Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry of Friends & Fiction: “Open, honest communication”

KWH: Open, honest communication: In our case, there are four of us running this show and company — along with our fabulous team — and, while we are like-minded and extremely respectful of each other, we don’t always 100% agree. Being able to keep open, running dialogue and put aside our friendships and put on our business hats to […]

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KWH: Open, honest communication: In our case, there are four of us running this show and company — along with our fabulous team — and, while we are like-minded and extremely respectful of each other, we don’t always 100% agree. Being able to keep open, running dialogue and put aside our friendships and put on our business hats to work through situations that will ultimately be best for our businesses has been critical.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry.

New York Times Bestselling novelists Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry, are five longtime friends with more than seventy published books to their credit. With a mission to support independent bookstores, they are always seeking new and innovative ways to introduce dynamic voices and trends in publishing. If you love books and you’re curious about the writing world, join Friends & Fiction every Wednesday night at 7 pm EST on Facebook or Parade magazine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

MKA: At the beginning of the pandemic, we all had books that were about to release — and lengthy, cross-country book tours that had been cancelled. I texted the other ladies, inviting them to a “Rosé and Whine” session on my brand-new (now necessary) professional Zoom account. While on that Zoom, we got the idea to go live on Facebook to talk about our new books and publishing in general. We didn’t expect anyone to actually show up, but, when more than 1,000 readers joined us live that very first night, we knew we had tapped into something. The rest is history.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think we’ve all been surprised by how quickly and organically the group has grown, and how it turned out to be something that helps people in ways we didn’t imagine at the start. We initially conceived this as a way to fill the void left by pandemic-fueled event cancellations and book store closures, but it wound up becoming far more: a community, a place where people could find belonging, and a place where — even during last year’s heated election season — people checked their politics at the door and just showed up to celebrate books. Countless real-life friendships have formed in this group, which is tremendously gratifying, and our community has become an important part of a lot of lives, including our own.

PCH: The sheer number of people who show up for this reading and book loving community is one of the most interesting and on-going stories. We knew we wanted and needed a place like this during the Pandemic, but it ends up that this is a place we all need, even without a Pandemic. We had no idea how many people were waiting for this. I believe this is because we tapped into our own hearts and minds and asked what meant the most to us, which also meant the most to our reading community.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

KWH: We were a technological mess! On one of our first episodes, Mary Kay’s daughter is literally crawling across the floor trying to fix a tech problem we were having. And our first guest was #1 New York Times Bestselling author Krisitn Hannah — and she had to do the interview through the phone because we were having sound problems.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

MKA: We are incredibly grateful to all our author guests who took a chance on coming on this brand-new show, especially Kristin Hannah, who was our very first author guest. We also wouldn’t be here without our incredible managing director, Meg Walker, who came on board early on to get us organized and librarian Ron Block who is our podcast host — and so much more. Julie, Liz and Lian Dolan, the sisters behind the hit podcast Satellite Sisters, also gave us some early advice that was invaluable.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

KH: I think the last several years, especially, have done a lot to level the playing field. But historically, certainly, men have founded the majority of companies (especially if you look back more than a decade or two), and so perhaps many women today unfortunately didn’t grow up thinking, “That’s a realistic goal for me someday.” I think that often, the ideas of what we can do and what we deserve to do don’t form overnight; they develop over the course of our lives. So as society begins to change, so must the way we raise the next generation so that everyone ultimately has equal opportunities as well as a more equal and balanced sense of what’s possible.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

KWH: One of the things that I think really holds women back from their dreams is taking on more of their share of the workload in their households. And there sometimes tends to be this mindset that women founders are less common. I think the more we change the dialogue around both those things and continue to model women who are taking this step, the more we pave the way for the next woman with a great idea.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

PCH: Women bring a unique perspective to a new business, whether it is as mothers, sisters, wives or young women, and we often bring an intuitive sense of community (just as we did with the start of our business knowing that this community waited for a place to gather). As women step out in new and brave ways, we encourage other women to do the same, to find their community and to encourage each other. Creating and building financial and creative independence brings us all closer to a more equitable society and family structures.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

KWH: That you have to be one hundred percent ready. We truly began Friends & Fiction on a whim to solve a problem we were seeing. We dove into the deep end and learned how to swim and, really, I think it might have been the best way. If we had set out to lead a group of almost 60,000 women, help independent bookstores and grow our individual author careers, it would have felt too big, too time-consuming, too overwhelming. But, little by little, we all brought our strengths to the table, and we grew something really great!

