Preparing for Entrepreneurial Success – One Woman’s Journey

 

Jones:  Welcome to the ‘Tech Lowdown Show’ where each episode will be discussing opportunities in the tech space with entrepreneurs in the U.S. and around the world. I’m your host Chris Jones. I speak with a lot of entrepreneurs who are locked in the struggle to create something new and oftentimes we talk about how entrepreneurship is in the blood, why  to some extent I believe there’s some truth to this, it doesn’t tell the whole story. There is a path of  preparation and learning that can be paired with that natural inclination toward entrepreneurship that can help set you up for success. Today we speak with a ‘Silicon Valley’ entrepreneur who in my opinion has put in the preparation to be successful as an entrepreneur. Dorothee Gutierrez Fisher is co-founder and CMO of Designer Inc., a B2B sourcing in purchasing platform for the interior design industry. Her resume speaks volumes about her. She’s held marketing leadership roles with Nestle, Home Depot, Visa, and YouTube and spent some time at Formspring Bay Area Start-up before launching Designer Inc. Dorothee is a graduate of U.C. Davis and luckily for me a classmate of mine at Kellogg School of Business. Dorothy, welcome to the show; what’s the low down?

Dorothee Hey Jonesy, how are you? I’m excited to be here.

Jones:   Wonderful, it’s awesome to have you. I’m looking forward to this conversation.

Dorothee: And so am I.

Jones: Good, so I want to talk about separation and the work that you put into prepare yourself for where you are today. Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background and if the desire to create a business was something, always something you have vision for yourself or did it evolve to get there?

Dorothee: I think I probably evolve to get there. I started my career at ‘Power Bar’ which was the inventor of the energy bar category. When I started, really it was more like a startup so I was really starting my career in the startup environment without really knowing I was there. We had sixty employees and while during the five years I was there, we launched five different programs.  I was able to work in every discipline of marketing, from new product development, advertising and promotions, and it was just fascinating to see what we took, what it was like to take a contact on people and launch into the marketplace. At the same time though, being living in San Francisco, the tech market was exploding in my backyard. This was during the era when Netscape I.P.O. and so many industries were being disrupted by the Internet space and I wanted to be a part of it. I was completely inspired and fascinated. And so from there you know what, I went to Kellogg in order to really prepare myself. I focused on Finance, Strategy Marketing and I wanted to build all my skill sets so I could really enter this marketplace with everything I needed to succeed. I interned at E-bay that summer between the two years, but by the time we graduated unfortunately, [Unclear 03:14] returning my calls saying we’d love to hire you but I just lost my job so I’m still good luck. So you know from there I looked you know, to see what other skills that I can acquire along the way. As I keep looking for those opportunities and enterprise in Tech, I did a stint in General Management at the Home Depot. I did Loyalty Marketing and Marking Strategy at Visa, and then finally in 2006, 2007, I had the opportunity to join You Tube and I jumped on it, and then that led me to form Spring and then now my latest venture, Designer.

Jones:  That’s awesome, so you were the first marketing person at You Tube after they were acquired by Google. What was that like and what did you learn from that experience?

Dorothee: It was amazing; everything was a new use case. There was no precedent set. So you were creating a foundation for all. You know when you were asking yourself questions like you know, for consumer product marketing program can we really put a user on the red carpet and interview top levelstars, Hollywood stars, or you know we’ve got a premium content partner who wants to put their Constantine Huge. How do we even think about launching that now? There was just so much white space to figure out, so I was really lucky in the sense that I was able to establish the foundation for partner marketing, develop the brand strategy and foundation. I did product marketing for some really cool products and new features and I mean it was it was a trailblazing experience and it was really exciting. You know I think what I learned there is that you know while it’s exciting to create something so new and to help figure out that white space, it’s also you know, very daunting and you know there’s a phrase in Silicon Valley that, you know, ‘failure is welcome; you want to fail, and fail fast and thus learn through your mistakes quickly’ but you know you yourself never want to be that person who makes that mistake.

