Steven Dziedzic is a New York-based entrepreneur and the Founder of Lasting, the marriage counseling company. Lasting's first product is a simple, app-based program that helps couples build healthier, happier marriages in a few minutes a day. It's the #1 marriage counseling app in America. Before Lasting, Steven founded Hoppit, an award-winning restaurant app acquired by XO Group Inc. (NYSE:XOXO) in 2013. At XO, he served as the Director of Product for The Knot, the leading wedding brand touching a majority of America's marriages. The three apps he's stewarded—Lasting, Hoppit, and The Knot—have all been featured by Apple. Lastly, Steve is a startup mentor for Praxis Labs, an accelerator program focused on cultural and social impact, and serves on the board of Jonas Paul Eyewear, the leading eyewear brand for children. He resides in New York City with his wife, Rebecca, and daughter, Josie.
Shantel: Hey, Steve. Welcome to the Imagine More podcast.
Steve: Shantel, thank you for inviting me. So good to be here.
Shantel: Of course. We're really excited to learn more about your journey and entrepreneurship and how you got started. Just reading over the bio, you have worn so many hats and started so many companies, so I know there's a wealth of knowledge coming our way which I'm pumped about. To kick things off, do you mind sharing a little bit more about your current company, and then we can dive a little bit deeper into how you got there.
Steve: Absolutely. My current company is called Lasting, and Lasting makes marriage counseling simple. We noted that a lot of couples need help, and they desire to be happier and healthier, but there are just lots of barriers in the traditional marriage counseling space. There's a cost barrier because it's very expensive, there's a time barrier. And then the largest factor in a successful therapy relation is the fit with the therapist. So because it's so expensive and takes so much time, it can be thousands of dollars before you even find the right therapist. So even though we love counseling, we just saw the barriers and saw that we could help so many more people if we could eliminate those barriers. That's what we tried to do with the new app, called Lasting as well. We take couples who are feeling stuck, and through audio tracks and exercises and quizzes we help them move forward together and really build their emotional connection. That's what we're up to right now.
Shantel: That's amazing. So primarily is it once they are married, or do you have any service offerings for the premarital piece?
Steve: Yeah, we love serving premaritals, it's actually the perfect spot to catch someone. Because we feel like we can clearly set expectations properly for what marriage is and what it's all about. We have a big hypothesis due to 100 interviews that I did at The Knot, where the marital expectations of America are pretty off. The majority of couples underestimate the work it takes to maintain a happy, healthy marriage. The breakout is roughly about a quarter of our paying subscriber base is before marriage, and then three fourths is after, just because that pool is so much bigger. There are about 60 million married couples in America, and only about three million who are dating and engaged. But the way the numbers break out, it really shows you just how many dating and premarital couples want this, because they're a fourth of our paying subscription base, but so much less statistically.
Shantel: That's amazing. We actually just were getting married in a couple weeks, and did the premarital counseling, and actually spoke to our therapist. We have enjoyed the conversations so much, we thought it'd be helpful to come twice a year, three times a year, even after. But I can see how it can be sticky even during that phase for the premarital piece, because then you can keep them throughout.
Steve: I love that, that is so smart. We see more and more couples going proactively like you just said. And that's also the benefit of premarital counseling. The research shows that if you do go to premarital counseling you are far more likely to want help in the future. Whereas, if you haven't gone to premarital counseling, you might hesitate to find help from a third party. That's beautiful.
Shantel: Yeah, that's really fascinating. How did this idea come about? Were you in a relationship during this time, was it a barrier for you and that was where the idea came up?
Steve: Yeah, it was a confluence of factors, I think there were three main factors that contributed to the genesis of the company. The biggest one by far was ... I referenced earlier that I had had 100 interviews at The Knot, and what that looked like was I came in via the acquisition of my first startup, and my first big task was to relaunch The Knot's flagship app, which is the Wedding Planner. And I had just gotten engaged, I think that's the only time this is ever gonna happen in my life, where I just entered into a life phase or a context, and then I was told to build the thing that I was in. So my wife and I had a lot of fun dreaming up wedding planning solutions. I don't know if you can hear my baby in the background, but that's her right now, we're in a different-
Shantel: That's okay.
