Mauria Finley is the founder and CEO of Allume which is an on-demand personal shopping service that matches women with experienced stylists who help them find clothing and accessories that fit their body, budget and style. The company has raised $10M from True Ventures and GGV Capital. Prior to this Mauria Finley founded Citrus Lane which was acquired for $50M by Care.com.
In this episode you will learn:
- The vital importance of focus
- Why you should slow down and build a great team first
- Mauria’s best decision when an idea didn’t work
- Finding a balance between life and work
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About Mauria Finley:
Mauria Finley is the founder and CEO of Allume which is an on-demand personal shopping service that matches women with experienced stylists who help them find clothing and accessories that fit their body, budget and style.
Allume’s platform combines data science with real human interaction to create a personalized shopping experience.
Prior to Allume, Mauria Finley founded Citrus Lane, an innovative social e-commerce company focused on helping moms discover the best products for their kids. The company was acquired by Care.com for $50M.
Before founding Citrus Lane, Mauria Finley held leadership roles at eBay running buyer product management and leading strategy and operations for the shopping categories.
Before eBay, Mauria Finley led new ventures for PayPal where she launched PayPal mobile. Other roles include head of product at Good Technology (a mobile startup acquired by Motorola), director of product management at AOL running community and communications products, and product manager at Netscape.
Mauria Finley also served on the board of directors of SayNow, a social voice company, which was acquired by Google.
Mauria Finley holds two degrees in Computer Science from Stanford University.
Connect with Mauria Finley:
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a super exciting founder. I think that we’re going to be learning a lot, especially from her experience being part of the internet from the early days where everything was booming, and especially from the Bay Area. So without further ado, Mauria Finley, welcome to the show today.
Mauria Finley: Thank you so much for having me.
Alejandro: So, originally, born and raised in a small town in Texas. How was that?
Mauria Finley: It’s a very different life than being an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, but I’m really lucky. I grew up in Texas in a small town. My mom was a teacher, and it was an incredible place to grow up. My life really changed when I got into Stanford and was exposed for the first time to computer science and entrepreneurship. There are many things I’m thankful for in life, but having that opportunity was really lifechanging. I’m exceptionally thankful for it.
Alejandro: I want to talk about that in just a little bit, but one thing that I always see in founders is that the way that they grew up really shapes their way of being, their leadership skills and also how they see whatever adversities in front of them. I understand that you were raised by a single mother, so I’m sure that had a big part on you and who you are today.
Mauria Finley: It did. I was raised by a single mom who’s a teacher. We definitely didn’t have a lot of money. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and it was clear to me from an early age that doing well in school was pretty much the only way out for me. We didn’t have enough money to afford college, so I had to do really well to get into Stanford. And even when I got there, the urge to—I was so scared they would send me home—that the urge to do really well and push really hard was cemented in me in an early age. And not to give up. Just because you’re bad at something—I was talking to my nine-year-old last night, and he said, “Mom, I’m not good at it.” I had to tell him the story where I showed up at Stanford, and I was failing the first physics test. The other students went to much better schools than I did. But I got a tutor and worked hard and then ended up doing well in physics. But this notion of, you have to fight to do well and fight for opportunity was clear early in my life.
Alejandro: So, Mauria, let me ask you this then. How did you choose Stanford? Why Stanford?
Mauria Finley: Well, in part, Princeton and Harvard rejected me. It’s a source of great humor in our family since my husband went to Princeton. But I got into the big state schools in Texas, which were willing to give me a ton of money to go. That’s what I thought would happen, and then I got rejected. My Stanford letter was delayed for 48 hours. And then I finally got in. Life is interesting. I think if I’d actually gotten into Harvard, I probably would be a lawyer right now. The fact that I went to Stanford and ended up discovering computer science, which I didn’t know anything about. Then I was in the first class of Stanford in The Mayfield Fellows, which is this entrepreneurial education thing that has actually had quite a lot of successes come out of it. It turned me on at an early age that I could be a technologist. In no way growing up did I even think that was possible. I remember a funny experience in my intro computer science class at Stanford. All the boys were like, “I’ve been programming my Atari since I was eight.” I was like, “I haven’t done any of this stuff.” But I made a decision that I didn’t have the background they would, but I would work harder than them and do better than them. So, for me, Stanford gave me a lot of confidence, and it inspired me to see a world I didn’t even know existed.
