In this interview, I want to find out how a woman who investors dismissed ended up building a Web site that reaches three million job seekers.
Kathryn Minshew is the founder of The Muse, a global career platform connecting 1 million professionals monthly to job opportunities, expert advice, and a peek behind the scenes into fantastic companies and career paths.
Kathryn Minshew, The Muse
Kathryn Minshew is the founder of The Muse, a global career platform connecting 1 million professionals monthly to job opportunities, expert advice, and a peek behind the scenes into fantastic companies and career paths.
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Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. In this interview, I want to find out how a woman who investors dismissed ended up building a website that reaches three million job seekers. Kathryn Minshew is the founder of The Daily Muse, a content site for people who believe in being passionate at work, and she’s the founder of The Muse, a job site that gives personalized job recommendations and allows applicants to look inside companies that they’re interested in working for. I invited her here to see how she did it. Kathryn, thanks for doing this.
Kathryn: It’s great to be here.
Andrew: When we say three million, what does that exactly represent, views, and people on the mailing list?
Kathryn: Yeah, that’s actually a bit of an old number. We have one million people per month who come to TheMuse.com and either apply for jobs, browse interesting companies, get career advice, discuss with others, etc. So that’s individual, unique people on The Muse in a month.
Andrew: So it’s less than three now?
Kathryn: Well, it wasn’t three in a month. Basically, when we work with companies, we tell them this is how many people are going to engage with your profile over the six months, so that’s pretty old, actually. We’re seeing a million a month now, so it’s quite a bit higher. But even once we passed the million a month, we decided to focus on single month, 30 days, 31 days, how many people are actually engaging with the site, so it’s been crazy. I mean, we’re about a year and a half old, so it’s kind of nuts.
Andrew: Before you did this, you were working at McKinsey [SP], one of the top, most prestigious companies in the country, and you weren’t happy with it. Why not?
Kathryn: I had learned a ton at McKinsey, but it wasn’t a cultural fit for me, and it was pretty hard to admit that to myself at first. I think, for your average person, when you get something that you worked hard for and you’ve wanted, you’re supposed to be grateful for it. That’s a great principle, but I think in career success, at least to a lot of people sticking around at jobs that aren’t ultimately really doing it for them, and one of my closest friends at McKinsey, and now my co-founder and COO, Alex Cavoulacos, [SP] she loved McKinsey. I mean, she literally thought it was like God’s gift to work place. I was getting a lot out of it, but I knew that when my two-year contract was up, I wanted to do something that wasn’t management consulting. We started having a lot of discussions, like how can the same place be so energizing for one person and not really that great of a fit for another. I think, for me, I’ve always believed that I can and should find something I love to do, and when I realized that consulting wasn’t it, it was, all right. I’m going to get what I can out of this, I’m going to work hard, I’m going to learn a lot, but I’m also going to start thinking, as soon as I can, what do I want and what’s next.
Andrew: Were you the kind of person who was just talking about different business ideas with your friends, with potential co-founders, and constantly looking for the right one?
Kathryn: Not exactly. In fact, I didn’t even think of startups as a potential option at first. It really wasn’t until a good friend of mine at McKinsey started a ketchup company, of all things. He has this amazing company called Sir Kensington’s Gourmet Scooping Ketchup. He was giving me ketchup samples, and I remember thinking if Mark can start this ketchup company–I’m literally holding a bottle of his ketchup in my hands–I could do this, too. But I don’t think I’m the type of person who could necessarily say I want to start up any startup, like what’s my idea. It’s very important to me.
I wanted to find the right thing. I wanted to find something that I was passionate about. It’s interesting because I actually worked on a travel idea very similar to what Viable and Side Tour are doing now. But I worked on that in late 2009, early 2010 on my nights and weekends when I was at McKinsey. I loved the idea, I thought it was a great idea, but I realized it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. I don’t know, it’s hard to articulate. I just knew that that wasn’t the company I wanted to devote the next five or ten years of my life to.
I’d always been very personally passionate about figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, helping people figure out what they should be doing. How do you even know? Kids are told that they can be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a fireman. How do you know what you should major in, what you should take for your first job, and what you should take for your fifth job? When I started thinking about some of the ideas that eventually became The Muse it was so clear to me that that’s what I wanted to do. At that point there was almost no question. But it took me a couple of tries to get there.
Andrew: A couple of tries to figure out that one business idea, that one area of life that was going to be your passion. How do you even do that?
Kathryn: It’s a great question. I’m a big believer in giving yourself freedom to experiment but thinking about it in a logical way. For example, I actually didn’t go straight from McKinsey to start-ups. I was also really interested in international development and in fact, I agonized for the last couple months at McKinsey because I was interested in potentially starting something. I was really interested in international development. I didn’t know which way to go. This is a classic thing that lots of people have. But I figured to myself it will be harder and harder to go to someplace like Rwanda for a meaningful amount of time the farther away I get from this moment. So I actually was able to negotiate a six month position with the Clinton Foundation or the Clinton Help Access Initiative. So I went to Kigali, I was working on vaccine reduction. It was a really neat experience. It convinced me that I actually don’t want to do that for the rest of my life. But I think I’m much happier now because I know.
Part of the negotiations were I didn’t really get a lot of payment, salary, or anything like that from it. It was more or less expenses only volunteering. But they did cover what I needed to get covered and I was able to have this great professional experience and do a lot of good work for them. Then I had been saving up money when I worked at McKinsey so that when I did want to go to start-ups I didn’t need to take a paycheck for a year. I mean, it was really scary. It wasn’t an easy year but it was nice to know that I could do it because I had made those decisions over the past two years so that I basically had a cushion.
Andrew: So it sounds like what you did was kind of like what some people do when they go to an ice cream shop. They’re not sure which flavor they want to try, which flavor they want to eat, so they try a bunch of different ones and then they find the one that they’re going to go with.
Kathryn: Absolutely. I think that one of the great things about the way the job market is today is that it allows you to do some experimentation. It’s not easy. You have to make sacrifices to do it. One of the big things that I often recommend to people is for example, if you’re in one career and you’re thinking about making a change see if there’s someone that you can volunteer with or just give a little bit of time to it on your nights, weekends, and lunch hour. Because it can be a great way to get the skills you need but also to understand. A lot of people, I think, are willing to put in the time to make a change. They just aren’t sure what they want to do and I was no different. Having that ability, as you said, to taste, sample. The other thing is talking to people do it now and understanding on a very gritty level what it is they do on a typical day and do they like it and do you think you’d like it.
Andrew: So then you launched something called Pretty Young Professional, is that right?
Kathryn: Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes.
Andrew: Why do you say it that way?
Kathryn: It’s funny. That was company number one. I think a lot of people are somewhat embarrassed of their first efforts. It was interesting. I don’t think I could ever be where I am today without doing PYP which is how I like to refer to it, by the way. But it was definitely a period of some of the most intense failure of my life. I started working on it in September of 2010 as soon as I got back from Rwanda until it basically died a very horrible, sad death on, I guess, in June of 2011. I started The Muse just a couple weeks later with a lot of the same team, with almost entirely the same team. We basically were able to say we’ve been through battle, we’ve got some scars, we’ve learned a lot about what not to do. Let’s start this business and not do all those things. I think it’s one of those reasons we were able to avoid all those early stage mistakes and grow so fast. Yeah, P.Y.P. [SP], that’s like failure central for my life, basically.
