Interview with CEO of Modsy, Shanna Tellerman

When you are looking to decorate a room, do you get frustrated? Do you buy a piece of furniture because it seems incredible at the store, and then when it arrives at your house you hate it? Or worse you have no clue what piece of furniture would go in that space?

That is how Shanna Tellerman felt, “After hours and hours spent on Pinterest, websites, catalogues, and in stores our enthusiasm was drained. Bored, frustrated and not even close to finding the solution, we gave up and landed with a half decorated living room.”

Out of that frustration, Tellerman founded Modsy, a startup that can help you with your design problems, the company’s website states, “Take the Guesswork Out of Buying Furniture.” Let’s keep reading and find out how under Shanna’s leadership Modsy has become a successful “one-stop digital catalog.”

So, Shanna, what’s your story?

I am the founder and CEO of Modsy, a personalized home design solution that helps you create a space you love by trying out furniture and layout ideas within a lifelike 3D version of your room so you can shop confidently.

I have always had an interest in the intersection of design and technology and attended Carnegie Mellon University with the intent to explore this interest further. I took my first computer graphics course there and fell in love. I received both my BFA and Master of Entertainment Technology (MET); then set out to start my first 3D startup out of graduate school.

This company was later acquired in 2010 by Autodesk, the leaders in 3D software. I then took my only diversion from the 3D world to join the Google Ventures investment team, where I worked for two years. At Google Ventures I was able to gain a new perspective on the startup ecosystem and truly understand the dynamics of venture capital, something that was extremely valuable when starting Modsy.

And so, with my past experiences in my back pocket, Modsy was born three years ago when my now husband and I moved into our first apartment together. Like many, I found myself trying to decorate but unable to visualize exactly how pricey new furniture items would fit in my space. What I really wanted was something like a West Elm catalogue, but all staged in my own home. This is when I recognized a technological hole in the interior design market as well as a massive opportunity for a disruptive 3D solution - that’s why I created Modsy.

Why should leaders lead, and when they do lead, what is their first responsibility?

I believe that great leaders enable as much as they lead. When leading your job is to create a vision of the future that is so clear that it motivates people to action and inspires them to do their best work. This vision should also be just hard enough to accomplish that it feels within reach but keeps everyone excited and challenged to strive for what lies ahead.

As a leader you do not, and often should not, know all of the answers, and that is where you enable. By setting the vision and motivating your team you can then empower them to create the path forward and to help uncover the answers to hardest challenges along the way.

What is more important to you, the traditional hierarchy (director, manager, the boss, etc) or how teams are formed to get the work done?

Because I founded my first company straight out of school, I never had much exposure to traditional workplace hierarchies. This is a blessing and a curse - on the one hand, I never had any bad examples to learn from, and I have always been free from pressure to conform to any given structure. On the other hand, I had to develop my management style entirely from scratch, and learned some hard lessons along the way!

At Modsy, I aim to unite the best of both worlds, understanding that some level of hierarchy is necessary for organization and workflow, while at the same time creating an environment and culture that is open-minded, transparent and where everyone on the team is encouraged to share their opinions. I’m extremely proud of our team - I believe that a great team builds a great company, and I learn from Modsy employees at all levels every day.

Are you open to the nontraditional ways that teams can get work done? Can you cite one example you are currently fostering?

Absolutely!

I believe in a diversity of experience and thinking on every level. Not only does diversity of gender, age, ethnicity and backgrounds help you create a better culture, it also creates a better business. Core to our belief in diversity is the belief that a diversity of experiences, disciplines and thinking will lead to a better business.

Interview with CEO of EBTH, Andy Nielsen

Your house is full of stuff that you want to sell, but it’s difficult. CNBC writer Beth Corsentino explains, “Estate sales can be an adventure for buyers, but for homeowners, they can be time-consuming, awkward and emotional. Most people shudder at the idea of strangers traipsing through their home, touching everything and haggling over each item.”

