5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “The startups that struggled, were the ones that didn’t iterate fast enough” with Theresa Piasta and Mitch Russo

Something that had stuck with me at the time was what one of my instructors at Stanford Ignite had shared with my class: that the startups he felt that struggled, were the ones that didn’t iterate fast enough. I took this to heart at this moment, and instead of “turning off the lights,” I chose to focus on building the community first and forced myself to adopt patience. If I could focus on growing the passionate community every day, and find ways to build our platform with my own skills to keep costs down, when the community grew, we would be better equipped with the knowledge (and hopefully funds) that we needed to build the right app for our community.

As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Theresa Piasta. Theresa is the founder of tech start-up, lifestyle brand and app, Puppy Mama. Before founding Puppy Mama, Theresa was a Vice President at J.P. Morgan — spending six total years in the Investment Bank and Sales & Trading businesses at two Wall Street banks. Prior to that she served as an Army Captain in a Field Artillery Brigade. During her fourteen-month Iraq deployment in 2008, Theresa led a large team to defend thousands of soldiers and contractors residing on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Delta near the Iranian border. She was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for her service. Theresa attended the Stanford GSB Ignite program in 2016 and received a B.A. in economics from Wellesley College in 2006. Theresa and her six siblings grew up in Sonoma County, California. Today she lives in San Francisco, CA, with her husband, 5-month old son, and cavapoo, Waffles.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Before Puppy Mama, I thought I was a “hard ass” living an intense life — from collegiate soccer, to 4 years active duty in the Army and a 14-month deployment to Iraq War, to Wall Street sales and trading life. Eventually, the high stress of those environments caught up to me. It crept up on me through anxiety, horrible migraines and depression. I was ultimately diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”).

But, summer 2015 is when I met an angel who along with my husband helped me survive the most painful year of my life. Waffles, a 13-pound ball of fluffy puppy happiness, was there every moment to help me get through significant suffering and sadness. She comforted me when I needed it most, and never failed to put a smile on my face. Her love is contagious — she spreads laughter and happiness to anyone she meets. To this day, she continues to remind me daily to embrace life and search for love and joy.

The experience inspired me to shift my North Star and bring the joy I was feeling at that time to people’s lives. I wanted to bottle the happiness of puppy parenthood and get it out there to the world.

Today social media can be so negative, even destructive — but it doesn’t have to be. This medium can be used to spread joy and build positive interactions with other people. And that’s why I love the Puppy Mama community; our members spread joy and acceptance to one another, and the way they interact with one another is absolutely beautiful.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Throughout the first year raising Waffles, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in the love that I felt for her — that there were other women who were as passionate about their dogs as I was, who wanted to include their dogs in their daily lives. I also learned that canine therapy is very helpful for many illnesses — not just PTSD.

Knowing how much canine therapy helped me, and learning how much it can help with other issues as well, I was inspired to create a community of women who provide positivity and advocate for others whose lives have been changed by their dogs. From women dealing with heavily stigmatized illnesses such as anxiety and depression to women who have found joy in their pup, I wanted to empower women to live their best lives, and advocate for canine therapy for those in need.

In Spring 2016, I was thrilled to be accepted into the Stanford Ignite program for entrepreneurs and it afforded me the opportunity to build out my initial concept and develop it with the incredible business school faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Puppy Mama was born.

Today, Puppy Mama is leveraging technology to deliver community and convenience to dog moms around the world so that they may live a more connected and joyful dog-friendly lifestyle. Together, the Puppy Mama community is advocating for a more dog-friendly world and for the healing power of canine therapy.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When I was working on Wall Street (after returning home from Iraq), I suffered chronic head pain that felt like relentless stabbing knives sensations. When I was trying to find ways to relieve my pain, one of my neurologists told me four years ago, “a career in front of a computer screen is not in your [my] future.” This statement hit me very hard–and I have been fighting to find solutions to relieve my pain ever since. Needless to say, navigating my health journey has been a challenging roller coaster ride, and I had to hunt for ways to manage my pain.

Out of all of the various therapies I tried, spending time with my dog Waffles represented the most significant moments of healing, self-reflection and growth. And, in time, I began to appreciate the adversity I had to overcome, since this healing journey transformed not only my health, but my entire life. I found my passion in helping others deal with similar invisible suffering and was eager to become healthier and stronger to become an advocate for them.

