eWorks is the Esade venture creation program; it provides a series of activities and services designed to foster and support new venture creation by Esade students and recent graduates.
The Esade Doers podcast series, led by eWorks manager Davide Rovera, focus on entrepreneurs from the eWorks Community who present their startups and share experiences, learnings, sources of inspiration and tips with fellow entrepreneurs.
Today, we can learn from Olga Shirokova, an Esade graduate who founded Kiara, an online academy for feminine health, wellbeing and sexuality.
Davide Rovera: Hello and welcome to Esade Do Better podcast about entrepreneurs and innovators. Our guest today is Olga Shirokova, founder of Kiara Women. Hi Olga, thank you so much for being with us.
Olga Shirokova: Hi David, hi everyone, so nice to be here, thank you very much for inviting me.
Davide Rovera: Okay, Olga, we like to always start with something very quick. Can you give us a 30-second pitch-style description of what your company does?
Olga Shirokova: Kiara Women is an online female health academy and we give women the knowledge and educational tools for them to understand their bodies and improve their wellbeing. We are a team of 15 medical professionals, and we treat topics such as menstrual cycle, hormones, sexuality, and specific topics, such as endometriosis, or polycystic ovaries syndrome. We give women the knowledge and education to understand what’s going on in their bodies and the tools for them to improve their wellbeing in natural ways. And apart from that we also have an online menstrual shop, where women can confidently buy sustainable menstrual and health products.
Davide Rovera: Thanks for the intro. We are going to explore this in a moment but first let’s take a few steps back and hear your personal story. Did you always know you were going to be an entrepreneur? Or how did you chose to become an entrepreneur?
Olga Shirokova: I always suspected that I would become an entrepreneur because my parents and my brothers are entrepreneurs – so it runs in the family. I always saw my parents and then my brother doing amazing stuff. And I always thought: ‘this lifestyle is great, I love what they do, what they do for the family, for the community, how they create value’. I wanted to do this too. So, I’m glad that I finally came to this path although it’s not that easy. However, I feel passionate every day about what I do and that is good.
Davide Rovira: You were inspired by your family, but what was your personal entrepreneurial story? You didn’t start with Kiara Woman; you did something before. How did you got to where you are now, and what were the steps?
Olga Shirokova: I think it began with Esade. I’m Russian and I came first to Barcelona to study at Esade in the bachelor degree programme and that was an great experience. I was pretty convinced that I would want to work in consulting, because that’s what people do after studying business administration. I did some consulting and that was fine. I knew that it wasn’t the path for me, but it would help me acquire skills. So, I then started working more with startups as a freelancer, and I also did the MIE programme at Esade – which was one of the best decisions in my life. Afterwards, I continued for some time helping startups to grow. At some point, I decided: ‘I really want to do this. What am I missing to be able to do this?’ I realised that I needed some technological input, because I knew that if I had no technological background, then I would not be able to build anything on my own. So that’s when I decided to learn programming. I went to a coding boot camp here in Barcelona, and I became a developer. And that was a really terrific addition to my skills. I then had this idea for the company that became Kiara Woman – and so I did one year of research while working as a freelancer. After shaping the product, I launched it from Barcelona and here we are today. The company had a different name in the beginning, it was called Ora and we were originally focused on physical products. We offered boxes of things for women to help them better enjoy their periods. It was a nice subscription-based product. Let’s say that it was a little bit of an American model. But I found that for the Spanish market this was not the best product and it didn’t meet the needs of women that much.
Davide Rovera: How did you get to this initial idea? Was it copying an existing model or was it something that you came up with?
Olga Shirokova: Everything started from my personal needs. I remember thinking ‘well, I have my period’ and thinking ‘I feel so bad, I have cramps, I have a headache, mood swings, and I feel terrible’. And that was my period every month. And I felt terrible about it, and I thought ‘there must be something that could make me feel better’. I went and googled something like ‘feeling better during menstruation’. And I found nothing. And that was weird, because I thought all women in my age range have periods, and I know that many of them don’t have a very happy period. How can there be nothing that solves this problem? And that’s when I had the initial idea and I decided to create the product. I saw that it was successful in the US, and I decided to bring it here, where I thought it could be successful.
