What's your personal background? What motivated you to start your own company?
I was raised by my single mother to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do as long as I set my mind to it. Having said that, there was definitely an unspoken caveat: I’d need to find a way to make those goals happen.
My mom worked in the office of a packaging production company and my father (with whom I was less close) was a stonemason and contractor.
I was proud to come from a more blue-collar family, but the professional world was really a mystery to me. And while this mystery started with the job search process, it certainly didn’t end there. Even after I landed my first “real” job, I realized that was only the beginning. From there, I had to figure out how to earn the respect of my superiors and peers. I had to figure out how to navigate tricky conversations, advocate on my own behalf, and ultimately build a case for promotions.
I landed my “dream role” at the Brookings Institution working in foreign policy and eventually realized I wanted to work in tech. It’s a long story that started with a dinner in New York with three founders of early-stage companies (all of which went on to become unicorns). I caught the bug, so to speak, and really felt like I could start a company “someday”.
Not knowing where to start, I decided to go for a master’s degree in Management and Organizational Development at the London School of Economics. I then ended up in San Francisco reporting to the CEO of a commerce company called Massdrop (now called Drop) before moving on to work for two amazing founders at a much smaller freight marketplace startup that had the misfortune of launching their business around the same time as Uber Freight.
From the beginning of my career to the moments before launching Marlow, I was actively noticing a trend. First, most people were dealing with uncertainty in their careers. Even my much more senior coworkers at the Brookings Institution were struggling in certain areas. Second, there didn’t seem to be any great resources for developing the professional skills that would lead to higher performance, less stress, and ultimately more happiness.
After a decade of hoping someone else would come up with a great solution, I realized it wasn’t going to happen.
Today’s professionals at all levels needed a resource that was relevant to the situations they were facing right now, affordable enough that they or their employers could pay for it, helped them stay accountable to their goals, and was flexible enough to fit very busy schedules.
Executive coaching was the closest thing to a great solution but it was too expensive, too difficult to find a great coach, and full of coaches who weren’t experts on the most important professional skills like communication, time management, career direction, and people management.
The first version of Marlow started with us listening to our members, and we’ve listened closely ever since.
People often ask when I knew it was the right time to start my own company. For me it was a combination of having a real problem that needed to be solved and realizing that I could get the prototype out quickly with the new availability of nocode tools.
What no code tool(s) did you use to build Marlow and what purpose did each play in the final product?
I started Marlow in 2017 and spent a good deal of time looking for solutions that offered a great website with the ability for users to have unique logins. I wanted something with much more control than Squarespace or Wordpress but not so high tech that I’m unable to build it myself.
I went at it with “someone has solved this, I just know it.” I was already familiar with Zapier and IFTTT. Through my search process, I learned about Bubble and started tinkering. I quickly realized it was going to be the tool I needed.
What were the initial costs to get Marlow off the ground?
The costs to launch Marlo were really very low.
At the time, I think I was paying Bubble something like $79 (USD) per month, and then another $200 total each month in tools like Zapier, Mailchimp, and Sendgrid.
The bigger challenge was that I quit my job with months of savings.
What was the process of building your product from idea to launching?
We started Marlow as a direct-to-consumer business and quickly expanded to work with organizations to provide coaching to their employees. The entire time, we knew we needed to design for our members (and not for their companies). If you get it right with the individuals and it has a huge impact, the rest follows.
I started with surveys to our target audience asking them what types of problems they were facing at work. I then sent more surveys asking how they’re currently solving those problems. I built the world’s ugliest prototype in about 3 weeks and tested that with potential users and gathered even more feedback. From quitting my company to a beta launch was about 4 weeks. Getting it to a much stronger version took about 10 more iteration cycles, plenty of user interviews, and lots of training in Bubble.
How do you attract customers?
I started with my network and once we realized that our paying members were getting reimbursed through their companies, I started reaching out directly to leaders in mid-market companies. We brought on 3 paying corporate clients in our first year of business and it was enough to get us into Jason Calacanis’s LAUNCH incubator.
What are the biggest challenges you've overcome building Marlow?
Learning Bubble certainly had a learning curve but the biggest challenges we’ve overcome have been around destigmatizing coaching. SO many people at the time associated professional development coaching with either career coaching (i.e., looking for a job) or life coaching. Many others thought it was for low performers. The reality is that the vast majority of our members are high performers — their companies are investing in expanding their skill sets so they can get to the next level and become even higher performers.
What's your advice for non-technical people who want to start a company?
Become a sponge. The internet is full of free and affordable training. If you are solving a problem you believe in and you really think people need, don’t let the technical aspects get in your way.
Also, I don’t think I would have learned Bubble as quickly as I did without having a specific project in mind. I was building something for a reason, rather than simply trying to learn a new tool.
Finally, finding the balance between user research, building, and shipping is key. You should talk to prospective customers and existing customers forever — but in the early days, you also have to build something. So get it built, ship it, get feedback, and reiterate.
If you’re really not technical, start with drawings and tools prototyping tools like Figma or Bubble.
What are your future plans for Marlow?
We’re on a mission to make sure every professional has access to the resources they need to be successful and happy in their careers. We’re starting with coaching for managers and emerging talent and look forward to expanding to additional resources.
How do you think the rise of no-code tools will impact entrepreneurship?
I think we’re already seeing it. More and more companies are starting as nocode businesses. It has fundamentally lowered the barrier to start a business. At the same time, it’s raising the requirement for you to have more than just an idea. There’s no excuse today to not have a product in the hands of customers.
Instead of spending time and money on growing a Dev team, we were able to put those valuable resources toward enhancing the coaching experience and iterating more quickly on our product.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
We wouldn’t have been able to start Marlow if it weren’t for Bubble and other tools like it. Determination and curiosity really laid the foundation for our growth.