Holly Payne is the founder and CEO of Booxby, an AI-powered marketing platform for content creators. We sat down with Holly to hear about her journey to founding the company and to learn more about what it’s like to be a start-up founder.
What led you to found Booxby? As an author with 18 years in publishing, I was frustrated with the marketing efforts of my publishers. I wanted to find a more intelligent and efficient way to help my books reach their audience. I didn’t sit for years writing and rewriting to let my efforts “die on a shelf,” and I know many other content creators share my pain, no matter what medium they use. There’s so much great content out there with all the books, podcasts and streaming videos being created. Stories are ubiquitous and one of the most powerful ways we all relate. I wanted to find a way to use technology to connect this powerful content to its audience and be a part of solving a massive marketing challenge.
What have been the biggest challenges so far? Acquiring the right datasets. When you’re building artificial intelligence, you need enormous datasets to achieve statistical significance so that you can trust the performance of your models. In our case, these datasets had a huge trust issue. We needed to engage the big publishers on their terms and show that the promise of our product was worth entrusting us with their content. We also needed to create a balanced dataset and weren’t just looking at bestsellers, which would defeat the purpose of our technology and only introduce more biases into the system.
What have been your proudest accomplishments at Booxby so far? How my team is handling the pandemic. In those blurry first days of lockdown, I wondered how and if we’d survive. Worse, I was left with a pit in my stomach. If we didn’t make it through, no one would benefit from the years my team poured into building our technology. I knew this crisis demanded a new mindset and possibly an entirely new strategy. We saw libraries closing and book tours canceled, and decided we needed to use our technology to help. From that, we built Booxby Search, our free book recommendation tool for the public. This decision inadvertently became our go-to-market strategy, and we are thrilled to see people using it to discover books in a new way.
What did you overcome to get to the place where you are today? What have you sacrificed, if anything? I’ve overcome years of PTSD after being struck by a drunk driver and learning how to walk again. I never let the drunk driver take away my dreams or my perseverance.The experience taught me how to rebuild myself and also how to forgive. If anything, I’ve benefited from post-traumatic growth. That mindset of building strength and seeing new possibilities helps me think outside the box and get creative with problem solving. As for sacrifice, there’s been a lot for Booxby. I’m sure my daughter will have her version of this tale, but during one grueling trial, we sold half our things, put the rest in storage, and moved to a cabin without a kitchen for a year so that I could pay the rent. We made great use of our toaster oven, and many other adjustments, so that I could keep the startup going.
Do you feel like your experience as a female founder has differed to that of a male, for example when pitching? If so, in what ways? In some ways yes, but in most ways, no. We’re all on the hero’s journey, facing challenges that call on our character, not our gender. When I’m in a room with investors, I don’t approach the meeting with gender in mind. I enter the conversation space and the opportunity as an endurance athlete. I know how to show up and hang in there, and that’s how I lead my team. I spent my childhood swimming competitively, which taught me so much about self-discipline and mental strength. Coincidentally, when I moved to the Bay Area, I became an avid cyclist and most of my best riding buddies were men, who worked in tech. We used to joke about some of the rides as “suffer fests,” which are great metaphors for startup life. All that time on the bike has built up my resilience as a founder in how I respond to and handle challenges, both physically and mentally. I play to that strength when I’m pitching—and leading.
What advice do you have to someone trying to start their own company? Be really good at getting out of your own way so that you can lead well. Listen to everything but be discerning. Build your front row of experts/mentors/advisors (formally or informally). Set boundaries. Prioritize your health (and your team’s) above everything else. Nobody is a machine and the more you respect your own needs, the more your team will respect you, your vision and be willing to give everything they’ve got to achieve this shared purpose. You have to know yourself really well, know your limits, know what you know and even more importantly, recognize what you don’t know so that you can humbly ask others with more experience for “tough love insights”.
What are you excited for in the future? I’m excited to see the impact our technology has on the livelihoods of content creators. Right now, we’re interacting with a lot of authors who are beta testing, and it feels so good to have meaningful conversations with them about how we can modify the product to serve them better. I absolutely love this part of the process. Also, I’m a huge podcast fan and can’t wait to build out our technology to help them reach their audience as well.
This post was written by Tai Nicolopoulos on December 5, 2020
Founder Series: Holly Payne, CEO of Booxby