Jones:  Somewhere else, not definitely here.

Dorothee: All learned in the board but you know what I learned the most in that incredibly fast paced environment was ‘you’re never going to have perfect information’. You’re never going to have all the resources you need, all the data you want and you can’t get caught up in the analysis. You’ve got to move forward with imperfect information and to really get comfortable of initiating projects and moving forward execution.

Jones:  That makes a lot of sense. You then made the jump from big corporate, and moved over to Formspring, a fairly well funded start up in the valley at a time. That would have been a big change for you. What were you looking to get out of that experience?

Dorothee: Yeah well, when I joined Google or the You Tube team of Google, it was really new. Again, like I said, there was a lot of new ideas, new departments that we work, that we are establishing and figuring out. And it was thrilling it was absolutely thrilling to be in that space but after several years, I started to feel like a big company, and I wanted to go back to that sort of environment where I could have more of an impact. When I joined Formspring, it had an immense following. It was actually the fastest growing social media network in Internet history. Many people think it was Pinterest but it was actually Formspring. In the first forty five days I had a million users, in the first eighteen months, I had twenty five million users. I know what about social network, amazing right. As they were trying to maintain that grows, and it was an exciting challenge that I wanted to work on.

Jones:  Interesting, so during that time at Formspring, what did you see? I mean for like when it’s growing that fast and then it went out of business, it closed up shop not long after you left, so what were you seeing at that time? It was either giving you an inkling that things weren’t going to keep going or that you were going wow this is amazing and I should be here.

Dorothee: Right I think, I mean what I learned with warm spring is, easy come easy go. We had huge surge in users; a lot of them were young users, and they were, their very fickle and they’re hard, they’re capricious and they move to the next shiny thing when it that comes about. And so I think you know when you’re, as you are growing your user base and building a community, you really want to be thoughtful about how you build that community and how you maintain that. I think is meant so that the next new thing isn’t so attractive that you know you have the need that you have on your platform is what keeps people there.

Jones:   Interesting, indeed you have any inkling at the time when you were preparing to leave that things were going to be slowing down for those guys or was it like you say Easy come easy go, that they happened superfast.

Dorothee: No, I mean, I think it plateaued and then we were able to grow it some more but  what was pretty frustrating is that because it had such a huge success early on, when we were looking to get our Series B, investors couldn’t ignore that early. And so if you had just cut that tale from the early years and you looked at the stage that we were at where we were growing, we had great engagement. That would have been a success story of itself in a runnable idea, but you know investors couldn’t ignore the huge success that it had early on and it looked like a slow growing company at the time which it wasn’t, and so I think when you know when I saw that it was, we were going to have a hard time raising that series B. is when I started to consider other options and that’s when Heather and I connected.

Jones:  Got it, yes so at that time you begin the search; if you think about your own business, what was that thought process like for you and how do you know you were ready?

Dorothee: Yeah I mean, I was always inspired by one of the founders. I was able to work with Chad Hurley, You Tube did have a tech background. It was a designer paper a little bit he started with a simple and profound idea. He built this huge company one of the most impactful companies in internet history and same with I had a creating such a you know fast pace going company with Warm Springs. I was surrounded by really inspiring people and inspired by the creativity and innovation tag. I didn’t have my own specific idea at the time but I was ready to jump on a really interesting idea, and that’s when an old friend of mine and also You Tube colleague, Heather Gillette, she was eight employees You Tube and we worked there together while I was there too. She reached out, she had this really unique concept for our initial business called Nous Decor, it was an interior design site for consumers and she was in the process of her friends and family round, financing round and she needed help with her pitch Texas. She reached out to me and you know if there’s anything that I learned that Google was like knowing how to make presentations and put decks together over and over again, so I helped her on that and as soon as I saw the concept I fell in love with what she was doing and I wanted to work on it with her, so that’s how we paired up and that’s how I jumped in the purse you know in the start of base.