Andrew: Why didn’t P.Y.P. work out? What happened there?
Kathryn: I think there are a couple of reasons why we failed to really get it off the ground. A lot of them were lessons that I had to learn the hard way that I now do my best to help other people avoid. At a very basic level, the core thing that was wrong was the team. We had a team that had all come together, not necessarily initially saying, “Let’s be co-founders. Let’s start a business. Let’s structure the world like this,” but rather, “We all passionate about something. So let’s just work on it and worry about the rest of that stuff later.” When it came time to figure out who was in charge, and who made what decisions, and who got what equity, we really struggled with those decisions. It came down to some pretty fundamental differences of opinion around where the business should be heading. I think, naively, we assumed that if we kicked the can down the road on some of those things, we’d be able to sort them out.
We sat down, I think, in February of 2011, to hammer out equity on a piece of paper, but we also didn’t do it with a lawyer, which was a really big mistake. We sat down, the four of us who had founded the company, with two sheets of notebook paper. We literally wrote out, you know, “Kathryn Minshew, like, this much percentage.” When it actually came time to make a decision that the minority holders didn’t like, people went back and said, “Well, that agreement wasn’t signed with a lawyer. Therefore, I don’t want to respect it.” It put us in a situation where it was really hard to make decisions.
The number one advice that I give a lot of people, just as the baseline, is that I literally can’t say enough about how awesome it is, important it is, to invest at least a small amount in getting really solid legal documents. In the case of P.Y.P, I think there also were definitely a number of cases where I ignored red flags about values differences, ethics differences, things like that. Not, “I would have done this in a different way,” but, “there something very fundamental and I’m uncomfortable with here and I’m going to ignore it because we’re working so hard.” You know, you’re so focused on the goal. This was a big, big lesson for me personally and for the business partners I still work with. I think there were probably 11 of us in June of 2011 with P.Y.P., and 9 of us built The Muse together, but we had to lose everything in order to realize some of these core things.
When we started The Muse, some of the big differences, it may be easier to say, “What did we learn from?” When we started The Muse, one thing was, among the founders, there were three of us now, we made very, very explicit who made what decisions, who had what roles, who had what equity. We all signed it and did it with a lawyer. There were no questions about how that was going to go out. We divided and conquered the world really differently.
I think it’s incredible in early stage startups, I mean there’s always so much to do, but it’s very important to make sure that people aren’t duplicating efforts, that you each have the things that you all agree that you’re best at. We did a much better job of that in The Muse than in P.Y.P.
Then there were a lot of smaller things that we didn’t pay enough attention to in my first company. One was design. So we actually had really bad, very ugly, clunky design in version 1.0 of P.Y.P. I remember getting in a disagreement with someone else. They were like, “Well, the meat of the site is really good. So, it doesn’t really matter if the design is good. The idea is so great that people are just going to come.” What we realized was even when people came, they didn’t share it with their friends, because they were embarrassed of how amateurish it looked. So, even if they got to the meat, which a lot of people don’t, because they give you three seconds of a first impression and they’re gone. Even those people that stick around long enough to say, “You’re doing something really incredible here,” they would think twice about sharing us with others.
So the way that P.Y.P spread through social networks was very small. Whereas, The Muse, we’ve reached 20,000 people in the first month, 26,000 the second, 75,000 the third, and a lot of that was word of mouth, social media sharing, people telling other people; I found a site and I want you to find it too. We weren’t able to take advantage of that. I think design was a really big element.
Andrew: I see. I can see the difference. I went back to the Internet Way Back Machine, to look at what the site looked like back then. I don’t think it looked bad, but I can see how people wouldn’t rush to share it versus now. The Daily Muse is a content site that people want to share. Of course, The Muse I can see these big pictures of offices, of companies that I can work for. I can see videos that are shot in a cool way of the people who work and so on. I get the design there. When you have co-founders who are just starting out, isn’t it OK to just say, “Let’s pull out a piece of paper, and we’ll sketch out where we’re going with this thing?” Isn’t that the way a lot entrepreneurs start? They don’t go to lawyers and formalize everything, do they?
Kathryn: It is the way a lot of entrepreneurs start, but I don’t think I realized quite how often that ends up being a problem until it happened to me. In fact, because of what happened to me and how well known it is throughout the New York tech scene, I get referrals almost every week by other people who are in really difficult co-founder situations, and a lot of times it’s those early agreements that come back to haunt them. I want to make a distinction. I think if you’re thinking about starting a company, maybe you and some friends or some colleagues, or people you know are starting to work a little bit on nights and weekends, I’m not saying the very first thing you have to do is to sit down and write that out, but I think it’s important to do it really early.
I absolutely think when people are putting their own money into the company, if they’re leaving their employment to join, I think at that point it’s really tempting fate not to have it. I want to give you, I guess, an example because before my first company had the bad thing happen to it, people would come and tell me, they’re like, “Oh, you better have agreements with your co-founders or bad things could happen.” But it was always these really fuzzy bad things. I didn’t know what was an actual bad thing that might happen. An actual bad thing is that one person can take the website, kick everyone else out of their e-mail accounts, and there’s nothing you can do about it because Go Daddy will only accept a legal agreement of equity, not your signature and their signature on a piece of paper.
So it doesn’t matter if you have a piece of notebook paper that says you represent 65% of the company. If you don’t have a document with a lawyer, your only option is to sue, and as anyone who’s even thought about that in America knows, it’s like a $40,000 thing that you really don’t want to bother with. I’ve talked to so many who have done the little notebook paper agreement, and sometimes it works out. And if you’ve done it and it works out, kudos to you. You’re very lucky, and I’m very happy for you. But I think companies bring out the best and the worst in people because all of a sudden there’s a lot at stake. There’s money at stake. There’s time.
Everyone thinks they’re putting in 110%, and a lot of people think that their 110% is more than someone else’s 110%, and it can be in a place where sometimes people’s less than good behavior comes out. I think it was Jessica Livingston from Y Combinator who said that about 25% of Y Combinator teams per batch lose a founder, and these are teams that are chosen to be some of the best by some of the most brilliant partners in Silicon Valley. So when you think about that number, and then you extrapolate it to all teams, I actually think that founder difficulties are one of the things people don’t talk about enough in the Valley or in New York City, I mean, in the startup scene more broadly. I’ve made it a little bit of a personal mission because there are a lot of things that you’re going to make mistakes on in your startup, but making a mistake about who your user is or how much you should charge or how you target people, they’re all much easier to recover from.
Making a mistake about who you trust and who you give a piece of your company to, I think it can be one of the things that really gets people. Again, I wouldn’t change what happened to me because it lead to me to where I am, and I learned so much from it, but waking up one morning and having to call the people that you’ve recruited and hired and tell them why they’re locked out of the website, that’s a feeling I would never wish on anyone else.
