Women in Business Q&A: Lara Fitch, Founder and CEO, Strolby

Lara Fitch is the founder and CEO of Strolby, a curated marketplace for brick-and-mortar shops to sell their goods online. Lara has extensive experience working for startups like Tremor Video and Pronto leading their product management teams. Additionally, Lara worked for Digitas, Young and Rubicam and Renegade Marketing Group building promotional websites for clients like American Express, Panasonic and Seagrams. Lara graduated from Amherst College with a B.A. in History.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I think there are two main things that contribute to what I do every single day.

The first is that I've always been surrounded by people who support and challenge me. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas and was a pretty curious kid. I particularly loved to read and my mother was wonderful about getting me to the library and letting me take home whatever I wanted. I took great advantage of it- reading National Geographic's books, Agatha Christie and Sidney Sheldon's trashy novels all at a pretty young age. It was definitely an education.

All of my teachers really fed that beast too. I remember as early as kindergarten being allowed to pursue things separate from the curriculum at school. By high school, I attended a tiny (my graduating class was 10!) private school that was science-focused and the teachers were incredible. They pushed me to work very hard but also encouraged all of us to inject our personality into the work and our conversations. I never felt like a machine trying to make grades or test scores. I felt like an individual bringing my distinct strengths, interests and perspective to class each day. Having that outlet so early made me always feel like learning was fun and exciting and I wasn't so afraid to fail since that wasn't what was emphasized.

Post-college, I feel like I had a similar situation at many of my jobs (not all though). I worked for a small marketing agency, Renegade Marketing, and the executive team there was so open about letting me contribute on all sorts of projects so I learned really quickly. My last job at Tremor Video was similarly broad--I was the ad product lead but also did our competitive analyses and recommendations, sales marketing and some corporate development work on mobile. I think curiosity and ambition are two sides of the same coin. I'm always looking to do something new and interesting and I think it pushed me to do more at work.

The second major life experience for me is having children. Some women take to it easily but it was hard for me to give up my autonomy and to suddenly have so much less time to myself. In doing so, I became a more patient, more open person. At this stage in my life, I don't care so much about being right, I just want to get to the right place for the business. I am more open to ideas, feedback and criticism and less aggressive about pushing my vision for how a project should be executed.

You have to juggle a lot as a working parent and it helps you focus on what's really important. I am relentless about only doing things that will move the business forward in a measurable way. I think that helps a lot in a startup where it's very easy to get distracted.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Strolby?
I changed jobs quite a bit in my 20s. I started out as a media planner at Young and Rubicam and did that for about a year. I quickly realized I wanted to be more at the center of the business, which was account management so I transitioned to doing that next. The funny thing is that one year of media has been one of my most valuable experiences. Understanding how media is analyzed, bought and sold touches almost every business including Strolby.

My first product management job was at an startup called Pronto. Pronto was a shopping comparison site that was powered by crawlers indexing literally every product on the web. I was very lucky because the engineering team was very generous with their time to help me learn. Our CTO, Sid Conklin, would draw me pictures of how the servers talked to each other, how our databases were structured and explain the macro challenges behind what we were trying to do. I learned so many basic engineering concepts and it gave me a great BS detector for future engineering conversations. I have so many friends who really hate working with engineers but I love it and somehow they tolerate me.

At Tremor Video, I did very different things than I had at Pronto. It was all about working with other companies to integrate their data or measurement capabilities into our ad offerings. I learned a lot about platform integrations and how to take advantage of existing tools and technologies to minimize what you have to build yourself. This has served me very, very well at Strolby.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Strolby?
The highlight has absolutely been the team of people I work with at Strolby and the satisfaction of seeing something you imagined in your head come to life. We have 3 full-time employees and 2 part-time and each of them contributes so far and beyond what is expected of them (and what they are paid for). Since we are built entirely on third party platforms, we have a lot of manual processes today (this is one of our challenges). The level of detail and care that each person has to bring to make sure the site stays up to snuff is formidable and gets harder with each store we bring on. Somehow the team is so personally motivated to do their best each day. It moves me to near tears when I think about it.

The other exciting thing has been pushing myself to do things I never thought I could be good at. My first store visit was terrifying to me. I was not a salesperson, I had never made a cold call and I was unreasonably nervous introducing myself to the storeowner. Now visiting new shops is one of my favorite things. I love it.