Jones:  Interesting so would you consider yourself to be a techie; do you code, what’s that role, how do you define the role that you play in the tech ecosystem?

Dorothee: Yeah, I don’t code I definitely appreciate and respect the engineers who can build beautiful products. What I bring is an understanding of a marketplace, whether it’s from a business perspective, a B2B side or a consumer perspective, I really understand the mindset of the decision maker and how to build a community around that. So that’s what I bring to the table with my marketing experience and applying that it to technology and technical products.

Jones:  Yeah, I often have a lot of discussions with folks who don’t understand where the marketing folks can apply the skills in a technical environment and because it’s oftentimes techies that are building or starting these businesses and they don’t necessarily have the business or the marketing background to be able to apply and understand how their technology applies to a consumer. So the role you play is a valuable one. I often tell people I don’t code but I speak a bit of it. In essence saying hey, I can translate what it is that you’re building into something that people can understand and use so as to where  I often pitch it. OK, so you started Designer Inc with the launch of Nous Decor and then you evolve the business from there. Tell us about the businesses and what led you into the interior design world which you touched on a bit and which is very different from the one in which you were coming from.

Dorothee: Yeah, so my background is in Marketing and the last ten years has been in tech. I didn’t have experience in interior design but I always love beautiful things. I always had a shelter pub that design magazine in my bag or on vacation or my car, my coffee table at home. I love beautiful things. The original business was for Nous Decor where anyone can now get the design help they needed at affordable flat fee and that really appealed to me on a consumer perspective. We had heard so many horror stories in the industry about online design services that serve more as a marketplace of matching a junior designer where the clients and how those projects went wrong, you know. Junior designers were making some very basic mistakes for the client and when we were going to be in the space, we wanted to make sure that not only were all our designs free of those really basic errors but absolutely beautiful; they had to be stunning. So we wanted to work with an in-house team and we had a cohesive design process which was created by our chief designer Mark Cutler. A little bit about him, he’s a famous designer, actually out of Los Angeles. He’s been designing for thirty years. His clientele boasts Hollywood A Listers International Royalty Silicon Valley. Exactly, that’s actually how we got to meet him was through mutual friends slash clients and Silicon Valley. So we designed this; he helped us design this cohesive design process with an in-house design team so that we could create consistent beautiful designs and you know we succeeded in that last summer. Actually the Wall Street Journal mystery shopped us, they shopped our service and two other competitors in the online design space and we came out as the winner. They actually referred to us as the dream team so it was a huge celebration for us. But with that you know, with an in-house design team, the constraints that we had is that we had limited headcount and it forced us to scale in other ways. We had to work quickly and we had to work in a way that we had maximized profitability, so we build those tools to help us do just that. We built our own search engine with Trade Only Products. Trade Only Products, our furniture in the core products that you have to be a designer or a reseller in order to have access to them and the margins are much better, thirty to fifty percent. And we were now able to source very quickly rather than go offline book to book or jump from one design site to another which was incredibly laborious. When you’re designing, this part of the process sourcing and purchasing is the most labor intensive and time intensive part of the process. With our own tool, we were able to cut our sourcing time in half and our product margins tripled and when we realize that we’re like wait a second, we’re solving a much bigger pain point in the industry and there’s a huge opportunity by the way. The first sixty billion of furniture is actually sourced and purchased through interior designers every year. This was a much bigger opportunity for us and that’s how Designer Inc was born.

Jones:  So early on you guys launched there and raised a fair amount of angel capital. What was that process like and how did that spring what you got?

Dorothee: Yeah, I mean raising capital is so interesting. I think it’s hard when you’re working in a space that the valley doesn’t really understand interior design and it’s in the marketplace, more so for women, it’s not the easiest to understand. I think when you’re talking with traditional VCs we had a lot of luck with Angel investors who are seasoned in the valley and saw this opportunity for us to believe in what we were building. So we were really lucky early on to get that capital and build out Nous Decor with that.

