Finding Your Path: Making it on Your Own
We spend the first 20 years of our lives being asked what we want to be when we grow up. Then we spend the next 20 finding out for ourselves.
And though that can be exciting, it’s not easy. The first part of our lives is, with few exceptions, a step-by-step, guided path: Elementary school. High school. College. But after that, the roadmap stops. While you might have dreams and ideas of what you want to achieve in your career, the path getting there isn’t easily paved. And it’s different for everyone.
That’s why we’re bringing you this series: Over the next few months, 40:20 Vision will feature successful 40-something women sharing their stories on how they found their career path, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. While everyone’s career path is ultimately different, we also know there’s a lot we can learn from the journeys of those who’ve been there.
Michelle Madhok, CEO and Founder, SheFinds Media
What did you want to be when you were a kid? Barbie. She had all the cool stuff.
Education: University of California at Berkeley, BS Communications; Northwestern University, MS, Marketing
First job: Promotion Marketing Manager for CBS Broadcasting
Secret hiring tip: If they aren’t smiling in their Facebook photo, don’t hire them.
Three closet staples every 20-something should have: I believe in designer shoes, statement jewelry, and at least one designer handbag.
Background: Michelle Madhok’s first job was in many ways her dream job—no boss, lots of freedom, meeting tons of interesting people. But as she climbed the corporate ladder—leading New Media at CBS and running Women’s Content at AOL, she increasingly felt stifled by the large company environment. She longed to be able to call the shots without the red tape or hierarchy.
She had to wait 10 years to get her dream back—but she did. When she was laid off at AOL, her severance package (combined with her desire to never again have a boss) provided the window of opportunity she needed to start SheFinds in 2004. The first site to give women everywhere instant access to the latest trends and fashionable deals, SheFinds has been explosively successful, now incorporating two new brands (MomFinds and BrideFinds) and grossing in the seven figures.
With a fun nature, refreshing honesty, and street smarts (whether that street is Park Avenue or Main Street), Madhok is an inspiration to anyone who’s ever thought about starting her own company. Read on to find out how she re-captured her dream.
Shortly after getting your Master’s degree, you ended up at the forefront of new media. How did that happen?
I interviewed at CBS and they asked me, “do you do internet?” I replied, “I have an AOL account,” and with that, they put me in charge of cbs.com. It was 1995. No one liked “new media.” It wasn’t sexy. It was all about big media.
Then the internet took off and I grew the department to 70 people and worked with everyone from the soap operas to Letterman.
So you should never underestimate the power of the unsexy job! What made you leave?
I was restless. So I applied and was accepted to a top program for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. I think we all have that vision of writing the great American novel. Then I freaked out. AOL was trying to recruit me to run women’s content and I thought, “I can’t miss out on business history by locking myself in a room and writing a novel.”
What did you learn in the corporate world that helps you today?
The connections and knowing how things work gave me a head start. At AOL, I had 12 bosses in four years. So when one of the companies I deal with now goes through organizational change, I know how to finesse the relationship so we can continue to do business. You have to get back in there.
What was the downside of corporate life?
I grew tired of the politics and inefficiency. I had lots of great ideas, but felt frustrated and stymied by the structure. I got along with my peers and did a kick-ass job, but I wasn’t good with authority. I don’t kiss up well, apparently! It was soul-crumbling and exhausting.
What as your “aha moment” in realizing that you had a business idea?
When I worked at AOL in Virginia, I discovered that the nearby outlets had all these great designer items—that no one was buying! I was always a competitive shopper, so I would take my finds and sell them to co-workers and friends or on eBay. I thought, “there’s something here about people who have neither the time nor the know-how to search out the latest trends and find them at a good price."
But, of course, having an idea and acting on an idea are two different things. What was the turning point for you?
I was laid off from AOL and pitching the idea of combining e-commerce and content to other companies—and I was getting a lot of nos. I wasn’t sure about starting my own company yet. It was scary. WebMD offered me a job and I cried. I didn’t want to do it. I stalled, asking for more money and a better title.
Then I heard a speech by the Sam Adams founder who had left a big job. He said, “if I want to go back to Boston Consulting, I can always go back. I want to give this a try.” That’s what pushed me over the edge of my fear. I took my $20,000 severance and started the business in my apartment.
When you’re crying over going back to work at a company, that’s a good sign it’s not the right move! What’s the best thing about running your own company now?
Every dollar I bring in is a dollar I’m not going back to work. Sometimes I look around the office and think, “I can’t believe I pay all these people. I can’t believe I created all these jobs out of nothing.” I’m doing what I love and have my own schedule.
Complete this sentence: Don’t become an entrepreneur if…
If you aren’t prepared to do anything it takes to get something done. I did everything. I found a guy in the Ukraine to build my site. I bartered the URL from a woman in Indiana who ran a porn site. I was writing thousands of invoices a month. It was inch by inch.
Do become an entrepreneur if…
If you have an idea and you can figure out how to make money out of it. Some people start companies with the goal of flipping. My goal was not to go back to work. How many sites today shut down because there’s no revenue model? It’s like selling air. I don't wake up every day saying, “how am I going to sell this business?” I wake up every day saying, “how am I going to make this grow?”
What did you learn on your path that you’d share with women in their 20s?
I would have been more understanding of other people’s positions. I realize now that I didn’t always know the whole story. Think about how you can help other people—because you need allies to get things done. And read a lot of books about how to manage people. One of my favorites is First Break All the Rules.
Follow Michelle and her fashionable finds on @shefinds and look out for her book, Wear. This. Now., a complete guide to everything you need to have in your closet! (Coming August 2012)
Check out more from the Finding Your Path series at The Daily Muse!
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