Here at LOLA HQ, we sometimes measure our daily achievements on a scale of one to Susan Lyne. Susan has had an impressive and varied career serving as President of ABC Entertainment, CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, CEO and Chairman of Gilt Groupe, and CEO of AOL Brand Group. Now, as the President and Founding Partner of BBG Ventures, she’s taken her passion for championing and counseling female founders and turned it into her full-time gig.
The first time Jordana and I met Susan was the first time we ever formally pitched LOLA to a potential investor. Susan listened excitedly, nodding throughout, and forgave us our awkward stop-starts (co-presenting is an art!). When we got to the last slide, our forward-looking financials, we told her where we’d be 3 years out. Then, it was over. We had done it! Our momentary euphoria was fleeting, however. There was a pause, a crinkle in her brow, and then Susan said, “that’s it?” [cue more sweating] We said, “what do you mean?” and Susan replied, with an enormous smile, “Well, don’t you think you can grow it bigger than THAT?”
Susan taught us how to sell the dream, and for that we are eternally grateful. Her guidance has been integral to LOLA on several occasions, as it has been to so many female entrepreneurs. We sat down with Susan to get the full story of how she ascended to leadership in so many different industries and companies, and to hear the advice she’d offer to female founders that are pitching their businesses today.
Alex Friedman: You’ve had a varied career at several companies, some of which were female-founded. Did you proactively target female founders?
Susan Lyne: My entire career has been about talking to female consumers. At Disney, Martha Stewart, Gilt – we targeted a female end-user. Women read more magazines, watch more video, spend more time on social sites, we dominate commerce. When I finally understood that every success I’ve had came because I listened to her, to that female end user — that’s when I decided this fund [BBG Ventures] was a good idea.
AF: Who were your mentors?
SL: Let’s be clear, when I started, there weren’t a whole lot of women to look up to, especially if you wanted to get into the media business. When I graduated from high school, the highest-ranking woman at Time Inc was a researcher.
My first real mentor was a woman named Paula Weinstein. I spent a few years in the early 80’s working for Jane Fonda as her development executive. Paula was the only female exec at the studio where we had our deal. She took me aside and said, “I’m going to help you understand how this business works,” and gave me 30 scripts. She said, “these are great scripts, you’re going to read them, we’re going to talk about them and why they’re good. You’re going to read a whole lot of bad scripts, and over time you’re going to figure out what the differences are.” She didn’t have any reason to help me, but I was a young woman in an industry of men and she didn’t want me to fail.
She didn’t have any reason to help me, but I was a young woman in an industry of men and she didn’t want me to fail.
Another mentor was John Evans (head of Murdoch magazines), he was the person who let me start Premiere. I’d known him at The Voice where he was the Head of Classified Advertising and later Publisher. He was a great mentor – not only because he gave me opportunities, but he also gave me a lot of tough love. I was a very good second-in-command before I started Premiere, a great managing editor, but I found it really hard to make the leap from “good, sassy #2” to “I own this.” John pushed me at every step of the way to take ownership.
I’ve had many other [secret] mentors, people I watched. I wasn’t the person to go into someone’s office and ask to be mentored, but I learned by watching people and emulating those that I thought were impressive.
AF: What led you to become an investor after years of being an operator?
SL: When I started at Gilt [in 2008], I met Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson [Gilt co-founders] and a whole slew of young women who were starting companies at the time. It was the first wave of New York female founders, and as a more senior female, a lot of them came to talk to me about what they were doing. I loved being able to help them work through challenges.
I started hosting quarterly breakfasts. It started with eight people, but quickly grew to 30 – 40. In 2012, a friend said to me, “All of these women come to see you, why don’t you make this your work.” A few years later, after I joined AOL, I talked to Tim [Armstrong] about the idea, and he and the board decided to put up this first fund.
AF: So there wasn’t real a pitch to AOL, was there?
SL: This has been an arena that AOL has been interested in since Tim spun out the company. At one of our first board meetings, Tim said, “Women make 80% of the purchasing decisions, we’re going to cater to this audience.” Backing female entrepreneurs is a great window into the future. It’s not just about finding great new technologies but about understanding how consumer behavior is changing.
AF: Now that it’s your job to meet with female founders all the time, what are the things you look for?
SL: First, a team that’s great: preferably two women, or a woman and a man, with complementary skillsets, who clearly enjoy working together. That’s usually a good start. Single founders have a harder time. There are as many lows as there are highs when you’re building a company and you need to have someone you can constantly be bouncing stuff off of.
Second, someone who has identified a real problem – a lot of people have a cool idea, but they really haven’t dug deep on whether it’s truly needed, or whether there is a competitive set that is already ahead of you.
A lot of people have a cool idea, but they really haven’t dug deep on whether it’s truly needed
Third, when they exude tenacity. You want to back people who are not going to give up, who are in it for the long haul. I like founders who look at business from an optimist’s perspective. If you know that any time they get knocked down, they’re going to get up again, they’re going to win.
AF: Why are female founders uniquely qualified to positively impact the female customer experience?
SL: When I look at the end-users of the fastest growing sectors of the tech industry, the majority of those consumers are women. Look at social media, smartphone usage, mobile commerce – women are driving that growth.
To see female entrepreneurs who “get” that end-user and really believe they can make some aspect of her life better – those are the people I want to work with. Women are consumer problem solvers. Every time you back a good female founder, you are usually making the lives of millions of women better.
AF: What’s a company you’re excited about now?
SL: I’m excited about so many of them — we have 30 companies in the portfolio now! But here’s the most out-there: we invested in a company called Thesis. The founder was a chief recruiter for Oculus and Space X and has had an incredible career recruiting engineers. She also wears four-inch heels every day. She got sick of being in pain every day and decided she was going to put together a killer engineering team to re-architect the stiletto, so your weight is distributed across the whole shoe instead of just on the ball of your foot. And they’ve done it!. I’ve put the shoes on, and they are a completely different feel. It’s something a guy would never think of.
AF: How can the market encourage more women to found more companies?
SL: My partner, Nisha Dua, and I have met 900 companies since launching BBGV 20 months ago – there’s a sea change taking place. The problem is that women don’t have the same access to capital. I don’t think you’re going to see huge changes at legacy VC’s. Instead you’re going to see a new generation of funds that look at [investing in] women as an opportunity — funds that are not doing this because they’re being mandated to give more dollars to women but because they believe they can get a great return. [Given the impact of women today], not having a portfolio with a lot of female founders is going to start to look stupid.
Not having a portfolio with a lot of female founders is going to start to look stupid.
AF: For founders that are pitching investors this year, what advice do you have?
SL: The thing that is great about female entrepreneurs is that they will pitch you what they actually think they can build. They’re practical and don’t over-promise. But that can be a weakness when you’re raising. Yes, tell me what you know you can do today, but remember to paint a picture of the future and how you can build this into a giant business. For a lot of VC’s, unless you can make them see that this could be a $1B company, they’re not going to get into the ring.
Also, have a little bit of swagger: you need to be well-prepared and deliver the facts, but unless they believe that you are someone who can take it to the next level – it will be much harder to get a VC to back you. Confidence, a bit of swagger, never hurts.