Your focus vs. the noise — As a startup CEO you have to focus on finding the answer, and you can’t pay attention to the noise. If you think and focus on making it work regardless of outside factors you will find it. Know your purpose and let it drive all of your decisions. Purpose will keep you focused when you are building your team, coaching your team, and creating your culture
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Cisek.
After witnessing how difficult it was to wrap up the details of a loved one’s life, Emily Cisek knew there had to be a better way. It was then that she decided to create The Postage, a digital solution for people who wanted to manage their information and effectively control the aftermath of life. Cisek, serves as Co-Founder and CEO of The Postage where she is spearheading tech in the afterlife industry with hopes to provide people peace of mind around the inevitable.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 22 I moved to Texas from New York; I had no job and no plan but was ready for a fresh start and to get out of my comfort zone. I got my first go in the world of start-ups, when I began working for an energy company known for its digital marketing and e-commerce capabilities. Six months later, they were acquired in a mutli-million-dollar deal by one of the largest energy companies in North America. It was here, that I had the opportunity to manage email communications for 11 brands including energy and home services entities. Although it was a great experience, I missed the personal touches and grit that a smaller business offers. I knew it was time for a change, so I followed my mentor to help him lead his operations and sales in his newest venture within the marketing space in Austin, TX.
Throughout my career, I’ve watched those founders who took a chance on me in my first job build, sell and start companies and ended up catching the “entrepreneurial bug” myself. It was always a dream of mine to lead a company that aimed to better the world and had a real impact on the human experience. I just didn’t know what that was until I experienced three losses in just six weeks. That was when I witnessed how arduous the process of wrapping up after life affairs was, and that time should be spent celebrating, grieving and processing the loss, not buried under the weight of managing affairs. From this realization The Postage was born and my role as a CEO and Founder in the this space began.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Covid-19 in and of itself is one of the most interesting hurdles we’ve had to face. I never imagined launching my company during a global pandemic. I closed a funding round, moved our headquarters, started hiring, and launched The Postage while the world was dealing with Covid-19. This was one of the most trying and unimaginable obstacles to deal with, but with a strong team we kept our focus on the goal.
The pandemic was awful to experience, and the mass losses have been tragic, but in tough times I always look for a silver lining. The pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to help more people, and come into the market when dying and death, a taboo issue for discussion over the years, was a BIG topic of conversation. This allowed us to launch the business during a movement that could truly change the conversation of how people in our society handle/deal with preplanning and death.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Considering I’m still in the first year of starting the business, it’s a certainty making mistakes as we speak and realize that there are probably plenty of others I’ll make throughout my career. I’ve found that in the moment those mistakes don’t feel funny but reflecting back they usually are a great learning lesson or something to laugh about.
One of the silly mistakes that comes to mind is when I think back to some of my initial investor meetings. During one of those meetings a prospective investor asked me “Are you the visionary, the manager, or the super connector?” The thought of having to choose one baffled me. I was thrown off by the fact that I wouldn’t be considered all of those things, and if I wasn’t able to be each of those things, I was a failure. Now, in retrospect the thought that I could be all those is comical.
As women, we’re calibrated to try to do it all from our personal lives to our careers to how we present ourselves, and sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far is that you can’t always be it all and taking the time to reflect internally to identify the role you should play is vital to finding success early. That said, I had to contemplate my strengths and weaknesses to determine where my leadership fits best. Looking back it’s funny I thought I could do it all, as a lot of women are tempted to do, but the reality is that we are meant to identify our own strengths allowing us to be better leaders in all aspects of life: from our jobs to our homes and within our communities.
- Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
With any start-up every day can feel like climbing Mount Everest. No week is the same and each time you think you’ve reached the peak a new challenge arises. It’s sometimes, bizarrely a lonely journey spearheading a new venture, and although many try to understand and offer support where they can — ultimately it’s just you.
The drive to continue is a fire within me that has always been there, so quitting isn’t an option. Instead, I re-boot, I make a list of what I’m thankful for, go over my vision board, and push through.
