Julia is a co-founder and managing director at JJ Studio, helping startups of all sizes launch new products and markets, scale their operations, and acquire new users through world-class marketing & sales. JJ Studio provides end-to-end project management and consulting to series A & B startups that are looking to grow their user base, launch new markets/ verticals, or streamline their operations.
Julia fell in love with the world of startups when she founded her first one in high school and scaled it to the 3rd largest coupon site in Germany. Since then, she has been building and scaling new ventures for companies such as Rocket Internet (Head of Marketing at EatFirst, GoReadyMade, Global Savings Group), Uber (launched Uber Eats, Uber Works, Jump Scooters), and many others.
Prior to JJ Studio, Julia led Uber’s expansion into several European markets before becoming the General Manager for Russia for Uber Eats. As the Head of Central Operations and interim Head of Sales at Uber Works, she helped the company grow more than 5x over. Aside from her business prowess, Julia’s story of moving to America from Germany is an inspiration for all.
BRYAN WISH: What’s the One Away moment you want to talk about today?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: It’s hard to tailor it down to just one because my whole career, my whole life is a string of these moments where I took the path less traveled. If I have to think of the one that made one of the biggest changes, it was when I was 15 years old. I had a lot of thoughts of what I would want to do in the future. At some point, around 9 or 10 years old, I wanted to become a clown. For some years, I wanted to become a songwriter. Mostly on the creative side of things.
I knew that my father was doing something with business. I had no idea what it was but I knew you had to wear a suit. For a couple of years, that’s the only thing I knew about that world. When I was 15, I decided to go to the states for the first time. I was living in Germany and had never been to the U.S. before. I barely spoke a few words of broken English. This was just a great opportunity for me to immerse myself in a whole new world. The actual moment was as I was getting on the plane, a friend of mine gave me a parting gift. She gave me the book Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki which really served as an introduction for me into the world of business at this age of 15. I read that book on that flight.
As I stepped off the plane in the U.S., in a small town in Ohio, I realized I was onto something really exciting. Over the next year that I was there, I must have read close to 100 books about business economics and investing. That as my starting point.
BRYAN WISH: It’s amazing how one book can really fuel a series of others. It seems you went down the rabbit hole pretty deep. Why do you think investing, business, and economics, at the age of 15, was so compelling to you? What channeled that interest to see a better future for yourself?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: I’d say entrepreneurship and investing is like a family disease. It’s not my family has big successful firms. It’s really all about the drive to do something. I remember growing up, age 4, 5, 6 and still living in Russia. Some kids would look forward to spend time with their grandma and get spoiled with some good food and just relax. No, she’d pick me up from kindergarten. She’d set up a table for me with a bunch of things that she bought from China. She’d have me sit in front of the kindergarten and sell them or in the middle of winter, stand by the subway and sell some of the hats that she would sow.
Until we sell all of them, we’re not going home. I was highly incentivized to be selling those hats and approaching people on the street. That was some of my earliest exposures to the words of business and selling. My family wasn’t very well off at that point. That all happened just after the fall of the Soviet Union. I was raised by a single mom and my grandmother. Whatever money we’d be making from these little startups, we’d just invest. We bought some land where we then started growing some flowers on and then selling those again. It was part of my upbringing from very early on.
Further on, when I was 7, my mom and I moved to Germany. That even more solidified how important it is to have some financial independence. We were very financially dependent from the German man that she married. That instilled in me another kind of urgency for making sure that I can provide for myself and that I’m never dependent on someone. If I want to be able to leave or something, that I have the opportunity. From there it started and even throughout high school, I had some small but I now understand are entrepreneurial situations.
I’d get free, old magazines from the local kiosk and I cut out elements of whatever the biggest star was at that moment and sell those on the playground to other classmates. That money, I’d then use to go to the cinema. Things that I wasn’t able to do because my stepfather wouldn’t be giving money for such pleasurable activities. Early on, getting the financial independence to do the things that I enjoy doing.
BRYAN WISH: You grew up in an environment that exposed you to entrepreneurship but also part of your DNA too. You’re born with a lot of self-drive to make a better life for yourself. Of course, your personal experience growing up probably influenced that and shaped that. You had that tenacious hunger for more and better. What a great quality to have and to activate at such a young age.
