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Keeping Up and Thriving in Startup Culture, with Adrian Granzella Larsson

Keeping Up and Thriving in Startup Culture, with Adrian Granzella Larsson

Episode 64: Keeping Up and Thriving in Startup Culture, with Adrian Granzella Larsson

From being the first employee ever at The Muse, Adrian Granzella Larssen now runs a team of 600 freelance writers as their Editor at Large and Career Expert, and she still firmly believes in The Muse’s mission to help people find the right career paths. In this episode, we talk with Adrian about taking risks — like how she left the more secure world of finance to join a start up. She reminds us to be proactive rather than reactive, to give ourselves headspace to think, and to take risks for what you believe in.

Episode Transcript


00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast, conversations of women changing the face of business. And now your hosts, Kristy Wallace and Maricella Herrera.

00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is Kristy Wallace and I am here today with a special guest, Jess Matley. Jess, say hi.

00:21 Jess Matley: Hello. [chuckle] Hello big wide world.

00:25 KW: So as you know, Maricella is usually joining us on the podcast, but she is off traveling the world for a few weeks and having fun, and so Jess has very graciously agreed to step on into the phone booth with me, up close and personal to introduce the podcast for the next couple of weeks.

00:43 JM: Yeah, super excited. So a bit of a first timer over here guys. So go easy on me, but this is gonna be a lot of fun and love the podcast and love that everyone's out there listening to it.

00:53 KW: Absolutely. So Jess, we just had our first annual summit and you played a huge role in making that happen. Can you share a little bit about what the summit was all about?

01:05 JM: Yeah, certainly. So the summit, it was a complete honor to be a part of it, and an honor to, I suppose, be kind of the lead organizer from a logistical standpoint. The summit, 20 years in the making, Ellevate has been around for a long time now. We've built a, I have to toot our own horn, a fantastic reputation and an incredible member base and community. So this event was really, I think definitely due to happen, and we brought together change makers, thought leaders, CEOs, executives, entrepreneurs, you name it. All up to get up on stage and talk about some really important things and to accelerate gender equality.

01:49 KW: Absolutely, and that's something that's so important to us here at Ellevate, is that diversity of thought and perspective. We span industry, function, geography, women at all stages of their career. So up on stage for the summit, we wanted to represent traditionally non diverse industries. We had sports, we had media, we had the military, we had representatives from government, from all walks of life representing different backgrounds and experiences. And that's where we're gonna see disruption happen. Disruption's gonna happen when you respect opinions, when you give a platform to share those opinions and thoughts. And when you really have an open dialogue around how do we create the world that we seek? So I was blown away. Jess, what was your favorite part of the event?

02:36 JM: Oh, it was incredible. I'm just trying to think about that, there's so many. And I suppose I come from an event management background, I was really blown away by the team, to be honest. Our roles here, apart from mine, are not traditionally in event management. So everyone just really came together, took on whatever role they were given, brought their energy, brought all of the mission driven philosophy of Ellevate to the role and to the day, and we were just getting positive feedback continually. So I think it was just the whole thing really, I'm still buzzing from it.

03:11 KW: Yeah, it was great. For you listening, I know at this moment, and you're probably feeling very left out and wishing you had been there. And I don't blame you. Many of you, I know were there 'cause we had some great, great people who came and told us how much they love the podcast. But do not fret, we will be coming out with recordings of the panels, the fireside chats, and the speakers that all participated in our event, and we'll be posting them on our website in the next week or two. So we'll be sure to share that with you and you can listen in on the fun. We also have created an action guide that is a step by step action plan for things that you can do today, tomorrow in your personal life, in your community, in your companies to create the change we look to seek.

03:58 KW: So follow us on social media. We're EllevateNtwk on Twitter. We've got some great links and some great information for you there. So please check it out. This podcast today is actually very appropriate because it's Adrian Granzella Larsson from The Muse. And she was one of the first employees at The Muse and has really helped to craft and shape the direction of the company. I sort of feel like that's, even though you said we've been around, Ellevate has been around for 20 years. So much of what this summit was about and the work that you did Jess, is really that next phase and in kind of creating a whole new future for this business. So do you feel...

04:38 JM: Yeah, definitely.

04:39 KW: Excited that you have...

04:39 JM: Definitely, and just seeing all the collaboration and the open mindedness on the day and since then in the feedback that we received through social media and email of course, that's what it's about, the next generation, the next phase is collaboration and diversity. So taking the power of that and moving forward with it and creating this new future of work and future landscape that is conducive for positive movement.

05:08 KW: Absolutely. For you that are listening to us today, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Adrian as much as I did, and she touches on so many important things. Everything from remote workforce, which is becoming more and more prevalent as technology makes working remotely more accessible. Core values of companies, which is something that is near and dear to my heart, as well as just what to expect when you're working at a startup. And it's an exciting time, but it's a big change, particularly if you've never worked in one before. So enjoy my conversation with Adrian, have fun with this. It was a great chat and we look forward to seeing you back here next week on the Ellevate Podcast.


06:04 KW: Welcome.

06:04 Adrian Granzella Larsson: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.

06:06 KW: You have just had this rockstar career doing some amazing things and really had an unbelievable impact on The Muse and also through your writing and through other things, other initiatives, on many women and men in their careers. But I kinda wanted to start at the beginning, you were the first official employee of The Muse.

06:29 AL: I was.

06:30 KW: How did that... Did you know you wanted to work for a startup?

06:34 AL: I did not and the job that I had before that was the most corporate job you could possibly imagine. I knew that I wanted to move into digital media, but I didn't ever have this desire to be the first employee at a startup. It was more the opportunity came to me, and it was something that I couldn't pass up, and it was definitely something that my friends and family thought was insane. Now, this was pre...

06:57 KW: Did they even understand what it meant?

07:00 AL: Did not understand. My mom was like, "We are gonna have health benefits, right?" I was like, "No, the company has no money, it has no investments. Eventually, someday, hopefully, yes, but this is working for a fraction of what I was making before and taking a chance on something." With that said, at the time, I sort of had this idea of, "If I start doing this and the company runs out of money and fails three months down the line, worst case scenario is I'll go back and get another corporate job. I'm living my worst case scenario right now, so why not take a chance on this and see what happens?"

07:38 KW: What was so appealing to you that you were willing to take that chance?

07:42 AL: It was really the mission of the company. So I had actually never met Kathryn and Alex, the founders of The Muse. I had worked with them sort of on a freelance basis, but it was completely online. I had seen their faces on Google Hangout but I had never met them in person when I decided to work for them full time. So I definitely liked working with them and believed in them as founders, but not having met them before, what really made me take this chance was the mission of the company and wanting to have an impact on other people who were still figuring out their careers. I'm sure if you looked at my LinkedIn profile, I have had a variety of jobs and spent most of my 20s not knowing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, going through career transitions, trying to figure out what I was meant to do. When I finally found that, I was so eager to help other people sort of navigate that path and hopefully in a way that was not as painful as how I did it.

08:42 KW: Did you at that time consider yourself one of the ideal customers for The Muse?

08:47 AL: Totally, totally.

08:49 KW: That translates, I mean that passion and that understanding of who you're helping really goes a long way.

08:56 AL: Absolutely. And I think that really... And I tell people, I actually give this advice quite a bit when people say, "How should you know if you should work for a startup?" And my answer is, "You have to believe in the mission of that startup. It is what is going to keep you through long hours, and not getting paid very much, and stressful times of transition, or change, doing a million jobs, sitting on the phone with the internet provider when the internet goes out. If you don't believe in the mission of the company, all of that is going to be so painful. If you do really deeply believe in that mission, then it's gonna make all of those other things okay."

09:34 KW: How have things changed over time as you've added more employees, as you've developed a culture and new products and services? I mean, so much changes.

09:46 AL: Yeah, you're absolutely right. Everything has changed and we now have about 130 full time employees here in New York. We just published our employee handbook, which is 37 pages of all of our guidelines and traditions and things that are innate to the culture now that we never could have imagined back in 2011 when the company started. I would say, and you've probably seen this in your experience too, almost everything about the way we work has changed, but the core values of the company and sort of who we hire and what we believe, that has stayed really consistent over the last five or so years.

10:26 KW: What are some of your core values?

10:28 AL: So we don't publish them, we don't publicize them, but minus one with one exception, and that's the No...


10:35 AL: Rule. So we refuse to hire, work with, partner with anybody who's an...


10:42 AL: Which I feel like is a great rule for life.

10:44 KW: I'm down with that rule.

10:46 AL: It's a great one.

10:46 KW: I'm down with that rule. We do publicly publish or elevate our values, and it was a great process when we did it because all the employees were fully engaged in, and Sallie and I, in creating what those values were. But we go back to those values quite a bit and particularly as we grow or as we have remote employees and as you look to make business decisions, it's great to kind of have those guiding principles.

11:13 AL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we embed them into our hiring process, they're actually part of our performance review process. So it's not just how well do you do your job, it's how do you live these values.

11:24 KW: So do you find yourselves saying things like, "Well, back when I started," or "Back before this round of funding"?

11:31 AL: I try not to say it very much. I remember getting frustrated a little bit when people would complain about things like, "Oh, we only have three kinds of snacks."


11:46 KW: Oh, please.

11:46 AL: Well, back in the day I didn't have a 401K plan. But no, I try not to rehash the old days. We actually though, a few months ago had a first five panel, where it was the first five employees of the company. Not the founders, just the early employees.

12:05 KW: Oh, that's fun.

12:06 AL: And we had a panel, a Q&A, and people got to ask us how it was like in the early days and why we joined the company. And what were some of the hurdles we faced in the early days and the high points and the low points. And that was really fun to sort of dig up some of the old stories.

12:23 KW: And are all five still with the company?

12:26 AL: Three of us are.

12:27 KW: That's amazing. That's, I think, a true testament to the company and the culture. Because you see, particularly today, so much movement happening. So it really says a lot about the company.

12:41 AL: Yeah. No, for the early employees we definitely have a long tenure. One of my favorite benefits is, after you've been at the company for five years, you get to go on a month-long, paid sabbatical.

12:53 KW: What?

12:53 AL: Yes. So I took advantage of that in January. Our CTO is taking one next month, and then another engineer is taking one later on this year.

13:03 KW: So where did you go in January?

13:05 AL: I went to Southeast Asia. I did Myanmar, Thailand, Lao and Taipei. And...

13:12 KW: For a month? Did you go for a whole month?

13:13 AL: For four full weeks, yeah. It was fantastic. And I did not check work email the entire time, which I've never before done. I've never even taken a long weekend without checking my work email, so it was a really great kind of decompressing. Really helpful in seeing the big picture.

13:32 KW: Yeah. Going off on a little bit of a tangent, but I think it's an important one, which is taking that break. 'Cause we don't, and particularly today's day and age, where we've got phones and laptops, and you can access work anytime, anywhere. And it gives you freedom in one sense to not just be tied to your desk, but it also restricts you in the sense that it's all access all the time. And you have to really set those rules for yourself. So did you feel different when you came back from the trip?

14:06 AL: I definitely felt more relaxed. I think I looked more relaxed. I didn't have the New York City bags under my eyes. I was sleeping nine hours every night. Things that you just forget about in your day-to-day life.

14:20 KW: I'm jealous.

14:22 AL: But yeah, it was interesting that so many people I met there were... I felt this is such a huge, extravagant benefit to be able to take a month off. And there were people from Europe, from Australia, who were taking six months off or were taking a year off, and then going back to work. It feels like a much more common thing in other places.

14:41 KW: So working with freelancers, and particularly remote freelancers or remote employees. I'm really interested in that. Do you have any best practices? I know at Ellevate we have some remote workers and it's always top of mind how do we make it an inclusive culture and environment? How do we be very deliberate in not creating an environment where anyone feels like they're left out of that.

15:06 AL: Yeah. I think that's really hard. Especially when you have a close-knit team here and then a bunch of people who you're working with remotely. We have the same issue, so in addition to our 600 freelancers, we have a part-time editorial team. About half of our editorial team is in-house and the other half is remote. And it works really, really well for us, because we don't wanna be five people sitting in a room in New York giving career advice. We want that advice to be solicited for people of different experiences who are living different things day to day.

15:37 AL: With that said, it can feel difficult to feel like we're all one cohesive culture. So couple things we do, we have a slack channel that our part-timers are on all day long and we do a lot of communication within that slack channel. We try to bring everybody together in person once a year. Or for the people who are closer, when they're in town, we have them come to the office, work at the office, have offsite lunches and happy hours with them too. It really takes a deliberate effort though. It's not something that you can sort of leave to chance.

16:08 KW: The nature of content has evolved in the past couple years, of course, and how companies are utilizing it and monetizing it. And we went from the top four reasons to do that and the top 10 reasons to do this to now the next phase of the headlines. It's just always evolving. How do you stay fresh and current with that?

