Now blogging at Sailthru…

I have finally put pen to paper around some more technical marketing topics, but I am doing so over at Sailthru’s company blog. I’ll continue to occasionally post personal reflections here, but please also follow my activity over at Sailthru. If I were a betting woman, I’d dare say you might even learn something!

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From Nordstrom to Bernardo: Opposite Ends of the Customer Service Spectrum

Well, the original intention of this post was to feature my step-by-step guide to landing a job in NYC tech, but that’s going to have to wait until next week because I am compelled to share a tale called, “THE WORST CUSTOMER SERVICE EXPERIENCE OF ALL TIME.”  My goal was always to keep the content of this blog fairly professionally-oriented, but working in B2C marketing, I feel compelled to tell the world this story so that anyone ever contemplating purchasing Bernardo sandals can make an informed choice. 

Last May, I purchased a pair of $119 sandals from Bernardo, directly through their website.  I had owned at least two pairs of Bernardo sandals previously and always loved the products.  For one reason or another, I didn’t really get a chance to “break in” (pun intended – read onward) these sandals until August.  On Sunday August 5, I did something I rarely ever do as a New Yorker: I took the stairs to the lobby from my 6th floor apartment rather than the elevator.  Between floors 2 and 3, I slipped down the stairs and landed so hard that I actually really thought I might die as I was flying down the flight.  When I stood up, I was in an unbelievable amount of pain, but thankful I had not cracked my head open.  I chalked the incident up to clumsiness and went on my way to meet friends for dinner about 10 blocks away.  Five blocks into that walk, I almost wiped out again but caught myself on a parking pole; it was then that I realized that the issue was not my awkward tendencies, but rather, the Bernardo sandals.  Simply put, the pair I received were completely defunct and had no traction whatsoever.

Below is a “PG” version of what my body looked like after this fall; I had bruises to this degree all the way up my back and ALL over my rear-end (and – sorry for the crudeness – still to this day have a DENT in my body as a result).  By Monday morning, I was worried I might have internal bleeding or a broken tailbone (couldn’t even sit down) and left work to seek medical attention.  My doctor’s response?  “Normally I tell people they should be happy they don’t have a break, but that’s before I saw a contusion of this magnitude.  This is the reason we have narcotics.”  I literally could barely walk/move for almost a month.

Image

Following the incident, I sent an email to Bernardo’s customer service alias (found via their website); I included the above photo and told them that all things considered, I’d like a refund for the sandals.  I waited weeks and received no response, so I followed up again – still nothing.  Sometime last fall, I mentioned the incident in passing to my mom, who works in the legal field; she was equally as enraged and we located a contact number for their PR agency – but again, no response.  

Despite urges from the lawyers in my life to sue the pants off of Bernardo, I finally just gave up, telling my tale to anyone who would listen but nothing more than that.  Fast forward to this past June, when my mom was browsing Nordstrom.com (where I had purchased my two previous pairs of Bernardo sandals) and was recommended a Bernardo product.  My absurd story reappeared in her mind, and she inked a comment in the product reviews giving the “Reader’s Digest” version of my tale and telling people to be careful when buying them.

Nordstrom, the amazing company that it is (and separately, probably one of Bernardo’s top sellers), reached out to my mom immediately to see what had transpired.  She shared my tale and they generously offered to reach out to Bernardo on our behalf.  Here’s where the most ABUSRD part of the story comes in: Bernardo insisted that they followed up with me and that I never responded, which was a blatant lie.  I went through every single email exchange I had in the back half of 2012 and early part of 2013 to confirm; they never responded to me.  Their ignorance of someone’s horrible injury and general lack of concern for their customers were one thing, but the fact that they then lied about our exchange was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The conversation has now been kicked over to a company called Peter Marcus Group (they somehow represent Bernardo and other luxury brands), who had the audacity to offer me a replacement pair whenever the next production line finishes.

Those who know me know that I am not a cheap person – I could give two sh*ts about the $119, but this is 150% a matter of principle.  I am outraged by Bernardo and wanted to share my story with the world (and rest assured, Bernardo, I am writing this tale chock full of SEO “link juice” just for you).  I am this close to calling “Help Me Howard” on the local news!

As my mom put it, “Bernardo could take a few lessons out of the Nordstrom playbook” – Amen to that.  There’s not much more I can say here, but I really hope anyone who reads this will consider sharing my story with other potential buyers.  As a business person, Bernardo’s reaction to my tale is absolutely abhorrent. If I were a betting woman, I’d venture to say Bernardo’s future is bleak.

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My move to Sailthru – “I’m not Oprah”

I’d like to tell you all that I have a “shock and awe” announcement today, but it turns out this announcement is relatively anti-climactic to those who know me well professionally.  I’ve left Gerson Lehrman Group and tomorrow I’ll be joining Sailthru full-time as VP Client Optimization and Analytics, where I’ll working with the company’s e-commerce and publishing clients to better leverage the Sailthru platform.

