Agnes Malatinszky is the Founder of Senga, which takes care of back-office administrative needs for freelancers, contractors, and solopreneurs.
Victoria and Will interview Agnes about the thoughtbot Incubator program and what led Agnes to choose to apply, what the demands on her time were like, how it worked, and how she feels now that she's at the end of the program.
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WILL: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Will Larry.
VICTORIA: I'm your other host, Victoria Guido. And with me today is Agnes Malatinszky, Founder of Senga, providing back-end support for freelancers. Agnes, thank you for joining me.
AGNES: Hey, it's a pleasure to be here.
VICTORIA: You are the first graduate of thoughtbot's incubator program, and I'm really excited to dive into that with you today. So, before we get started in talking about the incubator program, let's just start with what fun thing do you have going on this week?
AGNES: I'm based in Washington, D.C., and it's a beautiful time of year here. Early summer, late spring is gorgeous. So I'm excited because my family and I are actually headed out to Harpers Ferry this weekend for a little hike. So I'm looking forward to that.
WILL: So, what is...when you say a hike, can you explain it to anybody that's outside of the D.C. area?
AGNES: It's just a beautiful area in West Virginia. And we're going to take our dog and my daughter out there and get some fresh air and walk around. There's a little historic town there as well that's really interesting to explore.
WILL: That sounds fun.
VICTORIA: Yeah. I've been to Harpers Ferry to go floating, like, on the river.
VICTORIA: Where you float down the river in inner tubes and drink beverages. [laughter] There's also...there's rock climbing in Harpers Ferry too, which is sometimes closed for bird nesting. So it is really beautiful.
AGNES: Ooh, I didn't know that. That's really cool. We'll keep an eye out for that.
WILL: Yes. For anybody that doesn't know, Victoria is an amazing rock climber. I have a lot of respect for her because I don't know if I could do it. [laughter]
VICTORIA: You could definitely do it. The next thoughtbot trip that we're on, we'll go rock climbing, Will. I'm confident in your skills. You could do it. Yes, I'm a big rock climber and rock-climbing advocate, so I'll talk about it forever if you let me.
VICTORIA: And I'm actually going to go rock climbing this weekend and get outside myself. And we're going up to Mammoth, California. And we're going to do a half-climbing, half-ski trip.
VICTORIA: So that's going to be fun for Memorial Day weekend, so...What about you, Will? What do you have going on fun this week?
WILL: Yeah. So you said skiing.
VICTORIA: Yes. So Mammoth got the most snow in the country this year. When we were there in February, they'd already had, like, 10 feet of snow. And then they got another foot of snow while we were there, so they're going to have snow through August, at least.
WILL: August. Wow. Here in South Florida, the lowest we got was 50. So snow, I don't even know what you're talking about. [laughs] Yeah, so you asked what I'm going to do. Last week was a big week for us because my boys they turned four years old and one year old. And we took them to Disney and had a blast. Anybody who's been to Disney knows it's a trip. It could be a lot, especially it was very hot there too. So I think this weekend we're just going to take it easy. We're just going to relax and just enjoy it.
VICTORIA: Trip of a lifetime for them, I'm sure.
WILL: Yes, they loved it.
VICTORIA: We have Disneyland over here in California. I have been to Disney World in Florida. But I still haven't been to Disneyland since I've been here, [laughs] which I think some people would judge me for.
AGNES: You know what? I haven't been to either. I hold it against my parents forever. [laughter] Although my family is not a big fan of crowds, so I think that's why.
WILL: Yes, if you're not a fan of crowds, Disney is not the place, especially now. I've heard around September is probably the best time to go. So we're going to try that out during that time too.
AGNES: Ooh, protip. You heard it here first.
WILL: Yes. [laughs]
VICTORIA: September, Disneyland, Florida sounds very warm to me. [laughs] But yeah, we're actually going to go to Mexico with thoughtbot as a team meetup in September, which is also going to be pretty warm, I think. [laughs] But it'll be fun. Well, that's lovely. I love getting to hear a little bit about your lives before we dig into your business.
Agnes, I'm super excited to hear about Senga. But maybe start with just a little bit about your background before you started.
AGNES: I had been thinking about starting my own business for a while. I am an immigrant, and I come from an entrepreneurial family. Actually, my mom ran her own translation business back in Hungary, and now she's a really successful artist. So, you know, I had support from them and my husband as well to sort of try out something new.