Andrew: Shahab Kaviani, the co-founder of CoFoundersLab, which helps entrepreneurs find each other and start businesses, he did a course with me, and he said one of the first things that he advises entrepreneurs to do is to list out their values. What do they care about? Are they trying to build a lifestyle business, and then their co-founder is trying to build a business with a quick exit, or is it something that they’re both sharing? And I didn’t understand the value of it until you and I had this conversation. The other thing that he said is put a list down of all their responsibilities, and then decide which of you has enough experience or desire to take on those responsibilities, like who’s going to do the design, who’s going to go talk to customers, who’s going to talk to developers, and so on. It sounds like you’re nodding, and you’re agreeing with that, too.
Kathryn: Absolutely. I think those are really great places to start because you don’t want to end up in a situation where one person feels like they’re doing all the shit work, for lack of a better word, because there is a ton of shit work in startups. I think everyone knows that person who thinks that being an entrepreneur is so fun, that they don’t want to do anything that’s not fun. And if you find yourself in the company with that person. Anyway, I think it should be very helpful, in the early days, kind of lay out like exactly what needs to be done, who’s the right person to do it and also for the good stuff.
One of the things that I know comes up a lot for founders is things like press. So, the general rule is, reporters want to write one story. Which means a story can either be one person or it can be one relationship between two people. But it’s very rarely more than that. And so, even though, in an ideal world, all the founders get press, ultimately, there will be one that gets more press than everyone else. And that causes a lot of friction and I’ve seen it in so many startups that I’ve advised.
One of the things that I’m very lucky for in the news was that Alex, Melissa and I sat down very early on. And we talked about what we loved and what we were good at. And both of them said “We think the right person to be doing the press and talking to reporters and just being the natural face is you.” And it’s incredible to have that sort of support. I’m grateful for it every day and I obviously do my best to support them and all sorts of other things. But I’ve seen that cause a lot of resentment, especially when it’s not talked about or when multiple people think that they’re really the best one or the right one to get in front of the reporters and the attention.
I’ve seen that and it is painful to say to someone “No, someone has to work in the company. It should be you. Someone else needs to go on camera and it should be me.” And that feels a little unfair, but it does create a clearer message and it does help reporters out.
Andrew: Yeah. Absolutely.
Kathryn: All right. So now, you left PYP, you started this new company, the Muse and the first thing that you do is put up a splash page.
Kathryn: You’re essentially going to build the same thing, a site for people to help them figure out where their passions are. A splash page, I think it was six weeks?
Andrew: Why start so small?
Kathryn: Well, it’s interesting. So, the concept was actually pretty different in that we had really hit on this idea of losing recruiting and job search in a very different way and wanted to make that a central thrust of the Muse. But, you know, when you’re in a situation where you’ve started to get a little bit of attention, you’ve started to build a community and suddenly, you’re separated from that for whatever reason. We wanted to rebuild and get back out there as soon as possible. And so, we put the splash page up maybe 48 hours after we decided to start over and build a new company from scratch.
And I think for us, we wanted, first of all, to put a stick a ground and say “We’re out there, we’re not going away and we’re going to come back and make something even better.” And it gave us that six weeks was the time in which behind the scenes, we were answering all of the questions around “What is this new company actually going to look like? What we will launch with? What will be planned later on?” What’s the plan, what’s the product, what does it look like? And, to some extent, you said why start so small? I think we wanted, in some ways, from where we were coming from, I felt like we came out with a pretty aggressive first ask.
When I started The Muse, I was basically out of money. I had saved up money from management consulting that I had spent on the whole first company, but I was almost dry. And that was the point at which I thought like, you know, “I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m just going to push forward.” I borrowed money, did whatever we had to do, but wouldn’t have a ton at the time to pay for any sort of expense of marketing or (________) development. None of that. So it was kind of a bare-bones, let’s put something up and plant our flag and then we’re going to grow from there.
Kathryn: Congratulations on the new office. I think you guys are in a bigger office now, right?
Andrew: Say that again?
Kathryn: You guys moved into a bigger office?
Andrew: Yeah, we did.
Kathryn: I’ll let you get set up. We were actually recording this conversation on her computer and my computer. One of them is got to be clear. We’ve had a little bit of trouble here. There we go.
Andrew: We don’t do any editing. We’re not going to do any editing. I need to learn how to kill time here when stuff like this happens. I should say that the only editing we do do is when a connection drops, which has happened a couple of times here. We’ll piece it back together and make it seem as seamless as possible. Of course, anyone who’s watching the video can tell that something’s up, but all it is is us taking these two videos and piecing them together. But we don’t edit for content.
Kathryn: All right. Apologies.
Andrew: No problems. Thanks for plugging in. How are we doing now?
Kathryn: Pretty good.
Andrew: Great. You launched with the WordPress site. Who did the design on that one since the design was so important? . . . Oh, I think we just lost your audio.
Kathryn: Can you hear me now?
Andrew: Yeah. Who did the design for the site?
Kathryn: Yeah, it was a combination. My co-founder, Alex, took the lead. She does a lot of our design now. We were working with a friend of mine, a web developer named Alec Trumble [SP], who’s fantastic, and he had been about to join the team of PYP [SP], and so he came over to help us launch The Muse. Between he and Alex, with some input from, I guess, myself, Melissa, and the rest of the team, we knew what we wanted to communicate. We wanted it to be clean. We wanted it to be relatively minimalistic. We didn’t want it to be too feminine, but we did want it to have a little bit of an edge that would be particularly inviting to women. So we settled on a color palette of kind of blues and greens that we thought really expressed that, and then we looked at probably hundreds of other websites to see who else was doing this.
Andrew: You guys launched an Indiegogo campaign right from the start.
Kathryn: You’re very thorough.
Andrew: Thanks. And you tried to raise $10,000 to build this site, and you told people what you were going to do. You tried to raise $10,000, raised $2,700. How did that feel to come up so short?
Kathryn: So it was actually a conscious decision about eight days into the campaign. We realized you can pretty much only ask people for one thing, right, because people want to help, and most people, I think by nature, want to support new things, and they want to help you, especially if they like you, but you can’t ask for too much. So when we launched, we at first went out there with the biggest launch. The biggest request was we’re new, and no one’s heard about us, so please tell your friends, and people did. I mean, we reached 20,000 people in our first month on zero anything, zero budget, zero PR, just a lot of word of mouth and some good guerilla marketing [??] and with this tiny, tiny, lean team. We had done this Indiegogo campaign, as well, under the kind of [??]
Andrew: Sorry [??] something’s happening with, there. You’d done this Indiegogo thing, you were saying.
Kathryn: Excellent. So you asked about Indiegogo. Yeah, I think we essentially learned that you can only ask for so many things, and you have to ask for what’s most important to you. So when we launched The Muse, the number one thing that we needed was people to share it with their friends so that we’d have users [sounds like] on the site because I knew that $10,000 from Indiegogo, it would be great. It wasn’t going to make a huge difference. What we needed is investors, and we needed backers, and most investors intuitively didn’t get our first concept.
