At the age of 33, and with an estimated net worth of $2.3 million USD, Kathryn Minshew, the founder and CEO of career portal The Muse, doesn’t fit the profile of big Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Rather, her career resonates with the experience of many young entrepreneurs today, and offers us unique insights that we can apply in our own businesses.
After losing her life savings in a failed entrepreneurial venture in 2010, Minshew launched The Muse with the help of her co-founders, Alexandra Cavoulacos and Melissa McCreery in 2011. She was named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list the same year, and has been instrumental in shaping and growing the business, which has now helped over 50 million professionals find new jobs. While her career as an entrepreneur had a rough start, her talents as a leader, and her attitude toward her employees ultimately ensured her success.
Minshew originally aspired to work for the US State department as a foreign service officer, and interned at the US embassy in Cyprus. After experiencing a change of heart while working there, she founded her first business, Pretty Young Professionals (PYP), along with 3 co-founders. The business, which focused on providing career development and facilitating job searches for women, was built on Minshew’s own frustrations with finding a suitable position after returning to the US in 2009. She recalls making it to the final round of interviews, only to realise that she wasn’t comfortable with the business’ atmosphere and culture. PYP, and later The Muse, were conceived to address this issue much earlier in the application process.
Less than a year later, she and another co-founder were forced out of of the business without any kind of compensation. This failed venture eventually led to the creation of her current and highly successful venture, The Muse, in 2011.
Harnessing the power of people
While her former co-founders retained most of PYP’s assets, Minshew had the confidence of her team. After explaining the situation to the employees she had recruited for PYP, the entire team stayed with her and Cavoulacos to support them in their next venture, The Muse. Operating in the same industry as PYP, Minshew was able to make immediate use of her and her team’s existing experience to get the new business off the ground. This provided her with an important lesson, that businesses are built by the people who work in them. As a result of their work, The Muse was accepted into tech accelerator YCombinator in 2012, securing $1.2 million in seed funding in 2013. By 2016, the company managed to secure investments totalling nearly $29 million.
Creating a culture of innovation
When looking at her company, it’s immediately obvious that Minshew believes in her employees first and foremost, and takes an active hand in developing the business’ company culture. Moreover, she embraces and prioritises experimentation and innovation in the workplace. On a structural level this is evident through the amount of latitude given to team leaders, and her hands-off attitude toward her subordinates. It’s also reflected in her openness to change and simply trying things out. Employees attend weekly “Things that suck” meetings, where tasks are nominated that will be distributed among an entire group in order to minimise the time any one person has to spend on particularly onerous work. Currently, they’re experimenting with allowing employees to bring infants to work. According to Minshew it’s best to simply try new things to find out whether they work. If not, it’s no big deal, they simply move on.
What we can learn
While certainly innovative, The Muse isn’t built on any particularly disruptive product, and while it’s well-funded, it also doesn’t owe its success to lavish spending. Rather, it’s about supporting and depending on people. The mission of the business itself is to improve the way that people find jobs, and to give people the tools to do so. Beyond that, Minshew has done an excellent job of harnessing the talent that was available to her.
The skills, attitude, culture, and engagement of a business’ team affects the quality of its products, its ability to innovate, and its ability to manage and adapt to change. This is starkly visible when looking at Minshew’s story in regard to PYP. While her former co-founders walked away with all of the company’s assets, Minshew got the team. Today, she is by far the most successful of the four.
As entrepreneurs, it’s easy to focus primarily on investors and potentially disruptive ideas, while largely ignoring the issue of talent. This is a problem, because businesses are ultimately made up of the people who work in them. In order to attract the investment they need, to innovate, and to grow, businesses first need a team that’s up to the challenge.