us as co-founders, plus one new co-founder that we started working with in November. It was also a funny coincidence. Her name is Anna, and she was interested in the industry and sort of doing market research. And then she found our apps. When you download the app on iOS, you’ll see that, I’m the sort of developer behind the app. Then she googled me and found me on LinkedIn.

And then she realized that we worked at King together at some point. She’s also from Barcelona. We worked at the same place. She reached out and we met a couple of times. In the end, we decided to formalize the relationship. This is our founders’ team but we also currently have two interns. One of them moved from Paris here to be with us, which is crazy. We also work with a freelancer on social media. She is currently living in London. At some point, we grew into quite a big team.

That also comes with challenges. We also collaborate with two skincare experts. They are not officially part of the team but we work closely with them. There are a lot of new roles I had to find myself and which is not always easy.

Natalia 34:11 How does it work between you and your partner who is also your co-founder? For some people, it works very well to create a company with a partner. For some people, it’s a disaster. It’s the stakes that are higher. Because if you lose your relationship, you also lose your company. It’s that the stake is double. How does it work for you?

Maria 34:38 I agree that the stakes are double but also the benefits are double as well because to found a company with somebody, you need to trust them and I wish that everybody can trust their partners. That would be a huge plus that I can trust completely my partner and nothing wrong will come out of it. We also had experience working together before. We even call throughout one paper during our PhD times. Then we developed one mobile game together.

It was not that we just suddenly jumped on working together. But we already sort of tried this before. We knew that we can work together and communicate easily. It is good. I do feel that because we work so closely, we can always discuss everything without sending messages. It might be difficult for our team members to keep up with us because we can already discuss everything between us and then have a sort of discussion with the rest of the team. We try to also make sure that when we discuss something new that we also bring the whole team together. That was a good decision for both of us and I would recommend it.

Natalia 36:06 Okay. I mean, it’s not something you can arrange just like that.

Maria 36:15 I think the risks are higher. If it doesn’t fly, then we both are without a job and any savings or anything like this because we both invested in the startup. We have to make it work.

Natalia 36:39 It worked for you. I know that you’re happy. That’s a good example. If there’s anyone out there who needs relationships slash entrepreneurial advice, then maria is the person to go. Tell me what is your business model precisely for the moment? Because I know that initially, it was a b2c, right? It was like an app or sold or the absorber. I think you changed your business model. Is that true?

Maria 37:15 The app purchase was something very old. It’s no longer the case. But it is true that for now, we are still focusing on b2c, but for free. We don’t want to charge the users for anything. The idea is to build a big enough user base, then go b2b, and then bring retailers and different brands to our platform. Currently, we are connected with a couple of affiliate marketing platforms which is not business owner but something to sort of support us along the way.

The long-term goal is b2b services for beauty retailers and brands. The long-term goal is also more into data analytics and insights because we will have a huge database of users and concerns and products. I think it’s pretty unique because you cannot buy the data from anywhere. It’s also something that we hope we can see what we can do with it in the future.

Natalia 38:27 Okay. I mean, that’s the general direction, right? That’s also why it’s so hard for new businesses, like new startups, in the app industry to become profitable. Because as soon as you are large enough, you start offering your services for free to customers because you’re big enough to go b2b, then no new startups can compete. If they have to charge and they have to put on a paywall, then they can’t beat you anymore. It’s great that you take risks doing it.

I don’t know about your cash flow but you’re not big like a large company yet, but you already got over that step. That’s very exciting. I think I have it installed in my browser. If you guys don’t have Skin Bliss installed yet, then it’s a Chrome extension, right?

Maria 39:43 It’s mainly a mobile app. The chrome extension is just an addition and it was not maintained for a long time. If you’re doing something, go for a mobile app.

Natalia 39:53 I have an outdated version and I have to do my homework now with an ultra-new one. I’m curious how it works.

Maria 40:04 I will let you know. The new release is in like two weeks or something like that and then everything changes. Then you can find your perfect skincare product.

Natalia 40:15 I like to ask you a little bit more about how did you learn all the know-how to build up because I know that you are coding your PhD, but this is quite a different type of coding, right? You had to learn everything you need to know to build apps. From what I understand is that it requires years of experience before you can sit down and do it on your own. And typically, what developers do is becoming first interns, and work in teams under the supervision of more senior developers for quite a few years before they are independent enough to be able to build the whole project by themselves.

