The Foundation of Success Is Taking Disciplined Risks
Narrativ founder and CEO Shirley Chen explains why young founders should not be afraid to aim high.
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
Sometimes disruption is as simple as the click of a mouse. In 2015, Shirley Chen saw that while publishers included affiliated links as part of their content to create an additional revenue stream, when readers went to follow those links, the information available wasn’t often accurate or up to date.
Ultimately, this would give customers an incomplete experience and leave money on the table for retailers, publishers and advertisers. It seemed like a missed opportunity to Chen. So Chen founded Narrativ to tackle this challenge head on.
Since launching, the 29-year-old CEO has raised $3.5 million in seed investment and grown a base of 500 partners, including Allure, Dermstore, New York Magazine and Nordstrom. The company’s SmartLink technology connects products that editors are writing about to all of the advertisers that sell it, and continuously updates the link in question.
“We want to create better consumer experiences by fixing out of stock and pricing [information],” Chen explains. “We want to enable advertisers to unlock this Amazon monopoly we're seeing in content and we want to create new revenue streams for publishers and get fair value for their ecommerce content.”
Chen shared her insights about being a young founder, how to make inclusive hiring a priority and what it takes to compete with the Facebooks and Googles of the world.
Can you talk about a moment in your career that you had to advocate for yourself? How did you approach it?
The interesting piece about advocacy is I'm pretty used to doing that and advocating for what I believe, including myself. I really grew up in an environment where opportunities are earned, not given. When it came to founding Narrativ and raising our seed round, advocating for what I thought was a good idea came pretty naturally. We ended up raising a $3.5 million round. And I think that the core to that is just presenting a really clear vision, demonstrating strong commitment and having the humility to listen and evolve as you grow.
What was a mistake you made and how did you move forward from it?
As a female founder I don't think I've always prioritized moving women forward in technology. I've never personally felt blocked in my career because of my gender. So I had no shortage of opportunities and mentorship at McKinsey or at J.P. Morgan or at Columbia. And it wasn't until this year, when I was invited to join the Liberty Media's women and commerce network, that I realized so many of these opportunities were afforded to me because of female leaders before me fighting for change.
It really created a new focus and kickstarted a commitment from me to diversify our engineering pipeline and communicating this to the broader team that it is a priority for us. So in Q3 we made an active commitment to increase the number of female engineering resumes in our recruiting pipeline from 20 percent to 50 percent. Today our team is actually 53 percent female. So I feel happy about the progress that we've made there but it needs to be something that we continue to focus on and interestingly enough, I think as a younger company we have a greater opportunity to set the right foundations in the beginning.
How have you grown and changed as a leader throughout your career?
I think the difference here is being a manager vs. being a leader and it's pretty nuanced. It starts for me in terms of the qualities I'm looking for in my team. So I think in the beginning it was about finding the right skills to produce a certain outcome. So now I find myself asking, "Does this person believe in our mission?" "Are they accountable?" "Are they committed and are they consistent?" This is especially important for startups: "Are they excited by change?" "Are they willing to change themselves?"
I think that shift in terms of hiring for character as well as for ability was a really big one for me. As a leader, it's important to create an environment of trust. The startup environment is one of constant acceleration and it can be very scary. But when you're surrounded by people who have this character and who you do trust that becomes so much easier.
Over time, how has your view of success and failure changed?
Failing is always pretty tough. That's the honest truth. I think I've gotten a lot farther in terms of creating a process for taking more disciplined risks instead of blind risk. The reality is there's an element of risk and luck in anything that you do. But I find that with disciplined risk, you're either winning and succeeding or you're learning. And that's really the foundation to evolving and growing as a business.
Is there a piece of advice a mentor gave you that you still take to heart today?
Earlier this year, one of our investors asked me a really interesting question. We were having a board meeting. And he asked, "How do play in this field dominated by Facebook and Google?" I'm sure publishers are thinking the same thing. It honestly was thrilling. Because as a seed-stage startup, this is not a question that you ask yourself every day. And I've been thinking a lot about our competitors as companies and other startups in our immediate space, and not putting ourselves in the same league as Facebook and Google.
It really forced me to ask, why are we building Narrativ? It's not to create this marginally better product. It is about transforming the system and elevating our ambitions to this big game change. The output of that is that we've tripled our inventory in the last quarter. We had our biggest revenue month by far in November by over 60 percent, and if you're going play, I think you need to aim for the big game instead of aiming for the middle.
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road. What have you done to build a community of other business owners?
The loneliness factor is something I didn't think about in starting a company. I am a solo founder. But I've been pretty lucky to get pulled into some of the startup communities in New York. Grand Central Tech as a big one. We were accepted into GCT two years ago and it gave me a chance to interact with 15 other founders across different verticals but we were all sharing this very unique experience of having an early stage company. And some of the founders were very experienced and it was their second or third company and for other ones it was their first.
These other founders are the ones that end up talking to you late at night and comparing stories and getting encouragement from. So there's a real peer community that I've been introduced to as a result of that. I've also been really impressed by the number of mentors and advisors who are willing to give and share their time even without pay or equity. There's a lot of generosity in the community that in some ways when you're in a more traditional corporate environment you don't get to experience.
What do you say to yourself to keep going during tough moments?
I think I have a relatively high bar for what tough means. I think it's a result honestly of my family and growing up in China. Both of my parents lived through the Cultural Revolution. The background on that is 30 million people actually died during the Cultural Revolution in China. My grandparents survived World War II and Japanese occupation. I think it's a strong reminder that having this opportunity to basically pursue my dreams as an entrepreneur isn't that tough. My family is very quick to remind me of that as well. It's a really great perspective. And if I am having a bad day, I think it's about mentally resetting. What is the outcome that I actually want? What's the best way to get there? And then getting to work.
Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.