How the Entrepreneur Behind a Luxury Sleepwear Startup Looks to Her Founder Husband For Mentorship
In the Women Entrepreneur series Mentor Moments, female founders sit down to chat with their own mentors (and us!) about how and why the relationship developed, and the lasting impact it’s had on their careers.
Ashley Merrill isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. In 2012, she was freshly enrolled in business school when she learned that she and her husband were expecting their first child. The news lit a now-or-never fire, and she decided to add one more set of responsibilities to her fast-growing list and launch her own business. As she worked on Lunya, a line of luxury sleepwear for women, she juggled her studies and prepared for parenthood. And she had one very valuable resource: Her husband, Marc Merrill, who’s president and co-founder of Riot Games, a video game developer with more than $1 billion in revenue. It wasn’t so long ago that Ashley saw Marc go through his own entrepreneurial growing pains. As she built her own operation, he provided guidance and support at work and home.
WE: Ashley, what was it like for you when Marc was starting his own entrepreneurial journey, launching Riot Games?
Ashley Merrill: I watched him from ideation to grappling with whether this is a good idea or not, all the way to the place where he and his partner decided to jump and take the risk.
Marc Merrill: I started working on our business plan around the same time I started dating Ashley, in January 2006. I moved into her one-bedroom six months after we had been dating because I had no money.
AM: I wouldn’t let Marc get a TV because I didn’t want to pay for cable. We had no money, so I was like, “We’ll go to the Mexican restaurant around the block if you want to watch the game!”
MM: We developed Riot Games for three years prior to launch. We thought it would cost $3 million, and it cost $20 million. Even when we did launch, it wasn’t Pokemon Go-level instant success. It was one foot in front of the other for years. Fast forward to today, we’ve got 100 million players.Related: 4 Strategies for Having a Career and a Family.
AM: I used to always ask him, “When am I going to see you?” He’d always say, “I just need two more weeks.” It shows how little we knew about entrepreneurship! Watching him build this company when he didn’t necessarily have expertise but trusted his gut, it became a really powerful lesson. The right thing isn’t what’s been done in the past, it’s what will best serve your audience.
MM: You can see a lot of that today in Lunya.
WE: Let’s talk about Lunya. Ashley, how long had you been thinking about this idea?
AM: I always noticed myself wearing Marc’s old clothes around the house as pajamas, and I thought it was weird to be choosing that. I had the idea of creating comfortable sleepwear for women but told myself all the things a lot of people probably tell themselves: It’s a silly idea, you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know anything about making clothes. Fear of failure kept me at bay for a long time.
WE: What made you finally pull the trigger?
AM: I started business school in September of 2012, and the same month found out that I was pregnant. I realized, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. It’s not like I’m going to have more free time. I never wanted to have to tell my kids that I didn’t try.
WE: Sounds overwhelming, to say the least.
AM: Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was an S.O.S. call to the dean at UCLA, telling her I didn’t think I could do it all anymore. But she, as a woman, really wanted me to complete the program successfully. So we figured out ways to make my studies and Lunya align more effectively and efficiently. I feel such deep conviction that women who want to do it should go and do it. Show that it can be done and help change the dynamic and perception about women in business [who have] families.Related: Women Entrepreneurs Underestimate Themselves: What We Can Do About It.
WE: How did Marc become a larger support system at home and professionally?
AM: I do have more formal mentor relationships, but the value with Marc is the informality. I’ve seen him work through issues within his business, I hear how he decides to handle something or struggles with decisions. I can come to him about challenges at Lunya, talk through ideas and hear his own suggestions. I don’t have a cofounder, so I don’t have a built-in support system. But I get that from Marc.
WE: What are some of those decisions that you’ve consulted him about?
AM: Personnel issues.
MM: And spending money.
AM: Oh, that’s true. I’m pretty conservative, and when he believes in something, he goes for it. So I lean on him when my inclination is to grow safe and slow. It helps me push myself out of my comfort zone.
WE: How do you two approach running two businesses and raising two kids?
AM: When I started Lunya, Marc really had to step up in a lot of ways, and he’s been great at that.
MM: I had been so focused on my business for so long, making the changes to get on a shared life path was, at times, tough on me. Simply putting car seats in my car, I had to rethink how I could take people, colleagues, whatever, to meetings or dinners. But it was, and is, important to make hanges for our family and for Ash.
AM: We also have a nanny, which I don’t think people talk about enough. It’s a luxury to have that support system, and it has enabled us to have the family and the businesses. Kids are a full-time job, I never underestimate that. My parents are close, too. When people say it takes a village, it’s not a joke.
MM: Now that our kids are toddlers and aren’t trying to kill themselves all the time, finding balance is easier. But initially, the first thing we sacrificed was our relationship with each other. It’s so easy to cut off the romantic, spousal stuff, but that’s not sustainable.
AM: We would do one-night overnights—we’d stay at a local hotel in Santa Monica and have my parents watch the kids. It would do wonders. We’d walk into the hotel room and just pass out.
MM: Room service!AM: Oh, room service was the best thing! Those nights away, they really felt like survival. People are always like, Oh, how amazing, you launched these companies and started your family all at once! Well, we survived, but I don’t recommend it! [laughs]