Advice

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Courtney Zalewski, Partner at Midnight

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Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Hi Courtney! Can you tell us about Midnight and what you do there?

Midnight is a product design studio based in NYC, which I run with my creative partner in crime Elan Miller. We work with companies to help them figure out what to build and how to bring it to life. Think of us a product team-in-residence. We facilitate design sprints, prototype hypotheses, validate assumptions, prioritize features, create interfaces, guide development, and conduct usability tests to design something people want.

As former startup founders, we like to move fast in an organized way. We come up with crazy ideas that can be used as a North star, but then reel them back in so teams can start executing immediately. We believe the world’s best brands are designed with a distinct point of view, so opportunities that allow us to focus on brand and design are amazing to work on. We want to do design work that is intentional and grounded in something.

What is a recent tech hurdle the agency has overcome and how did you tackle it?

It’s hard to keep track which new plugins, tools, and products are actually worth dedicating time to learn. It’s that sense of FOMO. While you want to be using all of the cool new things, you need to be realistic and think about how it will fit into your workflow and process. Especially considering how fast we work, introducing new tools mid-project could throw everything off. If I find designers in the community raving about something new on Twitter, Product Hunt, or Facebook, I’ll have the confidence to dedicate some time on nights and weekends. But, I don’t like to just try things for the sake of trying it. I’m more excited to see how these prototyping tools, specifically for micro-interactions, evolve. Those are the tools that make the biggest impact in my opinion.

On your co-founder’s Medium post announcing Midnight’s launch, he talks about how the company was born of a partnership. What advice can you give to other Tech Ladies who are launching a company with someone they’ve worked closely with before?

Partnership is number one. We first focused on defining why we were creating Midnight in the first place. We borrowed a lot from our design process: we set a timer to get as many ideas down as possible and then went through and discussed each one. We answered questions like, “What do we value?”, “Why are we different?”, “What are we best at in the world?”, and even, “What don’t we want to be?”

One of the values that came from that process was “Radical Candor,” which we define as “Honest feedback is the first step to greatness. We want to push each other, yet are careful to deliver critiques in constructive, actionable, and thoughtful ways. It’s not what you say — it’s how you say it.” Business is hard enough, but when you mix in two friends that are both passionate and emotional, it definitely has potential to get messy.

My advice is to over-communicate and think about the reason why you’re starting something and why you’re starting it with this person. In regards to maintaining equal balance of responsibility, Elan and I are both self-aware people, so we know where our individual strengths are and where extra support and help is needed. It’s less about having a checklist of responsibilities and more of being a team-player and remembering to speak up if we’re ever feeling overwhelmed.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Ofunne Okwudiafor, Founder of Cocoa Swatches

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Hi Ofunne! Can you tell us a little bit about Cocoa Swatches and what you do?

Cocoa Swatches is a platform that allows women with underrepresented complexions to find makeup products that work for them. I swatch the latest makeup products and share the photos through a mobile app in an easy-to-use directory format. I also use social media to share curated makeup content with the community.

How did you come up with the idea for your company and validate it in the market?

After working as a fashion and beauty blogger in my spare time, I noticed how difficult it was to find makeup products that I actually liked. Upon entering grad school, I came up with the idea to crowdsource makeup swatches on Instagram: to obtain swatches of the latest makeup products and have them all in one place. After seeing such a positive response to the page, I decide to expand on the idea and turn the concept into a mobile app.

When we think of makeup, tech may not be the first thing to come to mind, but your app is making waves! What are some tech-related challenges you’ve faced in the beauty industry and how did you conquer them?

Some of the tech-related challenges definitely include trying to bridge the gap between having a great idea and bringing that to life through code. Although I had worked in the tech industry previously, I had no idea where or how to start creating an app. I had to do a lot of research to find resources that would allow me to create the app without completely starting from scratch or learning how to code from scratch. It’s been an uphill battle, and I’ve had to get comfortable with being scrappy and always being ready with a Plan B.

Additionally, trying to introduce a new platform into the beauty industry has been a challenge. I’ve really tried to work hard on messaging and PR to attract partnerships and clients to work with and to make the brand better and stronger.