But as you said, it was not a product-market fit. The Spanish market is very different from the American market, and it didn’t meet the objectives that I wanted to cover.
Davide Rovera: So, there was some pivoting into what is now Kiara Women.
Olga Shirokova: We did quite a big pivot. We were working with this physical product and we thought it was not quite getting there. And two things happened. On one side, some women who were working with another community started asking us for more content. And as we were publishing content in our blog and social media, more women started asking for more and more content. They were asking us a lot of questions and there was huge interest in the content we were posting.
In addition, some amazing professionals reached out to me and told me that they would like to be part of this mission. And by joining forces we got the first specialists on the team. And we started creating more content with them. The more content we created, the more interest we created – and that’s when I decided to launch a small course and see what happens. Well… things went crazy and women all over the place were just falling in love with what we are doing, and they were saying: ‘we have been looking for something like this for years’. This is when I thought that we are onto something, this is what women really need and this is the product-market fit. We decided to pivot and focus on education – changing the name and switching mostly to courses – but leaving an ecommerce store with the menstrual shop on the site.
Davide Rovera: You switched when you discovered that it wasn’t really a good product-market fit. Your users and contributors pulled you in another direction and that is now definitely working. You mentioned that there is a shop and an academy. I think the shop is self-explanatory. How does the academy work?
Olga Shirokova: We have various online courses. Most of the courses are created by four or five professionals working together. The courses last from 4 to 8 weeks and in each programme we start with the theory, so you start by understanding the topic that we are examining and why something is happening in your body or how this part of your body works. And then we discuss specific practical tools for understanding how to make it better.
Let’s look at an example that everybody will understand. One of our new courses is on fertility. This is for women who either want to become pregnant, or who have been trying for some time and had some difficulties. And it’s a course created by five professionals and it’s an absolutely beautiful course that shows women how fertility works. There are so many really crazy myths around. We start by explaining how everything works and how you should approach this topic. The course shows how conception works and what hormone do and all the other elements that come into play. And then we explain how you can improve your fertility. We start with nutrition for example, and then the nutritionist gives a specific programme to improve fertility by changing diets.
And there is a physiotherapist who explains how by movement and exercise you can better achieve fertility. There are other tools as well and in total it’s a programme of six weeks for women to understand how their fertility works and how to make it better.
Davide Rovera: In terms of the mechanics of your project, did you find external investors? Is it financed by revenues? How does it work?
Olga Shirokova: For the moment we have decided against external investment – we had a proposal six months ago, but we decided it was too soon. I think an investment round or taking investment in a new company is a demanding thing to do and it’s like a marriage. You have to make it right, so that you stay in control of your company and remain happy with what is going on. I knew that this was too early and that the percentage that they wanted of the company was too high. I knew I would be demotivated in the end.
However, we are starting to consider going for an investment round. But we want to finish several tasks and make customer acquisition smoother while lowering the cost. When we get that done and everything is working automatically and smoothly we will be at the point where we are open to investment. An investment would obviously allow us to do so many things and grow so much faster. But the moment must be right. Until now we have managed everything with an initial investment from family and friends and bootstrapping – and things are working well.
Davide Rovera: This is something I hear increasingly from entrepreneurs. It’s good to get investment, but you need to know how it is going to impact and how that’s going to change the management of the company.
Olga Shirokova: Exactly. I believe that completely. And it’s hard to resist sometimes because you read about so many companies raising so much money.
Davide Rovera: Especially in the current market, where there is a lot of money floating around.
Olga Shirokova: Exactly. I see people who started a company after me raising funds and you can get frustrated because you think that means that their company is better than yours. You cannot avoid comparing yourself to everybody else. However, I’m still taking the patient path. I’m happy with how everything is going. At some point when I’m completely happy with the company, and all the KPIs, it will make sense to go to an investor because you can better negotiate your terms – and it can be a nicer relationship overall.
Davide Rovera: In the meantime, you focus on the product, on the users, and on making everybody happy. As long as you can self-sustain, it’s good. So, it’s a good sign that you are doing something that is useful, and people are happy with it. You don’t need to run after the money, and so it’s better for you and your project.
Olga Shirokova: Yes.
