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Marco Polo Founder Vlada Bortnik On How To Turn Your Side Hustle Into a Booming Business

Founder of Marco Polo Vlada Bortnik is a mom, business owner and self-made woman who strives to balance family-work life while creating a top-rated app for the world.

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If you’re a working parent, you know that the biggest trigger word in the world is “work-life balance.” I mean, does it even exist? Does work-life balance hide under the bed with all of your hair ties? Or maybe it's buried in that most recent Photo Books Series that you've been meaning to send to print? Parenting (even if you do have support in the form of daycare or a nanny) is a full-time job — add another full-time job on top of that and it can feel like you have a hard time getting anything done. If there's anyone who knows what that feels like, it's Vlada Bortnik, the founder of Marco Polo and mother of two. Bortnik stopped by The MomForce Podcast to chat about being a mom entrepreneur, working with her husband and achieving that work-life “balance” you are so desperately seeking.

What's it like having a young family while running a massive business?

I actually don’t believe in balance. I was really fortunate to have my parents around when my babies were really little. I was working at a coffee shop next to my parents’ house when my first daughter was born, and I would stroll over to their home, feed my baby for a bit, put her back down for a nap and head back to work. It was such a blessing because my parents could have that special time with their grandchild and help their daughter also work towards something great.

You have mentioned that having a mission really drove you towards success. Can you tell us what was your mission and how did it drive you?

Our mission was to cure the loneliness epidemic of the world. For a while, as my husband and I were trying to figure out what kind of business to create, we were going down a lot of rabbit holes and it was very draining for my energy because I am the kind of person who likes to get stuff done. I kept asking myself: What am I going to do? Is it going to change the world? Will it make people happy? And then I met with a friend and she had a quote on her wall that said, “Don’t ask the world what it needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive because what the world needs is more people coming alive.” That changed the game for us. My husband and I wanted to feel like we get to do what we love. If you are building a startup, make sure that what you are doing isn’t just an interesting problem to solve for the world, but also an interesting problem to solve for yourself.

Where did you get the funding for your startup?

We had no money. My husband just finished business school and, by the time we started the company, I was pregnant with our second kid. I didn’t have health insurance, so my husband and I sat down to figure out our plan. We decided we were going to both take consulting gigs and do hourly work projects, and then the rest of the time we would spend working on our company.

It was a side hustle for about nine months, and then a friend of ours was over for dinner and he told us to start working on our product full-time. I laughed and told him that would be great, but I had a one-year-old and a baby. We needed to pay the bills. But we were fortunate that this friend really believed in us and invested in us. We had to put away our pride and ask for a few more investors, but we were glad we did.

So many people are transitioning to working from home, but your team has been doing that since the beginning. Do you have any tips for people working from home with kids?

We have always been a fully remote team. There are 38 of us working on the Marco Polo team. One of my pro tips is to make it very clear to your little ones about important work hours. For example, when I was preparing for this interview, I told my daughters “Alright, for the next 45 minutes, play in here and don’t come out until I get you.” I gave them some snacks and toys in their room. They are great girls.

Another tip is to not forget the social bonds. Because we have been remote since the beginning, we didn’t have those social breaks that other people are used to when working in an office space. So we have some Marco Polo groups about our kids, our pets and even one where we share some of our cooking. This helped us get to know each other in a more relaxed way. 

What are some Marco Polo app tips and tricks you can share with us?

For sure use groups when you are doing Marco Polo. Getting one person to join a Zoom call or a FaceTime video call is difficult enough, and getting a group is almost impossible, especially if it is moms. My other favorite feature is the “2x” feature. If you have 20 Polos to catch up on, you might need to speed through those conversations. Sometimes I will be cooking or preparing dinner and just listen to my friends on Marco Polo, and it is great because it is hands-free. Another feature I love is bookmarks. If my kids leave me a really sweet message like, “I love you mom!” then I can bookmark it for easier access to find it and not have to scroll for it.

Real talk: Can you delete a Marco Polo message after it has been recorded and sent?

Yes. We wanted to ensure safety on this app. Hold down on any of the Polos in a storyline and a whole menu of options will pop up. You can delete, but you can also save the video to your phone if that is what you want. Then you can share it somewhere else. 

What is your last nugget of advice for any parent hoping to start a business?

Chances are you will have a lot of hardship. The odds are stacked against you. So you need to ask yourself, “How do I maximize joy in my life?” Through all the lows, will you have a reason to go back? Whatever you do might just be a cool opportunity, or it can be a cool opportunity you care about and will care about forever.

For more real-life parenting tips and tricks, check out the MomForce Podcast! Vanessa Quigley, mother of 7 and co-founder of Chatbooks, hosts this refreshing take on all things mom. Along with her 4 sisters, they’ll get into the nitty-gritty of parenting together, bringing in experts to get to the source of your most-Googled "adulting" questions. Check out the #MOMFORCE BY CHATBOOKS FACEBOOK PAGE and find us on Instagram @THEMOMFORCEPODCAST.

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