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: I definitely had great role models in terms of strong women in my family. Up until my grandmother’s passing last year, she was still doing her businesses and selling flowers. Even though we’d tell her, “Enjoy retirement. You’re over 80,” she kept going and investing and doing other things. My mom raised my by herself. She did a big sacrifice of going to Germany, marrying someone that she wasn’t even that excited about to make sure that I could get out of the mess of post-USSR/Russia and get a good education.
During the years growing up, I saw her starting one company after the other. She had a travel agency. Then she was doing some real estate stuff. She was getting an IT degree as well. She was always pushing and doing things that are maybe a little more unorthodox but in the realm of investing. That really instilled the same values in me.
BRYAN WISH: Sounds like a lot of sacrifice was made by these strong women in your family who helped pave a better road. You’ve been able to kind of drive your own car since you got to Ohio and picked up that book. Take us back. You got that book. You stepped off the plane and it was extremely informative about investing. You read tons of other books. What happened? What were some of the things that came out of coming to Ohio? What happened next after you started consuming all of this material?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: One of the first things that happened shortly after stepping off that plane is me petitioning my host family, that I was staying with, to sign a waiver so I can open a brokerage account as an underage immigrant. There was a lot of bureaucracy to be able to do so. On top of that petitioning, everyone in my family to give me some money for my 16th birthday. We got together like $600. That was my very first investment in this new brokerage account.
I remember I was supposed to be in Ohio in high school learning English and doing all these things. Instead, I’d sit in the library for quite an intentional amount of the day, unfortunately, missing some classes. I just couldn’t get away from reading. I really got deep into the day trading side of things at that point. A lot of my focus, for a couple of months, was around – my dream was to work on Wallstreet. I was obsessed with a show called Wallstreet Warriors back then in 2007. That was kind of my focus for that point.
When I returned back to Germany after that year to finish my education there, I started being much more open to opportunities. I learned that this is something that, as an entrepreneur, you just need to say yes a lot. After trying and trying more and more things something will stick. I joined a new school when I came back for my last two years of high school. I just noticed that the school didn’t have a lot of student clubs or organizations. Someone in the school would say, “Hey it’d be nice if we had a leader for …” I’d raise my hand and say, “I’ll do it.” “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a student newspaper?” “Sure, I’ll do it.” Investment club. Sure, I’ll do it. Environmental club. Yep, I got it. I kept taking opportunity after opportunity and just did a lot of these more extracurricular activities outside of my education. That led to a lot of other opportunities down the line.
When I turned 17, I first heard about the word startup. I didn’t know what it was. I started researching. Then there wasn’t a whole ton of information especially within Germany. I just tried to find some ways into that world. I did so through social media. I had just started using Facebook which came out a couple years earlier. I got an internship, while in high school, for a startup as a social media coordinator trying to figure out that whole world. That got me really closely integrated into that world. Soon after, while still in high school, I got my first semi-full-time job at a startup. I had to lie on my resume in terms of my age because I was still underage. I got a really exciting job to lead sales for a startup in Munich.
I was able to blow out the sales target above anything they’d seen. That was a very formative experience using a lot of the sales techniques my grandma taught me selling hats by the subway station. I did that for a bit. Both of these startups were in a similar industry around online couponing and saving and what’s today’s Groupon. I saw a lot of inefficiencies in that industry and thought there must be better ways to do it. That led me, just when I turned 18, to register my first company which then became a couponing startup which then grew to the third biggest one in that industry in Germany by age 19.
BRYAN WISH: That’s quite the story. Restless and always finding the next opportunity. Give us a little insight on how to say you were a little bit older?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: Some rules are there to be broken if you have good reasons to do so. On top of starting to run my own startup and doing high school, I also started college that same year and kind of finished my first year of college in the midst of all that. My high school had to be very flexible about me skipping classes half the time. I negotiated with all of my teachers about if I get a certain GPA on this class, if I can not come anymore and I can just take the exam. It’s kind of a question of not just taking rules at face value. If you have a good reason, find your ways around them. Not necessarily lying maybe, but finding ways to bend the rules.
BRYAN WISH: You were looking out for your career and doing what it took to succeed. Was it hard for you to break into the U.S. culture and find your way?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: My whole life has been a little unusual. I don’t have a place I can call home. Already moving from Russia to Germany at age six and then moving also from a small town in Germany to Munich, one of the biggest capitols in the world at age 13. Then the in-between moving around. The moving into a new culture was not something that really scared me off but it was definitely a big difference in mindset. The German educational system is quite different from what I had experienced in the U.S. when I came there.
