I woke up New Year’s Eve 2016 in a hotel with my husband (and, notably, no kids), delightfully hungover from the wedding the night before. More notably, however, I was woken up on New Year’s Eve 2016 by a phone call from my brand manager, aka the third in command on my team. You don’t have to own your own business to know this is decidedly Not A Good Thing.
What was she calling about at 8:30 a.m. on New Year’s Eve Morning? Well it turns out that APW, otherwise known as my livelihood and my life’s work of the last decade, had received a Very Bad email from Google. We were in violation of Google’s best practices, and we were in danger of being marked as a spam site and removed from all Google searches, if we didn’t change every violation on our website immediately. Unfortunately for us, that website had been publishing an average of two times a day for almost ten years, so take one small violation and multiply it by… whatever amount that was… and we had a disaster on our hands.
I took it pretty well. Maybe it’s because of that time a week before our wedding Google marked APW (not my livelihood at the time) as a spam site and removed it from the Internet, confiscating everything I’d ever published online. (Lesson learned: don’t host your site on Blogspot and back everything up every day.) Or maybe it’s because I truly had no idea just how bad this news was—how many months, and tears, and anti-anxiety meds, and money spent it would take us to get on anything NEAR the right track.
The thing is, bad news doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Trump had just been elected, and like so many others, my Jewish family was in a state of suspended animation and terror waiting for the inauguration. But on top of that (or perhaps because of that), we’d just taken the leap to invest in a full-size office for the company and hire on two staffers full time. Why? Because as a company we’d been growing rapidly for the past several years, and because the world as we knew it seemed to be melting away. I wanted to do something, anything, constructive. And taking care of my team felt like something that I could really solidly do.
So that morning, in the hotel room, we activated the staff, and we formed a plan. We’d work nonstop through the holiday (I would work in the car on the way home, another staffer would work on a cross-country flight as 2016 passed to 2017), and we would beat the odds to get back in Google’s good graces in a week or two. We hoped. I mean, as a company that started as a Blogspot on my kitchen table, we’d always beaten the odds, so why not now?
And looking back, we did beat the odds. It’s just that beating the odds looked like not getting back in Google’s good graces till April, after about one thousand staff hours logged, and ten thousand individual corrections made, by hand, to this website. And even then, it didn’t mean that the course was miraculously corrected. Instead of the year of growth we had planned, we spent months just trying to reverse the damage.
And that was just the beginning of what 2017 had to offer.
From A Kitchen Table To A (Very) Real Office
When I started APW on, pretty literally, a wish and a prayer and a Blogspot account, the Internet was smaller. Back in 2008 there was a reasonably small community of women on the Internet writing every day, and an even smaller group of women writing about planning their weddings. While I’m still in touch with most of these women, I do deeply miss the days when we wrote and read each other’s work every day of every week. And in 2008, it was pretty easy to run a blog. If you wrote good stuff, and wrote it regularly, you were able to build and grow a community just based on the quality of your work, with exactly zero cash.
That said, I’m not one of those bloggers who pines for the good old days. A decade ago was fun, and different… and I also still had to go to work at my soul-killing job at an investment bank, and I couldn’t live my dream of running my own business. But over the years, the world of online content creation has changed rather radically. Within my own niche, the wedding industry realized that their clocks were being cleaned by wedding bloggers writing on their kitchen tables, and they set up to do battle. They put the deep pockets of corporate America behind their own wedding blogs (with results of varying quality), and they bought a reasonable number of high-performing wedding blogs (for various levels of good deals for their owners).
All that, plus all the related changes in the wider online publishing industry, meant that as time has gone on it’s gotten increasingly expensive to publish on the Internet. Instead of just hammering out good content, we’ve all had to spend money on good web design, good code, advertising budgets, SEO best practices, sales teams, multi-platform publishing models, and on and on.
