Shirley Mao is a co-founder of rvnway, the team behind the viral app BaiRBIE.me
Meet the woman leading the team behind BaiRBIE, the generative AI app that hit over 2.1 million total users in 10 days: Shirley Mao. Mao co-founded rvnway, a design and technology company that partners with leading tech, health tech, and biotech companies on digital innovation, branding, and strategic communications.
As AI continues to set new expectations on innovation across industries, Mao is in a thrilling position: how can her clients, and therefore her team, continue to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to cutting-edge solutions while meeting business goals?
One of her methods is to nurture her team’s sense of curiosity and experimentation through explicit brainstorming sessions. One such experiment resulted in BaiRBIE.me, which reached 1.5 million daily users within 10 days of reach, a growth comparable to ChatGPT’s, with zero dollars spent on paid marketing.
I interviewed Mao to hear her perspectives on what it means to lead a team whose success relies not only on their business savvy and technical skills but creativity, and how to stay ahead of innovation when AI continues to move expectations higher.
Juliette Han: Many leaders say they espouse innovation and creativity, but we seldom find it implemented into the business process. How does rvnway keep up with the pace of innovation, especially in the cutting-edge, tech-forward industry?
Shirley Mao: Our founding team is passionate about applying cutting-edge technology to innovative solutions. Since our creation, we’ve maintained an innovation hub committed to continuously experimenting with applications of the latest tech and AI, particularly at the intersection of design and technology.
It’s part of our culture and daily cadence to brainstorm potential “what if” applications of AI and other cutting-edge technologies as they become available. Like how tech companies have “hackathons,” rvnway’s “fvnway” projects give the team time and space for unstructured creativity, exploration, and ideating.
If we develop an exciting idea, our team usually defines the minimally viable “proof of concept” or “experiment.” Sometimes, as is in the case with BaiRBIE, an experiment may go along with a cultural moment. BaiRBIE was born from challenging the team to develop an algorithm that would be able to create “personalized” Bairbie (or Ken) dolls based on a user’s photo. It started as a fun idea, showing how far curiosity and experimentation can take you!
Han: The market is very crowded for most AI-driven apps and solutions. What do you think it takes to stand out in an ever-evolving landscape?
Mao: My team and I focus on building products and experiences that we would want ourselves. If the market is crowded, we’ll first test the existing solutions. If they don’t provide what we want, we’ll still go for it and build something ourselves. We focus on ensuring that our products are delightful and differentiated from the existing solutions, and we quickly let go of projects that don’t gain traction. Following these principles excites the team to work on new ideas while minimizing risk, even if the market is crowded.
Han: Besides embedding creativity processes and principles, building and maintaining a team with the latest skillsets is a difficult challenge for many corporations—how do you ensure your team’s skills and capabilities continue to evolve?
Mao: Part of what makes technology and AI so exciting and fun is how quickly it changes and improves. It heightens the importance of surrounding yourself with a solid cross-disciplinary team internally. We also actively pursue external collaborations with individuals and organizations who are the foremost innovators in their verticals (e.g., health tech and biotech, big data, food tech, and beyond) to solve challenging problems in new ways.
Working with incredible people who share a common desire to push the boundaries of what’s possible creates an energy where extraordinary things can happen in very short periods.
BaiRBIE.me’s explosive growth within 10 days
Han: What challenges and learnings came from this BaiRBIE’s smashing success?
Mao: BaiRBIE’s viral success is every entrepreneur’s dream and nightmare – how can you scale everything rapidly to meet customer demand without losing momentum? As the app started to take off, we knew we had something in the first few days. Within 24 hours of telling our friends and family, we saw strangers we didn’t know – and a consistently growing stream of them using the site. The site traffic only rose from there, doubling nearly every 12 hours (or faster during some periods!).
It’s potentially less obvious, but I’m super proud of the team for scaling our product’s technical backend to support this volume of users in such a short period. While to a user BaiRBIEs are created easily with the push of a button, generative AI models are usually computationally expensive(both in terms of time and cost) to make. The team initially took a process that could make about ten BaiRBIEs at a time to one that could make tens of thousands. Our key to success was having the right team members with the right background when handling users on an enormous scale. It all goes back to the team.
Han: What is next for your team and BaiRBIE to continue to expand on the success?
Mao: Next, we want to take the technology behind BaiRBIE and explore its different applications. While the AI model is already broadly applicable, we want to invest in it further so it can address additional use cases.
We continuously get stories about how BaiRBIE has helped someone reconnect with their childhood or imagine their lives differently. BaiRBIE has become a community filled with joy and creativity; we want to hold true to that. Moving forward, we’re looking at ways to help people collect, explore, and share the multiverse of who they are.
For rvnway, we’ll continue nurturing partnerships with innovators and industry leaders. BaiRBIE is one example of a clever and well-done marketing campaign that we’ve launched. Still, we should all dream bigger and broader, especially potential innovators looking to break the mold of how technology, science, and design come together.