We’re kicking off a new feature here on the blog: Interviews with Smart People. We think it’s important to hear from all sorts of digital builders, thinkers, and dreamers – not just the same thought leaders who get asked to comment on everything. Interviews with Smart People brings you the stories of people who should get interviewed more often. We’re going behind the scenes, under the covers, and inside the creative and build processes. If you know a person or a team we should feature, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. – Eds.
If you’ve spent time in the blogosphere lately, there’s no doubt you’ve seen a lot of talk about the troubling lack of women entrepreneurs — especially in technology startups. The reality is that entrepreneurial leaders are still culled from a rather narrow segment of our population, and this lack of diversity limits innovation as well as our ability to develop truly relevant and accessible solutions. There’s been plenty of handwringing (and even a fair amount of finger pointing) about this issue, but one thing has become clear: we need to take smart steps to motivate and support women entrepreneurs.
Enter Carla Thompson, CEO and founder of Sharp Skirts, a new knowledge-based network for women entrepreneurs. A seasoned veteran of the emerging tech industry, Carla has provided advisory services and strategic counsel to numerous startups, and has held senior leadership positions with Guidewire Group, MC2 Communications, and Ketchum Silicon Valley. In this interview, Carla talks about her Sharp Skirts mission and strategy, the challenges of developing flexible and effective processes, and the growing need to address real-world problems with web-based technology. She also proves that she has exceptional taste in snacks.
What do you do? What is your company/project/mission?
I am the CEO and Founder of Sharp Skirts, a network for women entrepreneurs. Sharp Skirts was created to fill a vital need: a community that provides usable knowledge about business building. The site leverages the experiences of its members to engender success for all, by connecting women with know-how to women who need to know. Ultimately, I hope the Sharp Skirts brand will serve as a marker of business success, as well as support of a vital cause – increasing the amount and accomplishments of women in business.
How and why did you strike out on your own?
I spent the last 15 years working in emerging technology, counseling startups around the world on building successful businesses. So I’ve seen just about every type of business and entrepreneur you can imagine. Based on my experiences and the women I continually encountered in emerging tech, I strongly suspected that the “where are the women entrepreneurs?” problem was being misrepresented. I wanted to create a place – both real-world and virtual – for them to coalesce, share knowledge, and commiserate. I’ve also been extremely fortunate in my career to work with and learn from some of the smartest women in the business. I think a part of me wanted other women to have that experience, too. I know I’ve been hugely emboldened and inspired by my experiences with people like Chris Shipley and Susan Thomas. I’d love for others to have some of the same fantastic opportunities I’ve had.
What is your process like?
How kind of you to assume I have one. My process was one of the first to suffer in launching Sharp Skirts, right behind my children and husband. The individual pieces that must work together seamlessly to build a viable business are sometimes uncountable and almost always out of sync. And in launching the new version of our site Sept. 9, and managing the ensuing press coverage, my process went completely out the window. What I’m working to get a handle on currently is the minutia. I think if you can manage that, the rest falls into place. So I’m experimenting with various ways of handling my to-do list and segmenting my day into various buckets. I have yet to find the magic bullet. If any of you have it, please tell me. I will pay you handsomely for it.
What’s the best thing about your process? Are there things you would change?
I’m working to change a lot – see above. But I’m really warming to the idea of throwing spaghetti against the wall. It’s a behavior I had to develop after discovering pretty quickly that rigidity doesn’t serve you well as an entrepreneur. Some would argue with the approach of throwing ideas out there to see what sticks but it’s working like gangbusters for me.
What are the tools that you can’t live without?
Firefox – I hate its CPU-sucking tendencies with a passion. But its extensions allow me to create a browser that works the way I need it to. And I spend probably 95% of my day in my browser. Things – my to-do list app (see process question above). iPhone – I’m no Macolyte but wow, what a device. How did I live without it before?
Where is your water cooler?
Love this question. Since I work from home, I find it vital to get out into the world regularly. I spend a lot of time in coffee shops and at happy hours, catching up with folks in the Austin tech scene. But really, if I had to identify a regular stop in my daily routine that gives my brain a break and lets me check in with people I like – well, that’s Facebook.
What’s the most exciting new technology now?
I was an emerging technology analyst before I started Sharp Skirts, so I used to be much more tapped into this question than I am now. But I would have to say the sector with the most potential right now is Local. The companies that have emerged around the Groupon phenomenon are stunning in their number – at this point I’m seeing 12-13 deals a day via email and online. Combine that idea with check-in services like Gowalla and Foursquare, which have been validated by no less than Facebook, and there’s a potential market that could reach in the billions. I don’t know what that product ultimately looks like. But someone will. And it will be huge when it hits its mark.
What’s the biggest vacuum for technology or digital media?
Not sure how you’re defining vacuum so I’ll apply my own frame to the question. One of the biggest risks of the Internet right now, if not the biggest risk, is that it will become the snake that ate its own tail, as its users produce and consume more and more information about themselves. At some point we must look outward with this technology and apply Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Flickr, etc. etc. to solving actual real-world problems rather than blathering on endlessly about ourselves. If we don’t, it’s going to transition from a vacuum to a black hole.
What vertical or purpose is begging for a pack of really smart digital problem solvers?
Oh that’s easy: finance. I don’t think there’s an aspect of the banking or financial industry that couldn’t currently benefit from technological innovation, from personal money management to the global financial collapse.
What’s your favorite snack?
Popcorn with Cajun seasoning sprinkled on top. Mmmmm. Now I’m hungry…
What’s the biggest or most important thing that you’ve learned?
Like to end with the small questions, eh? This is not at all business-related but it is by far the most jarring, life-changing lesson I’ve yet learned: if I had cut off my own arm, it would have changed my life less than having children. Americans tend to wrap parenthood in roses and clouds and we do our children a disservice in the process. It is a mind-blowing, earth-shattering, monumental experience and no one should enter into it lightly. Of course, if we thought too much about it, the human race wouldn’t propagate, would it?
A veteran of the emerging tech industry, Carla Thompson has counseled startups around the globe on creating, launching, and sustaining smart businesses. As CEO and Founder of Sharp Skirts, Carla is working to create a self-sustaining network for women entrepreneurs at every level. She also consults independently with select women-owned startups on business strategy and continues to keep a finger on the pulse of emerging tech as a member of Guidewire Group’s Affiliate Analyst program.