It was a bit of a shock, to be honest. I never had seen scantron cards where they have multiple choice kind of tests. In Germany, no matter what class you take, you write an essay about it. If it’s a history class, your prompt in an exam will be like, “How does this situation that happened back then relate to today’s politics? Evaluate both sides of this conversation.” That’s kind of the education I was brought with more. In the U.S. it was a little bit more bulimia learning, to be honest. It’s regurgitating what date a certain thing happened.
That was a big contrast to what I’d been used to. I saw that as something that persisted outside of my school environment or by this thirst I have for knowledge and reading two books a week for the year I was there. It wasn’t necessarily something I’d seen on everyone. When I started coming back to the U.S. more and more like going to Stanford, for example, for some classes and then a couple years ago, fully relocated here, part of my mission was to help people access some of the more critical thinking information and just also be an inspiration for people to kind of question things and go the unusual path.
An example from my personal life like when my husband and I went to our honeymoon in Palm Springs, I just wanted to find something fun to do there. Neither of us knew how to drive at that point. We thought, “How about we get a driver?” I found a random person on Craigslist and started riding with them. That person was like, “Just send me your credit card information.” I asked my husband because I didn’t have a U.S. credit card. I’m like, “Hey, honey, can I have your card. Someone on Craigslist wants it.” He gave me this stare of like, “Are you crazy? You don’t do that in this country.” I ended up doing it because I’d done my research about who this person was. It ended up being the most incredible driver, most incredible trip for a couple of days.
Was actually driving us all around the area. He turned out to be the personal driver for Frank Sinatra, for several of the presidents, and so on. This is just one example of where I do something very differently from what the majority of people would do. You’re told to not do certain things. You don’t give people a credit card online. You don’t do this. You don’t do that. We’re all moving in a limited life as a result. Whereas, I always try to push against these kind of norms and do additional steps of research and do some critical thinking to evaluate the pros and cons. That’s something I want to serve as an inspiration. I think it’s a really important skill to have if you want to have a life that’s not just status quo.
BRYAN WISH: You said it wasn’t the change of culture in the U.S. It was just the mindset and how things were done different. You seem you’re prone to adapting quite well in different industries and countries and all the above. It sounds like you went down this professional path; investing, trading, real estate, and doing all these different things. Maybe talk about where you are today a little bit. I know you made some recent, big moves. What led to those moves?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: Those stories I shared about having my own startup and scaling that was about 10 years ago. Over the last 10 years, starting from that experience, I continued scaling a bunch more startups in different industries and from different perspectives and roles. Worked for Uber many years. Launching them internationally. Scaling some of their ventures like Uber Eats where I was the GM in Russia. Launching the Jump scooters throughout the U.S. Running operations for Uber Works. I also worked for Rocket Internet for a couple of years developing some of their ventures throughout the world.
After all of these years of building and launching and scaling, I just realized that the biggest issue that most startups face is around this hypergrowth phase. An investor trusts your vision and gives you a bunch of money and that vision is based on some really crazy goals you set. You needed to impress the investor and now you need to figure out how to get to 10X my order volume to 5X my team to do this, to do that, and within a very short timeframe? A lot of startups fail at this point because of all the issues that can happen.
After leaving Uber about a year ago, I co-founded JJ Studio with another ex-Uber executive. What I’ve been doing for the past year is working with startups in this hypergrowth stage to make sure that they’re set up well and successful when it comes to scaling their operations, scaling the growth channels, scaling the team, helping them look around corners so they don’t have consequences of growing too fast like how to do restructuring and stuff like this later on. We’ve been working with over a dozen of these well known hypergrowth startups to kind of come in, in a way of fractional CMOs and COOs with the team that we’ve built and take on entire departments and get them ready for scale.
BRYAN WISH: On this aggressive path of expansion and being front and center at Uber and doing what you’ve done with JJ Studio, what would you say are the key ingredients for a team at a company to have in place that enables the growth and expansion that investors want to see?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: It’s maybe not the sexiest topic but the one I see happening the most is Org Chart design. During this hypergrowth phase, you don’t know exactly what your company will look like. Maybe you have a vision of what it’s going to be like at maturity, like when you hit those goals that you promised your investors. This in-between, quarter by quarter, your Org Chart is going to look very differently. Your different pivots or changes to a hypothesis that you had about how the sales are going to work out. No, they’re all going to reshift your Org Chart. It’s really important at that moment, when you’re getting ready for hypergrowth, to think out the different scenarios for these in-between Org Charts.
