Female Heroes Interview: Eileen Gittins

Every week we publish an interview with one of our female internet heroes.  MEET interesting women, READ about their WORK, THINK about how they PLAY the internet industry and see how you MATCH them. Be inspired! This week: Eileen Gittins.

Eileen GittinsEileen is a serial entrepreneur of the truest kind. She has set up a number of web companies, including Personify, an ecommerce data mining and analytics company and Verb, a context-based search engine company. Her current company Blurb was founded from Eileen's passion for photography and from the realization that the idea for Blurb was "the idea that doesn't leave you, that comes back to you while you are under the shower."  The result is a web company that allows anyone to print a book, whether they need ten or a hundred copies. More importantly however, it is a company to which many can relate; artists, families, photography hobbyists, and even Eileen's mom. Eileen: "My mother used to say:  ‘Eileen is in the internet.' Now she says ‘Eileen runs a company where anyone can make a book.' There is something very nice about doing something so concrete, something people get."

Thenextwomen talked to Eileen about why founding a company from a passion is so fulfilling, her success, her mistakes and what she learned from them.

·    How did you come to set up Blurb?

I founded the company from personal pain, meaning I am a photographer. After I sold my last company, I was photographing fellow entrepreneurs I had build companies with. Along the way I would get their stories too. And pretty soon I wanted to share this with this group of people, because it was great stuff.   So I thought I will make a book.  But  I was quoted  between ten and fifteen thousand dollars for 50 books. I wanted color and a good size book, glossy paper and bindery.  So I soon realized that I would not only have to spend all that money, which I did not have, but I would also have to become a bit of an expert in printing and book design .And I could not do that as I lacked the time. So I gave up.  I thought never mind.

But then in 2004 it was getting easier to find finance again. The VC scene was waking up again, and decided they were looking for new investment.  So I thought well, this is the one idea that does not go away. So I realized, now I have to get serious and figure if it is just a fun thing to do, or also a business.

·    What were our considerations in setting up the company?

In my case there were three things. First I had to do some market segmentation. To think about questions like: Who would want to make a book and why? And were there enough of them in the world to make it a scaleable business? And how to reach them efficiently?  And the next question was, can you make money on every book? Because I knew I wanted these creative forces, and I knew I wanted them to make money on their books, because it is their work.  Then the last question was- would I go to jail? This question was about copyright, because if Blurb was an internet book company, which was our mode of operation, we would not see the books. People would use the software and create the books, and we would not have an editorial department or a way to know if the image that was on the cover was in fact owned by you.

But at that time, Ebay really drove some legislation in the US that then went around the world. The main idea of that was that if you principally do business on the internet, you have no way of knowing of all your products that are sold through it. So your liability as a vendor would be limited. So I figured I could ride the coat tails of  big vendors such as E-bay.

·    How did you finance your company?

I lived of own money for a year. And I paid a few people on the way.  And then I got the plan together when I thought a VC would invest.

I probably had 30-40 meetings in order to get financed. It was very contrarian idea at the time. As everything was going online, and printing was out.  But I knew that for certain applications books would be here to stay - especially because books are a thing of beauty.

But many said gracefully no. Then finally I found one investor, Canaan Partners, they committed the first million. It was a prestigious fund, so once I had my first million, it was easy to get the second. There was a VC I knew in movies and entertainment called Anthem.  So then we were off at the races. I hired ten people. We build the product. I wrote some website copy and took some pictures, and then after a year we launched publicly with a product, BookSmart, that people could download. We started selling right away and we quickly realized ‘this works.'

·    What is your business model?

We only get money from printing, not on the selling. So if you made a book and the costs of that is € 10, and you think you can make €15 on it, we give you € 5 every time a book sells. We make money on the ten euros printing costs.

·    Will you expand in new markets?

We are looking to expand in Europe next year. We are looking to localise and translate our service in local markets. Also, in 2009 we may start looking into print operations in Asia.  We already have a lot of Asian books coming through; we are big in Korea, that's our number one market in Asia, followed by Japan, then China, then of course in Oceania too. So in 2009 we will start looking there and we'll see.

·    What is your marketing strategy?

The best marketing for Blurb is word of mouth. We don't do any advertising. It is more grassroots than that. It is participating in events, sponsoring a cause, these sorts of things. To give an example, we are doing a book with Amnesty International now, and support a library project in Sweden. We are donating 100 books that will be distributed all over the world for people to pick up and pass on. The best publicity we receive is when our users tell their stories - the stories behind the books they create are very powerful.

·    Are there many differences between the US-Europe in terms of business culture?

I think in the US, especially in Silicon Valley, it is easier to start a company. Because  there is the whole ecology, the whole support network. It is not just VC's , but also companies that outsource  CEO's, CFO's. You can go to many events, meet-ups and help groups to get information and make connections. There is also a higher risk taking attitude in the US. But, having said that, I have seen a real uptake of start-up culture here in Europe over the past years. There is real interest to diversify.

I think two things are happening. More VC's are natively investing, but there is also more global investment; VC's investing all over the world.

