What It’s Like
What It’s Like … To Be an Online Entrepreneur in Today’s Economy
Michelle Madhok, founder of SheFinds.com and MomFinds.com, on the art of engaging passionate e-shoppers
-Mary Beth Sammons
Michelle Madhok is a fun-loving girl who is really good at shopping, like a real-life version of Shopaholic (except she MAKES money at it – just the opposite of poor Isla Fisher). This diva fashionista spent years at AOL and CBS.com tracking the trends of women online and … guess what: Women LOVE to shop. But we’re also really time-starved and, yep, money-starved.
So, after years of strolling through stores and perusing products for her friends and her own closet, she officially became the go-to for fashion and great deals when she launched SheFinds.com and then MomFinds.com.
At a time when the slumping economy can give shopping a bad rap, Michelle is quick to explain that SheFinds.com and MomFinds.com are doing something good: Giving women a place to have some fun and “me time,” and a place to find the best deals – a mini shopping stimulus package, if you will! We caught up with her on a recent afternoon:
What is it like to run SheFinds.com and MomFinds.com?
I love it – I get to do one of my favorite things (online shopping), go to events about new products and work on my own schedule. I will say that running your own business is a major headache. While there are days of fun and interesting experiences, there are also days that are incredibly frustrating. I’ve been through an IRS audit, had people quit in the middle of our busy season, had to fire multiple Web designers – there are definitely some pain points, but doing my own thing outweighs all the stressors.
How did SheFinds and MomFinds come about? What was the inspiration behind launching these sites?
I spent five years overseeing the women’s audience for AOL, which at the time had 35 million subscribers – 50 percent of which were women. I sat through numerous focus groups … What I learned is that all women were starving for products that saved time. Women felt they were operating at a dizzying pace and didn’t have time for the self-care. They had money but no time. Meanwhile, I was doing a lot of shopping for my friends. I’d go to the outlet malls for my friends who didn’t have time. eBay and iVillage were becoming popular, and I knew the power of the Internet and realized that on the Web I could take this personal shopping to the next level. No one was telling you the best place to buy black pants on the Internet. Shopping magazines like Lucky were popping up, but the online content did not exist, so I created SheFinds.com.
How is business these days with the economy? Are women shopping a lot less, or are they just looking for more bargains?
Business is definitely tight – a lot of our advertisers were small to midsize online boutiques or independent designers. Many of them went out of business after a drop in holiday sales. Thankfully, we have other income and a strong cash reserve, so I have no doubt we’ll make it through and be stronger when the advertisers come back.
As for our readers – we’ve instituted new editorial that focuses on inexpensive items or staples that last a long time. For example, we have an increasingly popular feature called the Taste Test, which shows two items with drastically different price points side by side. We also scour the clearance sections of online retailers for deals of the day to uncover the gems that will work for now or later.
What is most satisfying to you about running your own company?
I love setting my own hours – I always had a difficult time understanding the structure of corporate life. So much time was wasted with bureaucracy. I knew I could get everything done in half the time if I didn’t have to deal with the corporate process. I also love that only I am responsible for my own fate. At AOL, I had 12 bosses in five years. Each time I got a new boss, I had to worry about politics and whether, despite my success, I would be replaced.
What advice do you have for women who dream of starting their own businesses?
You have to get over your fear. A lot of people will tell you that it can’t be done. You have to ignore that. And you have to be creative about how you make it happen. Be scrappy. I made money giving tours about shopping and fashion finds in New York City, because that brought an infusion of cash to the business.
What were your biggest mistakes?
I didn’t trust myself. But I do also realize that mistakes are good ways to learn. In my case, I formed partnerships that weren’t good, because I was afraid to trust myself. Also, I hired a bunch of PR firms that didn’t work. I realized I’m a writer and a marketer, and I took that on.
What advice do you have for women who want to launch their own businesses?
I’d recommend that you start small and test your idea. And do lots of networking, which I think is the key to success. I set a goal to meet with at least four people a week to network. I think things truly happen because of whom you know.
What is your personal style?
Classic with a twist. I’ll wear a statement necklace with a black sheath, nothing too crazy.
1) When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a novelist. My mother forbade TV, so we were always at the library.
2) What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
The smart kids! I was in the editor-of-the-yearbook or newspaper crowd.
3) What’s your workout?
As little as possible. Walking to the subway and to any appointments fewer than 20 blocks away. I do weights on the weekends with my husband. I try to motivate myself to run a few times a week.
4) Cat or dog?
Two cats, hence the name of the company is White Cat Media Inc.
5) What woman from the past do you most identify with?
My icons are still alive – I think Martha Stewart is amazing because she created her own brand out of nothing, even when all the big media companies said it couldn’t be done.
6) What do you do when you want to completely tune out?
A big glass of wine and Gossip Girl.
7) What book is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read?
I have a Kindle, so now I have about 10 books going at once. I’m reading Dreams From My Father; next up: The Kite Runner.
8) If you could have dinner with any two people, whom would you choose?
Honestly, I spend so much time networking, I really treasure a mellow dinner out with my husband and best friend.
9) What is the one thing you want or do not want the next generation of girls to encounter?
I want more women to help other women grow into their careers and expand their businesses – I found it nearly impossible to find a female mentor in corporate America.
10) If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
I’d be 10 years younger, but with the knowledge and confidence and funding I have now.
Michelle Madhok is a recent winner of the American Express-sponsored Make Mine a Million $ Business award. She has appeared on The Tyra Banks Show, Fox National News, and ABC, NBC and CBS. Additionally, she has been featured in Inc. Magazine, the New York Times and the New York Daily News.
Additionally, Madhok serves as style columnist and a contributing editor for MSN Shopping and writes a weekly style column for New York’s Metro newspaper.