| SIMPLE SOLUTIONS TO REAL PROBLEMS |
Steve: We're in a different life phase right now, our baby's seven months old. Anyway, we really value user-centered design, nailing the right problem and designing the perfect solution, that's what I want my life to be all about, is designing really simple solutions to real problems for people. So we interviewed a new couple or two every single week, and learned a lot about them. We learned about how they plan their guest list, their budgeting process, how they find their venue. And I loved asking them why they were getting married in the first place and what their expectations were for their own relationship in the future. And even though they were great, bubbly conversations, right away I noticed this divide in marital expectations. Marriage is not meant, and can't actually, make people happy without the right sacrifice and commitment and levels of trust involved. So I knew that happiness just wasn't a given, and there was lots of work to be done in the relationship. And so the entrepreneur in me was kinda like, “Wow, I see The Knot helping 80% of couples in America, surely we could also reach the majority of couples in America on a relationship health standpoint.” So that was the first thing. The second thing was that I was just itching to do another venture after about two years at The Knot. I feel like if you're an entrepreneur, there's only so long you can stay inside a big company and be happy on your own. So I was itching to do another company, and it was just happenstance that all these insights were coming to me at that time. And then the third thing was that Becca and I, our relationship was not bad, but two years into The Knot we had been married for a year, we had gotten married in that time. And our fights were explosive, they were repaired after the fact, but we were certainly wondering is there some path, is there a playbook for marriage, where we can access this playbook, learn how to fight, get right on the path to a healthy happy relationship? And her parents had gotten divorced, we were also very well aware of the fact that children of divorce are more likely to get divorced themselves. So we were just wondering this and dreaming up if there was a way to walk down a path together. So all those factors kinda led me to take the leap and put in my notice at The Knot to go build a new marriage company and engage in a bunch of research on the topic. When I did that, when I put in my notice, it catalyzed a set of events I never could have predicted. The CEO of the company put a two-hour block on my calendar that same day to have it out with me. He's a great guy, he just wanted to know everything, why am I leaving, what do I wanna do. I poured out my heart in that discussion, I told him everything, “I notice these things, I wanna be an entrepreneur again and not be a part of a bigger company. I wanna build something that matters to a problem that's important to a lot of people.” He's a really charming guy, so I couldn't tell what he was up to, but he let me talk, and then after a while he started talking, and as he started talking he handed me this group of papers that he had somewhere within reach. And the title said How The Knot Could Lower America's Divorce Rate. I was like, “What?” And it was a deeply serendipitous moment. Three months before this moment, he had contracted a group of therapists to educate him on an opportunity in the marriage space, if The Knot were to do something for people's relationships, what would it be? So he felt that this moment was serendipitous, and that I had severed my contract with the company and was a trusted product executive already in the company. And he candidly said this opens up a lot of options for us. He was faithful to me, and over the next month we actually plotted out for a new venture that would be backed by The Knot, and it was beautiful. It was the exact partner, the exact investor, that could really help a venture like this flourish. I feel very blessed, because not every entrepreneur has the opportunity to meet such an investor early on in the process.
Shantel: That is amazing. So does that scratch the itch, do you still feel like you are an entrepreneur? Even though you had a large investment backing right away, do you still feel that ownership that you were scraping for?
Steve: Yeah, I really do. And any advice, if anyone's in this type of corporate venturing setup, we nailed down right away what was deeply important to me as an entrepreneur. The things that were deeply important to me were just pure autonomy. We need the flexibility and autonomy to do things our way. The communication cadence can be few and far between even, like what if we touched base once every three months? The second thing was creative control, we just knew we had a specific vision and we didn't want any other group of executives or investors telling us what to build. Because our process for user-centered design and really learning problems, we were very confident in that process. And then the third was the incentive. Is the incentive there? At the end of a long, long journey that can oftentimes take decades, is the right incentive in place to keep the entrepreneur and the co-founders pushing and pushing? So we lined up those three things that were deeply important to me, and it was just a really, really good relationship. In a lot of ways, your relationship with your investor is a lot like a marriage, in fact legally it's just as binding. So you need to make sure that you are in a relationship with the right people. Not every entrepreneur, again, has that privilege, sometimes you gotta take the money where it comes. And I've been there before with my first company, you just gotta take it to keep the company alive. But in this particular case it worked out really, really well.
