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Building and Scaling OpenPhone from Scratch and Leveling Up as a Leader with Daryna Kulya

Building and Scaling OpenPhone from Scratch and Leveling Up as a Leader with Daryna Kulya

Building a company from scratch can be a stressful task as it entails various complex processes including coming up with the actual product, seeking funding, and marketing the product. This new episode seeks to inform the audience on how to grow a company, market it well through the appropriate channels, and maintaining the motivation to work on the company. 

Our today’s guest is Daryna Kulya, the Co-Founder and COO at OpenPhone, an expert in product management and creation of products from scratch to full-fledged capacity. She shares her experience on how she started a company in a complex industry, managed to secure funding, and build proper marketing avenues for it. Tune into this episode to learn more about Daryna’s experience.


  • Value of getting out of the Comfort Zone 
  • Role of consultancy experience in shaping a career
  • Building a VOIP Product 
  • Differentiating from Competitors 
  • Leveraging the strength of the community on social media
  • Relationships with Social Media Community Owners
  • Choosing between offering services on a Freemium or Free Trial Basis 
  • Consumer Vs. Business 
  • Challenges of Building a Business 
  • Role Delegation 
  • Maintaining mental health through proper work-life balance 
  • Building a company with your spouse 
  • Prioritizing Tasks in a Start-Up

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Key Takeaways:

[21:19] Value of getting out of the Comfort Zone 

You gain new experience and skills whenever you try something new

“Thank you. Well, a great question. And that page, you’re just reminding me that I have that page. So I’ll see what I can do about that page. The, you know, my journey started. So I’m from from Ukraine, I’m from Kyiv, Ukraine. I, when I was 16 years old, I got this scholarship to come to the US. So my first destination was prosper, Texas, and I was a high school student on an exchange program. Honestly, that one thing in my life that I feel like if I did not do that program, I definitely would not be here because I had that first experience of getting really out of my comfort zone and leaving my home and coming to the US. And from there, I think my love for adventure, kind of it kicked off this, this feeling that I had which is like, wow, there’s a big world we live in, I want to like explore places. So I I told myself that I want to be kind of like outside of my comfort zone and exploring and traveling. So then I went to university in Canada. And from there, I got internships, I got an internship in Germany, which I loved so much, which Fun fact, there is a bit of a tie in because my first internship was a T Mobile, which is telecommunications, which kind of there’s a little bit of a connection between there and what I’m doing. But but that was in Germany. And from there, you know, San Francisco, I came here already when we were building open phone for Y Combinator. So things just kind of happen. I think that my kind of desire was always to put myself out of my comfort zone. And just to like having my curiosity lead me and not really having a very long term plan. So I like my curiosity at places.”

[24:45] Role of consultancy experience in shaping a career

Consultancy builds experiences necessary for the growth of a startup company 

“For sure. Yeah, that’s a good that’s a good call out the So, when I, when I graduated from university, I got into consulting and I think the the one kind of thing there was, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do. And a lot of people told me that, you know, that’s where you go when you don’t quite know yet. And because you get to learn a lot of things get exposure, a lot of different to a lot of different businesses, industries, etc. So when I, when I got into consulting, I, I actually quickly learned that it was like, Well, I loved I didn’t need too much exposure to things I was like, I really liked tech. And interestingly, I also quickly figured out that I really liked the idea of building things. So the overwork of a job of a product manager, I was one of those people who was like, I want to be a product manager, and nothing else, I really got that for just my head. And, and the challenge was that I found that, you know, I worked at Deloitte and I kind of got export exposure to consulting, a lot of tech startups, I was also super interested in startups, I realized they don’t really have, you know, the money to hire Deloitte, so I couldn’t really work with them as a consultant, and I started doing sort of extracurricular activities, building things on the side participating in hackathons, just basically having this like life outside of my work, to break into tech. And I’ve managed to do it got a job at Vic yard, which is an amazing company based just outside of Toronto and Kitchener Waterloo, and had a chance to be a product manager there. And very, very thankful and grateful I did that. But But yeah, I quickly realized that they like the Deloitte life wasn’t for me, and I associated myself and what I wanted to do much more with, like early stage companies.”

