Trust Your Gut When Founding A Company by Anne Kreamer

This piece first appeared on Quartz. In 1996, Carley Roney and her husband David Liu, launched a wedding site called The Knot. Creating a wedding information business was not an obvious next step for the couple, who met while attending New York University film school.

Today, it is the premiere wedding site. The metrics are frankly astonishing. Each year, roughly two million marriage licenses are issued in the US—and each year about 1.8 million “wedding events” are registered on The Knot’s database. According to ComScore, The Knot receives five million unique visits a month, more than the next four wedding sites combined. That means 80% of American couples (predominantly brides) planning a wedding visit the site.

But serving this kind of massive female audience wasn’t an obvious internet play at the time Roney and Liu conceived of the business. “The internet was brand new,” says Roney, “and it was all men in those days—sports stats, computer message boards, etc.—so launching anything women-oriented was a stretch.”

Roney and Liu told Quartz about the biggest professional risks they’ve taken. For Roney, it was committing to The Knot as a brand, for Liu, an acquisition the company made shortly after its IPO.

The following has been edited for clarity:

Roney: In hindsight, it seems like a brilliant brand decision, but in 1996, naming our “new way to plan a wedding,” The Knot, was just a risky move made by an amateur. I literally pulled this idea out of thin air. Cool name for the service that will solve all your wedding problems and be different, modern, and fun? The Knot, like “tying the knot.” Simple. It became the first of hundreds on a whiteboard. I had absolutely no experience in branding, but it was the only name I believed in. Not everyone agreed. I had no budget for a focus group, but the informal research I did attempt garnered mixed responses, at best.

“The what? Not? Not what? Oh, with a K. Knot. Oh, OK. Yeah.” Not exactly a homerun. The silent k. The awkward idiomatic reference. Our founding investors at AOL were so against the choice that they held our wire transfer hostage in the hopes we’d change our mind. (They preferred the more literal “Weddings Online”—better for search, they begged.) But I held my breath, dug in my heels, and promised my partners it was perfect. We were headed beyond the internet, and it was the only name that would both differentiate us from all the tired bridal clutter and work when we wanted to brand books, magazines, TV, etc.

This quirky name, with all its faults, could have been the death of us in a search and data-driven world, but it is considered by many to be one of the secrets to our success. It worked. Once people heard it (plus the explanation of course, “…As in Tying the Knot…”) they didn’t forget it, and wanted to tell someone else about it. Eight of 10 couples in America now use our service, and this marketshare was won almost exclusively by word of mouth.

Liu: One of the biggest risks I’ve taken was an acquisition we made right after our IPO. We went public in December 1999 and we were one of the last consumer internet businesses to get out. It was the first internet bubble so we were not profitable with very little revenue, but we managed to get a $150 million valuation and raised $35 million. Most dotcoms back then used their IPO proceeds to feed the beast by either buying traffic or spending breathtaking amounts on advertising. Super Bowl ads were very much in vogue with the newly IPOed dotcom set.

Instead, we used a big chunk of our cash to buy a 12-year-old, money-losing, local magazine business [Weddingpages] in Omaha, Nebraska. I think what made it so risky was that it was universally frowned upon. The equity analysts who covered our stock could not believe we would jeopardize our pure-play digital media multiple by introducing into the mix, a low-margin traditional publishing business—that was losing money to boot.

I remember shareholders would post on the Yahoo Finance message-boards under our stock quote and accuse me of smoking crack. Internally, the difficulty in integrating the business was absurd. I remember the first big meeting post-closing was assembling the 60 local sales people and giving them laptops and our co-founder walking everyone through the steps on how to turn the machines on. Later, when I gave my speech to the group about my belief that one day, the internet advertising they would sell would exceed the print sales, I remember you could hear a pin drop in the room. Most of the salespeople thought I’d lost my mind because back then they gave the internet away for free as value add to sell the print. It was a hard three years, but we were able to generate enough cashflow in three years to pay back the purchase price. Today, our local business accounts for over 70% of the total revenue of our company.

What If You Don't Want to Be a Manager? by Anne Kreamer

Imagine that you've invested years of blood, sweat and tears at work, and have successfully climbed the corporate ladder, only to wake up one day and realize that you sort of hate what you're doing. Sure, you used to love it, and the more successful you became, the higher up the ranks of management you went. But now, instead of doing the hands-on work that you loved, you find yourself buried in managerial tasks like budgeting and supervising people that leave you feeling numb at best. You find yourself in the ironic position where all your hard work and success have landed you in a job that leaves you feeling empty, frustrated, and unfulfilled. That's what happened to me. But how? Or better yet, why?

