Interview with Kristin Asleson McDonnell
When Kristin McDonnell and the LimeLife team thought about what they wanted our cell phones to be able to do for us, more fun and more help were at the top of the list: more games and downloadable content like recipes, horoscopes, and lifestyle tips; less blood, bullets, and galactic aliens.
Kristin McDonnell has over 15 years experience in growing and operating consumer digital media companies. She has held senior management positions in a number of Silicon Valley companies including HearMe/Mpath (IPO), AT&T's ImagiNation Network (sold to AOL), and Electronic Arts. At Mpath, Kristin was part of the leadership team that grew the Mplayer online games service to 10 million registered members, took the company public, and sold Mplayer to GameSpy (sold to News Corp/IGN). More recently, she helped drive the launches of two online entertainment communities -- Xfire (sold to MTV Networks) and There. Earlier in her career, she was an Associate with McKinsey & Company, a founding employee of Lante Corporation (IPO), and a marketing associate with IBM. Kristin has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS in Engineering with Tau Beta Pi honors from Northwestern University.
An Interview with Kristin Asleson McDonnell CEO, LimeLife
Date: July 15, 2008
Kristin McDonnell: LimeLife [music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, or NCWIT. Today we have another interview in our series of interviews with IT entrepreneurs, people who have started just fabulous companies, organizations that use computing information technology. With me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: Hello. I'm happy to be here.
Lucy: W3W3 is an Internet radio station.
Larry: That's right.
Lucy: And these interviews can be found at the W3W3 site as well as at the NCWIT site. Also with me is Lee Kennedy a director of NCWIT, a serial entrepreneur herself and a co-founder of TriCalyx. So welcome, Lee.
Lee Kennedy: Thanks. Thanks for having me today.
Lucy: Well, and today we have Kristin McDonnell here, CEO of LimeLife, for our interview. In looking at your company, Kristin, it's just such a great company. I think one of the tag lines I saw , "It delivers fun right through your mobile device."
Kristin McDonnell: Right.
Lucy: And it's fabulous and I know our listeners are going to be very interested in it because it's one of the companies maybe, perhaps the only company, that is developing content exclusively focused on the women's market. So, starting with gaming - OK, Look, you guys. I have a favorite game. Games like "Girls Night Out Solitaire," "Girls Night Out Blackjack." However, my personal favorite is "Law and Order." Ding! Ding! So, Kristin, welcome. We're really happy to have you here. Why don't you tell us just a bit about LimeLife?
Kristin: Sure. So, LimeLife is a digital media company focused on the female market. We're focused primarily on females between the ages of about 18 and 34. Although we do know that there are younger teens and women that are more my age group, in their 40s, that are also our customers. We create experiences. Right now what you see on our website is primarily for the mobile platform. So mobile games, lifestyle tools like "People Magazine" on the phone. They leave text messages like horoscope, love tips, beauty tips and also wallpapers working with fashion brands to bring their imagery to mobile wallpapers. What we're launching this summer of 2008 is a web and mobile community for women that is a lifestyle community around shopping, fashion, music, and our tag line for that community is: "Everything I like wherever I am." It allows women to discover, collect, share items of interest, items of inspiration with each other as well as giving them a mechanism to have everything they like wherever they are, whether they're on their mobile phone or on their web-connected PC. So we're very excited about that launch that is coming up very shortly.
Lucy: Wow. It sounds really exciting.
Lucy: The mobile market is such an emerging market, such an exciting space, and that gets us to our first question, which is a technology question. Obviously mobility is a cool technology for you, lots of potential there. Are there other things surrounding mobility that you think are the hot technologies of today?
