SagaAmelia Lin | 2020-08-03
Could you give us a quick introduction to Saga?
I’m the CEO and co-founder of Saga. We are an app that helps to save the life stories of loved ones on audio. We send questions like: “What’s the biggest trouble you ever got into as a kid?” These prompts are to trigger memories and people record, either with our app, or they can even record without the app, by dialling a special phone number we give them. We make it very easy for anybody to use. They don’t have to have the app, they don’t have to have a smartphone, they don’t have to type, they can even do it from a landline. The audio gets saved and shared with your family – It’s kind of like getting a podcast of your family’s best memories.
I started working on Saga in October 2018, and we closed our funding in November 2019. It’s gone all the way from being a solo project with me, my mum and my dad to a team of five now. We just launched our first mobile app in the app store two months ago. Within the first few days, we shot up from #94 for the search term Saga, and we actually peaked at #3 in the first 24 hours, driven by people downloading and reviewing the app. We’re super proud of that! We have a five-star rating on the app store, we’re still relatively young and still growing.
What was your career journey prior to starting Saga?
I did my undergrad in Physics at Harvard and when I started in college, my dream was to work in a research lab. That’s what I thought I was going to do – I thought I was going to stay in academics. I got to work on really cool technology in the labs that I was in. I worked on nanotechnologies, super tiny things. The thing that triggered this unexpected path into startups was: I loved working on new technology – I thought that was super cool, but then I would see post-docs trying to commercialize this technology. In research, the timeline for turning things into actual products that real people can use could be 20 years, it could be 50 years, it may not even be within your lifetime. I just realised that a lot of the stuff I was working on might never leave the four walls of the lab. Most of the time, the post-docs looking to commercialize these technologies didn’t have the right skillset. I think that was the first time I realised that transforming an idea into something that people use seems to requires some other skills too. It’s not just technology. There seems to be some business acumen needed. Figuring out that second part of the equation became very interesting to me.
I ended up doing this internship at a technology startup when I was a sophomore, and it was like night and day. It was a 100-person gaming startup. I remember, even as an intern, I could come up with an idea in the morning, and it could be live on the site by the afternoon. That speed of turnaround really captured my imagination. I realised this is a whole different world. The people who do these technology startups, their whole existence is about how you take ideas and turn them into reality.
Then I started thinking, what are the skillsets I would need to learn in order to get good at this? I figured – I think there are some business-y things involved. I honestly had no idea. I thought to myself: there are these things called marketing and sales, and they seem to be important. I don’t really know what they are. My strategy was to learn to swim by jumping into the deep end, and so I decided to try and get a marketing job.
I talked my way into a marketing job at a tech startup. So from the outside it looks super weird – that I went from a physics major in a research lab, to a marketer at a tech startup, but it was actually all the same things that drew me to both. It was this underlying thread of: I like building new things. But I felt like I was missing the skillset to actually achieve the things I was most interested in, and I felt like this was the next piece.
You had a very unique way of creating positions for yourself within the companies that you were applying to. How did you do this?
I think, for whatever reason, the way that I go about making decisions in life is: instead of looking at which paths are open to me and deciding which one I like best, the way that I do things is to say – What do I most want in the world? What is the endpoint? I don’t even know what the path to get there is, but I will figure it out. I will find or create the path. That’s the way I’ve always thought about it.
So I decided that I wanted to get a job in marketing or sales. I tried a bunch of different things and in the end, I thought about the skills I had. I had a quantitative background. My pitch was: “I’ve worked in research labs and I’m very comfortable with data. I bet you have marketing data problems that you need help with, you should have somebody quantitative take a look. That’s me. I should do that for you”. I had some pretty funny calls with people. I’d be talking to a recruiter and say “Look, I’m not a fit for the marketer position you have on your website, but you should have this other position that you should hire me for”.
I’ll tell people that I kind of talked my way into positions, and they will be really impressed. But people only see the yeses. They don’t see the 50 no’s that I got. I had a spreadsheet of all the places I thought it’d be cool to work at, and I just went down the list. I was okay with getting a lot of no’s. So people think I must have had some magic to make that happen. But the truth is, I just got a lot more no’s than other people.
How did you come across the idea?