So we needed to show traction, and I sat down with Alex and Melissa on day four or five of the Indiegogo campaign, and I was like, “Look, I can ask my network to blow this up, and I can get people to share and to focus on Indiegogo, but ultimately the best outcome there, maybe we exceed our goal, and we get $15,000 on Indiegogo, or we can focus all of that goodwill and that attention and [??] on the site and the product, giving us feedback and sharing it.” We realized that’s what we wanted to do.
I mean, the Indiegogo campaign was a mistake to launch, but, again, I think anything you learn that much from is not necessarily a mistake. We pretty much stopped paying attention to it after day seven or eight. We sent out another e-mail to a couple of close friends or supporters, but I didn’t even ask most people who weren’t a certain level of friends and connected to me to contribute to it because if I was going to ask them for something, there was something else that I wanted to ask them for that was more important.
Andrew: I want to get to what you did ask them for because it did have a big impact. But let me stick with what I saw on Indiegogo and also on the tech launch article that was written about you when you launched. It was, “We’re going to do content? We’re going to do courses and we’re going to do jobs.” Were you going to do all three?
Kathryn: I think so, yeah. I mean, it’ll be interesting. That’s still the long-term road map, although we’ve obviously changed a lot. But ultimately, I think most people are completely lost professionally. Especially when you look at not only millennials, but people who’ve been coming to the muse. It’s almost anybody in their twenties. But also, vets returning to civilian life. Mothers and fathers who have taken time off, who are reintegrating into the workforce. People who have hit a wall, and they want inspiration. And I think that inspiration comes in a few different forms. But that doesn’t change the fact that the problem is very, very core, and it’s a single problem. It’s how do you make the right decision for the next step in your career and the step after that and the step after. How do you know what you want to do with your life, how do you get there. And so, ultimately…
Kathryn: …we wanted to address that problem with three different things. We wanted to give people great content, partially because it’s something we do really well, partially because it was easy for us to do free, it establishes trust with users, it’s a great user-acquisition tool, content marketing we’ll probably talk more about in a bit. We wanted to provide advice and content for free. We also wanted to provide jobs, because that’s a really great business model. It’s something that these people are actively looking for, what is my next job…
Andrew: Did you ever do the courses, or did you just stick with content, and then that led to jobs, and you’re still working on that piece? That’s where you ended up?
Kathryn: Exactly. We’re still working on that.
Kathryn: We actually, we’ve been doing a few webinars for free, kind of testing the waters. There’s a lot of appetite among our users. One of the things that since day one, people have been asking me is, they say, “I love this article, where can I learn more?” Or, “I really want to apply for this job. I think it’s my dream job, but I need to get better at Excel, or iOS, or whatever it is to get there. Do you have a course for that? How do I do that?” Not to mention, just a lot of the business basics. How do you present yourself as a leader, and go into a room and speak with credibility, that I think some people very much hunger for. So courses is still something we think a lot about. But we haven’t gotten there yet.
Andrew: All right. You got a lot of traffic quickly. We talked about how you went to your friends, and you asked them to check out the sight, and you asked them to share. You also mentioned something that I kind of caught a piece of. You said something like a PR hack, or a traffic hack. What did you do?
Kathryn: Yeah. We did a ton of things in that first month. I look back and wonder at how we had almost limitless energy. But we were kind of hellbent on trying everything we could think of. And not weeding around for one silver bullet, but assuming we were going to have, instead of death by a thousand cuts, success by a thousand cuts. So there were a few big things that kind of tipped the needle for us, especially for that first twenty thousand that we got in September 2011. One, as I said, was social sharing.
I put together an email that was very simple. It said, “Friends, lovers, and fighters, I wanted to announce that I’ve launched this website. Here’s two lines on what it does, I’d love your support. A tweet or a Facebook post would mean so much. Here are three examples, background below, thank you. Love, Kathryn.” And then below that, I put like three paragraphs about what we were doing, with any of the nitty gritty anyone could want. But not everybody wants to read that. I actually sent that email to every single person I ever corresponded with via Gmail, minus Craigslist, and other obvious…
Kathryn: …commercial and spam things. I only did that once, I’ve never done that again. But, and actually, Gmail temporarily shut down my account on suspicion of spam, but it was one email to everyone. And it was a very clear ask, it was relatively short, and a surprising number of people did that. And we literally included tweets in there, like here are three examples of things you can tweet. A lot of people just copied one, stuck it in a tweet or stuck it on Facebook, and shared it. I sent this email to a lot of other people on the team, and they would send variations. And I also tailored it to different groups to some extent, based on who the audience was.
Again, I think a lot of people genuinely do want to help, but they want to help in a way that doesn’t ask a lot of them. And they want to understand why they’re doing it. So we made it very clear, then ask, and why it was that this mattered. And again, I think that because the design was nice, and because we had gotten some of the elements of presentation right, people did feel more comfortable sharing. So that was one big thing. Another was that we were able to very successfully leverage larger networks. So, at View IP, I had noticed that Forbes.com takes outside contributors. So, they allow other writers and other sites to contribute content that’s on-brand for Forbes and they’ll credit that person.
So, I emailed Forbes, one of the editors there. I said, “I’ve got this great content. Here’s an example. I would love to get it on Forbes. Let me know if you’re interested.” They didn’t write back. So, I emailed again, maybe six weeks later, with a different person, a different email, a different example. I think we had gotten a little bit of maybe some [??] must have talked about us, something to that, anything to do, you know, social proof. Maybe four emails and a couple months later, they finally said, “Oh, this is really good content. I’d love to have you on Forbes.”
So, I spoke to the same contact when we were launching The Muse. I said, “I’m working on a new startup. We’d love to do the same thing.” From day one, that we were launching The Muse, we had some of our best job search and career content published on Forbes,com. At the bottom of that article on Forbes, it said, “For more from The Muse, check out link, link, link.”
In our first month, 4,000-5,000 people on Forbes clicked that link, and came, and discovered us. Some of our most passionate users found us that way, because there was a lot of synergy, between why someone would go to Forbes and why they would come to us. That was a big way that we found early users.
Another hack was that, because The Muse has always relied on expert volunteer contributors, who have deep expertise in some area of job search or career, these people, when they write for us, they’re excited. We edit the piece to make sure that they’re really high quality. We give them a bio, and a photo, and really celebrate them as experts. In return, they’re often excited to share the piece with their network, and to say proudly, “Look at this article that I wrote that was published on The Muse or The Daily Muse.” That’s been a big source for us as well.
Andrew: How many contributing writers do you have?
Kathryn: At this point, we have around 400. Although, we only publish five articles a day. It’s quite explicitly capped, because one of the things that I hate as a consumer of content is link bait. It’s when you click on a headline and you’re just disappointed by the article underneath. There are sites that have built very successful businesses doing so. For our business and for the trust relationship we have with our users, it was not the right strategy. So, we decided we will have a limited number of pieces of content, but every single piece will deliver on the promise it makes and be high quality.
