How to THRIVE in Entrepreneurship, Business and Life: Kathy Savitt’s HowTo Keynote

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The CMO of Yahoo shares with us what she’s learned over her career about thriving as a startup founder and c-suite tech executive.

By Betsy Mikel (Editor, Women 2.0)

Closing out Day 2 of our HowTo Conference in San Francisco, we welcomed Yahoo CMO Kathy Savitt to stage to deliver our closing keynote: How to THRIVE in Entrepreneurship, Business and Life.

Before she became the CMO of Yahoo, Kathy founded her own startup, Lockerz. Prior to Lockerz, Kathy was Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at American Eagle Outfitters, Inc. She was also Vice President of Strategic Communications, Content and Entertainment Initiatives for Amazon.com.

Here are a few of the awesome takeaways she shared with us throughout her presentation:

How To: Make Customers Your Compass

At the end of the day, it’s all about your customers. And it’s only the customer-focused companies that change the world, endure and thrive.

You serve at the pleasure of your customers. They have no agenda to lie to you. They’re not trying to get a promotion. They tell you when you are doing something amazing, and they tell you when to go home. They give you a report card by how they behave with your brand.

How To: Find Your Why

The notion of “why” is quite popular. It’s really our core purpose or mission. Usually a startup happens when two engineers get together and are playing with an algorithm or a piece of software and say, “This is really cool, let’s build this.” Then they think, “Who would need this product? How do we sell this product?”

I would tell you to start with a customer problem, desire or wish. Find your why. Ask yourself: Why does the world need your company or need you to work on it?

Write down your “why” every day. Write it down and look at it. It’s one of the first things I do every day. At Yahoo, we still believe the best days are ahead of us. We believe in making daily habits better for people every single day. That is our "why."

There is a “why” hopefully to almost everything you do either personally or professionally.

How To: Focus on Right Decisions, Not Perfect Ones

When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s easy to find yourself in a state of paralysis where you can’t move. You want to be perfect. But the key is to ask yourself over and over again, is this right or is this wrong?

If you make a series of right decisions over and over again, you can move forward. Time and delay are the complete kryptonite for a startup. Your job is to make those really quick and really right decisions.

What happens if you make these “right” decisions and they are really wrong? If you make the decision in the best interest of your customers, and they tell you that you are wrong, that’s okay. Readjust.

As long as you maintain your brand compass and your focus on your customers, you’ll be okay on that one.

How To: Find Your Dorothy Boyd

This is one of the most important things of entrepreneurship. She was the wife of Jerry [Maguire], but also his co-pilot at work and the co-pilot at home.

Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely place. You need to find that person or people who are truly going to complete you. You don’t want to hire or partner with the people who have the exact same skill set because you are going to leave flanks wide open.

Hire missionaries, not mercenaries. Some of my worst hiring mistakes have occurred when I hired people who wanted to work for a hot startup or a cool brand or because they thought they were going to make a lot of money. Hire people who are passionate and are missionaries about what you’re trying to do for customers.

How To: Never Refuse Knowledge

This was my grandmother’s favorite expression. There will be a lot of people who will be telling you what to do. Your first instinct as a know-it-all is to think you don’t need it. But they are giving you their life experience.

Take information wherever you can get it. Even customer complaints. Even if you have haters, they are giving you the gift of telling you a truth that matters to them. It’s your job as the entrepreneur as the leader, as the employee, as the mom, as the community leader to take that information, synthesize it and throw out what is toxic and take away the things that will help your customer.

How To: Sweat the Small Stuff

I’ve been told that I’m tough. One of the reasons that I’m tough is because I have a high talent bar and a high quality bar.

I am the type of person who will walk into a room and notice if it is good. I will enjoy that room. I’ll say to myself, “This is a really nice room.” But I will also say “Hey, they missed a part on the molding.”

In my past work as a consultant, I took three airlines out of Chapter 11. I won’t say which ones, but these companies are still around. One thing I would hear as I flew around the country doing hundreds of focus groups is that they started losing confidence in their airlines when things like the tray tables didn’t work. Now that has nothing to do with the safety, but that told them no one cared and things were in decline. Those are those small things.

