Leader Board

Family Is What Drives This Entrepreneur Whose Company Has Sold More Than 1 Million Products

Chatbooks' Vanessa Quigley is not only running a scaling business, but she's also a mother of seven.
Family Is What Drives This Entrepreneur Whose Company Has Sold More Than 1 Million Products
Image credit: Chatbooks
15+ min read

In this series, Leader Board, we speak with CEOs, managers, founders and others who lead organizations to learn what makes them tick, what they look for in new hires and even where they eat lunch.

What’s been the secret to Vanessa Quigley’s success? Family. She is not only the co-founder and "Chatbooker-in-Chief" of photobook company Chatbooks, but she’s also the mother of seven children. And while she’s spent most of the past 22 years focused on raising her children, she’s also used the lessons she’s learned as a mother to launch a successful company. In fact, they helped inspire the idea too.

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Night after night of tucking her youngest son into bed and watching him read through a photo album, Quigley wanted to figure out a way to make photobooks of her family without the big time commitment. That’s why she’d turn to Instagram to share their photos. But then she had an idea: What if there was a quick, easy and inexpensive way to print your favorite photos straight from social media? So in 2014, with her husband Nate, she launched Chatbooks: an easy-to-use app and website that lets users upload photos from their phone, social channels or online and turn them into actual photobooks.

While Chatbooks has seen much success, with more than 1 million photobooks sold as of January 2016 and total funding of $20 million to date, Quigley has not only used her family to help guide her leadership techniques but as the basis of the company. “The mission of our company is to strengthen families, and we're doing that with our products," she says. "But also the culture that we're building and opportunities we're giving, especially to women, to help contribute to their families.”

The company employs more than 100 people, about 70 percent of whom are women, and 60 percent of its leadership positions are held by women. The company offers remote part-time work that is particularly geared towards mothers.

So with her husband as the CEO, it’s definitely a “family affair.” However, even as a busy entrepreneur, Quigley makes sure she spends the same amount of time with her kids as she does at work. In fact, she’s out of the office by 3 p.m. so she can pick them up from school.

We caught up with Quigley to learn more about this balancing act and how she’s successfully built and run a growing company.

On the most important leadership traits:

“You have to know who you are, what you stand for and what your mission, and communicating that is number one. Most of my experience in leadership comes from leading my family and raising my seven kids. I believe in being a deliberate mother and being deliberate about the culture of our family. So I'm doing the same here at the company. One of the things that we have in our family is called the ‘Quigley Creed’ and it's something that we recite once a week: 'Quigley's are respectful, responsible, considerate and kind.' So we did the same thing at Chatbooks where we created a framework of values -- we don't make everyone recite them -- but we did use a process to come up with them.

“We had an off-site with our leadership team and asked everyone to think about the people that they enjoy working with most, and we listed those qualities and then distilled them down to five things. And we decided to use a star as our framework and so they exist on each point of the star. And we communicate those constantly. We have things around the office visually that reminds them of what those values are. A leader has to just communicate, communicate, communicate -- who you are, what you're doing.

“We have really specific goals for Q4 and we can't assume that everyone in the company knows what those goals are. Even if we've already said them once or twice -- you just have to keep repeating yourself. And again that's something I learned from being a mother. I told my oldest child every day of his life to pick his wet towel off the floor and that didn't mean he would remember to do it every day and I swear he still leaves wet towels on his floor in his apartment. But you just can't stop communicating.”

On leadership style:

“There's this quote that really guides me: 'The fewer expectations you have for how people will behave, the happier you will be.’ I used that example of my son and his towel -- if I expect that he will hang up his towel because I've told him, I'm going to be unhappy because chances are it's not going to happen. And so it doesn't mean that I don't quit teaching and modeling by example but I am not going to let myself become devastated when they don't live up to my expectations.

“And there's a major difference in building a company vs. building a family. But here at Chatbooks we just keep communicating what's most important and I try not to be personally offended when things don't go the way I wanted or expected them to.”

On habits that help her lead:

“I have never been a morning person but I've forced myself to become one. So I get up at 5:30 every morning, exercise, take my vitamins, green smoothie and then when I come to the office in the morning, I feel like I've taken care of myself. I can't adequately take care of and help the people around me if I'm not taking care of myself.”