Davide Rovera: But you are saying ‘we.’ You mentioned earlier that you are 15 strong, if I understood correctly you have medical specialists working with you, I’m assuming they are not full-time. So, who is in the team?
Olga Shirokova: I started the company on my own and I was looking for a cofounder, because I was not sure I could do it on my own – but I found nobody who I thought would be a good fit. I decided to go ahead by myself and then if somebody comes along I could make them my cofounders later on – or just partners. And that’s what happened, I started a company alone, it was a no easy journey obviously, but it was a good experience. And now we have the team of 15 medical professionals – they are not full-time and they are more like collaborators. I have a colleague who is about to become a partner, and I’m really grateful that I found her. We have an amazing team of four other girls that includes a designer, an ad specialist, and another editor. Some are mostly part-time, and some are more full-time – depending on the needs. We have two full-time people, and four more part-time people, and the medical professionals who help a lot.
Davide Rovera: There is always the recommendation about not bringing external people into startup, but in some cases when somebody is really a specialist, you want them to remain being specialists. You mentioned that you started alone that’s very brave as many entrepreneurs don’t want to start alone. But you also mentioned earlier that you studied coding – so you are also, let’s say, a full-stack entrepreneur as you know the business side, but also the tech side. So, my question for you is: do you think you would have done it anyway if you hadn’t studied coding?
Olga Shirokova: Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. Maybe I would have tried it, but I don’t know if I would have been successful. I experienced problems in the past when I worked with another startup and we had to create a website. If you don’t have any understanding about technology, and about what it takes… or how much time it takes to do something… then what options do you have? What technology should you use? How much should it cost? You are in the dark and then your agency has an advantage over you. In that case, the founders spent a lot of money and in the end it was not what they wanted – and it was a disaster. If you don’t have some knowledge then everything takes five times as long because you have to change this and change that, and then you realise that the technology is not what you are looking for. I was very clear that I needed to learn programming – although I couldn’t really work as a developer, because I’m not the type of person to do that. But having the knowledge and not depending on external agencies, or developers, or even internal staff, and knowing what you are talking about is a huge advantage. I did my website myself. However, the website is in Shopify, a content management system, and so you don’t really need to know coding to do that. Nevertheless, I did program some specific features inside Shopify, and I changed specific design features that could only be done if you have the coding skills. Today, if we need something on the web then I know what it takes. I know whether it’s possible or not, and I can handle things much better in terms of money and time.
Davide Rovera: Is the web still developed by you, or do you have somebody helping you?
Olga Shirokova: I have another person who is helping me with some of heavier features and more difficult tasks. But the basis is still done by me. At the time of the pivot, the website was changed completely. I did that. And then some features were implemented by another person. I would rather do the homepage myself because I know how I want it to look. And I know it would take me more time to explain myself than to do just do it myself. I’m happy to give the very technical work to other people because I still understand what is going on.
Davide Rovera: You really are an all-round entrepreneur. You understand the business strategy part, you understand the development part, and you also keep shooting some excellent videos for customer acquisition. You are really keeping the platform moving, and I think that’s amazing. So, let’s move to the final part of the interview.
Olga Shirokova: Of course, let’s go.
Davide Rovera: What book are you currently reading?
Olga Shirokova: I have just started three books. The first one that I’m reading is Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque. I’m reading it in German to improve my German. Another book that I have started is on negotiation by an ex-FBI agent – but I can’t remember the title. The third book I have sitting on my bookshelf is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
Davide Rovera: Is that book Never Split the Difference?
Olga Shirokova: Yes. I’m terrible with names. Amazing book, I really recommend it for everybody and I’m finishing right now. If you want to be an entrepreneur or work in business it’s really a great read. So, those are my top three for now.
Davide Rovera: Olga, you are Russian, you speak perfect Spanish, English, and you are now learning German. I think you speak Catalan as well, so how many languages do you speak?
Olga Shirokova: Yes, those are the ones. And I am going to learn Italian next.
Davide Rovera: We could do another podcast, you know, learn languages with the Esade international community (laughs).
Olga Shirokova: Exactly, yes, that would be lovely (laughs).
Davide Rovera: Next question. What is a startup that you think is interesting – beyond yours of course.
