CEO & co-founder of The Noun Project, Sofya Polyakov inspires us through her heroine’s journey, which includes immigrating to the U.S. from Russia, working insane hours, holding meetings out of her car, and having the courage to embrace the unknown by starting a company for the first time. She also shares her perspectives on key issues that commonly block us from reaching our full potential as creative leaders.
Linda (co-host): I think that there are a lot of people who have a vision, who can see themselves starting and running a company someday, but that first step is like… I keep convincing myself that I just need a little bit more experience here and a little bit more experience there, but there’s pretty much no end to how much preparation and education you can do. I know that you said that you were at your wit’s end, you didn’t really have any other choices, so you just jumped in and did it. But what gave you the courage to take that leap and say, “Okay, I am going to run a company now.”?
Sofya: Well, I think it was in a way easier for me to do because I always knew that that was what I wanted. I just didn’t know what the company would be about back in the day.
Linda: Did you feel ready when you started?
Sofya: Oh no. Hell no. Neither one of us had any experience in tech or in running a startup at all. We actually just had this idea, we launched a campaign on Kickstarter and it just took off. I think right away we were featured in TechCrunch, The Atlantic, and some other big publications, and at the time we were literally sitting around going like, “What is TechCrunch?” You know? “Why is our server going down? This is ridiculous.” [laughs]
We had no experience, and I think that’s the best way to learn is to just jump in and force yourself to sink or swim. And most of the time I think you’re going to swim. You’ll figure it out, and that’s what I like to tell all the people on my team as well is that a lot of times people will be afraid to make the leap into the unknown and to take the next challenge. And I think that unfortunately, just from my own experience, I think that women have a tendency to do this more often than men, to question themselves and to think, Well, I don’t have exactly the right experience for this so maybe I just shouldn’t do it.
I’ve told my employees before that that is the number one reason to do something. If you don’t have the experience, do it anyway, because really the only way you’re going to grow is by challenging yourself. If you’re just going to do something that you know how to do you’re never going to make it to the next level. Just make it a point to always do something that scares you and to take that step.
Linda: If you’re terrified then you know you’re doing it right.
Sofya: Kind of, yeah. I think professionally speaking, that’s true.
Majo: It’s funny, because it’s kind of counter-intuitive. What you’re suggesting is you should do the thing because you don’t have experience in it. Most people think the other way around. They are like, I shouldn’t do the thing because I don’t have experience. Especially women, I agree.
Sofya: Yeah, it’s unfortunate because I think a lot of times, not to discriminate against men, but I have seen in my professional experience that men will often take on tasks that they are completely not ready for and don’t have the experience for. And frankly, sometimes they do it too early to a point where maybe they should have taken the easy route for a few more years or for a few more months and learned more before taking that next challenge. But overall, taking on those kinds of tasks encourages growth. Hell, if you can learn along with it, why not?
Listen to the full episode here.
- Growing up stubborn and independent in communist St. Petersburg. [0:00]
- Sofya’s teenage years, immigrating to the U.S., and the importance of being adaptable. [4:57]
- On staying motivated, searching out people who challenge you, and the inspiration behind The Noun Project. [9:07]
- How Sofya had the courage to launch a startup without a lot of experience and her perspective on what leadership really is. [13:19]
- Challenges getting started on The Noun Project. [18:40]
- The big turning point: How Sofya rose to the challenge and played every card she had when it was all on the line. [25:40]
- On perfectionism, the fear of failure, and the qualities that allow you to give your all when you’re ready to give up. [30:50]
- The trap of comparison: Feeling intimidated but putting yourself out there anyway. [36:26]
- Sofya’s views on balancing business and being a mom, and the type of CEO she strives to be. [42:04]
- How she has built a culture of trust within her team, and the two qualities she considers most valuable in new employees. [47:04]
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