Interview with Mena Trott

March 1, 2009

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

When Mena and Ben Trott started Six Apart in 2001, starting an Internet-based business in a stagnant, post-9/11, post-Internet-bubble economy seemed like a big gamble. But their success can be credited to some fundamental entrepreneurial tenets: Know your business model. Be passionate. Aspire to sustainability. Be open to new ideas.

Mena Trott

Mena Trott is Co-Founder and president of Six Apart, the company behind Movable Type, Typepad and Vox. Named one of Fast Company’s Fast 50 (2004), MIT’s Technology Review’s TR35 (2004), PC Magazine’s “People of the Year” (2004), 7x7’s Hot 20 (2007) and Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Technology (2009), Mena has been involved in blogging since she began publishing her own blog, dollarshort.org, in early 2001. She speaks regularly at industry conferences — having appeared onstage at SXSW, DEMO, D: All Things Digital, Blogher and TED 2005. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and Six Apart co-founder, Ben Trott and their daughter, Penelope.

Mena Trott

Transcript: 

Lucy Sanders: Hi everybody. This is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO for National Center for Women and Information Technology or NCWIT. And this is one series of interviews we are doing with women who have started with IT companies and with me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi Larry.

Larry Nelson: Hi. Am I happy to be here.

Lucy: Tell us more about w3w3.

Larry: W3w3, we've been doing this for ten years. Radio shows, we have been doing a wonderful series here with Lucy here at NCWIT. We audio archives. We are all business. We tend to have focuses and this particularly one obviously is women entrepreneur which is fabulous.

Lucy: Well, thank you Larry. We are happy that you are hosting our interviews. Today, we are going to interview a pioneer in blogging and very excited to have Mena Trott with us. She's the cofounder and president of Six Apart and she is responsible for such products as movable type and type pad. Welcome Mena.

Mena Trott: Hi, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Lucy: It's really exciting to interview you. As everybody listening knows, the blogging in the world is huge and only getting bigger and more important. So why don't you tell us a bit about Six Apart and we're also curious to know where the name came from.

Mena: OK, Let me preface] this thing. I'm overextended personally because I have a daughter in October 2007 and so I don't do that many interviews anymore and so I'm rusty please forgive me. Six Apart is the company behind the name of our products we founded it in July 2002 officially even though it came out in 2001. And the name, really comes from the fact that my husband and I who was my co-founder, our birthdays are six days apart. It was supposed to be a name that we didn't think most people would ever ask why it was called that. But as the company's became so popular we have to explain it quite a bit. But it's pretty silly. Lucy. Well, I think it is a great name. Congratulations on the new baby, by the way.

Mena: Thank you. Yeah, she's 18 months old. She's not really new but I'm enjoying my son at home. I choose to not go back to work immediately. I wanted to really embrace the baby for years.

Lucy: Well, 18 months seems to Larry and I quite young. We have children out of the house.

Larry: I have grandchildren.

Lucy: OK. No, I think that's just fabulous. Congratulations on that.

Mena: And I'm sure how fast he grows.

Lucy: It does grow very, very quickly. Six Apart is a great company. The blogging craze is a wonderfully progressive space. Tell us a few things about how you first got into technology and where you see blogging going today.

Mena: OK. We really became interested in the web and it was the web when we were in college, really late years of high school through college. We both graduated in 1999 and so we had experienced to see, observe what was going on. We played around and create our own personal pages. I started to blog in April of 2001 so, right around this time, nine years ago or eight years ago. My love of technology has been very connected to my love of social communication and the way we were interacting in the web. In the early days, we were involved, we were very involved in message boards, and news board, in all boards sort of thing that were the precursors of what we are using now. So my interest in the technology seems like the board interacting. Blogging was the next behavior based on what people were doing. It was more about thinking and blogging on line but also have ownership of the blog that you are creating. That was very different from what we were doing in the message boards where we may have thoughts that you would have posted now on your blog but were all mixed together. It was something definitely I knew on the site . This is your voice and the people visiting it will get for example I have a background in design so I did the designing in all of the products and then have the background in computer engineering and that was our first sort of foray into workers at smaller company and that's where got our background.

