We’re each the sum of the five people we spend the most time with, says Olivia June, founder and CEO of VINA. Maybe you already know this, or maybe it comes as news and gives you heart palpitations because there’s a chance you need to make some new friends.
“We all want to be better, and we surround ourselves with people we admire, who make us feel safe, and secure, and push us to be better,” said June.
Part of our journey to become our best self requires building better relationships, and this is VINA’s mission. An early-stage tech startup headquartered in San Francisco and backed by Graylock Partners, New Enterprise Associates, Tinder, and Wildcat Venture Partners, VINA is an app and social networking platform for women to forge new friendships, network professionally, and find like-minded gals to connect with—whether for life, or just to find a yoga buddy.
Early mistakes lead to loyal customers
June launched the app in January 2016 and its first week saw more than 100,000 women join the platform. Today VINA is used in 158 countries around the globe. June describes the app as a cross between Tinder and Cosmopolitan magazine where “vinas”, as users are called, can fill out a profile, take quizzes, read articles, and swipe on other women nearby. “It’s local, community-based, and all centered around women’s friendship and empowerment,” June said. The app matches women based on age and life stage, and according to self-defined categories and hobbies or interests.
VINA is growing both as a company and as a future support organization, but June admits that when the app launched, it wasn’t ready to handle the number of women who first signed up. She also hadn’t anticipated how the small team would do user support or track issues, especially at scale. She learned about Zendesk Support through the startup community, but before that, struggled through some early “catastrophic” product issues—the kind that result in needing to send out an “Oops” email. (Hey, we’ve all been there.)
Apology emails from a brand tend to have high open rates—people want to know what the company did wrong. Fortunately, VINA saw this as an opportunity to involve its vinas early on, a move that’s resulted in a thriving, engaged customer community. In that “Oops” email, June invited users into a VINA VIP program to help fix and improve the app. The program has since become permanent and the company accepts applications from approximately 1,000 women who raise their hands every six months to test the app and provide feedback.
The company also invites vinas to join the VINA Society, a group of bloggers, photographers, illustrators, and community ambassadors that create content for the company’s VINAZINE. Aside from a small editorial staff, most of VINA’s online content is customer-developed; there are currently more than 300 contributing writers alone.
“I think this is something that's very inherent to how women are with one another,” June said. “We want to help each other. We want to share our stories, and we want to be heard.”
The team behind VINA knew that providing education and resources to help women feel confident about building new friendships was important, and it’s one way that VINA utilizes the customer contacts they field in Support. “I think of customer support as both a marketing and product feedback channel. It's how we do our user research. It's how we understand what our users want, need, hate, and what they love,” June said. “We're really fortunate that they're vocal.”
We take each other higher
The spectacular community engagement VINA now sees is evidence of one of June’s core beliefs: “When you invest in women in a community, the entire community benefits and thrives,” she said. “Educational programs improve, health and wellness in the community improves, and economic affluence improves.”
June’s passion for promoting community is contagious. “I want to encourage women to support one another and not feel like we have to fight for our one seat at the table,” she said. “It’s about creating our own table, and pulling more women in to help each other in our careers and in our lives.”
Behind the good intentions is actual user research that also powers how the app works and informs the content that vinas create. The way that men and women develop relationships is different. Typically, men are more activity-driven whereas women bond through emotional vulnerability—by sharing stories and talking, whether that’s over wine, coffee, or during a shared activity.
Either way, the type of relationship-building VINA promotes needs to happen in the real world. “At the end of the day, there are a million ways for us to engage with people online, but that's not what we need. We need to be meeting each other and spending time offline,” June said.
Talking customer retention and support
It sounds like a paradox—encouraging vinas to get off the app as quickly as possible, but it works. Among VINA’s key metrics are engagement, retention, virality, and growth, and June is happy to claim “amazing retention.” And it makes sense, given the change-constant nature of life, the need to network and build friendships doesn’t go away.
To support vinas, the team of four has adopted a rotating support model where everyone takes a turn handling email tickets in Zendesk Support. Each person answers emails and checks social media for three days and then support rotates to the next person. Initially, June explained, there was an employee dedicated to support, but by having everyone interact with customers, each person can apply their own lens and take what they learn and apply it to their area of expertise.
“With every question each person asks, they bring a new insight to the table,” she said. “By participating in the conversation, we all get inspired in our own ways about solving problems in the different kinds of work that we do, from engineering to design.”
It’s easy enough to delete a problematic app off a phone, so “it’s a big deal” when a vina reaches out to the team. And while it’s a challenge to provide personalized support at scale, it’s also a brand requirement.
“It’s important to me that every interaction is handled with care and consideration, in a very human way. They should get a personalized response that contains something fun and sweet, June said. “At the end of the day, we’re a platform for friendship, and we’re your friend. You’re not talking to a company—you’re talking to another vina. It should feel like you’re texting with one of your best friends.”