With cat-eyeliner and white streaks in her black hair, Cat Lincoln wasn’t a stereotypical banker. And the onetime vice president of brand marketing for a multinational financial services firm became bored in that role. She segued into work as an independent marketing project consultant and copywriter as well as co-writer of the 40 Whatever blog with best friend Stefania Pomponi. The blog aimed to inspire women of that pivotal age to dare to do whatever excites them. But Lincoln and Pomponi weren’t taking their own advice.
As she approached her 40th birthday, Lincoln was having coffee with Heather Thomson, who in 2008 had launched her Yummie Tummie tank collection to help herself and other new moms hide their pregnancy weight gains. (Thomson starred in The Real Housewives of New York City from 2013 through last fall.)
“If you ever start an agency to connect brands like mine with the best women bloggers, I’ll be your first client,” Thomson told her. That idea propelled Lincoln out the door to call Pomponi: “We have to start our own tech company!” Breathlessly she added, “It’s a ‘40 whatever.’ ”
Pomponi, a freelance editor-writer-blogger, was in turmoil with a pending divorce and the prospect of becoming a single mother. It made some crazy sense to pull herself out of a downward spiral by doing something new and creative with her brilliant friend. With her connections and Lincoln’s marketing experience, why couldn’t they start a social media agency? They could play matchmakers to big brands and a vetted network of popular women bloggers who would be influencers.
If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em might have been their motto as they launched Clever Girls Collective in 2009 with the novel concept “run it like a girl.” In Silicon Valley, with its blatant gender gap, their strategy represented a counterculture movement.
“All the things that are supposed to be so wrong with women—you talk too much, you’re too emotional, you change your mind all the time—we consider these to be advantages,” Lincoln explains. Clever Girls would work remotely and talk all day long, using the myriad digital tools that allow moms to work from home. The founders would nurture emotional bonds among their young hires and do psychological testing to tease out the unique talents of each employee. And they would feel free to change their minds until they hit on the right business plan. “When men change their minds, it’s called a pivot,” Lincoln says with a smile. “We went through three business plans in our first two years.”
Selling the Human Part
Within their first month, the two founders signed contracts with 100 writers with popular online communities. Most were young mothers eager to work from home for $50 to $500, depending on the campaign.
“We tried for 10 minutes to be a tech company,” Pomponi recalls. “Our first hire was a young tech dude who brought in two others just like him—all guys, lots of energy—and they insisted we needed to build a platform to run our agency.” This genius platform, the men promised, would automate the matching of brands with the right bloggers.
“But if brands want to connect with people, why would you let an algorithm do that for you?” argued Kristy Sammis, a friend of the founders. Sammis had designed dazzling events for BlogHer, a pioneering network of blogs written mostly by women. She pointed out that the Clever Girls Collective wasn’t going to make money on selling its platform but on selling the human part of what the business offers—its women bloggers.
Pomponi asked Sammis to consider working with Clever Girls. The effervescent woman had recently given birth to her first child at 35 and moved with her husband to Napa Valley, expecting to devote herself to being a mom. But Sammis admitted she was beginning to feel isolated. Exhilarated by the idea of Clever Girls, she strapped her 7-month-old into the backseat of her Subaru and drove to San Francisco to meet with the two entrepreneurs.
The three women hit it off. All believers in the value of emotional intelligence, they laughingly admit to having compared their astrological signs, which boded well for compatibility. No one would be the boss. They would be a leadership roundtable. Using cellphones, Skype, Google Docs and Dropbox, they could be in more or less constant collaboration while continuing to operate the complex machinery of family life.
They tried to get meetings with venture capitalists, but were dismissed despite having major clients and revenue. “This isn’t a business that will scale; it’s a lifestyle business, a lady business,” one VC told them. When they talked with bank officers about getting a loan, “We were ‘cupcaked,’ ” Lincoln says. “Basically they patted us on the head and said, ‘You should be so proud of starting your own little business.’ ”
The founders realized they were indeed a lifestyle business, and that was good thing. Women have always communicated and influenced one another’s purchases. Social media simply creates a larger amphitheater for those discussions, and it turns out to be far more influential than ads. Their new business model would be “automated where possible, human where it counts.”
A Focus on Strengths
“But how did you get through that first year in business?” I asked, incredulous to learn that Pomponi had a baby and Sammis was still nursing. They laughed. “It’s an organic system,” Lincoln says. “You expand, you contract, and you work a little later.”
With no hierarchy or rigid workday hours, it was vital to hire people who could be trusted to pull their loads and had values in sync with the founders’. Once on board, newbies were asked to take the Myers-Briggs and StrengthsFinder assessments to learn their personality types and leadership styles. Who would be more likely to speak up, and who might prefer to give ideas one-on-one? Who’s more likely to love client interaction, and who would be better working on the back end?
The founders bootstrapped their countercultural concept with investments by friends, family and a couple of prominent clients. By their third year, they became a “C” corporation with revenues of $204,000, and by the fifth year, revenues were nearly $3 million. Profitable and privately held, Clever Girls counted Procter & Gamble, Lenovo, Motorola and Kraft among its clients.
Their “winningest” campaign was pro bono, partnering with the local Make-A-Wish chapter to turn San Francisco into Gotham for Miles Scott, then 5 years old. He had been fighting leukemia for years. (It’s now in remission.)