Alejandro: Very cool. What was the year we’re talking about? Was this in the early ’90s? Right?
Mauria Finley: Yeah. This was in the 90s. I graduated with my undergrad in ’96 and my Master’s in computer science in ’97. I teach a class to Stanford computer scientists now. I’ve been teaching the last five years on the side. It’s hard to imagine when you see the value we live in now, that people were still going to big companies. You still went to Microsoft or Motorola. Going to a startup was quite rare back then. The internet was just starting. So my first job out of Stanford was to work at Netscape. Netscape was a crazy place to work. It was incredibly fun. It was full of incredible engineers, incredible product people. But it was a business under threat. I have this belief that in many ways, our first job norms us to what we believe is our culture and how we approach things. Netscape was this company where we made beautiful products, and it was like a cult of engineering. Ideas were aggressive, and conversations were highly debated. It was an aggressive culture, and I actually liked it. But it was under threat because we built this browser. We were proud of it. We were selling it, and Microsoft made the browser free. So they took our entire business, and they’re like, “We’re going to make it free, and we have an army of engineers who are going to build and build and build till we reach parody with you.” It was an incredible place to grow up as it were because this notion that you need to innovate your product, and you should never rest. It could all be taken away from you was a critical part of the culture.
Alejandro: Yeah. I remember that was the time of the internet browsing wars. I’m sure that this, for you, gave you a lot of visibility into, for example, how to deal with adversity.
Mauria Finley: Yeah. Obviously, Ben Horowitz was at Netscape at that time, and I’m a huge fan of his writing. He writes about wartime versus peacetime CEO. At Netscape, we were fundamentally at war. We were fighting to survive, and that feeling of fighting to survive, and we’re all in it together—when I fast-forward, that’s part of why I love running startups: this notion that we’re going to create something out of nothing and against all odds make it work. For better or worse, I thrive on that. I’m not meant for peacetime. I actually like the fight.
Alejandro: Very cool. Netscape was acquired by AOL, and this was an interesting point in time for you because you got to learn how to be a manager. So what does being a manager look like?
Mauria Finley: Yeah. It was an interesting time. I was probably 25 or 26 years old and quite geeky, frankly. I had just come out of my computer science degrees, and all of the sudden, they put me in charge of a 20-person team of product managers both in Mountain View and in Dulles. Every single person on my team was older than me, some significantly older than me. I was running some of the coolest products in the world like AOL mail, AOL chat, AOL homepages, back when they were huge. They were the biggest in the U.S., maybe even globally. But I was like this little know-it-all running this team of people actually much older than me, and I quickly had to learn that not everyone’s wired like me. People have different goals and different ways they want to be communicated with. It was a really incredible opportunity to get to learn that at an early age and to be able to work on some of these huge consumer offerings that were being used by tons of people.
Alejandro: Got it. Then you chose to move to Good Technology. Why?
Mauria Finley: Yeah. During my time at Netscape and AOL, there was a VP of engineering I worked with for most of that time. He went and co-founded a company called Good Technology, which was a mobile company in the early 2000s, and he recruited me to join a few weeks later. I think his joke in recruiting was how long until you make the inevitably correct decision? For me, it was about following someone that I deeply believe in.
Alejandro: This was a company backed by Kleiner Perkins. Probably, at this point, you were starting to have some insights into the whole venture capital world, and this was early on. We’re talking about the early 2000s. The landscape, now, probably has nothing to do with the landscape that was back then.
Mauria Finley: Yeah. I would love to say I knew what I was doing, and I chose to go to a venture-backed startup on purpose, but I think most of that would be a lie. I mostly loved my head of engineering. He went to this company, and I wanted to work with him again. While I’ve been exposed to entrepreneurship at Stanford because I was part of this Mayfield Fellows program, I don’t think I really understood how it worked. For me, I feel luckier that there was someone I wanted to work with, but when I was there, I learned a lot about it. It was an interesting time to be at a company. This was in 2001. In the Valley, we’ve had a couple of big recessions. 2001 was one of those, so we were a well-capitalized startup, but in a recession. When I look back on it, I’m not requesting a recession. I’m not. But boy! It was a great time to build a team. I was able to hire some amazing people who were brilliant and smart, and the company worked hard. It was quite a gift to be able to build something in a time where it wasn’t as frothy, Frankly.
