Q&A with Kathryn Minshew & Alexandra Cavoulacos, Cofounders of The Muse

by Y Combinator10/17/2018

We put together a list of the top YC companies by valuation as of October 2018. You can see that list at https://ycombinator.com/topcompanies.

Here’s a Q&A with Kathryn Minshew & Alexandra Cavoulacos, Cofounders of The Muse, one of the companies featured on the list.

What does The Muse make/do?

The Muse is a trusted and loved career platform used by over 75 million people to research companies and careers. We offer an authentic look inside a company’s culture, workplace and values, and provide organizations with a variety of tools to share their story, measure the impact of their talent brand, and source stories from their own employees about what it’s really like to work there.

How many employees does The Muse have?


How many founders?


What is your most impressive recent product milestone?

We recently launched BrandBuilder, a tool that enables companies to collect data and employee generated content about their culture, values, and employee experience. Employers can use these stories to gain first-hand insight into what makes their organization a unique place to work, and it gives them a “bank” of employee advocates and great employee quotes for their career sites, Muse profile and social channels.

The Muse also retains access to this information – actionable data and hundreds or thousands of employee stories – and can use it to give candidates an authentic look inside a company. Rather than relying on anonymous reviews, we have a direct line to current employees who are answering questions about their day-to-day experience, segmented by location and team/function. A company’s engineering team in Austin is going to be different from their sales org in New York, or their retail employees in Miami – and we can help tell those stories.

What is the larger impact / societal impact of your product in the space you work within?

We’re building the best place to research companies and careers, in order to create better alignment between individuals and the roles, careers and companies they choose. We think this is a pretty massive task – partially, because what each of us wants out of work is so personal (is it creativity? flexibility? compensation? prestige?) and partially because work demands more from people today than ever before. Most people who use The Muse aren’t satisfied with just a clock-in-clock-out job: they’re looking for a meaningful career at a company that aligns with their individual needs and values, and we can help them find it.

The question of alignment is also really interesting to us. We live in a world of 1-5 star ratings and “best places to work” lists, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to think about it. In fact, careers are intensely personal – kind of like relationships. What attracts one person might repel another. To give a more specific example: one person might thrive in a more structured, corporate setting, while another might love the thrill of working at a startup where they get to wear many hats on any given day. There’s not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” here—just the right fit for the right person.

That’s why we focus on giving candidates an authentic look at what it’s really like to work at a company. With our company profiles, candidates get to see what an organization’s office looks like, learn about their core values, and even hear from current employees about what they love about working there, so they can decide for themselves if it’s the right fit.

What’s an interesting element of The Muse’s company culture?

We have a unique culture built around transparency and being able to bring our authentic “whole human” selves to work—and we’ve made it a priority to keep that front and center as we’ve grown the company and the team. Back when we were only 25 people, we sat the team down and talked about our existing culture and what we were looking for in potential hires as we continued to scale. In addition to our strong “no assholes” policy (which is our way of saying we treat everyone with respect and integrity, and we don’t tolerate anything less) we came up with five other core values that we wanted each Muser to possess. Then, we made sure everyone—particularly HR and the hiring team—screened for these values and trained our team on how to talk to people about our mission, brand, and culture. We believe diversity in hiring is critically important, so we make sure finding the right “fit” doesn’t become a smokescreen, but rather, a way for us to make sure we’re a building a team of people with similar values but diverse backgrounds, who believe in our mission and what we’re building.

Looking back, what motivated you to start The Muse?

Kathryn: Alex and I met during our first month of work as management consultants at McKinsey & Company. Our experiences were vastly different, which really helped shape our vision for The Muse.

I realized fairly quickly that management consulting wasn’t my calling, so I started to search for new opportunities. More than a job, I was looking for something truly fulfilling in my career—but, all I got from the standard job search were thousands of results with a logo and some text about the company and role requirements. There were no resources out there to help me (or anyone else!) find the right long-term career fit—because there was no way to get information about an organization’s culture, values, and employee experience.

Alex: A year or two later at McKinsey, I was stepping into a new role managing a team of more experienced people. It was such an exciting career opportunity—but there were challenges in navigating my new responsibilities and authority. I needed guidance and advice on how to thrive as a manager and I couldn’t find anything tactical, fresh and relatable.

When you put our experiences together, Kathryn and I saw a big gap in the industry that needed to be filled, so we set out the create the product we needed ourselves: the go-to-destination for people to research everything they need to know about companies and careers.

Is what you’re working on now the original idea or did you pivot?

Same thing, but better 🙂 We originally founded The Muse to give people the kind of career guidance we’d wished we’d had early on; we wanted to create a platform where people could get an authentic look inside a company and see what’s it like to work there every day—and now, we can proudly say we’re helping over 75 million people a year craft meaningful careers.

We still wake up every day leaning into our original inspiration for The Muse—and on top of that, we’ve expanded our product offering based on trends we’re seeing in the marketplace. For example, there’s a gap between what employers are doing to attract talent and what candidates want when it comes to the job search and candidate experience. Candidates want to see that the expectations set by a company’s employer brand and candidate experience align with their actual day-today once they come on board—and they trust current employees the most to be honest about their employee experience and set accurate expectations.

But, not all employers know how to tap their workforce to share their stories. Recently, we’ve been working more closely with our clients to use our platform to create content from their employees themselves, which helps them shape an overall more authentic story in the marketplace.

Were there moments where you thought the company might die? Describe one of those and anything you learned from it.

Absolutely. When we were pitching seed investors, we were rejected repeatedly (148 times, to be exact)—and there were times when we started to question whether it was possible to build this company the way we wanted to build it.

They weren’t seeing what we were seeing in the market and that was incredibly frustrating and disheartening, but we also had our early users telling us that they loved what we were doing. We had the data and positive feedback we needed to remind us why we were fighting so hard for The Muse—because we were onto something and we were solving a real problem for real people.

It also helped to surround ourselves with other entrepreneurs who’d been through the fundraising process before. There’s a lot of advice out there for how to best go about the process—but if you take an approach that feels unnatural to you, investors are going to pick up on that and you won’t exude the confidence you need to make an impactful impression. So we learned through trial and error and eventually figured out how to tell our story in a way that inspired early investors to say “yes.”

What was a particularly important insight you had about your market that made your product work?

Our personal experiences gave us acute insight into the fact that there were two major gaps in the job search market. First, that access to career advice was limited (and that this could be a great user growth mechanism). There was nowhere good for people to consistently get guidance on how to switch industries, ask for a raise, or write a cover letter that gets noticed. Second and similarly, the job search experience was terribly – truly, the industry should be ashamed of itself. Standard job descriptions didn’t (and still often don’t) tell candidates much about a company’s culture, core values, or employee experience.

That point of view on focusing on fit and authenticity is one of the things that differentiates us.

What’s one piece of advice you’d share with a young founder?

When you have a big idea, your biggest mission (aside from trying to get your business off the ground) is helping other people see what you see. And that might prove to be really hard once you start pitching investors. They want to see that your idea can change the world, that it provides a tangible solution to a problem a lot of people have—but they’re also looking for something with high revenue and growth potential.

Just remember that hearing the word “no” doesn’t mean your idea isn’t feasible – or that you should give up too quickly! When we were pitching The Muse, we heard the word “no” 148 times. It was exhausting and painful but it didn’t change the fact that we believed The Muse needed to exist. So while it’s great to get advice from investors—and even use some of their feedback to adapt—at the end of the day, if you’re not building something that fulfills your vision of the future, it will be really hard to fight for it.


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