Codify Academy, a hybrid front-end bootcamp with locations in New York & San Francisco (and expanding!) recently hosted their first Women in Tech event featuring a panel of impressive female leaders and business owners in New York. The panel was well-attended by women and men hoping to make the transition to startups from non-profits, corporate work, and finance. We learned a ton from this spectacular group of women- from the skills you need to join a startup tomorrow (and how exactly to get them), to the blogs and Twitter accounts you should be following today. Kanwal Jehan, the marketing director for Codify Academy, moderated the panel, and now shares this advice with the Course Report community!
CEO of Startup Institute
About Diane: I’m a serial entrepreneur on my third company. The company that I founded in 2000 was called Communispace, which helped brands listen to and get advice from their consumers by building online communities. About six months ago, I decided it was time for me to do something new, and I’m now CEO of Startup Institute. Some of our fabulous graduates are right up here on the 10th floor of this building. Startup Institute basically helps the 70% of college graduates who are either underemployed or miserable in their jobs get the skills, mindset and network to have the job and the life that they love. I actually live in Boston, but I spend a lot of time here in New York.
My Superpower: I’d like to be able to read people’s minds. I’ve spent thirteen years trying to help big companies read the minds and hearts of their consumers and I think it would be amazing to be able to do that with my very own superpower.
On the skills someone needs to enter the startup space: There’s a great quote that I love from Warren Buffett: “If your IQ is 150, sell 30 points because you only need to be smart enough.” I see that every day. There are some skills that are the ticket to entry. If you want to work in tech, you should understand the language of tech and have some technical skill. “Technical marketing” is so important these days. When I grew up in marketing, I learned the "Four Ps" and I learned branding; that is not marketing in 2015! Marketing is HTML, CSS, Google Analytics, Data Management, SEO, etc. You have to have some level of technical understanding and skill. If you don't have those skills, you can take courses. You don’t have to be an expert, because you’re going to learn a lot on the job.
CEO of In Your Corner
About Bea: I am the founder and CEO of In Your Corner. We are a marketplace for human happiness. We connect clients from all over the world with licensed therapists, life coaches and guided meditation teachers.
My Superpower: My fun fact is that I’m the first black woman from the United States to be accepted into Y Combinator. I’m really happy to speak here tonight because you can’t be what you can’t see. This is really selfish, but if I had a superpower I would like to sleep more. I would love to sleep 10 hours every day.
How I found my first mentor: There are two requirements for being a founder. You have to be shameless and you have to be fearless. I think the idea of ‘having a mentor’ is a lot more formalized than it needs to be. People get the idea that you have this Mr. Miyagi character and he likes you and trusts you. In reality, you’ll get an email and beg your mentor to help you and they calm you down and help you get through it. I made everybody my mentor. You want to make it easy for people to work with you. Don’t say, “Let me pick your brain.” Everybody hates that. Just say something like, “Hey, I’d love to take you to drinks.” My first mentor was Cindy Gallop, who has two startups: If We Ran the World and Make Love Not Porn.
Why I started In Your Corner: I say I’m a two-time entrepreneur: my first one didn’t go great. The reason I started In Your Corner for online therapy is because after my first company failed, I was really depressed. And even though I’m a therapist and all my friends were therapists, I still didn’t want anybody to know. Also, because I’d sunk all of my money, when I went back to my office job, I had to waive my right to health insurance because I couldn’t afford the extra $100 being taken out of my check. I couldn’t get a therapist through my insurance even though I wanted to. I realized that I was an advocate for this space and a practitioner in this space, and it was still so hard for me to deal with all these clunky, frustrating steps. It must be that much harder for the average person. The reason my first company failed was because I didn’t know the market. It was a company for stay-at-home moms. I was 25 and didn’t know anything!
On Shark Tank: I actually got accepted on Shark Tank after casting had closed. The best advice I can give as far as getting into Y-Combinator or getting on TV, anything that seems really hard to do: just make it so they can’t say no. In my application video, we did a whole bunch of silly things: my set was purple, I wore all purple. Just make a really good story, you have to learn how to talk to users and talk to investors- both sides of the market. I got really good at selling myself and selling therapy. I got casted after that, but I will say, it didn’t go great. You can see it online.
Product Manager, Moda Operandi & Founder, TechFestClub
About Mia: I’m a “slasher.” I do one thing “slash” another thing. My day job is a Product Manager for a luxury fashion retailer, Moda Operandi. My other job, which is more of a passion project for me, is that I run TechFestClub, which is a meetup for women in tech. The company I work for is a startup, four years old, and 99% women. Working in a startup founded by women and run by women is really exciting and interesting. And then also, on the side, empowering other women to take that first step into tech or to continue their education in tech and doing it in a manageable way with morning meetups and outreach and community work and things like that is sort of my passion.