Shantel: That is a fascinating story. I would love to switch gears a little bit. You mentioned some previous companies, let's dive into that. Can you tell our listeners ... There have been multiple, where did you start there?
Steve: Sure. My first company was called Hoppit. It was not some big noble goal like saving marriages across the world, actually I call it a first-world problem of finding the right restaurants. My co-founder and I, at the time we had never launched a startup, and we just thought it was fascinating, generally speaking, that Yelp would give he and I the same search results. Even though he was Pakistani, loved spice, wanted the spiciest, hottest food he could find, and I am Polish, we eat meat and potatoes at dinner and can't take any spice. That was interesting that Yelp would return the same results when we would run a general restaurant search. So we said surely in this age of big data and the fact that algorithms can understand our taste, surely there's some personalized search engine out there. So it started as a passion project, and it led into a much bigger thing. We, in the early days, raised a little bit of capital, and then got a web app to market to help understand someone's taste and spit out some results for them. But we did every single thing wrong that we possibly could have done. We took on the wrong investors, we started with a website when we should've obviously started with a mobile app because most restaurant searches are done on the go when you're hungry. We just did every single thing wrong we could've done, and my dramatic story for this podcast is that we raised 100k of family and friends' money, we had 5k left in the bank, and I was paying my co-founder, a very gifted engineer, 5k at the time. So literally a month left if I didn't pay myself anything. I tried to raise money in New York, my wife and I live in New York, so I tried there, I flew to San Francisco, just people were not willing to take a bet on a company that had done everything wrong, didn't have a ton of traction at the time, we just had some interesting backend tech, but no traction. So I kind of, in a very dejected sense, had mentally given up the company and was gonna go back to the boring job I had before. And I got on a red-eye flight, which is the worst type of flight to get on, so not only was I depressed but I got on a terrible flight back to New York. And I sat by this guy who ... All he wanted to do was talk. Again, nothing was lining up in my favor, it's the worst. He was asking me why I was in San Francisco, I told him I was trying to raise capital, and in my head I'm like, “Please stop talking.” And he just kept asking, he kept asking questions for five straight minutes. And after five minutes he looked at me and he paused, and he was like, “You know, I think I'm in it for $100,000.” And I was like, “What is your name?” He didn't even say his name yet. After a while, it came out that he was a prolific investor in San Francisco, and was a founder in his own right, had been very, very successful as a founder. And true to his word, a week later we hopped on a Skype ... That was when Skype was cool ... he literally, that same day, wired me the money, with very fair terms. This incredible moment in my career, because I had done nothing to deserve this money. I had told him the company was failing, and that we were gonna have to close shop. He could have taken half the company, but again, with very fair terms, he wired me this money. He saved the company.
| A GUY WHO NEEDED A CHANCE |
I'll keep going with that, but four years later after we sold the company to The Knot, I was dying to know why he did this. His name's Lee, I was like, “Lee, why on Earth did you give me this money with such fair terms?” And he said, “Steve, you just looked like a guy who needed a chance.” And I said, “That is incredible. Do you know how profound you are right now, and how generous?” My old mentor used to say that wealth, when you accumulate it, amplifies your heart. For generous people with good hearts, it actually makes them even more generous. But if you have a bad heart and you're a rotten person, it'll actually make you even more rotten. I think that's what wealth did to this particular individual, he was a good person. So anyways, we used that 100k to rebuild the product, we got it off the ground, we got a lot of traction, we were featured by Apple as the best new app in 2013, and we were rocking and rolling. We were gonna raise a million-dollar round to build out our personalization engine and get even more customers, and really try to take on Yelp and Foursquare. I know that sounds big and audacious, but we thought we could because our tech was that good. Along this phase, we were still a free app, I will never do that again. I will never found a free app company. Let's find business models, people. I was looking voraciously to try and monetize the product. We were pursuing advertising, we were pursuing other developers who could tap into our personalization engine and use it for their apps. Along this journey, I ended up finding The Knot, not because I wanted to be acquired, but because I thought they were an interesting revenue partner. They recommend brick and mortar spaces like venues to couples all over the U.S. and Canada, they were the number one in the industry at that. And yet I saw that their venue search experience was not great. Again, this is 2013. What we do best is restaurant and venue searches that are highly relevant for people. So I went in to The Knot, it took me about two months to get that meeting with their executive, but ultimately pitched them on why we were such a great partnership, and why we could really make a lot of money together. Little did I know that venue searching was basically their entire future strategy as a company. Again, I had no clue. Little did I know that the executive who heard my pitch on us being the best venue search company out there just went immediately to the CEO and said, “We need to acquire this small mobile company. It's the right tech, it's the right team, and we think they could actually help us with this.” So this dilemma, it wasn't a huge dilemma, but should we finish raising the round and really try to blow out the service and take on Yelp and Foursquare? We were struggling to make money, I didn't know if we could survive just on venture funding, we would need to find a model. But then here came this very attractive offer that would really honor our investors who were faithful to us, and would honor the core team. We can't retire on it, but it really honored and got our investors a nice return. So we ended up doing it. We thought it was a great, great outcome for our first company. And it led us into The Knot, where, as history shows, The Knot led me to my second company, which is now my favorite thing I get to do every day, it's my best job I've ever had. Again, just showing up and meeting The Knot actually led to Lasting, which was really beautiful to see what happened in retrospect. Because it just wasn't an acquisition that led to a job that led to another company, it has literally led me to my dream venture.