Feeling unfulfilled in your management job?

As I rose through the executive ranks to my last incarnation, EVP and Worldwide Creative Director for Nickelodeon, instead of feeling directly connected to the creation of our programming and other content, I found myself spending nearly all my time in meetings with corporate peers and higher-ups. In theory, I should have been happy. I was working with good, creative people (many of whom remain my close friends), I was earning a great income, and the company made cool stuff that my own young kids loved. But. But. I was merely managing the people who actually did and made things. I no longer operated in my personal sweet spot, where my sense of accomplishment after closing a difficult sale or launching a new product was contingent on my having had a concretedeliverable and the sense that my efforts were integral to its success. Being a manager caused me to feel disconnected from what career analyst Daniel Pink has identified as the three primary motivators of behavior: autonomy, mastery and purpose. I had little autonomy, little interest in gaining mastery as a manager (in spite of myriad coaches), and felt dissociated from my true self.

Why do we reward success on the job with a promotion out of the job and into management? It's a phenomenon that reveals antiquated flaws in organizational design (neither employees nor companies are in the long-term pension-building loyalty business anymore) as well as a 20th century, pre-behavioral economics lack of understanding about what really makes people tick at work. Companies continue to cling to the notion that one of the only mechanisms they have to acknowledge employees' talent is to make them managers and then to continue to promote them into ever-higher levels of management — reflecting the misguided assumption that being good at something also means being able to (and wanting to) manage others doing the same thing. Once in management, its trappings — 401k's, bigger compensation packages and offices, fancy titles — don't really satisfy many of us who, like me, miss the doing. But because we often identify ourselves with our job titles (I'm Director of Marketing) — buying into the idea that clear titles confer status and meaning — it remains hard to envision work in the absence of titles. Management titles allow us to mark our growth, and our maturity. And it's for all of these reasons that it took me a long time to realize that being in management was wrong for me.

I know now from my research into the science of emotion, that as corporate executive I felt like I had to pretend to be something I wasn't — I didn't like being a manager, but I was a manager, so I had to appear to be interested in all the stuff that went along with being a manager. This is something social scientists call "emotion labor" — what you experience when you feel obliged to act differently from your natural inclinations. Eventually, I quit my job and, over the course of several years and false starts, I reinvented myself as a journalist and author — a job where I manage no one (autonomy), make my own rules (purpose), and have very concrete results (mastery) when my work is published.

When I made my leap, I discovered that while there are countless books and courses about how to be a better manager, there are pretty much no roadmaps for how to keep succeeding if you decide you don't want to manage others. So, here are a few thoughts, based on my own experience, for others who feel that management may be wrong for them:

You Can Stay at Your Company, But Forge a New Path

Unlike me, perhaps you don't have to leave. Talk to your bosses about your issues and partner with them to create a different track for yourself. For example, when my husband started as a young writer at Time magazine, there was only one career path — work hard as a staff writer, and eventually you might be promoted to senior editor. In the early 80s, Time created a position for those who did not want to go into management — "senior writer," which came with internal prestige, and commensurate salary bumps.

This is something more companies need to address. To remain globally competitive, organizations need to devise innovative ways to encourage and reward creativity. The unorthodox titles embraced by start-ups — directors of fun, ministers of information — can seem ridiculous, but the emphasis on improvising new ways of doing business is important. Furthermore, research conducted by Office Team found that 76% of employees did not want their boss's job. If employees are no longer responding to the old carrots, it's time for companies to establish new means of rewarding talent.

You Can Find A Company That Shares Your Values

There are plenty of companies that are doing away with traditional corporate structures. For example, Michael Abrash, a member of the Valve software developer community, has a radical notion of corporate structure, where project teams coalesce and dissolve continually within an organization. He believes that fixed organizational structure impedes innovation. And plenty of other people feel the same. You may find yourself more in tune with an organization that has this type of flat hierarchy.

You Can Strike Out On Your Own

And of course, you can always forge your own path. Just be sure to think through the following before you take the leap:

Have a clear idea of what success means to you. It sounds obvious, but most of us unthinkingly internalize others' definitions.