Another thing I heavily rely on for guidance are books. I have read “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz multiple times, and each time I learn something new. Since I’m still early on in my role as CEO I constantly find myself in a place that Horowitz calls “The Struggle” where you second guess yourself, feel overwhelmed, and are constantly facing new challenges. However, I know pushing through “The Struggle” will create greatness that can help others. Having the ability to change how people manage their after-life issues is my motivation and drive to push through.
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 about that?
There have been many people along my journey who have supported me, challenged me, and have been part of the fire that drove me throughout my career. I’m grateful for every relationship from small to large, positive or negative — they’ve all taught me lessons and have allowed me to grow to be the person I am today.
However, one person who has been particularly impactful has been my mentor, and The Postage’s co-founder/board member, Robbie Wright. He was the co-founder and CEO of the first start-up I was part of and gave me my first taste of entrepreneurship. He has been a part of me grooming me into the professional I am today. He has seen potential in me from the beginning and has been vital in assisting me build my business plan and seeing The Postage get off the ground.
I continue to learn from him and look to his experience as an entrepreneur who has stayed true to himself while managing, helping start and having multiple successful exits. Throughout his career he has championed and supported women in the industry to help even the playing field and see women break through the glass ceiling. His tough love and support has truly gotten me where I am today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is Dreams Are Free, Hustle Sold Separately. Everyone has dreams and ideas which are great and exciting, but hustle is something that truly makes someone stand apart. It’s one thing to be creative and come up with an idea, but it’s another to make it a reality. It takes patience, tenacity, sacrifices, hustle, and the willingness to risk it all for your idea.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
By providing a clear and straightforward way to organize affairs we are affording people the opportunity to live fully now and feel more prepared if and when something happens. Our services provide the opportunity to have hard conversations with parents, partners, and children, especially in terms of finances, social media, and the future. Our unique messaging technology also allows people the ability to communicate with their loved ones after they’re gone.
Life is precious. We should spend the time we have with those we love the most, all without worrying or being afraid of what’s to come. This is why I’ve created The Postage.
Our hope is to help process loss and handle affairs of loved ones more easily through a convenient, full-service digital platform that collects critical information and digital assets in one place. We provide peace of mind with unparalleled information security and planning services that guide people through difficult decisions and conversations about the end of life.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Postage is fortunate to have seasoned advisors and talent that has scaled multiple subscription based B2C business and successfully deployed proprietary software, but what really makes The Postage stand out is the long-lasting impacts it can have on the way we view the death-care industry. It will bring families together and provide ease throughout the pre-planning process and guide you and your loved ones through difficult conversations because the end of life is certain for us all, and it’s time we talked about it.
A few years ago, I found myself dealing with the loss of three loved ones. Personally, I found it to be extremely overwhelming to navigate the logistics of wrapping up someone’s affairs while also taking the time to properly grieve. It’s been said that ‘tomorrow is never promised’ and while it may sound cliché, the fact is that we all will connect with that premise at some point in our lives, so it’s better to be prepared. The Postage is a secure hub for organizing all of your important information that can be added to as you build your life and all that goes into it — there’s truly nothing else quite like it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re always working on new and exciting projects, but since we just recently launched our focus has heavily been on attracting customers, new investors, and growing brand awareness. We are looking forward to a few innovative updates down the road that will help expand The Postage and better it as it continues to grow.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No, but I do think we’re in the middle of a directional shift. Women face challenges in every industry and are judged differently than a man would be in every role. However, I’ve never let the fact that I’m a female cross my mind as a weakness. I was raised by a strong woman that was the breadwinner of the family, so the status quo isn’t something I’m used to. However, I do realize that I’ve been afforded the opportunity to be in the position I am due to the sacrifices that have been made by titans in the women’s right movement such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Susan B. Anthony and so many others. However, now more than ever it starts with us. It starts with us making sacrifices and making small steps towards our greater goals just like every change in history. We must empower each other and instill the values, confidence, and beliefs to the younger generations, so that they then can continue to build on the steps we’ve made toward change. Just like I hope to build on the generations before me.