We think the same thing about company profiles. When we are as large as Monster.com, if people want to have DIY profiles, they can be very preppy, that’s completely fine with me. It’s when someone goes on a site like Pinterest and sees an ugly pin board, they don’t think Pinterest is a bad site, they think this person doesn’t know how to use Pinterest. When you’re a startup, you have to guard your brand, because if someone comes and sees a poorly written piece of content or a poorly done company profile, they’re not going to know this company or this author doesn’t know how to do this. They’re going to think, “This site is no good.”
I think one of the reasons that we’ve also grown so fast, is we have, and that really comes from Melissa, one of my co-founders, this incredible commitment to quality and to respecting the fact that people are investing time with us. We’re giving them something back in return.
Andrew: Because content marketing is one of the reasons why you get so much traffic, I did a search to see what sub-domains you guys were using, and I saw, first of all, staging.thedailymuse.com, which didn’t reveal anything about what was upcoming, but I was able to assess it. I saw payments.thedailymuse.com and contributors.thedailymuse.com. Contributors got a lot of traffic. So, I guess what you’re doing is, you’re sending contributing writers to that site. Are you giving them the story ideas, and telling them what you think will do well with your audience, and then they contribute, and you decide which of those articles you publish? You publish them and then you get traffic, is that the way it works?
Kathryn: Not quite. We essentially have both a push and a pull model. Contributors are… essentially people apply to contribute. Then we recently took the link off the site, but we were at some point getting, I don’t even know, 50 or 100 people a week writing in and saying, “This is who I am. This is what I’d like to contribute.” Then our editorial team picks the people who have the expertise and the voice to really be part of the community. They’re then put on a Google group that manages all of our contributors.
It goes both ways. Any can come up with an idea at any time, and pitch it to the editorial team, and say, “You know, I had to deal with a really under-performing employee, and I’d like to write a piece on how to deal with under-performing employees xyz.” Or, someone could say, “Football, the Super Bowl is coming up. I want to write about what the Super Bowl can teach you about your career.” if it’s on topic, they usually will do a little outline. Adrianne [SP] will say, “Absolutely,” and that piece will be in the works.
On the flip side, the editorial team meets every week and comes up with topics that are either requested by users of The Muse that are relevant or seasonal, but come from their brains. Every once in a while we’ll get a copy of Cosmo magazine, and every time it says, “Ten things you think your man wants, but he doesn’t,” or replace, “your man, with boss, and see if it’s a catchy line. Sometimes, we’ll actually come up with some really great article ideas that way. Probably shouldn’t admit that, but I think it’s hilarious.
Andrew: Here’s one thing that I noticed. I was looking to see what key phrases send you guys the most traffic. One of them is, “Hair styles for short hair.” I clicked over and I saw a pretty well done article about how to wear your hair for work. That kind of comes from watching what people are… from seeing what phrases are popular in search engines, right?
Kathryn: Well, it actually, for us, came the opposite way. We’re now smarter about that. In early days, again, we would do a lot of experimenting. Not with… I would say at any given time, probably two- thirds of our content is very core career and job search. Actually, the users, frequent visitors to the site will see that that’s going to become even more prevalent over the next month. But, we’ve always done a lot of experimenting. We did a wedding week, which was a disaster, but some of our writers wanted to write about planning a wedding at work. Anyway, it was a bad idea, but we learned a lot from it.
We had, I don’t remember exactly how the hair piece came about, I think somebody wanted to write about hairstyles for a bad day at work, or hair at work, something like that. So, it ended up happening and that piece went crazy viral. It’s fascinating to me, because when we do user surveys, and we break down the metrics on the site, our bread and butter, the reason people come is overwhelmingly career, job search. Part of our value proposition to companies is, you’re getting these really smart people who are reading about how to be a better manager. Then you can slyly advertise your company culture to them as well. You can get them interested. But, we every once in the while find the most random articles, in fact the hairstyle piece, it’s two pieces on hair. I think we’ve literally only done those two, maybe a third, but for some reason I guess no one else is writing about hair and work.
Then, of course, once we were just baffled by the traffic. Then we dug into it, it turns out hair is the most searched for topic on Google or something.
Andrew: So, how do you, if you’re going to experiment like this… Let me put it this way. I’m picturing myself and someone in the audience saying, “Boy, that really works for Kathryn. She just tries things and she doesn’t have to be so uptight about whether it fits perfectly well, or whether or not she knows exactly if people are going to like it or not.” So, we think, “We should try something a little bit out there.” Then we realize, if we it up there on our site and it doesn’t work, it takes away from the message of the site. Like, if I did top 10 hairstyles for entrepreneurs as an experiment and you come to my site to look if you want to do business with me, and you see that, and it doesn’t work, it changes the way that you think about me. Do you have a way to experiment, without having it take over your site and your message?
Kathryn: Yeah. We do a couple different things. Now, one of the things we’ll do is publish something on the site, but not put it on the front page. We’ve done this actually with a few translations of articles into other languages. We’ve done it with a few different things. We will essentially publish it, make it SEO-able, you can link to it, Tweet to it, whatever, but it doesn’t show up on the front page. It’s not the first thing that someone sees.
We also think really carefully about the balance. For example, we usually have five main things on the front page of The Daily Muse at any given time, which is really where people come for the content and the discussion side of things. If the first one is, “How to explain a long absence from the workforce in an interview,” and the second one is, “Your path to the C suite, [??] xyz management,” the third one is, “Hair,” and the fourth and fifth ones also seem pretty legit., people will certainly raise their eyebrows, but I don’t think there’s going to be fundamental damage to the brand.
Andrew: I see.
Kathryn: There’s a reason also that we don’t do too much stuff like that anymore. As we are bigger, as we are more well known, we have more of a responsibility to keep upholding. I think one of the nice things about being small is, when we were getting started, let’s say 3,000 people came to the site on a given day, so maybe 3,000 people get kind of a weird idea about your brand, and it’s not good, I don’t want that, but sometimes that’s a worthwhile price to pay. The downside is, I remember once I was meeting with an investor that I really wanted, and I hadn’t checked the site that day, and he pulled it up in the meeting. The second article, it’s like, I don’t even know, it’s like four cute work totes for fall or something, and I’m like, “‘Oh, my goodness. ” But, you know what, you live, and ultimately, while I would like to put my absolute best foot forward, if some investor looks at that and thinks I’m not going to invest in this site, all right, more power to you. Yeah.
Andrew: All right. We talked about the content site. We started talking about the job site. How long after you launched The Daily Muse did you create The Muse, which is this job site that has really beautiful profile photos of all the companies and videos that we were talking about and also some matching [sounds like]. How long afterwards did you launch that?
Kathryn: So it went live probably five months after we launched the first version of the site in February of 2012, but we had been experimenting with it since before we even launched the site. We knew from day one that we wanted to have jobs and courses in this career community, but it was obviously a big question of how you actually execute that. So when we were first getting started, we actually sent jobs out via e-mail. Even from early, early users of The Muse, we did Uber as our first client, like a general manager, community manager position, but people would have gotten job listings. They were different from other listings in that they were really written by the CEO or another senior exec in the [??] of that company, but there were no pictures. It was a very rudimentary version 1.0, and when we got into [??], it was also kind of our first funding.