But, in my last role, I was actually Chief Operating Officer at an EdTech company that had scaled to serve over 80% of U.S. schools during the pandemic. And I was at that company for about five years and had seen the full arc of, you know, startup to a mature organization. So I was ready to take on a new challenge and to learn something new.
WILL: You mentioned that your mom was an entrepreneur. And my dad was an entrepreneur, also. He had his own electric and HVAC business, and I learned so much from him. Is there anything that you can just, like, ooh, I learned this and this from my mom as a kid, looking at your mom being an entrepreneur?
AGNES: I mean, she is just a, you know, fix-it person in every sense of the word. So she will fix an electric outlet. She will fix something with her business.
AGNES: She's just, like, really good at getting her hands dirty and being really scrappy. And I think that's a really important skill to have, you know, especially in a startup, and especially when you're starting out and still on your own.
VICTORIA: So, what did your parents say when you told them you were going to start out on your own and build your own company?
AGNES: They were really encouraging. They, you know, they keep up with all my LinkedIn posts, and they read everything I publish. So they're just very supportive and the best cheerleaders I could possibly hope for. [laughs]
WILL: Did stepping out and starting your business did anything scare you in that area?
AGNES: Oh my gosh, every day, something new. It's all just uncertainty and risk at this point. You know, I'm very, very early in my startup journey, so literally every question about the business I have to test. I have to find answers for. And that ranges everything from, you know, business formation to, you know, the nuts and bolts of getting the business organized and setting up financials, and the legal structure for the company, to figuring out what the product is going to be. So all this uncertainty is definitely a little bit nerve-racking.
VICTORIA: And I'm wondering, what about your past experience as a Chief Operations Officer led you to want to build a product like Senga?
AGNES: So being a Chief Operating Officer, I think one of the things that I really learned was that in order for a business to be really successful, and for people working at that company to be really successful, they have to have the organization's support to do what they do best. You know, what I used to tell my operations team was that you know, we were really the plumbers of the organization, making sure that everything ran smoothly behind the scenes.
So, actually, that was one of the inspirations for Senga, for my current company, this idea that freelancers and independent workers don't have that support. They don't necessarily have somebody helping them with HR, and with financials, and with legal stuff, and with everything else that goes into running a business, whether you're a business of 1 or a business of 100. And that's really where I wanted to come in and, you know, support independent workers.
VICTORIA: One follow-up question for Agnes on your experience in the COO role. I believe your team also had a lot of background in the freelancing world. So you had people you could ask questions to and start to understand that market. Is that right?
AGNES: Yeah. Like a lot of businesses, I guess we had, you know, freelancers and contract workers that we relied on. And that's increasingly true for most companies now, I would say. There's specialized roles. There is seasonal roles that you don't necessarily hire full-time employees for but that are perfect for somebody, you know, on a temporary basis or somebody with more specialized skills. So you're exactly right; being able to tap into that network and having had experience working with freelancers and contractors was really helpful coming into the incubator and having people to tap for interviews and for input.
VICTORIA: Great. And then, what is the thoughtbot incubator, which we've mentioned a few times already? It is for a non-technical founding team with a business idea that involves a web or a mobile app. It's an eight-week program that helps you get the proof points you need in order to move forward with confidence. So I'm curious, Agnes, what led you to choose the thoughtbot incubator Program as something you wanted to apply to?
AGNES: I mean, it's exactly what you named. So this incubator program was really a perfect launching pad for me. It's designed for non-technical founders, like myself, to get their own dedicated team of product and dev experts to, you know, like, hone customer discovery practice, create a product strategy, run proof of concept experiments. And, you know, these were exactly the areas where I lacked skills and expertise the most. So I had actually looked at other incubators and even some venture studios before, but those models were not as good of a fit for me. I was really excited to find and to be able to join thoughtbot's incubator program.
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WILL: What was the original idea behind Senga?
AGNES: The idea that I came into the incubator with and then the pain points that we honed in on during the incubator, and then the long-term vision for the company are all kind of a little bit different. So I'll zoom out first to the sort of 30,000-foot view of this.