Why am I leaving GLG?  I was brought on to GLG’s team a year ago today to help ship and optimize consumer-facing web applications (well, more “B2P” – business to professional – than B2C, but work with me here for a moment) under the HighTable.com brand through a data-driven approach.  In that year, we ran countless experiments and shipped a few different new businesses, and one key takeaway surfaced from all of our lessons: the enterprise (B2B) channel still makes the most sense for the company in terms of its top- and bottom-line priorities.  While B2B businesses are incredibly interesting to me (more on that to come), my strengths lay in the B2C court, and I decided to listen to some great advice I got from Shara Mendelson, founder of Plum Benefits and a mentor to me, this past winter: understand the difference between when you can execute a “good job” and when you’re the best possible person for a job.  At GLG, sure, I could deliver well on what was asked, but I was not the best person for that job, and my heart just wasn’t in it.

That all said, I cannot say enough positive things about GLG as a company; the pool of talent there is beyond impressive, and the support I received from senior management when I started to think about my exodus was nothing short of incredible.  It’s funny: a major theme of business school is just how difficult corporate innovation can be (and my countless meetings with folks responsible for big company innovation – from AMEX to Aetna to Sony and beyond – this past year certainly revealed some consistent challenges on that front), but I whole-heartedly still believe GLG is well-staffed and well-poised to fight the good fight and deliver some truly innovative projects; I can’t wait to see what’s to come.  A colleague on my team at GLG once told me that she considered her professional development to always be evolving and improving as she was still learning, and these words really resonated with me – despite the shift in focus at GLG, I learned a tremendous amount in my time there, and would do it again in a heartbeat; I’d like to give everyone there my sincere thanks for being a part of that journey.

So with all of that talk around B2B, why Sailthru?  (For those unfamiliar, Sailthru services personalization/marketing needs through an ESP and a robust analytics platform – so the sales channel is indeed B2B!)  First though, let me say that after the countless meetings I’ve had the past few months, I’ve never been more proud of NYC tech – there are so many amazing companies, dedicated founders, etc. – and that there are vast opportunities for anyone excited about tech to go work for an exciting high-growth company.  At the end of the day, though, the reasons Sailthru proved to be the best fit for me personally boiled down to the following:

  • “Eating your own dog food” – I’ve been a client with Sailthru for the past 2.5 years.  We brought them on at Savored in late 2010 when we transitioned off of Constant Contact (I know, embarrassing to even talk about, but you have to start somewhere!) and I also led a transition from Eloqua to Sailthru when I started working on GLG/HighTable (probably equally as embarrassing).  I am an ANNOYINGLY data-driven marketer  (hi, Savored marketing team!), and Sailthru is hands-down the best platform I’ve ever come across for not only understanding and modeling customer behaviors, but also for using those insights to drive actionable results.  Prior to our Sailthru adoption, my computer would crash roughly ~876 times per day as I tried to aggregate customer data from SQL, Google Analytics, our ESP, etc. and I had our team wasting countless hours on manual list segmentation (on a roll with embarrassing admissions today!).  When Mike DeLuca, CRO at Savored, first joined our team, he told us he was so excited to be selling something that “made so much sense for restaurants” – that’s exactly how I feel about Sailthru and marketers.
  • My conviction for smarter marketing vs. harder marketing – an ongoing challenge between marketing folks and – well really, the rest of the world – is that many marketers believe that sending more email yields more revenue.  There are certainly instances where this is the case, but the reality of B2C marketing is that it’s become incredibly more difficult over the course of the past few years.  When we would deploy retention emails at TheLadders circa 2006, we were true puppeteers: we were able to quickly garner attention in the inbox and deliver fast results.  These days, I wake up at 7am to find 45 emails in my inbox – I browse the subject lines but admittedly delete 98% of them without opening.  As a result of this explosion of B2C brands and marketing, marketers MUST work smarter, not harder.  What do I mean by that?  Now, more than ever, marketing (email, mobile, site, whatever channel we’re talking about) must strive to deliver as 1:1 an experience as possible – so it’s not about some kind of Hail Mary attempt with a ton of emails but rather, delivering more relevant messaging to consumers.  Sailthru’s platform makes this approach quite possible for B2C brands, and I can’t wait to further evangelize it via sales and retention channels.
  • Products vs. services – I’m going to let the former investment banker deliver a short tirade here: simply put, having a real, technical product commands a much more interesting valuation multiple than a service, and that’s something that’s naturally on any tech employee’s mind.  There’s something beyond that though.  When I first started my search, I actually thought about hanging a shingle and starting an analytics consulting business; I ran a business like this during business school so as to not be that MBA and made a disturbing amount of cash doing it, but in the words of Joanne Wilson, “I’m not Oprah.”  Indeed, I had coffee with Joanne near the beginning of my search and shared this idea with her, and her feedback was that I don’t have the personal brand of the likes of Oprah – it’s so freaking true!  People can build incredible personal brands, but they most often build those brands around great companies and great products (no offense, Oprah), so why not leverage a powerful product to further the brand equity of not just the product, but also myself?  Moreover, so much of my own self-confidence is derived from being part of an amazing company that’s doing something truly novel – and hence my decision to go “in house” somewhere.
  • B2B powered by a B2C layer, data at the core – yes, Sailthru makes money via B2B sales, but they maintain clients by delivering value on the B2C side, namely via what we’ve already discussed: empowering marketers to deliver more relevant messaging and thereby increasing lifetime value.  In other words, this role is incredibly attractive to me because I can be valuable to a B2B company by way of my knowledge about B2C/quant marketing.  Moreover, I love data/analytics and therefore, I love companies where data/analytics are at the core (vs. inventory, etc.), so I’m excited about Sailthru’s position from this perspective as well.
  • Excited about the long term – given what just happened with GLG (namely, one-year stint – how the tables have turned on me asking candidates why they only stayed somewhere a year…), as I assessed new opportunities, it was critically important to me that I was excited about what the company’s long-term vision looked like, because the next destination has to be my home for a while.  I thought back to when I was applying for my Tuck MBA out of TheLadders in 2008 – I remembered thinking that if I didn’t get into the school, I’d be content working there for a fourth or fifth year and re-applying.  I want that feeling again (that an end is not in sight), and I think the option I’ve decided to pursue was most compelling to me on that front.
  • Talent – I’ve been spoiled in that every company I’ve worked at since my high school job at the Mendham Apothecary in 1999 (yikes on that one…) has had an amazing capacity for bringing on super smart people who are passionate about executing.  From both my seat as a Sailthru client and from my incessant visits (and subsequent conversations) to teach my classes in the company’s office, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to get to know people from across the company – client services, BD, marketing, product, tech, etc. – and quite frankly, I am ecstatic about joining such a committed and talented group.
  • Deb’s Deli on Varick (fine, a SOMEWHAT satirical insertion) I ate lunch here ~90% of the three years’ worth of days I worked at TheLadders (also on Varick), and I suspect the staff will be thrilled about my triumphant return.  I like to do my part in facilitating the trickle-down economy!

