By Christina Vuleta (Founder, 40:20 Vision)
I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Kunda, CEO of B5 Media, home to Crushable and The Grindstone, on her advice for 20-something women entrepreneurs. An experienced entrepreneur, Elaine has a history of transitioning growth companies to profitability.

When she joined B5 Media as CEO in 2009, it was a 3-year-old online media startup. Her challenge was to re-structure the company with a focus on intelligent, honest content for real women. Elaine had to make some difficult decisions when she came ion board from cutting staff to changing the editorial direction.

Elaine shares some of the highs and lows of her journey from those initial tough decisions at B5 and what she knows now that she wishes she knew then:

Christina Vuleta: It was a hard decision to slash the staff at B5 media and startover. How did you deal with the conflict between being nice vs. making a tough call?

Elaine Kunda: People who think it doesn’t cause sleepless nights are wrong. It’s awful but the alternative is that everybody loses. It needed drastic measures and the faster you cut what’s not working the better. You have to take that window as a new person.

Picking away at it only hinders morale. When there is no certainty or direction it’s hard for anyone to stay invested. I have come to realize that you can cut back a lot deeper than you think.

Christina Vuleta: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your career and what did you learn from them?

Elaine Kunda: The greatest challenge in a start-up is staying focused when things aren’t working. Keep your eye on the goal. You can’t stay emotionally tied to something that is not working…and there will be a lot of things not working. You constantly have to step up. You can either cave or make it happen.

Then there are the challenges every start up faces. Managing cash flow is the scariest because you can’t operate without it. Quite often more cash goes out than comes in. It’s like a renovation. It always takes longer and costs more than you ever plan for.

Another challenge is recognizing the right fit. One person can break a startup. It’s not what they are doing; it’s what they are not doing. Not everyone is cut out for it even if they think they want to. It’s an entirely different world from the corporate world. It’s not a job… it’s a disruption.

Christina Vuleta: What key qualities are pre-requisites for making it in a start-up environment?

Elaine Kunda: Massive curiosity and drive. You have to enjoy figuring stuff out and seeing what you are capable of doing. I like to push myself. I often say, “It chose me, I didn’t choose it.”

Christina Vuleta: What is the one thing most responsible for preventing sales in a start-up?

Elaine Kunda: Getting too caught up in the details. Is what you are spending your time on moving
you forward or just maintaining the status quo? You can feel busy 24/7 but you’re not doing yourself any favors if what you are doing is not progressing the company toward its goals.

Christina Vuleta: What advice do you have for finding a mentor?

Elaine Kunda: Just ask. Just say, “I think you’re great. I love what you have accomplished. Can I pick
your brain over coffee once a month? No one I know has ever said no. You just have to have the courage to ask.

Christina Vuleta: What is your view on long-term planning and setting goals for yourself?

Elaine Kunda: I used to be a 5-10 year plan person in my teens and twenties. Now I don’t even like 2-5 year plans. I look 18 months out. It’s important to learn how to manage relationships so you can make changes when necessary.

Christina Vuleta: A lot of young entrepreneurs struggle with the transition to managing other people? What have you learned?

EK: That not everyone is like you. It’s natural to assume we’re all motivated by the same thing, but we’re not. As a new manager I employed an incentive strategy that motivated me. Guess what? No one else wanted it. I thought, “OMG, I would have loved it.” But I was not dealing with ten “me’s”, I was dealing with 10 individuals. You have to understand what success looks like for them.

Christina Vuleta: How do you achieve work / life balance as a female CEO in a startup environment?

EK: I have come to believe that you can have it all but not all at once. I don’t know if you can have the top job and have balance. I’m 38 and I don’t have children. I try to get some balance but I rarely take vacation and I get no sleep. The responsibility rests on my shoulders. The failure rate is so high that it has to come with a commitment. I think it’s helpful to think of it in terms of sports analogies. You can’t expect to be on an Olympic team and take time off. It’s tough, but that’s what it takes.

I do think it is harder for women than men. There are more expectations placed upon us and that pressure can lead to poor decisions. But there isn’t as much of a time limit on things as you think. Stay true to yourself and you will make it happen.

If you have a burning desires for family don’t pass that up. That you can regret. You can always start a business later. Look at Nancy Pelosi. Whatever you think of her politics, she’s a great role model. She stayed current and relevant throughout her life but only ran for Congress after her youngest child became a high school senior.

Photo credit: Brian Harkin
About the guest blogger: Christina Vuleta is a strategic consultant and creator of 40:20 Vision, a blog that provides advice from 40-something women to 20-something women. Most recently a director at The Futures Company, a strategic marketing and trend consultancy, Christina has made a career out of understanding insights that drive women’s aspirations and life decisions.