So, coming into the incubator, I had been reading and researching a lot about some macro trends that I think are really interesting, and these are trends that many of us are keeping an eye on. So they're nothing revolutionary, but I think they're going to create some really interesting problems to solve in the next couple of years. So the first one is the rise of independent workers, or contractors, or freelancers. I'm kind of going to use these terms interchangeably.
In recent years, the number of independent workers has shot up like crazy. There are already over 65 million independent workers in the U.S., and this number is growing by about 25% annually. And then, add to this that economic downturns tend to grow this number even more. You know, this makes up about a third of the workforce in the U.S. already, and it's growing.
The second thing is that you know, the fact that early-career folks, especially Gen Z, really like the independence and autonomy that comes with this type of work. Over half of Gen Z already freelance, and the majority want to make independent work their career. In other words, they explicitly do not want to work for a company in the traditional sense.
And then, third, there's kind of a mishmash of factors that I'll lump into one bullet that additionally drive up this type of work, which is that, increasingly, jobs are going to be skills-based, not degree-based, and all work, even white-collar work, will become more modular. Both tech advances and even, I think, novel organizational structures are going to make it possible for people to hyper-specialize and to plug into different organizations at different times, and, you know, even simultaneously to perform that specialized work.
So take all this together, and what I'm really seeing is that the current market offerings serving freelancers and contractors are not nearly enough to meet all their needs, which is driving huge inefficiency. The types of companies that cater to this segment now or, you know, there's mature marketplaces like Upwork, and Fiverr, and some earlier-stage companies that do, you know, more workflow and back office. But I'm not seeing a comprehensive solution, and that's driving like I said, a lot of inefficiency. So, ultimately, being a freelancer is still really hard. Only about 50% of a freelancer's time is spent on billable work. And so this is what I really want to solve.
VICTORIA: And did anything change through the incubator process?
AGNES: So the biggest thing I found during the incubator was actually a really good entry point into this market. So startup wisdom says that you have to narrow down your product to a super tight segment that has a very strong, like, yes to your product. So, during the course of the eight weeks that I did the incubator, we did a ton of interviews, and I was really on the lookout for big spikes and pain points that repeated for a specific niche of freelancers. And that's exactly what we ended up finding.
There's lots of nuance to this, but generally speaking, people new to freelancing and those that are just looking to get started need help getting started in a more manageable way and then setting up good practices that will serve them in the long run.
WILL: You mentioned those practices that helps them set them up in the long run. Are you talking about mostly the operation, so, like, anything that's non-billable for a client?
AGNES: Exactly, yeah. So that's kind of how I think about the work is anything that's billable and then anything that's non-billable. So that includes client management, client communication, marketing themselves, finding, you know, new work, so drumming up new business, all the back-office financials, back-office legal and admin stuff. All these other things that traditionally would be, you know, done by, you know, an operations team at a big company, but, for freelancers, they have to do it themselves.
WILL: Yeah, I love that idea because my spouse she dipped her toe into the freelance world. And I felt like the operations kind of overcame everything else. And so it almost felt like the operations was taking over the job. But it's one of those things I feel like we didn't really think through of how much work that that 50% is. Like, how much work do you have to do, which are taxes, operations, speaking to clients, even to get to the things that people usually love, like the design, the software development? So I'm excited about this product.
AGNES: Yeah, exactly. And that's kind of what I kept hearing again and again in interviews with all sorts of different freelancers because we went out and interviewed folks from, you know, everywhere from graphic design, to UX/UI design, to web developers, to other types of creatives, content creators. And this idea that they all get into freelancing to pursue their passion, the thing that they're uniquely good at. But then end up spending a huge chunk of their time on, you know, things that they're not really specialized in, you know, basically running their business.
VICTORIA: What types of experiments did you run while you were in the incubator program with the people you mentioned you're talking to? And what were the demands on your time really like?
AGNES: Oh, so the program is between 20 to 40 hours a week. I had a chance to meet with my thoughtbot team daily. We had independent work time, also breakout sessions. Like you said, a lot of that time was spent doing interviews and running all sorts of different experiments, so discovery interviews, interviews showing the prototype once we had it to interviewees. But we also set up Google Ads. We created a landing page with various calls to action. And then based on who was coming through the landing page and what they were doing on the site, we had all sorts of, you know, lessons that we could take away from that.