Olga Shirokova: Spanish or generally speaking?
Davide Rovera: Anywhere.
Olga Shirokova: Obviously from my field of knowledge, I can mention Platanomelon. I think they are amazing and they are doing something similar to our business – but in different scale. They are disrupting the entire sexuality industry, and they are giving it such an amazing twist. If you don’t know them, please go and google them, Platanomelon are absolutely awesome and are all about sexual education and exploring your sexuality.
Another startup, not that much a startup anymore, but I often have it on my radar, is Typeform. They are doing a really good job – even from the design perspective. And yes, I like their mindset and the way their culture works. I have several people working with Typeform and it’s an excellent product.
Davide Rovera: It is one of the big successes from Barcelona.
Olga Shirokova: Exactly. And then again as I see their culture from close and it is just brilliant. And now with Covid, I know that they are working very hard to keep their people happy by working remotely, so, yes, they are doing a really great job.
Davide Rovera: You are interested in female tech. What do you think is an interesting trend that people who want to become entrepreneurs should focus on? What as an entrepreneur, do you think is an interesting trend?
Olga Shirokova: There are obviously several rising trends right now. Remote working is huge and should be looked into more, because we have great tools like Zoom. But I think there is so much that can be done and there is much more that can be digitalised or improved – especially some of the crazy administrative stuff in Spain. The entire medical system is the same. Those industries are just so non-innovative, non-digital, and you know it needs someone to come and do something. I don’t think the solution needs to be that difficult but something must be done – especially in the field of feminism and education.
Davide Rovera: You mean in the way you are doing education, right?
Olga Shirokova: Yes, exactly. Education is so wide and is everywhere, and I think lifelong education is now a huge thing. The field definitely has to be empowered and worked on. There are many opportunities, and it can be so powerful for a society.
Davide Rovera: Absolutely, education in general and digitalising different markets as well. This is a trend I’m seeing with more and more people finding gaps and with so many things still left to do.
Let’s move forward to the final and more personal questions. Thinking of yourself as a manager and somebody running a company – is there any advice that you often give people but you don’t follow yourself?
Olga Shirokova: I always say: ‘stay pessimistic and then hope for the best.’ Because as an entrepreneur that’s what you must do every day. I’m getting better at that, but I always hope for something amazing to happen – and if it doesn’t happen you are left struggling. Startups are rollercoasters.
Davide Rovera: The bias of being very optimistic is also something often found in successful entrepreneurs – so it’s good that you might be more optimistic than the rest of the team.
Olga Shirokova: I always project positivity no matter what’s going on – but when I’m on my own I have to be a little smarter and know that things sometimes don’t work out. You must be prepared to work on Plan B – but that’s not easy. I often get buried in a ‘to do’ list and at some point I have to stop the ‘ant-tasks’ and say ‘okay, let’s prioritise and take out all the unnecessary stuff’. I must do that more often.
Keeping the capability of being super focused on something, but also zooming out and seeing the big picture. This is even more important for a sole entrepreneur.
Davide Rovera: As an entrepreneur, what has been your biggest mistake?
Olga Shirokova: That goes hand in hand with what I just said. My biggest mistake was probably expecting that everything would go as planned. At university you learn about writing a business plan and you think: ‘yes, that makes all the sense in the world’. But events don’t unfold like that – not even close. I understand the people who say that business plans are completely useless. It never goes as you planned, not the sales projections or anything. In my case, I had to take two steps back and think about how I could change the way I was working in case it didn’t meet expectations.
Expectations are fine, but a company is a natural being, like a creature, so you have to let it grow and just focus on the future, not necessarily on meeting some business plan that you wrote in your room.
Davide Rovera: Olga, we can keep talking for hours – but for now let’s make a wrap. Thank you so much for being so honest, transparent, and sharing with us your inspiring story, and being an inspiration to so many women, and all the best moving forward.
Olga Shirokova: Thank you so much, thank you for having me, David. It was a great talk. I do hope that this story can inspire at least one women or man, but especially a woman. And yes, if there is anything you would like to ask me, please feel free to reach out and I am always happy to chat. Thank you very much David, it was a pleasure.
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