Shantel: I really love how you've led with you have a personal challenge, or you see an opportunity to refine a process, or you think up this better solution to something that you're currently experiencing. It seems true of when you were searching for good, and when you were just a year into your marriage. And now that you have a baby, are you starting to see some gaps in that industry that you could solve with a simple solution?
| NEUROPLASTICITY |
Steve: That's a brilliant question, thank you for asking it. This has been actually a very timely discussion with the Lasting team. Lasting ... We've had lots of initial success, I'm incredibly thankful for it. We are now the number one relationship counseling company in the United States, about half a million downloads, and our revenues are climbing, we're very thankful and we think we can actually do a lot of good with this company. Because, at its core, it's helping couples and it's helping families with something that's very important to them, which is the health of their relationship and the health of their family. I'm using the word family very intentionally because you brought it up. So the signs would say that the most important thing for a child, by far, is the emotional connection that the parents share with each other. It's the number one factor in their cognitive development, their emotional development, and their social development. Basically in the first three years of the child's life, you're laying the foundation of their brain with regard to how they connect with people for the rest of their lives. And that's not to say it's permanent, there's this brilliant thing called neuroplasticity, our brains can remarkably get rewired over time. So even if everyone has baggage in their past, I'm not saying that people are screwed if they had bad parents. But what I am saying is that we have the power to deconstruct our own minds by choosing healthy behaviors. So even if you had an unfortunate past, you can still choose to be healthy and alter your future. But, the entrepreneur in me says if we can actually help a ton of parents share a very connected relationship with one another that's healthy and happy, then we can actually give children the best shot at having a healthy, happy future themselves. I hope that makes sense, that's kind of a core Lasting belief, is that if we can help parents, we can help children. So now with our own child, step one is having a healthy relationship with us. But then step two is, and this is the source of a lot of relationship conflict, what are our parenting styles? How do we relate to our child and how do we raise them? Just like Lasting has synthesized decades of science into a very simple tool, we do believe that we can also synthesize decades of research on parenting into a very simple tool. To answer your question, yes, we think something's there. And at core we're prototypers, we prototype something, we see if it's good for people. But that's not enough. As an entrepreneur, you can't just do what's good for people, you also need to make a profit. So we're gonna prototype things, we're gonna see if it's good for them, but we're also gonna see if they're willing to pay for it. And we're not sure if something's there yet, but it's definitely an area of interest to me right now.
Shantel: Well I'm excited to see where that goes.
Steve: Thank you.
Shantel: We'll have to maybe do a follow-up episode, see the traction there. You mentioned something earlier on, I wrote it down, you intentionally want to build simple solutions to problems. And you may have worded it a little bit different, but I kinda picked up on that as maybe a core purpose of yours, what you live to do every day. One, is that true, but also is that something that you have crafted in these last couple years or last few years of this new business, or something that you've always just felt has been ingrained in you?
