In honor of our co-founders Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power’s new book, The Career Code: Must-Know Rules for a Strategic, Stylish, and Self-Made Career ($13), we’re running an interview series featuring 17 questions (to parallel the book’s 17 chapters) about the work lives of inspirational female leaders who are at the top of their fields. We last spoke with interior design maven Kelly Wearstler. This week, we quizzed Kathryn Minshew, CEO and co-founder of career website The Muse, to find out how she turned a fledgling idea into a thriving business with over five million users.
Have you ever had a moment when you wondered if you were in the right field? Or perhaps you took a job and realized that it wasn’t at all what you thought it would be? While the rest of life’s most mundane needs—from finding a cab to ordering takeout—have gotten a tech upgrade, the tools for finding—and landing—the job of your dreams stayed woefully in the aughts.
Tired of archaic job-hunting tools, Kathryn Minshew decided it was time for change. The 30-year-old quit her prized job in consulting to live off “ramen and hope” while building the business that she believed would help millions. With less than $3000 in personal funding, Minshew launched The Muse, an all-encompassing destination where career coaches, listings, and industry information are a click away—packaged in a slick, millennial-friendly website that promises to make “office culture” a priority.
After launching in 2011, The Muse has since overtaken its fair share in the job-board marketplace, having serviced more than 50 million users and growing in five million new users every month. She’s been hailed twice by Forbes in its annual 30 Under 30 list and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, where she shares lessons she’s learned as a young CEO. Naturally, we turned to the inimitable entrepreneur to get her tips for starting a business, how she manages her schedule, and what she wears to blitz a meeting (there’s one item she swears by for “instant badass vibes”). Meet your new career muse, Kathryn Minshew.
“I founded and am helping to build the most trusted destination for people to navigate careers: TheMuse.com—or, in other words, I’m creating a platform that helps people, 1.) figure out a career path, 2.) find and get an amazing job, and 3.) kick ass in that career over the long haul.
“My co-founder and I have been growing this company over the past four and a half years. It’s my job to build The Muse’s team, set our goals, select the right investors, and collaborate with the partners who will help make that happen.”
“I consider scaling the company’s culture to be a key component of my job. I think about The Muse’s culture—and how we can continue to scale it while we grow—probably more than 10 times every single day, even weekends. I think some people believe that awesome culture just ‘happens.’ This may be true when it’s just you and your co-founder in your apartment, but when you grow from 12 to 25 to 65 and now nearly 90 employees in a two-year period, maintaining a great company culture takes a lot of work and intention.”
“For my first real job interview, I wore a terribly unfashionable, boxy suit that in retrospect was probably about two sizes too big. I wasn’t quite sure what was appropriate, so I went for the most boring ‘suit-y’ suit I could find—and it definitely wasn’t a good look! Before that first real job interview, I also interviewed for jobs as a lifeguard, a waitress, and—if you can believe it—a museum security guard!”
“I’d pick Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author, creator and star of Hamilton—he completely fascinates me. I saw the show on Broadway this past fall, and I was absolutely blown away. I don’t think I’ve been that affected by a work of art, in any form, since I saw Les Mis as a 13-year-old. I can probably recite the entire show end to end in my sleep, but don’t tell him that.”
“The Muse sits at the intersection of technology, HR/recruiting, media, and, of course, start-ups, so I make a point of keeping up on a number of different industry developments. In addition to publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic that keep me up on the overall macro-environment, I also have the Quibb newsletter, Forbes, Tech Crunch, The Skimm, HackerNews (run by Y Combinator, a well-known Silicon Valley accelerator that The Muse went through), and more in my rotation. Basically, I read like a maniac. I also attend probably five to 10 tech, HR, media, or women’s events every month.”
“One of my big mistakes early on was not asking for a raise at the right point. I’d just finished a massive project that had been a huge success for my employer, and the team I reported to couldn’t have been more thrilled. I knew that I wanted to ask for a raise at some point, but for various reasons (I didn’t want to look like I was capitalizing too much on the recent success; I was nervous in general), I waited.
“Three months later, I gathered up my courage and made the request, my stomach in knots. I was so physically pained by asking for more that I threw up in the bathroom afterward. And they said no. The organization was stretched thin financially, it just wasn’t possible right now, etc. The crazy thing is, in retrospect, I’m almost positive that they would have had to say yes if I’d asked earlier. But hey—that’s how you learn. Getting the no made me stronger!”
