…Myth 2: Being a woman in tech is an impediment. I have to admit, I’ve found that being a woman in tech has been an advantage. It has helped me find mentors. I show that I know what I am talking about and have been told I’m memorable, which has led me to popular podcasts, interviews and articles (like Vogue and this one!) that are looking for people to inspire other females to join STEM careers.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christy Laurence, Founder & CEO of PLANN.
Christy is the 4x award-winning founder of Plann, an Instagram Management tool she self-funded to over 1.5M downloads in 160+ countries. Plann has been listed in the top 800 grossing apps in the world, equipped with a passionate global team and website visited by hundreds of thousands every month.
She was recently featured in Vogue and spoke at the Vogue Codes Sydney Summit for digital innovators. Christy now splits her time between Silicon Valley and Sydney to grow her software business, mentor on multiple startup accelerators empowering female, non-technical founders to build their own successful tech companies, and lecture at Universities on Innovation, Social Media and eCommerce.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Sure! Thrilled to be here! I was working in corporate advertising and I truly loved my job. One day I woke up and I felt like I was in a video game. The whole world was spinning, and I had no idea what was going on! Several trips to the hospital, some major falls in public, and a brain scan later showed I’d been hit with a strain of the flu virus that travelled up into my brain and destroyed my vestibular function.
I was left with no spacial awareness or balance, basically, I felt like I was drunk 24/7. I was delivered the news that there was no cure, so I threw myself a pity party and really wallowed in being sick for a number of months. If I’m honest, it was boring and having nothing to live for isn’t a great mental space to be in either. You can imagine I was the life of every party!
One day I had an epiphany that I really can choose the person I want to be. I returned to my first love of illustrating and started publishing my work on Instagram as the Social Media wave was taking off. I quickly understood the story selling nature of the platform, and then the next thing you know I had successfully created a number of revenue streams and had many asking how I had done it.
I found that I was repeating myself a lot, and then like most Founders I had that ‘There’s got to be a better way!’ moment. What if I could build a tool that tells people how to use Instagram, what to post, why to post, and when to post. Imagine if I could get it in the hands of thousands of people and help them build a new lifestyle, just like me.
Building Plann became my recovery.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Yes! Our team is incredibly diverse, we’re all passionate people from a great mix of different countries.
We’re spread across more than 10 countries and it makes for great stories when we share our lives together. Many of the team travel the world and stay at each other’s houses to holiday or work together (last month a few met up to go snowboarding in New Zealand). It’s an absolute privilege to create a workplace that enables flexibility and fosters lifelong friendships.
Last year we had a retreat to Bali where we brought most of the team together. I was brought to tears when I got to show 4 people the ocean for the first time. The sun was setting across it, and I watched their faces light up. It was just incredible. Before the end of the trip, I had convinced them to get in the ocean with me, and now, they openly talk about how joining Plann has changed their lives.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Mistakes can make or break a Founder. Thankfully I can laugh now at how much optimism I had, but this mistake almost defeated me — I ended up in the back of an ambulance because of it.
When we first launched Plann, we charged a single one-off fee. As the app evolved, we transitioned into a subscription service. I thought that my biggest challenge was going to be telling people instead of loving me once, they’d have to love me every month.
At the same time, our server provider went down and it was completely out of our control. The 40,000 people I had just finished teaching they needed to rely on us every day were served a black screen of death when they opened Plann. Literally a black screen, and it went on for over a week when it was a brand-new software product. It was hideous.
10,000 email complaints, reputation hanging in limbo, working 20+ hours a day, I thought it was all over in one moment. I literally worked myself into an ambulance as the mental toll became too much for a one-woman band and I physically broke.
It was in that instant; I learned a very hard (and obvious!) lesson that you cannot build a technology business with no technical people! Surprise!!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I love that Plann doesn’t just put a social media scheduler into the world for people and say ‘Here! Figure it out!’ We become an extension of your team, offering content ideas, strategy ideas, royalty free images and analytics that really help brands understand what moves the needle rather than celebrate vanity metrics.
Our mission at Plann is to empower our community to find success, beauty and confidence telling their story on Instagram.
For example, Instagram is such a visual platform and I really wanted people to understand that and take control of their online shop front — so we built in a ‘best performing color palette’ feature.
You’ll learn what colors work best for your individual engagement and click-throughs for your own audience, and you’ll also learn what doesn’t work (*ahem that late night dark photo of cocktails.).
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Absolutely! We’re always obsessively thinking of new ways we can help our people. Plann is a customer funded (aka bootstrapped) company, which means we’ve taken no external funding and owe the development of our product to our own user base.
We recently launched our first version of our Desktop Webapp which has been really successful. Now after months of asking our people what they really want, we’re about to relaunch a brand new design that looks very slick and offers much more functionality and even more help to Instagram challenges.
We’re also looking to extend our suite of products past Instagram, and want help with some of the trickier parts of the social media workflow that we can’t wait to send into the wild.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Everyone’s perception is their own reality, so this is obviously a very personal view.
Things are starting to change but like everything, there can always be improvement.
The way that I see it, it’s not about male and female, it’s about having compassion, empathy, self-awareness and understanding of others that think differently, which starts with the self, not gender.
If anyone experiences someone being a little creepy, dismissive or acting differently towards anyone — call it out. Without that person realizing their own subconscious bias towards any group, it will continue. It’s on all of us as people to make a difference.
Personally, I can’t wait for the day that I’m not a female in tech, I just want to be in tech. It would mean the end of ‘Female Founder’ awards when I’d rather be listed in the normal ‘founder’ category. I work incredibly hard and I would never want to win what might be a ‘sub-par’ award or awarded differently because I’m female.