My goal was, and is, to create the community support I wished I had when I really needed it, so that other women don’t have to go through what I did, feeling “alone” and not understood. I had always been taught to push down pain in an unhealthy way to keep going, now I’ve learned to work for something I love, side by side my source of happiness and healing — Waffles — and inspire others to do the same.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Bootstrapping a startup has its challenges; from building the Puppy Mama web application to launching products, the reality is: startups cost money — and on a bootstrapped budget, I’ve had to find crafty ways to grow our community and brand; and, out of necessity, two years ago, I made the decision to momentarily pivot our remaining resources to focus on growing our community and brand.

Two years later: We’ve been able to keep growing, and due to our focus on two emerging trends (1) the humanization of pets, and (2) the explosive growth of mass affluent dog moms, Puppy Mama was selected as a Spotlight Finalist at Pets & Money 2018 conference and featured in Forbes article: The Biggest Trends of The Pet Industry.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Despite conducting multiple user tests and user persona interviews to build what we felt was a sophisticated responsive web application that would enable dog moms to rate businesses according to a 5-paw rating, one of the various feedback themes that kept coming up was that dog moms struggled to find the app in the App Store! And, we quickly learned after the launch that we needed more funds to create more enhancements (including iOS version) and feature upgrades — funding that we didn’t have.

Something that had stuck with me at the time was what one of my instructors at Stanford Ignite had shared with my class: that the startups he felt that struggled, were the ones that didn’t iterate fast enough. I took this to heart at this moment, and instead of “turning off the lights,” I chose to focus on building the community first and forced myself to adopt patience. If I could focus on growing the passionate community every day, and find ways to build our platform with my own skills to keep costs down, when the community grew, we would be better equipped with the knowledge (and hopefully funds) that we needed to build the right app for our community.

And, now–two years later, our community is helping us figure out our next build! This year, our community and ambassador pack conducted multiple surveys to help us figure out what to prioritize in the second app build. They have been so generous with their time — giving us candid feedback about what they care about the most.

I learned a lot from this experience, and why it is so important to learn and listen from our community. The Puppy Mama community will drive the direction of what we build and why in the future.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Many have shared their mental health and illness stories for the first time on our platform; and women who are experiencing pain and suffering have told us how thrilled they were to find a platform that offers a safe place to discuss their battles to overcome various hardships, including PTSD, depression and anxiety. Puppy Mama is a movement to end mental health stigmas and we have created this safe and trusted place for women to share — I am incredibly proud of this.

One strong memory: a year ago, I teared up immediately after reading the heartfelt story we received from a Canadian woman, who was fighting through a lot of pain (including PTSD, anxiety and depression) after she was hit by a car as a pedestrian crossing the street — and ultimately found healing, comfort and strength from a dog she rescued from a shelter after the accident. When we shared her story as our “top story”, she immediately reshared the article to her family and friends on Facebook with a beautiful note how our platform helped her share her healing journey story — witnessing the consequential outpouring of love and support her family and friends gave to her, warmed my heart so much.

And, this is only one of the hundreds of healing stories that we’ve received and shared. When we ask women to share how their dogs help them, I’m so touched how they share such personal vulnerable stories. Their stories have become “love” letters to their furry best friends who’ve helped them cope with loss, tragedy and suffering. These stories have fueled my passion to keep this loving community growing.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Knowing how much canine therapy helped me, and learning how the right dog match can help others as well, I often encourage others to consider bringing a dog into their home. In addition to providing love and companionship, dogs have been proven to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, as well as to decrease anxiety and feelings of loneliness.1 They also help to increase opportunities for their parents to be physically active, reducing cardiovascular risk and linking dog parenthood to longer lives.2

1. “About Pets and People,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed August 17, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/index.html.

2. Mwenya Mubanga et al., “Dog Ownership and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Death — A Nationwide Cohort Study,” Scientific Reports 7, no. 15821 (2017).