And 2017 was the year that I decided to go all in. Part of this move was lovingly prodded by my coach, who’s spent the last two years getting me to stop setting artificial limitations for myself. And part of it had to do with my fundamental ambition, getting closer to forty, and not being ready to sell APW to some deep-pocketed and probably male-run corporation. So instead of going to work in a two-person office, where my coworker typically worked from home, we were going to bring on a full staff, and have a real office… and I was SO EXCITED ABOUT IT.
And then New Year’s Eve Morning happened, and the year turned into a tailspin that I am only now starting to be able to see my way out of.
Muddling Through A Middle Path
It’s easy to blame this whole year on an outside force, but that wouldn’t be fair, nor would it hold me accountable.
The truth is, growing as a small (feminist) company is hard, and we’ve seen too many ostensibly feminist companies crash on the rocks this year. There was Thinx, with it’s maternity leave failures, office boob groping, and meetings from the toilet. There was Nasty Gal’s bankruptcy, preceded by lawsuits and maternity leave failures. And then there was ModCloth’s sale to Walmart, which the female founder had no control over, but still took the heat for.
All of these failures had to do in large part with the VC funding model—which has been written about at length. Suffice to say, if you take a lot of money from men in suits who want ten to a hundred times growth, you will likely not be able to grow in a remotely sustainable way, let alone a feminist way.
Which leaves companies like mine (and those owned by many of my friends) in something of a bind. Do we go after money from an industry that we’ve known all along is deeply sexist, but whose sexism is now splashed all over the front page of the New York Times, with details like Kink rooms where male employees are encouraged to have sex with female ones? Or do we avoid that kind of funding all together, knowing that most funding in the wedding space is going to young male founders who saw their sisters plan a wedding once? (True story.)
In our case, we’ve decided to steer clear of the VC men in suits. I don’t feel like being evaluated based on looks in a pitch meeting, or having to explain to a VC guy that weddings are actually kind of a big business, and yes, women planning weddings care about things like logic and budget. Besides, I already worked for the men in suits. I hated it then, and I have no reason to think that I’ll hate it less now. (Though you can bet I have a line of credit from the bank, for use in a pinch.)
So all that leaves us trying to find a middle path. To play an increasingly expensive, increasingly technical game, in an industry more and more savvy to our existence as a threat. And on too many days this year, that’s meant that I’ve hammered through emergency to-do lists, not getting to growth projects, let alone getting to do the creative work that I’m kinda in this for. (The fact that I’ve written fifteen hundred words on this subject so far is, in fact, a very good sign.)
How You Screw It Up (From The Inside)
And while it’s easy to mock Miki Agrawal, the founder of Thinx (who on EARTH takes meetings when their audibly on the toilet?), some of the feminist industry failures have been ours too. If you’re a feminist business, you had better be a business first and feminist second, or you’ll quickly end up nothing at all. And while that sounds obvious, it can be pretty damn miserable when you’re facing down a tough decision. For example, all those troubled companies who faced problems with their maternity leave policies? APW provides paid maternity leave, but in a country that offers literally nothing to women having babies, trying to be a competitive business when every one of your employees is a woman of childbearing age is… tough. Because the burden has been shifted from all of society, directly onto you.
And then there are the shocking-sounding details that seem less shocking—and more alarming—when you’re in the middle of growing from a tiny feminist business to a larger and more formal one. The CEO of Thinx stripping down in her office in front of her employees? Reasonably horrifying, but, from the inside, it’s also really easy to see how you’d get there. We just went from a small group of all-female employees sharing a tight bond and a tiny office (and a lot of changing in front of each other on shoots), to a larger, more formal office with things like, you know, HR concerns. And that meant some soul searching—and legal pondering—about just who could change in front of whom, when. (Though mostly I’m glad that, unlike the CEO of Thinx, I don’t have a glass-walled office, or a product that’s underwear.)
All of which is to say that when I decided to grow APW in 2017, it was in part a response to a horrible election, and in part a desire to be true to all those zillions of screeds I’d written to women about asking for what they were worth and living up to their potential. I was trying to do the right thing, both for our readership and for my staff. I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about things like whether or not we should have an outsourced HR department, or what happens if a developer over promises and under delivers and takes a bunch of money in the process, or how to deal with employee conflict (hint: mediation). And I certainly hadn’t written an employee handbook or come up with a set of training documents, administrative procedures, or plans for disciplinary review.