So folks, there you have it.  If anyone out there is considering a job switch, I’d encourage you to sit down with people you respect to come up with a similar list of priorities/consideration points and to stack rank the opportunities on the table accordingly.  I thought I was forever committed to leading B2C marketing for a B2C brand, but the thought process here helped me realized that wasn’t the case – if I were a betting woman, I’d say that many of you might discover similar surprises about yourselves.

And if anyone wants to talk shop about Sailthru, you know where to find me.

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Show Me Your E-Face

I’m baa-aack!  I apologize to my (few) loyal readers for the radio silence, but life has been a bit insane.  Moreover, I’ve been strategizing a more focused theme for this blog, and I’ve decided to take it in a more technical direction.  That said, while you can all look forward to tons of fun (and frequent!) posts on cohort analysis, web analytics and the like, rest assured that I’ll still supplement my writings with the occasional qualitative quip – and that is what’s on today’s agenda.

If you’ve never undergone the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test, you sure are missing out (shockingly, I am not being sarcastic).  Business teams regularly use MBTI to facilitate better working relationships: employees take the test, earn one of 16 different “scores” and get written personality assessments; from there, colleagues are asked to read about each other’s working/personality styles and the team attempts to contextualize the outputs.  In other words, since I am an ISTJ (the “inspector”), we might talk about what my team can do to help me be as productive as possible – perhaps I like getting numbers/facts in advance of meetings so that I have time to make a data-driven decision (truth).  My colleague – let’s call him Bob – is a classic ENTP, meaning he loves to argue; with his MBTI assessment in hand, I recognize that he’s actually not just an asshole (woohoo!) but just wired to be this way, so I find productive ways to have this kind of dialogue with him.

Yes, yes, chances are that you’re already well-versed in MBTI, but I’m writing today to discuss one of the most operative inputs to the formula – letter 1, or the E/I (extrovert vs. introvert).  As I alluded to earlier, I am an ISTJ, meaning I skew introverted.  A lot of people’s heads kind of explode when I tell them this; they insist I am wrong and that I am a classic E.  As my AP Bio teacher used to say, “that’s a common misconception that is ABSOLUTELY FALSE.”

For context, here are some statements I dug up online around what distinguishes introversion from extraversion:

Introversion:

  • I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with.
  • I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own.
  • I prefer to know just a few people well.
  • Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing.

Extraversion:

  • I’m excited when I’m around people and I like to energize people.
  • I often understand a problem better when I can talk out loud about it and hear what others have to say.
  • I feel comfortable in groups and like working in them.