Know that income flow will have peaks and valleys. Few of us are lucky enough to land clients on retainer, so understand out of the box that your income will fluctuate from month to month.

Don't quit without figuring out your monthly nut, especially including health care — and then figure out how you can reduce expenses. Make your nut fit the dream, and not the other way around. And don't quit without a reserve to handle the times when there's little or no monthly income — anticipate your worst-case scenario. Mine happened a few months after I'd quit my big job when my husband was fired from his well-paid (management) job.

Understand that as a freelancer, you will have to be a consummate sales-and-marketer of yourself and that you'll have to develop thick skin to handle the rejection.

Know that there are days where you'll feel lonely working by yourself. Fortunately, the networked world can mitigate this problem as never before.

Embrace the idea of moving from project to project as a way to learn and grow and stay relevant.

One thing that people who have left management may underestimate is the blow to self-esteem that can happen when you can no longer simply define with a title what it is that you do for a living. Although that's changing in the emerging world of co-working, freelancing, and zig-zagging careers, titles still have meaning, and it requires clarity and courage to say "thanks, but no thanks" to that management position. But take it from me: being an ambitious round peg in a prestigious square hole is no way to spend a working life.

Better Writers Make More Money by Anne Kreamer

I recently discovered fascinating data generated by Grammerly, the online proofreading tool. They reviewed 448 freelance professionals’ profiles for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors on Elance, an online staffing platform, and discovered that people with stronger writing skills are better at their jobs and get paid more.  Here's a graphic highlighting their findings.

Not Taking Risks Is The Riskiest Career Move Of All by Anne Kreamer

This piece first appeared in Harvard Business Review.

Mark was a survivor. Until he was fired in 2012, six months shy of his 50th birthday, he’d done everything right — rising through the ranks of the book publishing industry, from editorial assistant to associate editor to senior editor, then into management as an editor-in-chief. But as e-books and Amazon destabilized the industry, and waves of consolidation contracted available jobs, Mark (not his real name) admits today that he hadn’t “paid attention to the writing on the wall.” He confessed that he’d spent the 18 months prior to being fired living in denial as his team was reorganized. “Despite that,” he says, “I clung to my job rather than start thinking about how to leave. At that point, I couldn’t conceive of a life outside of the confines of corporate publishing, of not being at the center of the club I’d been a part of — and a star in — since the age of 21.”

Mark’s story is a cautionary tale for us all. In my experience, Mark’s kind of wishful thinking — that things will sort themselves out on their own — rarely works out. Not taking action has costs that can be as consequential as taking risks; it’s simply less natural to calculate and pay attention to the “what-ifs” of inaction. In today’s marketplace, where jobs and job categories are being destroyed and invented at an accelerating rate, I’d argue that the riskiest move one can make is to assume that your industry or job is secure. Just ask former employees of Countrywide, British Petroleum, or Newsweek if you doubt me. Former Chief Talent Officer of Netflix, Patty McCord, says that companies should stop lying to people about their job security, because there’s simply no such thing.

Research I conducted in 2012, 2013, and 2014 with the global advertising agency J. Walter Thompson for Risk/Reward, my forthcoming book, suggests that anxiety about our job futures weighs heavily these days. More than half of the respondents to our surveys — all over the U.S., with people ranging from janitors to CEOs, old as well as young — were thinking of changing not just their jobs, but their careers. Think about that. Half of all Americans long to do something dramatically different with their working lives.

But it’s hard to jettison a career decades in the making in the pursuit of something new. There’s an enormous gap between dreaming about doing something different, particularly if one has spent years building skills and rising through the ranks, and actually doing anything about it. It’s terrifying to think about just letting go of one’s hard-earned law degree and years invested on the law-firm partner track in order to write for television, as an acquaintance of mine has done. Most people dream, but fail to act.

What stops us? There are all sorts of complicated financial and behavioral barriers to risk-taking — loss and risk aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, poor planning — but basically it boils down to the fact that as human beings, we are wired to resist giving up the known for the unknown. None of us tolerates ambiguity well — particularly when the losses and gains underpin our livelihoods or the projected long-term happiness of our families. Psychologically, particularly during tough economic times, people feel driven to hold onto an unsatisfactory job rather than gamble on something with uncertain odds that might be better in the long run. And we all have different levels of innate risk tolerance that inform our calculus for evaluating probable gains and losses. So how can we turn self-defeating inaction into sensible action?