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think the biggest challenge is respect. Women have to work twice as hard to earn respect as a leader, but all the while are expected to be “softer”. If you’re assertive you’re called aggressive, if you’re persistent you’re called a nag, if you’re critical/demand excellence you’re called bossy or worse, if you’re confident in your product and business, you’re called presumptuous. Women can’t and should not believe the critical names they are identified by that are derogatory and misconstrued. To address this we, as women, need to be confident in our abilities to succeed, advocate for equal opportunities and not be discouraged by a world that rewards men but critiques women.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
While I’m not naive to the fact that I still have a lot to learn, I think I’m in a unique position to answer this question as those women who may have experienced long-term success could forget what it was like in the beginning when nothing is guaranteed and everything is changing. That said, my advice is to be adaptable — the ability to pivot will make all the difference in the face of adversity. For example, none of us expected a pandemic to hit, but we’ve been forced to adapt and change our business models to meet the needs of the consumers. Those who can change their model quickly while still meeting the needs of customers will thrive in times of uncertainty. Additionally, continuing to challenge yourself to examine and build for not only where the market is today but also where it will be tomorrow is one way to find a new perspective and boost of energy.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
While The Postage doesn’t have a sales team that’s focused on selling to maintain our customers (the users); I do constantly refer back to my sales background when thinking about the user sales funnel. When I first started in sales, I read a book by Amos Schwartzfab called “Sell More Faster”. In the book he references “The W3 Framework which lays out the importance of understanding the who (you’re selling to), the what (they are buying), and the why (they should want it). If you can understand and articulate these three principals, then attracting and retaining customers should come as result. From there, you can continue to test and evolve the sales process to identify customer behavior and interest and adapt the sales cycle to grow more leads. Once you know what works repeat it, repeat it again, automate it, build on it, and then scale.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
In order to find and attract the best suited customers we take an integrated approach by going back to knowing the Who, What, and Why mentioned in my previous response.
The Postage has been able to determine our ideal initial target audiences and have used our expertise in integrated marketing campaigns to build these audiences to precision. We continually test and validate our assumptions and build upon what’s working and take away from what’s not. Our unique advantages in marketing and customer acquisition is that the death industry is largely untapped due to the gap in the market.
For example, in our Beta phase we allowed our beta testers to invite their family and friends to try The Postage, and with one email to these beta testers we had a referral rate of 33%. Our product is something people need and something that naturally grows. The platform has legitimate network effects; it needs multiple users on each account. It gets stronger as more people use it. So, if you sign up and want your loved one to know your plan they will then invite you as a delegate and create their own account to then share their plan with their chosen delegates, and so on.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Build your experience with Jakob’s Law in mind — Jakob’s Law says that users will prefer your site to work the same way to sites they already know. Essentially, building experiences that are easy to navigate due to familiarity will yield the best results. Example tactics to follow this include:
Make updating a profile picture similar in nature to how a user on social media might update it.
- Take advantage of existing expectations to build an enhanced experience that allows users to focus on completing the next action as opposed to worrying about how the site works.
- Avoid friction when enhancing or updating a user experience by easing them into the changes slowly vs making a lot of changes over night.
- In addition, building and designing an experience based on what you know about your customer can allow for a personal user experience. Utilizing customer data to provide a unique experience based off of their needs can go a long way.
- Recognize that a lot of times in tech a user experience isn’t going to be perfect. Technology is a living, breathing thing that evolves over time and needs to be nurtured and updated. Consider small changes such as adding an icon or updating content to further enhance the customer’s experience.
- Answer their questions before they ask them. Creating strong content that supports the UX experience will lead to less customer friction, increased conversion/sales, and higher retention rates. Serving as a trusted source of information for consumers and addressing it in a sincere way is crucial.
