Christine Busaba and Katie Spies of Maev: Why you need to find your tribe, find your people and find your community if you are a ‘twenty something founder’
Find your tribe, find your people, find your community. Founding and entrepreneurship are extremely isolating experiences. Startups are hard and it can feel like there are more losses than wins. Everything that happens in your company can feel like it’s a reflection on you. There’s no playbook to follow. Everything feels nebulous. It’s so easy to get bogged down and to get into a loop of being isolated. Talk about it to people. Don’t keep it bottled up. Find your tribe and the people who support you and are rooting for you because they offer such clear perspective from the outside.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Busaba and Katie Spies, the co-founders of Maev, the new direct-to-consumer pet wellness brand launching with a line of well designed raw food bowls, and vitamin-packed nutritional bars and bone broth. Maev creates a reliable community that supports the lives of busy owners, and offers a holistic nutrition approach for dogs of all ages based on their individual health needs and goals (delivery service starts at just $2 per day). After earning degrees in industrial design and environmental engineering at MIT, co-founder Katie Spies moved to San Francisco to work in tech, where she adopted her rescue dog George, an Italian Greyhound. With few great resources that truly resonated with Katie, now a new dog owner, Katie was inspired to change that. She quit her tech job to spend nearly a year as a full-time dog walker, where she became immersed in the tight knit community of city dog owners and their specific needs. Katie moved back to the East Coast to attend Harvard Business School, where she met fellow student and soon-to-be cofounder Christine Busaba, who previously studied economics at Tufts and worked on the marketing analytics and strategy team at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Together they developed the initial idea for Maev to address and meet the needs of health-conscious, wellness-enthused, modern dog owners, and make a direct emotional connection with them.
Thank you so much for joining us Christine and Katie. What is your “backstory”?
Katie: I grew up in Kansas City to a family of lawyers. I loved to tinker and design things, and thought I wanted to be an architect or engineer. I decided in 8th grade that I wanted to go to MIT, after someone told me it was the best school in the world. Somehow, I got in. My first year there, so far from home, was rough. Working on side-projects was a good distraction, and sophomore year I started working on a 3D printing project. When I needed money to keep it going, I ended up at a pitch competition and immediately fell in love with the concept and culture of startups. None of my family members understood what that meant. After school, I moved to San Francisco and joined a 40 person startup creating apps to help farmers. We got acquired and grew to a company of 900 employees in 3 years. In the midst of it all, as a 22 year old living in an apartment with a roommate and a 10+ hr per day job, I had adopted a puppy — George. At first it was a hard transition, and after everyone in my life had told me not to do it, I didn’t have many places to turn. Building a small community of other twentysomethings with dogs made a huge difference. Eventually, I quit my tech job and became a dog walker. What I expected to be a two-three month gig ended up being my everyday for eight full months. I loved meeting like-minded young people with dogs, and my side-projects revolved around city dog problems.
After that, I left San Francisco to attend Harvard Business School, expecting to use the two years to find people I wanted to work with and problems to work on. A year in, I realized the side-hustle giving me more energy than any other ‘concept’ was the only thing I wanted to spend time on. Cue Christine, who I’d met around that same time. We were fast friends and I tricked her into contributing to Maev for free for a summer before convincing her to join full time. The second year of B-school was a rough balance. I spent the summer debating dropping out, and to work full time on Maev immediately. In the end, I figured I can always start a company but will only have this one year to finish business school with my cohort of friends, and decided to go back to finish the degree. Balancing building a company with schoolwork and business school events was an impossible goal. Every day fell short of getting everything done, but we continued packing and shipping boxes out of our apartments, skipped spring break, and closed a pre-seed the same day as graduation.
Christine: I’m kind of Katie’s opposite in some ways. I grew up in Boston to parents who immigrated from Lebanon and who are both doctors. We weren’t exactly the risk-taking type and I was never the kid who loved to build things. I was the kid who was an avid reader and storyteller. I was obsessed with history, politics and business, but mostly from the lens of ‘Why do people do the things they do? What stories bind us across time? What stories do we tell that can captivate audiences?’ Most of my childhood revolved around near constant conversations about current affairs and politics and culture — that was dinner table conversation at home and those were also the friends I made growing up. I ended up going to Tufts University where I studied International Relations and Economics, which was right up my alley. I got to read and write an absurd amount and have really deep and intricate debates (one of my favorite things in the world).