Alejandro: Got it. Then your experience was an experience that gave you exposure to different departments, and perhaps different segments. So that was PayPal and what became eBay. What were you doing here?
Mauria Finley: eBay, yes. After I left Good Technology, I went to PayPal because I had done early mobile work, including hardware, software, and deals with carriers. When I went to PayPal, my mission was to start PayPal mobile. I know it’s hard to believe now, but this was a time where there was no mobile offering for PayPal. So I had an amazing job where I got to look at what was going on in mobile all around the world, particularly inspired by Europe and Asia. We built the first PayPal mobile offering and made it so you could use PayPal with your phone number, and you could access it from all types of phones. That’s one of the products I’m really proud of because if you look now, PayPal mobile’s a huge part of the business. That was an incredibly fun opportunity. As you might imagine, PayPal had amazing people, so it was an incredible network of people I get to be close to.
Alejandro: Now, they call it the PayPal Mafia, so the culture and some of the people that came out of this experience are some of the most powerful and influential people in the tech world. So why is that?
Mauria Finley: I wasn’t there at the very beginning, at the really early days, but I think they’re a great example of—they just hacked the system. They tried to figure out what the solution was. They figured out eBay was a channel. They iterated and iterated to build a business, and they were smart about it. I admire a lot of what they did.
Alejandro: This led to your biggest success today. A chance where you’ve had the opportunity to see the entrepreneurial journey when it comes to the full cycle. Tell us how you came up with the idea of Citrus Lane and how you brought it to life.
Mauria Finley: Before I went to Citrus Lane, I spent some time at eBay running the eBay site and the categories. But after leaving eBay, I wanted to start something. Funnily enough, at that time, I was looking at either fashion or doing something for parents. I had just had my second child, so I had a nine-month-old when I started Citrus Lane. It was really interesting what was going on with parents. I’m not actually even sure my first startup, I had such a big world view of why be a big market or why it would work. It was clear to me that it was a personally-inspired story. I had had my first baby, and I was surprised when it was time to figure out stuff for the baby that there weren’t better resources for products. I had asked all these people for their recommendations. I had compiled 30 people’s product recommendations. Then I put them in this Google sheet, and then I turned back and augmented six to nine months later, like, “Was this a useful product or not?” So I had done that. Then I realized people started having this spreadsheet that I had never known. It had gone viral, and various people were using the sheet. It struck me that new moms and dads are desperate. You have this new precious baby, and you want to pick something really important for that baby. Strangely, there weren’t many good resources. I could see at the time that places like Babies ‘R Us, which is now bankrupt. Places like Babies ‘R Us didn’t give good information. It was this nugget of insight that caused me to start Citrus Lane. Then as a product person, I was directing product management; it’s always interesting to me how your brand works. For me, the insight of the business was very much about help parents learn the very best developmentally-appropriate products for children. As we ran the business, I quickly learned a bunch of things I didn’t know. One, there’s this huge opportunity for brands. Moms wanted new brands. They wanted to know what’s cool with toys and healthy, organic, sunscreen. And they cared deeply about that. At the same time, brands were willing to pay to be considered because they desperately needed distribution. That was something I uncovered in running the business. Then the other thing we uncovered is that most product things seem obvious afterward, but weren’t at the time. But it wasn’t just that she wanted developmental help. It’s that the early years of having a kid are full of joy, but they’re also full of sleepless nights, and heartache, and lots of work. So, sending her something that made her feel happy every month and made her feel like a good mom, there was this huge emotional part of it that was a key part of the brand. I’m really proud of what we accomplished there.
Alejandro: Why did you go at it as a sole founder?