And then another piece of it was I also learned how to basically start building out an organic community around this problem and from, you know, the community of freelancers, which is so important to have, like, for a future user base and also to be able to continue to engage with my target audience.
WILL: Was there anything that surprised you about the program, or did you have any interesting findings coming out of the program?
AGNES: One thing I learned through the program was that you know, there are concrete steps that you can take and a process that you can follow to build out a strong business that solves real problems for people. And that's really what this program and this incubator is focused on, is to teach you those skills to go through those early steps.
You know, everything that I had read before about startups they're kind of clouded in mystery. And, you know, the big ones that end up being really successful tend to be mythologized, and founder stories tend to have these, like, big eureka moments in them, where the founder had their big idea that led to the big company. But really, at the early stage, it's pretty messy. And nevertheless, you have these steps that you can follow and processes that you can follow to build out the company.
VICTORIA: And how are you feeling now at the end of the program?
AGNES: I feel really excited and, frankly, more confident than I came into the program. So, you know, I'm leaving here with lots of good data, lots of good anecdotal evidence, having had dozens and dozens of conversations with my target market. So, for me, that's a really great feeling to know that my ideas they don't just exist in the abstract in my head but that we've bounced them against the universe and confirmed that folks are having the pain points that we expected and some that we did not expect. And that there is an opportunity around this.
WILL: So, what could be done better about the incubator program from your perspective?
AGNES: It was a great program, and that's a pretty hard question to answer. But, you know, I would selfishly say make it longer. Eight weeks is, by design, you know, a pretty short time to get started. And that's really what the program is designed to do is to get you started, to set you up with good practices and good tools. But, again, selfishly, I wish it were a little bit longer, so I can stick around and have the thoughtbot team around me.
And then I just look forward to building more of a community as more founders join thoughtbot's incubator every quarter. We have a shared Slack channel that I'm going to continue hanging out in and that I've been told the new founders, as well, will be added to. So I'm looking forward to getting to meet them and to, you know, hear about their experience as well.
VICTORIA: What's coming up next for you in the next six months?
AGNES: So I'm talking to a couple of potential partners in the next couple of weeks, which might kind of change the roadmap slightly. But, basically, this summer and fall, I'm building out a lot of the content and the prototype for Senga. Again, continuing to talk to the freelancers I've been continuing to talk to. I'm also putting together sort of, like, an advisory committee of freelancers I've met along the way who had a strong yes sort of reaction to this product. And then my goal is that by fall or winter, I'll be able to start building out an MVP.
WILL: That's exciting.
AGNES: Yeah, I'm really excited. [laughs]
WILL: Your dream is finally coming true, so, yeah, you have something to be excited about. [laughs] Do you have any advice for any other founders?
AGNES: I guess I don't know how qualified I feel to be, you know, handing out advice as a brand-new founder. But, overall, I would encourage others out there who are interested in taking this path to, you know, really take a risk and to bet on themselves. What I've found in the last couple of months is that there are so many supportive communities, and founder groups, and entrepreneur groups.
And this is kind of common advice, and everybody says this, but there's really no way you can fully prepare. You just kind of have to start doing. And at least from what I've seen, that's the secret sauce to this early stage is to keep doing and to keep going from one step to the next every day.
VICTORIA: If you could travel back in time and give yourself advice from when before this all started, what advice would you give yourself?
AGNES: I would just encourage myself to, you know, take the plunge and maybe even go down this path sooner. You know, I feel really confident where I'm at now in terms of my career and my, you know, support networks and everything. But being able to go back and start experimenting earlier and start going down this path earlier might have even set me up better.
WILL: One thing when you're starting a startup is funding. Are you looking for any funding?
AGNES: Not urgently, but I'm definitely interested in talking to others working and investing in this space. So, you know, if any of your listeners are investors or entrepreneurs in a similar space, I would love to talk to them.
WILL: Yeah. So, how could they reach you if they wanted to reach out to you?
AGNES: You can reach me by email at email@example.com, or you can find us on LinkedIn at Senga.
VICTORIA: You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You could find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.
WILL: And you can find me on Twitter @will23larry.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
Thanks for listening. See you next time.
ANNOUNCER: This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot, your expert strategy, design, development, and product management partner. We bring digital products from idea to success and teach you how because we care. Learn more at thoughtbot.com.Support Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots