Interview with Laura Fitton
An Interview with Laura Fitton CEO and Co-founder, OneForty
Date: April 25, 2011
NCWIT Entrepreneurial Heroes: Interview with Laura Fitton [musical introduction]
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT, the National Center for Women In Information Technology. This is the next interview in a series of interviews we've had with women who have started wonderfully successful tech companies. We're always interested to catch up with our latest entrepreneur and see what she's doing. With me is Larry Nelson, W3W3.com. What's going on at W3W3, Larry? What's the news?
Larry Nelson: Well, I'm trying to learn more about Twitter. Other than that, things are going good. We've got a number of business people who tune into the various shows with NCWIT. It's not only business leaders and parents, but also many young women who listen for some great ideas.
Lucy: Today we're interviewing someone who is known as the Queen of Twitter, Laura Fitton. I guess that's why you said something about Twitter, isn't it? [laughter] Well, you need to get the number right in your Twitter.
Larry: I was just trying to check her out there.
Lucy: We're interviewing somebody who is known as the Queen of Twitter, Laura Fitton.
Laura Fitton: [laughter] I think Lady Gaga deserves the crown now.
Lucy: Lady Gaga!
Laura: Once upon a time.
Lucy: [laughter] That would be great, maybe we should try to interview Lady Gaga. Any way, Laura is the founder of oneforty.com. Oneforty.com helps people understand Twitter and the exploding ecosystem of applications and services built on it. Oneforty.com has been called the "app store" for Twitter by TechCrunch and others. It's really a place to find awesome tools that really help you use Twitter, not just in ways for yourself but also for your business and so forth. I went and looked at some of the apps there and it just shows how much I need to catch up on the world of Twitter. [laughter]
Laura: It's so true. We started out the Consumer App store and quickly learned from our users that they need us to cut through all the noise and provide them with reporting, with solutions to streamline their social business. Oneforty.com is really the place where tool providers, experts, and business leaders are sharing all their advice and lessons learned regarding social business. If your business needs to be getting into social media, this is the place to start.
Lucy: Well, Laura, we're really happy you're here today. Maybe you could start off quickly telling us the latest news from oneforty.com. I think it's a place that most of us really need to know about.
Laura: Sure! Thank you. In the last four months, we've done a pretty significant pivot, again user-led. We offered people a little thing we called "Toolkits," which were these humble little lists. The idea was, well you're using Twitter online but you're also using it on your phone and a few other places, using a lot of different tools. People came in and said, "Well, here's how to market a car dealership," "Here's how to market a restaurant." Or, "Here's what a realtor needs to know about social media and social business." So we responded to our users like any good startup does. In the last three weeks, we have completely relaunched the site centered around four business personas. All of the directory is still there, but we're really focusing it on connecting people with what they need to streamline and scale social.
Lucy: So oneforty.com three weeks ago had a relaunch? That's pretty exciting news. Like I said, the site was just great and I really enjoyed looking at it yesterday.
Laura: Thank you so much. The other thing that's new is that I was just on a webinar where I gave a sneak preview of some products that we're just launching that put everything you need for social all in one place-tools, all the workflow, all the guides on what to do next. Kind of training wheels for social engagement, making it really easy.
Lucy: So Laura, it's really pretty exciting times at oneforty.com. Thanks very much for telling us all about the new site launch three weeks ago. It's really a great site and we really appreciated taking a look at it earlier this week. One of the things we like to find out from our entrepreneurs is how they first got interested in technology, as well as ask them a follow-up question to that where we ask them to look into their crystal ball regarding which technologies they think are out there that will change things even more?
Laura: Awesome. Well I was a kid who was really into science, so I came to technology through science. In fact, my degree is in Environmental Science and Public Policy. I always played around with consumer web technologies, but never got involved in software development or anything like that, quite up until I did the startup. So it was a very odd choice for me, because I'd never seen software built. I knew tons of people in the interactive industry who did build software. I had lots of friends who had invested in it, had worked at startups, had run startups. But I myself had never done it. My connection to startups was that I was kind of a communications consultant. I did a lot of work on helping people to present and speak more effectively. And obviously entrepreneurs are constantly on the hot-seat having to present, so I stayed very close to the startup community but never dove into it myself. Long story short, I moved to Boston in 2006 just in time to have my second kid. They're like 14 or 15 months apart. I've no business network up here and I have to restart that communications consulting firm after nearly two years out of the market. So I get into blogging. I hear about this Twitter thing. I blog how stupid this Twitter thing is, around March 2007. And then two months later, the nickel drops and I say, wait a minute. I can surround myself with successful, interesting people and still be this home-based mom of two kids under two, and yet stay motivated and inspired throughout my workday. And that is exactly what appealed to me about Twitter when Twitter finally did appeal to me. Then I got so emphatic over how so much it was changing my life and how amazing and exciting it was for me that I just ran out there with this blog post called, "Ode to Twitter" on something like August 11, 2007. I mailed it to Guy Kawasaki, who, believe me, had never heard of me. And I just started telling everyone who would listen. To my great luck, Guy Kawasaki did listen and then turned around and trumpeted to the rest of the world. So in this very short time, I went from not even really knowing what the term "web 2.0" means in March 2007 to being profiled by the author of "Naked Conversations," one of the first major books in the space, less than a year later in April 2008. The next month, Wiley is coming to me asking me to write "Twitter for Dummies." I'm relaunching my communications consulting firm as a Twitter for business consulting firm, which was a little insane to do in September 2008. It was still really early on the concept and I'm just incredibly lucky that I staked my career on Twitter and not on one of the competitors like Pounce or Plurk, most of which have dried up or disappeared. I got very excited about a technology, because it made huge personal and professional changes in my life. It's like the classic adage to follow your passion and you can't go wrong. I was still was dragged into it kicking and screaming, though. For four months after having the idea for oneforty.com, I was trying to pawn it off on somebody else. But hey, you go build the startup and I'll advise. I'm smart enough to not do a startup. I know they're kind of hell. I'm in the middle of a divorce and have two very young kids. (They were two and three at the time.) And yet I failed at quitting it. I kept trying to quit it and I kept failing at quitting. So in March 2009 I finally started it up in earnest and it's been two years now.
Lucy: You know, your comments kind of lead to our second question.
Larry: Boy, I'll say, is that a fact. Here you came into this thing through science. You've been through all the different types of things, you knew you wanted to give it up. But...
Lucy: And she tried to not be an entrepreneur.
Larry: Yeah, exactly.
Laura: I tried so hard. I'd worked for a startup in my 20s and the guy was nuts. [laughter]
Laura: I've worked with a lot of entrepreneurs and I love entrepreneurs. You have to be fundamentally out of touch with reality on some level to be an entrepreneur, because otherwise you would know that your idea can't possibly work. You need enough detachment from that to be able to go make it work. Which is great, but boy, it puts you into some weird places, doesn't it?
Larry: Boy, I'll say so. What is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Laura: I don't know, because I never thought I was an entrepreneur until this happened. [laughter] I have mad curiosity. I love to see things for myself. One of the people who has been kind enough to mentor me is Tony Hsieh, who is the CEO of Zappos. I won't be able to remember exactly what they were, but he asked me three very simple framing questions when I was kind of whimpering and whimpering and saying that I couldn't possibly be the CEO. It was, "Do you have that natural drive and curiosity?" "Do you want to see things for yourself?" And one other thing. He said, "If you have that, you're good. Everything else, you can learn."
Lucy: Zappos is a great company. I just ordered my son four birthday shirts from them.
Larry: Oh, all right! [laughter]
Laura: That's the [inaudible 9:00] , girl. Tony is a fantastic human being, very generous with what little time he has.
Lucy: It sounds like Tony definitely supported you on your way on your career path. Do you have other role models or mentors or other people who influenced you?
Laura: I was carried by this net, literally my network. When I first did my angel pitch, there were a few people I knew in the investment community who charitably dialed in to hear it and asked me leading questions to help me understand what I was missing. One of them was Christine Herron, who at the time was with First Round Capital and now is with Intel Capital. She literally had to ask me in my first angel pitch, "Laura, where's the pricing coming from?" And I didn't even know what the word "pricing" meant at that point. [laughter] I was that naive. I tried to answer it. Later another person-again, these were friends because of social networking-Dave McClure was kind enough to take the time to listen to the recording. He asked, "Do you know what Christine was trying to tell you, Laura?" I said candidly, "No." And he explained it to me. So I was carried by this huge network of cheerleaders and supporters and mentors. One of the weird, kind of, "rags-to-riches, Cinderella" aspects of all of this is, I was so completely unknown, and then a year later I was in a book by Seth Godin and I was being mentored by Seth and by Guy Kawasaki and by people whose blogs I'd been reading for a long time and looking up to. And it actually took awhile to come to terms with accepting that. Like I felt guilty. I felt like, why am I getting all this time from all these busy people, there's nothing that special about me, I'm just sort of whatever. And then the way I came to peace with how incredibly generous the world was being with all of this was just like, OK, maybe they see a chance to get something done in the world by helping me get it done. So my responsibility to pay back the debt of all this mentorship is not only to do mentoring when I finally have bandwidth to do it, but to follow through and to make sure I realize the riches I've been given and try to create something with it. So that's been incredibly powerful to keep me going.
Lucy: Well, and you know this interview is part of a give back. We have had a lot of people listen to these interviews, we have a social networking campaign with Twitter right now, on this interview series, so we really thank you for being with us and giving some of that advice back.
Larry: Well you know with all of the neat things you've done, Laura, what is the toughest thing that you've ever had to do in your career?
Laura: That is such a great question. I was going to say that, the days after you run into a wall, because make no illusion, you run into a wall time, time and time again when the start-up [inaudible 11:46] , you fail all the time. Investors flake, co-founders drop out, people you hired don't work out, whatever. It's constantly running into a wall. And the next moment where you have to pick yourself up and dust yourself off, is really painful, it's hard. And just staying calm and.. and one lesson I've learned? Being radically nice to everybody, even if they kind of screwed you over. Because it preserves the relationship and you never know where that relationship leads in the future. That said, I'm very lucky, in that the energy just kept surging back to get through those times. I can't even take ownership of that, it was like being a lightning rod. I would give up, I would go to sleep like, "OK it didn't work, tomorrow I'll figure out something else," and I'd wake up still hell-bent on making it happen. So I was lucky.
Lucy: Wow, it's great advice to be radically nice to people, even if you think they screwed you over. [laughs] I mean, it's powerful advice and I think it's advice that you might give to any young person who was thinking about being an entrepreneur. Do you have any other advice that you might tell a young person if they were on this call right now or listening to this interview?
Laura: I think it's really important to not discount the most trite, childhood, what-your-mother-tells-you of all, is really be yourself. People told me that. I really struggled growing up, I was not socially well adapted, I was very emotional and kind of out of touch with my colleagues, like had a hard time in elementary school. And everyone was like, "oh just be yourself!" and I'm like "yeah, right." You know, "everybody hates me, I can't be myself." But it is so true that the more I was able to connect with "OK, that is what makes me tick, I'm just going to go with it." I mean, I never set out to think, "I'm going to rave about Twitter for a year and a half and someday it's going to be my job to do that." I just couldn't contain my excitement. So things worked out really well for me. I was very lucky.
Larry: You know, with all the things that you've been through, in your childhood, preschool and everything else, what are the personal characteristics that really give you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Laura: Definitely resilience. Some of the greatest gifts that I've been given in life were times that frankly sucked. I won't trot them all out, but... a couple tough things here and there. A couple really scary things that ended really well, like a premature baby and a very minor stroke, and things like that. But those are huge gifts and I don't think people see them in the moment when they're first happening. Again, I want to fall back to the trite, "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," but there is huge, huge, huge silver lining in every negative thing that happens to you. Even if it's just making up a story in your head like "hey, that felt really terrible but I actually just dodged a bullet, because it could have been this," and I look back at the tough times and I am so grateful for every single one of them. I'm sad for the places where something terrible happened and it made other people sad, but I'm so grateful for how much strength they gave me and how much ability to bounce back and how much calm they gave me. I would not give up a single one of them.
Lucy: That's just wonderful advice. That's so true of life in general, right? Being able to learn from tough times.
Lucy: And really integrate that into how you're looking at situations.
Laura: I really do just straight-up cherish some of them.
Lucy: Yeah, I think personally I had some in my corporate career that ultimately led to me coming here and doing what we're doing now with MC Wit, and it's just kind of interesting when you look back and thing "gosh, if that hadn't happened I wouldn't be here."
Larry: Yep. You bet.
Lucy: It's totally the case.
Laura: You know one of the more bizarre things I did was when I was about 26 or 27 I kind of more or less adopted one of my nieces. Who was, you know, "go and live with your aunt for the fun of it," right? So she had a couple things. And my mom was so, like, almost mad at me. She thought I was crazy to do it. But it was huge, I got so much more out of that experience than I put into it. A lot of growing up, a lot of taking responsibility, a lot of learning about how radically permanent love for a child is, because she really was functionally my daughter for three years, when she was 15, 16 and 17. And I remember thinking, "oh how hard can it be?" And wow, it was really hard. You know, being a teenager is tough, and being a teenager who's had a crappy run-in up to there was tough, too. But it took me out of my shell, it made me connect to people in new ways, my career catapulted because I had to get my act together. And I just love her so much, it was just incredible, it taught me a lot.
Lucy: Well and that kind of gets to our next question we were talking some about, sometimes people say "oh, you should have balance between your work and your personal life," and how do you bring balance. We've talked to people about it really being an integration, and we're just curious to get your point of view on this issue of work- life balance and how you achieve it? Laura: It's tough and I don't think I'm super good at it. Yeah, not enough. I try to be really present with my kids when I'm not working. I would really love to bike commute more often, because it's about a nine mile, very flat, ride, very easy, takes the same amount of time the train does but forces me to exercise. And I think that's really important in managing the stress. Again, in a twisted way, I'm lucky that I'm divorced, because my ex is a fantastic dad, and he and his fiance are a great family for my girls in the 50 percent of the time I don't have them. I use that 50 percent of the time I don't have them to do all the extremes like, stay up late and work, or travel, or the different things you have to do to do a start-up. And I think that it would be tough if it was an intact marriage, and I didn't have that really clear-cut line of "OK, you are not a mommy right now." Yeah, of course I call them and stuff like that. But I'm not functionally needing to be there for them. And being more present when I am there with them.
Larry: My goodness, I must say that you have really done a great deal, you've achieved a lot. What's next for you? What's on the horizon?
Larry: You know, I don't think you ever feel like you've achieved a lot. I always feel just like, "oh crap, what's next? Oh my god, we've got to surmount this, we've got to surmount that." It's not like our company's profitable. It's not like we have a billion users. And I think if you asked everybody along wherever they are in the entrepreneurial process, they'd probably talk a lot more about what's yet to come than about what they feel they've achieved. So there's a ton of professional development I want to do, a lot of skills I want to improve upon and learn. I have this little fantasy about joining a team in the future where I'm a relatively junior part and I can really stretch and grow and learn from others who are just the best at what they do. I still don't have very much management experience, I never had an employee before oneforty.com, and so that means it's been really tough for me and for my employees to learn how to manage on the fly, learn all about software on the fly, learn all about business on the fly. And I just feel like I have so much more growing to do.
Lucy: Well we have no doubt that oneforty.com is headed towards great success.
Laura: Thank you very much.
Lucy: We really do thank you and wish you the best of luck. So I want to remind listeners that they can find us at w3w3.com and also mcwit.org and to tell their friends this is a great interview, and to go visit oneforty.com and learn more about how to use Twitter. I know Larry's going there!
Larry: I'm going to oneforty.com .
Lucy: I saw him underline "Twitter for Dummies." [laughter]
Laura: It's tough, right, I can't really give out my book as a gift because it's a bit insulting, isn't it? Thank you so much for the opportunity, such a salute out to, it shouldn't matter, but to the women in technology who are my heroes. Because it is inspiring to see, you know, Padmasree Warrior as the CEO of Cisco, Kara Swisher just tearing it up in tech journalism, Katarina [inaudible 19:01] , one of the first social media founders of a company. Rash [inaudible 19:12] is running slideshare.net, Marissa Meyer who's done phenomenal things at Google. It shouldn't matter whether, you know, I'm inspired by lots of men, too, but it really does mean a lot and I'm just so grateful for all of them and their work.
Lucy: Well thank you, and I know people are really going to enjoy this interview.
Larry: Yeah, thank you.
Laura: Thank you.
Lucy: All right, bye Laura.
Laura: Take care, bye bye. [music]