So we’d been so broke for so long that investing in development, it wasn’t really feasible, and we could barely pay the rent. So we did the things we could do for free, but we didn’t build the job site. So we get into Y Combinator. We thought, all right, this is it, and it’s interesting, the very first version, which actually have Wireframes 4 [SP], was so complicated. We brought it to Paul Graham, and it did like 12 different things, and we said, “OK, P.G., this is it. It’s amazing, and what do you think?”
He looked at it, and he was like, “You’ll never get this out the door. This is terrible. Just fucking launch already. Get something and get it out there.” And he said, “I want you go come back to me in ten days ready to launch.” And 13 days after that conversation, we launched the first version of The Muse company profiles on Techwrench [SP]. We pulled an all-nighter to figure out what was the most essential, and we realized that the profiles were kind of the core, like the heart and soul of what we wanted to do.
The first version didn’t do anything. We couldn’t even share them via Twitter and Facebook. The landing page looked like crap. The navigation was not very clear. A beautiful design again, but it wasn’t totally functional, but it was version 1.0. Then we did a couple of really clear things. One was we tracked metrics like there was no tomorrow. So we looked at mouse movements. We looked out sources navigation, where people were clicking. We used Mixpanel [SP], Crazy Egg, and really tried to understand how people were using the product so we knew what to focus on.
We also did a lot of feedback soliciting, so we asked users for feedback. We asked companies if they’d want to sign up and pay for the product, and 100 companies signed up in 24 hours, which was a really good sign we were onto something. We looked overall at the way people were spreading it and telling their friends, and we knew that we were onto something, but also that we certainly weren’t there yet.
Andrew: What’s one thing that Paul Graham helped you to eliminate from the site by forcing you to launch within a few days?
Kathryn: Yeah, like 18 things. One was we were going to graph, for every company, where had people worked before joining that company most frequently and where were they most likely to go after. I mean, it’s an interesting feature. We didn’t need it to launch. We were going to do a series of toggles with like “work hard, play hard” and “work life balance,” and let people move a little bar to indicate what was most important to them . . .
Kathryn: . . . and then show them the companies based on these factors. And again, very cool to have. I’d like us to have something like that someday. It wasn’t the right time to build it. We needed to just start with do people actually want a different way to browse jobs, what is the simplest expression of that, and how can we get it out the door quickly.
Andrew: The most important thing for you to launch with, what was that?
Kathryn: So in the case of company profiles, I think it was the ability to investigate a company in a deeper, more authentic way than you can on other existing products.
Andrew: What do you mean practically? What was important for me, as a jobseeker, to see?
Kathryn: It was important for you to understand what it would be like if you actually worked at that company. So, practically speaking, we did that by showing you photos of the office, videos of the employees talking about what a typical day in the life is like, why they like that company, how they found themselves there, and a little bit of text around statistics and traditions, and all of that minutiae that make up the portrait of a company. There’s a few different ways we could have shown that.
I think the most important thing is that was the insight that we honed in on as what would differentiate us and what would allow a jobseeker who lands on the sight, knowing nothing about us or about what we’re trying to do, to say “This is valuable. This is worthwhile.” And I wish there were more of this because we launched with five companies and we got angry people who said “Why are they all tech companies? Why are they all on the west coast? Why are they ‘this’?”
Kathryn: I know. You know, “We’re coming! Hold on!” We still get emails every day from people asking “When are you coming to Austin?”, “When are you coming to Atlanta?”, “When are you coming to Charleston, South Carolina?” or “Omaha, Nebraska?” And I’m like “Good Lord! I’m getting there as fast as I can.”
Andrew: I want to talk a little bit about funding. How did you Y Combinator? They don’t tend to take content sites and, at the time, you were a content-based business. Why do you think they accepted you?
Kathryn: We were definitely a non-traditional Y Combinator accept. But we had something that a lot of companies that get in don’t have, which is a massive, incredibly passionate user base. We walked into Y Combinator and said “This is a really, really early prototype but 75,000 people are going to visit it this month”. And, based on no money and no big shot promoting us, we’ve hit on that nerve. And I think, to some extent, the reason we hit on that nerve is because we’re outsiders in Silicon Valley. We have, by its very definition, built the product that most classic start-up, golden children have never needed. And that’s OK. But the fact that we’re different, I think, is one of our strengths.
It was a really interesting conversation. If we’d gone in there and said, “We’re going to be a giant content site” they wouldn’t have funded us. But that wasn’t what we wanted to do. It wasn’t what they wanted for us. We had a conversation around where LinkedIn was vulnerable and what was missing for jobseekers, particularly for women. Although it’s turned out that that’s not the limit of our audience, it is a big driver. In general, I think it’s a very accepted principle that there are two methods of shopping on line, of e-commerce. Some people know exactly what they want. They would like a black North Face pullover, with these specifications. And what they would like to do is go to a site and find it and purchase it and leave.
And then there are other people who want to discover. They want to browse. And they want an experience that’s going to let them look around and simulate and explore. And you cannot get those people to purchase by having a site that is the online equivalent of hunting something down, clubbing it over the head, and lugging it out of the forest.
No one had ever thought to do that for job search. But I think the idea was very compelling to Y Combinator. I read a lot of Y Combinator applications and, ultimately, the best advice I can give people is that the most successful applications, to me, can be summed up in three words, generally three adjectives. When you finish the application, you think “boom, boom, boom”. This is what’s so great about the company. And for ours those three would have been–well, three phrases, not three words–insanely determined, people love us, and we’re going to build this whether or not you fund us. I basically put that in the application. I tried to do it nicely. I said I would like for you to fund us but, ultimately, you funding us has zero impact on my belief that this is huge and that this is going to happen. And even if no one funds us, we’re going to do it.
Andrew: What about coding? By the way, I think the top phrase that leads people from a search engine to your sight is “work for start-ups even if you can’t code”. And that’s also an issue for getting into [??]. You have a great product, but can you code. Did you guys have a developer on board?
Kathryn: So we didn’t [??]. It’s interesting, actually. Melissa and Alec both code now. When I say that, people often assume, “Oh, yeah, they’re code literate.” No, I mean Melissa regularly builds features and type on [SP] front to back. Alec does a lot of our front end work.
So, I think we’ve done a little bit personally to bust the idea that coding is a magical black box that you either have or you don’t. When we did get started, Melissa and I had both coded at [??] High School. I was a C++ pro. She used to build software for her dad’s consulting clients at $5 an hour rates that we now tease her about getting ripped off. We two had the idea, going into Y.C. and coding was this big barrier.
We didn’t have a developer on the team. We had recruited a large number of people who were volunteering or helping out with the site who weren’t coders. Then Alec had helped us get the first version up and running. There was no one else. It was an obstacle for sure. I would have loved to have had someone. I…
Andrew: So how did Y Combinator get comfortable with you, comfortable in investing in you, and accelerating your growth if you didn’t have a coder?