My Superpower: My superpower would be a truth serum sort of a thing, so that anyone I’m talking to I could flip a switch in my mind and they would have to tell me the truth about whatever it is that they’re saying, so there’s no nuance and there’s no pretense in the conversation.
How General Assembly bootcamp helped build a new Product team: I did the General Assembly course for product management. I was in a unique situation because I was on a product team, which was a new team to this big company that didn’t understand what product was and didn’t understand it’s function. I actually did the bootcamp with three of our team members and our boss just so that we could adopt a cohesive vocabulary and understanding of what our team was going to be doing and then be ambassadors for our own team outward to the company. Personally, it was really helpful because it gave our team a drum to march to. It gave us a foundational understanding of what we should be doing.
On utilizing a bootcamp's alumni network: I have been hosting all the TechFestClub meetups at General Assembly, and the reason I’ve been able to do that is I have the connections through the General Assembly alumni network. They were very willing to take a chance on anyone who came out of one of their programs. That network that you gain after taking those classes and the people you meet from the class or in the broader network from bootcamps like Codify or Startup Institute. All of that stuff helps you build your network within the community anyway, and so whatever it is that you do next, they’re going to support you in that.
On transitioning to a startup from a large corporation: The biggest thing is understanding the culture and being an easy person to work with. The company’s mission isn’t going to be static. The better you understand the mission of that moment, the better you can adapt and provide your skillset and change the hat you’re wearing in that moment to adapt to your surroundings. Be easy to get along with and not being high maintenance, and bring those skills to the table.
People Ops for yPlan
About Jess: I’m going to steal the term “slasher” from Mia because that’s really fun. I started in the startup space in 2011 with Airbnb; I wanted to travel the world and they were remote and that was awesome. I started there and I met an incredible group of people and it led me into finding my mentor, which is greatly important when you’re in this space; finding a mentor that you can really jive with who’s going to be open and transparent with you. Anyway, I started consulting with a company called StoreFront and helping them with their growth plans in New York City and then YPlan found me. I was the first US employee at YPlan and I took on so many different roles, kind of like a Swiss Army Knife. I was their photo editor, I ran their business operations, I lead their human resources payroll and benefits and now I’m starting my own company. Fun fact, I’m kind of a street gold junkie, I love hunting random finds and flipping those on Craigslist.
My Superpower: Teleporting, so I could go to the tropics whenever I want.
What skills do you need to get into a startup? When you’re making a career change or entering the startup space for the first time, confidence is a huge part of it. Be super passionate, do your research on the company, understand what their mission is because you’re building a business with them. You’re not just an employee at a startup. You’re owning it and you’re part of their story. It’s huge to understand that, and to be really excited and motivated by that. Think about how to spin your past experiences in a creative way. Market yourself! There are so many people that say, “I really like to do project management, but I’ve never been a project manager.” Well, I can tell you, you’ve managed projects in the past, and there are things that you’ve done that you can parlay into a future setting for yourself. Don’t be afraid to mix it up a little bit and then just be you and be kind and really show your interest. I think that’s really what founders and hiring managers want to see.
CEO of Lover.ly
About Kellee: I’m the founder and CEO of Lover.ly, a wedding planning site and app. We help brides find ideas, attire, and things to buy for their wedding. As of three weeks ago, we just launched our first eight bridal collections- bridesmaids’ dresses, little white dresses, decor, stationery, jewelry, everything for your wedding. Fun fact, I am one of five kids, and four of the five of us are entrepreneurs.
My Superpower: If I had a superpower, it would also be to teleport because all of my family is in LA. Also, to not be late to meetings, which I tend to have a problem with because I overcommit a little bit.
How did you find mentors in tech? When I first started working on Lover.ly, I had just moved to New York. I literally hit reset on my life. I would come to events like this one and talk to anyone and everyone. I told everyone I was starting a company and it was going to change the wedding industry and I kind of faked it until I guess I’ve made it. My first mentors were just my peers; people who were a couple months ahead of me, and anyone who would go to coffee with me and give me feedback. I started stalking gracefully, other entrepreneurs and former CEOs and investors who would give me feedback on my idea. Everyone gives you a lot of advice, but the things that I kept hearing over and over again resonated with me. Those original mentors ended up being my seed investors for the first $500,000 that I raised. Now it’s evolved, and seven months ago I hired my mentor to be the president of my company.