The idea for Saga is actually a really personal one for me. Fast forward a couple of years, I was a senior product manager at Udacity. I had made that jump into tech and I had come a long way since that first internship. I’d actually been asking my parents for many years, to record for me or write down their stories. They had these incredible stories. They grew up during a really crazy time of political turmoil in China called the Chinese cultural revolution. The kinds of things they lived through could honestly be in a movie. It’s got all sorts of crazy things: guns, being chased, near scrapes with death, saving someone’s life. I always wanted to have those stories saved, not just for me but frankly for my kids someday. There was no way I would be able to say “did you know your grandpa lived through this?” and have it be nearly as compelling as hearing that stuff from him. It was one of several ideas I was playing with at the time.
I actually wasn’t super brave about leaving my job at Udacity. It was very scary for me. That was a big decision – for sure. But I figured out pretty quickly that this was the idea I wanted to work on. I would bring it up at parties, or at dinners, and once I told people it was like I had just started a fire. Twenty minutes later, all that people would be talking about was this idea. The emotional response I would get from people was so strong, that I knew there was something very interesting here.
Were there any other ideas that you were considering when you were starting out?
I had another idea for this tool that I’ve always wanted, and it still doesn’t really exist. It’s the ability to pre-schedule a gift for delivery. I think I actually bought the domain scheduleagift.com. I was very surprised that the domain was available and also very cheap. I actually went and did research, and I’m still convinced that people would actually buy this. It’s kind of baffling that it doesn’t already exist. But it was clear to me very quickly that there was something very emotional and deep about the mission of Saga.
How did you meet your co-founders? How did you deal with changes in the co-founding team?
I got really lucky. I feel like I lucked out with finding awesome co-founders. For the first few months, I worked on Saga solo. It was just me sitting at a desk, by myself, with no one for company but the squirrels on the fence outside. But I had been keeping in touch with a lot of old co-workers and friends the entire time. I literally had this mailing list where I would send out weekly or bi-weekly updates on my life because a lot of people had told me they were curious about what the adventure would be like. One of the people I was keeping in touch with was an old friend and colleague from Udacity. He was the first co-founder to join the team. That happened in March 2020. And then Andrew came on. Andrew and I were introduced through mutual friends because we were working on the same idea! We’d each been working on the idea for months, and we’d both been telling everybody. And somehow, someone in the middle said “Did you guys know you’re working on the same thing? You guys should probably talk to each other.”
We’d been working in parallel for several months before we got together to meet for coffee. I’d met with a lot of other people who thought what I was working on was interesting, so that wasn’t new. But it was a whole other level with Andrew. Other people were curious. Andrew showed up with a google doc, of all the things that he’d thought about. He’d clearly spent some time and effort on this. And I think he knew the same about me. At that point, we’d gotten paying customers. We were pretty far into it. It was clear that we shared so much of the same vision, and we just felt that our chances are better together.
A really tough point came later on. Our third co-founder, my friend from Udacity, he and his wife were having to juggle some pretty intense family responsibilities, it was tough on them and he ended up not being able to come on the journey with us. He’s an awesome dude, we’re all really good friends. So that was sad for all of us, but he’s off being an awesome Dad, and he’s a great cheerleader.
How did your previous experience prepare you for your current venture? In what ways were you unprepared?
I heard from founders was that a few of them had been product managers in the past, and that gave them a really good skill set for becoming a founder. I didn’t have any plans to be a founder, if I’m honest. That’s not something that was explicitly in my life plan. But I really like startups. So I figured, that’s icing on the cake, if I get to be in a role where I learn all these skills. I don’t know if I want to be a founder exactly but I know I can learn skills which will be useful to any startup I join, in future. I would say there’s a lot of truth to it, now that I’ve made the transition myself.
When you are building something from zero, figuring out the right product to build is your entire job. Being a founder is kind of like the “Tough Mudder” version of being a Product Manager. Do everything that you’re supposed to do as a PM, but with no money, no resources, and with no existing users.
After you had the idea what were the next steps?
I’m a really big believer that your job as a founder, especially at the beginning, is to learn as fast as possible. Within two weeks of leaving Udacity, I had reached out to a bunch of people – friends, co-workers, anybody, about the idea, asking if they would be interested in letting me do that for their own family. I would call people’s mum’s, dad’s, grandma’s, and I was the interviewer. I would talk to them on the phone, try to figure out how to interview them, write up notes on the interview and send it to the family. That was the earliest version of Saga. We were going to automatically transcribe the interviews and turn them into a book. I didn’t know how to do automated transcription then, so I would do manual transcription, which took forever. I’d write up a giant google doc, send it to the families and ask them what they thought.