·    Is it more acceptable to fail in business in the US?

It is totally acceptable to fail.  In fact, if you have not had one or two failures, you must not know anything.   I look for people who have been through that.. Because they have seen the movie, they know the tell -tale signs. They have seen the ups and the downs. Failure is a success at some levels. I think that until you have been in a culture where that is not scorned, that it is harder to take a risk.

·    So are there differences in what people print in the UK and European markets?

No. I keep looking for that, but no. I think there is universal appeal to imagery. I think images is the new lingua franca. Because we communicate so visually now.

The books we see coming out of Europe, in terms of content and the intention, are remarkably similar.   Wedding books are huge on the consumer and business side. Number two is travel, then number three is family books; family history books, baby christenings and so on.  But we see other things too: we see marriage proposals in books. Books entitled ‘the story of our love' with the question "will you marry me" on the last page. We've seen several of them. It's amazing.

And then on the business side, companies are looking to do very personalized communication for their customers. We also see a lot of artists making portfolio books, exhibition books of galleries. We are actually doing a book with the Tate Modern, and with the Brooklyn museum.  These museums do not have the budget any more. So if they only need a few copies for the smaller exhibitions, they turn to us. When the Tate Modern wanted to do a book, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

·    Do you think of yourself as a serial entrepreneur?

Absolutely. I am a total risk taker. I am sure in some profile somewhere, in the top ten questions of what makes an entrepreneur, I probably tick all the boxes. I don't know why that is, but I think it has to do with passion. Many days I think I can't believe anyone is paying me to do this. I have my bad days too though, when I wonder if this was such a good idea.  It is not all a piece of cake.

·    What do you consider your biggest failure?

I have many. In fact, one of the jokes I make is that in start-ups you just go from mistake to mistake. You have to blindly go into it and figure it out as you go along.

I have made the mistake of being too rigid, of over managing a couple of companies ago. If you are too rigid, that won't work. Because the people that you need to attract early on should have the freedom to fail.

Another mistake I made was to not understand the role of the board of directors. When I was a CEO for the first time, I thought they were more external advisors, and investors. I did not treat them as my boss. And they are not your boss, in terms of operating the company, but you need to stay close to them. If there is anything challenging and confrontational that you need to bring up in a board meeting, you always have a meeting before meeting. You have to understand how to manage bad news. Because there will always be bad news.

The next thing I learned from making mistakes is about trust. You have to be able to trust your board as your partners. So pick them wisely. There has to be an atmosphere where you can be candid and authentic. That is important so the board don't second guess you, they don't operate the company for you.

·    What is a female entrepreneur to you?

I will answer that two ways. One is, I was once asked by a female VC when I just started Blurb if I did I not find it difficult to raise money being a woman.  I was stunned that she asked, because I never thought of it. Only afterwards I found out it was because I never thought I could not raise the finance. Or that it was even a question.

But, on an operational side I do think there are differences between men and women. So a balance is the best.  I try in all of my companies to find that balance, which can be difficult as technology is often very male dominated.   It is a generalization, but I think women are generally more collaborative and they are more likely to ask for help.  Men are a little more prone to struggle through it.

On the down side, women often lack confidence. So that is back to believe in yourself and what you are passionate about. People crave that authencity, they can read it in you, they can tell if it is real.  And if it is real they want to be around it, as it is magnetic. I think if women have that confidence, that is very powerful.

·    What is your advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs?

My first piece of advice would be: put the question to yourself if you want to start a company: Is it a good idea or a good business?  Understand why something is not just a good idea, but a good business. If it passes those marks, go for it.

Then: you have to be brave when you raise finance, and thick-skinned. You only need one or two princes. That would be my message: don't give up, there will be someone out there for you.

The last piece of advice is to do something you love and do it with people you love, do something you really care about, and do something that sustains you beyond money. It is not all about money. If it is about that, go work in a bank.

·    Who are the female entrepreneurs you admire?

Richard Moras, CEO of Moo. He is brilliant. He is bright and very strategic. As for women, there are sadly not nearly enough. The women that developed the Blogher conference and Blogher brand, are women who are very smart. Then there are the iconic people; Meg Whitman, she had reputation for being kind, generous, and tough and smart. I aspire to that as well.

What does web 2.0 mean to you? Web 1.0 was really about infrastructure, which we still use. Web 2.0 to me is more dynamic, it is very much about social media and communities. About user generated content and participation.  It is not longer about consuming, but about prosuming. And it is a place I can't imagine not having any more, personally as well as professionally.

What do you know about web technology? A fair amount. I know enough to define products and to understand the implications of different choices of Ajax vs ruby on red vs flash or flex. I can talk at the level of product development.   But I am not a coder. I am not a software developer.

What online communities are you part of? Facebook, linkedin are the two principal ones. Linkedin more professionally, Facebook more socially. In addition to email. And I am part of many photo applications, smugmug,  Flickr. And I read the Huffington post.

It's great to see a site about women's triumphs in a workplace that is dominated mostly by men. This story is truly inspirational.
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