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Startup spotlight: Interview with Tatiana Bonneau CEO of AMAfeed (Ask Me Anything) Platform

I was pretty excited for this session since for some reason Tatiana Bonneau would be the first female CEO I have interviewed. I have interviewed several women involved in the startup scene but never a CEO. So I was really looking forward to my session with Tatiana.

I met Tatiana by chance. I was invited by a member of (Ask Me anything (AMA) staff to participate in a session for  my book full Circle that I’ve been promoting. Basically AMA is a platform where CEOs, gamers, marketers, authors and other people from diverse fields give people a chance to ask them anything regarding their expertise and their lives in general. All you have to do is create an account, then create your session stating about what you do, schedule it and wait for the questions to roll in.

I had lots of fun of fun participating in my session (you can take a look at it here) and I thought it would be a great idea to sit down with the CEO of this amazing platform so that she can tell us more about it. Luckily enough, Tatiana was more than gracious in granting us a moment of her time to talk  about  AMA.

Take a look at our interview session.

Give us a brief background of yourself. Who you are, where you are from, your likes/dislikes your education, work experience, anything that will help us know you a bit better.

I was born in the Crimea, grew up between there and Bulgaria. My grandmother on my motherʼs side was an accountant and set that tradition of all the girls in the family to follow her footsteps so my mother, aunt, all my cousins and myself we all got accounting degrees. I got accepted to uni for International Relations almost as a joke, there were introducing some new exam structure in the country where they ran a test before the official school year was finished, if you had a good mark you could use it to get to uni but if not it would not count and affect your scores in any negative way. So we all went without preparation just for the experience and I got excellent marks so could pick what uni I want before we even got our diplomas from college. I dropped out the last year after being told I have to choose between work and education. I worked as a waitress night shifts to get to as many lectures as possible and had good marks just not attendance so thought that ultimatum very unfair and left. Then I got into web development, went through sales, project management, programming, design and finally marketing and consultancy. Thatʼs all over a 14 years period, I lived in Ukraine, Bulgaria, UK, Spain and now France. Most of my work has been with the English and Russian markets, now with AMAfeed we are mainly working with the US though the site is pretty international, our team as well. I love working with people from different backgrounds, I love the story behind each and the AMA spirit fits perfectly with that so I really feel at home with this project. It wonʼt be the last one for sure but it is one I am particularly fond of. As for dislikes – dishonesty tops the list, I donʼt think I dislike anything more. I am married, have 4 kids and never enough time!

Tell us a bit about AMA – when it was founded, by whom and what you do

We have just turned one year in April. We are a small international team (you can see here), we all work remotely and have different backgrounds which is great since it very much embodies what the platform is about – sharing and exchanging information, knowledge and experiences. This year has been all about putting the foundations of the platform and getting that great team together, building and expanding our community and we have all worked very hard on it.

What inspired you to start AMA?

When you are open to knowledge, have a diverse background, friends from all over the world you very quickly see that there is just so much to learn and share! The simplest, smallest thing, the most unnoticeable person you walk by, everything and everyone have a story and often those are as deep and unexpected (or more!) as the inspiring stories of celebrities you read all over the place. Whether it is on a personal or professional level each one of us is a little source of knowledge. We wanted to spark discussions where people can connect and share their stories and others can learn from them and we found the AMAs to be very fitting. The Ask Me Anything format itself is nearly 30 years old, it can be tracked back to AOL chatrooms in 1990 and for all we know could’ve even been around before. Asking is the very first thing we do to obtain knowledge (anyone who has kids will nod here, they never stop asking questions:) and on the other hand – being questioned is a great way to establish your authority, to see and test how the others perceive you, your product, your ideas. We are all big kids at AMAfeed, we never stop asking and playing and we believe everyone should do the same:)

Who are your main competitors and how do you stay ahead of the pack?

