Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about both of you. What is something about each of you that would surprise people?
Amanda: That I’m an introverted homebody — and that both Merrill and I are expert toast burners.
Merrill: I seriously considered pursuing a singing career and came very close to going to a musical conservatory instead of a liberal arts university. I still love to sing and have studied voice off and on for my entire adult life.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Merrill: We’ve simply refused to give up. When we were raising our first round of funding for Food52, food and cooking didn’t have the buzz that they do now, so it was an uphill battle convincing investors to trust in our conviction that this space would soon be a massive opportunity. It took us eight months to raise that first seed round of 750K, instead of the three to six months we’d planned for, but we kept at it and eventually found great investors who believed in us.
Adam: How have you built a 13-million-member community? What are your best tips on building a large and engaged audience?
Amanda: Put simply, we gave people a space to express themselves and be heard in a meaningful way. This is the foundation to any healthy community. People want to congregate in a place where they feel heard and can relate.
Adam: More broadly, what are each of your best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Amanda: See ambiguity and change as positives. It’s important to constantly reiterate the importance of this to your team and, when recruiting, to make sure you have ways of screening for people with a high tolerance for ambiguity.
Also, someone recently noted that Food52 is not a data-driven company, we’re a data-guided company, and that’s exactly right. We value and pay attention to our data but are not ruled by it. Our gut and vision about what we want to create are just as important. So I’d caution leaders against being too controlled by data.
Merrill: In the early days of a start-up, the founders have to be in the weeds in order to make sure everything gets done. As you grow and hire more people, it can be difficult to adapt and let go of the day-to-day. But as a leader, that is your job — to pinpoint what it is that only you can do for the company, prioritize your time and energy around whatever that is, and delegate the rest.
Adam: What are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Amanda: Listen. Be decisive. Be human. Push people to do more than they think they can — they’ll appreciate it later.
Merrill: Set clear goals and expectations. Just because you think you’ve communicated clearly, it doesn’t necessarily mean information has been received the way you intended it to be; always ask people to reflect back what you’ve said when it comes to anything of importance.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Amanda: Don’t ask for permission.
Merrill: Be fearless.
Adam: What are some interesting tidbits you have learned that foodies might find particularly interesting?
Merrill: People on the internet will always want more chicken and cookies.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Amanda: Take the time to meet with people in your profession who are younger than you, and be open about the lessons you’ve learned and obstacles they may face. Encourage them and follow up with them.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Amanda: I’m a constant renovator. I love that renovating combines home improvement — naturally — but that it also allows you to reshape the way you feel about a space, how you use it. Changing a space gives me an opportunity for creative expression and a chance to capture my style at a moment in time. I also love that renovation involves lots of problem solving, which may be my biggest hobby.
I’ve also recently gotten back to playing basketball, and it’s reminded me how much I love team sports — and how much I truly value and need team-work in my life.
Merrill: This is a continuation of my answer above to the “what would surprise people about you” question. I studied both piano and voice starting at a young age, and I did a lot of acting in high school as well. I continued to perform through college, when I was in an a cappella group (one of my proudest moments to date is singing a solo at Carnegie Hall!). I’ve always struggled with a certain degree of stage fright, but over the years and with constant exposure, I learned to push through it. That ability to plow forth in the face of fear has served me well as a founder. Unlike some founders, I don’t crave public speaking opportunities, but I’ve learned to embrace them to a certain extent.