People think I am an “E” because I am constantly (and successfully) building my network by attending events, teaching, taking coffee meetings on my weekends, etc.  Let it be known: I am merely overcompensating for my I-ish tendencies.  In reality, I am probably one of the most independent and private people you will ever meet.  For as transparent as I might be about my business knowledge and my network, I am the antithesis of that transparent when it comes to my personal life, my family, etc.  I’m typically doing some kind of networking ~6 out of 7 days per week and have developed a plethora of strong business ties in the process, but most of these people do not know me well beyond my work exterior. People who do know me well know me DISTURBINGLY well.

Three of the classic “E” tenets are 1) “I have a wide range of friends and know lots of people”, 2) “I like to energize people” and 3) “I like moving into action and making things happen.”  These qualities are not innate to me, but I embody them incredibly well because I have worked my ass off to get there (and also, I’m incredibly passionate about what I do, and that energizes people – if you hate your job, get out of it).  Hell, I’ll toot my own horn – most people would tell you that I am one of the best networkers they’ve ever seen.  Why am I telling you all of this?  Recently, I’ve come across more and more people who have tried to, for lack of a better expression, use me for my network.  I am always happy to make an introduction because I love this community (and karma!), but what grinds my gears is people who make no effort on their own.  They’ll assert that they “just aren’t good at networking,” etc.  Get over it, people.  Like anything, success takes determination and practice. If I were a betting woman, I’d say these people are perfectly capable of being extraordinary networkers.

So for all of the “I”s out there, this is a call for you to show me your E-face.  It’s uncomfortable and awkward and will be for a while, but you can do it!  (And I swear, that’s the end of me playing the role of Tony Robbins here.)

Here are a few tips that have helped me out along the way – hopefully they can be of service:

  • Focus on 1:1 networking vs. 1:many.  I love a stiff drink, but I hate big happy hour events.  I am also 70% deaf in my left ear, which makes these events even more challenging for me than for your average bear.  On account of that, I try to build my network by having 1:1 conversations vs. going to endless happy hours (where the conversations are generally fleeting anyhow).  The downside to this approach is that you’ll lose a lot of morning/night/weekend free time, but it’s highly effective.  To draw a dorky comparison, this is like sending a triggered behavioral email vs. a mass broadcast campaign – engagement is going to be way higher in the former.
  • In your initial conversation, build goodwill and interest by offering introductions or free advice.  When I meet with people in the space, I try to “hook” them with some impressive functional knowledge (mostly surface-level stuff, but it’s still enough that it’s earned me several invitations to advisory boards).  I also ask them to give me a download of their business and typically then ask about what’s keeping them up at night – from there, I’m pretty good at thinking of on-the-fly recommendations for other people in my network they should talk to, and I’ll offer to facilitate those introductions on the spot. 
  • Establish the relationship in person and from there, you can actually nurture it via email.  You don’t have to ALWAYS network offline.  Once I meet someone, I’ll typically see them occasionally at industry events, but I’ll primarily maintain the relationship through email.  How do I do this?
  1. Newsle – this tool is amazing.  I have all of my contacts in Newsle and the platform sends me alerts whenever someone is in the news/blogosphere/etc.  I’ll take that alert as an opportunity to reach out to someone to congratulate them on good press, a capital raise closed, etc.
  2. Industry articles – for the love of GOD please don’t just send people articles for the sake of sending articles.  However, if you see something that immediately makes you think of someone, send it.  The immediacy test is critical though.  (Example: a few months ago I was in a business discussion where the person on the other side of the table shared his beliefs on Christie’s inability to become president because of his obesity; there were a number of national articles about this last week, and I immediately thought to send to him – tertiary point: you don’t always need to have serious exchanges!)
  • When someone offers you a potentially valuable introduction, you take itI was recently communicating with an HBS student over email, offered her a valuable introduction, and she told me she’d circle back in a few weeks if she needed it.  Ridiculous.  If the meeting is about a potential job and you have no interest in the job, certainly don’t take it (no one likes to have their time wasted); however, if the meeting is about anything else and the contact is potentially valuable, you get to the bar an hour late that night and take the damn meeting.  I know it can be difficult to qualify what constitutes “valuable,” so you can go ahead and use my ridiculously elitist rule of 3 (somewhere in NJ, my mom is cringing right now) – 1) schools, 2) company and 3) past experience.  If any of the three look interesting/impressive, I repeat: take the damn meeting.  This can be very tough for “I”s, but it’s critically important.
  • Farm candidates for your contacts.  For some reason, it feels as though everyone in my life is trying to make the transition to a startup right now; some are certainly more qualified/fit to do it than others, but that’s besides the point.  When I see good candidates, I’ll think about their backgrounds and interests and will try to match those to a company where I know someone.  Good CEOs are always managing their talent pipeline and really appreciate this kind of proactive outreach.
  • Enhance your LinkedIn profile/build out your network.  I probably get 2-5 “cold” requests from really impressive people a month via LinkedIn and my understanding is that it’s generally through “People You May Know” – so the more people you know, the more who may know you!  More generally, follow my advice to “ABLI” – Always Be LinkedIn’ing!
  • Teach.  It turns out that lecturing is a great way to network.  I teach 2x per month with Skillshare, hang out for 30 minutes after each class to meet some folks and then I make a concerted effort to keep in touch with my students; this got completely out of hand at first with people asking for consulting work, but now I clearly state my “rules of engagement” and just help these people out via quick emails however possible.  Some of the best introductions I’ve gotten in New York have come through my Skillshare students, and there’s no “annoying” or uncomfortable networking involved.  Teaching is also an incredible “halo effect” opportunity to build your own personal brand.
  • When you do have to go to the bigger events, make sure you know 2-3 other well-connected people in the room.  This was my M.O. for a while (now, much to my own shock and awe, I am one of those really connected people).  Don’t use these people as crutches, but use them to make a few initial introductions so that you at least feel comfortable working the room.