Jones:  Interesting so what about being an entrepreneur, especially being a female entrepreneur in the valley. Did your previous experiences prepare you well for and what has surprised you?

Dorothee:  Well, I think you know being a female entrepreneur, I think what comes naturally to women is, we’re very community oriented and we build relationships quite easily and that’s something that’s really important in the design industry. It’s especially on the professional side, it really relies heavily on strong relationships. I think that comes naturally to us fortunately, and you know, also being very resourceful, I think it helps us to build out the ecosystem to understand every player in the ecosystem and not forget any detail that could. Impact the community that we’re trying to build. I’ve also heard that women tend to build not just products but companies, also thinking about the greater whole; so I think that’s really helped us in the early years of building Nous Décor and now Designer Inc.

Jones:  It’s so exciting and what advice would you have for entrepreneurs especially women or men who are well established in their careers like yourself if they’re considering making the jump into their own venture.

Dorothee: Yeah I mean, I think there’s no time like the present. You have an idea and you are passionate about it, you should go for it. It’s the most rewarding endeavor you’ll ever have. But it takes more than just a great idea, you have to commit to the execution, and what many don’t know is you know, to build a really successful company it doesn’t happen in a year or two. You know for some of the most successful start-ups, it’s a five to seven year marathon. And so you really have to put in the hard work and have the persistence and the vision to not get bogged down when you’re going through rough patches.

Jones:   Can you maybe talk us through your mentality or what your thought process was as you were going through one of those rough patches or one of those times of uncertainty early on in the business?

Dorothee:  I mean you have to I think really think about what you’re building; does it make sense what you’re building? You have the highs in startup life are so high and the lows are really low and you have to see them as that. And you know, one of the best pieces of advice that I got was from Maynard Web. He’s the CEO E-Bay chairman Yahoo and he gave me a piece of advice ones that really stuck with me which is you have to know your Richter scale. So you know, if you look at the Richter scale, it’s always moving up and down, up and down, and you need to know that if it’s down, is it down because it’s nine thirteen on a Tuesday morning. It’s typically down at that time, or is it down because something really horrible has happened. And so when you really understand your traffic patterns, the seasonality of your business, you can appreciate or know this is a slow period for us because this is the seasonality whether it’s design or whether it’s tech, we’re supposed to be in a slow. If you’re out of that to talk with other entrepreneurs and talk with your partners and understand that you’re in this for the long haul. This is a five, seven in your marathon and you have to persist.

Jones:   I love it, persist. What if I want to move into the real lowdown segment of the show and we’re going to dig a little bit further underneath the hood. I know you guys, Designers Inc. are raising capital right now for the second time. What is different about this raise than the first time and how you go about doing it?

Dorothee: Yeah, we are doing it very differently this time. Designer Inc is in the business side of the interior design industry and we feel it’s a huge opportunity and the people who understand how big this opportunity is are the industry strategics, the insiders of the industry and designers themselves. And so with this raise, we’re actually, we structured around where designers can actually participate in the financing. We just launched with We Funder, a crowdsourcing fund raising platform, a campaign where designers and other strategics can invest. We were inspired to do this because last fall, we were a high point richer market which is a bi annual furniture show that happens in North Carolina we were demoing the platform and we were getting feedback from designers like oh my God this platform is amazing, where have you been my whole career now. I can do my job so much more easily. But also they were also saying if only I could invest in your company and at the time we didn’t know about the opportunities that companies like we find are present where we can actually have around through them and allow an interior designer who’s really passion about doing investment and be part of the success of our company. And this is actually what makes us unique and different, that we’re seeing this as a strategic opportunity for us. We really want to build on loyalty and create advantage of our product by making our own users owners of the company and we think that then they’ll truly invest in the success of our company. And community is incredibly important to us; you can’t build it overnight and we think this is going to help really solidify the community windows and is a big part of our growth strategy.

