Uncork Community Spotlight with Vlada Bortnik, Cofounder and CEO of Marco Polo
Vlada Bortnik is the cofounder and CEO of Marco Polo. Marco Polo is reimagining social media with their popular video chat app, and Marco Polo Channels, a video coaching platform. Vlada and her husband, Michal, founded the company to help people feel close. With millions of downloads and over 4 billion Polos sent to date, their dream is being realized. Vlada is also an avid meditator, a lover of hiking and the outdoors, and a mother of two girls.
Why did you create Marco Polo?
When my husband Michal and I started this company, we did it for our kids. We wanted to make the world a better place for them, for their generation. Whatever technology or product we ended up building, we wanted it to be good for them, good for our family, and good for all people to use. We asked ourselves “what is one thing that everyone wants;” the answer, of course, is happiness. So, we looked for a way to generate more happiness in the world. After much research, it became clear to us — having close relationships is key to happiness. So, our purpose of helping people feel close was born.
What advice would you give to your past self at the beginning of your company’s journey?
I’d tell myself to value my time more. There are some things that only I can do and things that I have to be the one focusing on, and there are things that others are better suited for. It’s okay — and extremely important, actually — to let certain things go.
How have you kept your team motivated when facing challenges?
Our company’s purpose is to help people feel close, and everyone on the team is here because we believe in that purpose. When we’re facing challenges, it’s that purpose, more than anything else, that keeps us motivated. Events and discoveries over the last few years, like the uncovering of a devastating loneliness epidemic, the onset of a global pandemic, and widespread polarization in the U.S., have underscored the importance of that purpose. Everyone at Marco Polo believes we have a major role to play in making a difference. We believe that if we bring authentic communication back to our lives, we can strengthen relationships, which in turn will lead to more happiness in the world.
Our focus on relationships plays a big role in a work environment too and helps motivate our team to do its best work. We’re very intentional about fostering and maintaining connections with each other throughout the day in big and small ways. For example, I run a quick live standup every morning so we can see each other’s faces, share celebrations and appreciations, and start the day feeling grounded. Throughout the day we make a practice of sharing wins with each other, not just within functional groups but across the whole company. We have fun, silly groups on Slack and Marco Polo where we encourage non-work chatter. And we hold regular all-company retreats several times a year. Caring for each other in small, consistent ways makes everyone feel valued and brings out the best in our interactions and our work.
How have you kept the company culture alive while working remotely?
Because we’ve operated remotely since the beginning of Marco Polo, we didn’t have to abruptly adjust our way of operating or make a major cultural shift when the pandemic hit, as many other companies did. We didn’t “go remote,” because remote work was already woven into the fabric of our operations and our culture.
Earlier I mentioned a few ways in which we keep our day-to-day work feeling fresh and vital in the remote environment. I would add another important factor, which is that our team uses Marco Polo a lot for work and non-work purposes. This app, which we designed to fulfill our company’s purpose of helping people feel close, lies at the heart of both productivity and lasting connection within the company.
One of our team members recently called Marco Polo essential for smooth-running projects and teamwork, saying “it keeps the process spontaneous, agile, and inclusive.” I loved that!
We recently published an article on our blog that captures why working remotely at Marco Polo is such a joyful experience. If you check it out, I’d love to know what resonated with you.
What song do you listen to most while you work from home?
I don’t usually listen to music when I’m working but if I do, I like the Hamilton Broadway recording. I especially like the song “My Shot.” You’ll likely find me singing along…and by the way, I’m a terrible singer, so consider yourself warned.
What’s your most-ordered takeout food lately?
Sushi! I love salmon, yellowtail sashimi, and unagi rolls. If I’m dining in and it’s a high-quality sushi place, I can be very adventurous :) My favorite is to just ask the Chef to give me whatever is fresh.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.