If you don’t do that and you just go from today to three years of what it’s going to look like and just try to back your way into it, that’s when most problems happen. I’ve seen a ton of great companies fail just because of this. They end up having to do really painful restructurings, having to lay people off. They’re typically losing their hardest working workers as a result. They’re eroding a lot of trust. You’re losing a lot of the attention and energy of the founders in that whole process as well. Putting the time upfront and maybe also working with a third party that has seen these scenarios and is able to map those out is one of the key things.
The other one probably has to do with the growth channels. Another mistake is see that companies do is they figure everyone has Facebook Ads. So, that’s probably what we’ve got to do. They just hire an agency and think they’re the experts. “Here’s our budget. Here’s 20% of what you raised. Go run with it.” Each startup, in the different stages is going to have very different reactions of users to channels and messaging. It’s really important to just test a wide range of channels and do it in-house or with a consultant working very close with you for as long as possible before you start giving entire channels off to a third party. What we’ve seen with some of our clients is that channels that you wouldn’t expect like direct mail performing so much better than any Facebook Ads. You just need to have a scalable process of testing and iterating on a dozen or so channels before you solidify your plan to a way where you can scale up with a third party.
BRYAN WISH: The unsexy thing of Org Charts is never fun. A good COO can help with that. But on the marketing and sales side, the experimentation, understanding what’s going to work, what doesn’t, before you dump a ton of money in area. Well said. You got all this experience with expansion. Thanks for sharing some of the things you’ve seen work the best over the years. You got this experience on the expansion side and then you were talking about where that was taking you.
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: For the last 10-15 years, there’s been two separate worlds. One is the startup/entrepreneurship/leading organizations through scaling. On the other hand, my early passion from in the states, from age 15, of opening my first brokerage account, that kept growing as well. I continued to trade. I developed a secure trading strategy over the last few years that has been outperforming a lot of the funds out there and I’ve been teaching it to others as well. Then I started moving into real estate about 10 years ago. I’ve been really active in real estate investing. I just closed yesterday on another property this year.
In the last few years, I started merging these two worlds of startups and investing through going more and more into venture investing. I became a limited partner at a couple of the seed firms that got me more closely tied into that industry. I also joined On Deck Angels, a community of angels that want to grow together and share deal flows, etc. I’ve been doing that for the big chunk of this year. Then just doing a lot of my own checks as an angel. Since I was getting more and more involved in this kind of venture, I just saw that the impact I can have on the startup community and the amount I can give back is scaled so much more versus what I can do as an individual on the other side of things. I decided to do a recent career move into VC.
A few weeks ago, I joined Frontier Ventures, a 10 year old VC firm. I’ve been investing with them, alongside them. We’re just preparing another fundraiser for any funds. It’s been a super interesting experience seeing what this world looks like from the other side of what I’ve been used to over the last 10 years. It’s a really great learning journey.
BRYAN WISH: Congratulations. You’re diversified and also able to make an impact. I want to lean into that a little bit. You talked about having a dent on the community even through the expansion work you were doing. You’re making a dent on different startups through investing and finding different companies and founders to invest into. What have you found to be the most rewarding or fulfilling components of identifying and working with founders to help their dreams come true?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: There’s so many problems still to be addressed in this world. It’s fascinating to see how many different, innovative, and diverse solutions there are to these problems. Being able to support founders with the more diverse and unusual solutions – like I said, I was always the one taking the path less traveled and the more unorthodox approach to do something and still succeeding at it. Having this opportunity now, as an investor to do so, has been really exciting. I definitely think there’s a great edge to diversity when it comes to investing. For example, the first fund that I joined as limited partner is called One Way Ventures. They specifically invest only in founders that are immigrants. They’ve been able to harness the diverse background, the experience of having gone through the immigration journey, and transfer that to amazing returns and successes in the startup world. I think we’re starting to see more and more of this emerging.
BRYAN WISH: Very cool and super aligned to where you came from on a personal level.
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: Exactly. I do think that one of the key things you need to have as a founder is resilience. Having demonstrated that in some way by being an immigrant or by being a minority in some context; all these things show that when things get tough, you don’t just pack up your back and fly back to your home country. It stick it through. That resilience translates most usually to success.