Start by building vibrant networks. In Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behavior professor at INSEAD, writes that people’s existing “contacts [don’t] help them reinvent themselves…the networks we rely on in a stable job are rarely the ones that lead us to something new and different.” There’s a reason, when we’re interested in making a 45- or 90-degree career shift, why most jobs suggested by headhunters rarely feel right. The majority of people we know in one line of work can only imagine us continuing to do the same thing.  So as we meet more people employed in a wide range of professions, our ability to imagine ourselves doing something different grows stronger.

Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter discovered that the contacts most helpful to people looking for new jobs were neither their closest friends, nor new acquaintances, but rather people with whom they had relatively weak ties that had been forged and maintained over several years. In addition, the more different their contacts’ occupations were from their own jobs, the more likely people were to successfully make a major career change.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to change in our working lives is the sense that any significant change has to be all or nothing. I either quit my miserable job or just suck it up and grind along.I’ve got to make a comprehensive business plan before I test whether my English muffin/croissant hybrid and baked-goods truck can generate enough income for me to live. I’m good at structuring logical arguments so I should quit sales and become a lawyer. Instead, we need to break problems into small actions. The more logically-oriented person might, for instance, test-drive the legal profession as a paralegal before assuming the expensive three-year commitment of getting a law degree. The amateur cook with a killer recipe could approach a local bakery with his novel product to see if they’d be willing to sell it, getting market feedback before spending time crafting a business plan for a new venture. The person in the miserable job could volunteer weekends in an organization they think might make them happier — learning what the work is really like from the inside before chucking it all on a dream that may be a fantasy. Then, armed with real-world data, each of those hypothetical career-changers would have more clarity and about the correct next steps. The trick is to start with the immediately, manageably doable and do.

We need to continue to find new challenges, and to acquire the skills to meet those challenges. Moreover, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, the act of committing to goals also provides structure and meaning to our lives that leads to more overall happiness. She quotes G.K. Chesterton in this regard: “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”

Real life, by necessity, is improvisational and interactive, crafted incrementally through our responses to the particular circumstances at this moment in time, and the next, and then the next. As author Tom Peters wrote, “I have said and mean with all my heart I’ve only learned one thing ‘for sure’ in 48 years: WTTMSW. Whoever tries the most stuff wins.”

How 'Finding Nemo' Changed One Woman's Life by Anne Kreamer

I'm a firm believer that you cannot change your life without getting out of the house.  And that inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places.   Kiki Kienstra told Studio 360 how a kid's animated movie was the catalyst she needed to jump start her settled career.

From the Studio 360 blog:

"Kiki Kienstra had a good job teaching kindergarten, a nice apartment, and a community of friends. “I didn’t have a big need for change,” she remembers. “You know, everything was fine, so why rock the boat?”

One day, on a whim, she saw Finding Nemo, a Pixar movie about a clownfish named Marlin on a quest to find his missing son. At one point, Marlin and his traveling companion, Dory, find themselves inside a whale. They must decide whether to continue to cling to the whale’s tongue or let go and face an unknown future.

“I realized when I saw that scene that I needed to make a decision about my life,” Kienstra says. “Just staying in my life — just hanging onto the tongue — I wasn’t doing anything. I needed to let go of the tongue and see what happened.” When she let go, Kienstra packed up all her things and followed her dream to teach in a foreign country."

Listen here.

Growing A New Life by Anne Kreamer

Eileen Hugelier

Eileen Hugelier

Lack of institutional loyalty, by both employers and employees, means that most of us constantly churn through different notions for professional reinvention. As a hobbyist gardener, and as the growing season looms, I found the The Wall Street Journal profile of Eileen Hugelier, who "now spends her days designing, planting, pruning and tending gardens around her leafy hometown of Farmington Hills, Michigan, particularly inspiring.  "At 60, she's the owner of Roots & Shoots Gardening, which she founded in 2002."  If the notion of creating a new model for working life that includes a built-in, annual sabbatical is compelling, read on.