Mauria Finley: Mostly because of the urge for speed. I had the idea. I was excited about it. I went and raised a seed round from Greylock. I was in a rush to get going. When I look back, funnily enough, how little research I did before starting the company—my second company, I did a lot of research. I almost chuckle at myself, but I was super excited about the idea, and I wanted to get it moving. Then, along the way, I brought in a CTO, who I made a co-founder, but after I’d already raised the money.
Alejandro: What was the way to make money here?
Mauria Finley: It’s interesting. The way we made money is mom paid us for the subscription for the boxes. They were $30 a box. Then we were able to deliver $45 of more or less value of merchandising: toys, books, food, utensils, and things like that. But the reason that we were able to deliver it at 25 cents on the dollar was because we would go to brands and say, “We’re running this huge distribution.” What we called the keeper items, like a book or a toy, they would give it to us at cost. At scale, they were making exclusive products for us. The consumable stuff like the food and the sunscreens, they would give it to us either for free or a very low cost. It was a win-win because mom was getting product that she had never seen, like beautiful wooden toys and healthy, silicone tableware. The brands were discovering a mom market. They were discovering consumers. There were three food brands that when they started working with us, they were tiny. At the end of our relationship, they had gotten into large-scale distribution, and several of them got acquired. So that’s how we made the economics work.
Alejandro: Very cool, and as you were saying, you raised money from Greylock, you were scaling out the business nicely. But like any journey, you have the highs and the lows, and all of the sudden, you see in front of you a layoff happening. Tell us about this.
Mauria Finley: Yeah. I had raised money from Greylock, and I had also raised my Series A from GGB, who I adore. We had raised money, and we started spending the money. I went out and hired a bunch of engineers. We were doing two core things: the box and the ability to add to the box. But then we started another initiative on our community, which is a very engaged community. I looked up, and we were spending too much money. So we ended up doing a layoff. I often talk to founders about this. People are so scared to do something like that, but I would say it was the smartest decision I ever made. We focused down to do one-and-a-half things, including some stuff my board wanted me to do that I stopped doing. Focused down. Not a single person left. I always think it’s interesting if you were to financially look at it, you’d be like, “This company’s not doing as well as I thought. I should leave.” But what I’ve learned is if you’re transparent with people, they’re so committed to each other and to the group dynamic of taking the mountain. So nobody left. At the end of that nine months, we were quite close to cashflow-breakeven. We had a Series B term sheet and an acquisition offer. What I would say about it is, the focus is what got us there. In a startup, at least in the early stages, I think having incredibly crisp focus is the path to succeed. Then you’ve got to make sure you don’t spend too much money. I was proud of what we accomplished. I’m not sure if we could have done it if we hadn’t have gone through the step of right-sizing for a minute. Like you almost needed it culturally and emotionally to force the clarity, to execute the business, to get it to a strong financial spot.
Alejandro: Talking about that, when you do a layoff, the facts are the facts. I think that what really counts is how you deliver them because, obviously, that’s going to be having an impact on the culture and on the people that are going to be left to pull things through and execute. What was your lesson, and how did you deliver the message?
Mauria Finley: This is one where, unfortunately, I’ve spent so much time as a big company exec that I actually got experienced at doing layoffs a lot. But my theory on how to be a startup CEO is a theory of radical transparency. I think that’s the foundation that allows you to make something like that happen. I feel blessed that people come to work every day and work so hard for this startup and Citrus Lane before it. I feel I owe them a duty of treating them like the shareholders they are. The culture I’ve had in both companies is, after every board meeting, I take the entire company through like, “Here’s the board material. Here’s exactly what—” Except for comp and team matters, I take them through everything, including the financials. This notion we’re transparent, and we’re in it together, is not something I waited for the layoff to do, but the notion that I will always tell you the honest truth that we’re doing here, I think, is a really important part of the culture for me.
Alejandro: One of the things I’ve seen, especially on the companies that end up getting a really nice outcome, end up getting acquired, nice returns for investors, and all of that good stuff, is that they experience a critical moment in time where it was like a do-or-die type of thing. It seems that this was that moment for Citrus Lane. What was the before, and what was the after in terms of culture?
