Originally posted on Forbes.
As fearless women go, Tara Hunt is hard to beat. Years ago, at the end of a relationship and after losing her job, Tara chose not to see anguish and defeat, but instead saw an opportunity to create her own future. Her decision to start her first business, Rogue Strategies, set her career in motion. While her career has developed over the years, one thing has remained the same: Tara has retained her unique way of viewing not only herself, but also the world. For the past few years, she’s been sharing these views on her blog at tarahunt.com (formerly HPC).
Her most recent endeavor is as CEO of Buyosphere.com, an online shopping community she co-founded in 2011. Originally created as a way to keep track of your online shopping history, Buyosphere has recently gained attention formaking some big changes, which she explained in her interview with Fast Company last week. This “new-again” service is now a place for online shoppers to ask and answer shopping and product questions. It’s a forum for the shopping savvy, and those who need their help.
I was lucky enough to cross paths with her at the FOWA conference in London in 2007 and later had the chance to work with her on the “Make Yourself Movement” (just like last week’s featured More Seat’er, Amy Jo Martin). Having admired her since the day we met, I was thrilled to have a chance to pick her brain. In my conversation with her, she opens up about the challenges she has faced in the past, the uncertainty she feels about the future and the importance of finding a champion.
LB: For nearly a decade, you’ve started a number of your own ventures — from consulting, to software. What about your background gave you the experience and courage to go after starting your own companies?
TH: If there is anything in my background that I could attribute to the courage to do my own thing it is my father. He was raised with nothing in a small town in Alberta and worked his own way through vet school then moved back to that small town and started his own practice. With nothing. No venture capital. No trust fund. He just knew what he wanted to do and made sacrifices and worked hard to get there.
I remember the first time I set out on my own. I was laid off from my job in advertising and had to figure out what I would do next. I had just gone through a break-up, had a young son and bought my first condo. I strapped on my rollerblades and took to the trails until I couldn’t move. I laid in the grass in the park and thought to myself, “This is my opportunity to define my own future.” I had a moment of clarity where I realized that being employed by someone else’s business was no more stable than starting my own. That day I ceased to be able to put my career in someone else’s hands.
LB: What has been the biggest challenge of working in the male-dominated technology industry and how do you overcome it?
TH: The biggest challenge is also my greatest strength: I don’t think “like a guy”. When I moved to San Francisco in 2005 the term Web 2.0 had just been coined to describe a second wave of growth in online business (as well as consumer interest). I saw this new wave as an opportunity for the web to really become a platform for human growth as much as business and I wrote about it extensively.
I was accused of being a “digital utopian” for it and have been told over the years that my theories and approaches are too “touchy feely”. But in a sea of voices where everyone was talking about business return on investment (ROI) and campaigns and targets, I stood out and gained a great following because I was talking about creating relationships and building social capital. Now practically everyone uses the “touchy feely” language, so I feel proud that I am identified as one of the early advocates for this.
LB: What advice do you have for young women who would like to start careers in the tech startup world?
TH: Do it. But do it knowing that you are still paving the way and it isn’t going to be easy. And don’t do that mentor thing that people talk about. Get champions. Enlist people who have clout in the startup world to advocate for you. That’s how the boys get ahead – strong connections to people who will go to bat for them. We need to do the same. It isn’t about advice (though that is good too), it’s about advocacy.
LB: What do women in the tech startup world need to do more of? Less of?
TH: As I hinted at above, we need more advocates. We need champions. We need less of people talking about all of the reasons that women aren’t getting funded and getting ahead in tech and actually take responsibility for it. One of my amazing champions (who is also a mentor) is Nilofer Merchant. She puts time into my growth, but she also puts time into championing me. She put money into my company and introduces me to important people in her contacts that I could never get in front of on my own. We need more of that. Nilofer had a great idea: every (usually male) angel/VC/influencer in tech who has written a blog post or spoken about their commitment to this matter should commit to championing 5 women each year. I love that idea. I bet everyone would benefit.
LB: Your SlideShare decks are infamous for being awesome and having lots of honest content. What have you found resonates most with your audience? What motivates you to produce them?
TH: My first foray into this extreme openness was with a TEDx talk I did in February. I was scared out of my mind. I called the 18 minute talk “The Unclear Path” and decided that I would just take a huge risk and talk about all of the fear that I’m feeling and why I continue down this path even though I think it is killing me. Mostly I wrote this talk because I couldn’t talk about anything else. The feeling was all-consuming. It was a bit cathartic.
But something interesting happened. It struck a chord. I started to get oodles of emails from entrepreneurs, artists, academics and everyone else who has taken a path not sanctioned by the 9-to-5 job with benefits world we live in. They thanked me and told me their stories. And so I decided I’d tell the next iteration at another conference I was asked to speak at. This one was called “So, you wanna do a startup, eh?” and was tailored for a Canadian audience.
This one was quickly passed around the startup community and I not only received emails, but invitations and questions and lots of kudos. It was less about my own fear and overcoming it and more about what I’ve learnt and how the lies they tell us about startups are damaging to our psyches as entrepreneurs (for example, very few startups get funding at all, but if you read the tech blogs, you’d think everyone gets money thrown at them). So many people wrote to thank me for exposing this so they no longer felt like they were doing everything wrong.