Kathryn: I think the biggest thing was that we didn’t let not having a coder stop us. I think it was clear to them that we were going to find a coder sooner or later, or become coders ourselves, because of the type of people we are, because of what we had done to date. I also think there are a number of things required to have a successful business. One is that you need to have a coder in great technology. We never intended to outsource it to Bulgaria or something. It was important to us to be in house. We just didn’t have any money or the talent ourselves.
So, we did the best we could. Having coders is really important, but I think it’s also very important to have a product that people love, to be able to get people to know about it, to come to it, and share it; and to have a vision for the future that is fundamentally different from the way that your average people see things, in a way that, ideally, has to bring some sort of insight. I think that we gave it our best go in telling Y Combinator, “Look, we’re not perfect. We don’t have everything, but we have a lot of things that other teams don’t, and the things we don’t have, we are going to fight like hell until we get or figure out.”
It’s interesting, I mean, we finished in the first interview, one of the partners was following us out, and [??], “Oh, I know this amazing engineer, who will love what you guys are doing. I’ll connect you. We’ll talk. I think it will be great to join your team.” It’s nuts, because I thought we would never get into Y.C. I almost didn’t apply, until one of our advisors really pushed us to. When we left the interview, it was really great. The interview ended with P.G. [SP] being like, “You guys are going to eat [??] for lunch.”
Andrew: So, he said that. They’re all excited. They bring you into Y Combinator. This is the place, the prestigious accelerator investor in the valley and you figure, once you get through it, if your team is intact, if you haven’t lost all your co-founders, that you’re going to get funded. So when you walked out, what happened to you when you went to demo day?
Kathryn: Yeah, it was really fascinating, our experience. We felt really good about where we’d been going into demo day. When we demo’d at the end of March 2012, we had 100,000 unique engaged monthly active users. We had signed up 25 companies, paying companies, some incredible companies from Armani Beauty, to Stumble Upon, to Pinterest. To use the hiring platform, we were seeing applications go through, matches were being made. Growth had been incredible. We were in a really big market. Users loved us. What could possibly go wrong?
It was interesting, because we worked a lot on our pitch, and went up and delivered it demo day. I think we did it the night before to Y.C. alumni, people loved it. We did like five deals just from people in the audience coming up and saying, “I [??] my company on this. I love it. This is amazing. I’m going to send my brother, my sister, my friend here.” We did it for the big group of investors and it really fell flat.
I think there were a couple of things. I mean, first of all, it’s a horrifying feeling. You never want to feel like, you know, it’s your Y Combinator demo day. It’s supposed to be the prominent [??] people, you know, had been telling us within the batch, that they thought that we were one of the five strongest teams and it was just really clear that I just didn’t go over with investors.
As a founder you obviously think “What could you have done differently?” I’d love to go back and try to figure out the pitch. But there were a couple things that definitely were interesting pieces of feedback we heard quite a bit.
One was at the time we were charging companies $1,500 per company per month. The biggest thing that investors said was “$1,500 times 1,000 companies? That’s nothing.” Guess what, Career Builder, I think, claims on its website to have 300,000 companies paying us. And, you’ve got examples, is a fascinating company called CCBN sold for hundreds of millions of dollars charging less than that per company, but having a really great market share.
So I think we didn’t necessarily do a great job. Granted this is a 2 1/2 minute pitch. But if communicating the size of the opportunity.
One thing that’s always been a challenge for us is a lot of investors haven’t looked for a job recently. That’s OK, that is expected. But, it does mean that when I go up there and speak to the pain of a job seeker, which really resonates with audiences of Millennials, career changes, et cetera, most investors are not that type of person. A lot of them haven’t looked for a job in 30 years. It’s something that tends to be very, very distant.
So we had to really think, almost entirely about how we could hook in for them. Because I had guys in pitches literally pull up Monster.com while I’m in their office and say “I don’t know. This looks fine to me. What’s wrong?” I almost wanted to stand up and be like “If that’s what you think, that’s OK, I’m not going to waste your time, I don’t want you to waste mine.”
Andrew: What is wrong with Monster.com in your opinion?
Kathryn: I think there’s a lot. Monster.com hasn’t changed substantially since the 90’s and it’s essentially the next step in the migration of classified ads online to the Internet. I’m sorry classified ads going online. When you do a search for Monster there’s a few things that are wrong. One is there’s a search bar and you have to type a job title into that search bar. It’s really hard, as anyone knows, to decipher what job titles mean. But as a job seeker you have to say “This is the title that I am looking for.” That’s one big pain point.
The search itself is correct. I searched last week to make a point for someone, I do this all the time, but it’s like you search for “International Business Strategist” and the second job will be an associate store manager at a 7-11 in Secaucus, New Jersey. The fourth job will be a human resources coordinator for a little league team. The jobs have nothing to do with what you’re searching for.
If you do happen to search for something that’s very buzzy and you do get results that are somewhat relevant you will have a panel call of 4,000 titles, salaries, zip codes, and three paragraphs text that look like a robot just threw it up online.
It is the most antiquated system and I honestly get- Obviously you can tell. I think from a job seeker perspective I have literally not talked to anyone who says “Yes, this is meeting my needs, this is a pleasant experience.” It’s an experience that makes people feel anxious. It’s an experience that…
It’s unfriendly. It’s just- I think there’s a lot that-
Andrew: I can see the passion here, and I can see the opportunity, too. You pitched 150 people. How many of them said “Nah, this doesn’t appeal to me.”
Kathryn: Before Y Combinator we pitched 150 and 148 said no and two said yes. Most of the people who said no were very clear in that. I think one of the advantages, but also disadvantages, a double edge sword, we’ll say of being unique or especially being any sort of minority is that you can get a lot more face to face meetings because people are curious. What is it like? What is this-
Andrew: You mean because you’re a woman they-?
Kathryn: Yes. Like “What does this 25 year old woman with a blog, what is it like?” So people will take meetings with you but it’s often very clear from the first minute in that they’re not interested in investing. Obviously some are and that’s great. Then you have to pitch your heart out.
But, I think we’ve never been as comfortable speaking in the language of investors as some other startups have been. That’s something that I work a lot on. But in the early days it was very, very hard to communicate why we could really accomplish what we were doing. After Y Combinator we had a definite lull. Talk to a number of people, I don’t have the numbers for that offhand but I did have a spreadsheet where I was counting everyone I was pitching.
What was interesting is that we pulled together an oversubscribed round four months after Y Combinator. But, it took a lot of people looking at me in March or April and saying “I don’t get it, I don’t think you can do this.” Then in July when we were three and a half times bigger, we had 350,000 people, tons of more companies, higher up in the- All of a sudden they’re like “Maybe I misjudged you.” Now we’ve got a lot of people on board and obviously once you tip it’s like suddenly everyone wants in – all the people who said no to you a week before.
Fundraising is a funny thing. I think once you get past a certain point, you’ve proven the basics so it ceases to be- It’s just a different game. I think now we talk based on metrics, it’s just a much easier conversation for a business like ours. The early days when you’re pitching the vision, people don’t see the vision. It’s hard to talk them into it and have a personal understanding of the vision.