Kristin: Sure. The things that I'm very excited about in terms of mobile -- and I think that the iPhone has started to show some of this capability -- is that it really is a connected computer that is with you all day long that can really give you access to your favorite websites, your favorite content, as well as to other people. Also, with the camera phone capabilities improving with each iteration, the ability to really take high quality photos and video with your phone and then to share it with your network is something that we're very focused on. And then as you layer on location-based services as those evolve, where the phone can really understand where are you in relationship to the people who are important to you, or the places that are important to you, or to places or people that the knowledge of the community think might be important to you. And so it's really going to become an amazing device in terms of its capability -- in terms of how we think about it - to make women's lives much easier and much more fun and much more connected in a way that the PC simply cannot and in a way that today's more rudimentary phones simply cannot. Other web technologies that that we see that are very interesting as well, that we do believe are going to migrate to the phone as well, are around creativity and self expression and really giving people capabilities of doing things far more interesting than, let's say, just making lists of photos or lists of things that are of interest, but really to create collages or match ups of content so that you can really self-express why that content is important to you as opposed to just having it in more of a list format. So those are the things I'm very excited about. And then the advertising technologies and capabilities that come as part of that are very interesting as well. Such that, can we provide advertising messages at a point on women's phones where the women really want that ad message or they really want that coupon and it really becomes a very powerful and meaningful dialogue between the consumer and the advertiser, as opposed to the advertiser potentially coming into their lives when the consumer is not welcoming that kind of message.
Lucy: Well, it really is interesting when I think about the younger generation. And then we dinosaurs here in the room I'm speaking of.
Larry: She looked at me mostly.
Lee: Speak for yourself.
Lucy: But I look at my teenage daughters and how they use their phone. It's amazing. We were somewhere where we needed my 16-year-old's social security number and she didn't have it memorized. But, "Hold on, mom. I've got it right here in my phone." I'm thinking, "I don't put my social security number in my phone." But everything is in her phone and all of her interactions are with her phone.
Lee: Well, and this notion of providing advertising when people want it, I think is spot on.
Lucy: That's the key.
Lee: Because I don't mind advertising, especially if it gives me something helpful for what I'm doing.
Lucy: If it's relevant to what you're doing, it can be really helpful. So, Kristin, that segues us back to the beginning of your career and education. What was it about being an entrepreneur or why were you interested in becoming an entrepreneur? And then now, what is it that you love about it?
Kristin: When I think back to what was I doing in junior high or high school that might have indicated that I had this entrepreneurial bent, because one of my first jobs out of college was to join two guys from Arthur Anderson to start a company. So that entrepreneurial bent started very early in my career. And I always gravitated towards organizations that combined creativity and business and I, typically, was the business part of that creative effort. So whether it was the school newspaper or the school yearbook or the plays at school, I just loved being around creative people where we were building something, creating something, and where I took a role, typically, is more of the financial business arm of it, or the ad sales person for the school newspaper or whatever it may be. I just loved being around those creative people. And then in high school, it wasn't until I took the SATs that I realized that I was pretty good in math. I don't know how that - somehow, my teachers didn't tell me that or I just didn't realize it and it was only when I realized, "Hey, I'm better than most people in math," after the SATs that I then went to college and enrolled in the school of engineering and took my first computer science class as a freshman. And that computer science class really introduced me to one of my core loves, which is computer programming. I don't do it anymore, but building models in Excel and things like that, that same logic and building something out of nothing just really excites me. So it was through that, those computer programming classes that I took throughout my college career -- actually, I was just two credits shy of having a computer science degree from Northwestern -- that I really wanted to do something around computer science. So that first entrepreneurial company that I started with the two other gentlemen was to do systems consulting to corporate America just as the PC was starting to enter into the IT environment. Most of the environment thus far has been mainframe-oriented and the PC was just starting to come in, and we'd bring in PCs to act as clients to those mainframes. So that was my first startup. I've been a part of six startups now and I just found that I love building something out of nothing, whether it's a team, or a financial model or a consumer software experience, that I just love that process of building.
Larry: Well, along the way, I can't help but wonder with all the different people you've met, the companies you've been involved with, and your success track is really super, have there been any particular role models or mentors along the way?
