CEO of Proxi Melinda Haughey is a former U.S. intelligence professional and UX researcher who has done stints at both Facebook and Dell. She uses her expertise in geospatial visualization, online communities, and collaboration to inform the direction of Proxi, mentor other founders, and drive research in human-centered design forward. Melinda thrives on being an active community member, a digital creator, participating in local digital advisory boards, and organizing local gatherings for women in her network. She is known as a creative, competent, and compassionate leader — and has used these skills to inform the culture at Proxi and connect with community members using the company’s mapping tool. Melinda received an engineering degree at Texas A&M and is a PhD candidate in the college of engineering at University of Washington.
Where did the idea for Proxi come from?
In the fall of 2020, many people in my Seattle neighborhood were looking for safe ways to trick-or-treat. I cobbled together some existing tools and built a crowdsourced map so that parents could easily see homes that were providing safe Halloween experiences. The map went viral and even was featured on Good Morning America. After Halloween, others in the Seattle area started reaching out for advice on how to create collaborative, community-centered maps themselves. I couldn’t find a solution but I knew I was the person to solve the problem. With my background in tool building, geospatial visualization, and expertise in human-centered design, it felt like a perfect fit! I just needed someone who knew the ins and outs of growing a business – and Chelsey, my co-founder, is a seasoned expert at that.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
We just finished the intensive Techstars program so we are starting to define our new “normal”. Our full-time team members meet in person in Bellevue most days of the week. We try to outline both our biggest goals for the day and more long-term. To stay productive, we’ve had to start assigning days for specific tasks. For example, Chelsey and I try to schedule external meetings on Tuesdays, block off a no-meeting day on Wednesdays, and do internal meetings on Thursdays. ‘Try’ is the keyword here: we’re not perfect but some structure has been helping!
How do you bring ideas to life?
I try to first bring the core element of the idea to life with the quickest, easiest way as a proof of concept, and to validate the idea is in fact necessary. For example, with my trick-or-treat map, I pulled it together with existing tools. It wasn’t until my hypothesis (that this map would be helpful and used on Halloween) was validated did we start putting time and effort into building out the infrastructure for what became Proxi (then known as Map Your Idea). We still do this now, too. For example, we wanted to start bringing pictures from Google into the points on our map. We decided to use an existing API that we had implemented on our site to make it happen and test the idea – despite it being a somewhat expensive approach. After just a month, we saw how much our users loved the feature, so now we are going back and putting more dev time into installing a more sustainable solution and improving upon it.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The return to travel post-pandemic. I was quite a traveler before the pandemic – I loved to plan our trips, locate secret finds, and experience new places like a local. With restrictions lifted, so many of us will start traveling again, which is cool in itself but is especially interesting when we consider how traveling may change with the technological changes we’ve seen over the past two years. The reemergence of the QR code means that businesses and influencers can share travel recommendations, website links, or even locations in-situ. The explosion of TikTok means that local businesses and influencers can share pictures and videos that evoke ‘vibes’ of the many places they visited on their trips, and the portability of work means that people will be able to go on these vacations without using as many vacation days. This all means people will need more guides for places like great coffee shops and co-working spaces when they are in new environments. Proxi is thinking about and incorporating both the tech and travel trends as we grow our company and build more useful guides.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Biting the bullet and learning the skills that need to be done. If today my company needs me to be an IT master and figure out how to configure our email system, then I’ll do it. Then I might have to figure out how to make design guidelines – and that’s ok too! I hate being a bottleneck and love to learn, so I force myself to step outside my comfort zone to learn new skills all the time. That’s actually how I learned to code. In my job in the intelligence community, I kept wanting to make changes to the user interface of the software for which I was an analyst. The developers on the team were rightly focused on some gnarly back-end work, but I just couldn’t stand not seeing my new functionality come to life… so I signed up for a coding Bootcamp and learned front-end coding at night. I was able to apply my skills almost immediately and felt so accomplished.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Your hesitation and thoughtfulness is your strength. When I went through the venture capital fundraising process (especially as a woman) I was continually given the feedback to speak more confidently, adjust my tone, and take up more space. Even from other women. I know this advice was always well-intentioned and I did work on it a bit. What I think, though, is that a careful and thoughtful demeanor is a strength. No, it might not attract the investors and people who like big, fluffed-up founders but those aren’t my people, anyway. A thoughtful demeanor builds trust over time, shows maturity, and then allows you space to get truly thrilled about something in front of your audience (which sticks out even more than being a big personality the full time).
