Michelle Madhok’s career experiences at cbs.com and AOL in the early days of the Internet set the backdrop for her entrepreneurial adventures with the Web. Her desire to take control of her career led Michelle to form her successful Internet company, SheFinds Media. It was established to help busy women satisfy their shopping needs online through sites such as shefinds.com and momfinds.com. Michelle sat down with The Career Cookbook to discuss how entrepreneurs can prepare themselves for success, explained ways to earn revenues online, and shared her future plans for her company.
CCB: Was CBS your introduction to working in new media?
MM: Yes. I came out of graduate school at Northwestern in ’95 and I went in to the marketing department at CBS. They said, “Do you do Internet?” I said, “I have an AOL account.” They said, “You are in charge of cbs.com.” That was all just starting. I just kind of ran it with me and a small agency of like three people. Then it became huge. A couple of years later they caught on and CBS News took over and it became a much bigger deal but that was how I started.
CCB: At that point what did cbs.com consist of?
MM: Promoting the shows. Only thing everybody cared about was television. It was really marketing for the shows. We did a lot of chats with soap opera stars.
(Laughs) No one was really excited about it because television was such a bigger deal then.
CCB: Your career trajectory seems to take shape with the introduction of the Internet. Can you talk about the challenges of figuring out the Web in the beginning, as it related to your work?
MM: The great thing was that nobody really knew what it was so you could just do whatever you felt like; they would never question anything I was doing because no one had any metrics to go against. Everything was new. I would go on trips to Los Angeles to interview celebrities. It was also great because I could have meetings with anyone who wanted to work with CBS. If you are trying to break in to television that is a really high bar but at the start of the Internet it was a great way. Now that job would be so competitive to get but at the time no one wanted to do it.
I have a consumer marketing background and before that I was a reporter, I was going to be a television reporter so I feel like I had a really good understanding of audience. I did a lot of reading about consumer insights and what are people crazy about. The best area we had was Daytime because those people are the most passionate about the TV shows. People who watch soap operas or who watch The Price is Right were the most enthusiastic about using the Web, so we did a lot of content for those areas.
CCB: How do you transition from CBS to AOL?
MM: In ’98 I got a call from AOL and they said, “Do you want to come down here and oversee women’s content?” At CBS television was still the driver. The Internet was the afterthought. You were always fighting for resources with television. And television sometimes would not put the url up on the show or it was always a big argument. A lot of them were old school and they did not understand the Internet. So I went down to AOL and everyone was literally popping champagne from how rich they were getting down in Dulles. (Laughs) They gave me a tour of the offices. I thought I could suck it up and come down here and get rich.
CCB: How long were you at AOL?
MM: Then I went down there and I was there for five years and I did not get rich. (Laughs) I was very rich on paper for a little while. Six months after I had started my boss retired with $25 million and he was 32. It was just like regular people. It wasn’t anybody who had started a company. Even then they weren’t all top tier people because no one wanted to work on the Internet when it started. It was all like people from Virginia that had regular jobs that decided to go and work at AOL.
CCB: When did you realize you were an entrepreneur?
MM: I got tired of having a boss. I had twelve bosses in five years at AOL so it was very chaotic. But a lot of what I was doing was very entrepreneurial because you had no real management and had to figure out what you were doing on your own. So, that you could at least save yourself when layoffs came around by showing I produced these results. Because they laid people off every three months. I wanted to come back to New York and they would not let me. I finally got a job in New York in the sales department and they reorganized again and my boss got fired again. And I had no job. For several months I really had no job. I was still employed by AOL but I had really nothing to do. That’s when I started thinking I want to do content and commerce, that’s the future of things. I went to the Head of Shopping at AOL and said I have this idea and he did not really want to commit to it, his job was a little shaky. I went to Conde Nast and they said we think you are a marketer trying to be an editorial person. I went to Hearst and this editor at this new magazine Shop etc. said she hated the Internet, hated ecommerce. AOL said you have to go back to Dulles if you want to work here or we’ll give you a package. And I took the package. So, that’s when I went home and I started my own little website with $500 and a crazy guy from the Ukraine I found on craigslist. (Laughs)
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as CEO at SheFinds Media or has this changed as your company continues to grow?
MM: Every day I wake up and have the same thoughts since I started the company, how do I make money and how do I get traffic? That’s the main focus. But at least now I have people helping me solve the problem. For a long time it was just me and a few freelancers and now we have six.
It’s a lot of talking to people about potential deal making. Talking to the editors about what they are doing, how they are going to draw traffic. Did this content work or did this content not work? I basically consider myself a shepherd of the flock. (Laughs) I like to give advice. I like people to have a lot of autonomy. Here’s your assignment, go for it. If you need help tell me and we’ll try and problem solve together but I try not to micromanage as much as possible. I feel you hire smart people you have to let them work. Sometimes you guide them a little bit.