My most recent one is another iteration – one that talks about the mistakes I’ve personally made along the way. I started by talking about facing the fear, moved onto illustrating the reality of startup life and then talked about how I have stumbled and grown from it. And the latest presentation had over 250,000 views in less than a week. I’m still getting messages about a month later.
I think it resonates with people because we are taught in business to keep a strong facade alive, so nobody talks about the mistakes and pains and fear. I stuck my neck out and talked about it (my greatest strength as my biggest challenge again), which opened up the conversation and made so many others feel validated. I’m not alone. The whole process has been incredibly cathartic for me. More than I ever thought it would.
LB: Women clearly need “More Seats” in the tech startup world. What do you see as the main barriers and the main steps needed to get there?
TH: I still question whether we really want to get more seats or whether, as Cindy Gallop talks about, we actually want to make our own table.
I have to change the majority of my approach and way of thinking to be “successful” in the tech startup world. I just picked up a bunch of sales books to retrain my brain to think in a “getting to yes” sort of way. I was reading one of these books on the train the other day and thought to myself, “WTH am I doing?”
I don’t know. Ask me this again in a few years when I have a distanced perspective on it. I’d like to say that we need to balance femininity and masculinity to get there and that the business world is changing to embrace more feminine approaches. But I really don’t experience the same level of commitment from the business world on changing values as I’m putting into changing mine.
(On a sidenote, I’m not bitter about this. I’m just trying to figure out the actual answer to this for my own peace of mind.)
LB: Have you ever encountered the “Glass Ceiling”? Was it possible to overcome it? How?
TH: I can’t say I have. I haven’t had enough patience to stay within a large organization long enough to advance in ranks. That’s the beauty of working for myself. There are no false hierarchies.
LB: What, if any, distinct traits have you seen fellow female coworkers bring to the workplace?
TH: I am one of those people that believe that women and men DO have different approaches and perspectives on the world. I also believe this is due to a mix of socialized and inherent qualities. But there are many shades of grey here.
In general, women bring an honest and thought out approach to work. We are more risk-averse. There are many studies that show that women bring a more conservative outlook to a business plan. It’s probably why more women-led businesses survive and thrive over the years. But I’m sure that without some “cowboy” attitudes, we aren’t pushing our ideas far enough.
Another trait I’ve witnessed over and over again is the ability to empathize with the customer. When everyone is talking about the business needs, it’s usually the woman who asks, “How will this effect the customer’s experience?” It’s important to balance the needs of the customer and the needs of the business.
LB: What do you like most about what you do?
TH: I used to answer this question saying, “The ability to sleep in,” but that luxury is long gone. LOL. I think what I like most is my ability to control my own future. Of course there are tons of unknowns and external forces at work, but at least I can control how much input and the direction of that input. And I learn from this every single day.
LB: What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
TH: Fund yourself with credit cards. I got myself into incredible debt years ago that took me 6 years to climb out of because of this. I should have listened to my father instead, who said, “If you can’t pay your credit card balance at the end of the month, don’t use it.”
LB: What values are you committed to?
TH: Openness. Honesty. And fairness. I still believe in a non-zero sum world even though most evidence points towards it being an unreasonable desire.
LB: What key mistakes have you made in your career? What were some of the key lessons learned?
TH: I mentioned one earlier. I spent too much money up front and racked up credit card debt that crippled my growth for many years going forward. It’s behind me now, but to this day I keep 1 credit card with a $1000 limit. Everything else is cash. Lesson learned.
Another one is not to wait until YOU think the time is right. The time will never be right. The time is whenever you decide it will be. I’ve missed way too many windows waiting for the right time to do things.
LB: Like many other women, including my mother, you and I have both have started a venture with our significant others at some point. For those in the middle of it or about to jump in, what advice do you have around dos / don’ts?
TH: Funny enough, even though things didn’t end well for my co-founded with significant other venture (Citizen Agency), I would do it again someday. But what I’d do different is that I’d definitely make more time for my own personal needs. I wasn’t doing ANYTHING on my own when I was working with my SO. I didn’t exercise. I didn’t hang out with my friends enough. I certainly didn’t take care of my own mental health. You also need to sit down and talk about separating work from personal as much as possible. Never take work disagreements personally (or take them home). And never bring personal disagreements into the workplace. I’d also advise having some sort of separation at work. If you can, work on different projects and in different departments. If you are both in charge of the overall business, take on different responsibilities and define them well. This advice also works for any partnership.
LB: Advice for women wanting to start their own technology company?
TH: The only thing that matters at the end of the day is finding product/market fit. The only thing. And it is your job to get your company to that point. Raising money, hiring people, marketing, user experience, etc. – all of the other stuff is what helps you get to product/market fit.
LB: Advice for women seeking venture funding?
TH: Learn to “speak VC”. I still don’t know exactly what that means but I know that I don’t speak it fluently and a big part of it is because I’m not sales trained. I’m too emotionally wound up in my own company. I’m working on that right now, but it’s really difficult.
And find a champion. I can’t stress that enough.
Learn more about Tara:
Name: Tara Hunt
Hometown: Sundre, Alberta, Canada
Current City: Montreal, Quebec
Employer & Job Title: Buyosphere.com, Co-Founder & CEO
Educational Background: B.A. Communications & Cultural Studies
Previous Work Experience: Intuit, Citizen Agency, Riya.com (Like.com), Human Resources Professionals Association, Rogue Strategies, MGM Communications, Maxx Petroluem