Marissa Evans Alden: “Just get started; the best way to know if an idea is any good is to start taking action around it and to just get moving”
Just Get Started: When you want to try something new or have an idea that you are thinking about, I have found the best way to know if it’s any good is to start taking action around it and to just get moving. Customers can tell you a lot about how good an idea is — better to test things in the wild quickly versus waiting for the perfect moment.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marissa Evans Alden who is the CEO and Co-Founder of Sawyer, the innovative online marketplace that offers a convenient, all-in-one booking experience for parents looking to discover enriching experiences for their children. A leader in the consumer products industry, Marissa is known for her ability to strategize and develop successful platforms throughout a range of industries. A seasoned technology entrepreneur, Marissa received her BS in Human Development at Cornell University, followed by an MBA degree at Harvard Business School. Known for her proven ability to tap into the consumer market with a fresh eye, Marissa founded Go Try It On in 2010, a consumer fashion application that was acquired by Rent the Runway in 2013. She then joined Rent the Runway as Head of Radical Innovation, General Manager, where she lead the way for new product development and all things related to the growth and loyalty of the brand’s eCommerce. In 2015, Marissa and Rent the Runway co-worker Stephanie Choi discovered a missed opportunity within the children’s activity space. Inspired by Stephanie’s personal frustrations with out of school programming as a new mother in Brooklyn, the partners co-created Sawyer, the digital platform that connects parents and children directly to the providers in the local neighborhood, allowing all parties an easy, flexible and reliable booking and discovery experience. Currently available in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, with plans to further expand this year, Marissa’s mission with Sawyer is to ensure every child has the opportunity to discover their own love of learning.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been excited about creating new things and pushing the envelope of what tomorrow could look like. I’m action oriented, and I’ve always believed that it’s my responsibility to chase my dreams. I started my first company in college, which was a great way to get exposed to being an entrepreneur. I learned to love the responsibility and creativity that comes along with creating something new, and have always been enamored with the problem-solving power of business. After undergrad, I immediately went to business school where I learned how I could create something both novel and profitable. After graduating, I started my first company in New York City in 2009. It was when I was first exposed to venture capital and the power of a strong product. I loved product development and felt like if my work could be about building new products and bringing them to market, I would be home! 10 years later, I’m still at it!
Starting Sawyer was influenced by a personal need of my co-founder (then colleague) Stephanie Choi. As a new mother, she was frustrated with how manual and outdated finding and booking programming for her children was. She needed a tool she could trust to do this work for her, and when we couldn’t find it — and realized we weren’t the only ones — the idea for Sawyer was born. Now, Sawyer is a one-stop-shop that removes all the hassle of searching, booking and paying providers and connects parents and children directly to the best activity providers in their neighborhood.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I was pregnant with my daughter Blake, my team hosted a surprise baby shower at a Brooklyn restaurant. The real surprise came when my water broke during the lunch and I had to tell the whole team (including a class of new hires) that I was in labor and needed to leave early. Needless to say, it was a pretty memorable week for the whole team.
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?
A friend of mine is a big time editor at a national publication. I wrote to her about the company and what we were doing, and instead of saying “I’ve been running a company for the past three years” I wrote “I’ve been ruining a company for the past three years.”
Lesson learned: get a second person to read important emails… And don’t rely on auto correct!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Sawyer stands out because we have a few layers to us. We are a software company, a marketplace company and a payments company — our go-to-market strategy has been more nuanced and defensible than most that have tried to tackle this space. On top of that, we have a laser focus on our customers. When we first started in 2015, we didn’t just build a minimum viable product (MVP) and
put it out there, we invited our prospective customers to come in, and worked alongside them with pen and paper to sketch out what their dream product would look like. That philosophy has underlined everything we do — we build our products in partnership with the people who use them everyday. It makes for an amazing relationship with our customers, and in the end, makes the product that much stronger.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re really excited about the power of data and personalization. In the past few months we’ve been deploying new experiments to help parents find new activities in their neighborhoods that help provide a holistic view of development. It’s still in the early stages but it’s a huge focus for us.
We really want to take the guesswork out of the decisions around children’s activities — if we can take the same principles that have been applied to music, food delivery, and shopping experiences, imagine what we could do for parents? We want to be a parent’s best friend when it comes to these decisions, and having data-backed programs that do the hard work for them is the ultimate dream.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
For me, it takes a village. At home or at work, find great people to stand beside and you will always go further than you ever could alone.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I’d give the same advice to female leaders that I’d give men — I can’t stress enough the importance of communication with your team. I am working on staying consistent on messaging and communicating in a way that may even feel comical and sometimes maybe too much. But I think that once you get to be over 20 people it’s important to be clear with your messaging and stick to it!
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?
I am particularly grateful to my two partners, Stephanie Choi and Andrew Fernandez. Both of them have made starting a company more manageable, and more fun. We are great teammates and are able to balance each other from a skill set and personality perspective. Having worked together before, starting a company was so important because we got to know each other’s styles. We get to celebrate the wins together and be each other’s support systems when things get rocky.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Sawyer’s mission is to ensure every child has the opportunity to discover their own love of learning. For us, that means creating access — access through better technology, beautiful design, and personalized product experiences. But access, when it comes to children’s education, is so much more than that. Right now there are 20 million children in the U.S. who don’t have access to these opportunities financially.
We think we can help change that.
Our products provide a real-time look into the inventory available in a given market. We can see, on average, how many spots will go unfilled each week. So, we could do two things — we could sell them at a discount, or, we could connect them with children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. We chose the latter.
It’s still in the early stages, but Sawyer for All is an incredibly exciting opportunity that we’ve already begun to test. With the help of our amazing provider partners, we’ve taken the first steps by placing a handful of children in these programs for free. In the near future, we hope to expand this program to thousands, and one day, millions.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Find Great Partners: Not an engineer but building a tech company? Find a great Chief Technology Officer. Not comfortable with financial forecasting and modeling? Find a partner who is. Don’t know how to talk to the media? Find a great Communications Director. A strong team is the foundation for any great business, and it’s all about balance — so everyone is bringing something to the table.
- Dream Big: As the founder, the ceiling is as big as you believe it to be. It’s up to you to dream as big as you can. You will have lots of folks talk you down, so you may as well aim high!
- Being Kind is a Choice: Choose kindness always. You will never regret being nice to someone. Even if you are frustrated, even if you are disappointed, approach your team, your investors, and your customers with kindness and you can’t go wrong.
- Take Time to be Creative: The day to day can be very overwhelming and manic. It’s so important to be able to take space to distance yourself from that and “turn off”. That’s when the best ideas happen, where you gain perspective. Deep thinking on airplanes, hikes and the shower are highly recommended!
- Just Get Started: When you want to try something new or have an idea that you are thinking about, I have found the best way to know if it’s any good is to start taking action around it and to just get moving. Customers can tell you a lot about how good an idea is — better to test things in the wild quickly versus waiting for the perfect moment.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Let’s make a great educational opportunities accessible for all children.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I really love Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the
worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
As a founder of a startup, it always feels like we are fighting the good fight to make something new happen! This quote speaks to me deeply about going after my dreams despite the risk of failure!
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 :-)
Meg Whitman. I’ve been a fan of her work and career for many years. She knows how to take risks and build amazing companies.
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