| DO WHAT MAKES YOUR HEART EXPLODE |
Steve: Yeah, that's another good question. I'd say it was developed only in the past five years. You articulated it perfectly, I wanna help people with real problems with very simple products. I think it was my experience with Hoppit, seeing a very simple product solve even a first-world problem, just via a very simple app. What apps are very good at are providing very simple solutions on a device that's with us 24/7. So when I came into The Knot, I was immersed in product management for the very first time. There was a very wise chief product officer there named Brent Tworetsky, and he taught me the building blocks of the scientific process of understanding a user's needs, and then building and designing a good solution to meet their need. That was my first taste of, “Wow, there's a systematic process to build simple things.” So I kind of had it in my gut that there was, through Hoppit, but then coming into The Knot and truly gaining a large value for user-centered design really lit up my heart. One of the advice I give budding entrepreneurs is to do what makes your heart explode, and that just about made my heart explode when Brent taught me all those things. So then, fast forward a few more years, I was given about six to 12 months to learn and prototype with Lasting before we launched anything, and I was given the privilege, it was a pure privilege, to go meet with a guy named B. J. Fogg. B. J. Fogg is the godfather of product design in Silicon Valley, he was the first scientist in America to run experiments on how technology in websites and apps can actually help us be healthier as people. He's a tenured professor now, he invites a dozen entrepreneurs and product designers to his home once a year. And I was, again, very privileged to get the invite, I went and spent three days with him just basically learning at his feet, how do you do this. And he said two remarkable things that kind of encapsulate all the learnings. He said, “I've never seen a consumer company fail that's done two things right.” You could hear a pin drop in the room, because everyone's dying to know what he's gonna say. He said, “First, they help people do what they already want to do.” In other words, it's a fool's errand to try and motivate people to do something they don't wanna do. You can't motivate people to do something they don't wanna do. People are people, they desire what they desire. You have to help them, via a product, do what they already desire. The second thing is that, as you do that thing, you make them feel successful, he also said you make them feel powerful. So two really simple examples for this are companies we know and love, Instagram and Uber. Instagram, everyone already wants to take photos and share them with friends and family, and Instagram not only makes you feel like a professional within one tap because you get to apply filters, but as soon as you finish that product and release it to the wild, you get lots of dopamine rushes because friends and family are liking it. It's this beautiful example of those two principles in the real world, Instagram has really taken Fogg up on his core principles, and ironically it was Fogg who actually helped Instagram do that. And then Uber, of course, everyone needs to get from point A to point B, you don't have a lack of desire to go to the airport in a car. But with one tap, again, a personal driver shows up, and you feel powerful because that driver is there for you. So, via Fogg and via experience, I've learned that it is possible to design simple solutions that make people feel great and solve a core problem for them. Fogg even has very simple research that shows if your product says great job, it's actually gonna be used far longer and with more loyalty than any other product, just because when a computer says good job, you actually feel like you did a good job. So we've baked all these principles into Lasting. Each and every Lasting session is under five minutes, it's easy, it helps people do what they already want to do. Nobody doesn't wanna be a good spouse, people desire to actually have a great marriage, so we're helping people do that. And we make them feel successful. We have badges, we say great work, and not only that, but in the real world their partner is happier, so it makes them feel very powerful that there's this very simple tool that leads to success in their own life. I firmly believe, with all my heart, the only reason Lasting has been successful so far is because we've embodied those two principles.
Shantel: Yeah, there definitely was a pin drop on our end waiting to hear what that would be, and it certainly makes sense. Just a neat way to articulate it. I've picked up a lot on leading with your heart. The solutions that you're creating are making people feel good, you had a mentor that mentioned that wealth amplifies your heart, you mentioned do what makes your heart explode. In the short time that we've had a chance to connect, I just am feeling like you lead with the passion, but then you also pour into the team and the product with your heart, to create a really big impact. Is that something that you took from mentors? Were you in an entrepreneurial family that really cared about leading with good intentions and conscious capitalism? I don't know if I'm putting words there, but I'm picking up a lot on you're leading with a ton of intention and have a big heart.