And when you don’t do those things (even if it’s only because you don’t know to do them), you fail your company, you fail your team, and you end up making a mess of things… even with the best intentions.
And How You Make It Better
And now it’s December. And I’ve spent more time thinking about these things, and working on these documents, than you can imagine. My life over the past eleven months has been consumed by fixing bad links, hiring diversity trainers, employee mediation, trying to fix bad code, trying to manage contractor messes, cash flow management, revenue projections, and a feeling of seemingly near-constant crisis. (I have an existing anxiety condition, and I’ve taken my fair share of anti-anxiety meds in the middle of the night.)
In the past few months, things have slowly but surely improved. We made hard decisions, we started to set up long overdue office structures, we rebuilt departments, and we made some smart hires. We’re starting to see ourselves out of a year that had us at times worried for the company’s survival, or at least our emotional health. And because my coach has taught me that “what you focus on gets bigger,” I feel compelled to note that revenue is up year over year, I love our office space, our team is amazing, we’ve had huge opportunities this year… and also? I have time to write this essay. We’re still facing a million industry challenges, and we’re attempting to figure out what to do with the fact that we’re now bigger than Martha Stewart Weddings (seriously) without the comparable staffing and financial support. But I feel a lot more experienced and ready to try to figure it out.
I want to say that I’m grateful for all the challenges that 2017 has brought, and… I mostly am. I’m sure that I’m a stronger businessperson, and I know that I’m a better (and more seasoned) boss. But if I could go back to New Year’s Eve Morning in the hotel room and make the phone not ring, have that email warning never sent? I’m sure I would.
On the morning of November 9, 2016, when this whole series of events feels like it was put in motion for me, I went downstairs to the lobby of our hotel in Lisbon, where we were staying during the giant tech conference we were in town for. I sat in front of the TV with a bunch of devastated looking Americans, but after a few minutes most of the men in the room stood up and announced it would all blow over soon, and it didn’t matter that much to them anyway. The only guy left was a Muslim British man, who clearly had a whole lot more skin in the game. He also happened to be one of the VC presenters I’d seen the previous day. And after we talked through the emotional wreckage of what had just happened, we turned to talking about business. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that I didn’t want VC money, and VC money probably didn’t want me. Why? Because I was already successful, and people like his boss didn’t want investments. They wanted gambles.
But he also told me that woman-run businesses were the smarter bet in the long term, every time. He said that all of the numbers show that woman-led businesses do better, for longer. Their profit margins tend to be narrower (let me remind you for a second of all of those maternity leaves), and their valuations tend to be lower. But that they had a far higher long-term success rate, and they were far better at taking care of their employees.
Guys like him just didn’t want in on what we were doing because in many ways we were a sure(r) thing. Slow and steady may win the race, but it’s probably not going to make a billion dollars.
Again, With Less Judgment
So what have I learned this year? That surviving is mostly about showing up, every single day. That you have to make hard decisions quickly, and stand by them, even when it feels miserable. That you’re going to litter the floor with mistakes, and there is just no way around that. That your saving grace is that you can adjust and adjust and adjust. You can miss the mark, and aim again, and hope to do a little better this time.
And that I’m in no rush to judge those #Girlbosses, and innovative plus-sized fashion retailers, and even breast milk latte servers that flamed and fell before me. (Besides, y’all, breast milk is delicious, and the patriarchy is holding us all back.) It’s easy to judge the flashy feminist fall (even if those women have done nothing akin to having a Kink room in their workplace, like the boys do). Because it’s possible that none of us know yet quite how to be feminists in business.
But mostly, I’ve learned that you will survive those unbelievably hard years in your career. Because if you’ve come this far, you’ve already made it. And the rest of us are here for you, cheering you on. (And reminding you that you may never, under any circumstances, have business meetings while on the toilet.)
Image CreditJamie Thrower for APW