16:30 AL: Yeah, that's a great question. So we tend to think about content or soliciting content ideas in a few ways. One is really, kind of actively paying attention to what is going on in the world of content. Who is doing interesting things, who is doing things that could be interesting if they were done a little bit better, and how can we do that little bit better. We pay attention to what our readers are engaging with. So constantly in analytics I'm thinking about what's working, what's not, what types of pieces are people really excited about, what types of pieces used to work but now they really don't.

17:09 AL: We also spend a lot of time with our readers and with our friends who fall into our reader demographics, and just talking to them about what they're thinking about, what they're caring about. I think, even things like that, topics have changed over the last few years. A few years ago nobody was really talking about burnout the way that people talk about it now. A few years ago, working for startup was this big mystery, and now it's much more common. So the things we talk about have evolved as well, in addition to the format of content that we're doing.

17:47 KW: So what's the most exciting thing that you're working on now? Because your role has evolved as the team's gotten bigger and the company's gotten bigger. What's keeping you up at night and what's keeping you energized?

17:58 AL: Definitely. So my roll has actually evolved quite a bit in the last couple of months. I've transitioned into a part time editor-at-large role where I do really get to work on my passion projects and the things that I'm really, really excited about. So a couple of those things are, we're launching video and building a studio in the office, and we're gonna be doing more video content which will be great. We're also launching courses, so we have on The Muse, we have all of our career advice which is free. We also have one on one coaches that you can book. But there's nothing really in the middle, so we're creating something in the middle where you can have a step by step course that walks you through every step of the process of getting a job or becoming a manager or the topics that people really, really need some extra help with.

18:47 KW: So what's the best piece of career advice you've ever been given?

18:50 AL: So, I love this question. It changes, I think, at every stage in my career. But the one that has stuck with me over the last couple of years is something that Kate White, who is the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, shared with me, and she said, "You'd never want to be running away from something, you wanna be running towards something." So if you're really unhappy in your job, you're miserable, you hate your boss, and all you want to do is come home at the end of the day and send out your resumes and interview and get another job, that's not when you're making the best career decisions. The best decisions are made when you are actively looking and actively thinking about, "What do I really want? What is most exciting to me?" And running towards that thing.

19:37 KW: I completely agree. I think we tend to... I mean, life is so busy and there's so many things happening between career and family and friends and education or hobbies or whatever that may be. And we tend to just go day to day and week to week and month to month, and then suddenly something happens that makes us stop and say, "I'm not happy," and "What's next?" and you feel very overwhelmed because you feel like you don't have the choice. And so I'm always for me trying to take, be very deliberate about if it's every month or every quarter, like just stopping and assessing my life and what do I like and what don't I like? The things I'm not happy about, how do I change that? And I think when you are being more proactive about it instead of reactive, you feel more in control and the creativity of problem solving and ideas or even just processing, you'd be like, "Actually, I'm totally okay with that," becomes more in your hands.

20:41 AL: I think that's so true. And what you said about stopping, giving yourself the time and just the head space to let your brain think about things. That is something that I had to learn the hard way when I was working seven days a week, you don't have the time or the opportunity to step back. You have to give yourself that time, you have to have time with friends, have time outdoors, have time doing hobbies that you love, something other than work to give yourself that space and that opportunity to just process what's going on, what makes you happy, and what really doesn't.

21:18 KW: I think it's generational. I don't see it as much today as I had seen it in prior years. But often times when you are starting out, particularly when you're very focused on your career, it becomes that number one priority above all else, and it's like a blinder and you don't see past that until something happens. For me it was when I had my first child and I was like, "Whoa! I can't do job and family, that's just not possible." And so you had to stop, and then what happened was that I created... I can absolutely do job and family, but I had to de-prioritize work and that didn't mean I was less effective, it didn't mean I wasn't as good at it. It just meant I've realized I could do the same amount of stuff in five days a week and not seven, and you just become smarter and more resourceful.

22:13 AL: Totally. For me it was, I had this shooting pain in my hip and radiating down my leg, and I thought, "Oh, I'm sure I just have a pinched nerve." And then finally after months and months of this went to a physical therapist. He said, "You have been sitting yourself to death. You have to, you will be in here twice a week for several months taking care of yourself. You have not been taking care of yourself, you work too much." And that was my stopping point of, "Okay, you're right. I need to take breaks, I need to exercise, I need to get up and walk around, I need to do something other than work or I am going to break my body." And same thing, it didn't make me less effective to take breaks, it actually made me more effective, it made me more creative and it certainly made me happier and healthier.