On challenges:

“I'm not full time here even though I'm fully invested. I still have four kids that come home from school in the afternoon and so I'm committed to being home when they get home as much as I can. I want to be involved in everything that's happening here -- I want to be able to give my input on every marketing message, every product development, every budget decision -- but I can't have my hands in every pot so delegating and then having the faith to step back and let that person who is a grown-up -- ‘grown up’ is one of our values here at Chatbooks -- do their job.”

On her toughest business decision:

“When we launched Chatbooks, it was really important to me that part of making it beyond easy -- beyond easy is one of the cornerstones of our brand -- was making it so affordable that our customers didn't have to think twice about it. So we chose $6 as our price point and it became obvious that we couldn't continue to grow at that price. And so twice in the lifetime of our company, we've had to raise price and that's been very hard for me because you inevitably disappoint somebody.

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“The first time we went from $6 to $8, we actually didn't feel it very much. But the decision to go from $8 to $10, which I knew going to be a bigger deal, [but] we were also improving shipping, packaging and offering more options. But when we announced it, we got a lot of vocal customers expressing their opinion -- and a lot of them weren't happy.

“I decided that I wanted to build a company that was building community and listening to our customers. For the people that didn't care about improved shipping, it didn't make sense to raise the price for them, they were happy with their super slow shipping and the way that their books arrived. I felt like if they don't care, there should be an option for them to have the lower price and so we invented this downgrade discount as a way to not only please this batch of customers but to show that we are paying attention.”

On the most important traits in a new hire:

“The values that we hire for are: grown up, amazing, ship -- meaning can you just ship stuff -- and then optimistic and kind. We feel strongly that [our core values] are drivers for our success and so we hire around those values. And when we are interviewing a new candidate, we have a diverse panel of interviewers. We always include women and men on every interview panel and each interview is specifically looking not only for relevant work experience but for culture fit. It's a big part in what will make them a successful employee and also be able to work together on our team.”

On recognizing employees:

“We try really hard at our town lunches on Thursdays to recognize people who are representing excellence in [our] values. If something difficult shipped or if someone handled a particularly difficult customer situation or whatever it is, we try to make sure everyone gets a chance to be praised for their contribution.

“We organize everybody into teams and [each] team’s leader is called a ‘coach.’ They once a week meet with each of their players for a little one-on-one, which is just a chance for them to check in and see how they're doing.

“We have an executive meeting where it's me, our CFO, our CMO and our CEO and we [each] regularly meet with people on our team [to] keep a running list of who we hear about or who we see. Then oftentimes, we have some of our coaches come and tell us something that they've observed or are impressed with.”

On team-building:

“Once a year we have what we call Chat Fest -- it's our birthday party. This last June, we celebrated our third birthday [and] it was a rockin’ party. We had a lot of people here. We give an allowance to all the remote people, even the part time, to allow them to fly in to attend the party. And then for our Christmas party, we have a big event and we do the same thing. We give money to everybody remotely so they can fly in and we also provide babysitting so if they have their kids with them they can come and not have to worry.”

On unique office rituals:

“Our CTO bought a Teddy Ruxpin from the '80s off of eBay and hacked it. So we have a Slack channel that all of our five-star reviews come into and he somehow hacked it so as soon as a review comes in, Teddy Ruxpin opens his eyes and reads [it]. It's so weird and a little creepy.

“That's one of the ways that we keep it weird and that's kind of a phrase that we throw out there all the time in an effort to maintain that sense of being a startup. We have a big record collection here in the office, and we have a dashboard and as we hit a certain threshold we have songs that we play to celebrate.”

On managing meetings:

“My assistant schedules all of my meetings and I know exactly how long [they are going to be], who's going to be there and where it's going to be. It's frustrating in a meeting when time is coming to a close and you haven't quite gotten through everything that you wanted to talk about but as a way to respect everyone else's time, we just wrap it up and if you need more time, you can schedule for more later.”

On scheduling:

“Sunday night is my personal planning session where I look at my schedule for the week and make sure I have all my personal and family things in there. I've got four kids that live at home and three kids that don't live at home [but] parenting does not end when they move out at 18.

“So I do all my personal planning and then I have an amazing assistant that makes sure I have all of my professional things calendared. And then I just live by that calendar. I set a lot of alerts to remind me because often I will have my head down here at work and forget that I need to go pick up the kids from school. So I live by the alerts and alarms on my phone.