Did you see that?  It was my empathy flying right out the window.  SHOW ME YOUR E-FACE!

 

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My challenge to Sheryl Sandberg: if you’re offered a window seat on a puddle jumper, just get on.

Let me preface this post by saying that I am a massive Sheryl Sandberg fan; in addition to being downright brilliant, she has brought to light a refreshing and inspiring perspective around the state of women in business as well as unique frameworks for how to think about professional development in general. For the past two years, I have maintained that if I could have dinner with any person in the Silicon Valley, it would be her. (Sheryl, if you’re reading this, I’m perpetually available and I enjoy sushi.)

That said, I want to expand upon Sheryl’s “if you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship” speech given at this year’s Harvard Business School Class Day, which (rightfully) went pretty viral in the industry.  Specifically, I would like to encourage people (especially junior talent) to also consider the window seat on the slower and less commodious puddle jumper, a post from which they can see it all.  There is no doubt that there is amazing work experience to be gained from working alongside folks at the likes of Google, Facebook, etc., but the view from those seats will inevitably be somewhat provincial.  And while that level of specialization may work for some people, it doesn’t work for me, and I suspect it would also fail to resonate with many other aspiring founders/startup operators.

A few months ago, I was invited to interview for a position managing subscription activation for AmazonLocal. (I had been offered a job with Amazon in business school but was put off by the narrow scope of it and turned it down, but apparently they kept my name on file.) I was intrigued enough about what I heard that I proceeded with the phone screen, at which point I was once again immediately put off by the narrow scope of the role there. The conversation went something like this:

  • CLY: So can you tell me if there have been any data or decisions around what is going to work best for subscriber activation, or would I pretty much have carte blanche to figure that out, i.e. test some email tactics versus other website tactics, etc.?
  • Recruiter: Email would not be part of your job. Someone else does that. And someone else manages the website, so you would not be dealing with that either.

Um, WHAT does that even mean? Obviously I am not a master IA nor do I fancy spending my days obsessively monitoring deliverability rates, but as someone with P&L responsibilities, I damn well want to be able to leverage whatever channels needed as the analytics deem necessary. And as someone who aspires to run a company (God willing), I crave heavy exposure to all parts of business operations. Obviously the senior leaders at Amazon think about the business comprehensively (and they do it quite well – that company’s story is nothing short of amazing), but I found it perplexing/disturbing that the company was not trying to cultivate that same wide lens at other levels in the company, especially in a division lauded as its own “startup!” I don’t want to learn about Python in some stupid 25-minute “lunch and learn” with bad sandwiches, I want to live and breathe Django woes alongside my development team – and the best place to do that is at a startup. And hey, much to my chagrin, the vast majority of startups are not going to be rocket ships.

When I joined TheLadders in 2006, it was candidly because there weren’t really many other startups in NYC at the time, and I was not ready to relocate out west. I lucked out. Though the company may be facing some new challenges today, it enjoyed tremendous growth during my three-year stint there ($5MM in revenue to $65MM with only $7MM raised – pretty cool) and I was incredibly fortunate to work alongside amazing colleagues and mentors. I learned more there than I will ever learn in any other job – ever – and I was too immature/ignorant to even realize it at the time. I worked in “marketing,” but I use that word loosely because marketing was the revenue bread and butter at that time. Our small team oversaw everything from user acquisition to email activation to website conversion to subscription analytics to balance sheet management (have to watch that deferred revenue from the longer-term subscriptions!). We were also instrumental in helping to market various new products, many of which still exist today and many others of which were never even launched. TheLadders was a true meritocracy and if you could carry your weight, you could take on endless responsibility. My manager there has been my biggest mentor to date; she looped me on literally everything and never isolated me from a single conversation or decision. She described our relationship as a partnership rather than something hierarchical. When I was 26 years old, Marc Cenedella took me on a 2:2 BD meeting with Janet Robinson and Martin Nisenholtz at The New York Times. Enough said.