Mauria Finley: I think the culture after was even better. The culture was always positive and transparent, but there’s something about—like we’re on a mission. We’re going to take the hill together. In a weird way, having to layoff people we cared about—as part of the layoff, we laid off people everyone loved, and they were great. Including, I loved them. Then this notion that if you’re going to do that, you need to make it count. So, we’re going to get really crisp about our goals, and there’s going to be less goals, and we’re going to work together and fight the good fight to make sure we deliver them. I’ve also run huge organizations. I think those huge organizations often stumble because they don’t have enough focus. So, in some ways, what I have found is you almost need a crisis to cause focus. In a startup, focus is everything. I often think of running a startup like scuba diving. I love to scuba dive. You have so much oxygen, and if you go down too long, and you don’t have enough oxygen, you’re going to die. You’re enjoying what you’re doing, but you’d better pay attention to oxygen because that is what you have. So for a startup, this notion that we’re under existential threat, and we have to show focus to accomplish what we want, is actually very motivating. If forces the organization to choose focus. When I reflect back like at times that I was at big companies, and they often struggled, it was because we didn’t choose our bets wisely enough. We didn’t make hard enough decisions.
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Alejandro: What does focus at its best look like?
Mauria Finley: It varies at different stages of companies, but when I think about Series A and Series B companies, if you’re doing more than one, one-and-a-half things, it’s probably too much. Focus means knowing both what you say yes to, but it really means knowing what you say no to. An organization has a hard time holding more than one or two goals in their head. You need your organization to have those goals, so they can make decisions by themselves.
Alejandro: Got it. Here, one thing that is really amazing is that after going through all this time, the layoffs, now the culture is the best it has ever been at Citrus Lane. You guys finally end up with a Series B term sheet, and then also with an acquisition. How did this happen? Because typically, you either go for the acquisition, or you go for the financing round. But, here, you end up with both possibilities.
Mauria Finley: That was actually a fairly explicit decision. I wanted to make sure the company had the strongest shot. It was very clear to me that having leverage was a good way to get there. For me, there were a few things that were important to me. One is to get the business to a financially good place so that it wasn’t that dire that we needed to raise money. My joke: the prettiest girl at the bar is the one who doesn’t need to date anybody. So that was important for me. Then the other is, I was nurturing business development relationships with strategics as well as the fundraising. It wasn’t because I had made a decision of which I wanted to do. It was more that I knew heat would beget heat. So I wanted the most option value on the table. At this company, I have a very different—I’ve been approached about M&A. I have flat-out turned people down because I have a different view of what I’m trying to do with this company. But at Citrus Lane, it led to a good outcome. I made money from my investors, my employees did well, and that mattered a lot to me.
Alejandro: We’ll talk about Allume, which is your most recent company now. But I want to wrap up this phase in your entrepreneurial journey. When you had both terms sheets, or let’s say the LOI and the term sheet, why did you guys decide to go for the acquisition?
Mauria Finley: That is such a good question, and I almost wish I had kept a diary because I can’t always figure out why I decided it or even—one thing, I’m sure when you talk to people, it’s sometimes hard to know if you should or shouldn’t have sold because the business was doing very well. I think in many ways, I believe that under a bigger company, the company could grow faster, but it was a hard decision. When people are in this situation, everyone I talk to had a different opinion. Does that make sense? Like you would talk to one person, and they’re like, “Sell.” Another person would be like, “No. Take the term sheet and grow it.” I felt like I was in a sea of opinions. I’m happy with the decision we made. I do think it sets me up well—it’s not the decision I would make the second time, but I think it’s the first-time decision. It a little bit set me up that I got a good, solid hit to second, and now I can go more for a grand slam.
Alejandro: What do you mean that perhaps if you would have had the chance to go back in time, you maybe would have gone with the Series B term sheet?
Mauria Finley: I never know. I’m not a huge person for regrets, but I think the truth is, both of them were really good viable outcomes. You’ll never know the right answer. You know what I mean?
Alejandro: Well, you know, your first company, close to a 50-million-dollar exit, very close to a 10x for investors, so I’m sure that all your investors were happy. I’m sure, also, that this opened up your chances of getting meetings with people and investors. Did that change a lot?
