Community//

Max Johnson of Awe Inspired: “Reflect often”

“Reflect often” — I like to describe starting a company using a standard 2-axis chart; plot time on the X-axis and ‘success’ on the Y-axis, and you’ll see your line squiggle up over time. As a founder, your outlook is usually determined by the slope of that line, not your position on the ‘success’ axis. So during […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

“Reflect often” — I like to describe starting a company using a standard 2-axis chart; plot time on the X-axis and ‘success’ on the Y-axis, and you’ll see your line squiggle up over time. As a founder, your outlook is usually determined by the slope of that line, not your position on the ‘success’ axis. So during a setback, downturn, etc, you can feel as defeated as you did during the early days trying to launch. Just the other day we had a final round candidate turn down their offer, and it felt like a tremendous setback: we aren’t good enough to attract the talent we want, we were misled, we don’t have enough money, blah blah blah. In those moments, I force myself to reflect (as I’m doing now responding to these questions!) on how far we’ve come up that ‘success’ axis and how inconsequential all the little setbacks have been over time.


As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Max Johnson, CEO & Co-Founder of Awe Inspired.

Launched in 2017, Awe Inspired is the socially-conscious fine jewelry brand co-founded by three-time breast cancer survivor Jill Johnson and her son Max Johnson. The mother and son duo were inspired to create the Livestrong equivalent of fine jewelry — with collections that represent the customer’s personal journey, serve as a symbol of strength, and give back.

Since launch, Awe Inspired has demonstrated a deep commitment to creating meaningful products that celebrate individuality and female empowerment, while giving back to marginalized communities and causes. Awe Inspired has donated over 600k dollars to their charity partners to date, with 20% of each purchase going to a charity organization of the customer’s choosing. Throughout 2020 the team has proven their commitment to prioritizing impactful partnerships tied to culturally urgent events such as

The American Nurses Foundation at the height of COVID, NAACP of Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd, and EMILY’s List for a Kamala Harris Goddess Coin Necklace that honored her historical 2020 Vice-Presidential bid.

Often recognized for their MBTI-based “Goddess Quiz,” which match customers’ Meyers-Briggs personality type to their inner Goddess and corresponding products from their top-selling “Goddess Collection,” Awe’s personalized, data-centric approach to e-commerce has led them to thrive. Since launch, the team has garnered support from a number of celebrities including Bella Hadid, Chloe & Halle, Demi Lovato, Gabrielle Union, Halsey, Laverne Cox, Madonna, Maluma, Miley Cyrus, Sarah Jessica Parker, Selena Gomez, and more.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for Awe Inspired? Can you share that story with us?

I started Awe Inspired with my mother Jill as she was recovering from breast cancer (her third battle with cancer) when we realized there wasn’t a clear high-quality jewelry offering intended to honor the triumph of survivors — we essentially set out to create the Livestrong bracelet equivalent for fine jewelry. A year later after our initial product offering didn’t take off, we were auditing various jewelry trends and noticed that in the trendy coin necklace subcategory, most of the prominent jewelry brands featured the faces of male saints and royalty on their coin medallions. That was the inspiration to create the Goddess Necklaces, which have become the empowering talis(wo)men we were looking to design in the first place.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Our first holiday season in 2017 was a complete flop — we spent more money on advertisements than we recouped in sales revenue. The CEO we brought on to launch the brand who had joined us fresh out of a top MBA program quit right after New Year’s. I was all but sure we were torpedoing and felt an immense amount of shame for having led my mom down this path of launching a digital-first consumer brand.

I still had a lot of confidence in the general concept of the brand — that there was a large customer base looking for meaningful and quality-made jewelry that helped tell their personal story, but I clearly lacked confidence in myself and my ability to execute on our vision since I had handed over the reins of the brand to executives who didn’t have a stomach for failure. I took it upon myself to figure out how to make this brand work and did what nobody on the team had been willing to do so far, which was get on the phone with the few customers who had shown interest in the brand and learn about them. Through those conversations, I heard how our brand positioning and mission resonated greatly with a core group of women looking for jewelry that did more than just look good. Their encouragement kept me going and eventually led to the creation of Goddess.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Awe Inspired is an entirely different company now, a little over three years after that painful Holiday season. Our Goddess collection has been worn regularly by the biggest stars in the world (Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Cardi B., Tyra Banks, and Sarah Jessica Parker), which never ceases to amaze me. We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of necklaces, expanded into bracelets, earrings, and rings, and have plans to expand into entirely new merchandise categories for Holiday 2021.

