CentSai’s Doria Lavagnino (left) with Muse CEO and co-founder Kathryn Minshew
Not long ago, I was asked to name someone in the New York City start-up community whom I admired. For me, it was a no-brainer: Muse CEO and co-founder Kathryn Minshew, a woman who in her 20s humanized job searching through her platform.
A day or two after the article was published in NYC Alley, Minshew’s public relations manager emailed me and asked if I would like to meet her. Um, hell yes!
Minshew started The Muse in 2011. It currently has 50 million annual users, and her revenue is in the “double-digit millions.”
She also recently became an advisor to X Factor Ventures, a seed-stage venture fund for companies with a female founder.
I met Minshew in her office for the 20 minutes she had to spare in her routine 18-hour workday. Her tenacity inspired me. We spoke about how she approached 148 angel investors and venture capitalists until she found her early backers.
Here are some nuggets from our conversation for other investors to enjoy:
Doria Lavagnino of CentSai: What makes you a successful entrepreneur?
Kathryn Minshew: Any successful entrepreneur would have to acknowledge the mix of things — one of which is luck — that got them where they are.
I came up with The Muse at a time when the world was almost ripe for it to exist.
If I tried to start The Muse even two years earlier, I’m not sure it would have succeeded.
I have a sharp sense of how to get people’s attention to build a relationship with a product. The Muse had 20,000 users its first month, 26,000 its second, and 65,000 its third. That run alone was what allowed us to get some of our early backers.
DL: How did you get that early traction? Was that through social media?
KM: It was a mix of things. Many learned from my previous company, which was a failure. Out of that came a lot of good learnings.
DL: What was your previous company?
KM: It was called PYP Media, and it died a very painful death after 10 months. At the time, I didn’t see what good could come of it. But when we started The Muse [first called the Daily Muse], it was a combination of social media support, a grassroots marketing campaign that involved me personally emailing about 800 student groups, alumni groups, and young professional associations.
We also benefited greatly from syndication from other content partners in our third month of existence. Part of that huge bump from 26,000 to 65,000 users was driven by the fact that, at one point in time, three of the top five most popular articles on Forbes were our Muse-syndicated pieces.
We also had a tremendous word-of-mouth wave, which I'm so, so grateful for to this day.
DL: You’ve spoken publicly about approaching 148 venture capitalists and angel investors seeking investment. How did you get through this? At number 120, what made you go to angel or VC 121?
KM: There are two ways I’ll answer that. First, I wish our first version of The Muse product had looked more fundable. Because I think our vision was very fundable, we wanted to create a more human career platform to help people with everything from finding a job to keeping a job while incorporating articles with job listings and a community in a unique way.
But when most investors looked at the product they saw only a blog, which really hurt us. In retrospect, I think some of the pain could have been avoided by including a section on the site saying, “Job Search Coming Soon!” or other very early indicators of the full vision, regardless of whether we had the full resources to build it out at that moment.
Second, I think getting any business off the ground requires a tremendous amount of persistence.
More so if you are doing something that doesn’t align with any of the prevailing trends of what’s hot and fundable or is targeting a segment of the market that is underserved or not understood by the investing community.
Having a community of others around you that can help you recognize that while the experience can be painful, it’s not necessarily reflective of your merit as an entrepreneur or as a business owner. Also, because we had a live product, we got user traction and feedback.
And your question of going from 120 to 121… I was fueled by getting emails every day from people who said, “This is exactly what I need,” or, “I love this concept, but this site doesn’t go far enough, and here are 10 more things that would be magical for me” — all of which were things that were feasible or that we were planning on doing in the future.
And so, as hard as it was to get all those rejections — and sometimes it made me question my ability as Kathryn to raise funding — I also felt a lot of confidence in the core soundness of the business need because of the feedback from individual users.
DL: One of the biggest lessons I have learned at CentSai is how important the user feedback loop is.
KM: And that can change over time. There are things that we built or focused on that were hugely successful in 2013 that lost their specialness.
DL: Like what?
KM: Certain types of content. There’s another large career site that just takes our headlines. And you know, three days later they publish another article. Actually, there’s more than one site that has done this. Some of them are larger and some of them are smaller. And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
But if someone is doing everything you’re doing, but two to five days later, then you have to think about how to continue out-innovating them. Otherwise, you just become indistinguishable to the average consumer.
DL: You remind me of a clip I watched of you earlier. It was on CNBC in 2013. One of the questions that the interviewer asked was, “Well, there’s LinkedIn, so how are you going to compete?” What do you say to that today, being where you are?
KM: Look how far we have come. LinkedIn has been at its peak strength for most of the five-plus years we have been alive, yet millions of people still come to The Muse because they are looking for something different.
There are a lot of differences that I would call out between our two platforms. But there’s a quote I love that encapsulates some of the biggest differences between us, which is, “It is always better to cultivate a relationship than a transaction.”
For so long, the job search space has been firmly transactional. It’s been type these keywords, look at this list of jobs, see which one has the best title, and apply to a bunch.