Larry: Well, that was quite an interesting lead but I have five children. Also, our blog was w3w3.blogs.com, I bet you are familiar with that one. All right, so how do you take the sleep and what is it about being an entrepreneur that got you in there and what makes you tick today?

Mena: The Interesting thing about when we started. We started this all around late 2001 right around after September 11 so it's not worth it. I was only trying to get insights of people but it was so the end of the boom. It was times very similar to know. It was less opportunity even thought the economy was not bad in all sectors, it was more the technology. And so Lee and I we were so confident because a lot of companies at that time were closed. We had some money saved in the bank and said hey, "let's do this for a couple of months focusing on that and see where it goes." I think the economy went with it because nobody in our peer had jobs, let me just clarify that. So it wasn't as much as a risk as maybe doing it at the height of the boom. So we thought we could do it because we were able to. We had such low cost in terms of company. We paid for rent in our apartment and we paid or basic for us and shelter and all those things. We didn't have employee, we didn't have cost, we were using software that was downloadable, so we didn't do anything like hook or services or selling the product that was actually, something you could hold. So the costs of getting into this were incredibly low and it just seem crazy to to give it a try.

Lucy: I think that's a valuable lesson for the economy that we have today.

Larry: You bet, we'll highlight that.

Lucy: It's the truth when things cant go much worse, take a risk.

Mena: Oh, yeah and I think we've seen up and down during the years. During the second bubble when you see all these Web 2.0 companies coming out. It was all about making something big and glorious and not worrying about where blogging's coming from which is very similar to the bubbles that we experienced in those early years pre-1999 and post... 1997-1998. And it is a really augment to get that I'm going to create something and not worry about where the money comes from. We are just going to get funding, over and over if we do and I don't think that it's ever healthy and I don't think that how our company is being made. We've always wanted to have business models and do something that could be sustained. That's, I think, why we're able to be successful even in these hard times. It's not nice right now. I don't like seeing companies suffer, but it's also good to see people realizing that we do have to be sustained. We should be able to sustain our company. Everyone should be able to enter the space, but, at the same time, they should be more responsible than perhaps they have in the past.

Lucy: Well, that's a great observation. It's easy to see why you're a successful entrepreneur.

Larry: Yeah.

Lucy: Along the way, I'm sure you must have had mentors, or people who have influenced you, in issues concerning entrepreneurship. Tell us a bit about them.

Mena: Yeah, I think it goes back to what I just said. The examples that we had were people who created sustainable, long lasting, businesses. Not necessarily things that were just flashy. It's hard to think of names off the top of my head, but I think we almost could look back to people that we have known that have had brick and mortar stores or people that have had clear businesses. You look at something like Amazon where it was very clear where his money was coming from, what kind of business it was. Maybe that's less true now, but at the time, it was very straightforward. People that were passionate about their businesses. That was always our sort of mentor. Or at least the people that inspired us. It was those people that you could tell loved what they were doing and were doing it because they felt their product or their service really filled a need. And really that's who we looked up to. Names, I'm drawing a blank, but you get the idea of the mentality behind that sort of person.

Larry: Mm-hmm.

Lucy: Absolutely.

Larry: Boy, I'll say. With all the successes and the real neat things that you've done and accomplished individually, and with your team, with your husband of course, what is the toughest thing you ever had to do in your career?

Mena: The toughest?

Larry: Yeah.

