The Muse Co-Founder Alexandra Cavoulacos on Why 'It's Kind of Fun to Do the Impossible'
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Editor’s Note: Inspire Me is a series in which entrepreneurs and leaders share what motivates them through good times and bad, while also sharing stories of how they overcame challenges in hopes of inspiring others.
In 2011, Alexandra Cavoulacos left a job she was both enjoying and thriving in in order to start her own company. At the time, Cavoulacos was a brand new manager at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Making the leap to become a first time entrepreneur definitely wasn’t in her game plan.
However, it was her own search for more guidance on how to be the leader her team needed and feeling as though she didn’t have the resources to make the best choices that led her and her co-founder, CEO Kathryn Minshew to create The Muse, a platform that has helped over 50 million people find the jobs and businesses that are the best fit to help them grow and accomplish their goals. The company provides courses to learn new skills, career coaching and advice from more than 500 experts.
Looking back, Cavoulacos says, “Building the platform from scratch with no funding or salary was scary, but I couldn’t shake that belief that The Muse needed to exist. That energized me through thick and thin in the early days.”
Cavoulacos says she thinks back to how she felt seven years ago during her McKinsey days when she starts to feel pressure as she works to grow the business. It’s crucial to her that everyone who uses the Muse feels understood. “For a company like ours that starts with something as simple as making sure candidates feel like they’re being treated like real people, rather than another resume in a stack of applicants,” she says.
Which is why she finds the most inspiration in reading comments and emails from users who felt better after reading some advice on the site or seeing that they weren’t alone by interacting with others in The Muse community.
Cavoulacos shared her insights about she stays motivated and achieves her goals.
When you know you're facing a serious challenge or obstacle, how do you motivate yourself to tackle it?
I find solving hard problems with smart people to be immensely energizing, so those are the moments in which I thrive the most. Lucky for me, those moments happen a lot at a startup.
Right now I’m working on a project where our strategy impacts execution and implementation significantly, so the details is where the magic happens. I love working with a cross-functional team to make sure we make progress week over week and that we’re having the biggest impact on our clients, while also thinking about the long-term health of our business. A key question for us to ask in this sort of project is “what could go wrong with this plan?” or “what are we missing?” You also have to be willing to revisit assumptions or past decisions when working on a challenge and open up your mind to new possibilities.
What is a quote that inspires you and why?
“It's kind of fun to do the impossible.” - Walt Disney
I’ve had that quote on my desk since before starting The Muse, to remind me of two critical things through the ups and downs of startup life. First, that I shouldn’t forget to have fun with all the challenges we face. And second, that doing the impossible is, in fact, possible.
What is a book that inspires you and why?
My mind immediately thought of two very different examples. The first is Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. In it, he shares the secret to his restaurant empire’s success: his focus on what he calls Enlightened Hospitality. I read it before starting The Muse, but his emphasis on the details of the diners' experiences -- and the true care and respect shown not just to his customers but also to his staff -- really resonated with how I think about building businesses. When I think of hospitality, I think of focusing on relationships over transactions.
I’ve also always loved The Phantom Tollbooth [a children’s book by Norton Juster] ever since I was a child. I loved the puns and wordplay, but also took away an important lesson: there is always something new to discover or be curious about.
Was there someone who told you could launch the company? Who really encouraged you?
When I approached friends, family, and mentors, I was already pretty sure that I wanted to leave my job and launch The Muse. Having their input and approval did matter to me, of course, and getting it from many of them really bolstered my confidence.
But you don’t always get encouragement from everyone, including people you really respect. I certainly didn’t. In those cases, you have to acknowledge their input and listen for any truths in it, but also evaluate if that changes your decision. It’s not always easy to make that distinction, but I received a piece of advice from a trusted mentor who I confided in when I was considering starting The Muse that I still use to this day.
She told me: “The vast majority of advice you’ll be given in your life will be one of two types: Either ‘Do what I did’ or ‘Do what’s best for me right now.’ Make sure you take the time to identify if either is the case before taking the advice at face value.”
Who is a woman that inspires you and why?
My grandmothers were both inspirations to me my whole life. My father’s mother grew up in Greece and worked her whole life, which was very atypical of her generation, and my mother’s mother left her home in Hungary during World War II and started a new life in Belgium as a refugee. They were strong, intelligent and passionate women who spoke their minds while caring deeply about people and developing rich, meaningful relationships with others. Their sense of generosity and kindness inspire me every day, and I miss them greatly.
Are there lessons from earlier bosses or mentors that you think back on when you need an extra boost or bit of encouragement?
Funnily enough, not really. I do have lessons from former bosses or mentors that I use when making decisions, but when I need an extra boost, I usually gravitate somewhere else. I keep a “Muse love” folder in my inbox with notes from current and former Muse employees that really made my day, and emails with gratitude and success stories from users. It’s a play on the brag folder to keep resumes updated, and is the perfect pick me up.
What has inspired you to be a better person?
I believe that every person’s actions impact the world and either make it a better place, leave it the same, or make it worse. We have more impact than we think, even as just one person. I feel great responsibility to be a driver for positive change, whether that’s being a role model for women and girls looking to start a business of their own, opening doors where I can for people who do not have the access I have today or building a company that is defining the future of work and enabling people to find careers they love.
When you are feeling at your worst, what inspires you?
Hearing from our users about how they found their current job through The Muse, or how a particular article or piece of advice really resonated with them. We recently got a note from one of our readers about Muse Discussions saying how comforting it was for them to see people ask questions they wanted answers to themselves, and that it’s “always a nice feeling, knowing you are part of a community, and you are not alone in something." I love hearing feedback like this because one of our intentions for The Muse was to be a guide for people as they navigate their careers -- and it’s amazing to hear stories of when we’re accomplishing what we set out to do.
For those women who are looking to start a business, or have begun, but are feeling discouraged, what advice do you have for them to keep going?
Be persistent and take in as much input as you can. There are going to be times when one opinion makes you question your idea and what you’re trying to accomplish, so remember to stay focused on the problem you’re trying to solve and how it’s going to help people. In the early days of The Muse, the industry and investors didn’t understand our vision and new way of approaching the world of work, but the consistent feedback from our users and steady growth in our community was proof that we were on to something and that we had to keep going.