Andrew: Do metrics still apply, unless I’m wrong, they still apply to the content side, right.
Kathryn: What do you mean?
Andrew: When you say the traffic increased do you mean the traffic to the job site, the job listing portion of the site?
Kathryn: Yeah, to both.
Andrew: Oh, I see. Now you’re able to say “I know you didn’t like this idea before, but 300,000 users can’t be wrong. And if you come back a month later we’re going to be even bigger so we’re closing this round right now.” That’s when they finally listened. They didn’t listen to your idea, they didn’t listen to the vision, they weren’t that interested in the fact that you came out of Y Combinator. But once you showed metrics that’s when the conversation changed and people felt that they were ready to talk to you. And, as you said, once a handful of investors were interested then they all were interested, it seemed like.
Kathryn: Yes, exactly. It’s like, maybe it’s Lemmings or something, but it’s like you have a whole bunch of people just right on the edge and as soon as you start getting one or two over a lot of people will follow. But you have to get those one or two. I know for us our first two investors, I love them, I fell so connected to them because they are the two that bought in based on vision before anyone else did.
Andrew: Who are the two?
Kathryn: Thomas Lehrman New York who founded the Gerson Lehrman Group and Lisa Blau, who’s the founder of Vital Juice. They’re amazing. Honestly really, really amazing people and I’ve hopefully referred some great other entrepreneurs to them. We then got into YC, we had a couple people come on board because of that, which was great. But I think the traction was what reeled them in. And getting to know the team.
I think that it is easy sometimes for people to meet me for the first time and think “She seems too nice to run a company, she smiles a lot, that seems like… I bet she goes home and cries about mean things that people say about her.” Whatever it is that they say, that’s just fine. I don’t know if you’ve seen “Cool Hand Luke,” but there’s a scene that I really like where he’s fighting with a guy who’s much bigger and he just keeps getting punched in the face and he just keeps getting back up and everyone’s like “Don’t get back up.” He does and he ends up winning the respect of everyone left because it’s the prison.
I think we’re probably tougher than a lot of people out there. I think when people get to know us that tends to be a factor that leads them to invest as well.
Andrew: Let me do a quick plug then I want to ask you one final question. For anyone who’s listening the plug is, of course, Mixergy Premium and as a follow up to this interview since many people like that I’m going to talk about the course that I just recently recorded with Shahab Kaviani of CoFoundersLab, I’m looking at my notes here on it. Where he basically broke down the process of finding a cofounder and making sure that cofounder is the right fit.
If you remember parts of the beginning of this interview you’ll appreciate the value of it. Frankly between you and me, Kathryn, and the audience when Shahab talked about some of these things, about how to make sure that you fit I thought, “This is sounding a little too touchy feely, Shahab, are you sure you want to go with this?”
He said, “Yes, you have to understand it’s important to break down the roles, it’s important to break down the vision beforehand so at least you know you’re similar.”
I said, “All right, it’s your course.” I didn’t realize the value of it until we had this conversation right now, Kathryn. So that’s the reason why I bring people like Shahab on who has experience matching cofounders to teach how to find a cofounder and partner up with them.
That’s the whole idea behind Mixergy Premium. We have entrepreneurs, we have experienced members who have credibility on the topic to come and teach it and that topic itself actually came from the audience’s need for people who I was looking through customer service emails for premium members and they kept saying, “I need help finding a co-founder, I need help breaking up with my co-founder, I need help making sure that it’s the right co-founder”. So we found the right person to teach it and to how the cofounderslab.com came on to do it. But if you want to take that course, it’ll be on mixergypremium.com and there’s dozens of other courses that are similarly put together.
If you’re not a member, I urge you to sign up to mixergypremium.com I guarantee you’ll love it. Here’s a final question, Kathryn. You talked about how you were accepted into Y Combinator and you had this vision for what to launch and Paul Graham told you to scale it back and he told you some of the things you needed to cut back and eventually launched within the deadline that he gave you. How did you know that it was the right decision in the end? Looking back is there any metric that shows that this is right?
Kathryn: I don’t think, it’s a really tough thing to know because honestly you can live your life in so many different ways and it’s hard to see down to the end of those paths. I think for us, we had to fight against that very human impulse to make something perfect before you let anyone else see it. Especially for us we were coming off of just about rejection, getting rejected by a ton of investors and we had this opportunity for YC, we didn’t want to blow it and so we started polishing this like, little thing in our corner. Being like, no, no, no it’s not ready it’s going to be perfect.
I think we needed someone to shake us out of that and say … you need to put something out there and start getting data first. There’s no way of knowing for sure at least that I know maybe we could have sat in the corner and built something beautiful and launched it. Wow, it would have blown everyone’s minds!
But more likely than not it would have been good, but it wouldn’t have been quite right and the more invested you are in something the harder it is to accept for users to tell you that it needs to be tweaked, it needs to be changed. My understanding of what people who are not like myself are looking for is very different and some of the things that are most valuable and most that users are most passionate on the site are not the things that we would have thought and so I think that the chances that things wouldn’t have worked out well if we hadn’t stripped down and launched are much higher.
Andrew: Is it fair to also say investors invested and backed you because of your metrics? If you’d spent longer getting this perfect product out you wouldn’t have had enough time to give them the metrics that they needed.
Kathryn: I know, I think that’s exactly true. I think we needed to prove that people wanted what we were building and one of the ways to do that is to get the first version out as soon as possible so they could see that growth curve for themselves. Because I do think that, I think that space is a hard sell sometimes and it’s a shame, everyone says it’s funny don’t get into content, don’t get into music, don’t get into jobs. Everyone thinks their space is the worst.
I’m sure I’m exactly the same, but we really did need to get that traction and I think if we hadn’t gotten out there early and had months and months of data and just tremendous adoption we would have had an even more uphill battle then we did and I think we’re unkillable I don’t think it would have been the death of us but I certainly think it might have been even longer and more stressful and difficult ride. But I think it’s, I tell people any other advantage by the way of getting your product out there is, people ask me all the time how do you keep going and be sure that you’re right when 148 smart investors just told you you’re crazy?
And it’s a very fair question because there’s obviously part of your brain that’s like maybe you’re completely delusional, this is not a good idea at all and they’re all right but when you have a product that’s live and you get e-mails from strangers that tell you every single day, I just want to say that what you built made a huge difference in my life and I’m going to tell you about it I think that’s where you get the confidence. you have to make sure you’re not, again, have a hundred passionate users and then a whole bunch of haters but I think when you are alive you could also use that feedback internally and psychologically to help yourself keep going and help yourself say just because these people are smart and well respected doesn’t mean they are right about my company and my space.
Andrew: Alright, and in this case you got proof that you’re on the right track you see the numbers all the time The site is themuse.com if you’re going to go over to it I suggest you take a look not just at the homepage but click on one of the companies and look at the way that they show their profile and job listings and I think once you do that you’ll get it. I did my best in this interview to explain why but I think that once you see a profile page you’ll really get it. Alright, Kathryn, thanks so much for doing this interview.
Kathryn: Yeah. Thank you. I had a great time.
Andrew: You too. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye guys.
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