From Coding in a Van to Powering $1 Million in Wishlists: How This Founder Escaped Her Comfort Zone

We all know that famous saying: Stick with what you know. Whether you’re looking for a new job, writing your first novel, or brainstorming new business ideas, this is the advice most people give. And while it’s sound advice, it shouldn’t be the rule. Sometimes, the projects that incite passion and present a good opportunity lie outside of your comfort zone. 

Dashiell Bark-Huss, now the founder and CEO of WishTender, is a prime example of that. She decided to leave fashion design for technology by teaching herself how to code. In under a year, Dashiell built a wishlist and gift registry platform for influencers and public personalities. With 3,000 customers, WishTender is now on track to facilitate more than $1 million in gifted funds. 

Finding the Right Project to Practice New Skills

Dashiell has always been an entrepreneur in one way or another. “I feel more connected with the term maker because I have always been into creating things. I enjoy making something that people can use in their daily life. When I was little, I would make jewelry or potions to sell in the neighborhood and put on plays that I charged tickets for. During high school, I was a film director. And out of college, I started a fitness business,” she says.

Dashiell studied fashion design but decided not to continue pursuing it as a career because it was labor-intensive and hard on her body. Along the way, she also developed new interests, two of them being coding and lucid dreaming. Her long-term goal was to be a tech entrepreneur and learning to code was her first step in that direction.

Dashiell and her spouse had lived in a van for a couple of years when suddenly it broke down. “There was a Barnes and Noble nearby and that’s where I got my first coding book. At that moment, I decided to commit to learning it. While continuing our van life, I started with a 100-day coding project which turned into 365 days of code. After that, I just kept going, coding almost every day,” she says. 

Six months later, one of Dashiell’s friends came to her with an idea. Her friend was an online personality who often received gifts from her fans. However, there wasn’t a safe way to send and receive gifts, without giving out her address to strangers. 

Dashiell says, “She asked me if I could create a wishlist tool that would allow her to safely and anonymously receive money for gifts. In return, she would split the money that she received with me. I’d been looking for a project for a little while, something lucrative that would be good for a beginner. I still didn’t know how to create a software application at the time, so I was looking for a learning experience with potential.”

Dashiell also figured that if her friend was having this issue, a lot more people out there might be experiencing the same. She conducted market research, including surveys and phone interviews with influencers and public personalities, and concluded that there was a gap in the market. 

“I worked very slowly on the platform. Because I only had a year and a half of coding experience, I had to learn as I was doing it. In the startup world, they advise entrepreneurs to get an MVP out right away, but that wasn’t possible for me unless I outsourced the work. However, the whole point was to gain the experience, so I took my time,” Dashiell says. After a year of coding the platform, she launched WishTender in July of 2021. 

The founder’s wishlist on WishTender

Market Research Doesn’t Always Reflect Reality 

During its market research stage, WishTender had built up a small base of potential customers. Most of them were interested in using a platform to receive gift funds. So, once WishTender launched, Dashiell reached out to those people, counting on these first customers. 

She says, “I thought that I would be able to get all those people I had interviewed to join right off the bat, but some of them had stopped doing content creation. Some did sign up to the platform, but they didn’t get gifts as often as they had said. I learned an important lesson about data collection: People often exaggerate because it sounds better – it’s just human nature. So they weren’t our ideal customer as they didn’t have many transactions come through.” 

That posed a serious challenge for WishTender in the beginning. Dashiell needed to find customers who received gifts often enough to justify an official wishlist. One of the audiences that fit those requirements was adult content creators, as they receive gifts from fans regularly.

WishTender didn’t have a marketing budget, so it had to stick with social media as a free channel. Dashiell started to reach out to potential customers on Twitter, but few would sign up without any social proof. They ignored her messages because many thought it was a scam. 

While she continued to work on the tool, Dashiell also reached out to potential customers. She personalized each message so could only send about 20 messages a day. But that wasn’t the right strategy. It took up too much time and effort without yielding results.

Soon Dashiell’s spouse, Sam, started helping her reach more users. Neither had much experience in marketing, but they figured it out together. She says, “We went for volume at that point and stopped personalizing each message. We created a boilerplate message where we only needed to change the recipient’s name. Suddenly we could send 60 to 200 messages every day.”     

That’s when people finally started to join the WishTender platform in bigger numbers. Dashiell made sure to give those first customers a lot of one-on-one attention, answering all their questions and concerns to build trust. “Especially in the world of adult content creation, there’s a lot of anonymity and scamming. It’s hard to get people to trust you,” she says.

“So, they liked the fact that they had found a company with a face with someone who cared and gave them personal support. This also propelled them to share it with their community on social media. We also put share buttons all over the platform, so that customers could easily share it with their followers when they received gifts.”

Sam is now the Community Manager for WishTender, in charge of all social media outreach. Twitter became, and still is, key in building brand awareness and acquiring new customers. Dashiell says, “We post a lot of tweets from the point of view of our customers so that it gives them content to retweet. GymShark does something similar and it’s extremely effective to build engagement.” 

Feeling Hopeless as an Entrepreneur? You’re Not Alone

The first couple of months were difficult for Dashiell. She says, “I started doubting whether anyone needed WishTender. We processed less than $200 in gifts during that time. Our profit was $7, or minus $50 if you count my Adobe subscription. I was staring at my screen waiting for one gift to come in,” she says. 

“It felt hopeless and I wondered if it was ever going to go anywhere. I reached out to other founders in my position (in pre-launch or launching their startup), and the advice I got was misleading in my opinion. A lot of the answers were about the fact that I hadn’t found the right target market, that I needed to redesign my website, or that I hadn’t validated the platform. Those things weren’t the problem though. 

“Looking back, the real advice I needed was to keep doing what you’re doing. The platform needed time to grow. And since I didn’t have the funding to put into marketing, I had to let things play out and be patient on a bootstrapped budget,” Dashiell says.

Dashiell gave herself six months to see it through. If after half a year, she still wasn’t anywhere with WishTender, she was going to stop. Within a couple of months of that ultimatum, the business had grown more than she ever thought it would. 

It was a slow process, but in November, revenue jumped to $3,000. Then in December, WishTender’s transactions quadrupled to $12,000. During the holidays, people wanted to build their wishlists, and fans wanted to send more money. 

Dashiell says, “I was so happy! However, I did think it was just because of the holidays and that our numbers would go back down in January.” But they didn’t. The next month, WishTender transactions doubled again. From there, the platform grew every month. In April of this year, WishTender powered more than $90,000 in gift funds. 

WishTender is now on track to power more than $1 million in gift funds – and it’s only been in business for ten months. However, Dashiell shares that she’s yet to make a serious profit. She says, “WishTender operates with a marketplace business model, so we take a percentage of every transaction. Even though we’re growing every month, I still ask myself the important questions: Can this business be sustainable in the long run? Will another company put us out of business?” 

Alongside all her efforts with WishTender, Dashiell is also working on lucid dreaming technology. Part of learning how to code was so that she could embark on her passion project in the future. She says, “I want to combine tech, entrepreneurship, and lucid dreaming. I have this ongoing side project that I’m working on: communicating from lucid dreams with biosensors.” 

Dashiell plans to refocus on her lucid dreaming tech once WishTender is more established. She’s currently building a dream lab that will induce lucid dreams and enable a user to communicate from a lucid dream to the outside world.

I hope I’ll get to interview Dashiell again when her lucid dreaming business takes off. That said, this interview may or may not have been conducted from one of her lucid dreams… Who knows? One thing is clear: Sometimes not sticking with what you know is the path to success.

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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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