Founder story

BOTfriends is proof that you don’t need experience to be a great entrepreneur

Michelle Skodowski, cofounder and COO of BOTfriends

While it’s often said that the best entrepreneurs have several companies behind them, there’s also a case for being a first-time founder with no entrepreneurial experience at all. For Michelle Skodowski, cofounder and COO of BOTfriends, founding a company right after graduation had its advantages.

For a start, all of the groundwork for their company was laid in business school: she and her cofounders met there, interned together, and found a good fit. “They told me that in their free time they've been working together on a new technology called chat bots, and that it's a new thing that’s going to be huge in the future.” Two of her cofounders developed a chatbot prototype for Porsche while interning there; their beta product would later evolve into a conversational middleware platform that lets corporates run virtual assistant chat bots in one place and scale them across the whole enterprise. Simultaneously, they were mentored by an entrepreneurship professor who encouraged them to found their company, and they transitioned seamlessly from school to startup; their employer, Porsche, became their first customer.

Michelle believes that, practically speaking, starting a company fresh out of school was lower-risk for her than older, more experienced founders: “I had less commitments: I didn't have a family, I didn't have a mortgage. As a student I was used to living minimally, so I didn't have that many expenses. It was like okay, if anything fails, it doesn't matter because I haven't been anywhere at all anyway.” The stakes, as well as her expectations, were low simply because she didn’t have anything to lose.

“Less experience was a benefit that allowed her to approach leadership and management problems with a fresh perspective.”

For a first-time founder like Michelle, learning on the job is par for the course. “When we started off in a smaller team, it was all super relaxed–but then of course, we had to actually establish processes and agile methods. One of our biggest challenges was establishing an organizational structure that works for everyone. And we had to learn how to do that–none of us worked several years in a corporate prior to starting the company.” But Michelle thinks that less experience was a benefit that allowed her to approach leadership and management problems with a fresh perspective. Rather than iterating existing methods used by other companies, she was forced to respond to her company’s own challenges and resolve them in the best way–for them.

Michelle also made another challenge work for her: being a woman founder. “From an external perspective, it definitely opened some doors. It was always appreciated if women took the chance to speak at conferences and give keynotes - so that brought visibility as well to our company. This is not something that was on our agenda, but it has been a great opportunity.”

Michelle cites mentorship programs as helping her to hone the leadership skills she needed, which is why she applied for Google for Startups Immersion: Women Founders program in 2019. BOTfriends was already on the Google Cloud startup program, using Cloud software such as natural language processing tool Dialogflow to build their chatbots, and that’s how she heard about Immersion. For Michelle, who said she applied for the program because “You can never learn enough,” the program was a huge growth curve: she attended workshops on OKRs, go-to market concepts, marketing strategies and writing. She was also paired with a Google mentor–a former VC–who helped Michelle implement OKRs, evaluate investment options and create business plans for her bootstrapped company.

BOTfriends

“But”, she says, “the most important thing for me was to exchange with the other women founders. Just sitting with them at the dinner table and hearing their daily stories–what they're struggling with, what their challenges are–that was the nicest thing.” The biggest takeaway for Michelle, a self-taught founder, was “that you are not alone. Everyone's struggling with the same issues and problems and it just feels nice to identify with other founders.” She says that seeing other entrepreneurs encountering the same experiences helped her to trust her own process more: “It's okay to struggle sometimes, it's okay to have problems and challenges that might seem impossible to overcome, when you know that other people did it.”

If she were to pay it forward and give one piece of advice to other founders, what would it be? ”How important it is to hire the right people, and how big of an impact it is if you hire the wrong people. I think a lot of people underestimate what it means to hire a person, onboard them, get them up to speed, and then find out that it's not working and then have to offboard them.” She emphasises the importance of getting the right fit as early as possible: “There's this phrase, if you hire the second best, he or she's going to hire the third best, and that person is going to hire the fourth best. So really make sure that you only hire the best in class people that help you to achieve your goals.”

Founders Book Club

What book are you reading right now?

Becoming, by Michelle Obama.


Immersion: Women Founders is a 12-week, skill-building mentorship program for high potential women-led startups selected from startup communities across Europe, including the UK and Israel. The program aims to address predominant challenges for women founders in the startup ecosystem with the aim to close the gender gap, ensuring more equal access to funding, and leveraging strong professional networks.

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