Women in Business Q&A: Shanna Tellerman, Founder and CEO, Modsy

Shanna Tellerman is the founder and CEO of Modsy. Before founding Modsy, Shanna was a partner on the investing team at Google Ventures. From the start, her career has focused on the intersection between design and technology, especially in the realm of 3D technology platforms. Prior to Google, Shanna was the founder and CEO of of Sim Ops Studios (Wild Pockets), a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University that focused on democratizing 3D game development. Sim Ops was acquired by Autodesk in 2010, and Shanna worked there as a product line manager responsible for launching the cloud platform and Autodesk 360 applications. In 2009, Shanna was named one of BusinessWeek's best young entrepreneurs, in 2012 she was featured in the book “Creating Innovators” by Harvard education expert Tony Wagner, and in 2014 she was named one of Silicon Valley Business Journal's Women of Influence. Shanna received both her Master of Entertainment Technology (MET) and a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I started my first company straight out of school. At that point I had never had a regular job or boss myself. In some ways that was liberating, because I had no preconceived idea of what a manager was or what a leader should be. I was able to immediately feel comfortable being myself and creating the kind of creative environment I wanted to work in. In other ways it meant that I had to learn everything through trial and error. That led to a lot of hard lessons learned and mistakes that I will never repeat again. When you are thrown into the deep end you learn quickly!

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Modsy?

My background has been the unusual but perfect blend of experiences that ultimately led me to found Modsy. I started school with an interest in the intersection of design and technology, which led me to start my first 3D startup out of graduate school. This company was acquired by Autodesk in 2010 where I had the opportunity to launch a new business line and help shape the future of the 3D industry. I then joined the Google Ventures investment team for two years, where I was able to gain a new perspective on the startup ecosystem and truly understand the dynamics of venture capital. The combination of these experiences put me in a unique position to see the massive opportunity in the home design space for a disruptive 3D solution.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Modsy?

Running a startup is full of highlights and challenges -- I could go on forever listing them out!  For me the challenges are often also the highlights. For example, I’m constantly amazed that our team has turned something that was once an idea in my head into a functional product that people use everyday. Taking an idea in your head and convincing others to join you to build it is never an easy task though, and it's presented a new challenge at every step of the way. We've hit recruiting challenges, product challenges, customer challenges and even office challenges, but our incredible team keeps me motivated every day and this experience has been the highlight of my career!

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

The most important piece of advice I can offer to a woman who wants to start her own company is this: identify the problem you want to solve, and make sure you’re passionate about solving it. Starting a business is incredibly hard work, so you need to truly love what you’re doing. It’s also crucial that you have a unique insight or approach to the problem, which can be a result of your expertise or a novel idea.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

The importance of establishing a deep level of trust and vulnerability with the people you work with. Without it, collaboration and communication falters and everything else nosedives from there. If no one on your team knows the goals, the mission or the vision for your company, you’re in deep trouble. It is your responsibility to constantly evaluate whether you have created an environment for your team to thrive and this often means showing your own vulnerability to seek and receive feedback about what is and is not working. This level of effort is hard work but it pays off tremendously when your team has a shared sense of purpose and passion.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

When I was younger I wasted a lot of mindshare worrying rather than saving that energy for my family or myself. Although I'm still working hard to find the right balance I do have a better perspective about what is and is not important. I’m lucky to have an extremely supportive husband, who completely understands the demands of running a startup but also reminds me that I need to step away sometimes. I believe strongly that we need to disconnect and reset but up until recently I had a hard time practicing this belief. However, with the support of my husband and team, I just returned from a 10 day vacation where I put up an OOO message that made it clear that I wouldn’t be responding to emails while on vacation (and I didn't!).

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

My workplace experience has been centered around being a female entrepreneur and investor and unfortunately these are still male-dominated industries where women often take a back seat. Many of the career opportunities, deals and connections are established through the "old boys club." While we can’t singlehandedly change the ratio of female/male founders, we can create opportunities to form new relationships and create networks of our own. My passion for building a strong network for women in tech, an "old women's club" of sorts, led me to start an annual tech retreat in Park City, which is focused entirely on building the relationships and connections that women need to succeed in this industry.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I am extremely fortunate to have had a mentor when I was in college that changed the entire course of my life. I was lucky to have taken a course with the late professor Randy Pausch ("The Last Lecture") who helped me discover a career path combining my passion for art, design and technology. His encouragement, high bar and drive to always break through the barriers has shaped my entire life and has especially influenced my passion for entrepreneurship.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I know this might be a bit cliche, but I truly admire Sheryl Sandberg for her work to encourage women to take a seat at the table for their careers. I admire her even more for her most recent book “Plan B,” because even after going through one of the most heartbreaking events imaginable, she has chosen to share her story in an effort to help others.

What do you want Modsy to accomplish in the next year?

I want to see Modsy revolutionize the way people design and shop for their homes. We’re already on the path to making this happen by making furniture shopping and home decor accessible, personal, and virtual, but I’m excited to continue our fast growth and to serve even more people in this next year.  There will be a point that we all look back and wonder how we ever bought furniture without Modsy! Once you realize you can receive personalized design recommendations within a photorealistic rendering of your home and shop for furniture & decor directly from those images -- all at an affordable price and in the comfort of your home -- there will be no turning back!!

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