Always have a bias for action. You don’t have to have it all figured out, but there are ways to prototype a big move before you make it. Interview someone in a role you are interested in, volunteer with an organization, send out a survey to a group of 50 acquaintances to gauge interest.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Pufpaf. Lauren is the COO and co-founder of Feed.fm, a technology platform that makes it easy for brands to legally and seamlessly harness the power of music to engage and retain their customers. At Feed.fm, Lauren merges a personal passion for music with 15 years of proven success building emerging startups into lasting brands. Prior to co-founding Feed.fm, Lauren held executive leadership positions at companies including Styleseat, LiquidSpace, Blurb, and Current.TV. She is also a house music DJ with over 20 years of experience, appearing in cities all over the world. Lauren is based in the Bay Area with her husband and daughter, and a massive vinyl collection.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my journey in advertising, buying digital media when online advertising was still a novelty. As an “Interactive Buyer”, we were buying banners and early search advertising — and still fighting to prove the value of online ads. From there I moved on to analytics and strategy, working on clients like Microsoft, Autodesk and Ray-Ban. The agency world is such a great jumping-off point because you learn a ton of different business models and really think critically about the customer and what will resonate with them.
Personally, though, I always wanted more influence on the business and the opportunity to move fast and experiment quickly. I moved in to marketing and growth for startups with Current TV in 2007 and spent several years honing my creative chops (alongside performance marketing and analytics) at multiple consumer and B2B startups. Marketers today have to be able to use both sides of the brain and understand creative, PR, messaging, audience strategy AND how to run experiments, manage CRM cycles, analyze results, and buy media.
In 2015 I met my co-founders and had the rare opportunity to stretch into a founding operational role while building a product that intersects with my number on personal passion: music. Starting a new venture from scratch is always a risky proposition, but when you find the right partners, really believe in what you are building, and have support in your personal life, you have to take the chance! Our team is all incredibly passionate about music and finding ways to help businesses reach their customers through this medium and it keeps us energized through the ups and downs.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
From a business perspective, it’s been a fascinating journey to product market fit. They always say “it’s tough to find, but you know it when you have it”, and I have certainly found that to be true. We’ve had multiple red herrings along the way when we thought we nailed a category, but it didn’t really stick. Examples include festivals producers (loved the product but didn’t have the budget) and retail (content marketing experiments got cut as soon as things started turning south financially).
From a personal standpoint, the most interesting thing has been consciously building a culture. It starts early and you can document all you want, but at the end of the day, how the founders operate really sets the tone.
OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of COO that most attracted you to it?
While COO responsibilities vary from company to company, it’s generally a mix of daily operations, personnel, growth strategy, and sometimes marketing. I love team development, and have always thought deeply about organizational dynamics. There’s also a lot of overlap between my performance marketing background and the general business growth planning. So, for me, it is an opportunity to plug in to whatever the business needs at the moment and make sure we are executing against our broader vision. I’d boil it down to — keeping the wheels on the train and making sure the track is going the right direction.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a COO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Often the COO is thought of as the partner to the CEO and is responsible for executing on the broader vision. It’s a combination of both strategy and execution and involves analyzing business activities and managing teams across all divisions.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a COO?
The role is often less defined, but that’s one thing I love about it. Every day is different and new challenges always pop up. That said, part of my purview is making sure that we are all focusing on the right things — it’s easy to get in a hamster wheel of day to day activity, but I force myself to step back each week and re-evaluate priorities against our longer term goals.
What are the downsides of being a COO?
You have a hand in all aspects of the business and it’s hard to stay out of key initiatives. Lots of emails and meetings!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think there are a couple of big differences between our experiences as men and women. Because the business world is so male-dominated, I often find myself the only woman in the meeting, particularly if we are doing financing. While it doesn’t intimidate me anymore, I do find myself being put off if the vibe becomes extremely bro-ey. My (male) co-founder also recognizes it and when he gets ‘the look’ from me he does a great job of helping me redirect the conversation and get us back on track.
