5 Leadership Lessons From Selina Tobaccowala, Co-founder of Evite, Gixo and Past President of SurveyMonkey
“Be very thoughtful about how much capital you take or more importantly how much you spend. At Evite, we probably took too much ($37M for online invitation(!)), but the contrary to that is if you are getting the capital at a good valuation you can take it, but still only spend it when you are ready.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Selina Tobaccowala, co-founder of Gixo — the live fitness app that offers 180 classes per week with instant coaching, feedback and personal training. Selina was co-founder of Evite, and was president and CTO of SurveyMonkey. She started Gixo to get people moving and embrace fitness, all while having fun and being part of a community of teammates.
What is your “backstory”?
I was a computer nerd before it was trendy! I founded Evite at Stanford in my dorm room. After working at SurveyMonkey, I reunited with my Evite co-founder to start Gixo. I was obsessed with getting people moving! I knew if we could build something I loved, others like me — people who haven’t exercised in years — would love it too.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
I was taking a Gixo class on a random Sunday afternoon. When I checked out the leaderboard I saw a name and picture that looked familiar. Sure enough it was a friend I studied abroad with in college (yes over 20 years ago!). We reconnected and were fortunate to have breakfast a couple months ago! Gixo brings Teammates and Coaches together from around the world each day through our classes.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes our app standout is the relationships between our coaches and our customers. We have a Teammate — that’s what we call our customers — who lives on the East Coast, works full-time as a teacher, and is also a mom. I love hearing her stories about how the coaches keep her motivated despite her crazy schedule. She squeezes in Gixo classes while the chicken nuggets are cooking in the oven or while waiting on the sidelines at one of her kids’ sports practices. There is another Teammate who comes to mind who hated going to the gym because of the pressure she felt to look and be perfect. She said that the coaches at Gixo make her feel welcome and accepted for who she is. They modify exercises to make sure she is challenged at the right level. And one funny tidbit: we still haven’t sorted out our schwag yet, so one Teammate made her own #gixofit leggings!
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?
I always talk about my mentors and my parent, but today I think it’s really important to mention those who worked on my team at SurveyMonkey. As luck would have it, we closed an acquisition when I was eight months pregnant with my second child and had to integrate everything quickly. When I went on maternity leave with my son, I had confidence that my team would still hit our numbers, deliver great product to our customers, and get the acquisition integrated — which they did. I will always be grateful for that time with my newborn but mostly my toddler who needed the attention.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Gixo!! It is more than exciting. That said my other passion is bringing more women into tech. I am actively working with Stanford and Female Founders Office Hours. With Gixo, we recently did a Pi Day walk/run and to raise funds for Girls Who Code, who are doing important work to bring females into technology.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My view is that technology should be used to help people in the real world. At Evite, our goal was to use technology to help people get together more easily and more often. At Gixo, we are using technology to help people get moving through a live, group fitness classes you can take from your phone. The CDC recommends you workout 150 minutes a week, and only half of Americans actually do that. Gixo coaches teach our classes live, which means they are getting to know the people who take our classes, personalizing the workouts, and holding them accountable to meet their goals. That’s something a pre-recorded fitness video can’t do. We also have a great community that connects coaches and teammates from all around the world.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Fine Balance — Rohinton Mistry. It makes you realize how so much of your success is based on who you were born to and what opportunities were given to you.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I am lucky that this is my second time on the merry-go-round. So here are some lessons I have taken with me —
- You need to be explicit about your company culture. My co-founder and I on our very first day literally laid out what type of company we wanted to build and what we each wanted to learn.
- Be very thoughtful about how much capital you take or more importantly how much you spend. At Evite, we probably took too much ($37M for online invitation(!)), but the contrary to that is if you are getting the capital at a good valuation you can take it, but still only spend it when you are ready.
- You need to balance gut and data. When you are at a company at scale you can statistical significance on A/B tests quickly. When you are doing something from scratch you want to measure everything, but it is impossible to use data for all decisions. This isn’t easy for a data nut like me!
- Distribution, distribution, distribution. Focus on marketing channels and how you can get them to scale quickly. There are great products that died because the team didn’t figure out how to market them.
- It might be trite, but there is nothing more important than the team. Ideas are a dime a dozen but it all comes down to execution.
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?
Michelle Obama. She was an inspirational First Lady, but also started the Let’s Move movement. I think she broke many barriers, is eloquent, and passionate as I am about changing health in the US and globally. I also think she’d get a kick out of Gixo.