Interview Rachel Cossar and Neal Kaiser
Describe your product or service:
“We are leveraging AI/ML technology to make video meetings more human in the future of work. Our first product, the Sidekick, sits on video calls, providing in-call coaching and post-call insights to improve communication and confidence on video. Our target market is B2B and B2B channel partners (for example, integrating directly into established sales enablement platforms). We will eventually build out user engagement metrics, essentially supporting multi-user video calls as an AI-facilitator.”
Describe your company values and mission:
“Communication is deemed an essential business skill and yet, access to personalized communication coaching is reserved for upper-level team members and C-suite executives.
We are on a mission to democratize quality communication coaching and insights so we can elevate human experiences in Work 2.0.
- Powerful communication is about more than just the script
- Videos have the power to deliver human connection and impact when real skills are developed
- Quality coaching can be facilitated by AI.”
How are you funded? I.e. type of funding, number of funding rounds, total funding amount.
“We are currently closing our pre-seed/angel round on a SAFE.”
How big is your team? Tell us a little about them (I.e. co-founders, freelancers, etc.)
“Rachel Cossar: CEO/Co-founder — Body language and presence expert, former professional ballet dancer.
Neal Kaiser: CTO/Co-founder — founder and CEO at Upshot eCommerce (acquired in 2016 by Mi9 Retail).
We are fortunate to have a stellar technical team covering both the front and back end with a data science focus.”
How did you come up with and validate your startup idea? Tell us the story!
“When I retired from my decade-long career dancing with Boston Ballet, I realized there were many parallels between the world of high-level performance and corporate leadership. I started a communication and presence consulting firm called Choreography for Business and facilitated body language and presence workshops for leaders across the globe.
In early 2020, when the pandemic struck, and the world went online, I saw an opportunity to finally open access to the kind of feedback and coaching I was giving live/in-person (at a high price point) by leveraging what was readily available in AI/ML. Not only were professionals using video as a channel to communicate important messages, but video itself became a channel through which we could provide live feedback and insights from relevant events.
This was the inspiration that led to founding Virtual Sapiens. Initially, I worked with some engineers to build a one-time assessment product, which is now part of the Virtual Sapiens product offerings. The feedback and reception we got from that exercise told us we were on to something. People wanted to feel more empowered on video, and Virtual Sapiens could help them get there through consistent and convenient coaching.”
How did you come up with your startup's name? Did you have other names you considered?
“I liked the idea of building a friendly, trustworthy coach, someone who gets to know you and is there for you whenever you need them.
Having a virtual person, or a virtual sapiens (because ‘sapiens’ is in fact the singular form of this word!), could be a very comforting thing, especially as we get used to working in a remote/hybrid world for the long term. That's basically how I came up with that word. And of course, Sidekick, the name of our first product, pretty much explains itself.”
Did you always want to start your own business? What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
“I actually have always enjoyed being 'taken care of' by a company. Having a dependable salary and healthcare … was reassuring to me. Even as a dancer, I had a salary, benefits, etc.
Starting my own company (Choreography for Business) was one thing, as I was still working full-time. But launching Virtual Sapiens has been a completely different animal. While I started off as a solo founder, within six months, I realized I needed a real partner — someone else who would be thinking about this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with full dedication. Having Neal on board has been a game-changer, and I am absolutely so impressed with any solo-founders out there who stick to it!
What I will say, though, is that I knew when I had the idea for Virtual Sapiens that I had to act urgently; that if I didn't, I knew someone else out there would build this (and it likely wouldn't be as good as I know it can be). And that I would regret that forever.”
Did you encounter any roadblocks when launching your startup? If so, what were they and what did you do to solve them?
“Many! Still many!
First, and as mentioned above, I needed a real partner - someone who would have dreams about Virtual Sapiens and how we can make it better. I also needed this person to be on the technical side, as I am a non-technical founder. That is a very hard thing to find, especially in this age of plentiful ideas and a high demand for technical perspective and skill.
I was fortunate to find a few people who were interested and to have the time and space to really explore what it would be like to work with them at the founder level. Neal, obviously, came out in spades, and working together is a blessing!
We face barriers in the tech component frequently, but that's the nature of any tech company - balancing between shortcuts to get to revenue faster and building out the perfect product with the least amount of technical debt. Always a dance.”
Who is your target market? How did you establish the right market for your startup?
“Our target market is sales teams that leverage video to connect with clients. In other words, professionals who are leveraging video to drive success and who have limited opportunity to send the best impression and to build trust with partners. Our buyers are sales enablement and skills teams within these departments, and we are beginning with a focus on early employees/new hires.
This is a play-off of where I saw success with my in-person and live facilitations.”
What's your marketing strategy?
“To date, we are working specifically through warm introductions to companies either through my previous company's pipeline or through our MassChallenge accelerator network. It is crucial for us to find the right partners so we can grow sustainably and in line with our target users.
Beyond this, we are leveraging PR opportunities and will begin to roll out a marketing strategy once we have more validation around our product-market fit.”
How did you acquire your first 100 customers?
“Through the above as well as by creating buzz on social media and LinkedIn over the past few months leading up to our Beta launch.”
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
- “New user acquisition
- User Conversion (from our free trial to one of our paid options)
- Video calls per user over time (how consistently are users using Sidekick in calls?
- B2B contracts (this is obviously a longer and more thorough process!)”
What's your favorite startup book and podcast?
What is a song or artist that you listen to for motivation?
“Else (Paris specifically).”
Is there a tool, app, or resource that you swear by to help run your startup?
“Slack and Carta.”
What is something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?
“It is so hard but equally, amazingly rewarding.”
How do you achieve work/life balance as a founder?
“This is crucial — I admit, I wasn't great about it in my first year. Now, I am more diligent about taking physical breaks in the evening and once a month on average, enjoying a long weekend.”
What is a strategy you use to stay productive and focused?
“Stretching during the day.
As humans, we cannot expect ourselves to stay focused and energized if our bodies are cramped into terrible postures and seating habits. We must give ourselves the opportunity to get up, go for a short walk, do a light stretch, and take our eyes away from screens. This is essential.”
Did you have to develop any habits that helped lead you to success? If so, what are they?
“I am a very structured person. I developed pretty disciplined habits around sleep, diet, and exercise as a dancer - there's no other way I would have been successful in that career. So thankfully, I have a solid foundation already in place I can carry over.
That said, structure and scheduling is a new muscle when you are the one who has to drive everything. So I did need to develop new habits and discipline around my daily routine as an entrepreneur — otherwise, you can easily get lost in what other people are doing, and/or the sheer amount of things to get done!”
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
“My first job was at Cold Stone Creamery. It taught me how to scoop ice cream and make delicious concoctions … and sing for tips.
This job was mostly a fun and tasty way for me to make some cash on the side of my training as a young ballet dancer.”
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