LinkedIn took a big step forward in making the job search more relational by its focus on building your network. But LinkedIn doesn’t work as well for people who don't have an existing network, either because they are early in their career or because their network is in one field and they want to move to another.
And even when you can leverage your network, there aren't a lot of other ways to really understand more about the company and its personality — its cultural DNA — other than tapping your network.
There’s a tremendous opportunity for us to continue helping companies present themselves during the entire life cycle more authentically — more originally — and helping candidates learn about a company, consider it, research it, get interested, and get involved in the candidate experience.
DL: Who is or was your greatest mentor and why?
KM: That’s a tough question because I've always preferred to have an informal personal board of advisors than a single mentor. In fact, while there are many, many people who have mentored me in various ways, it’s hard to call out just one.
At any given time, I often have five to eight people who I can call or email about different questions.
I think in the early days at The Muse, peer mentorship was incredibly powerful — finding other individuals who were at my stage or six months further. I think one individual who was very powerful early on was Rachel Sklar, who is very active in tech in New York and across the country.
She was one of the first people I met — actually before The Muse existed, when I was working on PYP. She helped introduce me to many of the people who were really impactful early on. She got me on television for the first time. She was incredible.
DL: You raised $16 million in 2016. Are you going to the market for series C?
KM: At some point, we are likely to go back. We have the luxury of generating enough revenue so that we don’t have to go back anytime soon.
DL: Can you say anything about your revenue?
KM: It’s been reported elsewhere in the double-digit millions. We don’t want to get more specific than that right now.
DL: What would a good exit look like for The Muse?
KM: We try to make decisions internally assuming that we want to build a company that will be around for a decade. So that impacts how do we set up our organization, our product, and our team.
DL: Muse was founded in 2011. You are looking ahead 10 years from now?
KM: Yes. We’ve had many companies in the space try to buy us at various points in time. It’s not that we wouldn’t consider the right thing if it came along, but I think great companies are always bought, not sold.
I would much rather build this business as if we are going to remain independent, take it public, and build a globally known and loved brand in the space. And to consider any alternatives if they come along, but from a position of strength.
DL: I noticed you were also involved in X Factor Ventures, a brand-new seed fund. Can you tell me a little about that?
KM: I recently joined a seed-stage venture fund, as an advisor, called X Factor, which focuses on companies that have one or more female founders. I am an advisor there, which means that I don't make initial decisions on investments, but I am involved in helping to make sure that we have the right resources and connections for the companies we do invest in.
My interest in getting involved is that I am deeply passionate about creating a more inclusive technology industry. I think that there are so many fascinating, gnarly, big problems to solve that will best be solved by people who experience them, which — in many cases — are not white people, men, or any other majority demographic.
One of the challenges that I’ve seen many women experience in this space is being underestimated, marginalized, discounted — unintentionally in many cases — because of their gender or the way they look. And I wanted to personally be involved in changing that.
I want to be sure X Factor doesn’t just fund white women who are privileged.
We need to really look at a very inclusive and broad set of companies and founders.
That said, I am working upwards of 90 hours a week on The Muse, so I had to limit my involvement in X Factor in order for it to remains my first priority.
DL: What female-led companies do you admire?
KM: Many of them! Right now I’m deeply inspired by Stitch Fix and Katrina Lake. I think what she has done is impressive against any metrics, but in particular her capital efficiently is wildly impressive.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jen [Hyman] from Rent the Runway. And the brand and product she has built. An unsung hero who should get far more attention than she does is co-founder Michelle [Zatlyn] at CloudFlare. She's a total boss.
And just for fun, I’ll give you three early-stage CEO’s to watch:
Nicole Sanchez, founder of Credit Hero, which is tackling a massive and underserved market of people who are struggling with credit. I’ve known her for four years, she is incredibly tenacious, super smart, and I’m a huge fan.
Then there’s Rachel Renock, founder of Wethos. It’s a platform for non-profits to find freelancers. A lot of non-profits try to keep overhead low by restricting full-time employees. They do a tremendous amount of work with contractors, consultants, and freelancers.
Lastly, Ashwini [Anburajan]. She started a company called OpenUp, a data-grab for retail.
I really like being as involved as I can for the community of women entrepreneurs.
DL: If you could choose a person to be on the one-dollar bill, who would it be?
KM: Harriet Tubman, which is long overdue.
DL: In your book, The New Rules of Work, is there one takeaway for young women?
KM: The rules for how to succeed in your career are changing. What was true even three to five years ago may not be true today. We are moving to a world where each individual is expected to have ownership and agency over the direction of his or her career.
It’s no longer okay to assume that if you put your head down and do great work, you’ll be noticed, rewarded, and promoted. People need to be deliberate and thoughtful about who they are, what they want, and whether your employer is actively offering you the chance to improve your skills.
There are other ways to learn — either deliberately through your current role, or outside of work — and I think that the future is being built by people who are going out and making a claim for what they want.