How The Founders Of Chatbooks Pivoted A Struggling Startup Into A Multi-Million Dollar Business

Carer Profile: Vanessa Quigley, Chatbooks

Many successful entrepreneurs start businesses because they notice a problem and want to create a solution. When Vanessa Quigley realized she didn’t have an easy, fast and affordable way to create photo albums of her family, she and her husband, Nate Quigley, built the solution. Chatbooks is an app and website that enables people to literally and figuratively “hold on to what matters” by creating subscription-based automated photo books. Founded in 2014, the Utah-based 100-person company has raised a total of $20 million, which they plan to use as part of their initiative to further grow marketing efforts, product offerings and expansion into new international markets. If you haven’t used Chatbooks, but it sounds familiar, it is likely because of their viral and hilarious marketing video that reached three million views in the first two days and has now totaled 58 million views because it resonates with busy parents who want an easy way to capture everyday moments—even the chaotic and imperfect ones. This week, they are back with their newest marketing campaign, a light-hearted spotlight on the fact that more moms need to stop living behind the scenes and Get In The Photo.

Career Profile: Vanessa Quigley

Elana Lyn Gross: What inspired you to start Chatbooks? What was your career path?

Vanessa Quigley: My career path started on the stage as a professional opera singer. But as I slowly (or rather quickly!) became a mother to seven children, I had to juggle full-time mothering with a part-time singing career. I was looking forward to my youngest being old enough for full-time school and having more time for singing but plans changed one night when my youngest, Declan, was just five. I found him in bed clinging to a photo book his preschool teacher made for him for graduation. Through his tears, he told me that he never wanted to grow up and my heart broke! First of all, it was so sweet that he was feeling nostalgic for his childhood at the tender age of five. But most of all I was overwhelmed with guilt. As a younger mom, I had been an avid scrapbooker but I hardly had any printed photos of Declan—much less made a photo book. That was my “aha” moment. I knew I needed to get my photos out of my phone so we could hold onto what matters. My husband Nate already had a small development team working on another project, but with my convincing, he agreed to pivot and within a week we had a prototype of an app that could simply and automatically print my Instagram pictures in a book. I’ll never forget the smile on Declan’s face as he looked through our first few Chatbooks full of photos of him.

Gross: What has been the biggest challenge and, on the flip side, the biggest reward of starting Chatbooks?

Quigley: As a new startup, we faced many challenges in the beginning—and the biggest challenge was a lack of capital. We were a ragtag bunch with very little money in the bank, but we were scrappy. Thankfully, we started selling books like crazy as soon as we officially launched, and soon after we were able to hire some seriously amazing people for our team and raise more capital. Watching our very talented team work so hard to hit our ambitious targets has been thrilling. But for me, the biggest reward will always be the emotional reaction when our customers receive their first Chatbooks. Priceless!

Gross: What advice do you have for other women who hope to start their own businesses?

Quigley: My first bit of advice is to find the perfect partner. As women, and mothers specifically, we often have domestic obligations that require a portion of our time and energy. A partner who understands that and is willing to help you creatively manage that juggling act is invaluable. I’ve been so lucky to have my husband as my partner in life since we met as college freshmen. Now as parents to seven children and business partners, I’m convinced that anything is possible with him at my side. Find a partner that is invested in your business and you!

Gross: What is a workday as Vanessa like? Please walk me through a day!

Quigley: I am a night person who’s trying to be a morning person. I make myself get up at 5:30 am so I can squeeze in a workout and some quiet time at home before the chaos of the morning begins. I have five kids living at home now and they all need their mama to help them get out the door and off to school. By 9 am I’m on my way to our office, which is only five minutes from our house. The quick commute is so nice for me since I try to be home by 2:30 pm when kids start coming home from school. I try to only go to the office three days a week and plan all of my team meetings on those days. The other two days I get to enjoy the quiet of my own home office and crank out work with limited interruption. Once homework, dinner, cleanup and activities are all over, I usually curl up with my laptop to wrap up the day’s work. And if I’m good, lights are off by 10:30 pm so I can do it all over again the next day.

Gross: What are your responsibilities as chatbooker-in-chief of Chatbooks?

Quigley: Chatbooks was created to help solve a problem that I had. I knew I wanted easy and affordable photo books, and I had a hunch there were other people out there that wanted the same. So I named myself chatbooker-in-chief as the voice of the people and took the lead on product development and marketing. Today, I continue to work closely with product and marketing while sharing our Chatbooks story with the world.

Gross: You previously started the photo sharing apps, Folkstory and Just Family. Eventually, those ideas morphed into Chatbooks. What was your “pivot process” like and what were your three key takeaways from that experience?

Quigley: My husband started those apps, while I provided financial and moral support. Out of desperation—after years of “investing” with very little traction—I convinced him and his team to pivot away from a cloud-based memory keeping solution and just print Instagram photos. I wanted something physical to hold onto, and it turns out lots of other people do too. We sold a million books in our first 18 months!

Through this process, we learned three key things. First, it needs to be beyond easy. Don’t make customers learn a new behavior. Second, pick a price point where the value is so obvious that it’s a no-brainer for people to press “buy.”  We call that price “less than lunch.” Third, listen to your target customer. In our Folkstory and JustFamily days, we heard people say they wanted books, but we believed that print was dead. Turns out we were dead wrong.

Gross: What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?