23:06 KW: Do you have an iWatch? I always get my little like, "Stand up, breathe," it's like alerts, and I'm like, "Okay, time to stand."

23:11 AL: Okay, time to go.

23:13 KW: And I get really excited at the end of the day when it's like, "You stood for 12 out of 12 hours," and I'm like, "I did it." Not for the total 12 hours, but each hour you got up.

23:23 AL: Yeah, that's great. I try to drink a lot of water now, which means I have to get up and walk to the bathroom 18 times a day.

23:28 KW: Do you have an app for that?

23:30 AL: I don't. [chuckle]

23:31 KW: I'm like the worst water drinker and I always forget about it.

23:35 AL: You know what's great? Is to get one of those big, big S'well bottles, fill it up and put some mint or some lemon in there and it tastes like something tasty and delicious that you want to drink.

23:47 KW: Okay, I'm gonna try that.

23:48 AL: Or get a Bevi machine, we have a Bevi machine at the office.

23:52 KW: The sparkling water?

23:53 AL: You can do sparking or regular in five different flavors, and it feels so fancy and indulgent and you actually want to drink all the water.

24:01 KW: I think I saw that. I think they were at TechCrunch, and I saw it, and I was like, "Oooh, that looks fun. We need one of those.".

24:06 AL: It's really fun.

24:07 KW: Okay. Little plug for Bevi. Hopefully you guys wanna advertise on the podcast. So Ellevate, obviously we are a professional network community. And The Muse has developed quite a community as well. And you've been a big part of that. So what have you learned during that time building communities? If it's just internal with the freelancers through to your member community? 'Cause you're that gateway for engagement.

24:33 AL: Yeah. And I can't take credit for all of that. It was very much a joint effort with the early marketing team, the early social team, who built that community. But I think that one of the principles that I share a lot with people is, when you're building a community start with a need. And start with generously giving people what they need. I think a lot of brands, a lot of products, try to build a community with this ulterior motive, to sell more of their product. But that is not what people are going to rally behind. People are going to rally behind and people are going to join together and engage when they're getting something they need, when they're getting something that they love, when they're getting something that they wanna share with all of their friends. So starting with whether that is great content, or great events, or great networking opportunities, or collaboration and engagement with other people. Giving people what they actually need and what they will love is the best place to start.

25:34 KW: And how do you know what they need? Is that, you were talking earlier about talking to your friends and listening to your users? So do you do a lot of those conversations?

25:43 AL: We do. And I think especially at the genesis of The Muse, we created something that we needed, that was not out there in the world or out there in the mainstream world yet. And something... Conversations that we were having with our friends and our co-workers, and why isn't there career advice out there that speaks to me. Why does this feel so dry and boring? Why can't there be something else? So it was created from a need that we felt. And Ellevate, I'm sure was sort of founded on similar terms.

26:13 KW: Absolutely. I mean that's always the hallmark of the strong startup, right? What's the need you're gonna fill? What's that market size? What differentiates you? And what you are the day... I mean Ellevate started as 85 Broads, which was an external women's network for Goldman Sachs alumni. So it started out of a very specific company in a very specific city, specific need. And then we saw the opportunity and we heard about it from our community that said, "Well, I have a friend who worked at this company and I have a friend who wants to join and someone who lives here who wants to join.". And now it's all industries, all functions, global. But that takes time to figure that out. I think, out of the gate, you have that initial like... This is the problem we're trying to solve. But oftentimes that problem can evolve and the way that you're looking to really solve it evolves as well.

27:09 AL: Right.

27:10 KW: Well, thank you so much for joining us here today. It's been really great hanging out and talking to you and learning all about what you're doing.

27:17 AL: Thank you so much for having me.

27:18 KW: And we hope you stay in touch 'cause we wanna support you and champion all that you're doing.

27:25 AL: Absolutely.


27:29 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate podcast on iTunes. Give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on twitter @EllevateNtwk. That's Ellevate Network. And become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate network is doing at our website That's ELLEVATE And special thanks to our producer Katharine Heller. She rocks! And to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week!