[32:06] Building a VOIP Product 

Have the customer in mind when building a VOIP product

“Well, I think one thing that excites me about it is I may not think about the industry as much. So frankly, I don’t, I don’t think about VOIP and like Voice over IP. I mean, obviously, it’s an industry, we operate in the category we’re in. And I definitely follow the category and see where things are going. But I think so much more about our customers. And what got me excited about building open phone was more the impact that we can have on small businesses and startups, you know, the folks who are building the product for and I feel like, if you’re a customer of open phone, you don’t think about I mean, I hope you don’t think it’s like, oh, this is like VoIP. This is like, you know, telecommunications product, like sure it is, but But you think about, you know, if you’re one of our customers, you think about, you know how to grow your business, you think about how to make your customers happy, you think about how to make sure your team, you know, isn’t overloaded with, with conversations they shouldn’t be having they are more effective and efficient with their time you think about you think about those things. And I think about those things as well, which I think is what helps us hopefully make a better product. Because we put ourselves so much in the shoes of our customers versus in the shoes of like, Oh, we’re just building this like, cool technology.”

[35:12] Differentiating from Competitors 

Build your strengths from the limitations of your competitors 

“Totally. So I think that one of the, one of the advantages we’ve had, and I think it’s, you know, I’ll take any advantage I can get is that there is an existing category. And when we started out open phone, we’ve had the advantage of being in a place where people already know they needed business phone, people are searching for a solution like ours. You know, maybe maybe not every customer of ours knows about VOIP and all the industry sort of like stuff that acronyms, but but some do. And and some are looking for a product like open phone, I think that the first kind of like order of business is okay, let’s just for a second say, this is our industry this, this is like the the space we play in, how can we capture the existing demand because there is existing demand. And I think sometimes it’s easier to capture the existing demand than to create new demand and build a whole new category. So I, our just ethos is first, doing a really, really good job capturing the existing demand differentiating our brand. And then, as we build those muscles, really creating new demand, which is absolutely what we’re doing and what we’re going to do. But I feel like from the earlier days, it’s like, it’s, I think, to me, it’s easier to capture the existing demand. And we built open phone very consciously knowing all the downsides of existing solutions. So it’s easy for us to say, Hey, we’ve I’ve talked to people who use our competitors, I know what they don’t like, I know what are the problems, we can go and be super direct and say, Hey, we solve this problem, we solve this problem. And this problem, too. And I feel like, I know it’s not very, like sexy, and it’s a lot more fun to be like we’re creating a new thing completely. But I feel like this allows us to have a good foundation. So when we go and build our category, let’s say right, we have like an existing base of customers and revenue to rely on. We’re not starting from scratch.”

[38:06] Leveraging the strength of the community on social media

Use social media communities to conduct user research and validate your product 

“Yeah, it was a lot of Facebook groups and subreddits. It was really, you know, I think, just leaning into the strength of the fact that we well, first of all, leaning into the, the fact that I found basically forums, on Facebook, as well as on on Reddit, where there were people who were very, very much clearly saying, Hey, I’m using this product, which is our competitor, I’m not happy about it. Like here’s like some downsides. And I figured that was very easy for me to be like, Hey, by the way, we’re building an alternative. Let me know if you want to chat about it. A lot of those things I did in the early days were so I guess like the definition of things that don’t scale because, I think there are definitely things I did that I would now look back and cringe and say they’re spammy. But there was also things I’ve done that were very unscalable. Like I had just conversations with people. I was like, Hey, I see your post you wrote about all the downsides of using, let’s say RingCentral like Google Voice or other other providers. Can we talk about can we talk about it? I would love to understand what would you what you’re struggling with, so we can help you better. And also, I think it helped because at the time, we were not even in beta, like, we were so early, there’s really nothing I can even sell you, that was such a cool thing that I didn’t appreciate at the time. Because when I was at that time, I was always like, on Oh, I wish we already had a product that so I could actually sign people up. But the fact that we did not have a product, and we were in that super, super early stage, actually made me a lot better at writing those cold emails and stuff, because I literally can’t sell you anything. Even if you wanted to give me money. There’s nothing, there’s nothing for me to get right. So. So that allowed me to just talk to so many people. So when we already had a product, I could go back to them and be like, hey, remember, we talked about this, by the way, we have a beta or alpha, check us out. And I think that was so powerful.”