Last night I had dinner with a good friend of mine (also an aspiring founder) who works for one of the Silicon Valley juggernauts. He’s at a juncture where he’s ready to move on to a new role within the company – either product or sales-oriented – and he was picking my brain about it. At one point, he said to me, “I guess my concern is that I am never possibly going to be one of the best product people that [Company X] has,” which prompted quite the diatribe from my end. As I told him and as I’ll tell my loyal (maybe? one day?) readership now, this an utterly flawed framework for assessing the decision. My friend is quite candidly off the charts smart, but he will never be the best product person in the land nor will he be the best sales leader, nor should he aspire to be. Instead, he should take the job that’s going to let him learn the most with regards to how to one day run his business. (Along those lines, the answer to his question is undeniably sales. Holy SH*T do I wish I had paid more attention to the sales curricula in b-school, but I did get schooled sufficiently in the subject during my time at Savored.) There are thousands of analytics and marketing people out there far stronger than me, but I’ve built marketability based on my ability to think like a general manager, to consider decisions cross-functionally and to craft compelling and digestible stories with numbers. Flying puddle jumpers (and soft-crashing a few of them along the way) helped me get there. I’d have far fewer (valuable) war wounds with the security of a bigger craft.

Last point here because I’ve been known to ramble endlessly: rocket ships are loud; you can’t hear anything that’s going on around you without special equipment. On puddle jumpers, you can’t help but overhear the conversations around you, and this is an amazing thing. I always tell my directs to eavesdrop a-plenty, ask questions, and interact with people outside of their comfort zones. In this light, even at a company of 15 people, the opportunity for learning is immense. I regularly talk about startup time as “dog years” in that every day feels 7x longer than normal life, but you also learn 7x as much; a large driver of that reality is the ability to work intimately with a smaller group and learn through ongoing and real-time dialogue (i.e. not a weekly “download” from your manager). I had to exaggerate my understanding of an HTTP POST for legitimately 6 months at TheLadders to hold my own with developers, but I sure wow’ed the dev time at Savored with my ability to spec one out five years later. Discomfort that challenges you ultimately breeds confidence which then, likely aboard a new plane, earns you some pretty nice street credit.

So if I were a betting woman, I’d think about trading my Dippin’ Dots for stale peanuts (if you’re lucky) and reconsider the window seat. Yes, go forth to a crooked floor-bearing, mice-infested, eavesdropping-friendly office (for more on how to make sure your office is not NASA-approved, read more from Mike DeLuca, my former colleague at Savored, on some best practices).

And hey, if you change your mind, consider this definition of puddle jumpers: “These shuttle planes usually run connecting flights to … a hub location. From this hub, passengers are able to board a connecting flight that will take them to another major airport as the next leg of their journey.” In other words, if the window seat doesn’t cut it for you in the way that it has for me, there’s always the next journey; I think the fact that Amazon ultimately decided to reach back out to me despite my decision to go early-stage for a while is living proof of that.

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Debunking the “Worthless MBA” Myth

I’m getting REALLY sick of the assertions that MBAs are worthless to start-up organizations. While I’ve seen a few folks lend nice support to the MBA skill set and perspective, that school of thought is certainly the exception and not the rule.  As someone who had the opportunity to work at a a bulge bracket bank, to get three years of heavy operating experience in marketing/analytics at a high-growth start-up, and to know for damn sure I was anything but a career-switcher before I matriculated to b-school, I was probably #1 on the list of people whom our community would tell to skip the two-year “vacation.”  Well, I ignored the advice.  Today I wish to debunk the myth of the worthless MBA, while still under-the-busing my lazy and entitled MBA peers.

