Welcome to the first post in our Women In Tech series! At SPICED we’re committed to encouraging women and young girls to learn to code and follow their passions. We also want to inspire companies to be more approachable, and to recognize the various biases and structures that they may not realize exist.
With our Women In Tech series, we speak with inspirational women throughout the world of tech to ask them about their own experiences, how they navigated their careers and overcame any challenges they faced along the way.
The first person we’ve had the extremely good fortune of speaking to is Gillian Muessig, CEO of Outline Venture Group and co-founder of Moz. Gillian enjoys a global reputation for success and is one of the most recognized names in the world of Marketing. A bona fide thought leader in the startup industry, she currently dedicates her time to being an advisor to companies on four continents and to delivering keynote speeches across the globe.
Impressive? We sure think so.
SPICED: You and your son, Rand Fishkin, are responsible for starting MOZ, one of the most successful Marketing Tech companies in the world. Can you tell us a little of the story behind the company and how it was founded?
Gillian: Moz was an iterative process. I had a small marketing agency which began serving clients with websites and content marketing services in the mid 1990’s. Following the dot com bust of 2001, when the market for tech design and marketing services was very low, we built some ecommerce websites for customers with a revenue-sharing payment agreement. That meant that we were paid a percentage of online sales rather than a flat fee for service.
In order for those projects to be successful, the sites needed to found in the SERPs. We hired out the work to several SEO firms without success. Rand took it on himself to learn SEO. As the projects began to be increasingly successful, Rand began to write the SEOmoz.org blog.
Originally, it was project to share what he learned with others in the growing industry of SEO. At first, everything was shared without cost – content, insights, and even tools which we built to support our SEO work. As the readership at SEOmoz.org grew, it became more costly to support the free service. In February of 2008, we offered a paid service which included some ‘Pro tools’ along with the free ones already available on the site.
Within a couple of months, we had more than 100 paying subscribers and SEOmoz.org took off as a business of its own. In 2013, the name was changed to Moz.com to reflect the broader scope of Inbound Marketing services the company offered. Today, Rand remains the Wizard of Moz and Sarah Bird serves as the CEO. The company has approximately 225 team members and two offices – in Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. The Moz platform includes tools and metrics to help marketers at every stage and size of business to optimize their inbound marketing efforts.
Now you’re working with Anne Kennedy at Outline Ventures Group. Tell us about this project, what you’ve achieved and how you’re helping new companies to grow?
Following funding by the Foundry Group, I stepped down as the president of Moz in June of 2012. My good friend and colleague Anne Kennedy also had a pleasant exit from her company and from Helium where she had served on the Board of Directors, when it sold to RR Donnelly. We had spent a number of years speaking at conferences around the world, building the brand of our companies, forging partnerships and we each had contacts and friends worldwide. Along the way, we had become good friends with each other.
We enjoyed a sunset over the Oregon coast, drinking a bottle of Pinot Grigio, and discussed what we wanted to do next. We talked about all the software that still needed to be built, the projects in digital marketing yet to be built and more. Finally, Anne said, “I think we have earned the right to have a lifestyle business!”
So we determined what we wanted to do and settled on three things we want Outlines Venture Group to address:
FUTURE ZING – We want to give back, but not by writing checks to non profit organizations. We both know how to launch, grow and successfully exit companies. Each of us had mentored many companies during our years in business. We want Outlines Venture Group to help build more TAGFEE companies around the world.
CURRENT INCOME – We want to fly around the world and see our friends. So we offer consulting services, speaking engagements, seminars and retreats worldwide.
GIVING BACK – We want to help more women succeed in entrepreneurship. So we mentor female founders preferentially.
Today, we’ve invested time, serve as advisors, and have invested capital and/or helped several companies raise seed stage capital. Currently, we’re deeply involved with brettapproved.com – the world’s first and fastest growing travel and entertainment portal for travelers with mobility challenges. With a rapidly growing aging population and improved medical care, almost 25% of the world’s people will some form of mobility challenge by 2020. While not everyone is wheelchair bound – some use canes, walkers, or simply aren’t as nimble and mobile as they once were, they all require accessibility-specific information about the places and venues they’d like to visit. brettapproved‘s byline is:
“Whether you’re traveling around the corner or around the world, brettapproved provides the information and services you need to travel confidently.”
I am serving as the COO for brettapproved until the company is VC funded at which time, a COO will be put in place to take the company ‘to the finish line’ and I will go on to other projects. Most companies require significantly less active engagement, of course. Among the companies we serve are: Spiral Genetics, SYNQY, Manumatix, and ExpertBeacon.
Previously you’ve worked as a mentor for many CEOs, but you’ve always had a particular focus on helping women. What difficulties do you see facing women in the tech and startup worlds?