[43:25] Relationships with Social Media Community Owners

Build strong relationship with social media community owners by posting quality content and avoiding spammy messages

“And now I’m just looking back in time to our first customers. For example, one of our very, very early customers is now actually a partner affiliate partner, which I’m so happy about because we had, you know, I found a lot of these Facebook groups where, you know, there are people who are building a community, and also from my own experience building community. I think at some point I realized like, wait a minute, this is what it is right? Like, people want to build communities and no one wants a person in their community who is going to spam their members. I figured that out. And I realized that it’s more about hey, what value can I offer and, of course, some of these communities on Facebook of small business owners. I actually ended up saying hey, you know what? I am, you know, I’m building this product. I’ve learned probably everything I can about phone numbers and What it’s like to use different numbers for your business and why you should do this versus the other approach. And I just often say, hey, I’ll come to your Facebook, Facebook group, your Facebook community, I’m happy to do like a live or create some some video content that’s exclusive to your group. And, and they were so happy to hear it. And they ended up saying, of course, like, help me out here. I’m trying to make content for my group. I’m like, I’ll help you. So I ended up partnering like that. And, again, at the time, the product was so early. I mean, sure, we got some signups. But now that I look at it, like it was still we were still in beta. But but that seed of the plant for like a bigger partnership, where now this some of these folks are, like, official, open from partners, and they, you know, they also take in some of the upside of having their members use the product.”

[45:59] Choosing between offering services on a Freemium or on Free Trial Basis 

The model of the business determines how the product will be offered 

“I think for us, the decision was very easy, because when we start so first of all, the decision was easy for us, because there is a cost associated with every text message you send and every call you make. I think even though you know when you think about the product is internet based phone solution. Our product works by connecting you to people who don’t necessarily use open phone. And there’s a cost associated they’re coming from carriers. So So our product has a very, the decision was very easy to be honest. Yeah, we have to pay for every text message we have to pay, like, let’s say we have free users, they call there’s a hard dollar amount that they cost. And initially, in the early days, before we got into YC, we didn’t even think we would raise funding with for a while we you know, we wanted to raise funding, of course, but we couldn’t rely on it. In building our business. We couldn’t we didn’t, couldn’t rely on an angel investor coming in and just funding this whole thing. We Yeah, we just knew that we have to sustain the business. So I think also what happened is because the product wasn’t free, we actually saw and I mentioned there was like a time, or eight months or so when it was free. The moment the product became paid, the quantity of feedback was less because some people were like, Well, I’m just not going to pay. But the quality of feedback went up so much. And we actually had helped us understand who really needs our product versus for whom it’s a nice to have. Because if it’s nice to have, then sure you’ll use it for free, but you wouldn’t pay for it. But having the paywall made it super clear for us what types of businesses really, really need our product, and are willing to pay more and more and more money versus businesses that were just like, you know, that’s fine, I’ll use a free alternative. So to us it was I’m very glad that we made that decision. But again, can’t really take credit for it because it was a very obvious one given the economics.”