Part I: Functional Expertise vs. “Renaissance” Operators

One of the big arguments against the MBA is that it’s a two-year opportunity cost on relevant functional experience; I’ll address the opportunity cost piece in the back half of this rant, but let’s first dissect the idea of functional expertise.  Tim Brown of IDEO has been a fantastic proponent of the “T-shaped skill set” and I’m right there with him.  You will not get a fruitful start-up role with run of the mill MBA breadth, but you will get it with depth of knowledge in one particular arena complemented with that generalist MBA insight. I’m a direct marketer/anlaytics freak (“data whore” as my colleagues have called me in the past) by trade, but I also understand throughput, can reconcile a balance sheet, and perhaps most importantly, can shoot the shit with my engineers about APIs, POSTs, postbacks and Python.  And I can communicate with conviction.
I love Fred Wilson more than the next person, but “MBA Mondays” do not an MBA make, my friends.  Yes, despite what you all might like to believe, the core classes in a general management curriculum actually go very far where operational pragmatism is concerned – here are a few highlights:
  • Economics – willingness to pay is at the core of every business that’s generating revenue.  When you think about marketing and customer activation, you always need to have the WTP curve in the back of your mind and understand how to maximize profit.  Yes, you will get a sneak preview of the mechanics here in any decent undergraduate microeconomics program (thanks, Duke!), but the MBA classroom is a chance to really take this to the next level and apply theory to real business problems/cases vs. hypothetical problem sets.  For me personally, this course in particular also proved to be a great reflection forum – thinking about what all of the pricing testing we had done for three years at TheLadders really meant.
  • Accounting – um, hello, working capital!   Owning your marketing P&L?  You had best be able to reconcile cash vs. accruals.  Running a subscription business?  You had best really understand the difference between cash and deferred revenue.
  • Statistics – newsflash: business/optimization decisions are not about shooting from the hip.  Those decisions need to be data-driven, and they need to be statistically valid.  Multi-variate test?  Sorry, the blog posts seem to largely leave those out.
  • Marketing – I have to admit, I am a marketing professional and I went into MBA marketing thinking this class was going to be a fluffy waste of time.  False.  First off, I had the opportunity to learn from Kevin Keller, one of the most respected names in the game, and secondly, holy crap did I learn a ton!  You can be awesome at user acquisition and conversion online, but the halo effect of real brand-building is a true game-changer when growing a business.  Thinking through influence pyramids, etc. actually took me very far in my time at Savored.  I am two weeks into a new job right now, and segmentation strategies are running deep!
  • Operations – is your company on the selling block?  For valuation’s sake, you had best know how scalable your operations are!  What is the customer service throughput?  What do your processes look like?
  • Management Communications – don’t even get me started.  Nothing kills me more than watching people fumble through ugly clip art slides or senseless talking parts.
  • Strategy – if you think 2x2s only live in consulting firms, something’s awry at home.  Our whiteboards at Savored were chock full of them.
  • STUDY GROUPS – could I ever leave this one out?  I actually had a pretty unique experience on this front because my team – the “Brazilian Hot Dogs” – genuinely had very little conflict – probably because we employed a “Beer Wench of the Week” in lieu of a “Chief of the Week,” but the fact of the matter is that the real world is chock full of assholes, and your study group will probably have one (or at least someone who behaves like one on a fairly regularly basis).  The study group experience in b-school is an incredibly rigorous one, and is an unrivaled opportunity to learn to work with different personalities.  Moreover, for me personally, it was an incredible lesson in how different backgrounds can be leveraged to manage teams.  In particular, one of my teammates/friends was a former NCAA basketball coach; though he probably didn’t even realize it at the time, his approach to problem-solving was something that inspired me and many of the human capital techniques I employ today draw on that inspiration.
  • Capital Markets – okay, fine, – we start-up folks probably could have checked that option at the door.  If anyone needs to price a bond, do me a favor and don’t call me.
That all said, while the core builds the breadth, the MBA electives can help you refine your expertise at your “thing.”  For me, the three most valuable MBA electives were marketing research, database marketing and sales promotion.  I did database marketing for a living before Tuck (and believed myself to be pretty good at it), but that class helped me to consider things I had never even thought about previously and introduced me to models of thinking that I now use literally every day.  Same goes for the others.  If you want to take things one step further, work with your professors to apply your classroom studies to real businesses.  While at Tuck, I did an independent study on the daily deal industry and published a case study on Groupon’s business model/sustainability.  I also leveraged my experience at Savored to author a white paper on leveraging sales promotion and database marketing to balance acquisition and retention priorities (Tuck, give Scott Neslin a big raise!).  These types of projects are the closest you will get to real-world experience without actually working (still a weak substitute – read further…).

The best compliment I’ve received in my professional dealings thus far was from my manager at TheLadders, who used to call me “Santa’s Little Workshop,” because I felt comfortable handling most things thrown my way, even if I wasn’t awesome at all of them.  I encourage all CEOs to look for their own renaissance operators, and if I were a betting woman, I’d say the nation’s top MBA programs would be a great place to find them – but leave the lazy ones behind…

Part II: The Lazy MBA

I consider myself fortunate that my first foray into the start-up world (my tenure at TheLadders) was chock full of MBAs; Marc Cenedella had a penchant to hire top MBAs to lead the company, and I can’t thank him enough for it, because I realized the value of an MBA very early on in my time there and set my eyes on the degree years in advance.  That said, in that same job I also learned that only the hungry go far in our world (namely via hanging out with my CMO in the office every Saturday morning), and knew that my MBA experience needed to be anything but a two-year vacation.  As such (and Tuck administration, I really hope you stop reading here), despite the fact that I was enrolled in an intensive full-time MBA program in bucolic New Hampshire, I worked full-time during the entirety of my stay.  During my first year, I started consulting for an old boss of mine who had moved on to advisory role at SapientNitro, and from there I set up an LLC and lent consulting support to a host of other companies.  All too often I would be in the middle of a game of beer pong and a Blackberry alert would force me to return to my abode to crank out models.  When I’d go away for the weekend, my friends would often hide my phone to make sure I stayed socially focused.  Not going to lie, it sucked at times.  A lot.