Miles made a wish to be a superhero: Batman. Clever Girls volunteered to design a large-scale social media program to help. Clever Girls helped #BatKid go viral, and at its peak, the Make-A-Wish servers crashed and Wish.org tallied about 1,000 hits per second. On the morning of the event, after multiple news stations ran broadcasts, #BatKid was trending No. 1 in the world. Even President Obama jumped on with a message. Thanks largely to Clever Girls, #BatKid ultimately earned almost 2 billion impressions across all social media channels combined. The campaign garnered Clever Girls multiple prestigious awards, which spread awareness and attracted many new clients.
Culture of Trust
Reflecting on Clever Girls’ evolution, I ask what took the greatest personal courage in building the company. Lincoln remembers a pivotal moment in 2013 when the founders were discussing their culture code. They were stymied by how to create a year-end performance review form. How would they rank employees on being trusting, transparent and emotionally open?
Pomponi stopped them. “These are lofty words, but are we, ourselves, walking the walk?”
It was natural for the founders to be open and trusting with one another. They had a history of friendship. “But with our staff, how often are we still operating from our old corporate learned reactions?” Lincoln challenged herself and her partners. “That was a scary proposition.”
Why did they need annual performance reviews anyway? It wasn’t a legal requirement. If they wanted a truly collaborative environment, shouldn’t they encourage their managers to ask their employees how they’re doing day to day? And to tell their leaders if they need more training or when they think they deserve a raise? “Why wait until the end of the year before we tell them what we really think?” Lincoln added.
That was the turning point.
After a call one morning the founders were giddy over agreeing to give a raise and promotion to a young hire who had hit the ball out of the park that month. They went further. Rules for private time off were eliminated. If an employee has to take a kid to the doctor or just needs an hour and a half to get her hair done, no one questions it—as long as the work gets done in time for the client’s deadline. The staff responded to this greater flexibility by being super-responsible.
“We all live for our Google group-share calendar,” Lincoln says. “With our emails and calendars connected, we’re aware of when each member of a team is available. This encourages everyone to check email first thing in the morning and to send instant messages before taking the kids to school.”
The key to all these trust-based policies is to hire only competitive A-players. But they are forewarned not to compete with one another. They vie as teams, competing to produce the best results for the company, which also rewards them with bonuses. It sounded too good to be true.
I had to ask, “Doesn’t anyone get fired?”
“Sure,” Lincoln says. “If they don’t fit with our culture code, they’re terminated. We don’t drag it out.”
She disabuses anyone who thinks the company is a pushover. For instance, if prospective clients say they can’t give Clever Girls the same discount they would for a large company known to be all male-led, Lincoln has no hesitation about insisting on the same terms. As she likes to say, “We’re not lambs. We’re WOLVES!”
Today the company works with hundreds of clients; among the big names are Toyota, Capital One, Dove, Yahoo, Chevrolet and Green Giant.
By offering young people a strong sense of belonging, plus recognizing and rewarding them for their unique talents, the founders say they cultivate innovation, creativity and productivity. This result is verified on the global level in the latest study by Catalyst, the leading research organization on women at work. When employees feel a sense of inclusion, they take more risks, make more innovative suggestions and become better team citizens. These findings held true in China, Germany, Mexico and Australia, as well as in the U.S.
As the Clever Girls Collective enters its seventh year as a prospering company, the 30 employees meet once a month to renew tribal bonds, celebrate, critique their progress and collaborate on future goals. They call these their Culture Days. “Kumbaya circles” is how the chief financial officer, Frank Schneider, fondly describes them.
Gathering in a rented Airbnb space for the day, most team members are 20-something white women, although some are Latina and Asian. They hold degrees in communications, advertising, business management and even art history, but they have learned to be facile in using social media tools.
There are other men on the team besides Schneider, including a “new Clever” introduced on this day. He’s Eric Rodriguez, husband of Vice President of Client Services Edita Rodriguez. After seeing how happy she has been in four years with a company “run like a girl,” he wanted some of what she has.
Pomponi’s boyfriend, Adam Juratovac, is also on staff, serving as network manager for a new athlete influencer group. He prefers this environment: “It’s a lot more friendly and open than male-dominated companies where you have to watch your back every time they bring in a new guy who wants to steal your job. Here we all care as much about the people as about performance.” Two more men were brought on before the end of last year.
The highlight of Culture Day is the emotion-releasing sessions in which Lincoln announces weddings, births, anniversaries, birthdays and promotions. Everyone applauds. But it’s when each staffer reads a shout-out to anyone on her team who helped her through a crisis or offered a solution that eyes tear up and hugs happen. These written notes are treasured recognitions.
Lincoln winds up the day with a progress report, including the news that the company hit $1.5 million in the second quarter of 2015. “By August, we are tracking to more than double our gross bookings by the end of this year, $6 million.” Cheers and finger snaps. “That’s a very exciting milestone!”
Eager to enjoy a celebratory dinner with her husband, her co-founders and their partners, who were also planning a trip to Mexico together, Lincoln pauses to reflect on this extended family. “This Culture Day gives me chills because a lot of our employees are young. They’re starting their careers with this kind of inclusive environment where they feel important and part of something big. And they will pay it forward.”