“But I also try to build in a buffer too. Mentally, it's really hard for me to go from meeting to meeting to call to meeting. I start to feel frazzled, so I need at least 10 minutes to breathe and get a drink of water and clear my head. I would much rather overestimate [my time]. It usually takes me five minutes to get to work, but if I give myself 10 minutes, I know I'm not going to be there late. I'm a realist in that respect and try to give myself a buffer so I'm never feeling stressed.”

On office setup:

“We are waiting to move into our bigger space. [Right now], we're basically just desks everywhere and we're in little pods. Nate, [the CEO], our CTO and I and our assistant sit right smack dab in the middle in a little pod of four desks and then we've got little pods all around us. When we move to the new space, we're going to maintain a similar structure. We have no closed-in offices. We've got a conference room and a couple of meeting rooms. For the kind of work we do, I feel like it's really important to have that open seating plan and areas where you can meet and collaborate. But showing that we're open and accessible at all times is really important to us.”

On lunch:

“We bring lunch in every Monday because that's our big meeting day, and also on Thursday. And then the other days I'm in the office, I usually don't eat lunch because I leave at 3. I'll grab a protein smoothie or a handful of almonds and just power through and eat when I get home. Rarely do I take a lunch. Sometimes I'll have a lunch meeting but I never go out to lunch just for fun.”

On a strong company culture:

“It's all about communication. When we were a smaller company, we all sat next to each other; we were always talking to each other; we were always on the same page. But as we've grown -- and I just assume everybody's on my page because I'm talking to somebody about it -- but just figuring out who you are, what you're trying to do and what's most important and then communicating that over and over in very simple terms is the most important thing.”

On her biggest cultural mistake:

“Waiting too long to let someone go and holding onto people longer than what’s healthy. And in those instances, we thought we were doing the right thing by trying to make something work and trying again and again. But it didn't do service to anybody. And there have been instances where we've learned from that and been able to provide a kind off-ramp for someone who wasn't working out. And it's a relief to everyone.

“It wasn't helping Chatbooks and it wasn't helping that person because it wasn't a good fit. With this player-coach relationship that we've established, our employees get a lot of feedback on how they're doing and then our coaches get feedback on how the employees are feeling. And we really encourage 'radical candor,' which is that book that Kim Scott wrote.”

On her biggest cultural win:

“I'm trying to build a culture here that supports families, especially women. And we offer three months maternity [leave] to all of our employees, even part time, and that maternity leave policy that we came up with was really important to me.

“The women that work part time for us are so crucial to our success. They offer the amazing customer support experience and we want to hire and retain the best people. As a result, we have three of them on maternity leave over the holiday season! We've had to hire some temporary employees to cover because this is our busy season, but I'm committed to that and I'm not going to let anyone distract me from it, and we're going to keep offering support to families.”

Related: Do These 50 Things Regularly and You'll Become a Better Entrepreneur

On her role models:

“The person that's coming to my mind right now because I just finished reading a book about her, Notorious RBG, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I think it's really important to know who you are and not be afraid to be yourself. She is such a great example of that in the work that she's done and also in the relationship that she developed with Antonin Scalia. They are polar opposites ideologically but they were wonderful friends and they respected each other. I think it’s so important to be able to disagree but stay committed to your values and committed to your path. She's scrappy.”

On her favorite leadership books:

“I know I've mentioned Radical Candor by Kim Scott and that's been really great. We give it to every one of our employees. And it has not only been helpful in our company but even at home, I feel like it's taken my personal relationships to the next level.

“There's also another book by Patrick Lencioni called The Advantage and it talks about the importance of organizational health and culture. One of our mentors, Aaron Skonnard, the founder and CEO of Pluralsight, gave that to us when we first started this company and shared his view on why being really deliberate about company culture is so important. A lot of what we've done has come from ideas presented in that book. That's another book that we give all of our employees.”

On where most leaders go wrong:

“Getting distracted. It's so easy. And we're feeling that right now as our company is growing. Culture is so important, because for us here at Chatbooks, we keep having to go back to our mission and the cornerstones of what we're trying to build. For example, we were at a conference recently and someone approached us about ornaments, saying, 'You can have people put their pictures on these ornaments and you'll sell $3 million in Q4, guaranteed.' And when we look at our numbers, we would love to add $3 million to our revenue but that is not staying true to our mission. That would be a distraction; it would dilute our brand.”

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