Susan Gregg Koger was 17 when she started ModCloth, selling vintage clothing online out of her college dorm room at Carnegie Mellon University. Her boyfriend helped her. Twelve years later, the boyfriend is now her husband and cofounder, she has more than 500 employees, and the company makes more than a $100 million in annual revenue.
Koger has learned quite a few things along the way since those dorm-room days. Here are five lessons she would have taught her younger self:
When it comes to understanding what her customers want, Koger has always been confident. But the operations side of things has never been her strength. In her early days of hiring, when a job candidate talked about operations or finance in a way she didn't understand, Koger assumed she simply didn't know enough about the topic to follow. She wasn't thinking about the fact that she'd be spending a lot of time with these people. "I wish I had trusted my gut and my instinct more," she says. "I think that I pushed down some of my instinctual 'I don’t know if I like this person,' or 'I don’t quite understand what they are saying, but maybe that's okay because I don’t know that role.'"
After a few hires who weren't the best fit, she quickly realized that no matter how technical a topic, the person she hired needed to be able to explain things in a way she could grasp. "They need to be able to take these high-level concepts and distill them down," she says. " That's a key leadership quality. . . . I don’t really think I gave myself enough credit that I am a really smart person who understands every part of my business."
Knowing too much about a topic or industry can stifle your creativity. There's something to be said for approaching things with a fresh perspective. It's a mindset Koger has tried to hang onto over the years. She attributes much of ModCloth's success to "the fact that we approached the fashion industry from a very rookie perspective and weren’t afraid to ask the dumb question."
How does she hang onto that everything-is-possible mindset more than a decade later? One key way Koger has been able to do this is reaching out to customers for feedback on a regular basis. "Getting customer feedback in a lot of ways is like getting rookie feedback," she says. "They haven't been looking at it 24 hours a day, every day."
Over the years, Koger has realized that creating simple daily habits can help her stay creative and come up with new ideas. For Koger, the ritual of getting dressed each morning has become a time when she comes up with new ideas.
Pairing items in her closet with each other or trying on clothes from past seasons, has often inspired her to create new accessories, modify existing styles, or bring back past designers. " I get dressed every day. I wear ModCloth every day," she says. "I do it in this mindful way. I give myself an opportunity to feel inspired."
When you work in a field or business long enough, it can be easy to forget that the people around you don't understand it in the way you do. But Koger has learned that it's important to be accessible to everyone, even if they aren't your target audience. "I always tell entrepreneurs: 'Go talk to your mom. Can your mom pronounce your business name?' … If you want a business that’s going to grow, your mom needs to be able to tell all her friends about it," she says. "Plus, your mom wants to hear from you."
Twelve years into running her business, there's still a lot Koger hasn't figured out. There always will be that uncertainty. The difference is that now she recognizes it as part of the process rather than something she'll one day overcome. "I probably could have had more fun in times when I was really stressed out," she says. "No one has it figured out. That’s one of the biggest things I've learned in my career. … It’s a freeing thing when you are just getting started to have that knowledge that you never really figure it out."
It also means you have a choice to make. "This uncertainty can either be stressful or it can be fun and exciting. It's going to be both sometimes. Part of it is a choice. Is this incredibly stressful or is this exciting?" she says. "The people doing really interesting innovative things—that’s what they are doing is figuring it out. You will always be figuring it out."