Additionally, I find that most women don’t come in to the workplace with a strong network of men to help propel them, sometimes generations deep, like their male counterparts. This is why I think it’s SO important to band together and help lift each other up whenever we can. While I’m operating in the tech bro environment of the valley, I have been fortunate to find a great network of female entrepreneurs and investors and prioritize those women even in the busiest of times.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I didn’t realize how much time I would spend thinking about sales (and actually doing sales)! As a B2B company selling into enterprises, our sales strategy and execution is obviously crucial to our success. I had to take a crash course in lead gen and cold calling when we initially launched. Now, we’re fortunate to have a great Director of Sales, but we still work hand in hand in targeting and messaging strategy and I really enjoy this side of the business.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
Comfort with uncertainty is key to being successful in an executive role, and particularly as a founder. At Feed.fm, we’ve been through so many ups and downs, but we’ve always had the unwavering faith that we’re solving a real problem. My co-founders and I also believe strongly in building a team that you really care about. If you don’t really love people, growing their careers, and lifting them up with you, it’s tough to be a good leader.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I’ve always subscribed to Daniel Pink’s theory that people need Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose to truly feel motivated. The old school model of carrots and sticks is all wrong. If you can set up an environment in which people can be self-directed and also connect to a sense of purpose while they hone their trade, you will drastically increase productivity.
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?
Relatively early in my career I had the good fortune to work with someone who would become a longtime friend and mentor. I was struggling with a particularly prickly boss that didn’t acknowledge my frustrations and wasn’t helping me clear blockers in my way. Her advice was: come to your boss as a partner and a peer. Focus on proposed solutions as if you were already part of the management team. That shift in mindset was pivotal for me in thinking about the bigger picture and I think of it often to this day (and share with my team!).
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We’ve been able to drive positive outcomes for business at Feed.fm, but, more importantly, we actually help people improve their health as well. There is both a behavioral component (I work out harder and come back more frequently) and a physiological component (the right rhythm helps me learn how to walk again after a stroke). The power of music is undeniable and our mission is to make it easy for businesses to harness that power to positively impact their customers.
Additionally, we work to create a psychologically safe place to work and a diverse, inclusive environment. Our team is small — but growing — and I’m excited to continue to create a positive culture as we grow.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Always have a bias for action. You don’t have to have it all figured out, but there are ways to prototype a big move before you make it. Interview someone in a role you are interested in, volunteer with an organization, send out a survey to a group of 50 acquaintances to gauge interest.
- Expect excellence from your team and don’t be afraid to move on from someone if it’s not a good fit. If a team member isn’t performing and you’ve given them actionable feedback and a plan to improve, it means it’s the wrong fit all around. It’s never an easy conversation, but don’t wait — it does neither party any good.
- Find business partners that are aligned with you in more ways than just the business plan. If you want a family, make sure they believe in work/life balance too, for example.
- Exercise and meditate as much as you can. There’s never enough time, but I find this to be true: Meditate for 15 minutes every day unless you’re really busy, then do it for 30.
- Take a vacation! Breaks are positive and refresh your mind and spirit. Find ways to recharge as often as you can because starting a business requires every ounce of energy you have.
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.
A national parental leave policy would have such a huge impact on families as a whole and women’s careers in particular. If both men and women had 3–6 months to bond with their child without fear of job loss, career setbacks, or other reprisals, I truly believe we’d see a huge difference in how far women advance in their careers. WSJ recently updated their Women in the Workplace study and it shows that women stay on pace with promotions until the manager level, then they start to lag behind. There are a lot of variables that go into this, but stepping back to have a baby is certainly one of them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The world is what you think of it, so think of it differently and your life will change.” We tell ourselves stories every day and it’s up to use to change our stories when they are not serving us. As simple as it seems, I believe your attitude and perspective make up your life experience, so why not make it what you want?
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?
Tara Brach — I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of her talks and guided meditations and she truly is a wise soul. I would love to sit down with her and hear more of her personal life story and find out what matters to her now. I know she cares deeply about the environment and I’d also like to understand what she does to take action in these times of rapid change.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.