The greatest lesson I learned during our challenging early days was that if I was going to lead this organization, I needed to be willing to roll up my sleeves and take on any piece of work, regardless of my skill set, subject matter expertise, or pride. That included awkwardly soliciting feedback on product designs around our co-working space, rolling a suitcase of samples around Beverly Hills pitching to any celebrity showroom who would take a meeting with me, and physically running prototypes between our mold maker downtown and polisher in the jewelry district as we were perfecting early samples. There was no task beneath me, and no task too challenging to scare me away. Now in our recruiting process, I look for candidates who have the same can-do, no-fuss attitude because it’s frankly requisite for success at our growth stage.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Ahead of the 2020 election as we were brainstorming how Awe Inspired could plug in to the moment, we were aware that basically every other consumer brand was going to create their version of nonpartisan “VOTE” merchandise. Our team was excited about Kamala Harris’ candidacy and foresaw how powerful it would feel for women (especially women of color) to wear a Kamala Harris medallion in the age of the first-ever female Vice President. We knew such a product would be divisive, but frankly we’re a private company with a clear set of principles and were prepared for the consequences of taking such a stance. To make an even more meaningful statement, we partnered with EMILY’s List to donate a portion of proceeds to the campaigns of other progressive women down the ballot.

This strategy paid off. The morning the Biden/Harris victory was called, our website nearly crashed from the influx of interest (we’d previously only fielded that kind of traffic during major shopping holidays such as Black Friday)). While many celebrities in our network were wary of wearing a Kamala Harris piece, several were ecstatic about it and enthusiastically drove traffic to our page. We received plenty of hate email, but not enough to drown out the hundreds of women grateful for how we’d used our platform. We’re going to continue to be a brand that stands proudly with our principles, and we’re confident we will have a sizable market to support us.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

It wasn’t funny at the time, but hindsight is everything! In the first major campaign video we shot for Awe Inspired, we wanted to tell the stories of real survivors of adversity and illustrate how, regardless of your background or journey, we are all united through our shared strength, hope, and resilience. The campaign was supposed to be hopeful and celebratory. Unfortunately, some questionable creative decisions were made: we shot the campaign participants on a backdrop straight out of a school portrait session. The styling was mostly black and grey. And the way the participants were guided to share their stories highlighted the most harrowing moments of their journey, to the point where the “uplifting” message at the end of the video was painfully trite. Tone really is everything, and we missed the mark! It taught us the importance of fully fleshing out campaign briefs down to the most minute details that can inform the tone of the final deliverable like lighting or wardrobe color palette, and getting multiple voices in the room to gut check assumptions. We can finally watch that original video and laugh at how heavy-handed it is.

You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Bias for action: I like to make things happen. I love building a framework around a new initiative and organizing the kick-off, setting up calls with prospective vendors who could help us with an emerging marketing need, or getting everyone together for a brainstorming session. I learn so much more by doing than by contemplating or planning. Fail fast and stand up faster!

Analytical aptitude: I’ve learned to drive all major decision making with analytical insights. It’s obvious to most that the numbers should speak for themselves, but what I’ve found to be more important than being able to interpret the numbers is building structure around the process of analysis. That means setting quarterly objectives and key results, meeting regularly to track progress, and building mechanisms to address poor performance. You can derive insights from a data set to your heart’s content but tracking the impact of experiments and initiatives against the data over time generates principal level insights that propel the business forward.

Humility: I’m (sometimes painfully) aware of what I don’t know. I never enter a meeting thinking that I have the right answers or superior judgement over my colleagues. I’m committed to hiring people who are smarter and more capable than me. Just recently we brought on a new VP of Growth who on day 1 crushed a lot of my growth strategy assumptions — nothing makes me happier!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Schedule self-care. I do my best to add lunch breaks, walks around the block with my husband, workouts, and “stop work” times to my calendar. If I work until 10 after scheduling my stop at 6, I feel accountable for my wellness state the following day. There’s rarely anything that NEEDS to get done TONIGHT, and if there is then there’s usually a larger planning/prioritization issue at play. And schedule notification quiet hours. I started looking at my phone way less during off-work hours once I started scheduling quiet hours in Slack, Asana and via the “Do not disturb” iOS feature. I’m working on having better self-control when my phone does buzz since 99% of the time the notification is irrelevant or nonurgent.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I’d say the most common mistake I’ve seen from other founders and the mistake we’ve made throughout starting Awe Inspired is following our instincts instead of customer data. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve A/B tested subject lines or ad creative where my hypothesis was wrong! It’s so important to test constantly and always let your users have the final say. Prior to leading Awe Inspired I was part of a sub-brand launch that completely flopped because the brand aesthetic and messaging did not align with the target consumer’s expectations. Oftentimes in creative-driven departments like marketing and design it’s easy to be swayed by opinions or aesthetic preferences. I try my best to rephrase my teammates preferences or “gut instincts” into hypotheses that we can test and learn from rather than follow blindly.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