How did it happen in such a short time that you managed to learn all that you needed to do by yourself?

Maria 41:11 I keep learning every day. As you said, I had zero experience in making apps and I had no clue how to do it. My side project and the main project were the same. I never like to develop anything else, and then just transfer the knowledge of skin bliss but I just started building skin bliss from scratch by reading the documentation of different things. I don’t claim that the app is perfect. It’s true that when you learn something new, you need to work with somebody who knows how to do it to sort of learn from them the right way.

I never had this. I still think that probably if somebody looked at my code, they would be completely outraged at the ways I’m doing and implementing certain things. But for now, I guess it’s okay because it’s working. And it’s not slow. The two most important things are there. What is even more challenging for me is the backend. To make the app, I don’t say that it’s easy but it’s relatively easy. You change something and then you can reload it on your phone. And you see what the change actually made? Like what kinds of changes? When you try to build up the backend, make sure that it’s scalable and users can be connected at the same time and everything works perfectly.

I still have trouble navigating this. We also didn’t reach super high numbers. I honestly don’t know if we have 100,000 users at the same time, it will crash and burn. I will worry about it later when the time comes. It’s a lot of reading around online tutorials and seeing how it works.

Natalia 43:28 That’s incredible. You have to be a hipster and a hacker in one, right? You build a product, but you’re the salesperson or you used to be on until this point.

Maria 43:47 On one hand, it’s challenging. But on the other hand, it’s also good because I’m the specialist. If somebody asked me some questions, I can answer them, because I made it. In terms of trying to find investors or writing pitch decks, it is super time-consuming. Usually, startups go into two modes, either development mode or inverse investment raising mode. It’s challenging to sort of balance these two at the same time.

I’m looking forward to the time when we can employ proper developers, so they can take care of the implementation and can focus more on the bigger vision and the business itself.

Natalia 44:39 I perfectly get what you mean. I also know that. I started a company by myself and I had to do absolutely everything in the company. I know it’s very hard to keep that balance in the store. At the same time, be visible and also do meaningful work and produce content and I totally get it that it’s much easier to focus for 12 hours on just one thing and just go like through the screens for a few weeks, but then ignore the outside world and just do your stuff.

And then it’s much less tiresome than when you have to chop your day into pieces and take care of the sales on one hand and outreach and visibility at the same time, spend half a day, like in the deep work mode. That’s much harder indeed. And I myself struggle with how to find the perfect working scheme so that I can kind of balance between the two without extorting myself with work. I guess that’s the hardest part. Switching between the two modes is much easier. You have the momentum right now. I think if you already have the team, then probably in a few months, you get to the milestone when you can have developers as well.

Maria 46:15 Hopefully, I’m pretty sure.

Natalia 46:19 The next question would be, do you ever miss neuroscience or academia?

Maria 46:30 Sometimes in my darkest hours. I think what I’m missing the most is the intellectual challenge. It is what I’m currently doing. It is complicated. There’s no simple stuff. It’s also not that cognitively challenging. In the end, you have to build the company, like, other people have already done. And you can also intuitively feel what’s right, what’s not, but when you’re working on the novel research topic is like, you know, just you and your brain.

I miss this stimulation. I cannot find it anywhere else. I can find coding because it’s not that challenging. Again, it’s not simple, but it’s not cognitively challenging. It’s not to say that I would consider going back now, but more to sort of think about my research, the r&d Division of Skin Bliss that recently I agree to a supervisor and master students. That’s something that brings me kind of a lot of joy right now.

To not think about the business, but actually about the research topic and what we can do to answer the research question properly and stuff like this, is cool. It’s not neuroscience or cognitive science. It’s marketing. It’s a new field for me, but it’s not that challenging.

Natalia 48:04 I feel for you. I sometimes have the same feeling that there’s no beauty in just sitting in front of your computer for eight hours and trying to crack some abstract problem without basically having any concern about the outer world. It was frustrating for me back then. But now I feel like it was also a lot of mental peace. You know, you didn’t have to switch between so many tasks, you could just focus on one problem. That was also something intellectually challenging.