Mauria Finley: It did. First of all, my Series A investors and my last company are Series A investors in this company. So I have a very good relationship with them, and I think the world of them. That’s GGB. It did. I mean, signing the company helped. I joined the public fashion board. I think having successfully having sold a company helped with that. I started teaching as an adjunct at Stanford. I think it helped with that. I’m glad I did it. What you hear from me—maybe I’m not explaining it well. What you hear from me is, I want to prove I can take it all the way.
Alejandro: Got it.
Mauria Finley: That’s in essence. Like I played JV, made money for everyone. I’m proud of that. But am I good enough to go big? That’s, in essence, what you’re probably hearing.
Alejandro: You’re going big now.
Mauria Finley: Yes, I am.
Alejandro: You definitely took your time to go at it again, and now finally, after taking some time to teach at Stanford and to be part of different boards, now you’re doing it again with Allume. So how did you finally say to yourself, “I am ready to go big. I am ready to go with Allume. This is the idea that I want to execute.”
Mauria Finley: That’s a great question. I was much more thoughtful. The last time I came out of eBay, all guns a blazing, I was like, I have this parenting idea. I have this insight. I did some focus groups with Palo Alto moms, which newsflash, are not representative of America. And I raised money and got going. This time, I knew that raising seed money would be pretty easy. In fact, I raised it in four days. I did not want to use an investor as a proxy as to whether my idea was good. So before even taking this idea, I did ad tests for six months of probably 25 different ideas. I would run ads to landing pages and to quizzes to get real-world feedback. Then, this is the idea that rose to the top of that testing and into the top of my interest. I spent three months where I bootstrapped the idea, I ran ads, I hired stylists on Yelp, I styled clients, interviewed the clients, and did deals with brands. I wanted to make sure, before starting it, that the model would work. It was clear to me on both how startups are and my nature that no matter what I picked I was going to work like a dog. I was going to live and breathe every single thing about making the company successful. One of my insights was: if you’re going to do that, you might as well pick a big market, and you should pick a model that really has the room to scale. What I mean by that, at my last business, we held inventory, and we sent boxes. This business is a pure marketplace where we actually do relationships with brands and brands dropship. So that was a key part of how to scale. We have a high take rate. I spent three or four months figuring out would it work? I joke—my investment committee was actually my husband, who I love and who supports me to the ends of the earth and is also a VC, but only last year—not then. I spent four months trying to prove to myself that I could make this a good business. Then I went out and raised a seed round from True.
Alejandro: Very nice. Obviously, this time around, probably a little bit tougher because the other one was quite straightforward, while these marketplaces, they are a bit of a beast. It’s like launching two companies at the same time. So how have you seen this experience for you building a marketplace?
Mauria Finley: I was lucky enough to spend three years running the buyer side of eBay, and all the categories. I’ve had a lot of marketplace experience. What’s interesting about this company is, it’s amazing how well the marketplaces work. We’ve seen incredible consumer demand and stylist demand. This company has a lot more technology than my last company, and that was an explicit decision. In my last company, we had a basic subscription system, but mostly, it was about how cute the packages were, whereas this one is a hardcore data play of using data routing and data algorithms to make the human styling have high-gross margin. So I would say getting the double-sided marketplace to work has surprisingly been easy. Most of what’s been hard is we built a ton of amazing technology around inventory systems, and search, and real-time unified checkout, and order injection, and recommendation engines. That’s where a lot of the heavy lifting lies.
Alejandro: So when you’re thinking about the chicken and the egg, which I always say, especially when I was running my last company that was also a marketplace that I wanted to shoot the chicken and step on the egg because I was getting tired of investors asking me about it. How did you go about addressing that supply and demand?