[49:19] Consumer Vs. Business 

Paid services bring sustainability to the business and at the same time offer value to the customers 

“I think another thing for us is like consumer versus business. For, if you think about it, for a lot of business use cases, you actually want to pay for something as critical as your phone. And freemium attracts a lot more consumers. Look, one day, I do have to mention, I really want one, the day to calm where we can sustainably in a, in a great way, in a great delightful way, offer a free tier. And it’s like I have to say, I hope that day comes because I would love for that to happen. But I think that as a as an early stage startup focus is your best friend. And doing that early, just gets you into nowhere, because, you know, you can really only do one direction, right? You’re either building like building a free plan comes with a lot of challenges, the upsell paths and the nurtures the sequences. It’s like the whole thing, the economics of it. And for us, we we knew that, you know, we’re building a product for for businesses, and we have like a such a massive roadmap of things that people our customers really want from us, where we think our best bet is making our customers super happy and delivering on the values and the features that they that they look for. So doing both right now at this stage would would just not work and would kind of like the focus is really useful.”

[55:17] challenges of Building a Business 

The dynamism of roles in startups is the biggest challenge facing the founders 

“For sure, I think that the there were, there were so many. Looking back in the early days. I definitely felt like and again, this is the journey of the foundry, you’re going into the unknown. And for me personally, in the earliest days of open phone, I was doing like sales and marketing, customer support. And I think specifically, and maybe the reason why I talk a lot about marketing, and you hear me talk about marketing is because I actually figured I learned very quickly, I have to figure out how to do marketing, because it’s me and my co founder, he’s building the product. He’s he’s doing all of that. That’s how, you know, we divided the roles. And I was like, Well, I have to figure out how marketing works. Because if not, we’re you know, it’s not gonna go far. And the challenge, I think, is the moment you start getting at least somewhat okay at something, your job changes. So I felt like the moment I was like, Well, I think I can like, figure these things out in terms of how we support customers, or how we sell or how we market the moment I got to like a decent point to a degree. I’m like, well, now actually, my job is not to do that anymore. My job is to find someone who’s going to do that. But hire them find the right person. And make sure that I do it for many different functions, and make sure there’s cohesive work we’re doing work cohesively, right, we were not where we’re going, we have on goals, OKRs, etc. So I think very rapidly, you get good at one thing, and you feel just for a moment, like you feel like good about yourself. And then you’re like, oh, nevermind, nevermind hasn’t changed my job and have to now start from zero, in somewhere very different. Where are you doing something you’ve never done before? That’s been quite a challenge.”

[01:00:16] Role Delegation 

As a leader and a business founder, you should know when to hand over responsibilities to the right people in the right time 

“Absolutely. I think that delegation is a huge one and other one is. So one, one of the things that that I found is that so there’s delegation. And there’s also, I think, being ready to get delegate, I found that, in cases where I perhaps what the didn’t feel like that worked really well, in those cases, I think I kind of just wasn’t ready for it. And I had to, I felt it was like unfinished business. And I’m one of those people, for example, I like to hand over something that’s like in a decent shape. But I had to go through that. I had to, like, teach myself that it’s just not going to be possible. And there’s definitely been cases where it actually stopped. Now, I’m partially kind of relieved, because sometimes like, Hey, this is maybe now just having your problem. So hey, thank you. Yeah, the in terms of delegation, what I had to learn is that when I maybe maybe that what I think what I know, I need to delegate something that might be already too late, I should have delegated it a while before, because because just going back to maybe something that it like I see you yourself, you also kind of resonate with this, think I’m a builder, like creating things, I love the that the early journey. And it’s a little uncomfortable to feel like, like, I love the idea of like, let me take this from here to here and make it put it in good shape and hand it over to someone. But when I feel like I need to hand over something that that I myself know is like, nowhere near good shape. And I haven’t even had a chance to like, really like kind of package it off in some way. That that makes it harder for me. But I’ve I’ve just seen cases where me not delegating them not not handing things off earlier, ends up longterm being a disadvantage, and also like hurting hurting the business. So I think it’s more about I’ve seen that happen. So now I realize like, hey, if I if I know, I need to delegate something that means I had to do it like a month ago.”