And, I have become very passionate to help those in need with canine therapy. In fact, 5% of the net proceeds of our first book Raising a Doodle will be donated to help train service dogs for military veterans in need.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My husband Jeff not only has been by my side throughout my healing journey, but has also been my advisor, and a sounding board for my ideas.

From the start, he’s encouraged me to develop the scrappy skills necessary to be an entrepreneur in today’s digital world. From learning Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and video editing to building an eCommerce store, he guided me how to skill-up efficiently leveraging YouTube, Quora and various other sites. Throughout the past couple of years, knowing how to learn in crafty ways has been a high-ROI skill for a bootstrapped budget.

For example: two years ago — Jeff encouraged me to learn how to use a DSLR camera and Photoshop so that I could take Puppy Mama’s branded photos in order to protect licensing rights and decrease design costs. In time, I got better–to the point that when I needed a cover photo and an InDesign layout for our first book Raising a Doodle, I scheduled a photoshoot with the women in our community for a cover photo (I took the photo), and then taught myself InDesign to build an appropriate stylish layout to include many of the approximate 1,000 submitted photos in the book.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

Although we had to temporarily pause the development of our web application, we were able to keep growing our community via leveraging social media, website newsletter, events, Typeform surveys, and direct messages to women on Instagram.

Today, we are now overall 23,000 strong, with a ‘true fan’ network of over 650 Ambassadors that collectively have a social media reach of more than 2 million.

And, we’ve received over a thousand stories how dogs are inspiring and healing women around the world. These stories are the foundation of our book series. Our first book “Raising a Doodle: Heartwarming Stories from Dog Parents Around the World” launches on Nov 4th (SparkPress publisher) and is now available for pre-order online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and puppymama.com/book.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

Candidly, our focus has shifted from expensive app development to building the community and the brand to a point where shifting to premium services monetization would be more effective. Our users are so generous with their time — giving us valuable survey data to ensure that premium services in the app will fit what our dog mom community wants. Ultimately, we will be expanding into virtual training and coaching services to help women “raise their pups.”

We are also building our brand with the launch of our first book in November. From the more than 1,000 submitted stories how dogs are helping heal and inspire women around the world, we’ve discovered that each dog breed has a unique story to share. The first book in the Puppy Mama series focuses on the fast-growing poodle-mix breed market, how they are taking over Instagram and bringing joy and laughter to families around the world.

And, with the help of my Wellesley College classmate Audrey Courchesne, we worked hard to curate hundreds of story and photo submissions into “Raising a Doodle: Heartwarming Stories from Dog Parents Around the World.” 5% of the net proceeds of the book will be donated to help train canine therapy dogs. The book is now available for pre-order online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at puppymama.com/book and we are partnering with Healthy Spot to gather the women and pups featured in the book for a fun launch party on October 20th in San Francisco!

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Know your audience, how to find them, and what they truly want and need.

2. Find the difficult balance between 1.) listening to others’ advice and 2.) staying true to your vision. Sometimes “nay-sayers” have valid points that you shouldn’t ignore, but don’t let them shut down your passion and drive.

3. Users now expect the 2-click simple gratification that Uber and Amazon offer — if you build an app, stay ruthlessly focused on user experience and convenience.

4. App design and development is very expensive so take the time to really understand the expenses and assume everything will cost 2x what you estimated.

5. Building communities online to build brand trust is getting to be more difficult without marketing funds to “pay to play.” Many of the bootstrapped methods we’ve tried in the past on social media platforms are becoming more challenging due to saturation of other brands.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would encourage others to leverage social media for good. Seeing all of our members spread joy and acceptance to one another is truly beautiful– and they prove that social media can be used to foster community, happiness and understanding.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We’d be delighted for your readers to join us! Here are some ways they can follow us:

Apply to become a Puppy Mama Ambassador at

puppymama.com/ambassador.

Submit to be in Puppy Mama’s Second Book: https://puppymama.com/pages/puppy-mama-book-submissions

Follow us on:

Instagram: @puppy.mama

Facebook: @puppymamacommunity

Twitter: @PuppyMamaDotCom

Pinterest: @puppymamacommunity

YouTube: http://bit.ly/PuppyMamaYoutube

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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About the author:

Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via mitch@mitchrusso.com


5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “The startups that struggled, were the ones… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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