After school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I spent a few years working at Liberty Mutual Insurance where I got to do a little bit of everything — marketing analytics, strategy, and planning. When I decided to apply to business school, I knew that I wanted to build some intentionality around my career, find meaning in it and probably work in consumer products. It was in business school at Harvard though where it all crystalized. My whole life I’ve loved storytelling, conversation, culture, politics, economics, reading, and writing. Marketing and branding is that. Really resonant brands are able to tap into something in you that tells a story that speaks to who you are, the cultural moment we live in, the conversations we’re having. Around that time, I met Katie during our second semester and she told me about what she was working on with Maev and it all just clicked. I was captivated by the story of this woman who moves to a city and gets a dog against everyone’s wishes and in the most turbulent time in her life, but does it anyway because she trusts herself. I wanted to tell her story, create content for her, and create a community for her.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?
In June we moved into our first office in NYC, a WeWork at the intersection of Broadway and Canal St in Soho. Our product is a subscription food product with really unique packaging design. We placed the minimum possible order quantity, and since we didn’t have a warehouse yet, we had them shipped to our 8’ x 6’ office.
One June morning I got a call from one of the WeWork building managers in a full panic asking where I was. It was 8am, and I was in bed. He mentioned a delivery had arrived, and it took a few minutes for me to realize that this wasn’t just a few boxes, but the semi full pallet of packaging materials the manufacturer had shipped — and accidentally had tripled the order. I ran to the office and called Christine when I realized what we were up against, sweating. 72 large boxes had to be broken down from pallets on Broadway, carried across the street and into the building. WeWork loaned us hands and offices to stash the boxes for a few days.
Two big takeaways out of this. The first is to expect the unexpected. A lot of days will turn out nothing like you expected them to and you just have to roll with it — it’s way better than the alternative of always being stressed when things don’t turn out the way you thought they would. And then the second is that people really do want to help you. Those extra hands and offices that day made a huge difference. People didn’t have to help us get out of that mess, but they did anyway. Your team is always way bigger than your technical ‘team’ and that’s really heartening.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At the end of the day, Maev is an incredibly personal brand that’s focused on connection above all — we want to meet our consumers and have a conversation. We want to interact with you. We’re not just a business operating at a distance. So many direct to consumer players don’t want to actually interact with customers at all. They make a product, put it in a box, ship it to someone and hopefully never have to interact with them because interaction usually means a problem. We love connecting. We don’t just want to transact — we want to relate and converse.
From a product perspective, we make intentionally designed, better for you products (food, vitamins, broth) that make it easy to give your dog something better. By co-creating everything with the community, we’ve been able to design products that fit seamlessly into a city dog owner’s life. Raw food tends to be really inaccessible, either because of price point or convenience — most of us don’t have the time or energy to go to a butcher and get obscure cuts of meat for our dogs. We make raw easy, pre-portioning the food based on your dog’s needs so that each bowl is exactly one days worth of food.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This is such a hard question because it totally takes a tribe to make this work — our team, friends, family, customers, investors, and we’ve been unbelievably lucky on all fronts. To be honest, we’ve both had a profound impact on each other and feel so grateful to have each other. There was a day last spring in the middle of fundraising where we took a 6am flight to New York, pitched to two different investors, flew back to Boston and pitched to an investor there, and then had our tryout for a startup pitch competition. It was probably the single most exhausting and absurd day of our lives. Two cities, multiple pitches, completely different audiences, but having each other there cut through the exhaustion and absurdity. We wanted to be on our A-game for each other, so we powered through and knowing that the other person was there helped so much. Again, your co-founder is the only other person in the world who understands what you’re going through. They’re your rock, your foundation, your friend. That day was a total testament to that.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We just launched publicly in New York City, which opens up a new phase for the company. We are hyper-experimental, and are constantly running A/B tests and launching micro features to test new ideas. It’s exciting, no idea is too crazy to test, and that involves every person on the team.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We think daily about who we want to make money for, which applies to employees, partners, and investors. For us, the most impactful thing we can do is to empower people who deserve it (especially those who are otherwise passed over), to set an example of strong, diverse women at the top, and to develop people. The moments where we look back and see how much someone has grown or how they’re positioned for career growth here in a way they weren’t in their past jobs are the most rewarding moments we’ve had.
We want to build a company that inspires our community and insiders on the day-to-day, and empowers the next generation of women leaders and founders to go forth.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Two books come to mind: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed and Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. These aren’t your classic, “I read this business book, founder book, venture book that changed how I run my company”. They’re nothing like that. They’re just books about the human experience and reminders of the shared humanity in all of us. We could all use a little more compassion both towards ourselves and to others, and books like this are simple reminders of that. They’re reminders that everyone is going through something. They’re reminders that being human is both joy and pain. They’re reminders to ask people how they’re doing and to extend a little empathy, even when you really don’t want to. See your friends. Call the ones who live far away. Talk to your parents. Meet people in real life. And most importantly, ask how they’re doing. The simple act of hearing about someone else’s life and having some compassionate conversation creates such magic.
Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each
- Rewarding: Assembling an incredible team and developing people is one of the most rewarding parts of this. Your company is really the constellation of the people you have on the inside and how motivated, inspired, creative and and excited they feel on a day to day basis. Which in some ways can be scary, but in other ways is wildly rewarding. We’re lucky enough to work with people every day who know way more than we do on a variety of subjects. With the right levels of autonomy, it’s amazing to see the ideas they come up with and the motivation they have to implement them. We’re constantly in awe of how inspired our team is. Half of our to-do list is this long backlog of crazy ideas that our team’s assembled and that’s inspiring to us as founders.
- Rewarding: We often say that “the parents aren’t home” or “there are no adults in the room”, when we want to brainstorm off-the-wall ideas. Being young and early stage are bittersweet excuses, but we can use them to try the most off-the-wall ideas and our brainstorming sessions can be really fun. Not everything we do has to be scalable, sometimes it just needs to be resonant and cut through the noise.
- Rewarding: And to follow up on that point, we’re at such an interesting inflection point in the state of consumerism. We’re watching buying behaviors and consumer patterns shift. Brands continue to pop up out of nowhere. Doing what we do, we can go out in the world and draw inspiration from the stores we browse, the magazines we read, the TV is watch and even small, interesting nuggets can be applied to what we do. We get to walk through the world with this hyper-attuned eye for culture at large and think about how to apply it to our jobs. Nothing’s off limits.
- Difficult: There will always be people who don’t get it and who say no, and that’s always going to be difficult. If they’re people you respect or care about, it’s a hard blow. But if everyone was a believer then it wouldn’t be innovative.
- Difficult: People inside of startup world, whether they’re a believer in your idea or not, tend to understand your career and day-to-day. One difficulty for me is that family and friends from completely different career paths don’t understand what my job is and to some extent think I’m crazy. When I quit my tech job, they thought something must have happened. When I didn’t recruit for “real jobs” out of grad school, they called to persuade against. My family imagines my job is a cross between a sole proprietorship and (at best) shark tank. As a founder, this “job’’ takes over your entire life, and people inside the tent who are bought into the vision become the most supportive and addictive environment to be in.
What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?
Christine: Know your why and find your tribe. There are a lot of businesses out there that are started because of market opportunities — there’s a gap in the market, so you go out and build a business. For me at least, that’s not enough. That pursuit alone isn’t satisfying. So know your why because it injects every day with so much meaning, even the particularly bad ones. For me it’s building a consumer company that changes how people think about a category, developing my team, being a female founder in a world still dominated by men. That’s why I get up every morning and you have to remind yourself of it every day. That’s true north.
The other one is to find your tribe, find your people, find your community. Founding and entrepreneurship are extremely isolating experiences. Startups are hard and it can feel like there are more losses than wins. Everything that happens in your company can feel like it’s a reflection on you. There’s no playbook to follow. Everything feels nebulous. It’s so easy to get bogged down and to get into a loop of being isolated. Talk about it to people. Don’t keep it bottled up. Find your tribe and the people who support you and are rooting for you because they offer such clear perspective from the outside. They keep you connected to the world. They make you feel human. And if you’re lucky enough to have co-founders, it’s such a fulfilling relationship. They’re the only other people in the world who truly understand what you’re going through.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Christine: Emily Weiss. Hands down. Growing up, there weren’t many venture-backed founders I could see myself in — they didn’t look like me. They were predominantly male or predominantly in tech. Venture and the world of Silicon Valley felt so walled and guarded as though there were people who were meant to be there and people who weren’t. Emily and what she’s built at Glossier have completely changed the game. She’s managed to be both inspirational and relatable. She’s managed to build a true consumer company and also a true tech company. She comes from a non-traditional founder background, but she’s shown the incredible impact that storytelling, community and content can have in building a resonant brand. She’s broken the mold of what a Silicon Valley founder is supposed to look like and she’s paved the way for so many women to see themselves in what she’s built and say if she can do it, I can too.