If I were in your shoes, I would not want strangers walking through my home interrogating every item. What if there was a better strategy so that potential buyers could have access to your things without having to come to your house? Everything But the House (EBTH) might be your solution, CEO Andy Nielsen explains to Corsentino, ”You call us when you are going through a downsize or loss of loved one situation, we send a team in, and we’ll coordinate junk removal, items that will be donated and then anything that’s left saleable we actually list to our platform.”

While EBTH provides a solution for your issues, I am also curious how under Nielsen’s leadership the company has grown 1,200%.

So, Andy what’s your story?

Originally from Cincinnati, I graduated from Miami University in 2007 and helped launch Riverstone Development Group, a development and construction company, where I served as Director of Acquisitions & Marketing until 2012.

Motivated by the desire to move fast and build a really powerful consumer brand, my brother, business partner, and I approached the EBTH co-founders with a plan to scale this unique company that helps so many people navigate difficult times. We formalized our partnership in 2012, and since then, we’ve produced 1,200% growth, hired 1,000+ employees, expanded from our local Cincinnati presence to over 20 seller markets in the U.S., and have grown our audience to more than 150 countries around the world.

Throughout this growth process, we’ve raised $84.5 million in funding from backers including Greycroft Partners, Spark Capital, and Greenspring Associates and have been on Inc.’s list of 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies for three years in a row.

Why should leaders lead, and when they do lead, what is their first responsibility?

Leaders motivate and drive others forward – and I believe the best leaders lead by serving those around them. In the case of business, this means serving your customers, shareholders, and employees. Your first responsibility is to communicate the “Why,” and it means building trust with those you need to follow. Without trust and conviction from your team, you’ll never succeed as a leader.

What is more important to you, the traditional hierarchy (director, manager, the boss, etc) or how teams are formed to get the work done?

While the traditional hierarchy plays a key role in driving decision-making and accountability, you need the right people in the room. Functional silos driven by a traditional hierarchy create internal and external confusion and deteriorate the level of work and overall customer experience. As such, the critical component to delivering impact is actually team collaboration and communication – especially when you’re moving fast.

In this case, it’s less about title and more about fostering an environment where everyone knows they’re “in the room” for a reason and are empowered to act accordingly. To support this, I believe a transparent culture is key – open lines of communication from top to bottom and vice versa. We hold company-wide “Town Hall” meetings to keep the entire company up-to-date on company performance and activities, and assign specific, cross-functional teams to high-level priorities.

We truly value staying connected to each and every one of our team members across the country and always make ourselves as available and approachable as possible. The hierarchy ultimately helps drive a sense of responsibility and accountability, but impact is generated at the team level.

Interview with CEO of 2U, Chip Paucek

You still want to get that master’s degree in business, social work or healthcare but you have substantial responsibilities, such as a full-time job or a growing family, then sacrificing your limited time for the degree seems impossible. So what options do you have?

One possible option is online education. Understanding the difficulties that busy adults face Chip Paucek decided to help solve the dilemma by co-founding 2U. Paucek explains in The Morning Blend interview, “For the first time ever you don’t have to pick up your life, quit your job and move to attend a great school and really become the person you want to be.”

The online educational space is a hyper-competitive market but Chip credit’s 2U’s success to both his fantastic team and laser focus. Let’s read on and find out how Paucek’s leadership has helped the company grow.

So, Chip what’s your story?

I’m a first-generation college student and that experience could not have had a more fundamental impact on my life. I had never seen snow before I arrived at The George Washington University. I bought my first winter coat there. I met my wife there. I met my general counsel there. I can’t overstate the impact GW had on my life. From then on, I became convinced that higher education has the power to fundamentally change the lives of people everywhere.

I started my first education company, Cerebellum Corporation, a year out of college. We produced the PBS show Standard Deviants, an award-winning educational program that taught subjects such as math, science and politics using comedians and actors like TJ Miller of Silicon Valley and Kerry Washington of Scandal. I was at Cerebellum for 10 years, after that I became the CEO of Hooked on Phonics.