I was simultaneously taking any introduction and call I could find to anybody who had any connection to this idea. People who did this, or had thought about recording their family, or people who were very into family history and genealogy. I was in learning mode, if that makes sense. My metric of truth was that I would ask people: would you pay for this? My goal was that I would keep iterating on the product, at least until I got to a point where someone would pay for this. Because I think it’s so easy for someone to just say it’s a cool idea. Whether you end up charging for it or not is irrelevant, its more about holding yourself to a standard where you’ve created something good enough that people think it’s worth money.
Did the idea evolve as things progressed?
I’d be testing new things every single week. I tested every format there was. What if we did video? What if interviewees wrote the stories? What if they hand-wrote the stories? What if it was a live interview? I would also run Facebook ads, where the entire ad was the same except for the headline, and each different headline would describe the product in a different way. I would run all these variations, look at the clickthrough rates, and drive people to this dummy landing page. One of the original versions of Saga was automated transcriptions. People would say “hey this transcription is cool, but could you give me the recordings?”. So I started sending both the transcriptions and the recordings, but people were much more interested in the recordings. So I thought, maybe I’ll make the recordings the core thing, and if people want to, maybe they’ll buy the transcription. After a while, I took away the transcription add-on entirely, and no one complained. I would send people recordings and people would text me back with all of these comments they had. That’s when we realised that maybe we should let people comment on these recordings. Every step was like a discovery.
Were there any low points that you can think of, along your journey so far? If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
If I could do it again, the biggest piece of advice I would give my former self is to find a co-founder sooner. I really underestimated and didn’t totally appreciate the value that having a partner brings. I thought bringing in a co-founder was about having an extra set of hands on board. We could get more work done. I felt like I didn’t need to worry about that because I kind of knew the things I needed to do to start out and I thought I could do all of them. What I really underestimated was the emotional and psychological support that having even one other person there can bring. Those first couple of months where it was just me, there was no one to bounce ideas off. I have this idea – is this a terrible idea or an awesome idea? Am I crazy? You spend so much time in your own head questioning yourself. It’s very difficult to go from a work environment, where you have a boss and co-workers, to being a founder. You sit down on day one and realise that there is no to-do list. You’re in charge of both coming up with all the tasks, and also evaluating your own success. And it’s kind of disorienting. My lowest point was three months in. I’d been working on Saga for three months and I honestly didn’t know how to tell whether I was crazy or not for doing it. It was really hard to tell. Am I just wasting my life? Is this a great idea or the dumbest idea in the world? I don’t know how to tell. I remember driving past super nice offices, and thinking, man, I walked away from that – a really nice, comfortable job with free lunches and other people.
Any funny or most memorable stories along the way?
Two weeks later, I had my biggest high, which was that a complete stranger found my website and asked to buy the product. So I went from the lowest low, to on top of the world. I can’t even tell you how exciting that was. I thought it was a joke. I thought it had to be some friend of mine who was messaging me on the site. But it was this total stranger. I got on the phone with her and she said: “I would like to buy your package.” I said “… what package?”. She said “the one on your site!” and then I remembered that I had created a pricing page and actually put fake prices on there. I didn’t even have any code written. She bought it, and it was all me, manually, doing the work. But she didn’t know. Then two weeks later, she bought another package.
That’s when things turned around. A real person wanted this, and wanted to pay money for it. I think my lesson learned from that was: if I had quit when I was feeling low, I might not have known that two weeks around the corner, that was coming. I think a lot of the founder journey is literally can you hold on long enough for things to turn around?
What are your favourite books?
I love books about imagination. My favourite book has remained the same since childhood. It’s this book called Dinotopia – James Gurney. It’s about dinosaurs living with humans, but it is the best book. It has the most amazing art. Its technically a children’s book but it’s not really. The level of detail he went into to imagine this world and bring it into life is incredible. He invented a language and you can actually decode the signs on the storefronts in the book, and he created music. If you’re into world building or lore at all, it’s all of that but hidden in a children’s book.
Learn more about Saga at: https://trysaga.com/
Learn more about Saga at: https://trysaga.com/