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

MKA: I think founders have an unshakeable faith in themselves and their abilities, so much so that they’re not too timid to roll the dice and put everything on the line. At the same time, they’re strategic thinkers, and they know how to collaborate and how to delegate tasks according to their partners’ strengths. And they’re creative when it comes to problem solving.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

KH: A support system who keeps you going. We’re all authors, and writing is, in many ways, a solitary pursuit. But building a business is completely different than building the plot of a book, and one of the beautiful things I’ve learned along the way is that, to paraphrase the Beatles, I get by with a little help from my friends. First of all, I can’t tell you how much I’ve relied on my co-hosts — Mary Kay Andrews, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry — as well as our managing director, Meg Walker, producer Shaun Hettinger, and podcast host, Ron Block, for support, both emotional and practical. They’ve saved me again and again and again, and the longer we’ve worked together, the more I’ve realized that if I don’t have the answer to something, one of them does — or they’ll hop on the phone and hammer things out with me until we have a solution. To have that kind of trust and support is invaluable. But what has surprised me even more is the support we’ve all felt from the members of the group itself. There have been some difficult times, both personally and professionally, over the last year and a half, and each time I’ve felt some despair, I’ve only needed to visit our Facebook page, where there are countless posts from members talking about how much this group means to them, or what kind of support they’ve found within it. I’ve had members show up to live events and burst into tears while explaining what it means to them to be part of the Friends & Fiction community. Those might sound like small moments, but they’re truly the biggest things. They’re the moments that remind us that we’re not alone. We’re part of something special. We’ve built something here. And we haven’t built it alone. We’ve built it side by side with thousands of people who value this just as much as we do. It’s an incredible feeling, and I’ll never take it for granted.

KWH: Systems and protocols to streamline our work: To be very honest, seventeen months in, we are still really working on fine-tuning and refining our systems, but, the more we grow, the more realize how dedicated we must be to creating processes that work for us. From day one, we knew we had to put certain protocols in place to streamline our work. Helpful tips for guests, a master grid of upcoming shows, skeleton scripts for webshows and podcasts, a list of who we want to invite, updated media kits for sponsors and media coverage are just a few of the things that reside in our Google Drive. The longer we do this, the more we learn. But it has become clear that the more we can put on auto-pilot, the more successful we’ll be.

PCH: A greater guiding purpose: One of the first things we did when we started our company was craft a mission statement. We knew we wanted to celebrate our common love of reading, writing and independent bookstores. We wanted to build a community that supported bookstores, our work, the reading and publishing community as a whole, and also other authors. Whenever we make decisions, we return to our mission statement and understand that our greater purpose is the cornerstone for all decisions and growth. It is part philanthropic and part business — a beacon in the fog of growth.

MKA: People smarter than you are to come alongside for the journey. Our first hire was managing director Meghan Walker, who had the organizational and marketing skills, plus the deep publishing knowledge we needed. Not long after that we found the wizards at Audivita, including Shaun Hettinger, who solved most of our techie headaches. When we wanted to put forth a more polished, professional appearance, we hired a media consultant to critique past episodes and offer concrete suggestions for improvement. Just a few months ago, we brought on Ron Block, a respected librarian who transformed our struggling F&F podcast into our more polished Writer’s Block podcast.

KWH: Open, honest communication: In our case, there are four of us running this show and company — along with our fabulous team — and, while we are like-minded and extremely respectful of each other, we don’t always 100% agree. Being able to keep open, running dialogue and put aside our friendships and put on our business hats to work through situations that will ultimately be best for our businesses has been critical.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

KH: I think that the beauty of founding an organization like this — in which our primary goal has always been connection rather than profit — is that good things begin to happen on their own. When we first started Friends & Fiction at the beginning of the pandemic shutdown in spring 2020, we envisioned keeping it going for two months, long enough to give readers something to do while they were stuck at home, and long enough to remind people to keep supporting local booksellers; we were very worried about the financial impact of the pandemic on these businesses, many of which struggle to succeed even in the best of times. But then it took on a life of its own, and here we are, nearly two years later, with a group that continues to grow, and stories pouring in each week about how being a member of Friends & Fiction has changed people’s lives. We emphasize kindness above all else on our Facebook page, which is the main place where our members interact, and it has become such an ingrained value that if someone makes a snarky comment, several members immediately jump in to remind them that this is a place to celebrate what books mean to us, rather than to cut each other down. We’ve heard so many times that this feels like a safe space where people can simply be themselves, regardless of where they come from, what they believe, or who they vote for. We love that we’ve become a space where people can check their differences at the door and lift each other up. Additionally, scores of new friendships have formed within our community and moved into the real world. For example, just a month after one of the founders of our book club (which has 9,000+ members and is affiliated with the main group) lost her longtime partner to cancer, her book club co-moderator and several other members surprised her with a birthday trip to lift her spirits. I would say that we’ve also helped support independent booksellers both directly (by featuring a different store each week and driving business to them with incentives) and indirectly (by reminding people to keep shopping local), and we’ve proactively raised money for stores that have had a special need. We have also made a concerted effort to highlight debut authors, who have a difficult time creating awareness of their books with book tours still largely on hold. And we’ve given authors and readers a place to connect and share the stories behind the stories in a way that allows us all to connect. But I think it’s an important point to make that when you start an organization with your heart in the right place, and you realize all along that you’re working toward something bigger than yourself, good things have a way of happening. It’s been a great lesson to me about goodness attracting goodness and snowballing into something powerful.

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

PCH: To build community around a common love for something beautiful and soul-growing. So many times communities and groups are built around a common enemy or hate; what if we built them out of a common love?

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

All four: Definitely Reese Witherspoon. Not only has she essentially redefined what it means to influence the book world — and, in the process, done so much for literacy, but she is also a woman who continuously redefines success and what she wants out of her career. If the past couple years have taught us anything, it’s that evolution is necessary. No one has evolved better than Reese.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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