I’m not shy to say that neither of those companies worked. I am not risk adverse, I like to go for it, but when I started my first company at 23-years-old I was lacking one very important attribute: focus. Whenever a new entrepreneur approaches me and asks me for my advice I say, “I can’t tell you what part of your business model will succeed, but I can tell you five variations won’t.”

Ultimately, if you try to do too much at once, you’ll do nothing of substance. I learned that the hard way with Cerebellum and Hooked on Phonics, but I don’t make mistakes twice. Even through failure, I’ve come to believe that every day’s a holiday and every meal’s a feast.

Now that I am a three-time CEO, I can officially say 2U, Inc. worked. I learned from my past failures and how to be purposeful and focus on the mission with an incredible team. We are at an exciting trajectory in the growth of the business where we are not only partnering with top universities to build high quality online graduate programs, but we’re now also forging new pathways in the digital education space with the addition of short courses.

Our acquisition of GetSmarter, which we completed in July 2017, has allowed us to expand access to educational opportunities that will be critical to the future of our country and our world. A lot has changed since I co-founded the company in 2008 and took it public in 2014, but evolution is good and will keep pushing us to the next level.

Why should leaders lead, and when they do lead, what is their first responsibility?

Great leaders are action-oriented, willing to take risks, value and provide transparency, and have the ability to learn from their mistakes. They make decisions fast.

Great leaders also know how to set context for the “why” and then enable their team’s performance by clearing the path and giving them runway so that they can perform at their best. To set the context for the “why,” reality has to be defined. Nobody wants to follow a leader who can’t paint them a picture of what the future holds. Great leaders know that transparency wins. The more honest you are about the opportunities and challenges you face as an organization, and the more you define each team’s role and contribution to the mission, the more cohesively your team will work together to brave their way through uncharted territory and succeed.

Great leaders also know how to get out of the way to let their team drive. We’re moving fast, often at a breakneck speed, and we must do it with purpose and passion. That means letting those who can fly, fly, and taking the copilot seat to support their efforts.

What is more important to you, the traditional hierarchy (director, manager, the boss, etc.) or how teams are formed to get the work done?

Of course it’s the team. Great leaders matter, but a great team wins. I know our success is not because of me – it’s because of the incredibly talented team I work with every day.

Are you open to the nontraditional ways that teams can get work done? Can you cite one example you are currently fostering?

Coming up with one example of how we operate in nontraditional ways is challenging because you could argue our business was built on doing things outside of the traditional structures and processes many companies box themselves into. Something I’m particularly proud of are the eight core principles at 2U. We live by them and they are anything but traditional. “Be candid, open and honest” is just one of those principles. Another is “Have fun!” I embrace that principle by hosting spontaneous dance parties at the office. That’s the way we do business. Fun is better. Period.

How do you make sure that when you are assessing talent, you are not only identifying the ability to do the job but the talent’s capacity to scale and do more?

As a CEO, you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and hire people who can make up for the latter. I always hire people who are better than I am. I want people who will assess what we’ve done, determine what is not working, and then take an inefficient process, flip it on its head, and make what we do better. I also look for talent that brightens the room. You can train the skillset, but you can’t train the spirit.

In the competitive market of product creation how do you manage your “No’s”?

When we first launched 2U, we got a lot of “no’s.” Preconceived notions of online education made everything very challenging. Once we persuaded the University of Southern California to treat online students as equal to on-campus students, we landed our first client and everything changed. Now, the USC School of Social Work, our partner, is the largest school of social work on the planet and 2U continues to grow and build the world’s best digital education. It’s the reason why, at 2U, one of our guiding principles is “Don’t let the skeptic win.”

Paucek drives home a critical point, “Nobody wants to follow a leader who can’t paint them a picture of what the future holds.” If you are a leader that is unable to communicate the future direction of the company, you have arrested your company’s ability to move forward.

A company that is not moving forward is an organization that will eventually lose market share and become a footnote in some online business class; of what not to do if you want your company to succeed.