What and where did you study?
I did my undergrad at the University of Saskatchewan at the College of Commerce with a major in marketing. Later in life I did my graduate degree at New York University earning a Masters of Science in Public Relations and Corporate Communications.
What did you do while in school that helped you land your first startup role?
There are probably a few unintentional things I did during grad school that led me into startups, but I’d say the most impactful thing I did was to leverage the network I created during the program -- both with companies we did projects for and individuals. One of the companies I did intern-type of projects for was Shutterstock which led me into the world of marketing technology, the industry that FlashStock became part of.
What else did it take to end up at Flashstock? What can others learn from you who want to join an early startup?
First, I’d say entrepreneurialism is part of my DNA having grown up on a farm in Saskatchewan. But I don’t think I realized that until I was actually part of the startup -- it’s more of something I’ve reflected on as I direct my career path. When finishing up grad school, I felt like I was naturally drawn to the exciting world of startups which is probably largely to do with the entrepreneurial spirit and knowing startups are where you have space to build. I held various corporate roles prior to grad school, and having the real life experience allowed me to see that startups might be a better fit.
While in NYC I stumbled across someone who had also moved there from Saskatchewan. Low and behold, he and his cofounder came up with the idea of FlashSock and after a brief discussion he learned that I’d worked with Shutterstock and thought I’d be interested.
The most helpful insights I’ve gained when it comes to joining an early stage startup:
- Don’t just join a startup because your friends think it’s cool -- they are not for everyone. Look inward to ensure you can tolerate the level of risk needed to forego a high paying salary and fancy title for a keg and ping pong table.
- Do something you care about as you will be far more likely to succeed.
- Leverage your network. If you don’t have one, there’s no better time than NOW to start building one.
You’ve described yourself as a generalist, how does that type of role change as a startup grows? How do you keep yourself flexible in a growing company?
I’m very much a generalist which I think is incredibly valuable as an early stage employee. When you are launching the first version of your product, you’re usually just trying to get an MVP up and running in order to gauge results and customer insights. Things can drastically change from MVP to future iterations and in order to adapt, people have to be flexible. With that said, I think it’s important in small teams to define and agree on roles to avoid duplication of work -- resources are meant to be lean.
My role at FlashStock changed so much that I actually can’t count the various “titles.” But the common denominator was being the person to get into an area of the business, understand what needed to be done and either build a process, inform product, or hire people in order to scale it. Once it was working well, I’d move onto the next thing that needed attention. So I went from building the first version of our global photographer community, informing product features needed to support it and hired people to manage it; next was client management, and then leading our strategic account growth.
I kept myself flexible with lots of yoga. Just kidding! I kept myself flexible by repeating the phrase “what is best for the business” at every stage of building/growing. From there, it was pretty clear to work with the team to understand where each person should focus.
Flashstock was acquired by Shutterstock. What was that experience like, from a career perspective, what should someone think about while going through that process and working under new ownership?
Overall, I’d say the acquisition came with a ton of valuable learnings. It was my first startup experience let alone a successful exit, so experiencing the transition first hand was like a degree in and of itself. The positives: I was able to work with teams to evangelize our product and create processes within the larger organization, speaking at events and owning different programs with resources we didn’t have as a startup. There are a lot of smart people at Shutterstock and it was great to work with them. The negatives: things move slower -- that is just a fact when you move from a startup to a larger company, especially one that is publicly traded… and for good reason. But it was tough to get used to, and frustrating when it felt like I no longer had as much influence or autonomy to make decisions quickly.
You’ve since left, what are you working on now, how do you position your startup experience towards what’s next?
Yes! I’m one of the crazy people who willingly left a salary on the table mid-pandemic. But I have my sites set on building in the femtech space, so I’m currently laying the groundwork by building out my network to be more relevant to the space and gauging from the people who are already there where the “white space” is. It may look like building something or joining something early stage. But basically I’m rewinding my brain to 6 years ago and using the same strategies I had when building communities from scratch as part of FlashStock. Needless to say, it doesn’t happen overnight but it’s part of the journey.
You’re an advisor, board member or mentor for a few different organizations, how can someone position themselves for these types of roles. How do you be a good contributor in these settings and what do you get out of them?
The most important thing here is to only do them if you are actually interested in the initiative, organization, or startup. If you don’t, it will just become another thing you feel like you have to do or attend, and that is not helpful to anyone involved. To me, being a good contributor is to first understand what the other party’s expectations of you are as it can vary a lot and then contribute based on those expectations.
The main reason I usually get involved is because I’m either personally interested, want to learn and grow in that area, or have a genuine urge to give back to that community. So when any of those goals are achieved, I get something out of it.
In order to position yourself for these types of roles, leverage your network. Most of my involvement has come naturally through conversations with leaders in the tech community.