Ashley Sumner is the founder and CEO of QUILT.
Quilt is a new kind of social network, an app with the mission of connecting women for inspiring virtual conversations and building community. Quilt was founded in 2016, although not as we know it today: it started as an in-person community and network, hosting conversations and events in the comfort of another's home for free.
As it did for many other founders, the pandemic forced Ashley to pivot her business plan into a fully digital endeavor. In fact, Quilt doesn’t shy away from citing the pandemic as one of its catalysts: We're a new kind of social network, inspired by 2020 adding in uncertain times, we lean on community. Quilt was built for that.
How Quilt works: you can start or join a live conversation at any time, talk or just listen in
& connect with a whole new community.
Ashley earned her BA at NYU and, before founding Quilt in Los Angeles, she worked as a community builder in New York, eventually overseeing membership at NeueHouse (a co-working club in NY and LA).
We had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) and connect with Quilt’s talented founder, Ashley Sumner to talk about Quilt's pivot, the many challenges 2020 faced and why we need more tech founders that focus on human connection first.
I know before Quilt you had experience building communities and events, but how did the idea for Quilt first come about?
Quilt started 3 years ago, but it has evolved a lot this year. Originally, I wanted to decentralize the community experiences that you have in a Soho House, a social club or a work retreat. We have our own spaces, and as women we can open them and gather in them. This year the evolution of Quilt came about because it was forced in this really beautiful way — obviously, the ability for strangers to get together in homes was completely removed. I took myself through an exercise while I went off into nature for many, many months — I left LA and I went to nature — and I essentially was like: if we were to take the magic of Quilt that took place at homes when you were sitting in a living room with 10 other women, talking about career and purpose and what it is that you want out of life, your health and happiness... if you were to take the intimacy of that and translate it to technology, what would that look like and what platform is the most frictionless way to do it? The result was creating a new type of social network that is live, synchronist and audio that really puts the power in our hands for us to create the conversations that we want to have, and actually hear someone on the other side, while not being stuck in a video and images, lights, and ‘you look this way and I look that way’ and all of that algorithm that can sometimes create some separateness. The outcome was what Quilt is now, the audio social network that is really focused on restoring human connection by way of making sure that every time you are on it you leave better than when you came on it, which I think unfortunately hasn't been happening in social media, and we learnt a lot about that in 2020.
Images from Quilt's previous iteration: offline community events.
What were some of the first obstacles you had to overcome?
2020 was a year of survival. It was pivoting an entire business. Rebuilding technology from scratch. Letting go of people when funding was running out. At the end of 2020 we raised a whole new round of funding, so we are in a much more stable growth oriented place right now. I think all of 2020 was this massive risk. I kept saying I felt like I was ice skating on a cloud, which sounds really sweet but is scary and it was a completely uncertain thing. It pushed me as a leader to do things I haven't done before: letting people go, hiring, having uncomfortable conversations, worrying about having a week’s worth of salaries left. All of the things you hope never happen, happened in 2020 but the outcome, the very positive outcome is that Quilt is here and impacting far more people than it could in its older iteration in LA in homes.
Ashley talking about how the pandemic forced Quilt's new start.
Although this number has slightly fluctuated in the last years, less than 3% of VC funding goes to female founders, how was your experience pitching/seeking investment?
I think if you want to be the founder of a tech-related company, you have to like fundraising. Otherwise you are not going to like your job, because you’re going to grow, and with the growth you are going to need to fundraise. That ends up being 6 months, and then another 6 months (and so on). I mean it was really stressful in 2020 because we were meant to raise capital on the previous idea in March, and then obviously everything shut up, so it ended up being this strange-extended kind of fundraising and that was exhausting. But coming out of it, we have all new partners and they’re absolutely amazing, we have stellar investors (both VCs and angels), we have amazing advisors — experts in the space, I feel more supported than I ever felt as a business owner before, and I’m a solo founder, these people are on speed dial. I was 7 minutes late because I was just talking to my lead investor and he’s just very uplifting, spiritual and exciting. It was all worth it.
The screenshots on the AppStore explaining how Quilt works.
How was your experience breaking into the tech world?
I always joke, I have a hard time turning my phone in the morning, how I ended up being the founder of a tech company — and it’s more technology driven now. Originally, we used technology to support offline. But now we are full tech. I had a previous co founder and she was the same as me. It’s definitely been a bumpy road of a lot of mistakes and learning on what to do, how to do it, not hide away from what I don't know. Just making sure that I fully lean in, and admit what I don't know, know what I don't know and ask a lot of questions. I’m sitting here now with an amazing supportive team which includes the technical-in house talent that we have, but it has taken me years to get here. And I do wish, if I could go back a few years ago, I think I would benefit better from admitting what I don’t know, and not being avoidant to it. Just putting it out there and asking for help sooner. Because I think I was a little ashamed of it earlier in my career. Now I’m super excited and curious to learn about it, and I think that it’s really important right now that founders of technology companies look like me and have my background, because we can take human experiences and translate them into technology and not the other way around... And that’s going to help the level of crisis that we are in. Also for women, every feature we are using, whether we are in social media, ordering on Postmates, on a dating app, every single feature has been created by a man and then replicated by a woman. So we are also really trying to throw that out the window and we are really trying to reimagine that experience for ourselves as well.
PS- Hope to catch you on Quilt! Click here to download Quilt.