Quigley: I call myself the “voice of the people,” but really my job is to listen to people. As an entrepreneur, it is important to block out negativity but also somehow actively listen to the important feedback that can make all the difference. Our pivot to Chatbooks would’ve happened sooner if we had been better listeners, and I don’t want to miss another opportunity for growth because I’m stubbornly pushing my own agenda.

Gross: What are three characteristics you look for when you’re hiring a new team member?

Quigley: We have five “All-Star Points,” one for each point of a star, that guide us in our hiring process: Grown-up, Ship, Amazing, Optimistic and Kind. We look for team members who act like grown-ups and aren’t afraid to ship (get stuff out the door) and who are all around amazing while being optimistic and kind.

Gross: Your customer service team, #Momforce, is made up of 35 moms who work part-time. What is your mission with #Momsforce? 

Quigley: When we first launched Chatbooks, my husband and I were answering all the customer support messages. And we were drowning! Then we started getting a few emails from customers saying how much they loved Chatbooks and wondered if we were hiring. They were stay-at-home moms who needed or wanted to work and were excited to be a part of a growing company they cared about. We hired them to help with support and our #Momforce just grew from there. Each member makes her own hours, working two to five hours each day cheerfully answering customers’ questions and concerns.

Gross: You had a viral (and hilarious!) marketing video that reached 3 million views in the first two days, and now has totaled 58 million views! And now you’re sharing a light-hearted spotlight on the fact that more moms need to stop living behind the scenes and Get In The Photo! What was your inspiration for this campaign and how will moms (and dads!) around the world be getting involved?

Quigley: The inspiration for this movement came from the lives of many moms (and dads) who work at Chatbooks, including my own experience! A team member named Katie posted a quote on a team Slack channel last fall about how, years from now, our kids won’t care what we look like in a photo—they’ll just want us in the photo. It resonated with us so strongly, whether it was because we aren’t in our own photos or because we realized our parents aren’t in that many photos from our childhood.

When we kept talking about it, we realized this was a message we wanted to share with all parents. We’re ready to be seen in our own stories. We want photos with our kids, not just of them. Parents around the world can get involved simply by getting in the photo! And they can pass the inspiration on by sharing one of those photos on social media with #Getinthephoto and encouraging their friends to do the same.

Gross: What are the most important skills for doing your job and how did you develop them?

Quigley: Time management is something that I’m constantly thinking about. I’d like to be involved in every aspect of our business and work with every team, but I’ve learned through trial and error that I cannot do it all. I have to be very picky about what I spend my time on and trust in my amazing team to execute on so much of what we do.

Gross: What’s the biggest lesson you learned at work and how did you learn it?

Quigley: I like people to like me and approve of the work that I’m doing—yet I’ve learned that it is impossible to please everyone when you put yourself out there. I love all the amazing app store reviews and social media shoutouts Chatbooks receives. Occasionally, however, we get an angry tweet. In our early days, I would stew and obsess over it and lose sight of all the good, but over the years I’ve learned to be okay with not making everyone happy and keeping it all in perspective.

Gross: You are a mom of seven and a cofounder! How does motherhood make you a better leader?

Quigley: I grew up as the oldest of 12 children (often mothering my siblings!) and now I’m raising seven children of my own. Being part of a big family taught me patience, flexibility and teamwork and, as the mother of my own big family, I’ve learned the importance of organization, delegation and doing hard stuff! These lessons have shaped me and the way I lead my new family here at Chatbooks.

Gross: What advice do you have for other people who are thinking of cofounding a company with their spouse? 

Quigley: I absolutely love working with my husband and can’t think of a better business partner. It is so rewarding to be working on a shared passion with my best friend. As for finding work-life balance, we gave up on that years ago and now refer to this craziness as our “life’s work” and we feel equally yoked in our efforts.

Gross: You’ve said that what parents need most is jobs that adapt to their lives—not the other way around. How have you created that company culture at Chatbooks?

Quigley: I needed flexibility with my job to accommodate my family life and responsibilities, and I wanted the same for our entire team. One of our company values is “Grown-up” which means we count on our employees to be responsible for their time and work and work when and how they want. That means different things for different people—for example, you don’t have to think twice about working from home when a child is sick, or you might choose to be on our #Momforce, which is fully remote, and work only while your kids nap. Or you might bring your kids into the office for the afternoon while you have a few meetings. It’s a big part of our culture because we all put this flexibility into practice—from our executive team to customer support representatives, men and women, and parents and non-parents.

Gross: What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?

Quigley: As a young woman, I waited for an invitation or permission to do things. I needed approval to move forward. I regret the many opportunities I missed in my life and career as I sat around waiting. As an older “more experienced” woman I care much less about what others think. I am braver about going for what I want.

Gross: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Quigley: A couple of years ago I was asked to speak on a panel at a women’s business conference with some serious powerhouse full-time career women, and I was terrified. I am very comfortable and confident when performing on stage, and as a mother, but as a late-blooming businesswoman and entrepreneur, I had some real insecurities. But it was my husband who said, “ There’s no right way to be an entrepreneur. Just be you!” I’ve since been able to embrace my way of doing things and representing another path of entrepreneurship.

Gross: What is your business advice for other young professional women?

Quigley: Believe in yourself and be brave. Fear of doing something new is totally normal. Know that you are up to the task and start doing! Accept the fact that you will make mistakes and just keep going and testing and experimenting.

I originally wrote this for my Forbes column

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