That is a question we get often and thing is as I said already, we haven’t invented the AMA format, so there are many who do that, in fact we are a search engine as well so you can search on our site for AMAs from all over the web. So I don’t really see anyone as competitor, the AMAs for us are not « a thing we do on the side » or « one of the things we do » they are what we do. Our focus is the author sharing their book, the CEO sharing their success or failure, the father sharing their parenting advice or the gamer answering questions about how to monetize your following – we are Host centered, we are a tool for people to share and learn. If they can do that elsewhere – great! They can do that everywhere and they should.

What is the biggest accomplishment the business has had in the last one year?

It is a perfect timing to ask that as we have just turned one and I got promoted to my CEO position (I was handling marketing before that…or as much as you can have a defined role in a startup, that was the closest it gets to:), so I decided to send an email to all our Hosts, saying hello, asking for feedback and announcing some of our plans for the future. Luckily I sent the email to a small part first « to see how it goes ». Having worked with web based businesses for nearly 15 years now I honestly did not expect the response. Usually even happy customers don’t have the time to discuss and share their opinions about your products, it is just a fact, everyone is extremely busy these days. I have up to date not managed to catch up with the response and I only approached less than 1/4 of our Hosts. People came back with positive feedback, with suggestions and ideas, shared how their AMAs have helped them shape their product, given them inspiration, new connections, wanting to talk with me of how can we partner and do more together in the future. So this is our biggest accomplishment this year, each and every one of those stories (and the many more to come once I get to them!:)), they are what has justified all the sleepless hours we don’t count that the team puts into this project.

What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now, and how are you making it happen?

One is finishing what I started – talking to each of the Hosts we have posting on the site over the past year. This is very important as those are the people who have trusted us, who have given us their time when we were still ourselves figuring out how to do things best. I want to thank each one of them individually and make sure we are developing and growing in a way that can serve them best. How am I making it happen?…well…by not sleeping much:))

The other thing is the new features we are working on and educating our members on how to use the existing features we have to make their AMA experience most effective and beneficial for all involved. Both are very important and we are working on a lot of visual guides and ways to present that information so that it is easy and quick to grasp as I am very aware time is a big issue for everyone nowadays.

What obstacles are you still working through?

We have had many as any startup but the biggest one I’d say is finding the right people to do the job. With each step we take the better we do the more work there is to be handled and I am really painful when it comes to passing jobs. My background is very diverse from programming and design to sales to marketing online and offline so when I need a job done there are very few people who can pass an interview and be given a chance because I have heard it and seen it all. Then from those very few not all make it. To get to the team you see on Our Team page we have gone through nearly 1500 people (that is people who we hired and let go, interviews I can’t possibly count!). That can give you an idea of how much we treasure each and every one of our team members and how special they are.

How are you getting word out about your company and services to potential clients

We are trying different approaches, social media is an obvious one, SEO is something our team is very good at though that takes time, partnerships since the AMAs can be a great tool for promotion so publishing houses, PR agencies and anyone who needs publicity for their clients can benefit from doing an AMA, we approach businesses who have an existing user base and need to re-engage them – return customers are hugely underestimated given that retention is much cheaper and more effective than acquisition and with an AMA you can do both at the same time. And of course referrals – we ask our Hosts to recommend others to host AMAs.

How do you see your Company Changing over time?

Short answer – I have no idea! I run the company as I run my life – it is easier to tell you what it won’t be than what it will:) We will not be selling our values – it will always be a place where anyone can have an intelligent discussion on a topic, share their experience and learn from others. You will always be welcome to promote your products or services but a « click here buy that » is never going to be allowed – you tell us your idea, your story, your inspiration and pains you took to get it to where you are so that everyone can learn and benefit and sure, we will do our best to promote it and get it in front of the widest audience possible. Apart from that everything is possible.