| FOLLOW YOUR HEART |
Steve: I think ... I'm gonna quote a really old school philosopher and theologian, but Martin Luther once said, “What the heart wants, the will chooses and the mind justifies.” So literally we're kidding ourselves if we think our heart doesn't make decisions for us. Do you know what I mean? The heart chooses things, and then your mind simply justifies the choice that the heart already made. So I think ... This has just been, again, a realization in the past few years of my own personal life. But I think I've truly taken that philosophy to heart ... That's like a pun. I've truly lived up to it, I'm like, “I'm gonna regret it if I don't try it, because my heart wants it and my mind's gonna try to find a way to justify me doing it. So let's just try it, if it doesn't work we can iterate.” I've taken a lot of lessons from Design Your Life, the author there, a professor at Stanford, gosh, I should have gone to Stanford, I would have learned this way earlier in my life ... But Dave Evans wrote it, he actually teaches the most popular course at Stanford called Design Your Life. He talks about your own life and career being like a product. Be iterative, do something, and then if it doesn't work you can try another thing. So I think that overall philosophy has really spoken to me, and I think ... You might ask this later, you might not, but I'll just say ... People often ask me will I do another venture, are you a serial entrepreneur, and at this point my answer's actually no. My heart is so into Lasting, I want this to be a company I'm at for the rest of my life. I want it to grow and change, and actually change people's relationships and lives across the world, and I hope it does if we're lucky enough that that happens. But it's because my heart's in it, and I don't see that wavering for the foreseeable future. It's just so interesting that I would have never imagined myself at a marriage company, not even as little as four years ago. I showed up at The Knot through an acquisition, they were the one company that acquired us, and then The Knot taught me how to help people love. So that was borne out of that, it's just a really circuitous route. So that's basically my largest piece of advice, is just if you follow your heart, it might sound cheesy, but it'll help you feel out really where your true passions are. And if it doesn't work, you can always try something else.
Shantel: I love that. What are your thoughts on the phrase “love what you do and you'll never work a day in your life”?
Steve: I fully believe it, I love it. Some of my friends think I'm psychotic, because I always gush when I talk about work. I think it's just so foreign for people to see someone like that. It truly is a love, even just designing a screen, interviewing a new user, even ... I guess, to be honest, I hate the process of doing my expense report. So that is one area of work I do not enjoy. But 99% of the stuff we do every day, I love it, we show up. And luckily this has now become a part of our recruitment strategy. A lot of people join the team because of the mission. So I think ... In companies before, we didn't have a rock solid “we're gonna help people” mission, it was more of a recruitment strategy based on the opportunity, you're gonna grow and learn. But this one, it seems like it's the best of all the worlds. You're gonna grow and learn, but you're also gonna help a ton of people in the process.
Shantel: Are there any days when you're filling out your expense report, you kind of balance that with success stories or customer testimonials using the app to fill that bucket up again?
Steve: Yeah, that's good. I should, I actually don't, but I should ritualistically, on the days where I do expense reports, include a happy ... Interview a customer that day, or something like that. That's really good.
Shantel: I just have two more questions to wrap things up, Steve. First, did you grow up in an entrepreneurial family, always knew you wanted to start something, or again, just you saw a problem and you wanted to fix it?
Steve: You know, in the traditional definition of entrepreneur I'm the first, but my grandpa was incredibly creative, designed a few games and toys, never marketed them but just had them for the family. And then my father, also creative, writes music, has a very gifted voice and guitar talents, and writes children's stories and wants to publish them. So I think I always ... I don't know, my parents were incredibly supportive with creative expression, I think they even wanted my sister and I to fully explore our creative capabilities. This was evidenced by them not really caring about what our grades were, so much as we were putting ourselves out there and trying new things. I think that in itself really set the foundation for any type of future creation that I could do. Although I'm the first entrepreneur, I think I got lots of creative license, if you will, from my family.
Shantel: Absolutely. How can people get in touch with you personally, or learn more about the app, what's the best way to connect?
Steve: The app you can discover via getlasting.com. We do not own lasting.com because that joker wants half a million dollars for the domain, as I'm sure every entrepreneur can relate to, somebody is sitting on the domain you want. So we are get, G-E-T, lasting.com. If you wanna get in touch with me, I am at email@example.com, just my first name with a V, steve@getlasting. I love sharing my story and talking with anybody, specifically who is solving a problem that matters to people and they are looking for a simple solution. That's, again, where my heart lights up, to keep using that phrase. So feel free to reach out, I would love to chat.
Shantel: Thank you Steve, I really appreciate your time and insight. We'll be sure to hyperlink everything in the show notes, thanks so much.
Steve: Wonderful, thank you, I appreciate it. It's been a joy to be here.