Heidi Messer on Founding & Leading a $425m Business With Her Brother

The NextWomen Generations & Family Business Theme.

Heidi Messer is Co-founder and Chairman of Collective[i]™, a cloud-based business intelligence platform that enables business leaders to answer their toughest questions through big data analysis. Heidi is also Co-Founder and CEO of World Evolved, a global investment and expansion platform.

Prior to Collective[i]™and World Evolved, Heidi and her brother, Stephen Messer, co-founded LinkShare Corporation, which is host to one of the world’s largest online affiliate networks. Heidi and her brother built and managed LinkShare until its sale to Rakuten for $425 million in 2005.

Recognized as an authority on online marketing, Heidi is a frequent speaker at major industry events. She is often referenced in written trade publications and has appeared on national television and radio programs.

We spoke to Heidi about the benefits and challenges of working with a sibling; her tips for mixing work and family; and how her relationship with her brother has changed as a result of working together.

TNW: You founded LinkShare Corporation with your brother Stephen and ran it together until its sale to Rakuten for $425 million in 2005. Tell us a little about how you came to found a company with your brother.

HM:

Our family tree is filled with entrepreneurs.  Virtually every relative we knew was running or had run a business. 

Growing up, our mother operated a real estate and corporate maintenance company where Stephen and I worked together as teenagers.  The experience was good as we saw all aspects of that business, which was tough and the opposite of a technology venture – low margins, unskilled labor, unions, conducted in physical spaces and easily commoditized.  The fact that we worked together and got along in that atmosphere was a good sign that we could succeed in a more exciting business with higher growth potential.  The collective experience we gained in that business and working together as teenagers also proved to be great training for us, given how young we were when we founded LinkShare.

TNW: How did you divide responsibilities between the two of you?

HM: Our roles were determined by our respective strengths.  It was a slightly less conventional approach than you would see in a large corporation or even start-ups with less familiar founders. Responsibilities were divided based on skill, timing and need.  There was no ego involved. We didn’t care about titles and both innately understood that we needed to do whatever was necessary to make sure that LinkShare was a success.

TNW: What were the main challenges you encountered whilst working with a sibling and how did you overcome these?

HM: The biggest challenge was probably for the people around us. Our colleagues had to adjust to the very open and uncensored way we hashed through business issues. Having grown up together combined with being very passionate people by nature made for heated debates between us about strategic decisions. 

Stephen and I worked hard to create an environment of trust so that eventually our senior managers could be as open and free with their opinions as well. 

TNW: What were the key benefits of founding and leading a company with your brother?

HM:

Irrespective of the fact that we are siblings, I can truly say that I am blessed to work with my brother.

He and my husband, Tad Martin, are two of the best business minds I have ever encountered.  Fortunately, I am related to them because I don’t know how I would have recruited co-founders with half of their talent. In addition to their business acumen, there is a level of trust and respect that is invaluable. 

TNW: What’s the secret to successfully mixing work and family, whilst maintaining good relationships? Did you discuss business matters in family situations, or keep it strictly separate?

HM: I think the key is finding a business that you are both passionate about so that there is no resentment with how much time you devote to helping it succeed.  From the day we decided to found the company and every day after, we were sharing ideas, working through problems and supporting each other. 

It was reassuring and encouraging to partner with someone who was equally focused and determined to win. 

TNW: It’s been 8 years since LinkShare was sold. Is your relationship with your brother different as a result of working together?

HM: It’s better.  After LinkShare, Stephen and I (along with my husband, Tad) co-founded Collective[i].   We share a common upbringing and now the experience of building two businesses together which has only deepened our friendship. It is impossible for me to imagine starting a venture without my brother and now Tad.

TNW: What have you been up to since we last interviewed you in 2012? Any exciting developments at Collective[i]?

HM: Yes!  The company is growing by leaps and bounds.  We have a great team and incredible advisors.  Collective[i]’s mission is to transform the universe’s most valuable data and information into answers, knowledge, decisions and actions that are accessible to any business user when they need it for an advantage. Our technology is outstanding.  It’s been exciting to launch as one of the first Application Service Providers in this space and know that we were there before the value of data was a topic of mainstream business. 

Collective[i] is one of the only ways to access business intelligence, on demand, without building a proprietary system or hiring an army of data scientists.  

 We are extremely well positioned for what we see as the next big wave of innovation. 

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

HM: For anyone who is thinking of working with an extremely talented sibling with whom you communicate well, have a deep, trusting and respectful friendship that can weather adversity, I highly recommend it.  I know it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. 

If you both have a strong work ethic and an unshakeable drive to win, you will be unstoppable. 


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