A Letter from Vlada Bortnik, CEO and Co-Founder
To our amazing Marco Polo community,
I’ve always tried to be transparent about the fact that my life is a real life. It’s not a lofty one that takes place behind corporate fanfare, shielded from reality. My husband Michal and I built a tech company on expansive dreams, yet throughout my growth as a founder and leader, I’ve prioritized balance, kindness, and mindfulness in my thinking and actions. This year challenged every bit of that.
So at the end of what has been a demanding, humbling, and exhilarating period of growth for all of Marco Polo and a tumultuous year in our world, I wanted to take a moment to breathe, assess, and share some of the important lessons I’ve learned and intend to carry into 2021 and beyond.
#1. We can do hard things.
From the earliest days, Michal, our investors, and I understood that the time would come when our company would need to shift to a sustainable business model (put more simply: start making money). We couldn’t fulfill our mission, much less survive, if we only offered a free product. And we refused to generate income by selling third-party ads or our community’s personal data.
So we decided to introduce a premium subscription. No other competing company had created a successful business that way…yet. It was a huge bet. But it was time, and we set 2020 as our year. This past summer, we rolled out Marco Polo Plus, a product that we believed would enable us to build a lasting, profitable business while creating the best experience for all of you – one that put your well-being first and provided a free way for anyone to connect through our app.
Our community responded passionately during the launch. Some cheered us on, welcoming the new features and ad-free stance, while others openly expressed cynicism and frustration at the outset of a global pandemic. How could we possibly think it was the right time to introduce a paid product – or to move 2x behind the paywall?
It took fortitude to stand by our mission and vision and maintain morale within our small team. Everyone worked tirelessly to get Marco Polo Plus right while treating our new customers with care and appreciation – even those who were really upset.
Six months later, our big bet has paid off. Marco Polo Plus adoption has far surpassed our expectations, demonstrating that many people value our purpose and premium experience enough to pay for it. I couldn’t be prouder of this valuable product. I couldn’t be more grateful to our earliest adopters. And I’m blown away by the passion and dedication that our team showed, even as the world presented extraordinary challenges.
We had big plans for 2020. Not only did we want to launch a paid offering, but also our new product, Marco Polo Channels, a video-first platform that provides a space for coaches, teachers, creatives, and business leaders to share their expertise in a way that deeply impacts and transforms people, all while getting paid doing what they love. The response has been incredible. And although I have always trusted our company’s capacity to do big things, I’m still in awe of the fact that we pulled it off.
In the midst of all this, Michal and I, like millions of working parents around the world, found ourselves with two elementary-age kids at home 24/7. Reality hit, and it hit hard. Tucked into our small home and in the thick of developing and launching two new products, we managed online classrooms, scheduled daily lunches with our girls, managed fear for our aging parents and relatives working in hospitals, confronted California’s forest fires, and made the best of our experiences together.
We can do hard things. The important things are always worth fighting for, even if they’re harder than we ever anticipated.
#2. The hard choices are often the right choices.
Our team has been motivated by the film The Social Dilemma, a powerful story told by some of the earliest architects in the social media industry. These pioneers had great intentions but didn’t consider or realize the implications of the choices they made in developing their businesses – in particular, the unintentionally nefarious tactics and disastrous results of the advertising models and the algorithms that feed addictive behavior.
Michal and I made a conscious decision to take a different path with Marco Polo. We were driven by the premise that technology is magical, erasing time and distance to bring people together.
What if tech could bring out the best in all of us? What if we could create technology that’s actually good for you? What if we put the spotlight on authentic connection, communication, and emotional well-being?
As the film shed a light on technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society, we came away doubly convinced that our company and model provide an antidote to that, and that the questions we asked ourselves at the very beginning are still the right questions to ask in a post-Social Dilemma conversation.
#3. Social activism matters. I’m committed to doing more.
Those familiar with my personal story know that I am a refugee. In 1990, on the cusp of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, my family found freedom, safety, and opportunity in the United States.
But my immigrant story is different from the stories of countless others. I had a way in. My family stayed together. I had ready access to quality education. And I am white. So while I worked extremely hard to achieve my successes, I also recognize that I have enormous privilege which eases my day-to-day life – privilege that Black people, indigenous people, and people of color are not afforded by default.
The social reckoning that has taken place this year, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, made me realize that as a tech leader, I need to do more. As a company, we need to do more. As an industry, we must bring in more representation and challenge the assumptions that drive hiring and investment so that we can expand access to opportunity and foster the development of new products and services that address needs we don’t currently serve.
I personally still have much to learn. So I’ve read, watched, and listened. I’ve had conversations with my Black friends, including Black founders. I’m making sure my kids learn along with me, and as a family, we’ve marched together, watched movies together, and read books. We’re supporting Black-owned businesses and donating to causes dedicated to racial justice. And as a company, we’re doubling down on our efforts to source and hire diverse candidates.
One resource that has been invaluable to me is Coaching for Authentic Allyship with author, speaker, coach, and social unity/oneness practitioner Pamela Gray Daniel. On Marco Polo Channels, Pamela has created a safe space to share honest dialogue and explore racial justice and allyship.
#4. I’m proud we built a remote company from the start.
Our company has been fully distributed (aka remote) since we started in 2012. Because we embraced remote work long before it became necessary and had years to establish best practices, we were well situated to keep our Teamily moving through the challenges of two product launches during a year when many of us felt daily uncertainty and fear in our personal lives.
Having established best remote practices, we knew how to lift each other up, and our trust in each other has only grown stronger. I’m so grateful to the Marco Polo team for believing in me and our purpose, working hard, staying focused despite all the craziness in the world, and for having some laughs along the way. They inspire me every day.
(If you’re interested in practical ways to maintain a great remote work environment, take a look at the LinkedIn article I wrote in the early days of the pandemic. It outlines strategies, tips, and tools for effective and joyful remote work, including Marco Polo.)
#5. Gratitude matters.
Gratitude is the through-line of my well-being, happiness, and decision-making. So I want to end this letter with a huge wave of it, from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you to everyone who is loving and supporting Marco Polo, whether with a Plus subscription or by sharing it among your friends and family. Thank you to the Channels leaders for making our apps part of your lives and businesses.
Thank you to incredible organizations like Pandemic of Love that have helped keep the lights on or food on the table. Thank you to teachers, who have modeled wisdom and grace as they learned to educate remotely. Thanks to the nonprofits working to maintain the new normal of the classroom, like Donors Choose and Two Screens for Teachers.
Thank you to my sister and brother-in-law and to all the front-line workers and first responders who put your lives on the line every day to help keep us alive and well.
Thank you to our investors, a wise and supportive group who not only believe in Marco Polo, but believe in our never-before-attempted path toward sustainability.
Thank you to my daughters, who had to grow up a bit faster and learn to be more patient with me, and to my parents, who nurtured us with regular food drop-offs.
And thank you to Michal for being the best partner, father, and co-founder. I couldn’t dream of anyone better.
We hope you and your loved ones stay well this season. I believe that we can emerge from this challenging year with renewed hope and connection. We’re in this together.
With warmth and gratitude,