The skills you need to get started in tech: We’re hiring right now for designers, engineers, and merchandisers, so I’m going through this right now. Really, what we look at is the intersection of your interest and your skillset. What are you passionate about? What gets you excited every single day? And then, what are you good at? I don’t have job descriptions broken out because it’s really about the person that you bring in and how they are going to adapt into your organization. For example, I have a girl who started doing ad operations and now she’s running our e-commerce merchandising, and it’s just because she really liked fashion. She never thought she’d apply for that job, but she was good at it, and she gravitated towards it. In a startup, you’re looking for people who are passionate, but also who are very adaptable because shit changes really fast. You have to be really adaptable and you have to be likable. You have to treat people with respect and be nice. In the four years at Lover.ly, we’ve transitioned brilliant, brilliant engineers out of the organization just because they weren’t nice and they didn’t treat people with respect. I didn’t give up my high paying job to work with a bunch of jerks.
What are the traits that startups look for in an applicant?
Diane: We did a big research project and asked a couple hundred executives to tell us about the person in their company that they would absolutely like to clone and who do you wish that you had never hired? Here are the six things that came out of that:
- Somebody who doesn’t freak out when things are ambiguous and stressful. Who can be cool as a cucumber when the shit hits the fan? If you need a job description, forget it. If you can’t work without structure, then you’re probably not made to work at a startup.
- Somebody who is a learner and has thick skin, so you can handle feedback.
- The third trait is passion.
- The fourth trait is just grit. Staying until midnight and figuring this out because you’re just that determined. I think part of that grit is just not getting bogged down in process. The ability to take action, to take a small step even when you’re not really sure what to do.
- The fifth trait is collaboration, being able to work with other people.
- The last one is putting the company and the mission before yourself.
I currently work in CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods). For those of us who that tech is our passion, what’s the best way to make the pitch when were coming from a non-technical background?
Kellee: At Lover.ly, we were a completely digital company and now we’re starting to sell products. Nobody in our organization knows anything about supply chain, and we actually are looking for experience in CPG. Do your research on companies that are either in transition or potentially could use your skillset. When you apply, show that in the cover letter. If someone does the research, and actually says, “Hi, I’m a human. This is how I think I can help your organization. I would love to come and talk to you about it.” That person always gets a meeting because they humanize themselves. They tell you that they care about your company and they have ideas for how to leverage their skillsets. A lot of people say it’s a numbers game, but I’ve had someone walk in who I wasn’t even hiring for and before she left I asked her, “Can you start on Monday? I need someone to run our office.” It’s just about letting people know, and when you’re working with a cover letter or 150 characters on LinkedIn, you’ve got to get creative in how you can quickly give them, “This is who I am. This is what I can do. I love your company. I’d love to meet you.”
Diane: I want to give you some data on that. I just posted a job for Head of Marketing on LinkedIn. Within 48 hours, I had 300 profiles. Out of the 300, 2 people said, “Look, I think my background is a fit, but I just want you to know, I love your company. I’ve been following you, here are the top 42 things that I love.” How can you resist that? How can you resist somebody who loves your company instead of loves themselves?
I’m a developer at a digital health company. We are a small startup, but we are growing. Mia, you talked a little bit about scaling your team- we’re also trying to figure out what our environment should be like in our office, and simultaneously hiring really fast. What advice can you give?
Mia: When I was at Ann Taylor, which is a much bigger company than I’m at now, we created a mission statement for what we wanted to do internally and then we had our own guiding principles for how we wanted to present the product team to the rest of the company. Through that thought work, we thought about: “What do we care about? What do we like doing? How do we want to present ourselves to the company? What do we want our relationship with the tech team to be? What do we want our relationship with the business teams to be? What do we want our relationship with finance and CRM to be?” Establishing that allowed us to also establish the culture.
We also just became really good friends and the culture came out of our friendship. The people that I worked with at Ann Taylor are my best friends. I see them all the time. I don’t know that it’s necessarily highlighted in talks like these when you’re thinking about your career, but having good friends at work is something that has always made work fun for me. It makes your culture a more fun culture.
Have a mission statement, but also put in the effort. Even if you’re tired and all of your coworkers are going for drinks, just go. Just go for one drink. It’s worth it. You’ll bond just in that half an hour and that’s important as well.
Jessica: I would upvote that 110%. That’s excellent advice. Create that mission statement. It’s so key. Writing it down is everything. You’ve codified it and can pass it on to someone else. They can absorb it and then it grows that way.
Bea: And everyone on the team can recite the mission statement, so you can sell it that way and pass it on.
Diane: I also think you need to figure out what your values are, meaning what do we do to get to the point where we’re successful? What really matters around here? How do we want to treat each other? How do we want to make decisions? What do we actually all share in common? And then you can hire for great values that are consistent with what you’re looking for. You can train people on the rest.
I’m curious what you are reading. How do you stay up to date in the tech community?
Kellee: When I first started, I knew nothing about technology or fundraising. I started reading blogs:
- Mark Suster’s Both Sides of the Table
- Fred Wilson’s AVC. AVC has MBA Mondays, a whole series about starting companies.
- Twitter specifically for news- I follow people that I respect and I like and I see what they’re tweeting and what they’re sharing. I have them curate my reading list. Following really smart people on Twitter that you like whether it’s CEOs or engineers or designers or investors and seeing what they’re talking about and what they’re sharing.
- A lot of the big media companies glamorize and glorify startups, but they don’t talk about the nitty gritty of how hard it is. So Quora or blogs tend to be a little bit more honest and real.
Jessica: I also set Google Alerts for any company or investor series that I’m following. Set alerts for yourself so that you get pinged whenever there’s breaking news.
Mia: Because I work in the eCommerce side of fashion, I can speak to a lot of fashion resources. The ones that I read most religiously are:
- The Business of Fashion
- shop.org is really good, especially for the tech side because it’s all about eCommerce.
- Smashing Magazine has an eCommerce section
- Broadsheet, which is a women-in-leadership newsletter. I’m a big believer in newsletters because the internet is messy and a newsletter is organized in your inbox for you.
Diane: Don’t get too narrow! You can be great at tech by not just reading tech. A friend of mine just launched a new app called BriefMe, which shows the top 10 articles in real time. You need to know what’s going on in the world or you’ll get tunnel vision.
Bea: I really like Seth Godin’s blog. It’s just so pure. It’s really solid advice. Another resource that I really like for everything (not just tech) is Quora.
This question is specifically for Bea and Diane, who mentioned that they’ve had failed startups in the past. Why did these startups fail and what lessons did you learn?
Bea: First, not having domain expertise. I’m a firm believer that money doesn’t make things happen, people make things happen. So you really have to know your space and that’s why my first company failed. The site was for stay-at-home moms and I realize now that if I was a stay-at-home mom I wouldn’t have wanted to do any of that shit. I would’ve taken a nap!
Another piece of advice: know your competitors. A lot of people like to say they don’t have any competitors and they’re “first to market.” Set a Google Alert for your own company, and a Google Alert for competitors. Not to compare yourself to them, but to help form your strategy and avoid being too similar.
Coming from big companies, we’re all talking about how it’s hard to be successful in a startup, but you have to really lean in to it. I think I’ve read that everybody who left Facebook and started their own company, their companies failed. It’s because they were insulated from all the nitty gritty, hard shit. They were expecting ping-pong tables and massages on Fridays. Make mistakes, make something people want, and talk to users. A lot of people get really soft and they don’t want to hear any criticism. I wouldn’t launch any new product without a focus group. Plan, but be ready to break things.
Diane: I raised $20 million for my first company- we were building collaborative software and everybody loved what we were doing and they were buying it, but no one was using it. We started running out of money and the internet bubble burst and September 11th happened. What happened is: a) I didn’t quit and b) I had a lucky day. My biggest success was a huge failure. I was sitting in Kansas City with a client from Wal-Mart who was about to launch our product. He said to me, “Diane, I love what you’re doing, but I’m just worried that none of my team is going to use the software. I think I might have a better idea.” He did have a better idea and it worked. Most successful companies pivot. Don’t give up when it’s not working the first time. I know a lot of startups that didn’t work because they just quit too early.
You’ve talked a lot about qualities you need to work at a startup, but these things are really hard to display in a resume, in a few words. Have you met people who you saw effectively display those qualities?
Jessica: You can say so much in a cover letter- a lot of personality can come through. Follow a company on Twitter, show up to their happy hours, make your face and your name known. Say little fun facts about yourself, so that when somebody is reviewing resumes remembers meeting you. It’s not comfortable at first, but drop that security blanket and just charge forward.
Kellee: It’s also really helpful if you can get a warm introduction if you know someone who works at the company. When there are 300 resumes coming in, having that connection instantly helps.
Bea: And introduce yourself before the company is hiring. When our COO, Emily, applied, I didn’t have time to hire her. Emily said, “Why don’t you just let me take a look at your HelpDesk.” When I woke up, there were labels everywhere and she had a great idea. Show them what it will be like to work with you. Everybody wants to work with someone who’s going to make things easier for them. Sometimes you don’t even know the problem that you have before that person gets there. As much as people hate on corporate 9 to 5 jobs, you still know these systems. Come in and put those systems in place immediately. Make people’s lives easier.
Kellee: I actually got most of my interviews through tweeting the founder of companies. Even if I didn’t get that job, I still got that meeting and got see if I wanted to work with them. Twitter is really powerful, so build your personal brand through Twitter and Facebook. Create your portfolio and, if you need to, join bootcamps like Startup Institute, Codify Academy, or General Assembly.
Thanks so much to the panelists and to Codify Academy for hosting and sharing this incredible advice with the Course Report community! Interested in learning more about Codify Academy? Check out their School Page on Course Report or the Codify Academy website here!