BRYAN WISH: That’s awesome. It’s so much more than the check or the money that these people are able to give. It’s neat to see investors who put the money to things they really believe in and can see the other founders do. I have to imagine it’s a really rewarding experience.
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: I’d say especially how the market is right now with there being a lot of money it interested to invest into ventures. As an investor, not only is it in your best interest but you actually have to be a value-add investor and provide guidance on top of money and connections and other things. That’s definitely something I’ve been looking forward to the most in this switch. I’m not just pushing money from one investor to a company. I’m actually working very closely with all the companies as well as upcoming investments to leverage my knowledge and my experience to help them succeed.
BRYAN WISH: You bring a lot to the table from your own experience. You can look at things from the lens of what you’ve done. With Frontier, what are you most looking forward to as this becomes a primary focus in your life?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: For me, it’s really about an amazing learning experience because there’s more to the VC world than I thought there was. Being more of an outsider, I can see it from a founder’s perspective. It’s a really tough job. It’s really time intensive. There’s a lot of thoughts and research that goes into things. I’m excited to be a part of this learning journey. Hopefully, as I get more ramped up and I’m deciding on my own deals and sourcing my own deals, having this impact that we talked about.
That’s going to be key as well. Besides that, I do foresee my favorite part will be the working with the portfolio companies because that’s something that feels most close to what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years or so. That’s something that’s starting up already now where we’re brainstorming with some of the companies that might be needing to pivot soon. I can be part of these conversations as an external party, in a way, and help them through it. At the same time, keeping our LPs interest in mind.
BRYAN WISH: It’s neat to see your passion. I love how you described it as a learning journey. It’s a really healthy mindset. I think there’s a lot of narratives going on within the venture space of there’s a lot of opportunities and a lot of money in these funds. On the flipside, you hear some of the flags around venture. There’s a lot of opportunity to change the narrative in venture. For you, venture is an industry. What are some of the things you would like to see change from an optics perspective as you enter into this field?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: Within venture, it’s always kind of been the rule that if it comes through a referral from someone you trust, that’s your foot through the door. Unfortunately, what that means is that unless you also are a white man in your 30s who graduated from Stanford the same year as some of these other VCs – it doesn’t include a lot of the top talent in the amazing, inspiring entrepreneurs because they’re outside of the small circles. I think more and more investors are starting to realize that they shouldn’t over index just for, “Oh, it came referred from this other person in my little circle” and should just be a bit more open to speaking to founders that are outside of that, that might be in a different country or just a different background or whatever it might be.
I’m a little bit grateful for the pandemic for forcing the change a little bit. A big practical reason in the past, why the referrals were so important, is that VCs would usually meet up in person. Those meetings would typically go quite long. There’s so many companies you can see in a day. You really only want to stick to the ones that came with a warm referral from someone you trust. Whereas now, more and more angels and VCs that I speak to, they can take more calls. You just do a 20 minute Zoom to get the first introduction. I’ve noticed, even with myself, there were some companies that on paper, I wasn’t as excited about. Some of them were a cold LinkedIn outreach or something but I thought, “What the heck? Twenty minutes of my time. I’ll just jump on the Zoom.” Some of them really blew me away. It’s just really important, over the next couple years, to get away from this narrative that unless it’s in my little circle, it’s not worth the time.
BRYAN WISH: That’s beautiful. It creates more diverse investing opportunities. That’s a great perspective. Just always be open. My mom always told me growing up, “The meetings that you don’t want to take are sometimes the best meetings possible to go to.” I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind when something comes up and I’m like, “Should I do this?” That voice in my head is like, “Yeah, you should do it.” It seems you embrace that. This has been a really fun interview for me and to hear your background, especially as in immigrant coming from Europe to the U.S. The perspective is amazing. I’m so proud of all you’ve been able to accomplish with so much more ahead of you.
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: Thank you so much. It’s been a blast.
BRYAN WISH: Listeners, if you’re interested in getting to know Julia and maybe sending her a deal one day to look at, where’s the best place to find you, Julia?
JULIA LEMBERSKIY: Feel free to connect on LinkedIn. Beyond that, take a look at meetjjstudio.com where you can find more information about us and get in touch with me as well as Janeesa. For Frontier, it’s frontier.ventures. You can either submit a deck through that if you’re looking for fundraising or you can just email me at email@example.com.
BRYAN WISH: Thank you so much, Julia. I really appreciate your time and excited to watch you soar in the future.