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Women Of The C-Suite: “It’s not just what you build, but how you build it”, With Shirley Chen CEO of Narrativ

Make team building your competitive weapon, and ask yourself — what opportunities are you creating for others?


As women, we’ve been told empathy and our humility are our weaknesses. But that’s not true. These characteristics are are powerful for team building and growth. Make team building your competitive weapon, and ask yourself — what opportunities are you creating for others? Lead with compassion. It’s not just what you build, but how you build it.


I had the pleasure to interview Shirley Chen. Shirley is the founder and CEO of Narrativ, a media technology company building a better internet for shoppers. With more than one billion links rewired, Narrativ enables partners such as New York Magazine, Ulta, and Nordstrom to tap into $25B of annual consumer spend and is on pace to deliver $600M in partner revenue this year. Prior to founding Narrativ, Shirley led double digit growth as Head of Marketing & Business Development at Moda Operandi and was a management consultant in media and retail at McKinsey & Co. She has a Bachelor of Arts, Magna Cum Laude, from Columbia University and loves cyberpunk.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m an unlikely entrepreneur — a biochemist turned Vogue intern turned McKinsey consultant turned Head of Marketing for luxury retailer Moda Operandi turned tech Founder.

At McKinsey, I worked with top media brands and learned firsthand the challenges many faced as they tried to adapt to a brave new digital world. At M’O, our drumbeat was customer growth and loyalty. Surprisingly, our most cost-effective means of acquiring new customers came when publishers reviewed our products and included an affiliate link — commerce content like Buzzfeed Reviews.

As paid search and social became more expensive, commerce content became our biggest growth channel — with two caveats. 1) Scaling was incredibly manual and 2) Content was filled with broken links (404s), out of stock items, and out of date prices that made the experience for the reader, publisher and advertiser was fundamentally broken.

My eureka moment came in a conference room in Vogue when I started to run the numbers in my head — building a functioning market in commerce content was a multi-billion dollar opportunity. Like tumor targeting nanoparticles, machine learning technology could find and repair broken links and update prices — transforming content at scale. Thus Narrativ was born!

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?

Narrativ operated in stealth mode for 2 years as we built our SmartLink AI and our publisher network — our code name was “BAM.” It was a fun, punchy name that stood for “biddable affiliate media.”

As it turns out, Major League Baseball also thought it was fun and trademarked BAM before us for their in-house advertising system. We almost got served a lawsuit by the “great American pastime!” Needless to say, we came up with our new name (Narrativ) before our public launch and locked down the IP.

The lesson: do your homework and protect your best ideas. No surprise, our Smart-Link is now a patent-pending technology.

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

Narrativ stands out on the audacity of our mission and the scale of our opportunity. In June 2018, World Economic Forum honored Narrativ as a Technology Pioneer for “building renewable link technology to democratize commerce.”

One story that stands out is when our investors at NEA asked how we planned to compete in a market dominated by Facebook and Google. They were right — our technology wasn’t an incremental improvement — Now — just one year out of stealth, we will deliver $600M in partner revenue this year for the likes of Macy’s, Ulta, Dermstore, New York Magazine and many more.

It is truly humbling to join the elite company of Google, Palantir, Airbnb, Wikipedia — and while we see our market momentum as validation of product-market fit, winning the WEF award essentially represents validation of our product-society fit.

We’re not building Narrativ to make an incremental improvement to affiliate marketing — we’re building Narrativ to create a fundamentally better ecosystem for publishers, retailers and consumers.


Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Commerce content is a rapidly growing editorial category that drives $60B of consumer spend per year. This category includes sites like the New York Times’ Wirecutter, Conde Nast’s GQ and Allure, and Buzzfeed.

That said, publishers have never been able to tie what readers are buying to what they clicked on at the product level — they’ve been data blind anytime a reader or shopper leaves their site. For commerce editors, understanding which stories and individual products actually perform can be transformational for commerce content strategy.

This fall we’re launching a new product that makes consumer trends not only available but enlightening to publishers. By providing publishers with consumer insights and data, they can write more relevant content for their readers, ultimately fulfilling our goal of helping shoppers find what they want at the best prices online.

We believe in data democratization and in data’s power to elevating the quality of service journalism online. Making product level data available to publishers requires matching products at Google-esque scale which falls outside the purview of most incumbent technology companies. Google has matched millions of product nodes for search, Narrativ is doing this for content.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

As your company grows, one of the most important jobs of a leader is to make sure the mission stays clear.

As a kid, I was a competitive gymnast on the Chinese national team. If you think about the sport rationally, you’d never go into the gym — it’s back flips on 4-inch balance beam 4 feet off the ground. Entrepreneurship is similar- both founding and joining a start-up isn’t “rational” but the magic comes in sticking the landing.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

As women, we’ve been told empathy and our humility are our weaknesses. But that’s not true. These characteristics are are powerful for team building and growth.

Make team building your competitive weapon, and ask yourself — what opportunities are you creating for others?

Lead with compassion. It’s not just what you build, but how you build it.

