Pushing past the barriers from within and without with Marco Polo founder Vlada Bortnik

“My biggest challenge is my own criticism. The phrase, “We are our own worst critic,” is something I am constantly trying to recognize and work on. My self-critic can be very loud, to the point where I have nicknamed her “Gretchen.”

Vlada is the founder of Marco Polo, a popular video communication app that makes being a part of any loved one’s day magically effortless, even when life gets busy.

Vlada began her journey burning the midnight oil at Northwestern University, majoring in computer engineering and art. She went on to launch a successful software career, racking up more than 15 years of professional experience as product manager, designer, and entrepreneur building mass-impact products such as MSN Messenger and Hotmail.

Vlada has her two young girls to thank for the creation of Marco Polo. As a parent, Vlada wanted to model for her kids what it looked like to work on something personally meaningful that also made a big difference in the world. And as a seasoned software engineer, designer, and product manager, Vlada knew she had the skills and experience to build a tool that could help people connect, no matter the distance.

With family of her own spread across the US and the world, she also had a personal stake in the dream.

Vlada and her husband, Michal, founded Joya Communications in 2012. Their dream caught fire, and after several iterations, Marco Polo was born. Now, Vlada devotes every ounce of her experience to a heart-filled project that has transformed the lives of millions. Helping people feel close has become a reality.

Along with her work, Vlada takes joy in life with her family, getting away to nature as often as possible and staying close to loved ones near and far.

Thank you for doing this! What’s your backstory?

In December of 1990, I immigrated from Ukraine, during the time the Soviet Union was falling apart. I came to Kansas with my parents and later went to Northwestern where I studied computer engineering and art.

After Northwestern, I worked at Microsoft for five years — that’s where I met Michal, my co-founder and my husband. We met on a soccer field, and I believe that was the last time I played soccer 🙂

Michal and I started a successful arts non-profit in Seattle, and through that experience, we really got hooked on working together. We decided then that we’d always looks for ways to work together.

We moved to the Bay Area for business school at Stanford and after graduation, started an adtech company with our best friends.

When we started a family, our priorities shifted. We wanted to model for our kids what it’s like to work on something meaningful, not just something that’s intellectually interesting or focused on a financial outcome. So after we sold our adtech company and were deciding what to do next, we did a lot of soul searching and a lot of research. And what we came to was that it’s important to us to work on something personally meaningful and something that makes a huge, positive impact in the world (we set the goal of 1 billion people). Because we knew that we couldn’t control the outcome, it was also important to set the culture of working joyfully right from the start.

Marco Polo is a culmination of all that. At that time, we were struggling to keep in touch with our own families in a way that felt really meaningful. We also knew from happiness research about the importance of having authentic relationships. So putting the two together, we decided to dedicate this next phase of our life to helping people feel close. That purpose is still what drives us today.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

We created Marco Polo to help people feel close. And since we launched the company in 2012 I have been blown away by how users have integrated Marco Polo into their daily relationships. As a founder, you want what you make to be meaningful to people. What is ironic, is not only how close we are bringing other people to their loved ones, but how close it is bringing me to our users. I have been recognized by our users all over the country when I’m out to dinner or walking around town. I recently spoke at a conference in Salt Lake City. Afterward there were dozens of people lined up wanting to talk to me about their experiences with Marco Polo. I loved hearing how Marco Polo was helping them feel closer to their friends and family. But what I loved more was that many of them asked me to send a Polo — not to FaceTime or send a selfie — to their families. I was really touched by that. I witnessed how our users naturally use our product just the way we hoped they would when we built it. I was also now a part of their Polo history with their loved ones. It was really special.

What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge is my own criticism. The phrase, “We are our own worst critic,” is something I am constantly trying to recognize and work on. My self-critic can be very loud, to the point where I have nicknamed her “Gretchen.” For the past three years, I have tried very hard to accept that I have one, to listen to her, and to ultimately quiet Gretchen’s unhelpful feedback by doing inquiry from Byron Katie’s “The Work.”

What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?

What leadership means to me is having a big purpose — something that’s really meaningful and could make a huge difference in the world. As a leader, I must stay true to that purpose, and lead with kindness and love. It’s also important to create a joyful place to work and inspire others to be a part of this purpose. I strive to be authentic and empathetic in my leadership style to ensure that I’m making true connections with those I work with and those who use our product, so that we can all march toward the same vision together.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My parents. My parents inspire me every day. They left everything behind in Ukraine knowing that their new life was going to be very challenging. But they took on that challenge with such grace to ensure their children would be happy. They were in their 50s when they made the move to “start over,” which constantly reminds me that nothing is impossible.

6. Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?

I don’t think about fitting life into business. To me they are not two separate things but are very integrated…especially given that I work with my husband, Michal. I wouldn’t say that I have it all figured out, and it definitely takes a lot of work. The way I make it work is to be extremely conscious about how I spend my time, so at any given point I am mindfully out of balance. For example, when I travel, I’m choosing to not spend time with my family and I’m 110% focused on the goals of my travel, whether it’s to connect with Marco Polo users or our fully distributed team. But when my kids are home and I’m spending time with them, I’m 110% focused on them. My phone and laptop are set aside. So every day I’m thinking about how I’m spending my time and if I’m prioritizing the right things. I’m lucky in the fact that the product I am helping to build is a constant reminder of what should be important in life: our relationships.

Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?

Not really because my mindset and priorities have been the same for the last 10 years or so.

I’m aware of my priorities and allocate my time accordingly. My relationship with Michal, my family, and my work are very important, so I make sure the majority of my time is spent there. And the way I make sure the priorities are reflected appropriately in real life is that I schedule everything out.

For example, I schedule walks with Michal every day. I schedule a weekly dinner with my parents. I schedule camping trips with the whole family. I notice that having things on the calendar has been an effective way for me to ensure my time is spent on things that matter to me most.

Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?

  1. Don’t try to achieve balance. I don’t believe in balance — go for integration — be mindfully unbalanced.
  2. Make time for self-care. I notice that when I’m taking care of myself, I’m not resentful, I’m much more energetic, and I’m focused. My self-care includes meditation, going to yoga, and being in nature.
  3. Figure out priorities and make the hard cuts. Also try and outsource things that don’t have to be done by you. An example of outsourcing that was really hard for me to let go of was buying my own groceries. I loved doing this but didn’t have the time. Now, I’m a very happy customer of Good Eggs!
  4. Work with your spouse! It’s much more efficient. When Michal and I get to spend time together, we don’t need to do a lot of catching up because we know what’s going on with each other’s lives. This makes it possible to skip the small talk and jump into talking about things that matter most to us.
  5. Surround yourself with people who support you. As a founder, you can go through a lot of ups and downs with your startup, and having supportive people around you is important. Whether you need support emotionally, or help with a carpool, it’s important to have people you can rely on.

What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride.

I have two, because I cannot have one without the other.

One is making a difference in the world by fulfilling our purpose at Marco Polo of helping people feel close. When I hear stories from people who are using Marco Polo to feel closer to the most important people in their lives, I get teary-eyed. It’s really beautiful to hear.

The other is hearing my daughters say that they’re proud of me. My older daughter said to me before I left on a recent trip, “Work,work work, for the good of the hive.” And that made me smile. She gets it; she gets why I do this. And my younger daughter chimed in saying, “We’re so proud of you, mama.” Hearing that just melted my heart.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would help America rediscover the blessings of authentic relationships. Statistics show that nearly half of the US feels alone, and the results are even more staggering among young people. This means they lack meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions, for example an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family. I believe this is happening because we’re living under the illusion that we are communicating when in fact we aren’t. What we’re doing is having extremely surface level touch points. Communicating is meant to be much, much more than reading a text or seeing an emoji. After all, it feels very different to see someone cry versus receiving a crying emoji. We’ve sacrificed quality of communication for convenience. And this surface level communication is leaving us feeling lonely, without authentic support from the people most important to us. That is why I am so invested in our purpose as a company — I truly believe Marco Polo can help reverse this epidemic. Marco Polo gives people the opportunity to have these real, authentic face-to-face conversations, throughout the day, on their own time.

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

Instagram (probably my favorite one): @vladabortnik

Twitter: @vladab

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vlada

And follow what we are doing at Marco Polo on Instagram — @MarcoPoloApp

Readers can download Marco Polo in the App or Google Play Store

About the author: Jacob Rupp is a coach, author, speaker, podcaster, and rabbi. He is the founder of Lift Your Legacy, a community that helps people live a more authentic life. He has a regular, syndicated column that appears in ThriveGlobal and Authority magazine. To learn more about him or to listen to the Lift Your Legacy podcast, search iTunes or visit his site: liftyourlegacy.live


Pushing past the barriers from within and without with Marco Polo founder Vlada Bortnik was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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