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Tips From The Top: Conversation With RetailMeNot Chairman Cotter Cunningham and CEO Marissa Tarleton

I spoke to RetailMeNot's Founder and Chairman Cotter Cunningham and CEO Marissa Tarleton about their journey and best advice

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 you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Cotter : People might be surprised to know I enjoyed Google AdWords so much that I managed all of the bidding myself as the COO of Bankrate over 10 years ago. Thanks to luck and good timing, I happened to be a very early user of AdWords. The platform was super cheap back then and it was easy to test dumb ideas (I once bought a bunch of keywords like “Sotheby’s” thinking they would be good for home equity loans – they weren’t!) At the time, a competitor used a similar platform, but Google had figured out how to do it better and had significantly better user experience. It also taught me a lot about being smart in business and keeping a focus on your user.

Marissa: It surprises people when I tell them I grew up in Asia from the age of 5 until I was 15. I lived in Tokyo, Taiwan and Hong Kong. I actually still have family living in Hong Kong, and Japanese is one of the languages I can speak moderately well. Living overseas most of my life taught me to have a global mindset, to be aware of diverse perspectives and always be curious.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Cotter: Throughout my journey, I’ve had a million things go wrong, but I really believe persistence is one of the most important things a person can have. Before starting RetailMeNot, I left my job at Bankrate and started a divorce community website, putting my own money into it and it was a failure. That was a great lesson. I took the minimal assets of that business and started RetailMeNot.

The first year at RetailMeNot was challenging; we definitely didn’t kill it but we did okay. In a way, it’s a willingness to put yourself out there. Try, fail, dust yourself off and do it again.

Luck and timing are a big part of success. Right place, right time matters. As a Founder, I don’t like to admit it, but luck is a thing.

Marissa: I love the pace of e-commerce and tech companies and have always had a passion for retail — I knew very early in my career that e-commerce was where I belonged. I tend to pick brands undergoing major transformation because I love the challenge of problem-solving what’s next. From IBM in the late 90s during their e-business shift to Dell and its evolution from a PC company to a world-class enterprise technology brand to, now, RetailMeNot. What I have found is it is the challenge and need for change that motivates me most and where I thrive.

Adam: What are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Cotter: I believe the best qualities an effective leader can have are the ability to set clear goals, delegate to others, and know when to celebrate and when to pivot. Something that took me a while to learn, though, is learning my own strengths and weaknesses. After you figure those out, then you can begin to hire people to fill the gaps in your own abilities.

Marissa: In my experience, courage, humility, focus are the most important qualities of a great leader. I also agree with Cotter that it’s important to surround yourself with a great team. Ultimately, success is never found from just one person. It is the team you build that helps drive success — hire great people that are smarter than you,  and who you trust to poke holes where needed.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Cotter: 1. You have to stay focused on your end goal and what you’re good at. Some entrepreneurs are great product people or marketing people or whatever, but then the business grows fast and needs change. Finding a way to keep the things you’re good at as part of your DNA is crucial. It’s also important to pull in people around you that are different than you — it might even be someone that annoys you or pushes your buttons, but with an underlying layer of respect. It helps you complete the circle of thought; if you’re just building a “club” with people that think and work just like you, then you will fail.

2. You have to find balance between believing in yourself and listening to coworkers and advisors. A smart leader knows when to say, “Yeah, you’re right.” or “No, I’m sticking with my idea.”

3. Last, success can make you cocky. Don’t listen to your own press. Keep an edge. Try and stay humble — sometimes, business will make you humble.

Marissa: 1. Don’t be a perfectionist. Not everything is going to be right all the time and failure is a huge part of the secret sauce that makes great leaders.

2. Find your passion. It may seem cliche, but people can tell if you don’t give a damn and they will begin to mirror that.

3. Look for balance, like Cotter said. My family is my number one. Though they may spend less time with me than others, my drive and my energy come from them. Find a way.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Cotter: In a former job, someone I really respected said to me, “You’d be a great CEO, what are you waiting on?” To be honest, I had never thought about being a CEO, but it burrowed in my brain and stuck with me. I believe if you’re not happy in your current position, do something about it. So I did.

Marissa: For me, it was, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Which sounds easier said than done. A good leader needs to be able to lead through a lot of noise. There are challenges and opportunities everywhere. Pick the ones that matter, fight for those and let everything else go.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Cotter: I really believe you should have a job that resonates with you and your strengths. The same is true when it comes to charitable giving — you have to find something that resonates with you, that makes you want to share your time and resources to make things better.

I love to read, so much of what I support is literacy-related. I try to make this belief a priority so that it also plays a role in companies I am a part of, allowing employees to find what they are passionate about and volunteering their time for. To me, you have to find something that reflects your interests and passions, then take the first step to pay it forward in those areas.

Marissa: I have two to add. First, become a mentor. I am passionate about mentoring and coaching young women, particularly those new to the workforce, to have courage to fight for the careers, resources and role models they want and deserve. Also, like Cotter mentioned, give back. We have a responsibility to play an active role in our community, both locally and globally.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Cotter: I think you sometimes have to work to understand the world that’s around us. Recently, I asked my daughters teach me about Instagram and influencers. I love technology; I like using it and tinkering around with it. I buy tons of gadgets, including phones and drones and fitness trackers. I even have been known to wear both an Apple watch and a Fitbit fitness tracker at the same time.

I try to be a voracious reader. I read everything — newspapers, blogs, books. These have made me a better businessperson – and a better person. I’m also a trying to be a student of history.

Marissa: I really love spending time with my family and my dogs or going on runs — nothing makes me happier than being outside with them. Also, because I grew up overseas, travel is a huge part of who I am. I want to explore more parts of the world; learning about and helping other communities while doing so is a big part of what I love about travel. That comes to fruition in some of the community work I do here in Austin as well.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Cotter: If you want to start your own business, do it. Now. Don’t wait. It’s hard to plan every step of your career, but if you have a dream do it now because life is short.

Marissa: I agree with Cotter. Keep an eye on how much time you spend looking back and having regret. What’s more important is what you plan to do next.

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