Going Against the Flow: Mariam Naficy, Founder & CEO of Minted.com

"Entrepreneurship is two-fold. It's about creating a product or service that changes your customers' life in some way and engineering a competitive business model to operate your company."
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Mariam Naficy is the Founder and CEO of the design marketplace, Minted, and a pioneer of consumer Internet businesses since co-founding her first company, Eve.com, in 1998. Mariam invented Minted's unique, crowdsourced and curated marketplace model with the mission of building an e-commerce platform that continuously offers fresh goods across limitless categories. Minted enables independent artists around the world to design original work, then provides them with an operations platform that handles fulfillment and customer service. Minted has raised $90M since launching in 2007 and is funded by Benchmark, IDG Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, Technology Crossover Ventures as well as angel investors.

Mariam received her BA in Political Economy from Williams College and her MBA from Stanford's Graduate School of Business. She sits on the Boards of Yelp and Every Mother Counts.

Mariam Naficy, Founder & CEO of Minted.com (Photo credit: Elisabeth Fall Photography)

Q: What does entrepreneurship mean to you, and what underlying characteristics do you see in successful entrepreneurs?

Mariam: Entrepreneurship is two-fold. It's about creating a product or service that changes your customers' lives in some way and engineering a competitive business model to operate your company. I am not an entrepreneur because I want money and fame, in fact, these factors can be detrimental to good decision making.

Successful entrepreneurs have a long term business vision. Often people develop great products that don't generate revenue and hence, don't culminate into a sustainable business. Your clients, employees, agencies will say no to you every single day, so you need to passionately believe in your strategy despite constant rejection and while risking your popularity. You cannot worry too much about what others think of you! You also need the humility to study other success stories and ask for advice when you need it.

Q: What are you most proud of in your professional career?

Mariam: At Minted, I am very proud of building an amazing team from inside the company. We have nurtured people for the last 4-8 years instead of using expensive headhunters to find leaders externally. I am very fond of the people I work with. Other than our developed talent, I feel gratified to know that we have created something that people have a strong cult feeling for. Our customers absolutely love our brand.

Q: Tell us about an instance where you had to go against the flow to realize your goal.

Mariam: Oh, all the time! Like I said, a CEO needs to constantly sell their mission in the face of rejection and naysaying. For example, we launched a feature in early November (just before our holiday season) that was made some within the company nervous, but we stuck to our guns, and we ended up learning a ton and getting several years of advantage over our competitors.

Another contrarian practice is that I have identified a special function (design) that I am good at and I am deeply involved with the detailed creative expression of our brand. You hear all the time that a good entrepreneur delegates, but I closely manage brand design at Minted and I am happy that I do it. When you scale a brand, you have to be really careful, and I am choosing to manage this territory myself.

Q: Why are there such few women-led startups? Why do we need more women entrepreneurs?

Mariam: We have fewer women entrepreneurs for two reasons: a) Fewer women go into technical programs and come out with the confidence to build something, so the dearth of women in tech starts from sourcing at the top of the funnel. b) On the non-engineering side, I've noticed that if a woman doesn't take risks early enough, by the time she thinks about starting her venture, she is also thinking about having kids and the tradeoffs she will need to make during motherhood. Of course, a man and a woman both raise a kid, but the childbirth and early toddler timeframe weighs more heavily on women. If they have delayed starting a business, they may have to think about taking a big first entrepreneurial risk while having a newborn. Thus, women have a shorter runway and I would encourage them to start businesses earlier in their careers, if they are considering entrepreneurship.

I started my first business straight out of business school. Two years after, I sold it, which helped me pay off my student debts and hire childcare later to balance entrepreneurship and family life. Prior success gave me the credibility, financial ability and negotiating leverage to start another company while having very young children.

We don't need to force a goal to get more entrepreneurs in the ecosystem. That said, having a more balanced gender ratio in the pool of decision makers and creators of technology will enable a more balanced point of view in product, design and business.

Q: If you were to give advice to your 22-year-old self, what would it be?

Mariam: Back in college, I wish I'd taken programming classes. I also wish that I'd taken more art history, which is a very strong department at Williams College. To my recent college graduate self, I'd advise getting into a job early where I could get exposure to different functions so that I could learn my preferences. I'd also advise myself to not discount my gut and passion. I thought that working in fashion or cosmetics would be impractical and not serious, so I ended up in investment banking.

After business school, I called my good friend Varsha Rao who was at McKinsey at the time. I really wanted to start an online marketing research business with her. She agreed to leave her job and family back in New York to start a business with me on one condition -- that we'd pursue her idea which was in the field of cosmetics. We cofounded eve.com, raised $26 million in the first 18 months, and earned $10 million in revenue the first year. My biggest realization after this experience was to not let my analytical prowess overpower my gut. After all, things came back in full circle and I did launch myself with an online cosmetics business!

Follow Mariam Naficy at @mnaficy, and check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/.

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