As a hobby, I sometimes get to more technical problems. And the moment I’m writing some chapter about a very technical project with a friend who is an expert in that area, I read his stuff and ask stupid questions so that he can improve the text. That’s how we were writing it. But, it’s challenging for me to understand the subject. That is a good counterbalance to my day job which is career advisory. What I do now is a very inspiring job. There are many enjoyable things to do.

But compared to these abstract problems from PhD, it’s not in that sense challenging. It’s challenging but different. I understand what you mean. I also have to search for additional stimulation elsewhere sometimes.

Maria 49:52 You feel that your brain gets lazy like sometimes. When some new research comes out from a field that I used to work in and I want to go through it once, I’m just so annoyed at myself that I let it slip so much. I guess you know the price we have to pay?

Natalia 50:19 I think if you have so many tasks on daily basis and so many different directions, your working memory develops differently. And it’s flat. You have more cognitive flexibility, but the depth is lower as well. I think you can’t be a specialist and go deep into one subject because the literature that you were reading in your PhD, is probably the same for me. It’s like world-class experts talking about some very narrow, deep problems. It’s not like, Daily Press is capitalistic press that maybe 200 or 2000 people can understand. It’s indeed like a muscle you have to train and otherwise, you lose that ability to follow.

I think, if you stayed in academia and became a professor at some point, you usually just skip through the text and get the basic concepts. I feel that even if you become a tenured researcher, then many of them just start looking at the problems from a helicopter point of view, and they no longer have little details and nuances in the models. I feel that even if you stay in academia, it can happen. I get what your concern is because I also sometimes feel that when you’re getting older, you become certifiably stupid. I think it’s just a different type of intelligence that develops instead of what you were working on before.

Maria 52:58 It was amazing as compared to working in academia. What happen is 1000 people could understand and only like 10 or 20 would read. In the end, nobody cared about anything. Now, people are writing and saying that the app changed their life. This is an amazing feeling. I guess I’m happy that I made the sacrifice. But it’s still a bit painful sometimes.

Natalia 53:09 I get it. I’m especially curious, like, from the business development point of view, what did you learn for this project? How to build an app? And how to scrap the data? How to build a model out of it? And how to present the data to the user? And is this the set of technical skills? I feel that it can be like a bunch of transferable skills that using the same architecture, you’re probably able to create 50 other apps in other domains and solve other problems.

Have you already thought about developing a new project in the future? Do you think that this is the project for you? Or are you also thinking about launching some other apps or maybe investing in other projects? Do you have any thoughts about your future as a business developer?

Maria 54:21 Yes, I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of hopes and a lot of delusional thoughts. I do hope that it’s sort of once I’m done with it. We can make it successful and we can exit. I would be content with life and I don’t think I would be up for developing anything new from scratch. I see it as the time to retire. But if I have the financial resources, I would like to be the investor and then just invest in other startups. These are dreams for the future, like, what’s gonna happen within the next five to 10 years if we’re lucky?

Natalia 55:24 Let’s be positive about it. You know, you have an app and with the user base for apps, the growth is not linear but exponential. You know, one day, one of the Kardashians will say something nice about this app, and then all of sudden, you have 10 million views.

Maria 55:47 But the likelihood of this happening is zero. I guess there is sort of these retails of the app developers. They are like, once we become viral, we just need this one viral post, and then everything’s gonna change. But for most of the apps, these viral posts never come. The planning for the development of the app doesn’t take into account virality. We have to keep our numbers realistic.

We do have a kind of exponential growth. In the beginning, having exponential growth is not that difficult. If you start with zero users, and then you’re looking to see the growth, that’s also validation, of these little metrics. It’s just more and more validation and either building into our delusion or leading us towards something good. It’s still the jury out there. Which one is gonna be first?

Natalia 56:54 Do you leave Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lifestyle who believes that there is no plan B. Do you have any form of plan B in your head? Or there is no plan B for you?

Maria 57:12 I’m toying with different scenarios. I guess the easiest Plan B would be to try again in the corporate world. I would try to learn to live with it and learn to live with hating my job as 90% of the human population does or I could try more into freelancing. I don’t have anything concrete but I definitely would prefer to work for myself. I don’t want to go back to having a boss and people telling me what to do.

