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Hit The Ground Running

The Secrets Of Women Running Billion-Dollar Companies

Billion-dollar startups are so rare they're called unicorns. Those led by a woman? Even rarer. Here, three share what they've learned.

[Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch]

When you’re running a billion-dollar tech company, there isn’t a lot of time to stop running, step back, and take in all that you’ve built.

For Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz, those moments have probably happened twice. Once was in 2008 when she was in the hospital after giving birth to her first child, and her husband and cofounder, Kevin, had to leave to let their first employee into the office. "I’ll never forget that," says Hartz, now a mother of two running Eventbrite’s eight offices and 500 employees.

The next time happened in Central Park, when the company held its first large event, which involved the Black Eyed Peas and 60,000 people.

"I remember standing at the entrance and watching thousands of people stream in and walk right in and be scanned in with our technology, and that was a moment that I’ll never forget," Hartz tells Fast Company.

Today, there aren’t many people who haven’t used or heard of Eventbrite. Last year, the company processed $1.5 billion in gross ticket sales and sold 80 million tickets to 1.7 million events. In March 2014, the online ticketing service became a unicorn, a term dubbed by venture capitalist Aileen Lee for companies that have crossed the billion-dollar mark.

A recent Fortune cover story titled "The Age of Unicorns" details how these rare companies—more than 80 startups named after the rare mythical creatures—are on the rise. While unicorns remain exclusive and rare, what’s even rarer is the small handful of women running them.

As cofounder and president of Eventbrite, Hartz is part of that small group, which also includes Michelle Zatlyn of CloudFlare and Adi Tatarko of Houzz.

Below, Hartz, Zatlyn, and Tatarko share their secrets of being part of the Unicorn club.

Solve a Problem

They all agree that the best companies are the ones that started because nothing else like them existed.

The idea for home renovation and design platform Houzz came in 2009 when Tatarko and her cofounder and husband, Alon Cohen, couldn’t find an easy and affordable way to renovate their newly bought 1950s ranch home in Palo Alto.

"We didn’t set out to build a business. We started Houzz to solve a problem for ourselves and quickly learned that others were experiencing the same pain point," she says. "We had big dreams for our home and were excited to renovate it together. Unfortunately, we found the renovation process to be incredibly difficult and frustrating. We had a hard time finding good resources and inspiration to help us articulate a vision for our home, and to find the right professionals to make our vision a reality."

The husband-wife team created Houzz as a "side project" for themselves and other homeowners—mostly parents from their children’s school—and architects and designers from their community. Five years later, the platform has proven so useful, it attracts more than 25 million monthly unique visitors and over 600,000 active home professionals who all enjoy the shoppable photo galleries.

Make Sure There’s A Market

According to Zatlyn, there is no "silver bullet" when it comes to building a unicorn, but a good indicator is whether there’s a massive market waiting for your product or service.

While students at Harvard Business School, Zatlyn and her cofounder Matthew Prince realized there was a huge need in the market to provide website security to web properties, whether it was a small business or a blogger. At the time, Zatlyn recalls, most of the Internet security resources available were reserved for Internet giants, but nothing existed for the rest of the web. In other words, there was a big hole in the market.

Zatlyn was right on target with her prediction, and two years after CloudFlare launched, it was named Most Innovative Technology company by the Wall Street Journal and a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum. The company protects around 2 million web properties today.

Have An Easy-To-Use Product

Your product needs to be easy to use compared to your competitors, says Zatlyn.

"People talk about easy-to-use all the time, but very few services really are easy to use. We’ve made it super simple and it takes people less than five minutes to sign up. We’ve timed it," she says. "And the fact that we were able to do that, which took a ton of engineering resources on our side up front, has made it so that anybody can sign up whether you’re a food blog or an e-commerce small business or large enterprises, like eHarmony."

"We’ve just made it so simple to adopt us, where our next competitor takes two to six weeks to set up," Zatlyn continues. "I mean, that’s a game-changer."

Focus On Your People

If Hartz could give one piece of advice to all entrepreneurs, it would be to "really invest in the people." If you can’t hire right away, then get great advisers, but always be seeking people who can help get you from Point A to Point B, she says.

For the first two years, there were only three Eventbrite employees, and the focus was solely on getting the company off the ground. After raising their first round of funding, Hartz had a moment of self-realization where she decided that she would spend her time on growing the team.

"We wanted to triple the team, more than triple the team in less than a year," she says. "We wanted to grow from 30 people to 100 because at that point, we had traction. We knew where we needed to go and who we needed to get us there."

"And that’s where I had a moment where I thought, I wonder what would happen if one-third of our founding team focused solely on people. I thought, I haven’t really seen a founder just focus on people and just coming to the table for every major decision thinking about how it will affect people or advocating and amplifying the work of people."

"We knew that if I focused on that, it would mean really great things to the company. That was in the beginning of 2010," she continues. "I haven’t looked back since. I’ve spent the last five years really focusing the majority of my time on the people of Eventbrite."

Bootstrap In The Beginning

Bootstrapping is "one of the smartest decisions" that Tatarko says the company has made. Most of the time, entrepreneurs spend months chasing down investors who often alter their presentation and advise them to change directions. This is a waste of time. Instead, Tatarko advises entrepreneurs to develop something meaningful before going to investors.

"Go to investors with a real product with traction, instead of a deck," she explains. "If you spend the first six months to a year building a great product or service rather than chasing investors and redoing PowerPoints, you’ll be surprised how the dynamic with investors will change."

"When it came time for Alon and I to bring on investors, we didn’t just have an idea of what we were going to do. We had a proven concept with an engaged community, and knew how to execute."

Be More Overtly Confident

When building your company from the ground up with everything to lose, it can be hard to feel overtly confident about the future. But this might be the most important time to show that confidence, says Hartz.

"I think both Kevin and I are somewhat humble people who are more quietly confident, and that can sometimes work against you when you’re making big moves and big decisions," she says. "That was one of the mistakes in the beginning, was we weren’t more overtly confident. I think there’s a fine line, and once you cross it, you are in a dangerous territory of overhyping your company, your service, and your product, and sort of under-delivering. But I think we probably could have been a little more overtly confident in the early days."

Never Sacrifice Quality

The opportunity to grow is a very exciting time for companies, but, more importantly, how do you maintain quality and culture as you grow? That is something Tatarko spends a lot of time thinking about.

"It’s easier to maintain quality when you’re small. Interviewing so many people by ourselves is a challenge, but it’s super important," she explains. "Developing and making sure that we fulfill the needs of our community is easier when the community is smaller, but when you’re developing for so many millions of people all over the world, and different people in the community create different challenges ... but we’re excited about it.

"The challenge for us is maintaining the same quality and incredible culture as our company and business scales." she says.

No One Lives a "Balanced" Life

As long as you can remember that while running a unicorn, you’ll make better decisions.

Zatlyn tells Fast Company that she lacks the word "balance" and just does what she has to do to make things work. She does do little things like live close to the office so she doesn’t spend too much time commuting, and says all decisions she makes, she does so with her family.

"When you’re running a company, there’s constantly things all the time, so I don’t think of it as work and personal," she says. "I think, okay, I have so many things to do during the course of the week, at which some things are family and some things are work, and I need to figure out how to fit it all together."

The husband-wife duo at Houzz also make decisions as a family and are transparent with their children about their work challenges.

"It happens to be that all the great things in life come together at the same time," says Tatarko. "Often, your career picks up at the same time that you already have a family. It’s true for both women and men."

"We have found ways to work together as a family to find our balance. I have to say, our children help us live a more balanced life. When Alon and I fall out of balance, they let us know. Weekends are for the kids, and we’ve set rules about when to talk about work and when to check email. We find our balance together as a family."

Although the "secrets" above are pretty simple, it can be easy to lose sight of these lessons when you’re busy running a billion-dollar company. Even if it’s tough to break away and look at what you’ve built, it’s important for every entrepreneur to understand how the world is different through what they’ve started. As long as you have a clear handle on that, secrets to running a unicorn will become a whole lot clearer and sensible.