“We use a set of six core company values in every single hiring process. I won’t get into too much detail here, but one of these pillars is a ‘no assholes’ policy. This takes into account how they behave with every member of the team, from the receptionist or scheduler to the VP. Obviously, the technical skills to succeed in a role have to be all there, but I’m also looking for candidates with passion, who want to take ownership in a role, and who can check their egos at the door (or better yet, don’t have a problematic ego at all). Strong work ethic and good judgement are two other things that get me excited about a candidate.”
“When I have a particularly big meeting or presentation, I’ll often wear a sleek tailored black skirt with an edgy leather stripe, or a tailored top with leather pants or dark, coated jeans. I also nearly always have a great fitted blazer or jacket with me or on my chair at the office [so that I can] throw it on if something pops up—instant badass vibes.”
“I would hope Kristine would describe me as thoughtful! I believe that things come full circle, and it’s important to be considerate and respectful, always—both because that’s the set of values by which I live, and also because life has a funny way of flipping the tables on people and relationships, and it’s just best to be awesome to everyone.”
“I can’t say that I feel ‘uninspired’ or ‘unmotivated,’ though there have definitely been a handful of hard times over the years—particularly in the very early days when it was a struggle to get seed capital for the business. I experienced a lot of frustration that not everyone initially [understood] The Muse.
“That said, we [amassed] a loyal community of people [early on] and received thousands of emails from members—many of whom have found their dream job using The Muse or have used us to get a promotion or raise. Sometimes it’s even just knowing that a user felt supported; that after years in a dead-end job, we finally gave them the courage to make a change. Reading those notes always puts a smile on my face and gets me pumped up about all the amazing things we’ve been able to accomplish and all of the exciting initiatives we have in the pipeline for the future.”
“Prepare what you will say, and say it to people in the right order. Starting with your boss (in person!), you’ll want to explain that you’ve accepted an offer from another company, and express appreciation for the opportunities you’ve been given in your current role. You should be explicit about when your final day at work will be but offer to help out with the process of tying up loose ends and transitioning your responsibilities to your replacement. Giving two weeks’ notice is the bare minimum these days to avoid burning bridges, and sometimes longer can be helpful if you’re in a critical position, to give your company time to start looking for your replacement.”
“Typically, I’m so busy during the day that I’m lucky if I remember to eat lunch. My co-founder and I take turns reminding each other (and sometimes running out and picking up food for each other on tough days). Sweetgreen is a go-to of mine. Oh, and you can’t argue with Chipotle—carnitas burritos are my jam!”
“Being afraid to ask for help is also something we see in newer employees. While you’re expected to be resourceful, no one expects you to know everything in your first job. A lot of entry-level employees forget that it’s perfectly acceptable to admit when you need help.
“From the perspective of an entrepreneur, I’ve heard stories about peers burning through venture capital too quickly to know that that was a mistake I wanted to avoid. My co-founder and I were very strategic about building the right scrappiness into The Muse’s company culture from the beginning; we decided not to overspend on the crazy Silicon Valley perks, and paced ourselves instead.”
“I wish I had an inspirational answer for this one, but the reality is I’m terrible at this. I wake up in the morning, snuggle with my fiancé for five minutes, and then it’s off to the races. Laptop open, typing emails while making oatmeal, taking calls, throwing on clothes, and then [making] the quick commute to my office.
“In the evenings, I’m sometimes emailing up until I get in bed and turn out the lights. I know you’re not supposed to, but I haven’t figured out another way to stay on top of all of my email and to-dos. It’s nonstop!”
“Everything is figure-out-able. I didn’t have this phrasing for it until I watched a great video of Marie Forleo speaking on the topic, but early on I was taught determination, grit, and a healthy disrespect for certain types of obstacles—and it’s served me well so far!”
“One initiative that’s particularly exciting for me is what we have in the pipeline for our career services marketplace, as an extension of our Muse Coach Connect platform. Currently, Coach Connect allows our members to connect with expert career coaches to seek personalized help. When we launched the latter on The Muse, a number of our partner companies on the recruiting side reached out to see how we could extend offerings like these to their employees. Companies are finding amazing talent on The Muse, but prevailing research shows that organizations then need to develop and invest in those employees in order to retain them. From coaching to classes, L&D resources and tools have been a part of my vision for The Muse since the very early days, so I’m thrilled to have this piece of our offering come to fruition in the coming months.”
Ready to put Minshew’s inspiring career advice into action? Shop The Career Code to transform your work life.