Mariam Naficy is a serial entrepreneur whose latest venture is Minted.com, which she calls "a crowd-sourced business" that sells designer stationery, art prints, and party decor. Her goal: to build "a meritocracy" that rewards the best designers and allows them to vote on which products the company will sell next.
What was the inspiration behind the founding of Minted? Were you passionate about designer stationery?
No. I'd been looking at the way "the crowd" had been shaping media and content. I was noticing unknown bloggers who were becoming widely read, and coming out of nowhere to shape the direction of our media. I wondered if crowd sourcing could be a viable way to source product design. I realized that you could source images as JPEGs [a common file format] and make them into physical products quite easily. I needed a two-dimensional medium for that, and came across custom stationery, and realized it was an interesting business with high margins.
What does that have to do with crowd sourcing?
We invite designers to submit designs to us, and the community — the crowd — gets to vote, and we sell the best of the best. We at Minted see ourselves as a design community platform, not as a stationery business.
What values are most important to you in running Minted?
Meritocracy is our most important value as we continue building our community of independent designers. That's very important to me given my personal history, having immigrated here [from Iran soon after the revolution, leaving most everything behind]. There are many extraordinarily talented people in the U.S. and around the world, and because of where they live and other personal circumstances, they aren't able to fully participate in our economy. For example, there are a lot of women in our community who have chosen to stay home with their children, and we've given them an opportunity to start working at 7 o'clock at night and be able to submit designs to us and earn a great deal of money. Having said that, we are not a democracy or here to help everyone. We are here to help the best designers emerge and succeed.
There's plenty of discussion these days about the role and status of women in Silicon Valley. Your thoughts?
One of the big issues is that we are often counseled in a well-meaning way to not take risk in our lives — to be careful; make sure you can pay your bills; be careful, be careful, be careful. We are cautioned all the time about the evils of the world. The women who've worked for me seem to be more risk averse than the men. I think that this is one of the reasons you see fewer women entrepreneurs.
What about the institutional issues regarding women in technology?
I think the institutional issues are a lack of mentorship from men, lack of exposure to finance and technology, and lack of encouragement to go into those areas or to take risk. What I've done in my career is sidestep working up the ladder inside corporations, because I didn't feel I'd get a chance within them. You can step outside if you're courageous enough to do that, or someone gives you encouragement. I was encouraged to start my own business, by a male mentor.
Sounds like you're are on the same page as Sheryl Sandberg.
I agree with a lot of Sheryl's points about not quitting too early, but with the nuance that woman need to take more risk than men early in their careers, so that once they get to the point where they are making the tradeoff between children and work, they are in the position to have really great options. I have two children. I could have stayed home, or I could have started a business. Because I took risks early on — starting a business right out of GSB in 1998 and selling it successfully — I had great options. You need to have money set aside, you need leverage to negotiate with your boss, and you need to have great contacts. I would encourage women to take bigger risks earlier in their career, because it is quite likely they are underestimating themselves.
Do you worry that tech is moving into another bubble?
I do not believe we are in a bubble the way we were in 1999 when there were absolutely nonsensical valuations that were not pegged to any type of revenue or profit. There's been some adjustment; on the VC side there's already been a correction in [the size and ease of obtaining] first-round investments. After Eve.com launched, we saw four or five competitors [funded] in just a month or two. I don't think that would happen today.
What was the best business advice you ever got that you'd like to pass on?
Act like you've got half the cash you really have. For startups, conserving cash is absolutely essential. If you don't like to manage cash, you need someone in your business who does. Also, never compromise on hiring; never hire the B player.
You sold Eve for $100 million. Obviously, all of that wasn't yours to keep, but it's quite a bit of money. Why put yourself through the intense labor and stress of another startup?
I like working for myself, and what was I going to do with the rest of my life? I also thought: Once you're lucky, twice you're good. So if I really wanted to prove to myself and other people that I was a capable entrepreneur, I'd have to do it twice.
Is life as an entrepreneur as cool as it seems from the outside?
People have a very romanticized notion of entrepreneurship based on what they read in TechCrunch and other places. They make it seem like there are a lot of overnight successes; there are a few, but usually what's going on behind the scenes is a lot of hard work and a lot of optimization and a lot of businesses that didn't work.
What did you take away from your time at GSB?
I went there because the school is known for its entrepreneurship program, and I felt that it would be good for me to make connections there that would allow me to raise money for a business. And it was. Two key moments I remember: Chuck Holloway telling me to "think big," and Irv Grousbeck's lecture on why not to keep putting off entrepreneurship, likening it to someone waiting at a train station who keeps saying to themselves, "I'll take the next train." But, by far, I feel that my best takeaway was the friends I made with my classmates.
You wrote a book while you were still at GSB — The Fast Track: The Insider's Guide to Winning Jobs in Management Consulting, Investment Banking, & Securities Trading. Aside from that, what business books would you recommend to a budding entrepreneur?
Daniel Pink's Drive, because it so accurately describes what we have learned about managing communities, and what in general motivates consumers.
Mariam Naficy, founder and CEO of Minted, earned her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1998.