[01:08:44] Maintaining mental health through proper work-life balance 

Proper work-life balance keeps you motivated and increases your work productivity

“I think the I wish I had a very kind of sophisticated framework but but it’s actually quite simple first i i would always send this the way I’ve kind of was prior to open one as well. I would rather work like a lot more during the week than during the weekend for me weekend is almost like sacred time I have no problem like evenings like working late into the evening doesn’t really bother me and I think I’m kind of just like maybe used to it now. But what I know for sure is I need my weekend to completely recharge I need to go out do something I actually should probably not be at home because I’ll be tempted to like open my computer I need to like get out into nature. You know we have a dog so that helps like going hiking just just leaving spending time with friends ideally not talking about work like I weekend is that for me? And because I think because stuff that that gives me energy to, you know, because like I would, for example, come from a weekend on like Saturday, sorry, Sunday evening, I would like you know, catch up on work a little bit. But I would feel like on Monday I’m refreshed. I think my goal is starting a week with that like full tank of energy. And the only way to do it is by having your weekend completely, like disconnected. That’s one thing I do. Another another thing for me is, I think kind of goes back to the previous point, work is stressful, but it can’t all be stressful and goes back to the fact that I mentioned I like to carve out little things for me to do that, I just really enjoy that those things helped me stay motivated, because there’s plenty of things I do that I don’t maybe like as much. So. So that’s, that’s one one way I kind of I cope with it. Another one is. And this is where I’m like starting to kind of get into it more. It’s just, I find myself I’m, uh, I’m a social person. And I’ve kind of had to learn that I get a lot of energy from hanging out with people. And I’ve like, this is this is who I am. And I think if I’m by myself, I’m gonna end up like getting into work, somehow, I’ll just gravitate towards work. And but I need to distract myself by doing group activities.”

[01:14:32] Building a company with your spouse 

Have definite and clear responsibilities from each other if you build a company with your spouse 

“That’s an added challenge. You you add that on top of it, I think I think what’s interesting is that well first of all, we Well, one thing is we kind of like different spaces like we we work away from each other which helps for sure. We also So the way that we started the company is like the split of responsibilities. I’ve been focused on sales marketing support from the earliest days, and he was like building the product. And in some way that kind of division has, has stayed throughout. And it helps because because in some ways, like, yeah, the problems we’re dealing with the things we’re working on, are usually different. So So I think in some way, like, we’re obviously working on the same company, but but our our worlds have become more different in terms of like, the things we do. But But back to your question. Staying safe, frankly, I think, I think it’s, it’s the Yeah, great question. It goes back to just finding what works for for us, for example, the ways that like, like, I realized, like, I’m quite a social person, for me, like some social interactions can be, like energizing. And like I need, I need to carve out time for that, for him and maybe other things that he that he gets energy from so. So I just feel like it’s finding what works for us individually. And also what works for us together.”

[01:20:10] Prioritizing Tasks in a Start-Up

Always start with the easy tasks 

“Something that I’ve been given and something I’ve learned during our time during yc is that try to do the easy thing first. And as an example, I found that when we were just starting as a company, we were like, Oh, we want to like go out and acquire these customers. We want to do these things, these things. And the advice that Michael Seibel gave us, which I still, like I talk about it all the time is, what is the easiest thing to do? So for example, why don’t you acquire customers that are very easy to acquire, which makes perfect sense, I think sometimes people have these like, aspirations for like, oh, I want to do this, like big thing. But I find the way, the best way to do it is build your confidence up to that. So if they’re like customers, you can acquire very easily or things you can build easily and things that are like very, like accessible to you do those first to learn. And then that builds your confidence to to like, do harder things. So I always encourage people to kind of like to do the easier thing first to learn and get that feedback loop going.”

David Khim

David is co-founder of Omniscient Digital and Head of Growth at He previously served as head of growth at Fishtown Analytics and growth product manager at HubSpot where he worked on new user acquisition initiatives with both the marketing and product teams.