The numbers, as Cheryl Sandberg would say, are not good around women founders. They are funded at far lower percentages than their male peers. When funded, they get lower valuations and receive less funding. Yet, companies with female founders and/or females in C-level positions, consistently return higher value to their investors than all male run companies. This conundrum makes no sense. We can fuss about it or do something about it. Anne and I choose to look at what assets female founders may lack that hampers them in getting the funding they require and solve that issue.
“It is far more common for a young man in his teens or twenties to be mentored by a seasoned business owner than for a young woman.”
Women have not traditionally had access to mentors and pathways to entrepreneurship in the way boys and young men do. It is far more common for a young man in his teens or twenties to be mentored by a seasoned business owner than for a young woman. We find too many women come to entrepreneurship with too few connections to people who can mentor them and help their companies get to the next level. One of the things Anne and I can provide women beginning companies is access to our robust connections to help them get counsel, financing, marketing, sales, technical support, logistics and other services that young companies may require.
We find that when men are unseasoned in business and finance, people step in to help them learn. Too often, we see women are dismissed as being unfit to build a company in that same situation. We teach female founders in need of some business acumen the same skills their male counterparts are being taught. We also give them insight into their own skills and help find the lacking skills in a cofounder.
What do you think can be done to address the imbalance of women in tech and in startup industries?
We support female funders. Many groups are coming onto the funding scene with the specific idea of teaching more women to become Angel investors and to fund women in entrepreneurship. We support these organizations, speaking at them, encouraging membership among qualified investors, providing good deal flow, and teaching other women to perform good due diligence. With more females on the funding side, we believe more females will also be funded.
How has your own path been to becoming a leading voice in entrepreneurship? Have you faced many challenges based on your gender?
When I left Moz, I was immediately asked to mentor at a number of places – TechStars, Microsoft’s Azure Incubator, Chinaccelerator and others. Since both Moz and I had a sizable profile in the startup space and I had not announced that I was involved immediately in another startup, everyone knew I had free time on my hands now. Entrepreneurs who knew that I had mentored many other startups during my years at Moz both in Seattle and on the road around the world, asked to meet with me or share their pitches with an online meeting.
I took every meeting possible and listened to hundreds of ideas. After awhile, I got better at understanding the questions I needed to ask to determine which were most likely to succeed. I went to angel investor group meetings and met with other angels and asked them scores of questions about how they vetted companies. I met with any VC who would meet with me and learned from them as well. After about 18 months, I felt like I had a good idea of how to look at startup ideas, assess teams, understand markets, and get a feel for whether there was a chance for the company to have a successful exit.
Today, I share that insight with other female investors as often as possible to help increase the number of women who are confidently active in angel investing.
What lessons do you think your experiences offer to women (and men) looking to get involved in tech, or just wanting to push on and succeed?
When I was helping to build Moz, I made a mess of everything. I made so many mistakes that I’ve been running a radio podcast called CEOcoach for more than 7 years now. I share all the mistakes I made so others don’t have to make them. (I’m still at it. 😉 ). Seriously – there’s much more to CEOcoach podcast than my mistakes. It’s actually a very insightful show. But, I think the message here is that everything was a mess.
“Keep on pulling, tugging, trying another way, making another sales call, doing another project, and don’t give up.”
There were hundreds – even thousands of mistakes made. I floundered and nearly drowned in debt. When I pulled through, all I could look at was all that mess. My message is this: the mess, the mistakes, the problems, and the failures are what make up the paths to success. Keep on pulling, tugging, trying another way, making another sales call, doing another project, and don’t give up. This is not just encouragement for women, but for all entrepreneurs.
And for heavens’s sake, women – ask for help!
When I was building a company, there was a much smaller startup scene. I had no mentors, no VCs or others to advise me, no online or offline peer networks. All these things make building a company a better experience today. Utilize all of it to the hilt. Help will see you through to success.
What do you think men in these industries can do to help address the imbalance and alleviate the issues facing women?
The tech industry and the startup world are still very heavily male-oriented. Happily, I am seeing more efforts to bring girls and women into the fold. I see coding events, academies, and groups specifically for girls. Online and offline advertising tells girls that it’s ‘cool’ to be a technologist. Girls and boys are getting a different message these days – both sexes are capable of all things. That’s a good message and I hope it will help the next generation to live and work together in better ways. I certainly hope to see some significant increases in women in business as well as technology at every level and in every sector in the coming decade.
Are there any companies, in your opinion, that are setting an example for diversity?
I think Moz is doing a good job. Kaiser Permanente leads the list of well diversified companies. Until now, the discussion around diversity has been about race and gender with a smaller part of the discussion around national origin. I think we will see disability and creed become a larger part of the conversation of diversity in the workplace in the coming years as well.
Any last words for our readers?
I leave you with the words of Winston Churchill:
“If you’re walking through hell, keep walking.”
“Never, never, never give up!”
Thanks once again to Gillian for her insightful, inspirational answers. Are you a woman in tech? Someone looking to get into the tech industry? Get in touch with SPICED on any of our social media channels!