Melinda Wittstock: I am so excited to have Tina Sharkey as my guest today on Wings of Inspired Business. Tina is a true superhero, a serial entrepreneur, investor, and advisor who’s all about building purposeful communities, and what she calls “joy moments” and “experiences with soul”. She is the dynamic visionary co-founder and CEO of Brandless, it’s a new e-commerce company dubbed the “Proctor and Gamble for Millenials”. I’m going to ask her all about that. Many of you may also know Tina as the co-founder of the women’s media site iVillage. She’s also now on the board of ipsy and Brit+Co, she was a venture partner of Sherpa Capital. She also served as CEO of Sherpa Foundry, where she promoted startups to traditional companies. Tina Sharkey so wonderful to have you on Wings today.
Tina Sharkey: Oh My Gosh, thank you so much. I’m so psyched to be here and I’m so psyched for you and what you’re doing. This is amazing.
Melinda Wittstock: Thank you so much. I think it’s great when women have big moonshots and somewhere, I think I was in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest and I decided that wow I really want to BE the change that I want to see in the world. So wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all create the environment where women are really supporting each other, as a part of that investment in women, I want to invest in female-founded companies. Part of that investment was to affirm and acclaim this amazing work that we all do. I’m so excited to speak to you today. I think what you’re doing with Brandless is really cool and why don’t we just jump in there because it’s pretty new, right?
Tina Sharkey: Oh it’s brand new. We launched to the world on 7-11, so we’re barely … I wouldn’t even say we’re that a toddler, we’re not an infant, we’re probably a full-fledged baby and we started the company a couple of years ago. My co-founder Ido Leffler and I were brainstorming on how we could actually change the world in our own humble way and fix the system that we thought was fundamentally broken. As Ido likes to say, “If people understood what things cost versus what they paid them for they’d be rioting in the streets.” And I said, “No rioting in the streets.” What about if we built a community, a community of people that all believed everyone deserved better? What if we build a community of people who fundamentally cared about each other and the democratization of goodness even if they didn’t know what that meant, they knew that they were getting awesome things for fair prices for themselves and their families starting with the things they love every day like the organic foods, and the non-GMO foods, clean beauty, EPA-certified housewares, and safer choice cleaning for their homes. All kinds of things that they touch, and use, and the essentials are in their cabinets, under their sinks, in their washrooms. What if we just started there because then we could talk to everybody every day and provide some amazing things and we would do it all for three dollars. That was something that was kind of transformational.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome. So every product is priced at three dollars?
Tina Sharkey: Some are two for three and some are three for three, but at brandless.com you don’t need to bother checking prices because everything is basically three dollars.
Melinda Wittstock: That is awesome. I’ve heard you talk about eliminating the brand tax, so this is really just the cost consumers end up paying to roll the marketing of a brand, is that the brand tax or is there something more to it than that?
Tina Sharkey: Yes, we were struggling to find a word that captures the essence of the broken system, so we dubbed it brand tax but brand tax doesn’t just refer to marketing. Brand tax refers to all of the mark up that you pay from the time a product leaves the manufacturing factory or plant and actually get to self and into your home. It goes through so many different hands and oftentimes those hands are distributor costs, shelf stocking costs, settlement fees, all of these little pieces and parts, marketing as well, but not just marketing that end up being built into the price of that bod, or the bottle, or that soup. By the time you get it back into your home you’re paying on average 40% more than you should and sometimes 350% than you should for something that just doesn’t need to cost that much. In the better for you naturals and organics space it’s even worse and it doesn’t need to be.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome. When you say, “Proctor and Gamble for Millenials”, Millenials are changing everything about the way that we purchase, the way that we market, and so what was the inspiration there? What is it about Millenials that are having such a massive impact on our society?
Tina Sharkey: I would say first of all we never say “the Proctor and Gamble for Millenials”, Fortune magazine said that we were the Proctor and Gamble for Millenials.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh Fortune, okay, okay.
Tina Sharkey: Because Proctor and Gamble, and the reason I differentiate that is because Proctor and Gamble doesn’t have any direct to consumer relationships. Fundamentally, first and foremost, brandless is building the community. It’s a community of people who all deserve better. It’s a community of people who not only care about the things they put in their bodies, put on their bodies, and bring into their home, but it’s also a community of people who just care.
When you ask what’s that millennial filter part of it is a perennial filter meaning that it’s just the mindset of the modern consumer and that modern consumer is saying, “Wait a second? Who am I doing business with? Where does this product come from?” Using a millennial filter 87% of Millenials have said they don’t want to buy the products their parents use and they want to understand who their products are coming from. Furthermore, they want to be doing business with and, buying products from, and procuring things from a place, or a person, or a company that cares about the world.
They want the transparency to actually understand not just what’s in something but what does that something stand for because in part that reflects their own values. The things that they consume and share are things that represent themselves and become extensions of themselves because now it’s not like people are learning about product on soap operas the way they were in the 50s and 60s, soap operas are called that because they were paid for by the soap companies.
It’s now about what a friend tells a friend, or what somebody posts or shares, or tweets, or grams, it’s not about what broadcast television with an actor that’s telling you you’re going to be thinner, prettier, taller, more social, more popular. It’s actually about you. Millenials get that, that is a false narrative that people aren’t buying anymore, because YouTube is where stories are being told by real people. Instagram is where things are being shared. Facebook is where things are being liked, not on broadcast television. Many say we’re in the era of extraordinary golden age of television but that is for narrative. But product advertising shouldn’t have any.
Melinda Wittstock: You’re really completely disrupting Proctor and Gamble and what you say about they have no customer relationship, this is where things have changed so quickly haven’t they? I joke instead of B 2 C we’re actually living in a C 2 B world, so if you don’t care about your customers on a very personal level it’s very hard for them to care about you. This whole trend towards evolved enterprise or conscious capitalism is very interesting.
I’m curious what you think when you put your hat on not only as an entrepreneur but as an investor and you think about what is changing now for women who are creating these companies, and millennial woman as well. Are these changes really teeing up the conditions where female entrepreneurs will be more success at getting the capital they need, creating the businesses that really ride this wave of disruption, really into this evolved enterprise space that Brandless really seems to be claiming?
I’ve been working for a while and so I don’t want to be evaluated based on my gender. I want to be evaluated based on my ideas and my output. #WingsPodcast Click to tweet
Tina Sharkey: I think it’s a great question because wearing my investor hat which is the filter I’m using for this question, and something I’m very proud of as it relates to the Brandless first round, is that I am sex-agnostic in terms of evaluating a business plan. What I’m proud of at Brandless, this angle, is that nobody wrote about the fact that Brandless is being run by a woman, they wrote about the fact that Brandless was disrupting an industry, and they wrote about the fact that Brandless looked at market and fundamentally tried to reimagine what it meant to recreate modern consumption and went after that. And oh by the way, they have these great co-founders Tina and Ido, and Tina’s running the company and all of that but it wasn’t about look at what a woman can do, that I’ve been working for a while and so I don’t want to be evaluated based on my gender. I want to be evaluated based on my ideas and my output.
Back to the question about millennial females, the seat at the table is there but when I look at this, and I invested in a ton of female led businesses but not because their female led, but because I think the business fundamentals are strong and these entrepreneurs, not these women, these entrepreneurs have great ideas. And I’m evaluating on their skills and ability to execute those ideas. I evaluate every opportunity based on who is leading it and do I think they have the skills that it takes or know how to acquire the skills, or the people, or the talent, or the capital to have success over time.
It turns out a lot of the holdings in my personal portfolio as an Angel investor and investments I’ve led on behalf of venture capital, have women in the CEO seat or in the co-founder seat but that is not what attracted me to make the investment. That might have attracted me to the meeting but not to make the investment. I’ll always meet with people if I can be helpful. Unfortunately right now I don’t have any time because I’m running a new company, but I always make time when I can to meet and mentor but the business fundamentals have to be strong. I think that women are feeling that seat is waiting for them at the table and so maybe there’s more confidence to actually go and sit in that seat.
As we’re seeing STEAM to STEM, science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, I’m much more of a STEAM proponent than a STEM proponent.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. STEAM is great; I love that.
Tina Sharkey: I am all about the STEAM. I am all about the STEAM. If you don’t have the art then you don’t have the full package because I have an undergraduate arts and sciences degree. You have to know how to write, and talk, and do all of those things. It’s not just about the coding. Those are seats are waiting for you at the table but you have to sit in them as an entrepreneur and as a fundamentally strong business person, not as a gender led special advances opportunity.
Melinda Wittstock: Right. Showing up in confidence too. Some of the things that I see women do, and I’m curious your take on this too, where sometimes we can fall into a situation of just not valuing ourselves or making … So not asking for enough money or not pricing ourselves as high as we should be, or not speaking up. Or, on the other hand, making perfect the enemy the good, waiting; waiting too long to making sure that everything is perfect before we start companies. What are some of the things that you see that women do where we can get in our own way sometimes without even realizing it? What are some of the mistakes and what are some of the things you would…
Tina Sharkey: I think it’s a great question.
Melinda Wittstock: Thank you. I’ve interviewed so many women now for the book and the podcast and your start to see, dare I say, patterns, where a lot of us have in these conversations have been sharing how we really have to figure out a way to get out of our own way. Really just step into that authentic feminine power and just go for it, and not wait for permission or not wait to put our hands up. What are some of the things that you’ve seen though in the valley where women come and … Where did we go wrong?
Tina Sharkey: Well first of all I think you captured that beautiful so I would say just period, yes. Everything that you said! But to build on…
Melinda Wittstock: Good.
Tina Sharkey: … Because I think those are great insights, really extraordinary. To build on that and give you a couple of examples I think that what I’ve seen is that women are, some of the women, and some guys, but using a female filter, asking for permission more than asking for forgiveness, not having the courage to necessarily to seize the largest space they can and then talk about the execution pass to that space. They often will talk about the execution pass in very literal terms and not the bigger, momentous opportunity that they’re going after. When you’re an early stage entrepreneur you have to paint big pictures and say look this is the vision of the opportunity and here’s the big picture of what we see as either the problem we’re trying to solve, the market sizing and opportunity we’re going after, or this space we’re trying to seize.
You have to paint that big picture and you have to go back and say, “Now here’s how we’re going to get there.” Then not only “Here’s how we’re going to going to get there,” but here’s the mote that we like to call, the mote that we’re building around our opportunity to make sure that what we’re doing is fundamentally unique and what we’re doing is fundamentally defendable such that we can seize the space, claim the space, and send off competition. If what you’re thinking about is so clever why are you the only people that thought about it or how are you going to execute something that others couldn’t execute. I often feel that that piece of the storytelling, that piece of the confidence, that piece of building the big picture, and then going back and talking about the past execution women in general end to talk about the past execution in a very literal term.
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Tina Sharkey: And feel like they have to have everything figured out. I feel like it’s okay. Venture capital is investing in people who they believe have the capacity, skills, vision, and network to figure it out but you don’t have to have it all figured out up front. You have to have thought about it, you have to have thought about the things you need to figure out. But I think sometimes…
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, like “know your ‘why’.”
Tina Sharkey: Yeah, like when I push women in corporate settings and in entrepreneurial settings one of the differences between women and men, again making generalized statements here, but in bear with me on that because every case is different. But what I’ve seen in corporate environments is that women feel like they already need to be doing the next job before they have the right to apply for the next job. Whereas men see that opportunity, see that next job, and know that they’ll figure it out on the fly and that they have the tool set, they may not have every single skill but they’ll figure it out. Whereas women feel like they already need to be doing it to prove it so that they can get it. It’s a confidence thing and it is a sequencing thing as opposed to taking that leap and saying okay I know enough that why wouldn’t I be a great candidate for that as opposed to I need to know exactly how to do it and nail it before I have the right to be that candidate. I see similar things in the investment space.
Melinda Wittstock Right. So many of these things can often just be the way we’re acculturated, or how we grow up, or what kind of limiting beliefs we have in our mindset. What is it that leads women to think I can’t apply for this job or I can’t do this until I’ve tied everything up in a little neat bow. This is an interesting story, and Springboard Venture Forum when I went through the boot camp for female entrepreneurs of emerging growth, high growth tech companies and we had to go through this boot camp or we had to do a two minute personal pitch about ourselves, and I swear to God there was a woman there, an amazing entrepreneur, who had had a $500 million odd exit which she forgot to mention in her 2 minute pitch. So sometimes we don’t even say with pride our accomplishments, it’s kind of like we’ve been oh that’s just little … I don’t know, sometimes we can minimize ourselves. Do you see that sometimes where you have to actually coax the achievement out of the person?
Tina Sharkey: Yeah I do.
Melinda Wittstock: Out of the woman, she doesn’t say what I’ve done.
Tina Sharkey: I think that look, I know even for myself when people read off my bio or resume it’s not that I cringe because clearly I’m proud of my accomplishments but I’m not boastful. It’s not in my DNA to be boastful. I’m always just so humble and I always am like, wow, that’s awesome. Wait, they’re talking about me. It’s not that I shy away from it but I just think it’s actually a lovely quality but you have to know when to lean in, you have to know when to find those key points but also there’s something I think quite charming about humility. It’s a subtle difference about being humble but also being confident.
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Tina Sharkey: I think one of the things that I actually turns me off is when people are too boastful because then I feel like wow they’re going to get over their skis and they’re not self-actualized. I think it is a dance and you have to calibrate that for your audience, you have to calibrate that for yourself. But the facts are the facts.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, yeah that’s true. I think true humility is born of true confidence as well.
Tina Sharkey: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: Like having the confidence to admit that you don’t know everything. Going into any early stage company there’s going to be way more that you don’t know that you do. So there’s pressure to try and figure it all out, just doesn’t work in that context.
Tina Sharkey: Yeah like when I start a board meeting one of the things that I do is I always have a list of things that are keeping me up at night and things I’m feeling really good about. I think that at least acknowledging, and that’s one of the key traits of an entrepreneur, is to really acknowledge what you don’t know. Until you know what you don’t know you can’t identify either the resources, the advisory, the skills, or the human capital to go and fix, and fill, and execute that. But it’s very important, it’s more important to know that you don’t know than it is important to know what you know because you know what you know. You’re just going to do what you do naturally and what your skills have prepared you for. The much more important thing is to identify that space and to also know, and this is where true confidence comes from, that you don’t always have to have that skill and order to manage, curate, or oversee that execution.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh yes. I am a big believer in number one, know yourself, know your weakness, higher your weakness because you don’t have to do all of it. It’s this concept of leverage that sometimes I think, especially in the early stages of a startup, that phase where you are really early stage, you’re doing it all yourself, and then growing out of that. There’s a certain point where you think, wait a minute, that’s not even what I like doing, I’m not good at that. The company will never fly unless I find the person who really, if you’re a visionary you need to find your integrator. If you’re an integrator you got to get that vision piece, whatever terminology to use. I find that a lot of women sometimes have a hard time delegating, and letting go, and saying, “Oh my God, I really don’t know how to do this,” instead of choosing to learn the thing they don’t know how to do. Hire that person, or attract that person to your company. Find the talent that you actually do need. Is that consistent with your experience in the startup space that women often try and take on too much? Or try and do everything themselves?
Tina Sharkey: I think it’s really a case-by-case basis. But I would say that the most important thing as we both agree is to identify that space, what don’t you know, and identifying what needs to happen, and not necessarily feeling like those two things need to be connected. You can know what you don’t know, you can identify what needs to happen, but that third piece is not, “And I’ll do it.” The third piece is, “I will make sure it happens.” Either you make it happen or you identify how you’re going to make it happen. That is really where leverage comes from and that is true leadership.
Melinda Wittstock: It sure is. When you go back like earlier in your career where there those moments … This is really important too for all the women who are listening to this who are either thinking of being entrepreneurs, or at the very early stage of their entrepreneurial journey, or they’re older woman that are thinking of reinventing themselves as entrepreneurs after a corporate career. I think it’s really helpful for them to know that it’s okay to fail, that failing is actually part of this process, it’s part of the iterative process. In that context were there any times that you could share with us where you’ve been in a, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening,” whether at any kind of company whether it was iVillage, or AOL back in your AOL days, or with Brandless where you’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. This failed,” or, “Oh my God,” and how you felt and how you turned it around?
Tina Sharkey: It’s a great question. I think in so many contexts you have to look at really what are we playing on the short game, meaning what are we trying to accomplish right now, what do we want to accomplish over time. You have to calibrate between both of those because you’re playing the short game, which everyone needs to play the short game. You have to get your short-term achievements done but not at the expense of the medium and longer term. In a startup you often feel like, wait I don’t have a medium and longer term so I have to figure it all out right now. But that applies everyone, especially the startups. You have to identify and differentiate what do I have to get done right now.
One of the challenges of early stage is that sometimes the right person in the earliest stage is not necessarily the right person for the long game.Click to tweet
Know that at any time they may be tasked to go back and wear those other hats and that’s where the flexibility in entrepreneurship ship comes in, but that the execution for that one thing they’re going to do great as the company grows in scale they need to really hone in. Sometimes the people who come on early who like to do everything never really want to focus on one thing so they’re the best people in the early stages. But they don’t really like it when the company starts to scale because they can’t do everything anymore and they don’t want to focus on one thing.
There are some people who are excited that they have the opportunity to do a lot of things. Now they’re excited that they get to focus on that one thing and that other people are coming in as well. I think that that’s a really important, coachable opportunity for the entrepreneurs and leaders to keep that talent conversation open and have people remember that because things are being taken away from them, they’re not being taken away from them, that the company’s actually scaling and we’re being asked to focus because what they’re doing that’s their highest and best use at that time. That highest and best use might change. When you ask about what are my failures I always will point to less about the project, which I’m happy to talk about, but it’s more about the people. Everything for me is about the people and the ability to have the right people at the right time. Even better, have those people grow, and stretch, and learn, and create all kinds of exciting opportunities but always be in open dialogue with your team to say, “Look, you are that multipurpose person but now I need you to focus here. But you’re so great at all of these other things don’t take that as that I’m taking anything away.”
It’s not an indoctrination of failure, it’s actually an indoctrination of the company success that you’ve been part of helping to create and that we’re actually asking you to focus because we need scale and focus in this one area more than we did when we were just developing everything – because at that time we weren’t live, or we weren’t scaling, or we didn’t have this one gross paying point. If in fact you feel like doesn’t work for you after you try it let’s make sure before you feel like you fail or you need to leave that we keep the conversation open so that we don’t lose you because this area of focus isn’t the right area. We have the conversation around if this isn’t a fit is there another spot that you think you’ll fit better at. Sometimes those conversations go well and you get in front of them, and sometimes that person really is an early stage person and they only want to do multiple things, they don’t want to focus.
By the way, that’s a skill too and sometimes those skills mature into areas of focus and sometimes that’s actually their skill in which case you have to support that, and you have to honor that, and you have to realize that that person was right for that stage but wasn’t right for the stages as the company grows, et cetera. Vice versa, you might find people who are extraordinary at one thing but they’re not multi-taskers or they can’t do multiple things therefore you need to bring those people in at the time in which the company is ready for that unique and specific focus, and is not looking for a multi-tasker.
I always go back to people and how can you have … Some people say, “Treat people as you want to be treated.” But I think you have to take that to the next level and really say, “Treat people as they want to be treated.” That means you have to be able to have different conversations with different people at different times to make sure that the company and their journey are in alignment or can try and get into better alignment so that you both can get the most out of each other’s time and commitment.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s so interesting hearing you talk about team and people because at the end of the day that’s the difference between success or failure in a startup. I think of any of the times where if you have the wrong people in the wrong seats, or a poor culture, or any of those things it can be so debilitating. It can really spell the difference between success or failure in that event. Often women are talked about as though we have this more of a relationship, or web-thinking brain, or emotional intelligence, or empathy but can really be very valuable in terms of building a team. It sounds like that is one of your secret superhero powers that you know how to do that very effectively.
Tina Sharkey: The truth is that LinkedIn has done a phenomenal job at telling us what you’ve done because you’re publishing it and the crowd is validating it. There’s not a lot of opportunity for fluff on a LinkedIn because if in fact you worked at X, Y, Z company or you know X, Y, Z people the likelihood is any good employer is going to check that all out. So there’s not a lot of room for you to be making stuff up. That’s what you do. We let that validate itself – meaning we do the backgrounders, we test people, we evaluate people on what they do. But that’s not who they are.
What I really try and focus on obviously getting through what you do part which is critical but not defining, what’s defining and the filter that ultimately makes you a successful or an unsuccessful member of the team is evaluating who you are. Who you are is not at all about what you do because what you do is going to change over time. Who you are is part of your soul; it’s what makes you the kind of human being you are. The EI or emotional intelligence filter for me is really about understanding what I say the awesome human filter. If I think about talent and team building as an algorithm and you say, “Okay, well everything has a weight in algorithm,” so scale is evaluated, team fit is evaluated, all of these, affordability, all the things, location, geography, orientation, all of that, diversity. But then in the end of the today the thing and the algorithm for me that’s always had the highest weight. Any time I haven’t paid attention to it I’ve made a mistake is the often human filter. I don’t care if you can split an atom with your eyes closed and one hands tied behind your back, if you’re not an awesome human there’s no room for you on the team.
At the end of the day when times are great you want to celebrate with the awesome humans and when times get tough you want to lean on the awesome humans and that’s just going to make or break your culture. That’s what’s going to make or break your capacity to work as a team and that’s going to make or break your ability to support each other as life rolls on. We have no idea what life is going to deliver tomorrow and it just is how we roll. The people that you collaborate with, the people you take that trust fall with, the people that come onto your team at any level are going to have a material impact on your culture and you have to pay attention to it. There’s no oh that job doesn’t really matter, they all matter, they all have impact. Everyone has a voice and everyone should be honored and brought in to a team for the fit of who they are as a person above and beyond what the skills they’re going to contribute to the work because the work is going to change over time.
Melinda Wittstock: I think that’s so beautifully said. One of the wonderful things about being an entrepreneur is being able to choose the people that you do work with. You think also a big part of this success is the people that you surround yourself with, the mentors, and networks, and family friends who truly do have your back as well. When you think of outside the company and the support systems that you have around you what kind of advice can you give to women about that? What does it mean in practice for you in terms of the type of people that you need to surround yourself with to succeed as an entrepreneur and to succeed at the level that you have Tina?
Tina Sharkey: I would say that definitely the awesome human filter for sure. People who really know what my strengths are and what my blind sides are, and I wouldn’t say blind because I’m very aware of them, but the areas where…
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah we all have blind spots.
Tina Sharkey: Yeah well it’s a blind spot but they’re not blind for me, I actually am aware of them. I want to say my weaknesses but I don’t really mean my weaknesses, the areas where I really need to collaborate and so right, because I think of it not … By saying it’s a weakness would suggest that somehow I’m apologetic for it whereas I would say it’s much more about being … People who really understand that I am self-actualized, I know what my strengths are, and I know the areas where I like to collaborate, and where I’m looking to lean on someone else’s strengths so that together we can do great work together.
Melinda Wittstock: I love how you say that because it’s not necessarily yeah like actually a blind spot. As you progress in an entrepreneurial career I think the people that I see really succeed are those that are self-actualized and are more mindful, really have a good understanding of who they are as people. It’s almost like entrepreneurship is almost like therapy in a way. It turns you into a more conscious human being I think, if done right. I hear you coming at this from a very highly involved place of that sense of awareness.
Tina Sharkey: My investors, if you start with your investors because at the end of your day … And I just wrote this piece for Ersa Kinder when she was publishing for Wisdom about the Board for the Brandless and she asked me to write a piece on how do you manage your board because there’s all kinds of things about thinking about boards. Oftentimes people don’t think about their board as part of their team. I say that one of the hidden things that should be on every CEO’s resume or should be absolutely a part of the evaluation of a CEO is how do they manage their board. What grade does their board give them? And what grade do they give themselves for managing their board? At the redacted sense you take all the emotional intelligence out of it one could say the board is going to evaluate you on your results. But as we’ve seen in the last 90 days it’s not just about that. Look at CEO’s who have been removed who have had extraordinary results… but they haven’t been managed by their boards, in terms of the whole person, or how they’re managing their culture, and how they’re managing their teams. They’ve gotten removed as a result of that even though the actual “business results” are extraordinary.
Melinda Wittstock: That comes full circle back to the influence of the Millenials – what we we’re talking about at that the beginning. You can’t succeed in business what that type of culture anymore.
Tina Sharkey: You can’t and so I think it’s critical to understand that the emotional intelligence of managing a board is understanding that they are your first team. The reason I talk about that after you talk about weaknesses, and transparency, and self-actualization is that the first people that you need to self-actualize on before you hire a single person is your investors. That goes back to your first question about new types of entrepreneurs at the table and how things are going to be different. I think the first thing is to seize the space, talk about your big picture vision, then get down to the opportunity you’re presenting, and that you’re excited about, then get down to how you’re going to get there. Then don’t forget to talk about why you are uniquely qualified to do this and what you need to have around you to execute. There’s no way one person can do everything and part of that opportunity is you’re interviewing your investors as much and they’re interviewing you, especially at the early stages. You want to know what they’re going to bring to the table whether it is cycle knowledge, whether it’s portfolio knowledge because they’ve invested in a lot of complimentary companies so they see the cycle, whether it is the relationship’s they’ve built, or what they’ve helped to, or how they’ll help you raise future money, or the value adds that their team can provide, whatever that is, and acknowledging that you need that help.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, and how they’re going to react when there’s something that goes wrong. Are they going to abandon you or help you? So the interviewing of the investor is vital and I think that’s something that a lot of entrepreneurs, whether men or women, don’t necessarily do, understand that this relationship is a long-term relationship, right? It’s a good…
Tina Sharkey: Absolutely, absolutely. But to say to them, “Look, here’s what I’m relying on you for, here’s what I need from you or others,” and see how they respond to that. Be transparent about it, here’s what I’m hoping to get from you or others, here’s what I need, and it’s okay that they can’t provide it but at least be transparent about what those needs are so that everybody is clear.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s absolutely vital. I want to go back in time for a little bit. What were you like as a little girl? Were you entrepreneurial? Did you have the whole lemonade stand or some sort of business? Were you conscious of wanting to be an entrepreneur as a kid?
Tina Sharkey: I think so. I know that my first toy … I loved to play stores for that was for sure, I loved my little cash register, I loved my little shopping cart, and even when my kids were really young one of our favorite things to do after Halloween, because they go to so much candy, we used to live in New York City, and so we lived in an apartment building, and when you’re a little kid in a suburban environment you don’t really get that much kid when you’re a toddler because you’re not scoping the neighborhood because you’re a toddler, and it’s cold and your mom makes you go in.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh God they had like Manhattan.
Tina Sharkey: Oh My Gosh but you do it in an apartment building.
Melinda Wittstock: They got full really quickly.
Tina Sharkey: It’s like you got the elevator you can clean up in 27 minutes. So we used to get so much candy…
Melinda Wittstock: Oh absolutely.
Tina Sharkey: … And my favorite thing, which brings me back to my favorite thing as a little girl that I would do with my boys is we would sort all of the candy into either color categories, or like categories, the chocolates, the gummies, the sours, the this, the that, and then we would set up our candy store. For weeks we would shop, we would play candy store, and I’d be the customer, they’d be the salesperson, or they’d be the customer and that was one of my favorite games when I was a little girl to play store.
That then led me … I remember, I think the first thing that I made and sold, I don’t know how old I was, I’d have to go back and look at the pictures but I couldn’t have been 10 so maybe I was 8, was these tie-dyed beaded t-shirts where I would shred the bottoms of the t-shirts, and then I would tie beads onto them, and I would shred the sleeves, and make them beaded as well. Then I would tie-dye them; they were quite fabulous. I wonder where I put those. I don’t know if I can find one somewhere. Then I remember somewhere [crosstalk 00:41:18, I’ll have to find those t-shirts, or I have to make a new one. I have to call my sister. But also I remember with my friend Danny The Clash was a band that I’d loved in high school and I remember on the roof of my apartment building…
Melinda Wittstock: Oh me too.
Tina Sharkey: … We made Clash speakers…
Melinda Wittstock: Oh man, I loved them.
Tina Sharkey: … And one of my greatest little souvenir of that is somewhere in my attic I have Joe Strummer, I waited outside and he signed a Clash t-shirt that I made. So that was one of my prized possessions. I remember selling concert t-shirts and making them. I’ve always been excited by the idea. I definitely was big on Girl Scout cookies and I was big on selling things as part of clubs, and competing for the prizes, and things like that. So that was always fun. I was raised by, my mom was an entrepreneur, my mom was an executive and when I went to high school in New York City my mom at the time was the president of Anne Cline and so I would do my homework … I would take the subway from school up to her office which was in the apparel district on 7th Avenue and I would sit in the showroom at one of the tables doing my homework. She would always say to me, “If you’re done with your homework you can sit in any meeting as long as you only speak when spoken to.”
Melinda Wittstock: Wow.
Tina Sharkey: So I had the opportunity to be exposed to things at a very young age, business people, and business conversation that most people wouldn’t have had that privilege. Not only was I excited about making stuff, and selling stuff, and being engaged in it but I also got the privilege to have an insider’s track on how business was conducted. That was a real privilege.
Melinda Wittstock: That is fantastic. I think back when you look at your childhood those role models are so vital especially for young girls seeing women do that. I remember really watching my Aunt Bee pretty closely because she was Canada’s first female stockbroker…
Tina Sharkey: Nice.
Melinda Wittstock: … If you can imagine that. So she goes out in the late 60’s and she realizes that she has to create her own market, so she does. She figures out a way to sell to women, to widows, and divorced women, and women who would have otherwise been setting around watching soap operas. She educates them about investing, and she creates this whole market. She ends up being the most successful performer.
Tina Sharkey: Awesome, is she still with us?
Melinda Wittstock: No she’s not. She lived to be 96, which in itself was pretty wild, and was still working for her firm at 85 years old when Canadian law makes you retire at 65. So she just lied about her age, she kept dying her hair; she got away with it for like 20 years. She’s a total badass, right? So I watched her and I used to often come with her, or I’d go to her office, and I think…
Tina Sharkey: Well there you go. You can’t put your finger on those things because they’re invaluable. One of the things that I deal with our interns is that we have a team lead meeting, which is just for four or six people that are leading various teams. If we have an intern in the company at that time I always invite the intern into that meeting because I want them to see how those meetings are conducted as an exposure, not that they’re in all of them because oftentimes they’re packing boxes, or they’re cropping photos, or they’re doing whatever an intern is doing based on where they’re deployed. But I also invite them into those other meetings because I want them to have a view of how the business is being run.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s astounding. I try and do that with my kids. I think for all the women out there that have this pull, the work/life balance thing, like oh man when I’m at work I feel guilty because I’m not with my kids, when I’m with my kids I should really be working on my business. I don’t know I gave up on that long … I just call it work/life integration. My kids are involved and they watch me…
Tina Sharkey: Me too, me too.
Melinda Wittstock: … They watch me do all that. How old are your kids?
Tina Sharkey: Now they’re older but I have a 15 year old and I have an 18 year old, but my kids have grown up…
Melinda Wittstock: Oh awesome.
Tina Sharkey: … At the table. The classic story of how I even became the Brandless CEO I was always the co-founder with my co-founder Ido Leffler. We used to say on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, when we were just the two of us, I was the acting CEO and Tuesday, Thursday I was the acting chairman, and then he would take Tuesday, Thursday acting CEO, and Monday, Wednesday, and Friday acting chairman because we hadn’t really funded the company yet so we would be like yeah we’re wearing all the hats but we had other day jobs.
One day I came home and I was talking to my kid since maybe Jacob was 16, Charlie was 14 or 13. And they said, “Hey mom, how was work today?” And I said, “It was great.” They said, “Okay, what did you do?” I said, “Well I interviewed a couple of CEO’s.” And they said, “Oh which company?” Because I was on boards and I was doing investments so I did that a lot. I said, “Well I interviewed a couple of people for Brandless.” Literally in the spirit of mic drop there was a fork drop and they were like, “What? You interviewed Brandless CEOs? You are the Brandless CEO.”
I’m like, “Well no, I am the Brandless CEO but I’m also the Sherpa Foundry CEO, I’m an investor, I’m on the PTA. As we go to scale the company because Ido and I are thinking we’re going to take investment dollars and actually go for it we want to bring in an operating CEO because I have all this other stuff. Jacob you’re going to college soon.” They literally looked at me and they were like, “Mom, mom, mom, mom. You are the Brandless CEO. This is your baby.”
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome.
Tina Sharkey: “This is your baby.” They’re the best… because these are children who’ve been raised by a venture mom. They said, “Mom, when you get to,” this is Jacob, “When you get to a billion dollar top line you can hire a professional operator.” I was like, “Okay, you know what you guys…”
Melinda Wittstock: That’s great and he knows the lingo …
Tina Sharkey: “I am sorry that I’ve ruined you. Can we talk about something else? You didn’t just say that.” And they were like, “What?” They say they didn’t even…
Melinda Wittstock: That’s fantastic.
Tina Sharkey: That’s just what they’ve always heard and what we’ve always talked about so that’s classic. “When you get to a billion dollar top line mom you can hire a professional operator. You know one of those people that actually does this.” I was like, “Okay guys, I gotcha, I gotcha. Thanks. I’ll let you know how that works out.”
Melinda Wittstock: But what’s awesome about what you’re doing and any female entrepreneur out there who lets her kids, her sons, her daughters really watch her do this is not only is it giving permission for young women coming up like real superhero role models, but also for young men to really see and respect women in these roles. I think change often can happen sort of slowly. It happens within us. It happens externally to us, but the role models and how we show up in our day to day as we walk our talk, and as we are the society or the change we want to be it’s just awesome. It’s beautiful to hear that story of how you are with your kids. That’s fantastic.
Tina as we wrap-up, I always ask all our superhero guests to give a couple pieces of advice. You’ve given advice all the way through this interview, which is hugely appreciated. If there were three things that you would say to a woman who is just starting out on her entrepreneurial career, or maybe she’s in her second act or third act as a serial entrepreneur, or remaking herself in some way what are the three pieces of advice that you would give to that woman?
Tina Sharkey: The first thing I would say is make sure to drink a lot of water and always get a lot of sleep.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes.
Tina Sharkey: I could not be more serious. What I mean by that I literally mean that literally, but I also mean that as a metaphor to say don’t stop exercising, don’t stop pursuing your personal passions, and don’t stop making time for yourself even though you feel like you don’t have any. That is what you got you to where you are and your health and your ability to have the stamina to play the long game requires you every day to take care of yourself. The short game becomes the long game over time. So first and foremost, before you do anything sleep, drink water, and whatever physical activity you do, whatever that is for you and it’s different for different people, whether it’s meditation, whether it’s yoga, whether it’s running, whether it’s spinning, whether it’s tennis or competitive soccer, whatever. Keep doing it and make time for it. That’s the first piece of advice I would give because if you don’t take care of yourself…
Melinda Wittstock: So important.
Tina Sharkey: … There’s nobody to execute your ideas because you are that person. The second piece of advice would be really take stock on what you don’t know. Really take stock on where are the areas where you really could use a collaborator, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a co-founder but it could. When you’re building your team – how do you want to think about supplementing the areas where that’s not your superpower.
The third thing is that not every person that you bring into your world, your business, needs to be a full-time employee, especially in the early days, but even in the middle days and the later days. Think about advisory boards, think about how you can … People in general are generous, they want to be helpful but I’m a systems thinker so if you don’t have a system by which you go about recruiting those folks and giving those folks “compensation” and that compensation does not necessarily need to come in the form of money. That compensation can come in the form of their experience mentoring or being a part of something. That compensation can come in the form of you or your team mentoring them because they know what they know, but they don’t know what you know. That compensation can come in the form of stock, or board, or other things but there’s lots of different ways to extend your team, and your skills, and your brain trust by building not just a board, which is a board of directors, which is a very formal role with fiduciary responsibility to the company, but advisory boards in different areas of your business. That is one of the ways companies and teams can continue to stay fresh, can continue to stay connected, and continue to stay cross-training on the things that they’re not expert at. That is something that will really help you scale over time.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh that’s just smart advice. Now just one quick question before we wrap up. Brandless is just getting going, how can folks find you? I always ask our guests if they have any kind of special offer or anything at all, or call to action for our listeners.
Tina Sharkey: Absolutely. Thank you so much for asking. First of all, we would be so grateful if this audience can go to brandless.com because that’s the only place that you can find and buy Brandless products. So if you go to brandless.com and you use the code HELLO, H-E-L-L-O with that code for first time buyers it is $1 shipping and if you would “like” us on Facebook, if you would follow us on Instagram, if you would follow us on Twitter we are @brandlesslife on Instagram, we are @brandlesslife on Facebook, and we are @brandless on Twitter. Then if you can share it. Brandless puts people first, we’re building a community and we want you to understand that when you shop at brandless.com and you check out we are buying a meal with Feeding America in your honor because we know even at $3 not everybody can afford that. So that for us is priceless. We believe in the community and the doing that matters in life, so download our field guide to community service on our blog, share Brandless Life with others. Most importantly know that we want you to live more and brand less because you’re already amazing, you don’t need to tell people how a brand makes you feel. Just think about how you actually do feel and you should be able to afford the stuff that you love. Please join us at brandless.com – we would love to see you.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh I love that give forward, that’s awesome, and live more brand less. Tina, thank you so much for sharing all your wisdom with us today on Wings of Inspired Business.
Tina Sharkey: Thank you for taking the courage, and the time, and the commitment outside of all of the things you extraordinarily already do to document these stories because it really is a documentation and a time capsule that will live beyond this conversation. You’re putting out there much more than you have time to do, need to do because it is your passion, so supporting you and all the women that are coming on to your show it’s really about honoring what you’re doing for everybody else. So really the thanks go to you.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh Tina, thank you so much. Tina Sharkey, entrepreneur, investor, co-founder and CEO of Brandless.