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Taking a risk is a good thing. I don’t like to look back with regret but I do wish I had the encouragement that the decisions I was making would lead to where I am today (a place that I am SO excited about!). Some of the hardest decisions for me were leaving “good” things. Moving away from a chemical engineering degree for something entirely different, then leaving a prestigious intelligence group for an uncertain future as an academic, and then leaving a great gig in academia to launch a very risky startup. All of those decisions were hard, weighed on me, and were in complete opposition with the concepts of “success” that I grew up with. We should support people during these risky periods of life.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I would recommend that others find a way to hold themselves accountable to keep up with the things that they know are good for them. Join a book club if you want to read, join a run club if you want to run more, or pre-pay for a babysitter to come on a regular basis if you want to do more date nights with your partner.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Nailing down our first set of ideal customers. This process was very natural to Chelsey but was new to me. I truly do believe that people can use Proxi for almost anything, from wedding activities to local garage sales or travel plans. While those maps are wonderful, they don’t encourage growth, that is, people sharing them on social, embedding them in blogs, or texting them to friends. That’s why narrowing down our ideal customer to people who are most in need of this product and have the following to activate virality helped us grow. It is that uncomfortable focus that has made us successful with growth thus far! And it has been wild considering that we launched our product only nine months ago – we had 900 maps made on Proxi in February.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I’m new to this entrepreneur title. Chelsey and I did learn a hard lesson about the importance of timing and believing in yourself with our first venture. We started a QR code-based peer-to-peer payments software in 2015 as a side gig. We were frustrated with how hard it was to tip people since we had recently stopped carrying much cash. We built some prototypes, talked to users, and even one potential funder. However, QR codes were not as widely adopted and we weren’t ready to quit our full-time jobs yet to pursue the idea. Takeaways are either 1) we should’ve gone full time after something we believed in or 2) we missed the boat on timing and timing is everything for a good idea. This definitely factored into our decision to jump into Proxi full time – we couldn’t miss another massive opportunity again!
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Postpartum services on demand. An app where postpartum mothers could schedule a lactation consultant, massage therapist, PT provider, a pediatric nurse, and more to come to their home, either for that day or to schedule in the future. My postpartum period was the lowest point in my life and came with significant mental health challenges for me. I would have loved to have access to these resources more easily and quickly
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
A flight to LA! There was a great deal on Alaska airlines that I snatched for a long weekend in the sun. Starting a new company is incredibly time-consuming and rarely allows for vacations. I’m super excited to head that way for a short vacation. It is going to be even better because I can use Proxi maps to find the Best Coffee Shops in LA (Curated by Dancing for Donuts) and the best LA photo spots curated by Seize users.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Canva. Anyone who has ever worked with me for more than 15 minutes knows my obsession with Canva. I was an early adopter when I was in university, where people always wondered how my student organization had the best posters and graphics. It has followed me through every phase of life; I’ve used it for my wedding, while I was in grad school, and now is an essential tool at Proxi to create graphics, videos, and more fast. We have the pro plan and use it to create social media content, build all of our pitch decks, design logos, create custom icons, and more. I am so inspired by the creators’ story and I love to nickname Proxi the “Canva of Maps” – a name with high expectations that I know we will build toward.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
There are so many (maybe I’ll publish a list!). The most recent book I’ve read is “Atlas of the Heart” by Brene Brown. It is my book club book for this month. It helped me put words to some of the anxiety, grief, and fear of failure that I have. My favorite part, though, is the last few pages of the introduction where she uses a map metaphor to introduce her book.
“Maps are the most important documents in human history, they give us tools to store and exchange knowledge about space and place. […] Maps making is not as easy as stacking data on top of data, there’s an art and science to how we use it to make meaning – The interaction between map layers is the story of the map.”
She (unknowingly) articulates all of my hopes and visions for Proxi’s future as a platform for meaningful and personal map layers in an elegant way. Today, Proxi is giving everyone the opportunity to be a casual cartographer. To make map layers with meaning and empower others to use those layers to find their places in the world.
What is your favorite quote?
Barack Obama had a plaque on his desk that said “hard things are hard.” Doing hard things is uncomfortable; often accompanied by anxiety, uncertainty, feelings of impostor syndrome, and more. Each of these experiences stretches you, helps you grow, and gives you the confidence to try an even harder thing next. The goal is to fight through that experience, learn, and then go do something harder.
- -Take risks and don’t be afraid to jump into the unknown.
-Challenge yourself to learn and become the resource your company needs.
-Know and empathize with your customers so you can genuinely ensure that you are meeting their needs.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.