Female Founders: 'I can never go back to a normal job'
For Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Anna Skaya, the future is all about cat DNA. In a new FT series, Female Founders, we ask her why her business focuses on cats and how difficult it is to start a business.
Executive produced by Vanessa Kortekaas. Edited by Richard Topping. Filmed by Ben Marino and Mitchell Schultz. Additional footage by Basepaws.
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Cats and biotech don't make an obvious pairing, but for Anna Skaya, feline DNA is the future. The Los Angeles-based entrepreneur is building a business out of analysing cat genetics and assembling a mountain of data that could be used to benefit humans, too. So explain to us what your business is.
So Basepaws is a pet genetics business. In the simplest terms, it is a business that focuses on using genetics, so the DNA of your pet, to understand your pet better. Our technology is quite different from all the other technologies that are out there in the genetic space. We focus mostly on cats, although we're looking at other animals. And the business works in a really simple way. We get a little bit of the DNA of your animal, and we do that through taking adhesive tape, putting it on your cat, taking it off like a bit of a wax job, sending it to our lab where we extract the DNA, sequence it, and give you back results.
And those results will tell you a little bit about their ancestry, breed, where they come from, where their parents come from. But also, it goes deeper and we look at health and trait issues, things that you would take to your vet and really understand your cat better from the inside out.
And we're in your lab-- obviously, this is where the analysis goes on. Why cats? Why choose cats?
It's a great question. So there's a few reasons for choosing cats first. The cat is a really unique internet-loving phenomena. And so starting with a cat when you're doing a consumer-focused business, it inadvertently became kind of our calling card. It became a very easy thing to market, people loved all of our cat videos. And then the science reason behind it is actually even stronger. The cat turns out to be an animal which is the most similar to humans outside of primates.
It's genetically more similar than dogs and pigs. And it has become something of a model for humans, both in its genetics and in its behaviour, since the cat lives in our house, it's eats our food, it plays with our kids. It's very, very similar to humans in some behavioural ways. Our big vision, our mission with basepaws, is to use animal genetic data, particularly from cats, to understand how to make better drugs and work with pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies not only for pets, but also for humans.
Is this a race to have the biggest database of cats?
Absolutely. The database is really the core of this company. Although I love speaking to pet owners and giving them the results and seeing them get to know their pet better, the big value is the database. Imagine a database of millions of data points of cats all over the world. We can use that database to not only understand cats better, but to use that to model and understand humans better. And that's really where the interest and the passion is, for both myself and my co-founder in this company.
Is Basepaws making money?
Basepaws is making money currently. It's a huge thing to say for a biotech. Biotechs usually take years to get to a point when they're making money. So we have over 1,000 folks right now that have purchased our product, 1,000 people in our first year business that have bought in and understood and like us I think is a huge deal.
Before launching Basepaws with her co-founder, Miss Skaya worked at consumer deals website Groupon in Russia and helped found ventures ranging from big data in advertising to social media. Does a founder have to eventually settle on some big world-changing idea, or is it more feeding your enthusiasm to be entrepreneurial?
Basepaws is my fourth company. The company before Basepaws was a spectacular fail, a spectacular fail. It was a company called Breakup Buddy. And it was an app that was trying to create a space for people that had breakups. I thought it was the most brilliant idea in the world. I was so excited about it, and a year in and thousands of dollars in, it went nowhere.
What are the mistakes that you've made?
Oh, so many. The biggest mistake is not firing fast enough. It's knowing in your gut that this is not the right person for you and not being able to let them go and having the business really suffer because of it.
Is there a bit of advice you wish you'd received before you went down this entrepreneurial path?
Well, this path I did not pick. It just kind of picked me. I wish somebody would have told me how hard it is. I wish someone would have told me I wouldn't have the weekends. I don't have weekends. I haven't had a weekend since I could remember. I'm working all the time. As a female, I think it's just a little bit harder. I find myself that my personal life has taken a backseat and has never even been on the front seat ever. Work is number one. It's challenging because I know I can never go back to having a normal job. I cannot go back to working for somebody else.
Do you feel that you have to have a plan B as a founder? I mean, in any of the ventures that you've been in, have you had a backup plan in case things don't work out?
Oh, no. There's no plan B. I don't think I have time to think about plan B. There's no time to think about any extracurricular ideas or activities. But that's just me. My co-founder, Shawn, at 2:00 in the morning, I'd get, "I have this amazing idea. Let's use blockchain and cat genetics and we can build the next cat zoo". And I find myself to be a very practical co-founder in this case.
So part of your co-founder's role is to keep your other co-founder on focus.
Absolutely. Focused. The beautiful thing about being a start-up is that you cannot do it alone. Unless you are, I think, a super woman, I would not be able to do a start-up alone. So I have an incredible co-founder who is exactly the opposite of me. He's an MD, PhD, biochemist, techie who works until 4:00 in the morning coding sites. And I'm this practical business-focused looking at the bottom line, let's talk about the next five years, planner. So the mesh is really good. And I find that I have no plan B. He has plans C, D, and E and I have to just pull him back to cats, cats, cats, cats.