Kristin: Well, my parents have been huge role models and mentors to me from a very early age. Both of my parents have been presidents and CEOs of organizations, both business as well as nonprofits. So that was a very early role model for me going back to when I was three, four, or five years old. And so I was able to see what does it mean to be the CEO or a president of an organization? How do you act around your team? What types of challenges do you have? I remember my mom having to, unfortunately, let somebody go at one point and, as a 10-year-old, we were counseling her on what do you say and how do you make this happen. So they just gave us a lot of great first-hand experiences where we'd be there with them at work, or at the company party, or whatever it may be, where we understood what does it mean to be a leader of a team. And then the entrepreneurs that I've worked for, the CEOs of the companies that I've worked for, have been huge role models for me. Audrey MacLean, who introduced me to all of you guys, has been a successful CEO many times and has been a great adviser to me. And then just also looking at successful media companies in this instance and just understanding what were the various steps that they took at various points in time and how did they shape their strategy as new opportunities evolved. So I'm a sponge for advice and guidance and mentorship, and I just love to hear other people's experiences. There's really a wide variety of people that I draw upon. But it's really my parents that I owe the biggest debt of gratitude to instill in that at a very early age.
Lucy: And you mentioned that your mom had faced something that you remember around letting people go as being something quite difficult, and we've heard that in this series of interviews from a number of people, that that is a hard thing to do. What's the toughest thing that you've ever faced in your career and how did you handle it?
Kristin: I would say layoffs are probably the most difficult thing. I've had to downsize companies significantly. It's very difficult to have a team that you've had such great experiences with in building a company and then, unfortunately, you have to let them go. So that's definitely extremely difficult. I think that one of my metrics for my own experience and success and just performance is whether people leave feeling good about the experience that they have. And thankfully, I do feel like that is something that even as they're departing unfortunately as part of a layoff that they have said, "This was a great experience for me. Thank you so much." I've actually hired people back after layoffs. But we found,hey, the company's growing again. We need to hire somebody back. And it's just been a really satisfactory experience for me to be able to hire people back and to have them want to rejoin even though they've been through this experience of having been part of a downsizing. So I think that those are very difficult experiences. I think that early on, entrepreneurs face a lot of difficulty, sometimes convincing investors of your vision. That just takes a lot of work and you have to almost think of yourself as a salesperson, where you're anticipating that you're going to get nine "no's" for every one "yes, and that you just want to get through those no's as quickly as possible so you can get to that one yes. So those can be difficult times. I think, especially for people if they can't hear a "no" easily. And I think that, as an entrepreneur, you just need to let it wash off you and to almost make you feel more powerful and more committed to your goals when you do hear those no's and just saying I'm going to show that person someday that they should've invested in our company. So, that's just another difficult thing that entrepreneurs face, especially in the early days of just getting started.
Lucy: That in itself is some really great advice for people that are new entrepreneurs and don't realize how many no's you do get along the way. I'd be really curious with all the experience you have over the years, if you were sitting here with some young people that were starting their business, what kind of advice would you give them? What are some pearls of wisdom?
Kristin: Sure. I would tell them to focus on something that really excites them, and they should anticipate that they're going to be working at this company and on this idea for seven-plus years. That they should not think of this as something that is going to take 18 months and is suddenly going to be purchased by some huge company. That it really should be something that every day they'll feel excited about working on it. You know when I look back at the six startups that I have been with, four of them have had various liquidity events, either IPOs or being acquired. And when I trace like how long did it really take for those companies to really achieve the vision of what it ultimately could be become, it took between seven and 10 years for that ultimate outcome to actually occur. That's why I think you just have to be really excited about it because it is every day [laughs] for a long period of time. And once they kind of gravitate toward that idea, then to just realizes that it is just every day pushing the ball forward, and that the more that they can create a list every day of those things that only they can do that will create major value for the company and really focus on accomplishing those things and trying to delegate or delay those things that they feel like, "OK, well it would be nice if I could get this thing done but it not going to create a huge value for the company," or, "This is a fun little exercise for me but there are five other people in the company that could do it." Try to deligate those things and really just focus on like what are the major value builders that only I can do today and today, and to get those done as quickly as possible so that the company really catapults forward as opposed to inches forward.