I’m a tech founder. I’m a business CEO. I run a multi-million-dollar business. I happen to be female.
What can change? Ask me questions about being a Founder, the metrics that grow a company, partnerships, projection modelling, running a global, distributed workforce and my amazing team.
Only asking questions about gender bias makes me feel like I’m only worth talking to because I’m female in a trendy minority, and not because I run a successful business with information, I can share that can help others do it too.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
One thing I have noticed is that female founders don’t have the wider STEM network that many of my male peers have. After many men grow up and study in STEM subjects many of their friends are able to help, which is something I’d love to see change for females somehow.
Paving the way in mostly unchartered territory means I’m constantly facing challenges and figuring out things the hard way, making heaps of mistakes and having to really prove myself before I earn the respect of my male counterparts, and then after all that, still having the courage to ask them for help occasionally.
Sure there have been the nasty remarks and comments that my friends would gasp at, but for every offensive comment, there are several amazing men and women I’ve met along my journey of building a tech startup who’ve helped, supported and championed me.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Myth 1: That women are too emotional to run a business.
Running a business with empathy and passion can be seen as being ‘emotional’, but I don’t think this is a bad thing when channeled into the right energy and qualities to lead a team.
Myth 2: Being a woman in tech is an impediment
I have to admit, I’ve found that being a woman in tech has been an advantage. It has helped me find mentors. I show that I know what I am talking about and have been told I’m memorable, which has led me to popular podcasts, interviews and articles (like Vogue and this one!) that are looking for people to inspire other females to join STEM careers.
Myth 3: Female founded companies don’t deserve the same funding opportunities
I’m disappointed that female founders don’t get the funding they deserve, and I’m glad to see there are more and more opportunities opening up. It’s been proven that female founded companies make more revenue in the long run which is something that is finally starting to be noticed.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Avoid seeing a crisis as an insurmountable problem.
Break down any challenge into bite sized ways to solve it and just keep moving forward. Working in STEM there are always curveballs, and things that you never expected to go wrong, will.
Look for opportunities for self-discovery.
Being a leader is a mental game. Take a moment to reflect on how you handled a situation, challenge, or disagreement, and see if there was room for any personal growth. This can help break mental blocks and insurmountably increase your ability to lead.
Always. What you think about you attract more of.
Believe in your own ability.
Being a leader, or founder, can be a very unrewarding job. There’s no one to tell you you’re doing a good job or pat you on the back. External validation can’t be what drives you. You need to be motivated internally, and intrinsically believe that you’ve got this, to ensure you don’t give up.
Learn your limits, then promise yourself you’ll never go back there. I don’t believe in making self-care a treat, because moments of looking after myself has become part of my daily routine, it’s just a way of living now.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
If you’re a founder, or wanting to become a founder, you’re going to have your own lessons about failure, mistakes and stuff-ups. Do as many as you can as early as you can so it doesn’t have such a big impact on your business later.
Secondly, hire great people who can grow with the business rather than on their previous experience. You’ll find the company grows quickly and you’ll need people who can adapt, learn, change and execute — and quickly.
I’m very transparent with my team to ensure they know their personal contribution to each piece of the sales, retention and customer success cycles. Bringing the team on the journey and making sure they’re all a part of our mission helps give them purpose, rather than just clocking into work and smashing out 8 hours of work.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Plann has a mix of full-time and contract employees based across 10 countries and multiple time zones.
Reaffirming our organizational lines and empowering managers definitely helps my days not to get hijacked.
Despite many of the team never having met, the Plann culture is exciting, engaging and honest. Our level of trust and open communication is, in part, due to a unique style of communication that allows employees to always express their opinions and feelings about a given subject.
Running a widely remote team has its challenges so we try to play games together on Slack, share moments from our daily lives, and encourage public acknowledgement when someone has gone above and beyond.
Sometimes an internet office that has a lot of messaging can be hard to read emotion, so as part of onboarding everyone in the team MUST create a bitmoji of themselves which also expresses our own unique personalities.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been a great group of people I’ve had help me, however the person that stands out the most here is my husband Tim.
When I was put in an ambulance with exhaustion and was out of action for a few weeks, he called in sick from his own day job and answered all of my 10,000+ emails. He spent time tidying up my operations and finances, so it wasn’t so incredibly overwhelming when I was ready to bounce back. I’m not sure I would have kept going without him in that moment.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope so! I currently mentor on 3 startup accelerators that empower non-technical female founders to build their own successful tech companies. I also guest lecture at Universities in LA and Sydney on Innovation, Social Media and eCommerce. I love helping others where I would have loved the help myself.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It sounds really simple but asking others how they are and actively listening for their real answer past ‘I’m good, thanks!’. In a world where everyone has increased focus on their own happiness (which is absolutely fine), I would love to inspire a movement that helps people really feel seen and heard.
Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I wouldn’t wish boring on anyone!”
I love this quote because ‘boring’ is so subjective for each person. What it means to me is that you can choose what you want to do and change it at any moment. If you’ve found your life is in a rut, or you’re finding the current path you’re on boring — you can absolutely change it, you’re only one decision away. We’re not here for long so do what lights you up and live that.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx.
Sara was one of the first success stories I read growing up, and I strongly relate to her personality — her grit, perseverance and resilience to make things happen. I love and appreciate her honesty, her ability to be vulnerable, and just herself. I’d love to speak with her about the million business ideas she comes up with, how she continues to innovate, her investing portfolio thesis, and how she has been able to stay so focused through her own life seasons.