Jess Waldeck – CEO of Maven

Learning from your users is the only way you can find ideal market fit.

Mr. Waldeck has a 20 years of diverse experience ranging from technology development to product management to sales and marketing. All attune to listening, understanding, and meeting the needs of marketers through the combination of technology and services. Background includes Sales, Leadership, Product Management, Marketing, and Technical Consulting. This range has helped propel Jess to the successes in his entrepreneurial endeavors including Vation -– an Application Service Provider designed to give smaller companies and startups access to enterprise software through a rental model. Vation found a successful exit through acquisition.

More recently, Mr. Waldeck and his two co-founders, Marcus Tewksbury and Michael Kimmons, have founded Maven. is fun and easy to use much like many popular social sites. Users create boards of products from “in-network” merchants. These boards can be shared via email and blog post, social networks such as Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as posted on the Maven Xchange, which is the public site. When people click through and buy a product from the retailer, the product recommender earns a commission. Maven has almost 3,000 merchants in network and pay commissions up to 20%.

While on first glimpse, most visitors view Maven as a consumer social shopping experience, it is designed to be a tool for influencers, small businesses, and entrepreneurial minded individuals to create, share, and earn. It was built it to be familiar so users can easily understand the mechanics. The Maven team is now taking their creation another step forward by developing innovative retailer offerings to capitalize on this rabid and loyal group. Influencer marketing and peer recommendations are renown as the top performing marketing channel. Maven boasts both types of users of Maven – something retailers are very interested in gaining access.

Mr. Waldeck has a BS in Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois.

Where did the idea for Maven come from?

I wish that I could say the current concept came from an epiphany one night and work began the next morning. I can’t imagine this is the case too often… As veterans in retail technology, the Maven founding team was focused on changing the retail industry. It was evolving quickly, and the traditional stores couldn’t compete. Amazon fundamentally transformed retail. While they became the 800lb gorilla they also created an ideal environment for startups.

We took an iterative approach developing, getting to market and reading the tea leaves. The feedback was essential for focusing what we now know people will love. We asked ourselves “How can social media and commerce exist in harmony?” Many entrepreneurs have attempted to tackle Social Commerce, but few have succeeded. The goal was to create a viral environment where personal networks and recommendations helped drive online store purchases. And those that were successful at it by driving sales will earn for their efforts. From this blossomed Maven. It is one of the first social commerce network that allows everyone an opportunity to earn through personal relations.

As an initial concept, we started with a digital high-touch one-on-one personal shopping business. There are many such concierge businesses – each trying to crack the ‘Conversational Commerce’ economy. While people loved the opportunity to finally earn from their expertise, we found that our users wanted more scale. The social networks were helping them with reach, but not earning. We listened and pivoted our focus. From this blossomed Maven. It is one of the first social commerce network that allows everyone an opportunity to earn through personal relations.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I am the CEO of Maven but with only 5 employees, 2 of which are co-founders, my responsibility is day to day. I own consumer marketing, PR, investor relations, social, customer outreach and sales. Typically, I awake and respond to potential PR opportunities via HARO. After that is complete, I begin my outreach to our customer base. Through our application tracking, we can identify when our users have issues and we individually reach out to assure they can overcome the obstacle. The next step is to review our paid marketing techniques, make changes and updates before we begin our team standup call. The rest of the day is a combination of PR interviews, new customer outreach, investor updates, customer communications, social updates, and customer support. We truly wear many hats.

Outside of this, I am a father for 4 children ages 6 and under. So you can imagine that there is little time for anything besides Maven and family.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We make group decisions. The three founders will have regular priority meetings to review the top ideas. These may be technical enhancements, growth hacking opportunities, paid placement and more. Based on our collective priority vote, we decide on our direction and execute to completion. The last point is key, new priorities surface daily but we complete our projects before turning to new projects. For a startup, ideas are never a shortage – execution is the limiting resource.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

We operate in Social Commerce. Many have tried and failed to blur the lines between the social media world and retail. However, has Facebook has been able to turn the corner to earn through their engagement, we believe other social platforms will be trending in this direction. Maven has been positioned to help accelerate this opportunity and are well positioned to be an important cog in the evolution.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneurs always have ideas. But the difficult decisions come in choosing to do less so that we can do what we focus on well. We see much future opportunity for our business. But in order to ensure our members have a great experience, we’ve maintained a focus on our core customer group and the features in the site they need for success. This has enabled us to deliver a great experience in the site, build loyalty.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

A double edged sword… The best job in the world is being an entrepreneur. The worst job in the world is…well… being an entrepreneur. Maven is not my first stint. 2 years out of college and 15 years ago, 5 likeminded individuals and I started an application service provider business called Vation. Without a nest egg, I regressed to college living: eating Ramon noodles, worked long hours, and focused on the business growth. At such an early age, I didn’t realize the experience I was gaining. In the moment, I only saw the sacrifice. In the end, it resulted in a very modest exit. But the experience, the story, and the success – however modest – created a drive in me that continues to this day.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

We overinvested in “early” ideas. Although a great learning experience, we invested time and money in a prototype for an early idea that was not successful. The lesson learned was to calibrate the level of investment with the level of validation. Although this investment may not be significant in the long story of Maven, the early use of funds which could have been used for the current business gaining traction, is substantial for an early stage business.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I am a slave to our analytics and activity reports. Every day, we review the results collected looking for trends, ideas and learnings. We also poll our users, looking for honest feedback. Learning from your users is the only way you can find ideal market fit.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

We are a social commerce solution. Given our reliance on social networks, a natural extension of our business was to invest in a referral program that allowed our users to earn through inviting their network to use Maven. The model has two components: 1) When a user refers a friend to maven, the referee receives 25% of the friends commission for 9 months. This does not affect the new user’s payout. 2) We also launched a promotion. We pay users $5 for every 5 registered, non-fraudulent, referrals. This promotion pays up to $60 per week. We have seen great viral growth through this referral model and we expect more as we continue to gain traction.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

We have seen failure. We launched our business in a completely different direction. After significant investment, we realized that we did not have a business. Rather than pack up and return to corporate lives, we took a look at the successes of our prototype business. We saw that peer recommendations were drivers. We gleamed that to make a business scale, and for our users to earn, we needed opportunities to extend recommendations beyond the constraints of our environment. And we realized that launching a unique user experience created a steep learning and caused abandonment and frustration. These 3 learnings motivated us to develop a new business model capitalizing on peer to peer engagement, providing an easy to use, familiar environment, and giving those users the ability to scale their earnings into new digital avenues. We are glad we did – Maven is seeing great success!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I still think there is an idea around the keg tap with two spouts… Think about it… No more lines at the college keg party.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

It was free, not even $100. We love Mixpanel. It’s been a terrific tool for us to understand customer behavior on our site. To get it for free below a certain traffic volume, you have a put their logo on your site. But, it’s a small tradeoff and has been pretty high value. We have implemented it in such a way that we can see specifics that drive our follow up, promotions, marketing spend, and more. We see when abandonment occurs. We see when users struggle with a function. And we see how users work their way through our funnel. We would be blind without it.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Our stack is React.js meteor and mongo. And, host at Heroku and use Mongolab. We like the relative nimbleness of that stack and how react aligns to the user experience we want across devices. And, the operational costs are relatively low.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times – Howard Zin. There’s just so much divisiveness and lack of respect for fellow man these days. Humanity needs to reconnect with the sense of brotherhood and looking out for one another

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I love Sean Ellis’ Growth Hacking. Every day, the newsletter provides great new ideas on how to create traction and rapid growth. This is a wonderful resource that all entrepreneurs should read.


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