Tell us a bit about your company cultures

We are a family. It is very hard to get to be a part of the team but once you are in that is it. It is funny because we are all very dedicated to our work so it’s not because we don’t care but we simply don’t have the time to discuss private life at work. But still we all manage to sneak in a little update here and there and we always try to check on each other and make sure the others are ok. Given our different time zones we often chase each other to go to bed as nobody counts hours. I was joking recently I should start paying people to sleep instead of working, might be more effective:)

If you sold your company today, what would be the tone of the conversation? What would you want to gain? What would you want to avoid losing?

I wouldn’t sell it. I’m not in it for the money, if I was there are simpler ways:)

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I see companies very much like kids so in 5 years AMAfeed should be like a teen, not needing much supervision but still some guidance when it comes to important things so I imagine I’d have more time to work on other ideas, ideally something involving the environment, there are many thing to be done in the area of recycling and alternatives of meat. Fashion too is an area I’d like to get into, not for the vanity but for the art and influence side of it.

Have you raised money or are you thinking of raising funds?

No, we have not and we are not considering this at this moment.

Tell us where you are from and how you find the startup scene there.

That is a bit hard as Iʼve already said the « where are you from » does not have a simple answer for me. In the Crimea I honestly wouldnʼt know now given the political situation, both Ukraine and Russia are great on the tech scene worldwide and for outsource companies, Bulgaria as well has many tech giants outsourcing work there and promising startups, over the past decade there have been many organizations and programs put in place to support local and international talent. They are great in terms of work ethic, good education, the obvious lower cost and in the case of Bulgaria favorable tax policy (corporate and income tax are flat 10% and you can setup a company in a couple of hours).

There has been a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion in the tech world lately. Studies have shown there are very few women and minorities in the startup scene. How has the experience been for you working in a male dominated field? And having being promoted as CEO are there any challenges/advantages you’ve experienced as a female startup CEO? Anything we can do to increase the number of women venturing in the tech industry?

That is true and there is still a huge gender gap not just in tech. For me personally being the cute eastern blonde has been something Iʼve had to deal with from a very young age – not being taken seriously, having to prove everything you say etc. that all has been something that just feels natural as it has always been. I have learnt to deal with it and use it to my advantage even as it is much easier to win any fight when your opponent underestimates you.  You just have to not let it get to you on a personal level and start believing what people think or say. But it shouldnʼt be like this and I do believe it is changing.

With AMAfeed we have been through literally thousands of people to end up with almost entirely female team – it was not intentional, those girls just proved to be better than everyone else and most resilient to all the things a startup can throw at you, especially in the first year/s of development. I believe anyone who doesnʼt have women on their team is missing out in many ways.

With my current title not much has changed, I still work crazy hours and some more now with the responsibility – this is not anymore just about getting a product out there on the market but also about not disappointing all the people who have trusted and are trusting us now and building a future for our growing  team. I still get the occasional « can I discuss that with the CEO » from people assuming I can not be him/her/it but you know, thatʼs for whoever is stuck there in their head to solve, not for me, I have enough to do as it is:)

As for what we can do – few things and I always go back to the core – bring up girls and boys who are not limited, threatened or defined by their own or someone elseʼs gender. I have heard that from my own son « how can she run quicker than me, she is a girl?! how can she be better at math, she is a girl! » and that was not something that came from home, that was after a few months in a new school. So environment is a massive factor and everyone should make sure in everything they do, everyone they touch on their way, they instill those ideas and values because it matters.

Women are accountable directly or indirectly for 50-85% of purchase decisions made – this is huge, so why are we not ourselves investing in women? We all vote with our wallets so everyone should be conscious – what do you watch? what do you buy? This is the quickest and most effective way to make a difference. You stop buying, reading, clicking on sexist magazines, how long will they last for? Lookup women owned and run businesses, those who support women and choose their services and products over those who donʼt. If you canʼt find a women friendly business for X service – go create one. Women have been oppressed for a long time in many different ways but we can and we are now in a position to change that more than ever and I think we should not just demand change, we should create that change ourselves too. Because the more we do the more anyone opposing it will just be left behind, itʼs not worth even spending the time arguing and proving points.

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