Interview with startup project CheeksUp head Ilze Zaharāne

One month ago, Ilze Zaharāne’s project CheeksUp emerged as the winner of the Latvian national finals of the Start Tel Aviv 2016 competition, organized by the Israeli Embassy in Latvia and Latvian Startup Association. In total, five startups run by women participated in the competition.

Having won the competition, Ilze and her socially-conscious project now have the opportunity to visit Israel and participate in the DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival, a conference financed by the Israeli government, but the nature of a startup business tolerates no slack, which is why Ilze is present at almost all main startup events.

In an interview with the Labs of Latvia portal, Ilze speaks about how it feels to win the competition, her work at CheeksUp, and what it means to be a woman in the very masculine startup environment.

What are your feelings after winning the Start Tel Aviv 2016 final?

An American businessman said in congratulating us on the win: “Your life is your job, and your job is your life”. That’s me exactly, because this is an idea that emerged as a result of my professional activity.

I have now left my previous job, devoting all my time to the development of CheeksUp, but to get here took seven years – four years of study and three years of work to gain the experience.

At that time, my personal life was in a situation that could rather be solved through not talking than talking. But that’s not how you treat children, so I could call this project my little baby that I’ve been nursing and cherishing.

Usually startups are given three minutes for their pitch, but how would you describe CheeksUp in just three sentences?

CheeksUp is a system for therapists and a game for children. It’s a fun and motivational face motion game for kids with speech and face disabilities, involving them in exercising the necessary muscles. The system can be used in speech therapy, myotherapy and physiotherapy.

Do you now live in both Latvia and the United States?

Yes, I participated in a five-month accelerator program for health and medical startups in the United States, after which we developed successful cooperation with a biotechnology and innovation organization, and we expect it to introduce us to serious cooperation partners.

When I’m in the U.S., I am working on furthering our contacts. I have already had meetings with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Johns Hopkins Center for Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Kennedy Krieger Institute, scientists from Boston University and others.

The aim of the accelerator program was to develop new products, but medical and health technology is specific in that the lean startup method is not really applicable as the clients are well-educated and will only use a new technology after they see it work.

So the principle of ‘fake it till you make it’ does not work in this particular sector. In the early stages I presented the concept, while now I need to have the product itself to find the first clients and launch sales.

Which member of your team came up with such a cheerful name as CheeksUp?

That’s a whole story going back to the Garage48 hackathon in Tartu, where a team made up of Latvians and Estonians was working on the idea of the project. Our first name was Funny Face, but it didn’t sound really well, so after a long brainstorming session we switched to CheeksUp.

This seemed a good sounding name for most of us, the domain was also vacant, so we grabbed the name and that’s what we’re still called today. The logo has also remained unchanged.

In your opinion, is being a woman in the startup business a help or a hindrance?

Depends on who you have to work with and what people you have to meet. But there are challenges to be dealt with for both women and men, and there are no particular generally-accepted principles. In some situations, things are easier for women because they get noticed more. This is especially true of pitches – more people listen to what you’ve got to say as the audience is mostly made up of men usually.

Women have to deal with some problems when they communicate with the technical personnel, but femininity, I believe, is definitely a good thing if you’re a manager. If you’re running your own startup, it is very important that you can arrange all kinds of things, yet gender is nowhere near as important as your communication skills and personality.

Communication is far harder for an introverted person, the main thing is to overcome all fears and doubts, and move on. All people have their fears and doubts, so do the brave, but these fears and doubts have to be overcome.

How important is support from other women in the startup environment of Latvia?

It is undeniably very important as some certain situations may recur. So when you meet somebody who has faced similar challenges, you have a chance to find out how to tackle such situations.

To know of such common experience is very helpful, as is the encouragement received from women who have been through all of it. Once you realize that negative responses did not target you personally, it does give you a certain feeling of security.

But to realize this, you need to know of this common experience, hear other women’s stories, which prove that a particular action was not meant to hurt you personally.

CheeksUp was founded slightly more than a year ago. What is the most important thing you have come to understand during this time?

What I said – the main thing is to not be afraid! One has to try, do, and think only in positive terms. To be successful at the first attempt is a very rare occurrence, so you have to stay positive to reach your third or fourth attempt.

A startup manager has to have some emotional tolerance to failures. He or she has to be prepared to deal with negative pressure, and follow the principle “if you’ve been thrown out the door, get back through the window”. And there has to be the psychological ability to withstand uncertainty.