I underestimated how deeply emotional starting and running a consumer facing company would be. So much of my time and energy had poured into getting this baby off the ground. I care deeply about my customers and their experience with our products. We hear all the time how meaningful our Goddess necklaces are to our customer: a customer who wore a Joan of Arc throughout her chemo treatment and made it out the other side stronger, a customer who purchased a gold Athena necklace upon completing her PHD, a customer who wears a matching Harriet Tubman necklace with her daughter to celebrate their resilience; the stories go on and each one makes me verklempt. It also pains me to hear when our customers have a poor experience or we don’t meet their expectations. I’m working to reduce this emotional element in my day to day since it can be distracting, but it’s also quite motivating and meaningful.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

“Not everything needs to happen today” — Too often I’ve been disappointed when a new product won’t be delivered on the timeline I want, when a partnership negotiation drags on, or a recruiting process requires more deliberation or candidates. I used to put so much pressure on maximizing output each day and each week to feel like we were progressing and scaling, but smart decisions take time, people have outside lives to lead, and breakneck progress isn’t sustainable.

“Make sure everyone eats lunch” — Seriously, skipping lunch is a terrible idea. But more broadly, I wish someone had emphasized the importance of taking care of your team’s human needs. We had a team member recently who was clearly overwhelmed with her family stuck inside during a snow day amidst new COVID restrictions. I insisted she take the day off, no questions asked, we’ll pick up the slack. I’ve learned this kind of empathy is how I build trust and accountability with my team. Often the ‘successful boss’ is portrayed as demanding and having strict performance standards. We’ve built a successful team by practicing empathy, taking time to celebrate our wins, offering fully flexible paid time off, and making sure everyone takes a break for lunch. It matters.

“Don’t skip reference calls” — I used to question the importance of calling references. After all, candidates share references they are confident will speak well on their behalf, and the calls can be annoying to arrange and burdensome on recommenders. However, I’ve learned they aren’t skippable! Building a stellar team is the most important task of a startup founder, and it’s more than worth the extra time and probing to make sure new hires will not only be a fit for the role but a fit for the organization.

“Look around” — I’ve heard several startup founders talk about the importance of looking straight ahead towards your goal and not getting distracted by competition. To the contrary, I’ve seen tremendous value come out of thoughtful competitive analysis, criticism, and appreciation! So often we see other brands come up with innovative solutions to problems we’re tackling that inform our own approach. “Looking around” and being thoughtful about our place in the market helps us differentiate our offering and stay true to who we are: if we start looking or sounding too much like brand X we know we’ve strayed too far off our unique path.

“Reflect often” — I like to describe starting a company using a standard 2-axis chart; plot time on the X-axis and ‘success’ on the Y-axis, and you’ll see your line squiggle up over time. As a founder, your outlook is usually determined by the slope of that line, not your position on the ‘success’ axis. So during a setback, downturn, etc, you can feel as defeated as you did during the early days trying to launch. Just the other day we had a final round candidate turn down their offer, and it felt like a tremendous setback: we aren’t good enough to attract the talent we want, we were misled, we don’t have enough money, blah blah blah. In those moments, I force myself to reflect (as I’m doing now responding to these questions!) on how far we’ve come up that ‘success’ axis and how inconsequential all the little setbacks have been over time.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to start a movement where every week participants get paired with a person from a completely opposite walk of life for a FaceTime conversation. I believe the most dire issues facing our society from income inequality to racial injustice stem from a lack of mutual respect for and understanding of people who are different than ourselves. Racism, bigotry, and selfishness are rooted in ignorance. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people in our country are homophobic until they learn a beloved relative is gay, or don’t believe in increasing the minimum wage until they are personally impacted by inflation. If we took time to listen to the voices of those in need, look them in the eye and internalize their struggle, I’m confident we’d see much less political divisiveness and quicker progressive reforms.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Follow us on Instagram! @aweinspired_

I’m on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/maxbjohnson

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Wisdom//

Axial Shift

by Otto Scharmer
Community//

Shelley Iocona of ON ITS AXIS: “Business Model Innovation”

by Jason Hartman
Community//

Maintain your Position

by Maurio Butler

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.