Mena: I think the toughest, probably, there were a couple things. The first clear example would be taking our first round of funding, which we took from a small Japanese investor. To make leap from saying we are just going to be these two people who are going to do this product because of love and if we can make some money, that's good. If we don't make some money, it's OK. We can get jobs. Since then, saying not only does our company need to succeed for our benefit, but we need to make other people money. And we just can't quit, if we're tired. So the toughest thing has always been really jumping into that next step. You can only imagine, your return for a company, it's vastly different from when it's just an LLC between a husband and a wife and a corporation with outside investors. So doing that, you have to say, "I'm going to be serious about this. I'm going to make this succeed and we're in it for the long haul." Our company is almost nine years old or eight years old. That's a really long time to be in something. I think we realized it the morning we released Movable Type for the very first time that we were going to stick it out. That's a huge investment of your life. We were fairly young. I guess we were about 23 when we first started Movable Type and Six Apart and to say this is something that we are going to be doing for the next 10 years? I think we were probably, "Woo hoo." If we knew that, we would have been a little more trepidations. Every step after that you know that you are going to be in it for the long haul and that's always tough. Taking that first round of funding. Hiring our first employee. All of the sort of things that we had to do to get to the next level.

Lucy: Those were interesting observations and they would form great advice for anybody who wants to be an entrepreneur. So what I've written down so far would be, "Know your business model. Be passionate. Be in it for the long haul. Look up to companies that have sustainable approaches." What other advice would you give, particularly to young people, who want to be entrepreneurs?

Mena: I think a good piece of advice is always to be open to other people's ideas. It's something that has definitely come with age for us. That you think you know more things when you're younger than definitely when your older, even if you know more things when you're older. Even though we're still relatively young, you do have to be able to see that experience is one of the great things that people can give you, as advice, as well as participating. Now, it's an interesting time for me, because I'm not involved in the day to day. Ben, my husband, is at work for me, but he's also young. He's doing his job as CEO and he still puts in long start-up hours. I'm at home with our daughter, not necessarily trying to be involved through my husband, but being involved through other people. Because I want to separate the husband, wife, co-founder relationship. It's a big step for me to be at home instead of at work, because I have always been the sort of person that needs to be involved and to be making the decisions or be very instrumental in the decisions. So, stepping away and saying, "I trust these people, " having my husband there makes it easier. You have to trust the people who are in place and our CEO, Chris Alden. I trust him and I trust our VPs and our corporate development person, and all these sorts of people, as well as the day to day employees who create the product. I think an entrepreneur has to be able to say "I have these ideas. There's something about me that makes me special." To be able to create a company and to run a company, but, at the same time, if you're not willing to trust people and put people in place who you think are talented and are exceptional, then I don't think you're going to get as far as you possibly can. You see a lot of times when founders refuse to, not just step down but, just step back. It's not really an issue of not being CEO anymore, it's the issue of just being a team player. That's a problem that I think we see and that's one I think we've been able to comes to terms with as not being an issue.

Lucy: And experience does teach you that. It is related to being able receive feedback, in some ways.

Larry: Mm-hmm.

Lucy: I think, over the years, I've come to learn, perhaps the hard way, that feedback is actually a gift. It's nothing to fight. It's something to embrace.

Mena: Yeah. A big thing is also, I think, being able to share your victories. It's something that I think has come with age with me too, and being comfortable in my own skin is that you want your entire team to succeed. You don't have to be the individual player who succeeds. You'll see that the healthier the company, the more people are out there being lauded, applauded for what they're doing.

Lucy: I want to return to a theme we've had in this interview so far, and that's the balance of personal and work pursuits. Interestingly enough, this morning I had to answer a question for an Ask a BC blog about being a woman and a mother and an entrepreneur. I might want to rephrase this question. We normally ask it slightly differently. What is it like to integrate being at home with your daughter and also having career pursuits? You mentioned that you're going to stay home a while. And you're really experimenting with integrating personal and business lives. I'm curious how you do that and what you see ahead.