- “Communicate Sincerely” is one of our core values. This means we share our ideas, feelings, concerns in a transparent, intentional, and authentic way. That’s the same way we treat our customers. We’re thoughtful and realistic with our customers and aim to meet them at the intersection of straightforward and sincere. We realize the topic of death is uncomfortable for many, so The Postage aims to help our customers and their families change the conversation about death so they can communicate sincerely with their loved ones with clear-eyed compassion.
- As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
First and foremost, understand your reason to exist and continue to share that with your customers to showcase your value to them. Additionally, listen to feedback and look internally to see how your product can evolve and improve based on your customer’s needs.
Recognizing and rewarding loyal customers creates organic brand ambassadors who will vouch for you. Simple gestures such as a personalized note, discount or VIP status can go a long way in customer retention.
Lastly, be open and honest with your customers — when you make a mistake, own up to it. Most customers appreciate authentic and personable experiences.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Your reason to exist — Do you have a reason to exist that’s good enough to win? If you do, it will be abundantly clear. If you don’t, it will be abundantly clear. So, find that reason to exist, and fight like hell to win. We’re all street fighters at The Postage, we’re fighting to win, fighting to exist, fighting to change the world, fighting to disrupt an industry that has barely been touched. What keeps us fighting is that we know we can help people and fill a gap that every single person in this world has to experience and that’s loss.
- Your roadmap — Identify early on the steps you need to take to get where you want to go. Identify possible hurdles and challenges along the way and set goals for each major milestone. Having a plan is important but having the ability to adapt and react is equally vital. Recognize your roadmap as a guide — not something set in stone and make changes accordingly.
- Your customer — Know who your customer is and their needs. Being able to identify what they want will allow you to create a better user experience for them. Understanding your customer takes time and an open ear, so create opportunities to engage with your customer and listen to them. This not only creates an opportunity for them to be heard but also gives you the ability to adapt to their needs moving forward.
- Your focus vs. the noise — As a startup CEO you have to focus on finding the answer, and you can’t pay attention to the noise. If you think and focus on making it work regardless of outside factors you will find it. Know your purpose and let it drive all of your decisions. Purpose will keep you focused when you are building your team, coaching your team, and creating your culture.
- Your team — Creating a strong base is essential in a start-up, recognize that the types of employees you need on your side are those who have grit and commitment. Starting a tech company is not an easy task, and without the right team you can quickly become discouraged or complacent. An example of this is when I was first hiring for our initial team outside of the executive group. I really liked a candidate, he was charismatic, well spoken, and had the “right” experience, however, when it came to crunch time I could tell he wouldn’t put in the extra mile because he didn’t connect fully with the product. Instead I found a hungry, candidate who would fill the gap in the business and do what it takes to win. I knew what I wanted in a candidate, I knew the real gaps in the business I was trying to fill, and I made sure that’s what we found. Every employee at The Postage lives their lives inside and outside of the office with tenacity. It’s our first core value. They are determined, passionate, persistent people who want the most out of life regardless of circumstances. They are winners because losing isn’t an option. They are my A team, and if you support and build up your A team and allow them to work fearlessly (another core value) then the product and the profits will come. I truly couldn’t do it without them.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Changing the conversation around death. Right now, we view death as something that’s taboo. We can talk about a lot of other difficult topics like mental illness, sex, and more, but we shy away from having the conversations about something that is certain for all of us. I know that sounds harsh and some would say morbid, but the truth is the more one recognizes, realizes, and talks about their mortality the more likely they are not going to take anything for granted. Everyone experiences loss, and if we prepared for what’s certain we would give ourselves, our families, and our legacy the peace of mind it deserves.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Sara Blakley (Spanx CEO) — I would love to have lunch with Sara because she was able to build a billion-dollar business from $5,000 all while staying true to herself as a female entrepreneur. There are a lot of molds our society tries to cast us in, especially as female CEOs. They say, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, but Sara seems to be herself and has found a great line between being a leader and being herself. She accomplished her business goals and now has been able to fulfill her personal goals as well, such as getting married and having children.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!