Mauria Finley: Yeah. Depending on how you want to think about it, you could argue we are a two or three-sided marketplace. Clients are busy professional women who use our service for personalized shopping. Demand for them has been really easy. Stitch Fix has helped us by being in the market. These professional women have tried it, but they want a product that’s more personal, higher in brands, where they have more control. We found user acquisition to be quite easy. On the stylist side, there are so many people who have studied fashion, love fashion, but work in parts of the country where there aren’t many opportunities. We’ve seen zero-dollar pack, largely unlimited demand to be a stylist. The skilling had more been making sure they’re good enough, like picking their contractors but picking good ones. Then on the brand side, the inside of the brand side is similar to Citrus Lane, where brands need distribution and were a performance-oriented channel. As we’ve gotten bigger, we’re seeing the same thing I saw in my last company where people started rates low, then they get a little taste of it, and they raise them. Just this week, we had one retailer who refused to go to our marque rate, and then finally came back yesterday and was like, “Fine. Fine.” Like, “I’ll go” because we gave him some heat, and then we took it away. So we’re helping brands by giving them access to premium customers and driving sales for them. The thing that’s tricky is, decide to grow quickly, but you have to moderate. The thing we’ve been focused on, which I think is a reflection of my last company is, it’s important to me to run a business where the unit economics work. Over the last six months, we’ve had an incredible push to do a bunch of data-driven routing and styling that allows the service to be very personal and human to the client. But we’re using a ton of cluster-based routing to make sure that the service is quite profitable. So that’s what I’m most proud of is a hardcore focus on profit because I want to scale this into a big company, but I don’t love the VC model where you just scale, scale, scale, and lose, lose, lose, and lose money. It’s more important to me that the offering makes money.
Alejandro: Yeah. We’ve seen that mentality with marketplaces like Uber or even what we’ve seen with WeWork, which was a complete disaster. So I think the mentality is also changing here. One of the questions that comes to my mind, Mauria, is that culture is supercritical. I’m sure that you learned a few things when you were building your previous company, Citrus Lane, and perhaps some key lessons that you took away with you, and that you are applying here, especially to building culture that are absolute musts for you. What are those key things to build a culture?
Mauria Finley: Yeah. I teach this class to Stanford undergrads. One thing we talk about is culture. My belief is culture is what you reward and punish as an organization. It’s not perks, bowling parties, and bars in the office, none of which I believe in. It’s much more like as an organization, what do you make into heroes, and what do you not allow to happen? For me, the culture is very much about like we want to win. So things I believe in were super transparent. It’s important to me that we’re all focused and that we’re building the right team. This is going to seem like a weird answer to culture because it’s like the opposite of sounding sweet, but it will probably tell you a little bit about me. When I hire a new exec, I actually tell them upfront that I’m going to love them, I’m going to support them, I’m going to give them tons of respect, I’m going to help them throughout their career. But if they’re ever not performing, I’m going to choose the company, including myself, if I’m not performing because I think the number one thing in a startup you have to do is you need to make sure everyone is doing the things that make this business successful. You owe it to your shareholders. You owe it to your other employees. So having a culture that’s more about we’re on a mission to accomplish this, and we’re going to hold ourselves to a high standard to get there. People like Bezos, I admire a great deal. So we’re pretty hardcore is what I would say about our culture. We’re not that touchy-feely. We’re pretty hardcore.
Alejandro: Good stuff. You guys are obviously growing. How many people do you have now?
Mauria Finley: We have 25 employees and about 100 contract stylists.
Alejandro: Very nice, and you guys have raised some money for this, as well. Right?
Mauria Finley: Yeah. We’ve raised our Seed Round from True, and our A Round was led by GGB, who also did my A Round in my last company. And, of course, True did it. And I have chosen amazing investors. I think the world of them.
Alejandro: Is it like 10 million bucks, or how much have you guys raised?
Mauria Finley: Yeah, about.
Alejandro: Very nice. You were mentioning before that in your last company you had your first child when you were building your previous company. Here you are, a successful mom, a successful wife, and then also a successful founder. Can you really have it all?
Mauria Finley: You can. People always ask this, and you totally can. Though my kids do complain that they thought the last company was better because they got all these toys. But you can. I am incredibly blessed. I love my work. Love it. I think about it all the time, and I love my family, and I exercise a ton. But then I don’t do anything else. I outsource all other stuff because I mostly care about work, family, and exercise. The other advice I give women—I’m actually really blessed to have an incredibly supportive spouse who is so supportive of my professional success, and that makes a huge difference. I also think there’s no creature in nature more productive than the working mother. So I hire a lot of working moms, and they are brutally efficient.