Mena: Yeah, it's a very difficult thing. It's hard because we don't want to say that it's impossible for a woman to have a career and a family. Or at least it's impossible for a woman to have a career and be the child-rearer, at least at home during the day. But it really is quite hard. You're going to cause one thing to suffer on either side. If you're putting in the hours that you feel as an entrepreneur are necessary for your company, your child isn't going to have the attention from you personally that you may want. And at the other side, if you're giving your child your hours the company's not going to get it. That's very clear. Personally, I've made the decision to be at home because of the things that I said, that babyhood and childhood go so quickly, that I should be here for her. I've thought about, do I want to take a day off of being a stay at home mom and get a nanny to watch her, and it's something that I think, as she gets older I can see doing a day a week. But with my personality, and I think it's why the company Six Apart got to where it is, is I like throwing myself into something completely. I can't just half and half it. The mentality for me has to be, what am I doing? This is my full time commitment. That said, I'm even able to do any simple work right now, because what we do is so decentralized. It's about the Internet. It's about the web. I can do a conversation with you right now while talking through Skype, rather than have to meet in person because we live in an amazing time. I think because of that, being a stay at home mom, I'm at home 24 hours a day with my daughter, but I still feel very connected to people at work. I feel connected because we have an intranet that I'm able to access. I feel connected because I read people's blogs, because I can see the news. I feel like I know what's going on. I'm lucky because of the industry I'm in. If someone's in a different position, say a lawyer who decides to stay at home, she's not going to have, necessarily, that connection. She's not going to be able to see her work happen just on the web. I've been very fortunate. I think people in my space probably have more opportunities than in more traditional jobs. But like I said, I feel like I have to put myself into something fully. I am now starting, actually starting this week, trying to do some work in Penelope's down time. Ben puts her to sleep at night, so then I can do some stuff at night. But at the same time, it's not startup hours for me.

Larry: Mena, that really sounds like a fascinating plan that is about to unravel.

Lucy: The very important points here...Sometimes when people think about work and personal balance they think it has to be 50/50 all day, every day, forever. Whereas, I think Mena's getting to a point where maybe for these two years I'm doing this. And then I may mix it up differently the next year, or I might mix it up in some other way as we go down the path here.

Mena: It's like a startup or a company you begin. You don't know what's going to be going on in the next couple months. So you always have to be able to adapt to the new situation.

Lucy: So being an entrepreneur teaches you how to be a mom!

Larry: There we go!

Lucy: If anything could teach you to be a mom, right?

Mena: It is very similar.

Larry: I just want you to know, Mena, that things do change. My wife and I, we've been in business together for 37 years and we've got five kids. We've done it.

Lucy: It's really been wonderful talking to you and I just wanted to ask you if you had any other observation about entrepreneurship or Six Apart that you wanted to share with out listeners.

Mina: There are so many things to say. I think for people listening, especially women, the advice is, it's going to be hard. It's going to be something that isn't all glorious. You put in hours and it's very emotional. Like we just said, the same things could be said about motherhood or about parenting. But the rewards, even if you're not wildly successful, the rewards are that you learn, and that you're able to grow and you're able to do what you do better the next time. And I think that Six Apart is doing really well. I'm amazed. I never thought, nine years ago, that I'd be able to just take off to have my child and it would be a company still. We were so much tied to it. Part of learning to be able to say this is my baby. I can just use that metaphor both ways. This is my baby. Plus the baby learns and the baby's going to grow. To be able to accept that and to understand that you're able to do something after that. It may be bigger and better.

Larry: Well, Mina I want to thank you for joining us today.

Mina: Thank you!

Larry: There's some super, super advice here.

Mina: I'm very glad to be able to get back into the swing of things.

Larry: Well, see Lucy. We helped her to get back into that swing, at least into the start of the swing.

Lucy: We'll help you any time, Mina!

Larry: You betcha! And so all of our listeners out there know, you can download this as a podcast 24/7 at w3w3.com and ncwit.org. Is that correct?

Lucy: That's correct!

Larry: You bet. Pass this interview along to others that you feel would really be interested in hearing it because they can listen to it 24/7 also. Lucy Sanders, it's always great joining you. Thank you much.

Lucy: Thank you Larry, and thank you Mina.

Mina: Thank you.