“A Challenging Startup”

Piruze Sabuncu and The Challenge Project

How can you make routine tasks like exercise as fun and addictive as, say, a social media game?

The Challenge Project is an online gaming platform that motivates users to do healthy things like exercise (that’s real-world exercise) by providing incentives and turning users’ entire social networks into potential workout buddies.

Challenge Project Founder Piruze Sabuncu moved to Austin, Texas from her home in Turkey to complete her undergraduate in business at the University of Texas at Austin. With no prior connections in the US — “only two semesters at a good business school” — she landed internships with the Texas Economic Development Office and Dell Computer. She accepted a position at Dell and worked there for four years before leaving to get an MBA at Harvard Business School. Now she’s launching The Challenge Project with her HBS classmate, Justin Wieland.

What kind of challenges have you run into so far?

I am used to working with an organization that has a lot of resources and a big name. Right now, when I try to convince people to work with me, to buy my idea, to be my partner, it is only me. I don’t have real, relevant experience in this field. I’m not a very technical person. All we have is a really good idea that a lot of people can benefit from, and a business model and a plan that makes sense.

But if it made sense for a lot of people, there would be other people doing this. So, it is very normal when I talk with people to get feedback that some people don’t like it or some people find it stupid. So, I’m just getting used to the idea that you can get a lot of negative feedback and it’s okay. It’s not easy. At the same time, choosing the feedback that you know will be helpful to you is very important, too. Really, that’s how you improve your idea and iterate on it and learn.

How do you decide when to change your approach based on feedback and when to stick to your original vision?

Let’s say there’s a venture capitalist who’s famous, but he’s not in our field. If he gives me feedback on the way you structure the team, the timing of starting the company, or the way they’re approaching the fundraising, I would listen very carefully and try to learn something from our conversation. But if he says, “You know what, I don’t think this makes sense, because this is how I feel the healthcare industry is going,” I would think twice, or try to get a third or fourth opinion before believing that what I’m doing is wrong.

It also really helps telling other people what you got as feedback, like my partner; “Here was my experience, here is what I learned,” and digging deep into what we can learn from that conversation.

Between the two of you, you maintain the core of your idea?

Yes, that’s correct. I wouldn’t think of doing this by myself. I could have done it, or he could have done it by himself, but having a partner who shares similar values really helps you stick to your mission and go through bad times together. I wouldn’t be considered an experienced entrepreneur, but so far I can definitely tell you it really helps to have co-founders.

Do you have other people on the team?

Right now, on and off, we are six people.


How do you choose the right person for a job?

With a start-up that has very limited resources, and as a person who doesn’t have a real technical background, I decided to go through friends that I trusted who had relevant experiences. We found our CTO through a classmate of mine. I never approached them as “this is how I’m thinking and this is the position I think you would be great at.” We just started talking. I tried to understand where they’re coming from, what they’ve done before, and what they want to get out of the experience. Then I show them what we would need, and then work on the logistics.

It’s very important to talk with the people they’ve done business with. I always do that. Always, always. You learn so much. We also do a trial period, we pay for that person’s travel and food, and say, “Can you come and work with us for two weeks so that you can understand what you’re signing up for, and we can also understand how you work?”

Do you have an office, or do you work virtually?

My partner has a very nice place we use as a home office, and we work from Cambridge Innovation Center, so we are using a common, shared place – kind of an incubation program. And we were also using the Harvard Business School campus [laughs] and the project groups. These are our offices, but our front end developer is in New York, our back end developer is in Turkey right now and is moving to Silicon Valley. So we spend a lot of time on Skype, and on various tools that allow us to talk internationally.

Are there extra things that you do to encourage teamwork when working with a geographically scattered team?

It’s really, really tough, especially when you don’t have the budget to just fly people in and have a Monday on-site like I’m used to at a big company. But what we do is we make sure that we are meeting twice a week – all the team together – and just update each other on the other things that we are working on. Not like “this is the thing that I want to get an update on” but more like “here’s how my week was, here is what I’m working on for us, here’s some good news, here’s what we decided to do on customer acquisition side.” Just getting people more involved in the big picture – getting their feedback and making them passionate about what we are working on and how their hard work right now will pay off.

Where do you turn when you face obstacles?

It really changes depending on what kind of resources are available to me, but I value – a lot – some of the mentors I’ve had. I make sure I have these relationships where I can openly, honestly tell them, “I’m in a tough spot, and I would love thirty minutes to ask questions.” They give me the courage and the energy to solve the problem even if they cannot answer the question.

The other thing is that people should know how to sit down and breathe [laughs]. Calm down and start writing things down. It really helps me a lot.

Is there anything you do to maintain those relationships?

Absolutely, yes. I learned this by making mistakes. What happens is, we meet a lot of people in different parts of our lives that offer their help, and we take that help, and afterwards, we get into our very busy lives and forget to keep in touch. And when we need their help again, if we are good people, it becomes really hard to reach out to them. I don’t want to be perceived as only calling people when I need them. And by thinking like this, you stop calling them for years. It’s a weird cycle. A mentor of mine, that I reached out to after a year, gave me this advice: even though it might sound like you’re making mechanics out of this, make sure you have a list of people that you want to check back with. Make sure you just send an update email – it can be just two sentences, “Here’s what I’m up to, I hope all is well.” Just take the time to do this when you have a few hours each month.

What is your definition of leadership?

It really is important to me to be an exemplary leader. I was lucky to take a leadership course in undergrad where we were reading mythology and old Chinese tales, and many other things and getting lessons from them. There was an example of “leader as a servant.” I love that concept. I love leaders who are okay with doing the hardest job, and making their team understand that they are up for the challenge, and they won’t be the one who gives the bad or hard work to the team and then takes the spotlight. I not only want to give that message to the team, but I genuinely want to be okay with doing that. Something went wrong? I’m okay to take the blame, because I told you to take a risk. It’s okay to fail once or twice, but try your best and learn something out of it and don’t make the same mistakes again.