CCB: How did you learn about entrepreneurship, starting your own business? Was a lot of that on the fly?
MM: Very much on the fly. But also I tried to meet a lot of entrepreneurs. I joined a lot of entrepreneurial groups so you get some advice. I read a lot of books. I joined Ladies Who Launch and Count Me In. All of these gave me some tools and also a support network. I also made friends with a bunch of other entrepreneurs who were maybe a step ahead of me so that I could ask them questions and get advice and sometimes commiserate. I really find that it is important to surround yourself with other entrepreneurs because your non-entrepreneur friends won’t really understand.
CCB: Can you explain how you earn revenues as an Internet company?
MM: We are part of the Glam Network so they sell all our banners. Then we make money on if someone buys something we get a percentage. We also have a co-branded shop search engine that we do with Sugar Publishing which is shopstyle.com. If people want to search for more things and they find something through that we get a commission. We also do events, spokesperson type things like my MomFinds editor is going to be doing a twitter chat with Bissel vacuum cleaners and we get paid for things like that.
CCB: What are your sites’ demographics?
MM: Median age I think is like 32. With MomFinds they have small children. I think our household income is over $75,000.
CCB: What is the status of bridefinds?
MM: It’s hopefully going to launch in a couple of weeks.
CCB: And the site will take the same format as the other sites but with a focus on weddings?
MM: So what happens when a woman gets engaged is all her media consumption goes to bridal. She stops paying attention to anything else and we hope that when she is at the office not working that she is on our bridal site buying things.
CCB: The idea hatched from when you were getting married?
MM: Somewhat. But what we are really looking to do is build sites on any stage of a woman’s life where she is going to be shopping. So SheFinds is first job to first baby and beyond. First job is where you get your first paycheck and you have to wear real clothes. You can’t wear college clothes anymore. MomFinds is when you get pregnant or have a baby and need new clothes. Having a baby is whole new stuff you have to buy. BrideFinds is when you get married and you spend the biggest chunk of money on making everything perfect. The next ones we want to launch are what you need when you buy a home or when you get a pet. Everything that has something to do with purchasing.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as an entrepreneur?
MM: You need to try and focus on opportunity. Be opportunistic. Be able to fake it until you make it.
CCB: What do you mean by that?
MM: You have to have a little bit of bravado when you are out because you are coming from nowhere. If you go and have a meeting with Time Inc. you want them to work with you. Even though you are so much smaller you have to be like we are going to be the next big thing. I think you have to have intellectual curiosity. That you are always asking why is this happening? What is causing it and how can we make it better? That to me is really important.
CCB: What has surprised you the most about being an entrepreneur?
MM: I guess that I was able to do it, sometimes. (Laughs) When I started I just wanted to support myself. I just did not want to go back to work. (At corporate) The fact that I can now support six people, that’s pretty amazing. It makes me excited that I built something.
CCB: What does the SheFindsMedia brand stand for?
MM: It’s all about women reaching women in the specific time of when they are shopping. Unlike other sites which are more about advice or community we only want to see people when they are ready to make a purchase. We think that’s the most valuable thing. The SheFinds, helping them find what they want and selling it to them.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming entrepreneurs?
MM: One is make your mistakes on another person’s dime. So if you are working right now try and get as much experience as possible doing what you want to do. Work or consult for someone who is doing what you want to do or something along the lines of.
My other one is if you don’t know what to do, do something. Lots of the time people get paralyzed and you have to just try something and it will take you to the next step.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job? Is it finding the revenue?
MM: Yeah, and growth. When you are an entrepreneur at the end of the day the buck stops with you. Sometimes it’s like I don’t know all the answers and its trying to figure out what are the answers, what is the next step? Especially in an industry like this where everything is changing every five minutes. It’s what should we be doing? So right now everyone is doing these groupons. So we are trying to figure out how can we get in on that, can we make any money off of co-opting with one of these groupon type sites? It’s constantly seeing what is going on and seeing how we can leverage it.
CCB: What are your career aspirations?
MM: More sites. Eventually probably selling to a big media company like a Conde Nast or a Hearst. Once you take investor money you have to figure out what the exit is going to be. Whether it is going public like The Knot or selling it to another company.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far? Is it not working for anyone?
MM: Definitely. (Big smile) Managing my own schedule. Not working for anybody. Knowing when I go to sleep how much money is in the bank. After going through all those layoffs and all that stuff, knowing that I am in control of my life.
*Keep up with Michelle and her various projects via these official links: