519 Michelle McCormack:
Many of us have seemingly unconnected passions and may be tempted to choose one over another yet that can be a false choice because many of the most innovative startups fuse the seemingly unconnected for disruptive innovation.
I’m Melinda Wittstock and today on Wings of Inspired Business we meet an inspiring entrepreneur who combined her love of fashion with a passion for tech and community building into an innovative new business.
Michelle McCormack is the Founder and CEO of Casting Coin, a platform transforming the fashion and entertainment industries. A former fashion photographer who has worked with the most iconic brands in the world, Michelle taught herself to code so she could solve problems she witnessed first-hand in the fashion industry including lack of opportunity, unfair payment practices, and production inefficiencies. Today Michelle shares her entrepreneurial journey and what she’s learned along the way.
Michelle McCormack started her career printing black and white photographs for the iconic Annie Leibovitz. She went on to work for the top fashion magazines and brands in the world, including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Clinique.
Later, Michelle learned to code and then to produce digital campaigns for global brands like Rockport, CVS, and Bank of America while working at Hill Holliday. Eventually, she went out on her own and produced digital campaigns for major brands like Rag & Bone, Sam Adams, Red Bull, and more.
During a stint living in Boston, she built the most influential community there called Secret Boston. It was the first place Uber advertised when it launched in Boston in 2012. Also, while in Boston, Michelle officially produced FNO for Vogue Magazine. It is considered the most successful fashion event in Boston’s history.
In 2017, Michelle became a leading voice in blockchain and wrote a cryptocurrency column for NY Observer. Michelle has lived in 4 countries and 5 cities. She is an American and European citizen.
Michelle will be here in a moment, and first …
And you’ll want to take out your phone and download the Podopolo app too as you listen to this episode, so you can join the conversation with me and Michelle – as she shares her entrepreneurial journey and how she combined her passion for tech and fashion, built a great team and community and raised money for her startup. Please share your questions and your own experiences.
Now let’s put on our Wings with the inspiring Michelle McCormack.
Melinda Wittstock: Michelle, welcome to Wings.
Michelle McCormack: Thanks for having me.
Melinda Wittstock: I am always interested in origin stories and what it was that inspired you to create Casting Coin.
Michelle McCormack: Casting Coin is a booking and production platform for the fashion and entertainment industries. In a nutshell, we connect brands directly with artists, models, photographers, hair and makeup stylists, actors, voiceover, directors, and remove the agent from the equation.
Michelle McCormack: It’s also a place where brands can produce entire shoots, so get you a studio, your caterer, anything you need for a successful shoot. We remove all fragmentation. I started Casting Coin because I’m from the industry, and I knew … Just to back up a little bit, I started my career as a fashion photographer, and I worked with the biggest brands and magazines in the world, Vogue, Estee Lauder, [inaudible 00:13:27], and, again, Casting Coin. Clinique, you just name it. I’ve traveled around the world.
Michelle McCormack: I knew firsthand the pain points of this industry. I have extreme domain expertise. But early on in my career, after about five years doing that, I moved over to digital. I saw the writing on the wall, and I became a coder. I became an interactive producer. I worked with agencies. I just have a lot of skills, but I also have a lot of experience.
Michelle McCormack: I’ve always been looking for weight. How can I connect my two disciplines, my two passions, fashion and technology, to solve a big problem? I’ve been thinking that for 10 years. Back then, 10 years ago, technology really wasn’t sophisticated enough at all for platforms. It was kind of a waiting game for me. I just kept chugging along, knowing, at some point … I’ve worked for a lot of startups, fashion tech, knowing, at some point, I would do this.
Michelle McCormack: In June 2018 … Interesting, really quick, we are not a crypto company. I always have to tell investors that because of the coin in our name, but the reason why I put coin in the name is because I did actually write a whitepaper when I started my company. I was really involved in the Bitcoin, Ethereum space, and when Ethereum came along, smart contracts, I was like, “What problem could this solve in my industry?” I was like, “Oh, my God, agents.”
Michelle McCormack: So I came up with Casting Coin. I wrote a whitepaper. Within literally three weeks, I got [inaudible 00:15:12] about it, and I was like, “There is no way the industry is ready for this. Models, photographers are not going to get paid in crypto, and brands are not going to pay people in crypto.” So I pivoted, and now, we’re just a fully centralized platform. I kept the name, and I like the name.
Michelle McCormack: We thought a lot about changing it, but most people that run in the crypto space, they don’t even actually relate it. Now, while there will be places for blockchain on our platform at some point, we are a centralized platform.
Melinda Wittstock: I got it. On that day that you decide, “Okay, I’m going to take that leap,” you write the whitepaper, but then you pivot really quickly. That’s so important. A lot of people might not have made that decision, and might have gone for the, I’m going to educate the entire marketplace.
Michelle McCormack: Yeah. No. [crosstalk 00:16:05].
Melinda Wittstock: A lot of startups die there because they know the future, but the timing’s wrong. So what is the underlying technology of your platform?
Michelle McCormack: Our MVP, which we have right now, is PHP. We’re moving over to a more … I don’t know if you would say sophisticated. It’s something that my CTO could speak to more than me at this point.
Melinda Wittstock: But you’re connecting people in a way that’s efficient. It’s kind of a multi-sided market it sounds like, so there’s some sort of connection, so so-and-so can find the right person at the right time it sounds like to me, yeah?
Michelle McCormack: We are, yes. We are a two-sided marketplace. I also saw come from the industry that there was white space in the gig economy. This was the only white space that I can see that still exists in the gig economy. Yes, we’re a two-sided marketplace. We’re similar to a Fiver, an Airbnb where we’re connecting brands with talents.
Michelle McCormack: But we’re also, at the same time, a productivity platform where the more brands use our platform, the smarter it gets. So they have a dashboard, and they’re able to track all of their payments, how much money they spent this year or this month or this day compared to last month, and et cetera.
Melinda Wittstock: So there are a lot of analytics, and it gets kind of smarter with time. Is there an unsupervised machine learning or something like that in there?
Michelle McCormack: Absolutely. Yep. Our CTO built the JetBlue app, amextravel.com. It’s the most important thing for us is the AI and the algorithms. Or it’s equally as important as providing this service to brands and also giving opportunity to artists.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that’s so exciting.
Melinda Wittstock: These kind of models can be challenging because either side of the market is looking for the other side of the market to be there, just a little bit of chicken and egg. So how did you break through that?
Michelle McCormack: Actually, honestly, it was pretty easy for us to acquire artists because we come from the industry. I’m a fashion photographer. We live in New York. Proximity is everything when it comes to startups. We live and breathe in this space, not just me, but also everybody on my team. One of our investors is a really successful model. Another one of our advisors, her family started Barneys.
Michelle McCormack: Honestly, within two months of starting the company, we had 6,000 artists that applied, models, photographers, hair and makeup. Right now, we have 15,000 people that have applied, of which, because we are a curated platform at this stage of our roadmap, we’ve accepted 200.
Melinda Wittstock: So you’re really kind of very disruptive in a way. I’m thinking of all the agencies, all those model agencies and more besides. Does it reduce the kind of cost for a brand or a business? What are the main value propositions for all the big media brands and fashion houses and that kind of thing?
Michelle McCormack: Sure. Absolutely it does. Removing fragmentation alone saves the brands upward of 30 to 40%.
Melinda Wittstock: Wow.
Michelle McCormack: Then, in terms of just the pure take, the commission, a standard commission for an agent is 20%. It’s tacked onto the price for the brands. Casting Coin, the platform, when it’s run through the platform, we only tack on 10%.
Melinda Wittstock: I see. Okay, got it. I want to go back a little bit in time because you’re very intriguing to me that you not only are this creative, working with people like Annie Leibovitz, so many things, all these amazing magazines, but there’s a certain point where you taught yourself to code.
Melinda Wittstock: Was that hard? I’m asking, I’m intrigued because often people who are very creative aren’t necessarily natural coders and vice versa.
Michelle McCormack: Yeah. Was it hard? I guess it was hard, but I do have this personality trait where I can hyper-focus and obsess about something. I wouldn’t call it perfectionism so much as a hyper-focus. I also have a high tolerance for risk, so when you have these two things combined … I quit everything back then. It was 2005.
Michelle McCormack: It’s not like I quit everything, but I just phased out this sort of very cool life where I was traveling around the world on photoshoots. I’d been doing it for five years, and it was because I saw the writing on the wall, and I just knew that technology was about to explode. I didn’t want to be left behind as a photographer, as a creative person.
Michelle McCormack: Yeah, I did that. I spent about six months, sitting there 18 hours a day at a … It’s this place called Venture Punks. It was an internship. Yeah, I had a Mac, and I learned how to do HTML and Flash and that kind of coding. I don’t know. You know how it’s not hard, it’s just who you are?
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, I think you said something important here, focus. Because if you have the drive or whatever, learning to code is like learning to speak a new language. You just need to be able to focus and-
Michelle McCormack: Not give up.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, absolutely right. How did that start to layer in with your creative work? You mentioned you worked on a number of startups and done a number of things before you launched Casting Coin.
Michelle McCormack: It did a lot to inform. I actually really quickly ended up in London, less than a year after doing that, and I was working with a friend over there. We moved over there, and we started this web 1.0 web design thing. We did that for two years. I was working at some ad agencies while I was there as well, and it was a really interesting time because it was so early on in the digital days that the budgets weren’t really there, but they also weren’t that many people that knew how to do it.
Michelle McCormack: All of these senior people were just sort of like, “Go ahead.” They didn’t speak the language at all. Then I ended up back in the States a couple years later, and I ended up at one of the global ad agencies. I was one of the first people on this … I was an interactive producer. My clients were CVS and Rockport and Harvard and all these things. I would be at two in the morning, hacking live sites of these global brands because no one else knew how to do it.
Michelle McCormack: That sounds cool, but it was also very difficult because it was in this corporate environment where these senior people were kind of somewhat, career-wise, irrelevant, or they felt that way. People were losing their jobs. It was 2008 and 2009. It was a very interesting time. I learned a lot because I had come off, like I said, working on photoshoots. My whole background, it was not corporate ad agency. It was getting on a plane and doing photoshoots, which is completely different. There are almost no rules. It was creative.
Michelle McCormack: I had to sort of learn how to behave differently, and it was very good for me. It was very interesting to be part of such a transformative time. 2010 or so, I started my own company called LoveTheCool. It wasn’t a startup. It was a digital marketing agency. I wasn’t raising money. It was a completely different animal from what I’m doing right now, but I had big clients. I was working with Uber and Red Bull. I created this big community.
Michelle McCormack: I was living in Boston at the time. I had gone back there for a job, and I started this community called Secret Boston, which, to this day, is the most influential community in Boston. I just built 150,000 people, and all these big global brands were asking me to do all of their digital stuff and leverage our community. We brought Fashion’s Night Out to Boston for Vogue magazine. We ended up on the front page of the Boston Globe. It was 2012 when Uber launched there. It was a time when things were just changing.
Michelle McCormack: I think we’re still in that, but it was even more. It was easier to build a community back then. That’s for sure. I’ve been back in New York now. That was always the plan, but I still have that community, Secret Boston. It’s a passive revenue stream for me because I was lucky enough to get early on, build a community on social media, Instagram, Facebook. It kind of runs itself with very minimal work.
Michelle McCormack: Then I came back here. All along, I’ve been shooting. I’m a fashion photographer. I love it. I’ve been shooting for Rue La La and just these eCommerce brands just that I love doing this creative stuff. Then, like I said, June 2018 came around, and I really got struck, finally, because I have always been looking for the idea. I always knew I wanted to do a big idea. I didn’t want to do a small idea. LoveTheCool was my company. It was interesting. I liked doing it. It was creative, but I wanted a big tech idea to solve a problem. I had faith that it was going to come, and it did.
Melinda Wittstock: The timing is everything in this, and it sounds like all the different things that you were doing, whether it was community-building with Secret Boston or learning how to code or all these different things, all converged at the right time to launch your startup. What surprised you? When you took the leap with Casting Coin, was there anything that surprised you on that trajectory or something that you didn’t realize or you had to learn really fast that you didn’t anticipate?
Michelle McCormack: Not that I can think of.
Melinda Wittstock: So you were prepared. You knew all the things you [inaudible 00:27:55].
Michelle McCormack: I guess so, mostly because I’ve just done so many things. I’m not saying I haven’t learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned I’m a much better negotiator now than I’ve ever been. It was kid stuff what I used to do because I didn’t think of it as being that important necessarily. It wasn’t the thing I was trying to learn how to do.
Michelle McCormack: But when you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re spending other people’s money … I could say I think of it that way. When I raise money, I feel very responsible for that investment and the people on my team. So the things that I hadn’t yet gotten good at like community building and coding and photography and fashion, I’ve made it like I need to get good at this. While, yeah, I can lean on some people like my CFO. I’m not an engineer. I need my CTO. But there are certain things that I need to get good at. That’s been my priority to become the very best.
Michelle McCormack: To answer your question, yeah, I have a lot of experience, so I came to the table with that, and I’ve surrounded myself with people that have a lot of experience.
Melinda Wittstock: Michelle, you mentioned that you had a high tolerance for risk and resilience. I think all entrepreneurs have to have that. Have you always had that in your life? Is that in your DNA, or is part of it learned?
Michelle McCormack: It’s probably partially by the way I was raised, but, yeah, I think it is in my DNA. I think it’s who I am. I have a high tolerance for risk. I moved around a lot when I was a kid. I’ve lived in five cities and four countries as an adult. I think that that is probably something I was born with.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, there’s a certain resilience. I have a similar thing too where I’ve lived all over the place and tried all sorts of different things, very multidisciplinary background, much like you. You develop a certain confidence around that, that whatever life throws at you … Because you’ve mastered other things in the past and things that you wouldn’t necessarily connect. So there’s a certain confidence that comes with that tolerance for risk because you kind of know deep down that whatever gets thrown at you, and there’s a lot of things in the entrepreneurial journey that we can’t control, but whatever gets thrown at you, you’ll manage somehow. You’ll deal, yeah?
Michelle McCormack: Absolutely. There’s this thing that it’s especially happening to me even more with this company. You know when you get that thought that the worst thing in the world that could happen, whatever it could be, like you don’t raise your money? When I get that feeling, that fear comes up, but then I let it go. I’m able to literally let it go in a second. Whereas 10 years ago, it would have taken maybe a half an hour. I’ve always been committed to letting it go, so that’s probably the first stage.
Melinda Wittstock: I love it. There’s a great book called Letting Go, actually. It’s exactly about this because we all have these subconscious drivers that we don’t even know. It’s like the iceberg under the surface, and it drives our actions. We don’t actually sometimes know when we’re operating in fear.
Michelle McCormack: Yeah, those things hijack people. I only know that because that has happened to me in the past, and I’ve worked really hard to overcome it. Not to ignore it, but to figure out, “Okay, what is it?” Usually, when there’s an extreme fear … They say when it’s hysterical, it’s historical. When there’s an extreme fear, it’s not about right now. It’s about something way old. Rooting that out has been one of my life’s purposes, and because of that, I’ve gotten a lot less fearful.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, gosh. Music to my ears. Everyone who listens to this podcast know we talk a lot about kind of woo, like everything from epigenetics. Letting go. Letting go of all these things because, honestly, as an entrepreneur, you really need to be at your very best. If you’re being driven by fear, all these different things, it’s kind of like an athlete going into training. You need the right mindset to succeed.
Melinda Wittstock: I’ve learned, in my life now, that whenever I get … And it happens less and less now. The more I clear, the more of this stuff I let go. Whenever I’m triggered, I’ve come to see it as a great opportunity. Oh, right. There’s something else to get rid of here. Literally, just let it go, and it goes.
Michelle McCormack: I love that. That is so cool, and it does. When it’s really strong, you have to figure out why it’s there because there’s a fine line between denial and letting something go, when people pretend everything’s fine and then eventually it’s really not fine.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah.
Michelle McCormack: Yeah, being committed on that level as well is something that really drives me.
Melinda Wittstock: If you look back and you see repeating patterns in your life, that’s another clue. So there’s a lot of women who, for instance, struggle with things like sales, just not asking for the sale or not knowing their own value, or burning out because they’re forgetting their own self-care, all these sorts of things. Like I joke, there should be an AA for perfectionists, which I think perfectionism is really about fear dressed up in a pretty bow. We think it has to be perfect because we’re afraid of other people’s judgment of us and all these sorts of things that have to be retired.
Melinda Wittstock: In your experience, do you think women have different things than men or are we all pretty much the same? What do you see around female founders?
Michelle McCormack: I think we have exactly the same, but it manifests totally differently. I’ve worked with some female founders in the past, and I’ve worked with male. I don’t know. Honestly, I try to stay out of the gender thing because I don’t know if it helps.
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Michelle McCormack: It doesn’t help me personally, but if I was going to give advice to women about the sales thing or anything like that, it’s just dig your heels in and get good at it because that’s the only thing. You cannot turn this ship fast enough, meaning culture. You’re way better off figuring out how to become a better salesperson than hoping that the world gets more open to sort of passive asks and stuff like that.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, you have to go for it. You have to ask. There’s so many women that I’ve mentored over the years on my journey and also just observing this in myself at earlier stages of just not asking for the sale.
Michelle McCormack: Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve mentored any women either [crosstalk 00:35:33].
Melinda Wittstock: I have. I’ve mentored both, but there is a difference.
Michelle McCormack: But also, I’ve mentored both too, given advice to. I don’t know if I would call myself a mentor, but I’ve helped them. In human beings generally, either you’re teachable, or you’re not. One of the things I have going for me is I’m very teachable. I have these advisors and coaches, and if I trust them, literally, I don’t question because I’ve decided I’m trusting them.
Melinda Wittstock: Music to my ears because the most successful entrepreneurs all have this advisory board for their personal life, their different aspects of the business. I’ve always thought, find the person who’s doing exactly what you want to do best and just ask them for help. They’re usually flattered. People want to help. People feel good about helping.
Michelle McCormack: I have somebody that helps me. Twice a week, I have a call with this person. He’s a lot older. He’s extremely successful in sales. He knows strategy, and he knows how to pitch. We have a half-hour call on Tuesday, and then on Friday. When I ask him for advice on things, he’ll tell me exactly what to do. I will do exactly that because I’ve decided to trust him, and it’s been transformative.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s amazing. So smart.
Michelle McCormack: Then I do the same thing with others like I was starting to say. How frustrating when you do that, and then people don’t fully take your advice. They’ll do a little bit of what you said, but then they take their will back in some ways. It doesn’t work, and you’re like, “No, that’s what I told you. That’s not what I said.” It’s not going to work if you do it that way. You know what I mean?
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly. Exactly.
Michelle McCormack: It’s the agreeableness that’s just-
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, so there is finding people who you trust. I think sometimes women get into the … I’ve seen this happen before where they are over-coached. They have too many people giving conflicting advice, and, at the end of the day … Particularly in fundraising with your pitch or how you should pitch or all those pitch competitions, all this sort of stuff, and they lose themselves in it.
Michelle McCormack: Yeah. No, you have to have a certain amount of self-confidence, but also knowing … I don’t think anyone knows more than me. There’s this person I was telling you about. He knows more than me about sales and the real hard pitch like that, but that doesn’t mean he’s better than me. We have a conversation, and I’ll be like, “Like this or that,” and he might change a little bit. You can’t lose yourself. No one’s better than me. That’s never how I feel, and that’s important.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. I love that, but also, no one knows your business better than you. You founded it, right?
Michelle McCormack: Yeah, right. Exactly.
Melinda Wittstock: What’s next for Casting Coin? What’s the big vision? Where do you think you’ll be? Where do you want to be in five years’ time, 10 years’ time, that kind of thing? Do you have a big vision plan?
Michelle McCormack: We do. Yeah. Casting Coin right now has launched to the top tier of the industry, the global fashion. Our clients are Estee Lauder. Like I said, we work with Maybelline, Sephora, Bobbi Brown, MasterClass. That’s strategic. I knew I had to capture. Because I’m from the industry, I had to capture them first before launching to the long-tail. Our goal is to be a global platform and not just in primary markets, but the secondary, tertiary markets, and capturing the long-tail, so the mom and pop brands as well, the stores, the shops that need it.
Michelle McCormack: The thing is, the race is on the content for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s getting more important because the Instagram takeover. They’re taking over everything. Everyone needs to create content all the time, and Casting Coin is the place where you can do that fast, efficiently, and where you can achieve. Not just get your talent and create content, but also make great decisions because you have transparency around what you’re doing. That’s who we are.
Melinda Wittstock: Well, congratulations on the progress. You have all those great brands and beautiful new offices in Chelsea and all these things. I can see this really being a global platform as well.
Michelle McCormack: Thank you. One other thing that we just launched because we just signed two celebrities, we’re also a platform having special artists on our platform. The idea is that celebrities athletes can have all their endorsement deals go through their profile on Casting Coin because currently, they’ll keep their regular agent, their CAA, et cetera, but brand endorsement deals, currently, it’s broken for them. About 10 people take money along the way. At Casting Coin, it’s direct, and they can keep basically all of their money except for the small commission we take.
Melinda Wittstock: Ah, fantastic.
Michelle McCormack: Yeah, exciting.
Melinda Wittstock: I enjoyed our conversation so much. I want to make sure that people can find you easily and work with you. What’s the best way?
Michelle McCormack: Sure. [inaudible 00:40:50] can visit castingcoin.com, and you can browse to the bottom, and all of our socials are there. Basically, all of our socials are Casting Coin. Feel free to reach out to me directly. It’s Michelle, two Ls, @castingcoin.com.
Melinda Wittstock: Wonderful, Michelle. Thank you so much for putting on your Wings and flying with us today.
Michelle McCormack: Thank you so much for having me.
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