Early in my second year, I began doing some consulting work for a NYC start-up which was then called VillageVines (now Savored); I Tristan Walker-ed their ass and submitted a note about my passions for consumer Internet, Excel, and business analytics via the website’s “Contact Us” page, and connected with founder and CEO Ben McKean the next day; we instantly hit it off.  When my classmates all traveled to India and the depths of Southeast Asia during our 7-week winter break that year, I sat elbow-to-elbow in a 10×10 room at 99 Madison Ave. with 6 other people cranking out data and establishing a CRM strategy for Savored (oh, and also watching our plumbing break, our heat not work, etc.).  Following the company’s Series A raise that December, I committed to joining full-time - then.  For the next 5 months, I telecommuted between Hanover, NH and New York and ran marketing for Savored from Byrne 209 (study room above the Tuck dining hall) and my dining room table.  Every other Wednesday (and closer to the end of school, every week) I would wake up at 4:30 am, fly from Lebanon, NH to White Plains, NY on a 9-person Cape Air “jet,” drop my stuff off at whichever friend’s place I  was crashing at that week (God bless you people), and crank out 3.5 days of work before returning to NH the following Saturday.  My flight would regularly be delayed 2-3 hours for no apparent reason, and I enjoyed two different emergency landings in freaking Poughkeepsie.  I graduated from Dartmouth on Sunday, June 12, “moved” to NYC that evening, and was in the Savored office at 9am the next morning to prepare for a re-launch 3 months in the making later that week.  IT REALLY FREAKING SUCKED, but I loved every minute of it!  Late in my second year, I met Matt Rightmire, an MD at Borealis Ventures and fellow Tuck alum who had pursued a similar path to me back in the 90s when he joined Yahoo! as one of its first 10 employees while finishing at Tuck; our conversations were inspiring and only reaffirmed my decisions – to win, you had to be in it to win it all along - no vacation.  After reading this, many people might say, “it sounds like you wasted $160K on an MBA” – nope, I didn’t.  I met some amazing lifelong friends at Tuck, rediscovered “power hours,” and even made it to Killington a few times – I just didn’t sleep while I was at it.

While in business school, I encountered countless peers at MBA institutions around the world who were looking to break into the start-up scene through a summer internship at Amazon (turning that one down was literally one of the most gratifying experiences of my life – story for another time…) or through self-centered last-minute networking.  People in our world can spot their bullshit from a mile away, and these are the people tarnishing the name of the “good” MBA in the space.  It is not your God-given right to work at a start-up because you did 3 years in TMT at Morgan Stanley, nor because you were president of the XBS Entrepreneurship Club.  Your school may get you a job at BCG, but it’s not going to get you this job.  (This is a phenomenon I like to call the “attitudinal gap” – and I’ve traded notes on this with several leaders at NYC start-ups and they all agree.)   Oh and also, a group consulting project on “social media strategies” will also do nothing for getting you your dream job.  If you’re hungry, be hungry damnit, and satiate that appetite from day 1 - on your own.  The best way to get the job (and pay!) that you deserve is to demonstrate that you’re worth it.  If I were a betting woman, I’d tell MBAs looking to break into our world to take on some intensive consulting hours (I repeat: no absurdly esoteric projects on social media), to meet interesting people for the sake of meeting them/learning vs. job-grubbing, and assure them that things will take shape from there.  A lot of times graduating MBAs ask me where they should “look” for job postings – ummm?  Decide what you job want and show/tell your dream company why they need that role and why you are going to crush it in that capacity.  And don’t forget what you learned in the core!

All right, my first diatribe is complete; go ahead, start ripping me apart… and as a final disclaimer, let me say that I told my story here because I know it best, but I’ll tell you with confidence that the most highly-regarded MBA new hires at start-ups these days took very similar paths.  Remember, no MBA >>> lazy MBA.

Let the scornful comments commence!
Cassie
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Here goes nothing…

I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging for months (if not years), and I’m pleased to announce that I finally feel inspired enough to get this party started.  You’re welcome.

I’d like to thank my team from my time at Savored for inspiring the name of this scintillating read.  Always one to refrain from evangelizing my opinions until I am damn certain that I’m right, I’ve been known to bide my time with the expression “If I were a betting woman,” followed by initial assessment. My fine crop has come to tease me incessantly about this one-liner, and in their honor, I will aim to weave it throughout my insights.

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