Female Founder Stories: Kathryn Minshew and Alex Cavoulacos, Founders of The Muse (YC W12)

by Y Combinator2/8/2015

The Muse is the most trusted career site for people in the first 10-15 years of their career. We help over 1.5 million every month answer the question, “What do I want to do with my life (and how do I get there)?” via expert advice, online skill building classes, job opportunities, and behind-the-scenes video profiles of what it’s actually like to work at companies like Facebook, Uber, Lyft or Zappos.

Q: How did the Muse get started?
The two of us [Alex and Kathryn] met each other and Melissa [our third cofounder, now working on a PhD in cancer biology at UCSF] during our first month of work as management consultants at McKinsey & Company. Very quickly, we started having conversations around the big question of, “What do you want to do with your life?” and realized we felt existing solutions didn’t provide very many answers. We worked together on a few consulting projects and realized quickly that our skills, styles and strengths – inversely correlated in many ways – were a powerful combination.

Kathryn: Two years later, while searching for a new job, I was shocked by how antiquated the online job search experience was; it was like death by 1,000 rectangles. I remember sitting on the 21st floor of the McKinsey office in downtown NYC, searching for business strategy jobs through the New York Times’ partnership with Monster, and having it recommend an Assistant Manager position at a 7-11 in Secaucus, New Jersey. This felt totally ridiculous.

LinkedIn and Indeed were fine if I knew exactly what I was looking for, but both were hopeless for browsing or discovery. The standard search returned 5,000+ results, all looking exactly the same, with a logo and a few lines of text stating, “We are an innovative, results-driven environment looking for an entrepreneurial team player.” Yeah, you and everyone else.

Ultimately, we believe this is a broken system, and we’re working on a solution that many in the industry, blinded by their experience to the ways the world is changing, still don’t get.

Alex: With The Muse, we were also fascinated by the opportunity to add delight and imagination back into what’s often a very agonizing process. Kathryn often talks about the way kids decide “what they want to be when they grow up.” Children have such passion imagining themselves in various careers, and we lose that completely as adults. Finding your next job shouldn’t only be about a list of titles and salaries; it should be exploratory, immersive. We want to help people discover opportunities they didn’t know were out there.

Q: What was the hardest part about being a female founder?
Kathryn: Raising venture capital as a female founder has been a fascinating, albeit difficult experience. While recent media coverage has focused on examples of some of the particularly bad behavior (and believe me, I’ve experienced some pretty awful crap), it’s often the subtle, unintentional stereotypes and biases that are the hardest thing to deal with: people assuming you don’t really want to build a massive company, that you prefer lifestyle businesses, that your ambitions are small or cute, that smiling and not being an asshole means you’re likely not tough enough to cut it.

Let me tell you, I am plenty tough.

Ultimately, I think it takes a certain grit and determination to constantly re-prove to people that you’re just as dedicated, just as determined, and just as capable as the entrepreneurs around you who may better fit the physical pattern – but on the flipside, women who succeed often become razor sharp through the process.

Q: What was it like moving to Silicon Valley for YC and then moving back to NYC?
Kathryn: It’s been a great experience, growing The Muse in both locations. We started the company in Brooklyn, moved to Silicon Valley for 7 months during YC and the subsequent fundraise, and then located our headquarters in NYC starting in September 2012. It’s absolutely been the right place for us as a business, but I think both locations have their advantages.

For us, the access to large businesses and major clients in New York (Bloomberg, Conde Nast, etc) has been particularly helpful, and the city’s diversity played a major part as well.

Q: Alex taught herself to code. What was that like?
Alex: When we started The Muse, I took on the role of head of product and we worked with a friend of ours who was a developer to get the first version of the site up in Fall 2011 (this site had 20,000 – 26,000 – 70,000 users in its first 3 months). As The Muse grew and evolved, and we got ready to add new features based on user feedback, we hired our talented head of engineering, Yusuf, who, among other things is an incredible teacher. It was then that I knew it was time to really start to code. Like Kathryn, I had coded in high school, but like many ambitious women in our generation, was unfortunately pushed and encouraged to focus on other skills and strengths. Now those skills were critical in making me an effective head of product, and a better leader for my team.

So often conversations between non-technical founders and engineers sound like this: “How long would X take to build?” “Hard to know for sure, but likely a month” “Wow, that’s a long time.”

Based on that exchange, decisions are made on whether or not to build the item in question, and either a feature isn’t built or a month is dedicated to it. The truth is, there were almost certainly a large number of other options, and variations on that feature that could have been a better product decision. I started out learning to code to be able to have intelligent and thoughtful conversations with Yusuf on what we were building, the constraints we did and didn’t have, and the best way to think about a feature’s MVP. In truth, I got a lot more out of it. My ability to visualize where our product is and where it is going has been heightened immensely. I’m able to intuit where a decision on one feature may in fact impact another—now, or in the future. And, of course, I now build many features myself.

Q: What was the most surprising thing about doing a startup?
Kathryn: For me – and I think many people fall into this camp – it felt like a sort of coming home, a discovery of a whole tribe of people who were insanely driven, passionate, and a bit quirky like me. I’ve become incredibly close to a number of people throughout this process that I’m so glad to have met.

The other surprising thing is, of course, how many people can tell you ‘no’ or ‘that idea is crazy,’ and you can be just as determined to prove them wrong. When you get a chance to do it – that part is pretty fun.

Click below to watch Kathryn’s talk at the Female Founders Conference:


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