Jones:   And are you pairing that with traditional VC fund raising as well or are you focusing specifically just on the WE funder?

Dorothee:  No, we will explore other traditional ways, but we think that this is a very clever way of building advantages and having the industry welcome technology into this space. The interior design spaces, we were the last sectors to embrace technology.  They’re very afraid of it and this allows us to enter the space in a very friendly way, really think through the ecosystem allow the ecosystem to be a part of what we’re building and with that we will create a successful company.

Jones:   Got it, I like that; it’s definitely very clever. So you mentioned how you and your co-founder came together while you were at You Tube. Were there any rough patches early on as you guys were figuring each other out and figuring out your role that you were going to play within the company?

Dorothee: Yeah well I actually know Heather since our twenty’s; we knew we had a mutual close friends, we knew each other and we were friends in our twenty’s. We worked together in our thirty’s and thankfully I knew her really well by the time we were working on Nous Décor so in fact knowing who she was made it easier to make that jump of not just working in a startup but actually helping to found and create a startup ourselves’ She’s incredibly smart and she’s probably the most hard working person I’ve ever met and I thought if I’m going to take this risk, if I’m going to hedge myself anyway and it’s I’m going to partner with someone like Heather. So I think knowing her really well you know made an easy decision, very risky decision was made that much easier and you know we didn’t really have many rough patches and because of our past relationship or continue the relationship, it was easy to talk through.

Jones:  That’s great and talk to us about the personal impact of you being an entrepreneur on you and your family since you started the business.

Dorothee: Oh it’s for sure impacts and we were working real hard and you do have this rushed past, right rough patches where you’re you know really consider like how did I make the right choice especially I’m a working mom and I have two boys where every decision you make is not just for yourself, it’s for your family as well. But I think with that comes the reward of building something you’re really passionate about and I feel like I’m reaching for the American dream and it’s so invigorating it’s so thrilling and for my ten year old son to see this and to see it grow from you know the concept to a site, to a business, it’s an inspiring for him. In fact when we went to the Kellogg reunion just this past month, he took in business  plan course for children there. One thing you know he now says well, this is actually possible, so I think that’s the benefit. You know, the impact it has on your family, they do see that you know the impossible is may be possible.

Jones:   That’s great you got to here in the back of my neck stand in. Wonderful, so I’m inspired. Let’s close with this, tell me how do you manage that inevitable stress that comes from being an entrepreneur; what do you do to relieve that?

Dorothee: Well I mean I try to take really good care of myself. It’s incredibly stressful and I think if your mind and body isn’t distance shape you can tolerate a lot more stress than if you’re not taking care of yourself. So personally, I try to eat very clean, exercise, meditate to help manage that chaos when it does hit; you’re prepared for it and you can navigate those waters as best as you can. I should also say I outsource a lot when you’re so incredibly busy. In the Bay Area, you have access to a lot of really cool services; grocery delivery is super healthy meal service is a lot of things get pilots in the Bay Area first so we have a lot of resources that I take advantage of. And I think also talking to fellow entrepreneurs and seeing you sharing your war stories and realizing you know it is a marathon and there’s a reason why we set out to do this and I think having that long term perspective really helps with the stresses well.

Jones:   I’m literally inspired and jump off a racing go diving. Thank you so much, this has been so much fun. Please tell our listeners how they can find out more about you and more about Designer Inc.

Dorothee: Yeah well, Designer Inc is just designerinc.com. You can check it out and if you want to be part of the fun raise you can go to wefund.com/designer and can learn more about the company and invest if you’re so inspired to as well.

Jones:  That’s awesome. Folks please download all of our episodes and leave us a five star rating on i Tunes. You can find show notes at techlowdownshow.com and follow me on twitter @ cJones 2002.

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