Natalia 57:56 I get it. That was also my resolution that I felt I just don’t want to have another boss. I would rather jump out of the window, so there is no plan B really because it has to work, or otherwise, I really am going to do so.

Maria 58:19 Now, you have this suicide line number, written somewhere down the screen?

Natalia 58:27 It works for me. But it’s also, sometimes, I have to motivate people to change their careers. When I’m asked, like, what is motivating to you? I can’t share because how can I tell people. I just thought to myself, you know, the window is up here, you know, this is what waits for you. I can’t teach people this motivation.

Maria 59:04 I wish it works out for you. If it doesn’t work out for you, and it doesn’t work out for me, there will always be a place for your team and I promise not to be the boss.

Natalia 59:21 I mean, I didn’t come in here. I like to keep pauses to keep positive about it. It’s hard for all startups today. You have to be tough to get over the crisis, and it will be better. I think it’s all about adaptation. Before the crisis, I knew absolutely nothing about how to get attention online. I’m on the learning curve. I’m already much more down the line than a year ago when even creating a simple Facebook ad was like an obstruction for me.

I didn’t know which type of like 150,000 strategies are the best. I have no hesitation to use marketing because this is something you have to do. I think over the last year, it changes my thinking about all aspects of online business. I have a gut feeling that will be good. It will go very well for you. It’s already going well. I have to say, I’m impressed with what you do.

Especially given this deep water, you’ve jumped into a new country. You left the country where you started. The industry is also not very welcoming to outside strangers. They will not share information with you easily. Without capital, you are already afloat for like two or three years now. That’s in itself a success. I think it’s a great achievement already. Can I ask you for some general advice for PhD graduates?

Is there anything you would like to share for those who are still in academia and are hesitating about what path they should take next in their career? And maybe they have the desire to be independent, but they’re just fearful and hesitating if they should try?

Maria 1:02:06 My advice is to follow your heart and don’t be afraid. The only thing you can buy yourself after your PhD is time. If you have some savings from your PhD, just spend some time trying different things and seeing what works for you. I think that’s the best way to figure out what you want to do. I’m pretty sure you can still go back to academia unless you take 10 years, and then maybe not, but if it’s even a gap year, I still think it should be fine.

And it’s gonna be you might regret it if you don’t do it. I think everybody deserves to get here at some point in life. Go for it. Otherwise, I think it’s important to do what feels right. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not worth compromising. In the end, it’s your life. You have to make sure that you’re comfortable with it.

Natalia 1:03:12 It’s also good to rest a bit. If you can’t afford the gap year, because that’s not what everyone can afford, then I think gap month is something that everyone can afford after the PhD unless you’re drunker and you’re just spending up all your money, and in that case, you don’t deserve a break. Other than that, if you’re saving like any little amount per month, then you should be able to at least spend a month or two thinking about yourself and I think that intuition only can work when you rest it and sometimes we’re just too much in rushing around doing useless projects.

That’s also what the gap year helped me with. I took a gap year myself and then I started shifting my thinking from academia to elsewhere. I’m 100% agree with that. I forgot to ask you one thing. I’m personally interested in this. What do you think is your biggest strength? If you could say, one thing that you think is your strongest side that helps you the most in your career so far?

Maria 1:04:52 I think it’s learning new things and acquiring skills. I think it’s something that I’m thoroughly quick with so I can learn how to program quickly or check some new things. There’s also a downside to it that I can never be an expert in any of this. If you have multiple skills, then you never are an expert. That’s fine. I don’t need an expert to do most of the things. I just need to be able to understand how it works and just apply it.

Natalia 1:05:36 All right. Great. Thank you so much, Maria, for all your insights. Your story was very interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing how Skin Bliss develops further. You guys should put money on your right radar as well because, in a few years, she’s becoming an investor. You better track what she’s doing. I will definitely use Skin Bliss. I have to look it up. We’ll put a link to the app here in the description. Guys, take a look. We would like to encourage you to use it and tell us what you think on social media. Thank you so much for accepting the invitation.

Maria 1:06:24 Thanks for having me.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, July 12th). E010 Building a Startup as a PhD: the Life of a Founder in the Cosmetics Industry? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e010-building-a-startup-as-a-phd-the-life-of-a-founder-in-the-cosmetics-industry/

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