When your child notices you are on email during their piano recital, that’s a tiny thing. When your company has an outdated blog post, people might think you don’t care enough. Look at those things that send clues to people who you value most.

How To: Create Your own Board of Directors

A lot of people tell women to find a mentor. I think that is really important. I mentor about 20 women every year and have been doing that for 14 years.

But don’t just look for a mentor. Find a sponsor. A mentor is someone who shares their insight and advice. A sponsor will put their reputation on that line to get that first meeting or that job. They will pound on the table for you. They will introduce you to a life-changing moment. I can only do that for two or three women a year.

Find your own board of directors. It might be your mentor and your sponsor, it might be people who have been truth tellers in your life.

My dad was always on my personal board of directors. He was one of the most principled and truth-telling advisors, even though he is 80 years old.

And remember you have to meet with them. You can’t call a meeting four times a year. Create a cadence with them that gives you value over a continuum of time.

How To: Make It Personal

Everything to me is personal. I don’t know what that means, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” When I take something personally, that means I’m passionate about it. I could never work at a company or spend a lion’s share of my time doing something that isn’t personal to me.

I wish I could tell you that’s a great way to go through life. It’s not. The more personally you take things, the more you stress. But when people stop taking it personally, that to me is a bad sign. That is when you start losing accountability.

How To: Embrace Your Superpower

What’s your superpower? I use this interview question all the time. I love people being thoughtful and start to say what their superpower is. What is that thing that you do better than anyone else? But you should also recognize what your kryptonite is as well.

There are two types of CEOs who I think are toxic for an organization:

  • You don’t understand something, and your first instinct is to think that it must not be important.
  • You don’t understand it, so you are just going to blindly delegate any responsibility or curiosity to someone who is

As entrepreneurs, when you don’t know something, you have to figure it out. Care enough to dive deep.

How To: Harness Your Mental Real Estate

A lot of things you may not want to hear are going to come your way. If you ever want to feel good about yourself, Yahoo search yourself. It’s tough. You’ll read about people who don’t like what you do. But at the end of the day, you cannot hand over that mental real estate.

Your job is to focus on your customers. Your family. Your donors. The people that you serve. Don’t give your mental real estate over to your critics. Focus on the people who matter.

How To: Be a Humanist, Not Just a Feminist

I am a feminist. I like to talk about feminism for what it is. I know very few people by this definition who are not feminists: Feminism is essentially the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

I don’t believe people who truly believe that in their heart of hearts and don’t feel that way. And yet I know a lot of young women who say, “I’m not really a feminist.” Because feminism is a word that has become politicized.

We’re talking about what feminism is actually is: Basic equal rights under the law for men and women.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve been lonely in a room when I say I’m a feminist. But let’s go beyond that. Let’s be humanists. I want all of us to be interested not just in equal rights and opportunity for men and women, but the interest for human welfare on every level across the globe.

Don’t be afraid to alienate someone by saying that word first.

How To: Be the Heroine of Your Entire Story, Not Just the Protagonist

After 30 years, I can tell you being the protagonist is not enough. You have to be bold, brave, missionary, optimistic, and yes, sometimes really provocative.

There are times I feel that the bravest people I know are the people who are going to stand up for their values even though they know they are going to lose that seat at the table.

Sometimes we’re not the first to stand up because we worked so hard to get that seat. But I’m urging you that we are at a time, when you can be the heroine of your own story. You can make a difference for the world and your careers.

How To: REALLY Thrive In Entrepreneurism and Life

Sleep. What’s all this about entrepreneurs who don’t sleep? It’s this crazy sort of startup mentality, I don’t know what it is with this bravado that we have. And we have it in big companies, too. There’s this idea that whoever gets the least amount of sleep must be the hardest working person. But I’d say, that person is least competent of an important decision the next day.

I have a day job. I have four girls. I mentor 20 women a year. You could say I’m busy. I can’t do all those things if I don’t sleep. If I was giving you any tips on how to thrive in entrepreneurism and life, that would be to sleep.


About the author: Betsy Mikel is the managing editor of Women 2.0 and runs the content consultancy Aveck. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and a lifelong obsession with French language and culture. When she's not biking all over every city she visits to find its best taqueria, you can find Betsy on Twitter at @betsym.