Larry: Kristin, you know with all the different things that you are involved with, I have to guess that you probably put in some pretty long hours or maybe some weekends or evenings. How do you bring balance to your personal and professional lives?
Lucy: Considering you have three kids, right?
Kristin: Yes, yes, I do. I think that what I start with is what really rejuvenates me? What are those things that really feed my soul, and eliminate all the other things that don't truly rejuvenate me. And what are those things that really are critical? Again, I do this in my personal life, what are those things that only I can do? And try to delicate as much of the other things like cleaning the house, to other people. [laughter]
Lucy: [sarcastically] My personal favorite.
Kristin: Yeah, it actually drains my soul, the cleaning part. The things that I feel like only I can do, only I can be a mom to my kids, only I can be a wife to be husband, only I can be a daughter to my parents. So really focusing in on those very few things, because you're not going to have much time to do something else, and trying to do those things as well as you can with the very limited time that you have. So the one thing that my husband and I try to do as much as possible is to have dinner as a family alone together at least a couple or a few times a week, where there aren't any other people or friends involved and that we're all there together. We just really talk about what happened in your day, what was fun, what was not so fun, so that we are really communicating as a family because we do have so few hours together every day. And just doing those things, trying to play with my kids, trying to interact with my husband. He and I are just kind of passing in the night because he is also very busy with his career. Again, I think just focusing on what's truly emotionally fulfilling. My one hobby is gardening so I try to get in like 10 minutes a day of planting something or pruning something, just so that I can feel like I am doing something other than just working.
Lucy: You know, I'm a gardener. [laughs]
Kristin: Oh, really?
Lee: Me too.
Lucy: So, you're talking to some gardeners here. Kristin: Excellent. Lucy: We're right on the same page. I have to say, it's quite heartening, your parents are such role models to you and you're carrying on that tradition. I know your children will look at you as a role model as well because of the values that you hold and the great advice that you have given us on this interview today, so we really appreciate that. You've told us a lot about working on things that excite you, combining creativity and business. You're in a very exciting area. Mobility has got to be one of the most exciting technical areas that there is. In fact, I watched a YouTube session with you talking about the mobility market at Stanford.
Kristin: What do you know?
Lucy: Yeah, I thought it was quite good and would recommend that to listeners who want to know more about mobility and LimeLife. I thought it was wonderful.
Lucy: We have one final question. You've done a lot and you're doing a lot, what is next for you? What is next after LimeLife, do you have a vision of that or what? [laughter]
Kristin: I don't. Just keep building LimeLife and build it into a really great digital media company and continue to build a great team that's running it day-to-day. Some day hopefully, I think I always would like to be involved with it, but if it does reach a point where I don't have to be as involved with it day-to-day, it would be either starting something new again or helping other entrepreneurs start their vision and get it going. I do feel like I've seen everything from the highest of highs, of taking a startup public, to the lowest of lows, shutting down companies. I feel like I've seen quite a range of things that can happen in an entrepreneur environment. I think that when I'm older and grayer that it would be very satisfying to help other entrepreneurs realize their visions and realize their dreams and impart some of what I have learned to them.
Lucy: We have just one final request for you too. One of the things that NCWIT works on is the image of computing, and when you were talking about be a programmer and loving to do that, we may be back in touch for a few quotes from you.
Larry: You betcha.
Kristin: OK. [laughs]
Lucy: So thank you very much. We really did enjoy talking to you.
Lee: Thanks, Kristin.
Kristin: Thank you.
Larry: And one last thing, Kristin, I want you to know that you are already in the process of helping other entrepreneurs, because we spread this out and we have parents, we have also young girls who listen to these interviews. I think your story is very compelling.
Kristin: Oh, that's terrific, thank you.
Lucy: Yeah, thanks a lot and just to remind listeners they can find these interviews at w3w3.com and ncwit.org. Thanks, you guys.
Kristin: Thank you. Take care.
Larry: Bye-bye. [music] Transcription by CastingWords