"In all likelihood, Ms. Hugelier would still be working in an office if she hadn't been laid off in 2001. She spent 32 years working in a variety of office-management roles for a manufacturing company in Detroit that ended up filing for bankruptcy. 'I was one of the last to be laid off, but it was still a shock," Ms. Hugelier says. 'It felt like a death in the family to see the company go under.'  Shock soon gave way to practicality—a need to pay the mortgage and medical insurance. An avid gardener and (to keep reading)

How To Be An Explorer Of The World by Anne Kreamer

Observe, Collect, Analyze, Compare, Notice Patterns

Keri Smith describes herself as author/illustrator turned guerilla artist.  One night when she couldn't sleep she made a 13 point list for How to Be an Explorer of the World.  "1.  Always be looking.  7. Notice patterns and connections. 13.  Use all of the sense in your investigations."  She distilled those thirteen points by connecting more dots...."artists and scientists analyze the world around them in surprisingly similar ways. Observe Collect Analyze Compare Notice Patterns.

I'm late in discovering this 2008 book, but it's timeless. Pick it up to break out of a rut.

One Question For David Carr by Anne Kreamer

In memoriam for my friend, David Carr, who died yesterday. We talked about work and risk in 2012. David was a media and culture columnist for The New York Times. In his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, he detailed his past experiences with addiction and includes interviews with people from his past, tackling his memoir as if he were reporting on himself.


Q: What’s the most significant risk you’ve taken professionally?

David:  Back when my twins were getting ready for college, it was clear that we had not done the financial footwork to help them with the terrifying costs. I decided it might help  to do a memoir based on a personal history of addiction that involved some remarkably unsavory behavior. The book, The Night of the Gun, attempted to advance the genre of junkie memoir by reporting out my memories by doing video-taped interviews and digging into medical and legal records. It was, in retrospect, a very satisfying journalistic and literary endeavor, something that I felt good about. But given that I work at the New York Times, it's portrait of a narcissistic and occasionally brutal man who eventually sobered up and gained custody of his children presented some, um, optical issues. Specifically, what would my bosses think of not only the book I had done, but the things that I had done? I can remember when a draft was finished, I went to my boss at the time, Sam Sifton, and he said he would walk it down to the editors, but gently suggested it might be better if I was the one who delivered the manuscript. He was right, but I felt like putting on oven mitts or grabbing a pair of tongs to hand it off. As it turned out, Bill Keller, the editor of the Times, thought the book was just fine. Probably not exactly his cup, but as he said at the time -- and I am paraphrasing -- "We don't hire nuns. The work you did is carefully reported and reflects the standards that we have here at the paper." I was and am proud of the book and if it means that every once in a while someone who doesn't like me or my work dismisses me as a crackhead, I'm OK with that. As Whitman suggested, we all contain multitudes, and that history is part of who I am. But I am also a respected person in my business, a decent father and husband, and someone who works on my own recovery and tries to help others when I can. I proceed through life with my worst secrets already manifest, and there is something to be said for that.

10% Happier by Anne Kreamer

In his book, 10% Happier, newscaster Dan Harris, suggests that rather than trying to be happy all the time it's more attainable to imagine what it might feel like to be incrementally happier. A modest improvement can be transformative. Harris honestly reveals his struggle with drug addiction, ego, competitiveness and the journey he takes to quiet the negative voices in his head.

"...The voice in my head can be a total pill. I'd venture to guess yours can, too. Most of us are so entranced by the non-stop conversation we're having with ourselves that we aren't even aware we have a voice in our head...To be clear, I'm not talking about "hearing voices," I'm talking about the internal narrator, the most intimate part of our lives. The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It's a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It's fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It's what has us reaching into the fridge when we're not hungry, losing our temper when we know it's not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we're ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings. Our inner chatter isn't all bad, of course. Sometimes it's creative, generous, or funny. but if we don't pay close attention -- which very few of us are taught how to do -- it can be a malevolent puppeteer."

Harris' exploration of faith -- encountering Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, the Dalai Lama and Mark Epstein -- leads him to meditation. When a colleague asked him "What's with you and the whole meditation thing?," he replied, "'I do it because it makes me 10% happier.' The look on her face instantly changed. What had been a tiny glimmer of scorn was suddenly transformed into an expression of genuine interest. 'Really?,' she said, 'that sounds pretty good, actually.' Boom, I'd found my schtick. 10% happier: it had the dual benefit of being catchy and true. It was the perfect answer, really -- simultaneously counterprogramming against the overpromising of the self-helpers while also offering an attractive return on investment."