The challenge for us, as it is for almost every startup, is raising money. Our vision is long term. We want to be the starting point for anyone shopping for special items. Amazon is for staples, Etsy is for handmade/vintage, and we think we can pull together the most exceptional inventory curated by the best shops in the world to make it easy for people to find beautiful, unusual products. I've had conversations with investors who've asked "Why do small shops matter?". I've had conversations with investors who say it's just too hard to pull off but they respect our attempt. The truth is if someone decides it matters enough, it is absolutely do-able. But like many businesses, it requires capital to scale.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
I think the most important thing for me has been having a supportive family. My parents, sisters, in-laws and friends have been advisors, investors, customers and champions. My husband is the most constant source of support though. He believed in my vision from day one and on those really bad days reminds me that it's worth it, that I knew it would be hard and that I just have to keep going. I've met a few people where their business has been a real source of friction in their marriage. I am so grateful that my husband always makes me feel like what I'm doing is worthwhile. Even my kids are cheerleaders. My 6 year old daughter draws Strolby ads to "help make you popular."

Beyond family, I think understanding how you will build and scale your business to the degree you want to is essential before you embark on anything. I worked on Strolby for about 7 months before we started to build it. I talked to shop owners, investigated platforms, did wireframes for our site design, identified essential and non-essential functions and more before we started to do anything. It made executing so easy. We were up and running in about 6 weeks once we started building the site.

You will get a lot wrong but having a thought-through set of assumptions about who your customer is, how you will reach them, why they will choose you over other outlets, is really important. I also think you need to constantly question whether the business you want to build is needed. Starting your own business is expensive, time-consuming and the hardest work you will ever do so think hard before jumping in. I've had a lot of other ideas in the past that either weren't big enough or I wasn't the right person to see them through.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Having kids forces you to in many ways. I have to be home for the babysitter to leave. I take vacations because I don't want to sacrifice their childhood to my business. But having your own business blends work and life in a way that balance becomes besides the point. I live and breathe Strolby nearly every minute. I talk to my friends and my husband about work all the time. I'm not one of those people who leaves it at the office. I like that the lines are blurred though. I work late almost every night but then when I need to go to the doctor or a school meeting, I don't feel any guilt. I basically do as much as I can each day and then read my book for 30-45 minutes before I go to sleep to clear my mind. Some days I get more done than others.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
In my experience, you have to ask for things to get them. I've taken a month long "sabbatical", was the first person at a startup to get pregnant and figure out maternity leave. I worked part-time after coming back from my first pregnancy. I've asked for promotions, negotiated stock options and raises and mostly I have gotten what I've gone after. Part of asking is being realistic about your contributions and what you can reasonably hope for but a large part of it is getting up the nerve. I think many women never get the nerve.

I'm disturbed by recent studies showing how people perceive ambitious and successful women in the workplace. There is clearly negative feedback for open ambition and women feel more pressure to be likeable. I just hope women keep pushing for what they want at work and that things keep getting better. As a sidenote, women should try to work for men (when they can't work for women) who have strong wives. It makes a huge difference in my experience.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I don't think I thought of my relationships as mentorships at the time but almost all of my bosses have essentially mentored me as I worked for them. It's one of the wonderful things about work that people don't talk about. You make friends, you learn from your colleagues and starting my own business has made me appreciate those relationships so much. I'm ask so many favors these days and have been so lucky to have so many people help me with Strolby.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Susan Wojcicki of Google recently wrote an impassioned defense of paid leave for parents for the New York Times that I found wonderful. She has 5 kids, which I find mind-boggling, but if she can figure it out then there's hope for the rest of us. Having been very fortunate with my own maternity leave and return, I feel like having that early time with your baby strengthens you for your return and makes so much sense for society and companies. I'm so glad she is focusing on calling attention to the issue.

My mother-in-law, Shelly Lazarus, ran Ogilvy and Mather for years and is an incredible role model for how to combine a career with a family. She gives a lot of speeches and she always says you have to decide what having it all means to you and what just doesn't matter:

"For me, having it all meant having both a great family and a great career, and terrific partners and friends to work with, and having fun doing it. That was my having it all - but were my kids always dressed neatly? No. Did they get haircuts on time? No. Was my house always clean? No - never. But who cares? A friend always liked to say, "dust has no emotional content." Did I know my eldest son had chicken pox for a week before the pediatrician discovered it during his regular check-up? But it all turned out OK. My kids are great."

It's incredibly liberating to have your mother-in-law acknowledge she didn't always notice her children were sick or needed new shoes. It takes the pressure off a lot.

What do you want Strolby to accomplish in the next year?
To keep growing. To prove out our belief that people care about small shops and will choose to support them if we can make it easier to access their inventory online. To keep our fantastic team together.