Dianna Mullins shares her raw thoughts on moving on from founding her startup 12 years ago
Dianna Mullins, Co-Founder, Glam
Dear Glam (aka Mode),
After 12 years to the month I find it is time to say goodbye. The newly assigned leadership has decided that they should continue to develop you without one of your mothers beside you and as hard as it is to do so I must let you go. I need to trust and believe that those family members still fighting for you from within will continue to love and care for you with the same heart and passion we have had throughout all the twists and turns of your life.
You have taught me so much over the years as I have watched you grow and change. I will always be grateful and filled with joy when I look back on our journey.
When we conceived you in 2003 and I was invited to help bring you to life in 2004 the world was such a different place. Office space was empty as the valley was in recovery. We launched you as a bootstrapped startup (the only way we did it back then), with humble offices in Brisbane California with equipment from you sister company, who had found new parents and had gone on with her life a few years prior. Your debut website was launched as an e-commerce destination at NY Fashion Week, the first of her kind — a beautiful fun shopping site for women.
Our investors debated over your revenue model breakdown in those early days. Would it be 50/50 e-commerce to advertising revenue or 100% advertising? It was unclear at that stage in our industry. You don’t always know, so you plan for both. Fun bets were placed between 2 investors. A year or so later that bet was settled with an AMEX black card being tossed across the board room table as acknowledgement of who was right. The winner could pick anything for sale via our website. A vintage handbag was purchased by the winner of that bet.
Things I learned in that first year that I have kept with me, after that humble guerrilla marketing launch.
1. Hire those with ideas they want to expand on and that have a curiosity to explore beyond their current knowledge. We hired a young man that had done great things at one of the largest websites at the time, but wanted to do more. We gave him the space to experiment and learn which gave us ad formats beyond anything that had been distributed across 100’s of sites at one time.
2. Listen to others ideas even when sure of your path. Our CEO always encouraged exploration and change, he called it “the wiggle”. An amazing woman came to speak to us over lunch one day to share her ideas of what was to be the next wave of content creation on the web. Because we listened, within months of launch we incorporated a blog network into our ecosystem giving us the ability to allow advertisers to reach more women through influential blogs in one transaction than ever before.
3. Trust is the queen of all values. The first advertisement you had was from one of the oldest most powerful luxury lifestyle brand that had never advertised online prior due to the fear of tarnishing their image. We assured them they would be safe on you and that this was the beginning of a new generation of content, sites and blogs. We promised them high end fashion bloggers posts would show beside their stunning print quality ads. They trusted and we delivered.
You were becoming a darling of the valley, named one of the most innovative media company in 2010 by Fast Company. Those early years were all about innovation; we tested single sign-on across the blogosphere, monetization of Twitter before the fire hose, allowed bloggers to curate videos from 1000’s of sites into their own monetizable widgets, self-service advertiser buying and more. You had it all, rumors of an IPO, cutting edge technology, brilliant sales and operational teams. The future was bright. During this growth stage the learnings were fast and furious.
1. Know who your customers are and how to add value to all of them. We had multiple stakeholders some with conflicting needs. Learning to balance all of their needs become critical to our success in those chaotic years.
2. Never forget the value of your employees. The early employees hold the space, the energy, the map of where to go as new employees are merged into the fold. New employees need to be allowed to feel they can impact change as well. The status quo is never something to lean on. Encourage new strategies, new thinking, new processes, new products.
3. Founders are containers and keepers of the values and culture. They allow it to change and grow as needed, but always holders of history and learnings but no longer required to be the primary drivers. Look for new strong leadership and let them take the reins but with guidance until they are ready.
Success started to wear on you. You started to go a bit wayward. In hindsight, as any parent should do, i had to look within and question what I could have done differently to help you mature gracefully. I now can see that I also made some mistakes in those years. I made decisions that alienated me from the leadership team, I stopped listening to the ideas brought on by new employees, and I got lost in the noise and success.
Even when you were in those awkward teenage years and you insisted on changing your name to shed yourself from “the box we had put you in” and become something grander and more diverse, I still believed in you and what you wanted to become. Some critical items that were key at this point:
1. Know the stage you are in and live up to it. As with any teenager, discipline and focus become critical to ensure you don’t lose your way. Don’t fear failure, don’t stop the creative process entirely but there must be a solid map and objectives that are measurable during this fragile shift from start-up to maturity:
d. Plan Again.
2. The executive team must be unified. Ego must be put aside. The vision must be for the good of the whole never the individual. If competing visions and misalignment occurs at the core level with this team it is imperative that issues be resolved quickly. The company must come first, even if it means breaking up the entity into smaller parts to allow each to find its path. Some may succeed others may fail but this ensures the entire entity does not fall.
3. The employees need to be shown the map, allowed to contribute and help navigate how to get to the end goal. Without giving them the reigns they are left to feel they have no control and must only follow. Creativity and initiative fall.
I accept my part in not guiding you as well as I could have. I did eventually find my way helping you to launch a few more business lines that were necessary for your survival. But now I must decide what is next for me. I have learned so much from you, I can only hope I have given you and the remaining family what is needed to continue in your evolution. Thanks to all I have learned, I see so many options, a luxury I have sometimes taken for granted growing up as an entrepreneur in the valley.
1. Do I launch my next start-up? I have been blessed with helping to bring 4 companies to life in my career, managing all functions with the exception of CEO and fundraising. This time should I do my own fundraising? A middle aged woman as a first time CEO — a challenging uphill climb that can lead me down a wonderful path.
2. Do I find one or many dynamic small pre-IPO or turnaround company looking for someone to help launch or pivot a division? Something I thrive at and LOVE doing.
3. Do I leave the industry I have grown up in and find something completely new focused around human rights and the safety of women and children around the globe?
Time will tell which direction I am drawn to. My mentor has told me to focus on what I desire most, not just something I am passionate about. So, I will reflect a bit more and trust that all I have learned will help lead me to that next stage of my life.
And now I must leave you with my blessings and gratitude always.
– One of your founders / aka Mom
About the Contributor Dianna Mullins: Dianna is a career Silicon Valley entrepreneur and start-up operator. Most recently co-founder of Mode Media (formerly Glam Media). Mode grew from 10 employees to the #1 Lifestyle Media company and the 6th largest US Media company in reach with 144 Million US & 400 Million global users a month with annual revenues of $100 Million during her time there. Her career has been focused on leading early to mid stage companies; their organizational structures, company culture, team dynamics, monetization strategies and most importantly, developing people. Her core strength is creating the synergy between people, product development and strategy to bring a vision to life.