Fearless Founders: Meet Donna Novitsky of Yiftee
Ideas, inspiration, and productivity can occur anywhere. Strong leaders and founders learn how to harness the power of those locations by working in their happy place to turn it into a place of productivity. From the coffee shop on their corner to a certain nook of their home, Fearless Founders use their specific locale to grow their idea into a business and passion project. Find out how these founders and innovators transformed their lives thanks to their happy place and a brilliant idea.
How much do you love your favorite local boutique or coffee shop? Enough to give it additional business by sending friends there via a convenient mobile gift-giving app? Donna Novitsky created a company that does just that, helping not only the local businesses you love but also letting you to give gifts through your phone. She’s tall, she’s blonde, and in 2011 she cofounded the start-up Yiftee in Silicon Valley, the heart of the tech world. And she has created a dream for every small-business owner in America: After speaking to more than 100 local merchants, Novitsky realized there was a huge need for a mobile gift-giving service for local shops and restaurants. Yiftee was born. She’s an investor turned momtrepreneur who loves Kenny Loggins, spending time in her happy place, and a relaxing mani-pedi. Here are 14 things I learned about Donna Novitsky, cofounder of Yiftee.
What is Yiftee?
Shop local! Yiftee is a mobile and online gifting service for people who want to surprise and delight their employees, customers, friends, and family with thoughtful gifts at local shops and restaurants. The gifts are delivered instantly to mobile phones as virtual gift vouchers, powered by MasterCard. Businesses large and small use Yiftee to reward employees, appreciate customers, and get the attention of prospects. Consumers use Yiftee for holiday gifts or just to be spontaneous. They can send anything from a simple latte to say hello or thank you to a spa treatment or a night out to recognize significant achievements. Yiftee connects consumers and businesses with the local communities in which they live and work.
What inspired Yiftee?
We love our local shops and restaurants—they're the backbones of our communities—and we saw many of them trying out “deal of the day” discount marketing programs that ended up being harmful for their businesses. So we set out to provide a way to give shoppers the mobile and online shopping convenience they want combined with the “shop local” experience that drives business to local merchants, and Yiftee was born. We spoke with more than 120 local merchants to really understand their world before we came up with the idea.
What is your master plan?
The master plan for the business is to allow corporations and consumers to conveniently drive billions of dollars of business to the local shops and restaurants that they love. This delivers happy, motivated employees, customers, and partners for the corporations, and it helps local businesses and communities thrive. It’s a win-win.
What is your favorite gift to send? Have you sent any wacky ones?
My favorite gift to send is a mani-pedi at my favorite shop. Since many of my friends are busy moms, this gives them a few moments of mandatory blissful peace, and I get to help the owner of the shop grow his business by bringing in new customers. Wacky ones? Probably a shoe shine.
What is your personal motto?
Go big or don’t go.
You were formerly a partner at a venture capital firm. What inspired you to switch sides of the table?
My dad taught me the word entrepreneur when I was about 12. That seed was planted at a young age, long before it was the hot trend it is today. I was able to live the entrepreneurial dream in the ’90s, when I was on the executive team of a start-up that went public and grew to a $2 billion valuation from scratch. Then I went into VC to help others do the same. I was always in an operating role, even in VC. So when the opportunity came along to run my own company, I was ready to go back into the trenches.
Where is your happy place?
Well, the holidays are approaching now, and I'm thinking of our home in Tahoe, with a warm fire, snow outside and being surrounded by friends and family. There's nothing happier.
Who inspires you?
In my spare time, I teach entrepreneurship and marketing to engineers at Stanford and from around the world. My students inspire me. They are a constant source of new ideas, and I learn so much from them. With them, the sky is the limit. One of my former students became a cofounder of Yiftee, and he still inspires me every day.
You must be incredibly busy. How do you manage your time?
My challenge is this: I love my work, so it would be easy for me to work 100 hours a week and be a one-dimensional, boring, unfulfilled person. I have to manage my time to spend it with the people I love and care deeply about, who are truly more important to me than any work. So I make lists. I keep a detailed calendar that everyone has access to. I exercise with friends, which has the double benefit of physical exercise and mental stability. I schedule family vacations and take them. I sign up for carpooling and school volunteer stuff so I know what’s going on with my kids and their school and their friends, which is harder now because they are teenagers. Last but not least, I try to get seven or eight hours of sleep a night, because when I’m tired I can’t function.
Walk me through a typical morning.
See a friend for exercise at 6:15 (or sleep). Drop off kids at high school at 7:45. In the office by 8. At work, I spend almost all my time communicating, one way or another—meetings, phone, email, and hallway conversations. If I have a project that requires reading, writing, or thinking time, I will schedule it on my calendar. I pick my kids up after their school and sports practice at 6 p.m., and the family has dinner together about three nights a week. I’m lucky that my husband cooks! Then we all do our respective homework. Bedtime is usually around 11.
How and when do you brainstorm?
Every day! More informally than formally. I try to set clear objectives and empower the team to deliver, but we do a lot of brainstorming. I am often the one who jumps up and grabs the pen at the white board to organize the discussion so that it comes to a conclusion on which we can follow through. I follow the brainstorm rule that no idea is a bad one—some are just better than others. Being negative squelches creativity.
What tugs at your heartstrings?
Kids who don’t have the adult support they need to thrive. This isn’t just an issue with poverty or education—it happens with self-centered parents who don’t take the time to nurture their children to give them a strong foundation in life. A child is terrible thing to waste, and it breaks my heart to see it happen.
Do you have a celebrity crush?
Kenny Loggins. I know all the words to all his songs and have been to more than a dozen concerts. In my next life, I want to come back as a backup singer in a rock band.
Where do you get the best ideas and inspiration?
There's no one place. I move around a lot. Sometimes it's in my red chair at home, where I can watch the hummingbirds outside. Sometimes at a coffee shop with a latte and Wi-Fi. I get a ton done on airplanes, where I hide in my personal bubble. Sometimes in the office with the team. I like to mix it up!
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UCLA grad, Jesse Draper is a technology expert and creator and host of The Valley Girl Show through which she has become a spokesperson for startups and has helped to pioneer the way of new media content distribution. She oversees everything from pre-production to distribution of the show. Draper started the show because she realized there was no FUN business talk show, only grilling teeth clenching interviews, and she believes the most interesting and inspiring people in the world are the ones who've started a business. In her former life, she was on a Nickelodeon show called “The Naked Brother's Band”. Draper also writes columns for Mashable, Forbes.com and San Francisco Magazine and speaks at business conferences around the world including SXSW, DLD, TEDx, TechVentures and STREAM.