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?

After I had my eureka moment at Vogue about the opportunity in commerce content, I told friends and mentors that a major publisher or tech company had to build it. One mentor (and now Narrativ advisor) straight-up called me a “coward” for not going out and just building my vision.

If I wanted to make it a better internet for shoppers a reality, I had to build it.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We’ve made a vested effort to use our success to promote the advancement of women in technology. My current team is 50% women and has a combined ethnic heritage from 10 different countries. I’m also proud that many of our female engineers pay it forward by volunteering their time to organizations that teach girls to code.

In a tech climate where many of the large tech platforms claim there are talent shortages that make it impossible to maintain diverse pipelines, we are leading by example to prove otherwise.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

(1) Decisive and Disciplined risk taking requires clear values

Growing up in China, the teachings of Kongzi (Confucius) were often repeated and have remained with me in surprising ways throughout my career. In a famous parable, a student named Chi Wan thinks three times before taking action. When Confucius is informed of it, he says, “Twice will do.”

Essentially — be decisive. Get shit done instead of just thinking about problems. At Narrativ, we’ve built clear frameworks around when we move forward on a course of action without looking back. Full consensus may not be possible but a robust debate where all opinions and data points are surfaced is. Then it’s time to decide and execute.

The catalyst for making sure are team stands behind decisions they may not have personally agreed with is a shared alignment on our company values.

Deployed correctly, values are not simply a PR stunt or copy for the careers page of the website- they are the key to making decisions at scale. Spending hours or even days early in a company’s history getting the values right will save weeks or months of time in making key strategic decisions down the road.

(2) Be honest with your team, investors, and all other stakeholders about success and failure

One of our values as a company to “relentlessly improve.” This is only possible if you start from a place of extreme honesty with your team about both the highs and lows of the business. Inspiring your team to believe in your business and being radically transparent about how things are going at any given moment are not mutually exclusive.

Warren Buffett is the business leader best known for this. When things are going poorly, he’s far more comfortable admitting that than perhaps even Wall Street would like, and he’s comfortable telling others both when Berkshire’s performance is bad and when the broader market is bad.”

This honesty has been the key to managing through early adversity at the company when Style.com became Vogue Runway before they were supposed to be the first customer on the platform. I made no attempt to dress up the situation — I went immediately back to the team and explained that we were back at square one and that we had work to do. Our entire team dug in and rebuilt our existing interface to service a new pilot customer, creating what has grown to become our core SmartLink AI.

(3) Leaders are made and behind most great leaders is a great coach

Earlier in my career, I believed in the fallacy of born leaders. I assumed that some people were blessed with the natural erudition, charisma and personality to lead and inspire. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Leadership is a skill that needs to be refined over thousands of hours of practice and the mentorship of an expert. Serena Williams has won 23 major tennis titles and is arguably the greatest athlete in world history. Guess what, she still has a coach.

(4) Whenever possible, create autonomy

Founders, by nature, have a bias for action. But as Narrativ grows from 30 to 100, I’m learning to evolve away from doing to empowering. My favorite part of my job is when someone on my team comes to me with a bold new idea for how to grow our business. Over time, creating process, building culture, and the hiring and empowering the right team are supreme.

With all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into founding a start-up, this is probably the hardest lesson for many founders to take to heart. But it has been probably the most important thing I’ve come to understand.

(5) It doesn’t matter who you are, just what you do

Narrativ’s current largest customer was the result of an intern at a Fortune 500 company taking a chance and pitching her CEO on the potential of our technology. What started as a $5K test is now a multi-million dollar partnership. Anyone can have a massive impact.

The same is true for how Narrativ hires and create opportunities. Our basic adherence to this mantra is the reason why our company has far more women, multinationals and first-generation college students than industry averages. I’m confident that taking elitist blinders off and being able to see the potential in non-traditional sources will be one of our most sustained competitive advantages in the years ahead.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

We won a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer Award this year for our technology’s ability to #EndThe404. Expect to see more on this — on the surface, fixing broken links on the internet doesn’t seem sexy but our decaying digital infrastructure threatens the fundamental promise of the internet as a source of free and accurate information.

While technology has historically been the barrier to fixing link decay at scale, the obstacle now is incomplete knowledge — both of the economic potential of repairing broken links, and of the solutions to do it. But repairing broken links is our generation’s responsibility and advancements in machine learning are finally making it possible.

Advancements in AI, IoT and other hot areas of innovation all depend on free-flowing access to data. As the fundamental connectors of data, fixing link rot is essential to powering this innovation in other fields.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The way you do anything is the way you do everything.

Some of the biggest 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 🙂

Kobe Bryant. People may debate his GOAT status, but not debatable is his unbelievable discipline and ability excel at any chosen field – not to mention his venture fund focuses a “convergence of technology, media, data” – exactly what we’re building at Narrativ.

Also, I need to know how the nitty-gritty behind how he and John Williams came up with the score for Dear Basketball 🙂 


Originally published at medium.com

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