Alejandro: I love it. Going now, I want to listen to some of the stuff that you’re seeing now, and that you’ve seen from some of these incredibly smart students that you’ve had in Stanford. I’m sure that many of them went out and built incredible companies. What are some of the patterns that you see on those students that go out and do incredible stuff?
Mauria Finley: I’ve been lucky to see it both with my own students at Stanford, and then the Mayfield Fellows program has built an incredible amount of companies. I think there are a bunch of aspects to it. One, there’s a lot of hustle to build a good company. You’ve got to have the fire in the belly to make it happen. The other thing is, you have to have an area you care about. Running a startup on a daily basis is—I joke. It’s a little like kids. Any given day can be like, “Oh! What’s going on?” But if you zoom up a week or month, you’re like, “Oh. It’s growing up. It’s getting better.” So you have to love the space you’re in to wake up every day and be fully energized to go for it. It is a privilege to teach the Stanford CS students. They are so smart, energetic, wonderful, and they do pitch me on their seed stuff all the time, and I give seed advice but having the urge to make it happen and in an area you love. Then you have to be an incredible listener. Running a startup is really humbling. The best ideas in all my startups were not ideas that I came up with. It was, in essence, listening to what my users were doing and then changing to what I’m doing to match to that.
Alejandro: It’s interesting that you talked about seed advice. When you are a founder, it’s very important that you’re able to filter through the advice and get the advice from the right advisors. So how do you filter through the noise as a founder to get the right type of advice?
Mauria Finley: Yeah. I actually don’t speak a ton of advice outside of my board and my own advisors. I have some incredible advisors—the long-time CEO of Nieman’s, the Executive Producer of Project Runway. One of the privileges to have been independent on a startup board, to have been on a public board, to do a second-time founder is my board is really helpful. So I kind of force them to give crisp and clear advice. I rely on it a lot. I think one of my takeaways is I don’t go out and seek a ton of other advice. I’m looking at the data. I think my executives know the business really well. I think the most important source of data for me and a hardcore data-analytics culture is what our customers are telling us. I’ll give an example. We offer online personal styling, like concierge shopping. But a growing portion of our business is coming from people doing self-service shopping, and it came from clients. They kept saying, “I really love that. Can I buy the jumpsuit?” For of all, like, “Get styled.” Eventually, we’re like, “Why don’t we just put the look on the site?” Now, that’s a huge part of our business. That’s 100% gross margin, and it’s because we listen to our clients. For me, most of the advice I care about is coming from my board, my executives, and it’s in the data. I’m listening to what our users, our brands, and our stylists are saying.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. Build on data rather than assumption. That’s fantastic. So, Mauria, I’m sure that the folks that are listening probably want to hear the question that I typically ask the guests that come on the show, and that is, if you had the opportunity, knowing everything that you know now because you’ve been at it in every single aspect of corporation whether it’s large, small, or whether it’s something that you’ve started from nothing—you’ve learned your fair amount. So if you had the opportunity to speak with your younger self, Mauria, with that younger Mauria that was about to launch your first business, Citrus Lane, what would be that piece of advice that you would give to yourself before launching a business and why?
Mauria Finley: That’s a great question. I think the number one thing I would tell myself is, think carefully and do a great job building the team. Having run the businesses at various stages, nothing is clearer to me that when you’re building a really good team, everything is easier. Yeah, it’s still hard, and there are struggles, but if you’re surrounded with people who are good at what they do, working together, the whole thing goes a lot faster and easier. The reason that one’s hard for me is I’m always so excited to get started. I always want to rush, and I think taking the time to build the very best team—all of my history says that gives you the best outcome.
Alejandro: Yeah, absolutely. So for the folks that are listening that are like, “Oh, my gosh. How do I get in touch with Mauria?” Or, “How do I know more about her new business?” How can they reach out and say hi?
Mauria Finley: You can reach out on Twitter, or you can reach out on LinkedIn, and I’d be happy to chat.
Alejandro: Amazing! Well, Mauria, it has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for being on the dealmaker’s show today.
Mauria Finley: Thank you so much for having me.
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