The Surprising Way Church Members Caught the Attention of the Creator of the Popular Marco Polo App


It’s 7 a.m. I grab my phone and head downstairs for a bowl of shredded Mini-Wheats. As I pour the milk, my phone lights up. I have just received a video message from my mom. Without worrying about my bedhead and puffy eyes, I tap on the screen and see my mom’s smiling face from two states away, wishing me good morning. The message is not long, maybe a minute or two. But I feel connected, and it makes me smile.

This is the power of video messaging apps such as Marco Polo, which allow anyone to record and send video messages to users around the world. The realness and richness of a video interface allows people to feel connected in ways texting, phone calls, and messaging simply can’t. Couple this with the ease of use and the ability to respond to a video message at your convenience, it’s no wonder Marco Polo is the fourth most popular social media app, with over two million downloads and growing every day.

A Mysterious Connection

Marco Polo has caught the eye of the people, but even more so, users have caught the eye of Marco Polo executives. Specifically, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah have caught the attention of Vlada Bortnik, the Ukrainian immigrant and creator of the Marco Polo app who now lives in San Francisco.

Recently I had the opportunity to use Marco Polo to visit with Bortnik about the app, its inception, and what brought her to visit Utah for multiple visits. 

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A Family Beginning

With a wide, unassuming smile, deep eyes, and a youthful face framed by dark, curly hair, Bortnik may not look like a woman who’s changing the world. But she is. One video message at a time.

“It all started with our kids,” she says. “My husband and I had our first daughter, and it really changed for us how we view the world. We really just wanted her to be happy, like most parents. And we thought our best chance to do that for her was to model what makes us happy.”

For Bortnik and her husband, that meant finding—or creating—work that was not only meaningful to them personally but would make a positive difference in the world. “We wanted to work joyfully. There’s not really a way for us to predict what the outcome is, but we could set things up so that every day feels really joyful to us.”

For the Bortniks, that meant that after working 15 years in the professional community as product manager, designer, and entrepreneur, Vlada left and teamed up with her husband to found Joya Communications, a company dedicated to helping people “feel close no matter the distance, enabling people to connect in meaningful ways.”

Soon pregnant with her second child, Bortnik was busy with her family and her new company. She was also busy trying to stay in touch with her extended family miles away. But she realized that text messages and sending pictures lacked the type of connection Valda wanted for her daughter. “We wanted [the communication] to be meaningful and feel like she really is a part of their life and they’re a part of hers.” They turned to video calls, but due to the size of their extended family, they quickly found that the time-consuming and constraining nature of live video calls were more of a burden on their schedule than a joyful addition.

Research and data are important to Bortnik, and at this same time that Vlada’s family was searching for a way to stay in touch with family, Joya Communications was researching the importance happiness plays in the world and how connection plays a vital role in happiness. The Bortnik’s personal struggle to connect with family, coupled with the realization of how important connection is to happiness, led Bortnik and her husband to create Marco Polo. It combined the best of the happiness and personal connection that came from video chats with the convenience that came with text messaging, and now they, and millions of others, are able to stay connected and be a part of their family members’ lives in a convenient and very real way.

A Utah Phenomenon

As the app grew, the data from downloads and uses began to tell its own story. People loved connection. “We started noticing that Utah [was] looking very special,” Bortnik recalls. What she found was that Utah had more people than any other state per capita using Marco Polo. And the number of people using the app continued to grow quickly, tripling this past year. In fact, as of this writing, about ten percent of the population of Utah are users.

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Bortnik wanted to know why. What was so different about Utah? So she flew to Utah and met with users in both a group and one-on–one settings to get some answers. While it seemed that family and community was important to Utahns in general, she discovered something extra while interviewing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  

When it came to interviewing members of the Church, two words kept popping up: Family and ministering. 

Family was familiar and dear to Bortnik, but ministering was a new concept. She learned in her interviews that many people were choosing Marco Polo as a way to serve those around them. “You can’t always be there for somebody physically, because you have your own stuff,” Bortnik observes. “It’s not that you don’t want to, it’s just [that] life is really busy. Days are jam-packed. School drop offs and lunches and work meetings, whatever it might be. And so having a face-to-face connection, people have noticed it really makes a difference. Especially when you can do it on your own schedule.”

Some introverted members of the Church Bortnik spoke with said that they love the comfort of the video message connection. It allows them to connect in a meaningful way, even if they aren’t the most outgoing people. Others told her stories of ministering to the sick who can’t leave their homes via Marco Polo when they weren’t able to come for an actual visit. 

Along with seeing to physical visits and meals, ministering sisters and brothers can use video messaging to stay connected and allow those they minister to to feel supported and loved. Bortnik was surprised to discover that the ways members were using the app to minister were numerous, diverse, and personalized.

But, it wasn’t just the way members used her app to minister that struck Bortnik. It was the concept of ministering itself—a program that is unlike any other she’s seen before. “I was really impressed to hear that there is this notion of having a person within a community that you’re in charge of looking after and make sure that they are doing okay,” she says. “I think the part I was struck with is this structure that is put in place so you can really be there for each other.” 

A Lasting Impression 

But Bortnik was impressed with more than just the ministering program of the Church. The members she met with made a lasting impression on her. She left Utah with a firm belief that the phenomenal growth of the app there reflects how people in Utah truly care for and value families, friends, and connections. 

Bortnik’s experience is striking because, as members, there are times our eyes might glaze over when we hear yet another talk or lesson on ministering. Or we might wonder how we can minister, or if it’s even doing any good. 

But the fact is, our efforts, big and small, are impacting the lives of those we minister to. Not only that, but Bortnik’s story tells us that our ministering efforts reach beyond our assigned ministering routes. As we minister to each other, we truly to become a “light of the world. . . that cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).

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Of course, we don’t minister to be seen. We minister to serve and love. But our efforts to minister the way the Lord would have us do shines far beyond the boundaries of our routes or wards. In this case, it reached all the way to the Marco Polo headquarters in San Francisco. In a way, we are letting our “light so shine before men, that they may see [our] good works, and glorify [our] Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Our efforts to minister and care for our family and others—that light that we shine—is bringing people together and making lasting impacts within and without the Church. Ministering in a more holy way is allowing us to break down barriers within ourselves and outside the Church as members and people outside our faith alike see love in action and find common ground. Bortnik is an example of the reach of our influence—your influence.

Family and connection. That’s what ministering is about. 

In a way, ministering and Marco Polo are made from similar cloth: Finding ways to truly care and connect according to family and other people’s individual needs. This brings Bortnik great joy and a sense of connection with members of the Church and appreciation for the shared things we care about. For example, she says, “There are the events like family night to really encourage the family connection. It’s basically a way of helping you carve out time for the things that really matter. I think that is really lovely.”

As Bortnik’s experience shows, we are making an impact on the world one text, one visit, one meal, one video message at a time. That truly is ministering in a more holy—and global—way.

Lead image from Shutterstock.

To learn more about Marco Polo and ministering, check out this video, created and posted by Marco Polo, or download the app here.

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