An Interview with Susie Lee

Susie Lee Interview

Susie Lee is the CEO and co-founder of Siren, a dating app that unlocks real personality for first time connections. A graduate of Yale, Columbia and UW with degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, science education, and art, she’s interested in the ways technology can amplify humanity.

Her work has been collected by numerous institutions including the Denver Art Museum, Mitchell Center for the Arts, Frye Art Museum, and Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. Siren partnered with Durex on a 37 million view campaign, will be featured in PBS StartUp show this fall, and is an entrepreneur-in-residence at the The New Museum‘s renowned INC program this fall.

Siren has been featured in 100+ press reviews, including NPR, front page of the Seattle Times, The Guardian, CNN, The Stranger, GeekWire, ThinkProgress, Frieze and The Establishment.

In this interview with Startup Savant, Susie shares the mission of Siren and how it helps people create connections and dating people in real space, while making it feel like less shopping for humans. Susie also shares wonderful insights about her visions, learnings and mistakes as an entrepreneur.

Her advice to entrepreneurs starting a business in New York:

There is never a “perfect time” to jump from what you’re doing to something new. But once you jump, you’ll likely not turn back because inertia works both ways—it’s the tendency for something at rest to stay at rest, but once in motion, it stays in motion.

For daily doses of Siren and Susie’s journey as an entrepreneur, be sure to follow her on Twitter!

How did you get the idea for Siren? Is there something you wanted to do different or better than your competitors?

I’m naturally a problem solver, and as an artist working with technology, I am constantly in search of ways technology can amplify our humanity. The idea for Siren emerged from my single friends’ difficulty meeting people in real life coupled with a strong dislike of dating apps.

I saw the potential in the online space to cross social boundaries in positive ways, but these apps felt like the worst part of bars and clubs. And I realized that I would have never found my past partners on these apps because the elements that caught my eye, their humor, a real sense of personality, and kinship weren’t evident in static profiles.

The market of singles aren’t getting a sense of authenticity with these hot-or-not approaches. I saw clearly a different ecosystem, in which the platform had a responsibility to be a good host, to provide a safe, respectful space to foster first time conversations, to help strangers be a little less strange to each other.

What makes Siren unique from others? How did you find your competitive advantage?

Instead of mindless swiping right or left on users’ photos as the only vetting process, our members get a daily “Question of the Day” asked by artists and other types of creative thinkers. These questions spark conversations, which allow Siren members to reveal their personalities organically over time.

The goal here is to create a conversational, relaxed atmosphere, and make it feel less like shopping for humans. These icebreakers range from “Where does rain sound best” to “What does a non-patriarchy look like?” to elicit interesting perspectives and give people a chance to shine. And it’s definitely a refreshing change from the usual first, awkward exchanges.

We have created a more egalitarian platform—one that we hope promotes safety and security for all. One of the key tenets of SIREN is that identity is a story, not a constant. None of us are exactly the same person from day to day.

Our competitive advantage is to harness this fluidity to offer unexpected, delightful, and intriguing elements of people. The result is a more human platform, a place that elevates conversation and brings back a certain dignity into first time meetings for more people.

What are your visions for your business? Where do you see it in the next 5 years?

Our vision is to expand beyond dating to facilitating a range of one to one new connections on a global scale. There is an opportunity to seamlessly connect offline events and activities with online introductions, and we hope to be at forefront of this next phase of technology integrated lives, where tech becomes the interstitial glue to real-life experiences.

What attitude/habits helped make you successful while starting Siren?

As an artist, I know how to will something into existence, and I’m comfortable in “I don’t know” spaces. I envision startups like sculptures through time, which means a continual practice of hyper-focused shaping and carving, then stepping back and seeing how the entirety works together.

I also realize that, while there will always be ten things asking to be done each day, I know I will complete only the top two or three with mindfulness and attention. The bottom five or six are at the bottom for reasons you might not consciously understand, but elements beyond your control often will make those items not even relevant. That kind of clarity removes the headless-running-chickens phenomena.

What was your biggest business mistake and how you did you come out stronger at the end of the day?

What you do not have expertise in will be your most expensive mistakes. As a nontechnical founder, I had to take outside advice on tech platforms that we were forced to scrap over and over, which cost time and money. Advice is given through a highly biased lens it’s that idea that surgeons advocate cutting; therapists suggest talking; and pharmaceuticals recommend chemicals.

Ultimately, the CEO must make the final decisions and be accountable for those decisions, so she has to learn how to make the most informed decision, even if she doesn’t have all the experience personally.

So I learned quickly that most advice is not useful, and the best advice comes from those who have continual skin in the game you’re playing. I also recognized that owning that accountability is hard, but crucial in an organization.

Most businesses evolve over time. Is there a way that you slowly evolved the mission of Siren to serve your customers better?

We began as a hetero-normative, asymmetrical platform where women and men had different experiences in terms of photo visibility and access, but recognized that the issues of safety, agency, and control were appreciated across the board, so we figured out a thoughtful way to include gender non-binary and make the features accessible for all.

As a business owner, what is your greatest fear and how do you keep it under control or harness it?

Always in the back of my mind, I am concerned if we are doing right by our Siren members. The sociopolitical conversations today bring awareness that we are often not empathetic to each other’s experiences (and the tech bro culture is one of the least empathetic….), so, it’s a continual and humbling learning process to try to do better and better for people.

To be truly open to feedback from our community to drive innovation is the way we harness this concern. Inclusivity matters. It means you bring the best ideas and experiences to the table, not just homogenized and siloed viewpoints.

How do you stay focused on a day-to-day basis? Do you have a key motivator that keeps you going and fighting the good fight?

Founders are often asked: “What keeps you up at night?” I’ve always found that question ridiculous; it suggests that the more anxiety, the more you care.

When I sleep, whether for five hours or eight, I’m usually like a rock, and uninterrupted deep sleep is key for endurance and clarity of intention and action. And when I’m really exhausted, I stop. Sloppy work almost always results in mistakes later.

The key motivator is and always has been our members. Katrina, Siren’s cofounder, and I always put our members first.

What was the best piece of advice you have ever gotten from another business owner or someone you admired?

Amplify what works, eliminate what doesn’t. It sounds so simple, and it works, but it’s much harder in practice because most granular decisions aren’t so clearly “working” or “not working.” But each round of decision-making, you try to work out faster those elements.

What advice would you give to our readers who want to start a business in New York? Where should they start?

New York is a highly networked culture with so many motivated individuals coming here to pursue a dream. Declare your own idea out loud and ride the energy in this city.

There is never a “perfect time” to jump from what you’re doing to something new. But once you jump, you’ll likely not turn back because inertia works both ways—it’s the tendency for something at rest to stay at rest, but once in motion, it stays in motion.